Thursday, November 2, 2017

The unwanted companion

I've sat on this post for weeks. It's been several months in the making as I've debated a hundred times whether or not it's something to be shared. I never thought this would be a part of my life story, but here we are. I suppose all that's left to do is to accept it for what it is- a personal Gethsemane of sorts- and to perhaps someday learn to embrace it.

I wonder what my children will say someday about the journey this has been over the past few years. Not only bringing Hengxin into our family, but so much more. Older parents tell me these years are both the most challenging of raising a family, as well as the ones they miss the most. It's been a long road and there are miles yet ahead of us. As my children get older, what will be the story they tell of these days? What will be their story? I suppose all I really know is my story, or how life appears through my lenses.

A few weeks ago I walked the dogs through the subdivision where we used to live, to unwind after a long day. It was dark, the street lamps illuminating the sidewalk in sporadic spotlights; like a silent, empty stage. I had memorized the way the roads looked in the dark, having trained for many races throughout the years in the early hours of the morning or late into the night after the kids were in bed. Walking the darkened streets felt like visiting an old, familiar friend. I paused as I stopped in front of our old house. We had lived there for almost 9 years. It felt like a family member, long forgotten. An unfamiliar car sat in the driveway. The trees bigger than I remembered them. The glow of the interior lights shone softly onto the street, the quiet movement of shadows behind the curtains. I stood now as a stranger in front of what was once so familiar to me- transfixed- every inch of the house holding a thousand memories. It was a hallowed space that had once cradled us through the earliest days of our family. Those years had been hard too. Simpler, but still hard. Unbid, the tears began to fall- feelings of despair welling up, like they wanted nothing more than to swallow me whole. How was I going to survive this time in my life, and cross all of the mountains that stood before me? It was insurmountable. It was sometime before I was able to continue walking. I was taken back by what was stirred in me that night. I thought I had been doing better. I thought that the worst had past.

It took me months, even years, to see it for what was. I had dismissed it as normalcy- or at least my normal- for so long that it never occurred to me that perhaps it was something more. It ran deeper than the grief of what I had lost over the years, or of what I'll lose in years to come. It was more than the stress and fatigue that come from being the mother of a large adoptive family. It had become a canker, feasting away at any hope I had for the future. It had planted seeds of resentment and harvested bounteous crops of anger. It stole away my optimism, leaving feelings of despair and darkness in its wake. It had companioned me for so long that I scarcely knew it was there anymore. It was just the way things were.

I soon realized that my dark companion had a trusty side-kick: guilt, its loyal friend. I had no right to feel this way. I had seen God's hand in the past two years in ways that few people do throughout their lifetime. I had felt His love for me more than I ever had before. What more did I want? I have a good husband. Healthy children. Beautiful home. Good education. I was ungrateful, I told myself, and ungrateful people are bad. I confided in a friend that some days I just wanted to disappear- to be forgotten.

I received a call one afternoon, asking if I'd give a presentation to a church youth group about anxiety and depression. As a nurse, a day rarely goes by on the job when I don't address some form of anxiety and depression, but still I was confused as to why I'd be ask to give the presentation, of all people. However, I accepted and began to study. For weeks I researched and read anything I could on the topic. I interviewed people who suffered from them. I prayed and fasted, pondered and studied more than I ever had for any class. It was during one of the interviews that a question began to form in my mind. Could this be me? I rejected the thought but it never left me, quietly tugging on my pride, like a persistent child tugging on his mother's shirt.

With reluctance I asked to assessed by a physician. I wasn't surprised when he said, yes, I most likely was depressed. But still, it didn't feel the way I thought it would.

How long had I been this way? I couldn't say for sure, but likely it had been simmering for years, with the last two years helping to rear its head in full force.

Within a few short weeks of beginning medication coupled with counseling, my lenses began to clear. The way I had felt for so long was not normal. I saw people differently. I saw myself differently. Anger towards the hard things of life, lessened. Resentment towards those who I had felt hurt by, softened. The grip on difficult things from the past, that for so long I had clung to, began to loosen. And with that loosening started coming the first rays of forgiveness. The heavy shroud of darkness began to lift.

