...on February 10, 2011 (though it was a Thursday last year), Geoff and I packed up bins of clothing and backpacks of toys and stickers and soccer balls, and made a dusty drive down to the town of Adama, 2.5 hours south of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was the day before our (ill-fated) court date, and it was the day we met our two younger children for the first time. We had waited for this day for years. Years. A big chunk of me could simply not compute that this day had finally arrived. Hearts pounding, hands shaking, tears threatening, we drove through the gates of Kingdom Vision International, the orphanage where our children were living. I remember breathing a prayer of thanksgiving as those gates opened.
Without much ado, we were ushered off of the van and immediately into a pint-sized room just off of the main court yard and told to wait there for a moment. I was first to walk through the door, and there, in the centre of the room was a tiny little girl of about 18 months old. My first thought was what a beautiful little baby. Slamming immediately into that thought was this one: This is my daughter. That's Senait.
But wait - it was too soon! We'd just climbed out the van and were still stretching our legs. We were supposed to get a tour of the orphanage first. We were supposed to be eased into the coming meeting with our children. I suddenly wasn't ready for the onslaught of emotions pouring through me as I absorbed my little girl standing there, staring at me as I stared at her.
But it was her. Right there in the flesh. Not eighteen months at all, but rather 3.5 years old. My beautiful, miniature little girl - the daughter I had longed for and waited for. I knew that I was not supposed to take a picture of her, that this was against the rules, but I confess it here that I somehow had the presence of mind to realize that our agency's rep had not yet entered the room behind us and that I had an opportunity, legitimate or not. In the four or five seconds before the rep entered the room, I turned my camera on and snapped a quick picture. I felt guilty about this picture for many months (I still do, actually), knowing those rules full well. But I have to say simultaneously that I am so very glad that I have it anyway, and so sorry that I don't have one of Seth from that day. How could I not take this.
Had I not immediately knelt on the floor in front of her, I would have collapsed there anyway. She was perfect, wearing her shoes on the wrong feet (still a struggle!), holding a teddy and a toy (such capable little fingers she has, I know now!), and chewing around the outside edges of a little cookie. I wasn't allowed to hold her, but I could talk to her and, after several minutes of talking and playing with her little puppy teddy, she even smiled at me. She was so still, so utterly quiet, so solemn outside of that one little smile - I couldn't possibly have known then what a loud, gregarious little ham she would reveal herself to be.
Moments after that picture was taken (my heart was pounding), Imagine's local director came through the door and picked up our little Lizzie. As we walked next door, where we were about to meet her brother, Lizzie Senait looked over the shoulder of her caregiver and smiled a little smile at me again. She tracked me with her eyes. She was incredible.
And then we walked through the door into a large room where six children sat at the far end, playing with an electric keyboard that was sitting on the floor between them. The backs of all of them were to us. My eyes scanned them all but came to rest on a tiny little boy wearing navy blue. He turned his head slightly and I could see him in profile and, sure enough, it was him. Our son! Geoff told me later that he wasn't sure that it was him but for me, there was no mistaking his features - after all, I'd studied their pictures a thousand times and noted every nuance and every possible construction of our kids' faces; I'd even looked at those photos with a magnifying glass (seriously). There was no doubt in my heart that this was our Seth Asrat. We made our way over to him and one of the staff stood behind him to indicate to us that he was the one (the kids had no idea who we were and we were not allowed to pay special attention to them - yeah, right - because we hadn't passed court yet and weren't legally their parents yet). Here was our 5.5-year-old boy who looked, by his size, to be maybe, barely, possibly a three-year-old. Oh, he was so terribly tiny - my heart ached knowing why this must be. The top of his head wouldn't even have reached our kitchen table top at home. It was a little surreal, frankly - not only to see the kids, but to see how truly tiny they were.
The next hour was incredible, as we played with the kids and handed out stickers and hot wheel cars and soccer balls. Over the course of an hour, more and more kids came through the doors and made their way over to us, and we handed out our little gifts with pleasure - especially seeing how much joy our trinkets brought the kids. Geoff took Seth to one end of the room and showed him how to kick the soccer ball - it's hard to believe that our Seth of today, who runs like the wind and who is so very physical, is the same boy who, a year ago, had no idea what to do with a soccer ball. But even then, he was game to try anything (a feature we know well now!).
