kiss.

There have been two things I have secretly ached for since snatching our girl up in our arms nearly 6 weeks ago, three if you count an hour to myself.  I long to hear her voice calling my name.  For now, she is silent, but that’s ok.  Her one Cantonese word has been joined with repeated syllables like mamamama, which I know from experience will morph into words which will pick up meaning as they roll along and will, in short time I’m sure, give birth to a whole vocabulary.  But the only word I care about is Mama and hearing it from her lips and knowing she really gets that I am mama.  The other thing I’ve longed for is a kiss.  I took for granted that she would know how to do this.  And a million other things that my biological children have just known.  Like crawling away from me when I roar like a bear and say I’m going to get them.  Maggie just stares.  Or like peek a boo.  Maggie does this now, but it took hours of showing her.  Hours that left me hating it and resenting the idiot who invented this stupid game.  But she does it now and we clap as if she’s just solved a complicated mathematical algorithm.  Because she sort of has.  All these games are completely foreign to a baby who has grown up in survival mode.  And while it makes me ache, it makes the small gains all the sweeter.
Like our first kiss this week.  Dan and I have been showing her.  Over and over.  He loves this.  Maggie, look at daddy and mama…kiss.  And then Tuesday Tess weaseled a first kiss out of her.  Asked for it and then we all watched as Maggie pursed her bottom lip and leaned it to plant a soundless kiss on Tess.  And we cheered like she’s scored a touchdown.  All six of us who have cheered for each teeny step and will for her whole life.  We stood in the parking lot of Noodles and made total idiots of ourselves because that’s what family does.  But it wasn’t until the next day that I got mine.  And I stood and cried as I thanked Father for this sign that we are breaking through.  Never has a kiss felt so hard won, nor so sweet.  I never had to teach my Smalls how to kiss; it’s a language they spoke from their earliest.  But this baby, she just learned to speak it and it is my favorite dialect, the kiss.
This mama, she will wait for her name, specially since there are other Smalls wearing it out on these full summer days.  Because the kiss will tide me over until Maggie’s mouth can bear witness to what her heart is telling her: that I am mama and I am forever.  Until then there is Peter bringing a friend home and wanting to show him Maggie first of all and there is Grant making her belly laugh from the bedroom and there are quiet mornings while I read my Bible and wait to see my baby come crawling down the long hallway, sleep marks still on her face, while her sibs sleep in or snuggle me on the couch, rubbing sleep from their eyes.  These are sweet days and while, I spend at least part of them being totally overwhelmed, I am rejoicing that we are together and learning to be a family.  And teaching this girl that she is part of it.
This is me being real.  And wishing our bags would pack themselves for our week at the Sugar cottage because we leave tomorrow and we are no where near ready.  Sigh.

Nanning.

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. 
 Moon Rock
 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?

father.

This man, he pursued her halfway around the world.  And back.  Just because Father told him to while he was driving long hours through Nebraska.  Pursued her even though it wasn’t in his plan, even though it didn’t make sense, even though he was perfectly content with four.  And his strength got me through that first day and night, when the father of lies was whispering that it was all a mistake.  Lying to me about my capabilities and her abilities and how the two would marry.  This man, he looked me in the eyes when I questioned his calm and said this, I committed to her and the worse case scenario back in August when we signed the paper.  I’ve been planning for the worse case scenario ever since.  This is just what I expected, and it’s not more than we can handle, I know that.
And that calm bade me sign too, tears running into her sweet black hair.  I watched those hands I’ve memorized over nearly nineteen years sign with confidence, then lift her up and walk out.  This, then is what fatherhood really boils down to: the absolute willingness to go to the limits for your Smalls, no matter the outcome, no matter the cost.  It’s what Father did, what He does every minute of every day.  Fatherhood is the safety of arms bigger and stronger and holding tight.  Across oceans even.
So thankful for my Dan.  Mumsy, you would have been so proud to see this boy you birthed.  He was, is, a man in every important and deep sense.  You would have cried joy to watch him stroll in and snatch her up.  To see him with her mere hours later, her sweet, weak self just utterly depleted on his chest, her drool mingling with the graphics on his shirt and to hear him claim, without doubt, her as his.  You would have been so proud.