But with the clearer lens came a deeper understanding. Medication was simply a tool, not the cure for my depression. The rest depended on me. There were boundaries that needed to be put in place. Physical health that needed to become a constant, rather than an occasional sprint. Spiritual self-care needed to take priority. The people dearest to me in my life needed to be drawn in, rather than pushed away. And others, perhaps, needed a little more distance.

Relapses still come- more than I wish they would. I imagine to some extent they perhaps always will, but this is a journey, and I might likely have this travel companion for quite sometime.

I once heard it said that to feel joy in our life, we didn't have to change the context of our lives- our family, our job, our home- but that it could be found even in the hardest of days and the darkest of nights.

I felt that joy as I observed the happy chaos at the dinner table the other night. The constant interrupting of excited little voices to tell us about their day at school. The creative and (sometimes) subtle ways my children come up with to tell me that my cooking leaves much to be desired. The caveman-esque table manners of the youngest child that makes us laugh. The sneaking of unwanted food to the dog waiting eagerly underneath the table. The sticky little arms around my neck to thank me for the dinner that remained mostly untouched. The incredible mess of food an dishes left to be cleaned up- the remains of an abundance. Happy, beautiful chaos.

These are the days- the hardest and the happiest of life- that surely I'll miss the most. I thank God for the journey, even with its less-than-desirable travel companion, because it's after the darkest nights that the dawn of all that's good and beautiful seems brighter.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The visitor

Just seeing her made my heart ache- Rosalbita Frias, my maternal grandmother. "This can't be a dream... she seems so real," I kept thinking. And yet still I knew I was only dreaming.

I sat in the galeria, sunlight streaming through the huge windows that looked out to the garden. She sat next to me at the round table next to the TV- the same table where I've spent so many hours talking and laughing. It was covered with a flowered table cloth, just like it always has been, with a dainty crystal vase and colorful floral arrangement. I could see the wood paneling with our pictures on the wall behind her- the greenery that so abundantly filled the room.

The lines on her face, the way her silver hair swept across her forehead, the pearl earrings, and those eyes- so beautiful and brown and vacant. I saw her as I last remembered her, tiny and frail with her mind a million miles away- tucked several decades ago in the past. Stolen by the grip of Alzheimer's.

I looked down at her hands and realized how deeply I had missed seeing them. Her hands... they told the story of her life- thick and calloused, laced in the lovely wrinkles that one only earns after several decades of life. They told of the sacrifices she had made for her small family, of the triumphs and of the heartaches. How many times I had seen those hands expertly craft hundreds of empanadas. How many times they had cradled the animals she so tenderly cared for. She rubbed my arms as I talked, the way she always had, her eyes staring off in the distance.

I wept as I talked to her, knowing by the vacancy in her eyes that she didn't understand what I was saying. I didn't care. I just needed to talk to her. 

"Ritita," she called out to no one in particular. Throughout the years after she lost her memory, I had always wished she was calling for me when she said that, but I knew it was for her sister whom I was named after. I pretended she was calling for me.

I told her about everything that had been hard for me lately, about how inadequate I felt to face the challenges that lay before me, about how much I had missed her. I wept as I talked, just needing to free myself of the weight. She responded in confused and jumbled words. I didn't expect anything else.

But slowly a change began to come across her face. It started with the crease between her eyebrows softening- the same worried crease that had deepened as her memory was taken from her. Her hair began to darken and the hollowness in her face began to fill out. Her jaws regained their natural teeth and within moments I was looking at the face of the grandmother I remembered when we had moved to Chile when I was 7 years old.

She looked at me differently now. Her eyes finally seeing me. She was radiant and healthy, the way she looked in the years before my grandfather passed away. She spoke clearly, fully in the moment. She talked to me for sometime. She had always been a talker. I just listened, and listened... and listened, the way I had done so many times as a child as I watched her work. I don't remember anything she said, and somehow it didn't matter. Just knowing she was talking to me was enough.

After sometime, she hugged me in the firm embrace I had always remembered and my heart felt like it was going to burst. Her wonderful grandmotherly scent, so familiar and sweet, filling me up. All too soon, the dream was over and I awoke, aching for her to stay near.

My grandmother had come to visit me, of that I have no doubt. It had been too vivid of a dream for it to have been simply a reorganization of thoughts, the way our minds do when we are asleep.

