Editors Note: This is the first in a series focusing on adoption. Each year over 135,000 adoptions take place in the United States and nearly 100 million Americans have an adopted member of their immediate family. If you have ever considered adoption, just know that not only are you changing a child’s life, but your own will be forever changed.
Late one evening two and a half years ago, I was watching “How to Train Your Dragon.” My right arm was numb, but I dared not move it because my little girl’s head lay on it asleep. I couldn’t help but notice the contrast of her skin against mine, her black hair falling lazily to one side. My wife was on the couch with us catching up on her slumber as well. It had been a long past few weeks for all of us.
While watching the DreamWorks film, I had an epiphany. The premise of this movie is that while the human thinks he is training his dragon, the dragon is teaching him. They are both gaining from the experience. I thought, isn’t that a perfect picture of our lives?
I became a dad when I was twenty-seven. I had a beautiful baby girl. She didn’t get my eyes or my wife’s mouth, though there are times I think she has her temperament and stubbornness. I didn’t know I had become a dad until four years later. Across the globe, a brave, beautiful, and brilliant little girl waited patiently for my wife and me to give her what she would otherwise never have; a family. Interestingly, what we thought we were giving her, she gave to us. Without her, we were just a couple. Now, we are a family.
I have always wanted to pass on who I am as a person more so than my looks or even other attributes, but the most important thing we can do is make a difference in someone else’s life. I had coached high school wrestling, taught Sunday school, driven school buses, all to benefit others. How much more of a difference could I make as a dad to a child who didn’t have one?
The adoption came about after my wife and I began attending Northside Baptist Church of Tifton. Several families there had adopted or were fostering children. A few of the moms set up a program to bring awareness to our community about adoption, fostering, and other means of helping children have better lives. They hosted a Called to Care event to promote these opportunities to families who were interested or looking for information.
While there, we met a caseworker with Lifeline Children’s Services, a domestic and international adoption agency. The caseworker had two of her own children from China there with her. They were beautiful. She then explained the need for adoption and why China was so unique. At that moment, China had the most stable and streamlined adoption process in the world. It was expensive, but generally took only 12-15 months to complete (ours took 14) as opposed to many other countries requiring two to five years. After many hours of discussion and prayer, my wife and I decided to go through with the process.
With the decision made, we wanted to find a child that fit our ability to manage his or her needs. At the time, all children in the China adoption program (and most other countries) were listed with one or more “special needs.” These ranged from mild to severe, things such as cataracts to missing limbs, or blood disorders to birthmarks. Also, as a child ages, the less likely he or she will be adopted. In China, these children age out of the program at 14. Many are turned away to fend for themselves and the lucky ones are given a chance to work through rehabilitation services.
We did not want a baby, so we decided to look at children between ages three and eight with mild to moderate special needs. Severe special needs would mean more than we were able to provide given our proximity to major cities or hospitals. Our caseworker selected a file she thought would fit us. We could refuse it and look at another as most families view three to four files before making a decision. When we looked at the attributes of the child as well as her special needs, we were hooked. She liked to read, was playful, and sometimes obstinate. My wife and I looked at each other and thought, “That fits us to a T.” When we saw her picture, we knew she was the child we wanted to become part of our family.
After almost a year of paperwork, we were on a plane heading to China to meet our little girl. This was a daunting adventure from the start. We had a thirteen-hour flight from Chicago to Beijing only to endure a seven-hour layover there. It was brutal. We were exhausted, nervous about the days ahead, and did not speak a word of Chinese.
We arrived at our destination, a rural town of 1.5 million people called Nanning. The next morning, we met our guide and explored the area. It was hot. I thought I was accustomed to heat being from South Georgia, but this was different. Because of the smog, the sun pierced through our clothing and the humidity was near excruciating. This is what we experienced the entire time we were in China.
The next morning we went to the local children’s services building to get our little girl. While anxiously awaiting her arrival, we witnessed several other families getting their children. With every little girl that came in, I wondered, is this her?
Finally, the moment came. She walked in with her nanny and came over to us. It was breathtaking. She looked at us and smiled and I melted. I handed her a doll we had brought for her and she giggled shyly then ran back to her nanny. We had packed several toys and many suckers to help her like us immediately. My wife gave her a sucker, which she accepted and laughed. (To this day, her laugh is still one of the best sounds in the world to me.)
Over the next several weeks, we experienced the gamut of reactions, from emotional breakdowns to hysterical cackling episodes. It was stressful, but so rewarding to see how much our daughter enjoyed experiencing things she had never seen, tasting things she had never tasted, and doing things she had never done. During the flight home, she had ice in her drink for the first time. She played with it for a bit before taking a sip. So many things we take for granted, she had never had. The look on her face when we let her pick out a pair of shoes at the store was priceless. She had never been given a choice before.
Things were not easy at first. You might say my daughter was a daddy’s girl at the time. She and my wife did not initially bond well, though their relationship has improved dramatically.
As a baby cries and a parent can only use trial and error to figure out why, we had a similar experience. Our daughter would cry at times and at others babble incessantly while we had no clue as to what she was saying. Becoming parents is a learning experience regardless of whether your children are biological or adopted.
Back to “How to Train Your Dragon.” Just as both the dragon and his rider had a mutual ‘training’ experience, I have too with my daughter. Going into the adoption process, I had all of these plans, things such as teaching her to play guitar, to fish and hunt, to wrestle, and to enjoy a conversation over a cup of coffee.
While I have made a little progress with her in these areas, we have made leaps in my own ‘training.’ She has taught me that a seven-year-old will do things that will annoy an adult for no reason other than they are seven years old. She has shown me that there is more to life than social media, reality T.V., or most of what I thought was living before becoming a dad.
Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned from her is that the greatest thing a person can do in life is give back. That is it. She has taught me how to love. Not because she looks like me, talks like me, thinks like me, or gives me money, but because when I see her smile, I know I have made a difference. That is living. That is love.
P.S. Live, Laugh, Love, and if you can, Adopt.