Our guide introduced herself to us as Jane and began talking about Maggie on the way to the hotel from the airport. It was fifteen minutes before I realized that she was JANE. The woman whose signature I’d seen on reports about our daughter. The woman who had been fighting to have Maggie removed from her foster home for months. The one who had committed to going there and weighing her herself, so she could keep tabs. This then was the first person who had seen Maggie in the flesh, who had held her, escorted her to Beijing for her surgery, fought for her. And suddenly it all became real. Because for nine months, longer even, I’d fought for this baby, but in the back of my mind was this niggling fear that maybe she wasn’t even real. And this will probably make no sense if you’ve not been there, but it’s hard to believe that the child you’re working toward is really real until they put her in your arms. Or you meet someone who has held her and can confirm that she’s more than a thousand whispered dreams.
We slept the sleep of the anxious that Sunday night, knowing that the next day would give birth to her. We killed time the next morning laying out clothes and packing a diaper bag for the first time in years. We killed it by walking to the Max Mall, the only really cool thing within walking distance of the hotel. Killed it by thinking of what she was doing, by breathing prayers throughout the day, knowing she was being relinquished by her foster mom, bathed and dressed by the orphanage, carried by sling and motorcycle and car. And then, just before three, we gathered on our bed, we six, and prayed for her and us. I can’t remember the van ride to the Civil Affairs Office. I only know the kids were quiet, we all were. Pensive. There were two other families there, waiting. They brought in a three year old girl first. She screamed the entire time we were there. Her poor mama, a single gal from New York. I expected screams, had been dreading them. The silence was so much worse.
They walked in with her cradled in a woman’s arms like a baby, so much smaller than we’d prepared for. They whisked her right to a back room until the paperwork granting us temporary guardianship was signed. We wept at our first glance. Out of relief that we were there with her, out of disbelief in the same, out of fear for the weak baby we saw in the caretaker’s arms. I just kept asking, “Is that Xia YuChen? Is that my baby?” Even though her little face was familiar from nine months of grainy photos.
Papers signed, they came and laid her in my arms. I shook. It is very much the same flood of emotions you experience when giving birth, only scarier because she only partly seemed like mine. It was clear from her bony legs and vacant look in her eyes that this girl had been in the trenches for her short life. Had been ill used and ill treated. Jane had warned us. She’d told of feeding issues, of the two year, four month girl who only ate formula and only in small amounts and who had been visited by a foreign nutrition doctor. “Her family needs to come; she is too small.” Jane told him our paper work was incomplete. We would travel in June. “It’s too late. Her family needs to come now.” That was two weeks before we came. Back when Father was throwing open doors we could only dream about. Days before our agency would call us with these words, “We have your Travel Approval. Can you be ready to leave in 6 days?”
And now we stood in that doorway that Father opened and they laid her in my arms and I wept. Grant and Dan and Nana too. The others just crowded, wanting to see her, touch her, kiss her. The only thing that moved were her eyes, which furtively darted back and forth as I rocked her and told her in Mandarin that I was mama and that I loved her. You could tell we were not completely foreign to her. I had peeked at her while she was closeted away in the waiting room. I had caught her eye and she had given a little smile. But that was gone now, wiped away by fear and exhaustion, I suspect. We had to have our picture taken, which they tried to sell to us like at the end of roller coasters at Cedar Point. We declined.
I don’t remember the ride back to the hotel either, only that it was short and scary. She was so impossibly small. Fragile. She lay in my arms, not making a peep. We arrived at the hotel and had to do paper work in the lobby for a bit. I was anxious to get her into our room, to begin memorizing her face as I fed her a bottle of the good American formula I’d packed in her little pink suitcase. Instead we sweated in the lobby, the kids each taking a turn to hold her for a minute. I thought she was such was so agreeable. She was too weak to put up a fuss, I know that now.
We went up to our room, a family of 7. I went into hyper practical mode, desperately trying to get a signal so we could let our loves back home, family and friends who had helped pray us there, that we had her. Tried to feed her a bottle, which she refused. Eventually she landed on Dan’s chest where she sighed a little and fell promptly to sleep. We were able to Skype my dad and introduce him to her. Even though it was the middle of the night for him, sweet Papa was up and waiting to see his newest. I continued to frantically try to get a message out on instagram or fb, knowing there were many sleeping with their phones next to their beds. Or not sleeping at all. As I tried I kept looking at her thin arms and legs and whispering prayers to Father of thanksgiving that we were there. She so clearly needed us.
Our first evening.
Those first days with Maggie were heart sore. I lay in bed that first night, her asleep in her crib in exactly the same position we lay her down in. It would be days before she had the energy to move while she settled. Days before she’d dare to, maybe. Her eyes were vacant as I held her that first evening. It set off shock waves of anxiety and doubt. I’d known she was very behind, very weak, possibly worse. But had let myself believe what everyone had told me: just get her home, fed and loved and she’ll perk right up. I was now certain they had been mistaken. I was looking into the face of a child who was in a nearly vegetative state. I feared she would always be that way.
The next morning, the boys came along as we headed back to the Civil Affairs Office to officially make her ours. It was torturous for me. Here, then, was the ugly in my heart. Part of me wanted to refuse her, could make the argument in my head that we could just hand her back and she’d never know what she’d been missing. Could drum up righteous indignation that her condition was far worse than we’d been led to believe. But this is where the rubber meets the road. Where Father leads us to the hard and bids us walk. My dad would later make this observation: I think, he said, I think you have been planning on getting here and finding a hungry, but otherwise healthy two year old with just a cleft palate. I think you are being tested like Abraham. Your Isaac is a healthy girl. God is calling you to lay that down.