I've thought of her a lot lately and I'm not sure why. Perhaps she experienced some of the same challenges I've been experiencing, though I've never been told if she had. Perhaps our thoughts are drawn to those deceased family members who experienced the same things we're going through as they quietly help us along. 

Our time together that night, though brief and fleeting, was precious to me. She had come to remind me that despite the veil of mortality that lies between us, she is there for me, rooting for me and helping me along the way, as are my other grandparents and loved ones who've gone before me.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Rainbows in the making

I remember staring across the restaurant with what I knew full well was nothing more than selfish envy. The newly adopted toddlers in their newly purchased clothes, adorable and smiling at their newly acquired parents who lovingly spoon-fed them breakfast. They were absolutely darling. I glanced across the table at the preteen sitting silently in front of me, expressionlessly poking at her food.

We had had custody of her for a little over a week and I had caught several glimpses of how amazing she was, but I had also quickly realized that we had our work cut out for us.

I was tired. I didn't want more work, even if it had been cut out just for me. I just wanted easy. And the toddlers looked easy. I felt ashamed of myself. I knew better. We all had our work cut out for us, even the parents of the toddlers.

The hotel where we stayed in Guangzhou housed several adoptive families, all on the last leg of a long journey as they awaited to finalize their child's paperwork at the U.S. consulate. Each morning at breakfast as we saw adopted toddlers and young children, I had to remind myself that God's plan for us was sitting across the table from me- not across the restaurant.

There have been people over the years who have disapproved of some of the things I have blogged about, as well as parts of who I am. It's kept me awake at night, tossing and turning over the distance it has created in some of my dearest relationships. But I don't know how not to write what's in my heart or to be anything other than I am. I've often wish I was more simple-hearted and that I didn't feel everything so deeply. It can be exhausting. For so long I tried to supress that part of who I am, but I'm slowly learning to embrace that as just the way things are.

How to stay real and honest about the hard parts of life, without feeling like we have to assuage other people's minds by turning everything into butterflies and rainbows? Life is so much more than that. It's gritty and hard sometimes, and that's okay. It's the very nature of what's hard that unfolds the beauty of the rainbow. Rainbows are what come after the storm, not inspite of them. The two are inextricably linked- one can't be appreciated without the other. That's why I write about the hard stuff, to give meaning to the victories that otherwise I would have overlooked.

Yesterday was a rainbow day for me- a day that to anyone else might have seemed like just another ordinary day but, to me, marked a huge milestone for both of us. We drove to another long doctor's appointment, and chatted and laughed easily the whole way there and back- a blessed relief from the uncomfortable silence we usually experienced on appointment days. Some things we talked about were a stretch for her, but she talked calmly and directly about how she felt about issues that in the past had quickly flared into defensiveness and anger. The evening was also lovely. Uneventful. It ended with sweet notes she had written and left for me and Dennis underneath our pillows. Ordinary events with extraordinary gains behind them.

She's perhaps the most resilient person I've ever met. She has every reason to not be the kind and gentle person that she is. And yet the longer she's home, the more I see the damage that was done during those many years in the orphange, usually so subtle that most people miss it- damage that only love and time can begin to heal.

She's learned everything at warp speed- all of the little things that we take for granted. How to give and take in a relationship. How to express emotions in a healthy way. How to recognize an ally without labeling it a foe. I couldn't be more proud of her.

And yet there are still tough times. Times when both of us want to call a time-out and walk away.

A few weeks ago we were there- in the middle of an awful storm. I felt like I had nothing left to give- no more patience, no more understanding, nothing. I sat at my desk at work one morning, wondering how I was going to find the strength to go home and do it all over again. It wasn't just that I didn't want to, I couldn't. My emotional reserves had run dry. I felt completely empty. Just then I got a knock at my office door and a student asked if I'd consider being video interviewed for a school project she was doing. The topic- learning to find faith in yourself during your lowest moments.

I sat down on the stool, the video camera began to roll, and the rawness of all we had been through, and all that is yet to come, came to the surface and I began to cry. I cried as I addressed the topic of the interview- the lowest time in my life. It was just a year ago when we brought our daughter home. When everything that seemed like it could go wrong in our life, seemed to be going wrong. Times that made me shudder to think of, and that sometimes- like that very day- things were still hard. Really hard. But that I realized that finding faith in myself meant reaching out and not trying to doing it alone.

