A year ago today we arrived in Ethiopia, with the mission of finally bringing our daughters home. It's so cliche to ask "Where has the time gone?", but really--where has the time gone? (I so want to tell you some outlandish story of how we went on safari and skinned a zebra. Which wouldn't be true, but would sound much more interesting than the actual truth, which is that we posed at a touristy shop for this photo. So that apparently we could look like we bagged a zebra on safari.)
Here are Tigist and Mekdes at the guesthouse, moments after we took them out of the orphanage. This photo encapsulates their dynamic fairly well, even now. Silly little sister who loves to pull her older sister's hair and just be all around, well, silly.
Each of our three trips to Ethiopia was deeply meaningful and amazing. But they were also difficult, especially the two trips where we took custody of our children. As of a year ago, both of our girls had some profound delays.
Tigist could not crawl, or walk, or eat or drink, really. She'd apparently only been spoon-fed mush, and had spent a lot of her time sitting in a Bumbo seat so she more closely resembled a rag doll than an active, inquisitive two year old. Mealtimes were stressful, messy, and always included at least one meltdown. And for some reason this is always magnified when you're away from home, in a relatively unfamiliar place.
Mekdes could scarcely walk herself at age four, and had horrible balance issues. She couldn't run or jump, nor did she know how to play. She was afraid of dogs, baths, a particular restaurant we unfortunately kept going to, and having her diaper changed. She hated having her hair combed--and still does actually. And not only does she have Down syndrome and most likely an uncommon form of Cerebral Palsy, she also appears to be on the autism spectrum--which could be the result of institutionalization, or something she was born with. We don't know, and most likely never will. But this explains her fascination with hands, her assorted aversions, and also some of her other behaviors.
Here the girls are leaving the orphanage after their going away party. For good. As in, the last time they were ever at Layla House, which had been their home for years. While they were completely unphased by the whole matter, it was terribly emotional for us--I really had to work to hold it together at their goodbye party. Not because they were leaving, but because they had seen so many little friends come and go over the years, while they waited for their turn to be sung to and sent off with prayers and orange soda and bread rolls. And now, finally, two little ones with Down syndrome were leaving the orphanage because they had a family.
Ready to leave Ethiopia. And by ready, I mean dying-to-get-on-the-plane-as-soon-as-possible. I missed my kids at home, one of our daughters had open sores all over her body as the result of scabies, and we'd just found out the other had much more significant heart issues than we'd suspected. God bless our dear pediatrician who personally squeezed us into his schedule, after I frantically emailed him from Africa begging for an appointment in three days.
Any adoptive parent who's travelled abroad to bring a child home will tell you that there is a certain gravity you feel--a weight of responsibility, really--as you leave your child's culture, birth family, orphanage, language, and life behind. The above photo is of Mekdes, holding onto Kevin's hand, on the airplane as we prepared for takeoff. It's hard. On the one hand you know that there is no future for your children in this place, but on the other? You know that there is loss, and it all feels very wrong. Having done this twice now I can tell you that the reason it feels wrong is that it is wrong. Children are meant to be raised by the man and woman who created them, period. And while that is not always possible, and I do believe adoption is necessary for many of these children, I also believe it is normal and healthy to acknowledge that this is simply not ideal. Not in the least. And once you acknowledge this, you are then free to wholeheartedly embrace God's calling to take these children into your family and start life together. It is bittersweet and beautiful and, ultimately, reality.
Happy airport greetings from dear friends upon our return to Denver.
Happy sibling + grandma greetings upon our arriving at our house--all seven kids, united for the first time. Mekdes and Tigist have been desperately and fiercely loved by five young people since the moment they stepped through the door that day. I am not exaggerating, nor am I generalizing. It's simply the truth. Want to fall more deeply in love with your kids? Watch them eagerly embrace two timid, uneasy children--who will now share their bedrooms and their very lives. Watch them do it without fear, judgement or expectation. That afternoon was a tiny glimpse into the heart of God, I think.
I can tell you that this past year has been hard and busy, but it has also been incredibly good and fulfilling, and infused with hope.
I can tell you that through a combined total of three heart surgeries (including Mekdes' open heart surgery--that's her recovering in the cardiac ICU above), my daughters have had their respective congenital heart defects repaired. They now have the potential for longer life and a greater quality of life too.
I can tell you that Tigist is walking unassisted now. Walking! She can eat most anything and even uses a fork or spoon.
I can tell you that Mekdes has acquired quite a bit of language, can now run (!), jump, and climb, and her balance has improved tremendously.
I can tell you that it is easy, when parenting children with developmental delays, to feel as if time is standing still. We occasionally ask ourselves why things are taking so very long, or wonder what level of self-sufficiency our children will ever eventually achieve. The truth is of course that each and every child has his or her own timetable, and sometimes progress happens incrementally, and other times it comes in spurts and then stalls out for awhile. But when we maintain perspective and actually take the time to reflect on where these girls were a year ago, it is clear that they have come an incredibly long way!
People often ask me what it's like raising two daughters with Down syndrome. And I can tell you that just as with any child, there have been (and continue to be) challenges, although as far as day-to-day life goes, it is really not as complicated as one might think. One of the hardest parts is simply remembering that while my daughters' chronological ages are five and three, respectively, they are developmentally more like two and one. Some of that is due to them having Down syndrome, some to a rough start in life, and some is because of autistic tendencies and CP. No matter what the cause, it requires patience and a change in focus--both sometimes hard to come by.
But what an incredible way to love unconditionally, and what an amazing glimpse into life otherwise not seen.
And, at the end of the day, these girls are simply my daughters. My children.
So I will tell you that Mekdes and Tigist are fearfully and wonderfully made by a God who loves them dearly. I will tell you that they have been our daughters for a year now, and in that time they have made some amazing progress. I will also tell you that their value and worth comes not from ticking developmental milestones off a checklist or from how well they navigate social situations, but from God Himself. I will tell you that we were somehow chosen to be their family, when their own families were unable to continue caring for them..and I will tell you that is humbling. I will tell you that these girls love to eat, laugh, and cuddle. I will tell you that they are not defined by their diagnoses but I will also tell you that those diagnoses are also part of who they are. I will tell you that Down syndrome, whether we're talking about an adopted or biological child, is nothing to fear.
I will tell you that I love my daughters.