There was no option for me really. To leave her would be to deny Christ himself. To show our kids that God is not sovereign after all and that obedience is optional. Besides, I loved her already. Mothering instincts kicked in while sitting in that blue chair, papers laid out before me in unknown characters. She had no one. I had been fighting fiercely for her for nine months and I would not stop. We signed papers, me with tears running down into her soft black hair as I mourned her previous aloneness and abuse and our uncertain future with her. It was a hard day.
Getting food into her tiny body became my mission. On Wednesday, 48 hours into being 7, we went for a journey out into the Nanning countryside. It was beautiful and lush and so foreign. We wandered dusty lanes while farmers wearing straw hats carried buckets of water from the village well in yokes on their bent shoulders. The village market served the local farmers. It carried fresh vegetables, some familiar, some not, and a separate structure housed people selling freshly slaughtered meat. It was an education to say the least. I’m so thankful we saw it and that we saw it together. We were her eyes, drinking in a beautiful country she may never see. But we will tell her.
Women watering their crops by hand.
The vegetables were so beautiful and fresh, but eating them would probably have made us sick. It isn’t wise to eat fresh foods outside of the hotels where they wash them in purified water.
The rice fields of Nanning. Maggie was born in a place of staggering beauty. It was surreal to wander the village and know that her birth parents could have been anywhere.
The women do their laundry with a bar of soap and this stone platform at the village well.
The villagers all gather here throughout the day. They play checkers and catch up.
Dan asked Jane if this home was similar to the one Maggie was raised in.
Her answer was, Oh no, hers was not nearly this nice.
This is a hard life. And yet the people were so kind and hospitable. They rarely see an American family as large as ours and with such young children, so we were a bit of a sight. We fell in love with
the people in China. We never felt unsafe on our trip.
On the ride back, I sat in my seat, Maggie draped across my lap. She had now refused food for nearly 24 hours and I could do little but fight tears as she refused once again. Upon returning to the hotel, we asked Jane to come to our room and help us feed her. She suggested putting the formula on a spoon. I mixed up a fresh bottle with good formula and some organic whole milk I’d gotten and fed that baby spoon by spoon until the bottle was dry. And then cried over it in relief and joy. It would not take many more meals before we would begin to see the life creep back into her. Meals consisting of me and her with spoon and bottle and countless hotel washcloths. Meanwhile Nana and Dan took their turns bringing the olders to the pool and distracting them in other ways. But they always found their way back to the chaise in our room where I’d be with her and a bottle and spoon. And they would ask if she was eating because they loved her, loved her so much right from the start.
We spent six days in Nanning. They were long, hard, sweet days. Nanning was terribly hot and humid. It was nearly impossible to be outside and there wasn’t anything to do within walking distance of our hotel anyway. As had been the case in Beijing, we were finding that getting around China with 8 people was nearly impossible, so we hunkered down in our hotel, letting the kids swim for hours and visiting the buffet three times a day, if only just for a pb&j sandwich and to visit the incredibly kind and helpful dining room staff. My time was spent trying to get food down my girl. On day four she sat in a high chair at breakfast for the first time. We tried feeding her congee and other soft things, but she would have none of it, eventually landing back in my arms with bottle and spoon. I began calling her Shiao Niao, my little bird, me perched above her dropping milk into her little mouth. Nourishing her body with formula while my arms nourished her starved soul. That is how I spent our days in Nanning. And loving on my olders who needed me too. We cocooned in Nanning. I should mention that while I did the lions share of the care of Maggie, mostly because I wanted to and had been waiting so long to do so, she was equally willing to be in daddy’s arms. She loved him from the first. And feeding her was often a team effort. Jane had told us of Maggie’s strong will. We often had to force food into her, Maggie shaking her head NO as we did. Us knowing we were doing the right thing, but still feeling cruel. She began eating squeeze pouches of baby food I’d brought from home. Each one bolstered her energy. She was emerging from her cave.
Buffets are legendary in China. This card reads Fried Insects. Awesome.
All her clothes were huge on her. I’d brought mostly 18-24 months clothes, but she was definitely 12-18. Her pjs hung on her, which made her look all the more pathetic. Buying new pjs and some shoes was first on my list when we hit the mall the next day.
The first morning we found her in a different position than we’d laid her down in.
Friday, we packed up, Maggie still fighting me, but gaining strength from the little I was managing to get down her. On the way to the airport, we stopped for Maggie’s passport. Same shape and size as our American ones, only her was brown and inside was a small, grainy picture taken before we’d gotten her. She was so sad, so stoic and completely oblivious to the way her life was about to change. Looking at that photo gave me chills. Father is so good.
Our next stop was Guangzhou where we would finalize things on the American side. We would also meet up with a big handful of lovely families who had been in different provinces getting their children as well. Guangzhou, with it’s MacDonalds and Papa Johns pizza and the influx of adopting families, everyone had told us, would be a breath of fresh air. We were eager to find out for ourselves. By this time Peter had developed a nasty asthmatic reaction to the terrible smog. We waited for hours in the dirty Nanning airport as our flight was delayed, Peter wheezing and feverish, no one having eaten lunch or dinner. It was a miserably long day. But on the hour flight to Guangzhou, Maggie sat on my lap and ate fried noodles from my dinner. We all watched like it was the greatest show on TV, amazed that she was eating solid food, that she’d already gained enough strength to do it. When we landed, a bus took us and the other family we were traveling with to our hotel. We arrived at 10:30, hungry and exhausted, but thanks to the generosity and kindness of beloved friends of my parents, there was a car waiting to whisk Dan and Peter away to a western medical clinic where a wonderful doctor gave Peter a nebulizer treatment and a bag full of medicine for the days ahead. Once again, so thankful. Guangzhou was already showing us it’s good side.
This is me being real. And sorry for being so wordy, but really, how can I not?