I was so embarassed. I hardly knew her, and here I was spilling my guts and blubbering like an idiot.

She turned off the camera and quietly told me that she had been adopted too as as child. That things had been hard for her too, and that sometimes they still were. I was stunned. I had no idea. We talked for some time, shedding tears. She encouraged me to keep going, to keep loving my daughter and to never stop, even when she seemed to push us away. We embraced and I knew that once again God had intervened on my daughter's behalf. I drove home that afternoon, noticing the warmth of the sun for the first time that day. A heavy darkness had been lifted.

Little did I know that just a few days later, we would reach an even lower point- lower than we had ever reached before, and that the darkness would feel darker than ever. But it didn't last long and I had to remind myself that it's that very ebb and flow that often characterizes adoption. Hard moments, followed by even harder moments, and then a breakthrough when you can finally catch a glimpse of what it is everyone's working towards, and the view is breath-taking.

I think back on those days eating breakfast in the hotel in Guangzhou and I realize that I would never trade her for one of those darling toddlers. Not a hundred of them. Even with all the past year has brought, I know now, with more perfect clarity than ever, that she was always meant to be our daughter.

There will be more storms, of that I have no doubt, but we learn from each of them. For me, mostly how to handle (or not to handle) myself during those raw and difficult moments. The storms have a way of unearthing every vulnerability and insecurity in myself that I thought I had learned to manage, or that I never knew even existed. As much as I tire of how deeply I feel everything, it was the emptiness I felt that day of the interview that scared me the most. I never want to go there again. So, I will try to take each storm and embrace it for what it is- a rainbow in the making.

I'm grateful to Kat, one of the amazing advisors at our school who was present during the interview,for capturing the moment.
(Posted with the student's permission)

Friday, March 10, 2017

Those who lost

The one-year anniversary of Hengxin joining our family came and left quietly. Not because it went unnoticed. In fact, every day leading up to it, I replayed in my mind the preparations, the nerves, the emotions that came before taking the biggest leap of faith any of us had ever taken- forever seared into my memory and in the deepest pit of my stomach. Most adoptive families commemorate Family Day with a celebration but I couldn’t do. I couldn’t bring myself to celebrate the beginning of what felt like some of the darkest days of our family’s life. Our little world felt like it was falling apart in so many ways. Satan was once again attacking from almost every angle possible. I quickly came to realize that the grueling process of bringing her home, which I thought was the pinnacle of our trials was, in fact, only preparation for bigger things to come. They were only the beginning. I wanted to look forward, not back.

Just as adoption is about gaining, it is also about loss. So much loss. And the most wounded often sit in the shadows, unnoticed and overlooked. My biological children suffered a tremendous loss for so long- something that is rarely talked about in adoption stories. While they watched their new sister gain parents, they felt like they were losing theirs, their mother and father consumed with this new family member. Almost daily medical appointments taking me away for hours at a time. Every conversation, every meal, every activity, seemed to be centered around this new person who at times seemed to only push us away. Strangers in their own home and lost in a new and disheartening reality, their world had been completely turned upside down.

There was grief disguised as anger. Some more than others and it felt like life would never feel normal again. At times, some of the children who had initially been the most supportive of the adoption, felt the deepest wounds and the greatest resentment. This was as much a trial of their faith as it was ours, and my heart ached as I watched them struggle.

And yet a celebration is in order. Not for where we were, but where we are today. On the one-year mark, in a serendipitous series of events that I couldn't have planned if I tried, I was able to sit back and reflect in gratitude for where we are today, not where we were a year ago. At times I am guilty of allowing the difficulties overshadow the triumphs.

A few nights ago Hengxin handed me a paper that she had written in school. It was a letter she had written to me about heroes. And her hero, she said, was me. For helping her. For comforting her when she was sad. For loving her. And the date she had written it? March 1st- the one year anniversary of her joining our family- the very day I had wanted to slip by unnoticed.

It was on the very day I had wanted to skim over that she also delivered several boxes of food for a food drive she had organized and carried out for my student's in need at my school. It was a labor of love, one that involved overcoming deep-seeded insecurities and fears, as she stood in front of large groups of people to solicit food donations. And the outpouring of support for her efforts was huge.

