In a few weeks we’re getting together with the six familes from our original travel group to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of adopting our middle child from China. In the beginning we got together every summer, but as the years passed and our lives diverged the reunions stopped. A bit sad, but not surprising. It was fun to see how the other girls, adopted at the same time from the same orphanage, had grown and changed, so I always looked forward to seeing everyone again.
One of the families returned to China to visit the orphanage in Fuling last summer. Ten years ago, a huge dam was built across the Yangtze River that destroyed the livelihood of many poor farmers around Fuling. When their land was flooded, many were forced to make harrowing choices between starvation and keeping their babies. This plus the one-child policy in force at the time led to many babies, mostly girls, being brought to the Fuling Orphanage.
The family who went back to China generously offered to put together a book for each girl that includes recent pictures from the old orphanage and the changes in the surrounding area created by the dam’s construction. They asked that each girl fill in some scrapbook-style pages with current information and a baby picture to go into the book.
And that is where things started to get weird.
When I began scrolling through pictures I hadn’t looked at in ten years, I was thrown hard in the the bittersweet of adoption. I stared at the blank, scared expression on my daughter’s face (she was nine months old when we were matched with her) in the photos sent to us by the orphanage and experienced a wrenching sense of loss and dislocation like a blow to my chest. Memories cascaded through me: The subtle and not-so-subtle racism and disapproval from family members who have only gradually accepted, if not exactly embraced, our choice to pursue interracial adoption. The way total strangers seemed compelled to comment on the make-up of my family EVERYWHERE we went—with the worst comments coming from people who thought they were being “complimentary” to me when they praised my selflessness in adopting poor orphans in front of my children; the relentless questions about whether my girls were”real sisters” or “twins,” even though they’re obviously not the same age! All of this came pouring back into me and I couldn’t stop it. And it was as raw and real as if it happened yesterday.
Within weeks of returning home from China, while we were still virtual strangers to each other, my daughter became extremely ill with chicken pox. I called the pediatrician, but she didn’t want me to bring her in to the clinic because chicken pox are so contagious.(Doctors like to give the chicken pox vaccine at twelve months and she was eleven months old at the time she got ill.) When I insisted, the doctor immediately sent us to the hospital. We spent close to a week in an isolation ward where they pumped her full of antibiotics and antiviral meds in a continuous intravenous cocktail.
I was terrified at thought of abandoning her and damaging the tenuous bond of trust developing between us. But staying with her in the unit meant separation from my six-year-old son and husband. It was a stressful time, and I felt guilty that my little baby was suffering so much and couldn’t understand what I said to her or what was happening to her body. All I could do was not leave her. So that’s what I did.
Today we’re bonded as tight as any mother and pre-teen could ever be. I can’t imagine my life without her. She’s smart, loving, and is doing well in a Chinese immersion program taught by native Chinese speakers that will make her birth language and culture accessible to her, a natural part of her life. She’ll get to chose what role her Chinese heritage plays in her life because she speaks the language and knows where she comes from, even if her birth family remains forever a mystery.
So all that bad stuff is in the past . . . except when it isn’t.
Soon we’ll go to the reunion. We’ll laugh and share with folks who’ve been where we’ve been and have stood where we’ve stood. And maybe I’ll be the only one who can’t quite look at those baby pictures. I’ll look instead at my strong, loving girl and give thanks that she’s in my life and that I’m in hers.
Because without that bitter, my life would never taste so sweet.