He was so intense, our Seth...something else that we have come to know intimately. Although he was kicking the ball with Geoff, he was equally interested in watching his little sister play with me across the room. He was so watchful, and stared almost suspiciously at me with unblinking eyes - I couldn't help but think that this was a boy who felt far too responsibility for his sister than a boy his age should ever have to feel. He seemed guarded, watchful, so terribly intense, and somehow sensitive. And I'd have to say that my gut feeling about him was pretty accurate - he is all of those things, amplified.
Neither child said a single word while we were there. I would have loved hearing the tenor of their voices, but they just wouldn't say a thing. (Wow - have things changed! These are children who talk almost non-stop, and who - no exaggeration - ask me hundreds of questions every day) In fact, Seth offered up not a single smile during our visit. One of his caregivers tried to coax him into smiling but even her attentions didn't work; she laughed and said that he knew we were watching him and that he would therefore choose not to smile while we were there. Yup - that sounds like our boy!
For a while I wondered if Lizzie was able to walk...a shocking thought, I know, in consideration of her age. Although she had been standing when we'd first seen her, she had not moved a single foot/leg muscle while were in that tiny room with her; and then the Imagine rep picked her up and carried her to the larger room, where Lizzie stayed since being plunked down. She sat in that wide-legged position that you see in toddlers. After a while, when she seemed to be feeling more comfortable with me, I took her by the hands and helped her to her feet. She stood there motionless for a moment, and then made her way a few inches towards me. So she could walk, though frankly it was more like a toddler's walk. She came and plopped herself down on my lap (I have soo come to know about my Lizzie now that she simply loves affection/attention/cuddling, but I didn't know that then!). Immediately, the Imagine rep looked at me and at her, and spoke to Lizzie rather sharply. I held up my hands, indicating that I hadn't been the initiator of the lap-sitting (that was against the rules, too). Lizzie got up and I remember my lap and arms feeling so empty. I wanted to hold her so badly...I'd waited almost nine years to hold her, to hold them. She made her way over to the Imagine rep for a cuddle, and I thought again that she was a little toddler, given the way she walked.
While Geoff continued to play with the kids, I took a fifteen-minute leave of the room when one of the caregivers offered to show me where the kids slept and ate. We were allowed to take pictures of their beds. Seth slept in a room with about six or eight bunk beds in it, and he shared the bottom half of a bunk with another boy (who we later learned was a friend in his birth community and who has been adopted by another Canadian). Lizzie slept across the courtyard in a different building, and she slept in a medium-sized wooden crib. I remember being surprised by the crib thing, and by the fact that she was living in the toddler house; I asked the caregiver about this, given that Lizzie was 3.5 years old. The caregiver seemed to be very surprised by her age, and shook her head. Hmm.
One of the caregivers appeared at this building carrying Lizzie, and I loved watching Lizzie make her way about when the caregiver put her down. I remember being taken aback when our pint-sized little girl seemed to think that another girl (considerably larger than her) was moving too slowly - all of the sudden, Lizzie shoved the other girl out of the way, hard enough to cause her to fall. The caregiver laughed, and said that Lizzie and her brother liked to wrestle each other to the ground and play, and I remember wondering what exactly we were in for!
By the time we got back to the larger room, it was getting close to the time that we would have to leave. There were a couple of dozen children in the room by this time, and we made sure that each of them had little toys to take away with them. When it was finally time to go, I (again, probably breaking the rules) leaned in to Lizzie's face, and then Seth's, and I breathed them in. Not caring that they spoke not a word of English, I whispered in both of their ears that we loved them and that we would be coming back for them soon; I uttered a quick prayer in both of their ears and kissed their little cheeks.
Those whispered words and their unique body scents would have to tide me over for four months...because it was exactly four months later, on June 10th, that we took custody of them. Four months later, I breathed in their scent again and it's like they had been imprinted on my heart all of those months earlier because they smelled just like they had on that day of first meeting.
They have been in our care for exactly eight months today. Eight months. I can hardly believe that we've had them for eight months and that a year has passed since we first met them; our family life has fundamentally shifted in that time. And they have come such a long way these last months. It was such a huge transition for all five us us, but I'm so thankful that we're through (I hope/believe/think) the hardest part of it.
I don't think that Geoff and I fully appreciated, last year on this day, how blessed we were to be by these children who were about to join our family. Although the first several months home were very difficult, Seth and Lizzie fit our family in countless ways. I am the proud mama to all three of our children and cannot imagine life any other way now.
A few weeks later, when we passed court and became Seth's and Lizzie's legal guardians, we were sent a number of pictures of them at the orphanage with their various caregivers. Here is one of those pictures, along with a few pictures of the kids taken just this week...one year later!