She had no idea how the timing of any of it coincided, so I was able to reflect quietly on its impact.
It was God gently nudging me to not focus on the difficulties we had experienced, but on the beauty of where those challenges led us. To remind me that it was all worth it. Every single bit of it.

But most of all, to see those wounded little ones who had once sat in the shadows, learn to embrace their new life, for me that is the greatest reward. They play together, laugh together, and yes... fight together- just like real siblings do. They gained a new sister, a friend, a playmate. They gained a mother who became more present than she used to be. They gained faith through experience that when God commands something, He sees it through till the end. That miracles happen daily, big and small. They learned the power of a changed heart, and that more often than not, it's our own heart that need to be changed. They learned that good health is one of our biggest blessings, and the power that comes when families work together through hard things.

So often people tell us that they are amazed by me and Dennis, that they could never do what we've done, but it isn't us who are the true warriors. It is the children, each of them, who didn't choose any of this. None of them did. They followed along with what God told their parents to do, and then opened their hearts in the best ways they knew how. They've each lost, but they've gained so much too. These little warriors are my heroes.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Guerras Perdidas

It was a vision. There's no other way I can think of to explain it. It lasted only a moment, but I knew what it was. God was giving me different eyes for a heaven's moment. He needed me to see- to comprehend- something I hadn't fully understood before.

January was a tough month for our family. Bitter cold, record snow fall, sick children, and Dennis was out of town for much of it. School was cancelled for a record nine days and to top it off, I was sick as well. The month felt like the movie Groundhog Day... the same thing day, after day, after day. It was maddening. Patience wore thin in all of us, but particularly in me.

In many ways we seemed to have taken a few steps back in bonding with our new daughter. The lack of structure because of the snow days, the lack of being in school- it was a struggle for all of us, but especially for her. It was rough... I'll just leave it at that. And in true self-pitying fashion, I internalized it all.

I was struggling to bond- to want to understand where she was coming from... and there seemed to be crevasse reopening between us- one I thought had closed long ago.

And that's when it happened.

One snowy afternoon, Calista, our five-year old, sat huddled in the corner weeping and trembling piteously. One of her siblings had upset her and I moved in to comfort her. As she looked up at me with tears streaming down her face, I saw and it almost took my breath away. I saw what God needed me to understand.

For a moment I could see her- I saw Hengxin on that terrible day when she was five years old. The sorrow and confusion in Calista's eyes became hers. I saw her trembling and afraid as the kind policeman took her by the hand and led her to the orphanage. I saw her standing alone and terrified among a sea of parentless children. I saw a tiny little girl crying herself to sleep at night, wondering what she had done to deserve this.

And for the first time, it hit me- the immense tragedy that my sometimes-prickly 12-year-old daughter had experienced only a few years before.

It hit me like a ton of bricks. My heart felt like it had broken in two. I had seen her pain and know I understood why sometimes it felt like I couldn't break through her self-protective walls. It all made sense.

I dropped to my knees and wrapped Calista in my arms. I closed my eyes and buried my face in her hair. For a heaven's moment I was hugging that scared little girl on the street corner in China and my heart once again became hers.

That evening she asked if we could talk. She asked me if I would like to know more about her life in China. She was ready to talk now, she said- eleven months after coming home. After the kids were in bed, we sat in the dark in front of the glowing fireplace and quietly talked.

For over an hour I asked and she answered. This little girl who had lived with us for almost a year had in many ways remained a stranger to us until now. I asked everything I could think of. Some of my questions were answered silently with a distant look in her eyes. Apparently she wasn't quite ready to talk about everything yet.

We gave each other a long hug that night and I thanked her. She had given me a gift, I told her. She laughed and asked why.

"Because I know you better now and that helps me to understand more."

A few days later, she asked if we could talk again so she could tell me more, this time with Dennis home to listen.

Guerras Perdidas. Lost wars. I listened to the words to the song on my Ipod as I went running last night. Sometimes it feels that way- like a lost war. No amount of love will ever right the wrong that happened to my little girl. So much damage was done during those 6 years in the orphanage. White and blue butterfly wings are among the ashes, the songs says, of butterflies that were engulfed by the flames.

But that's not how our story ends, I thought. She's not found in the ashes, like the song says.  Yes, she flew through the fire, but she came out the other side. The flames may have singed her wings, but every day she emerges stronger and brighter than the day before.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Finding a place

The dust has settled, like we're finally stumbling out to see the aftermath of what once felt like a terrible storm. In some ways it feels like stitching back together the tattered pieces of a quilt. In other ways it feels like walking out to victory.