So thankful for his father and mine, who have supported us beyond what we deserved.  Who have led by example and have blessed us deep.  Both unashamedly in tears two weeks ago today to watch us walk off the plane with their newest, already in love with someone they’d never met, but prayed into family.
And so especially thankful for Father.  My Abba, who tethers me to Him through anxiety and other struggles large and small, but also through joy deeper than I imagined and far more than I deserve.  Far more.
So here’s to fathers.  Honorary ones who are standing in the gap for the fatherless, those made through birth of their own Small, those who have traveled thousands of miles to become father, those who are longing to hold babies in their arms.  I honor you.  The job you do is vital.  I implore you, even on days when the prizes of this world lure you into dark places, when you feel bent by the weight of burdens both real and imagined, I implore you to carry on.  The work you do cannot be done by any other, not really.  It is Kingdom stuff.  We need you to be passionate about your family, committed to your Father and at war against sin.  Please.  Carry on what you do…it matters and we notice, even when we forget to tell you.  It matters.  Carry on and commit to always be doing better.  Lead us as wives and children.  We are yearning for it, no matter what you have been told.  We yearn to be led by Godly men.  Be him.  And be a better version of him than you grew up with.
Surrender only to God; if you do this we will trust you and we will follow, Lord willing.  Because putting aside the lies this world has sold us, that the key to happiness is found in acquiring money, sex, things, fame, numbers on a scale, prettiness, well mannered children, putting aside all that crap and blather, this one thing remains: Father is sovereign and He has anointed you to lead us.  To be totally sold out to Him and leading us there too.  Commit to this imperative.  And we will pray you down the road, we promise.  Will promise to be your greatest ally, support, cheerleader (might even wear the dress if you ask nicely).  It is after all, what we were made for.  And don’t just do it for us; do it for the fatherless in your life.  They need you too.  More now than ever, when the world calls so loudly and sometimes it’s the only voice we can hear.  And this will not win me friends with the feminists, but I never set sights on that anyway.  Only to be me.  Being real.
This is me being, you know, real.  And hoping your Father’s Day finds you going out of your way to bless the argyle socks off some man who needs to hear it.  And that it involves Montellos brats and a mess of american fried potatoes eaten on the deck with a rag tag bunch of folks you call family.

Beijing.

An adoption is like a pregnancy in an least two ways: you eat crazy things (this is the wicked weapon of stress and it yields literal gains) and you dream about the birth part through the whole thing, but somehow can’t accept that it’s really happening when it really happens.  In every other way, adoption is wildly different than pregnancy.
Nine months led up to us boarding a plane for Chicago and then Beijing on May 14th.  Nearly exactly nine months.  Of paperwork and tears and Fed Ex envelopes and prayer pleas sent out via Facebook and email.  But that all fell away that morning as we waited by the front door for the Fed Ex truck bearing our Travel Approval, a document we could not get Maggie without having in hand.  We left before the truck arrived, leaving my dad and then my sister to wait.  In true God fashion, it arrived after we’d cleared security and were sitting at our gate watching the kids eat all the junk I’d secretly stashed in their carry-ons.  My dad drove it to us, passing it through security to a kind officer who, of course, had gone through his own adoption and understood well the precious nature of this transaction and the tears streaming down my face as I called out to my dad that I loved him.
Flying with four Smalls for thirteen hours was a breeze.  Movies on demand allowed me to shut my brain down for the first time in ages and just snuggle in with my people while catching up on new releases.  We left Grand Rapids at 9:50 on Wednesday morning.  We arrived in Beijing at 3:20 on Thursday afternoon.  Two of the Smalls vomited upon touch down, which was totally awesome.  It only got better as we were herded into endless lines for customs, hot, dirty and nauseous.  We grabbed our luggage and headed toward a woman holding at Holt sign with our name on it.  And that’s when things got real.

 It was a long, hot bus ride to our hotel, but so interesting to listen to our guide tell us a few things to do that night to stay awake until a reasonable time.  We chose the Night Market and headed there after checking in.  The night market is indescribable in looks and smell.  Vendors lined up selling squid, fruit, bugs, snakes, all on sticks, all roasted.  We ate at a nearby MacDonalds, needing to gift our kids with familiar food to ease into this whole China thing.  Here’s what makes China different from any other place I’ve visited, except maybe Russia: China is so foreign.  When you go to the caribbean or Europe, you can find people who speak English, food that looks like fare from home.  But in China, nothing is familiar.  Every scent, taste, sight, sound…it’s all new.  I lay in bed our first night in China and fear crept in.  Fear that we’d done the wrong thing.  That we’d dragged our children all the way to this scary, foreign place only to destroy the lovely family we’d been creating these last years with a new sibling.  Dear friends, gathered over email, prayed me through that long night.  Prayed me into a peace that passes understanding.