Today was our first Christmas with our little girl, who a year ago, was a perfect stranger to us. It was lovely- a distant cry from where we were just a few months ago. The past few weeks I've been thinking about it all- the highs and lows of the roller coaster we've been on.

I'm part of a large online adoption community where I've been following the journeys of several adoptive families. As I read of some of their struggles, I can't help but feel a sense of guilt. For all the challenges we've been through, compared to the challenges of other adoptive families, we've had it easy. Incredibly so. In so many ways I feel like we hit the adoption jackpot. She fits into our family seamlessly, like a glove. It's this realization that makes me feel weaker than I thought I was as I reflect on how much I've struggled. She is a treasure- a priceless one, and I shutter to think what life would be like had we never said yes to bringing her home. But what got us to this point was going blindly down a path with lots of guessing and hoping... hoping that I wasn't screwing things up too badly.


She stood there, staring at me in disbelief and I almost lost my nerve.

No, I told myself, follow through. I motioned again for her to take the backseat.

She narrowed her eyes but obeyed. Her face turned to stone and she clenched her jaw in defiant silence as she turned to look out the backseat window. I took a deep breath and sat in the front seat.

I felt sick and completely unnerved. I looked at Dennis for reassurance and he nodded quietly. She had only been home for a couple of weeks and still struggled with carsickness every time she traveled in a car. We had been having her take the front seat since it helped minimize the nausea, and now I was booting her to the backseat so I could sit in the front. It felt awful because I knew. I knew I had no idea what I was doing, that I was bluffing my way through it.

I had been sensing over the past few days that my attempts at being seen as gentle and understanding were being perceived as being weak and insecure. Bonding and attachment had been taking a steady downhill turn and I couldn't help but wonder if that was why. Our little girl can be quite intimidating when she wants to be, and truth be told, had intimidated me several times up to that point.

We had reached a crux. Either I was to be the perpetual weakling or I was to take my place as the leader of the pack- the alpha- and I was risking a puking kid in my backseat to prove it, but I knew I had to do it.

As she sat staring out the window, I could tell she had completely shut down again and that it would probably last for hours.... and it did. Her shut downs are hard on me. The silence, the emotional distance- it kills me.

But then something unexpected happened. After several hours, she pulled out of it and was different than she was before. Oddly enough, she smiled more that night, laughed more, and seemed strangely content- like an assurance had washed over her.

As the weeks and months went on, I saw this pattern reemerging time and time again. I'd comfortably slide out of alpha role, and bonding and attachment would suffer. We'd struggle through a few days of muck before realizing that I needed to tighten the slack, and our relationship would improve almost immediately. With each episode we'd be better than before. I would have to remember to occasionally fluff my feathers for things to continue to improve. It seemed like the strangest phenomenon.

Sometimes I'd "alpha" over the most trivial of things to pull her out of it- like how far away from me she was allowed to walk when we were in public- but it was too much of an obvious pattern to ignore. The stricter I was- even on the littlest of things- the safer she seemed to feel and the happier she was. I was learning a side of parenting I had neglected to notice with my biological children- that for some children there's a comfortable security that comes with what feels like militaristic parenting.

It isn't easy work for either of us though. At times we've locked horns for hours, sometimes day. There have been tears and frustration, but each time I see her blossom brighter than before. Today she shines brighter than ever before. As I write this, she came in to check on me from working with her dad on her new puzzle. She smiled and patted my shoulder, asking how I was doing and if I needed anything. She is a sweetheart beyond belief.

My little girl has been riding a roller coaster of uncertainty and grief for the past 12 years of her life, and finally there is a seat belt around her little lap, holding her in tight. She can finally be the child and enjoy the ride, letting someone else take care of her for a change, instead of always having to look out for herself. I pray that someday along this ride she'll be able to see with bright eyes what her place in this world really is.

And what a place in this world she has.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Working for love

There's something whispered quietly about among few mothers, spoken with hushed voices in private conversations. Heads hanging in shame, feeling broken by the impossibility of it. I struggled with it for two years feeling guilt and failure any time I said the words outloud. 

But now as I look back, I see the wonder of it woven into the grand plan that has led us to where we are. My struggle served a purpose, a vital one that had I avoided, would have never brought us to one of the greatest blessings of our life, and for that I will always be grateful.

I didn't bond with my own biological child for what seemed like a very long time.

Even seeing the words written, it's uncomfortable- like they should never be given a voice. But I've learned something recently; that saying things outloud loosens their grip and weakens their power. It allows for beauty to blossom from what was once our deepest shame.

My little Mila. Things were difficult from the beginning with her- different than the others. A difficult pregnancy with physical limitations affecting me to the point of incapacity long after she was born. At one point, I remember crawling across the kitchen on hands and knees to retrieve something from the sink, the pain in my back so intense. Born into one of the most stressful time in our lives with a discontent personality, her arrival was rough. For a long time after she was born there were lots of tears, both hers and mine.

She didn't seem to love me the way my other children did. She rarely wanted me, and when she finally allowed me to hold her in my arms, she screamed and clawed at me to get away. Rejection coming from anyone is difficult, but from a child I had birthed? It was devastating. It felt like the bitterest of failures. It was all the hard work of motherhood but with what felt like none of the rewards.

For months I prayed that a bond would grow between us- that some day she would learn to love me and I her. But the line between me and heaven seemed silent as the struggle went on, month after month. What was I supposed to be learning from this? I had no idea.

I had heard mothers whisper about struggling to bond with their child but never understood it. How was it possible for a mother and child not to bond? It had disturbed me in the past to hear about it, but now even more so as I lived through it. How did they survive? Now I knew. One day at a time.

I would watch other mothers with their infants and toddlers, and feel pangs of jealousy and grief. My daughter didn't love me that way. She was our last biological child and in a selfish way I felt cheated. I was missing out on the most rewarding part of the sleepless nights and diaper changes. What was wrong with my child? What was wrong with me?

When she was about 7 months old, we began sensing the first whisperings of adoption. It felt crazy. I was still struggling to bond with my own child, and now we were thinking of trying to bond with an adopted older child whom we had never met? But when we prayed about it, I felt peace. In a way that only the heart can understand, I realized over time that Mila's mission had been to prepare my heart. She was training me to love, to serve someone with no strings attached, to understand that sometimes love has to be sought after and planted on what feels like desolate ground.

When we brought Hengxin home, my heart was steeled for the possibility that things might not go as planned, having already been through months of tough love with my biological child. What at times might have felt like catastrophic rejection from our newly adopted daughter, was softened by my experiences with my biological daughter.

And then one of the many miracles that we've witnessed began to unfold with Mila. It began with her resting her head against my shoulder for the first time. She was almost two years old and I was shocked at the unexpected affection. Eventually came the unsolicited hugs, and then came the sweetest moment of all- one that I had missed and yearned for for so long- a kiss. After the age of two, she finally did what my other children had done at 6 months old. And in true Mila spirit, it wasn't gentle or sweet, but fierce and hurried as she grabbed me by my hair and yanked me towards her in a firm and tight-lipped smooch. But it was the first and I relished it. A tide was turning with her, and it was one I had wondered if it would ever come. Those first kisses and snuggles, although rough and hurried, were sweeter with her than they were with the others. I had missed them deeply.

We spend much of our day together now, just the two of us since the rest of the kids are in school, and how I soak up our days. She's still Mila- fierce, obstinate, and wildly independent- but I drink up our time together, like we are making up for lost time. And her favorite thing? Planting me with kisses at the most unexpected moments. There are still tantrums (lots of them), power struggles, and meltdowns, but how I adore her wittiness, her sass, and her charm. I cherish her with all my heart. Yes, love can blossom in desolate ground. I've seen it happen with two of my children now.

I can never thank God enough for the wild little nymph He sent our family with the ear-splitting lungs. Without her, I would have never taken the leap to commit to loving a child across the ocean that I had never met. It was because of her that I learned to love differently. I learned that sometimes love takes time to grow, and that's okay. Love isn't broken if it has to be worked for and prayed for. Sometimes what once feels like an empty void, blossoms into the sweetest of bonds- sweeter than if it had come without effort. The Architect has a master plan for us, preparing us long before we see what's coming in the horizon. Uncomfortable and painful at times, but so worth it.