 They will literally walk up to your children, pose their arms and snap pics.  Luckily, this did not freak our girls out.  They are so game.

The next morning, after our first Chinese buffet, we headed to the Great Wall with a driver we’d hired.  I kept staring at it, snaking off into the distance, incredulous to the fact that we were actually in China.  Could not take it in.  It was a highlight for us all.  A feat of engineering and stamina, that wall.  And taking a luge down wasn’t half bad either.  Even the part where Lucy was on my lap and kept making it go way too fast as she giggled and called Ni Hao to the supervisors, head thrown back, curls dancing.

That evening we took in the Chinese Acrobats, courtesy of my parent’s dear friends (you know who you are).  It was incredible and something the kids really enjoyed.  Until it came time to find a taxi.  we tried for 45 minutes to hail a cab before pleading with the theatre staff as they were locking up to help us.  Taxis in Beijing, traffic in Beijing, was a real problem.  Dan says he never wants to go back, but I do.  So much more to see.
The next day we walked around a bit before having a little lazy time at the pool and then walked to the Forbidden City in the afternoon, only to find it was closing.  We saw few of the sights in Beijing, but we were there to acclimate and that we did.  Our kids proved the age old rule: that no matter where you take them, they only want the pool.  By the time we flew out on Saturday, we were on China time and getting used to strange items on the buffet tables.  Our next stop was Nanning, the city of our girl’s birth.

farewell.

We could not love our Knapp Forest teachers more.  They have nurtured and supported us through this long, crazy year with grace and love.  They have forgiven me my many forgetful blips, when assignments went unfinished and emails were ignored.  I stood yesterday while Grant ran through the tunnel of teachers with the other outgoing sixth graders, and then waved the busses goodbye with the staff, kids hanging out of windows until they disappeared into the hazy distance.  And then I sighed.  Because when Father called us out of a school we loved and into this new place four years ago, I wanted to kick my feet.  But we went and within months we fell hard.  For these people who welcomed us in, for a principal and his family who have become dear, for new friends that have joined my home team even though it’s been messy at times.  And now this safe nest has become too small for my boy and he’s off to bigger things and I ache for that. We love this place.

But despite that, the Smalls spent the day making catapults from paracord and flex pipe the plumber left behind.  They were covered in sand and muck by ten o’clock, dotted with bug bites and crossed with a smile.  They ate chicken wings on the front porch and didn’t even wash their hands before.  I took silent role as the door opening gave way to pitter patter of sandy feet to the drinking fountain and then back out, whispering thanks under my breath for this summer life.  There were trees cut down, but only for a bit until boredom gave birth to scraps of wood dragged out of the dumpster and nailed to trees and christened as Headquarters.  Towels disappeared, bug spray was reapplied, lemonade was guzzled, hoses were left on for hours.  There was bickering, there always is, but it was blessedly short and easily resolved.  I have vacuumed four times and it still looks a mess, floors littered with flip flops and pet rocks nestled in little baskets and wearing head bands.  The dishwasher has been run twice and I’m on my second load of laundry, stain spray on the counter, when it will likely remain until September. The kids were put to bed too late, hair still wet from showers and a pool party decided upon at the last minute.  No one brushed their teeth and I’m good with it because they all ate an apple before bed and that’s almost the same thing.
We love our school, adore our teachers.  We owe them so much: a million billion dollars and a kidney at least. But it’s summer and my kids have learned more, done more, gained more just by being in the woods, the basement, the creek.  All too soon we’ll be heading to the shoe store for school shoes, remembering Mumsy who used to love buying them.  I’ll be printing off the supply lists and exclaiming over how ridiculous it is to send a third grader with 120 sharpened number two pencils and knowing at least half of them will come back in June.  All too soon.  So we are sucking the marrow out of summer, starting now, on day 1.  Because we love our teachers, but these are the sweetest days around.  So thankful it’s summer.
This is me being real.  And committing to updating the blog with thoughts and pics from our trip, I promise.