Monday, August 14, 2006

The most humbling day of my life

Through an unexpected series of events that I'll probably blog about at some point, my husband and I adopted our two young daughters through foster care. Each of them is a miracle in her own right, and has a miraculous story about how she joined our family, which I will also share at some point. But for this post, I want to focus on a single day of Jennica's life, the circumstances that led us to that place, and the profound effect that this single day had on the outlook I have about my life.

First of all, Jennica was removed from her birth family at the hospital when she was born and placed into foster care. At seven weeks of age, she came to live with us, as a foster child with a high chance for permanent adoption. We were a family looking to adopt a young toddler or infant. Hence, a perfect match. But, as there usually is with foster-adopt children, there were some risks. First, her birth parents were both developmentally disabled and there was a possibility that she would have inherited some developmental issues. Second, she was their third child and both of her siblings were in permanent placement with family members on the East Coast and both of them had varying levels of autism. And third, there was still a chance that the East Coast family members would have a chance to step forward and request custody of her at any time during the coming 12 months before her adoption could be complete with us. Scary? Absolutely!!! But after a devastating miscarriage and my subsequent infertility, we were desperate to raise a child and willing to take the risks. We saw the potential for disabilties as something that is a possibility with every pregnancy and every human being. If this was our biological child born disabled, we would certainly not reject them. So why reject this beautiful baby girl??? As for the family on the East Coast, we were just going to have to pray that they would make the decision to let her remain on the West Coast with us.

To make a long story short, Jennica had ups and downs through her first year. Her development proceeded in fits and starts, and we worried incessantly. We pursued every available avenue for infant testing, therapy, and developmental intervention. To say we were "pro-active" is probably putting it mildly. Our goal was simply to give this baby girl the absolute best chance at the highest functioning life she could ever have. If that was a normal life.....wonderful. If it was somewhat less than normal, we would give her every opportunity to excel to her utmost potential. And during the whole time, we continued to pray that the distant family she had never met would not express a desire to take her, and prayed that the adoption would proceed.

A full fourteen months after taking custody of her, the big day arrived. FINALLY, on August 19th, 2005, her birth name was changed to Jennica Angelie Stevens. Our angel baby was irrefutably and inarguably OUR DAUGHTER!!!

We had long planned that when she was 18 months old, we would return (we had already been there once with her) to our region's very best children's hospital for a developmental evaluation. The appointment was set, and the day arrived. Now, keep in mind...Jen is the youngest of four children. It is a rare occurence for us to be able to spend the entire day alone with just one of our children. So...we started out the day with a bit of a "party mood". Just us and Jen. WAHOO!!!

We traveled the hours from our home to the hospital, found our way to where we needed to be, and began the exasperating experience of a day of medical appointments with an impatient and strong-willed 18-month old. She's bored with the waiting and wants to run the hallways. She finds a toy truck somewhere and clings to it while she is weighed. (The nurse, bless her heart, wisely chooses not to wrestle the truck away and writes the weight in the chart with a note that states "including toy truck".) Jennica discovers that she can open the exam room door and bolts down the hallway at every opportunity, usually yelling at her greatest volume, as the hallway has the most delightful echo. And she is far more interested in wadding the exam room paper, which crackles and crinkles loudly, than she is in looking at the book that the therapist wants her to point out pictures in...

And suddenly, in the midst of my exasperation, I begin to notice the other children present in the waiting rooms and hallways. Wheelchairs abound. Facial features and limbs are "different" with disabilties that are unknown to me. And I begin to realize that some of these other parents may never chase their child down a hospital hallway. They may never see their child scream "MINE!!!" when a nurse thinks about taking a small toy away. And their lives are interrupted daily by therapy visits and hospital appointments. As our day continues, and Jennica becomes less and less patient, we begin to tire of passing her back and forth to try to entertain her. And then I suddenly realize how fortunate I am to share my parenting experience with a willing and involved father. I see another mother balancing 2 children and a diaper bag and a wheelchair alone and hope for her that there is at least someone to help at home. And I am humbled beyond tears with the child in my arms that is struggling to be put down, the husband beside me who is packing a juice cup and a diaper bag, and I think of the other three, healthy children we have at home. I think of our weekly schedule of football games, soccer games, etc. and feel guilty for the times when I have recently wished we could just have a quieter life. How many of these parents in this hospital will never see their child chase after a soccer ball?

When we left that day, Jen's attention was drawn to the shiny, mylar balloons at the gift shop on the first floor. Of course, we stopped and bought her one, tied it to her wrist, and watched her bounce across the parking lot outdoors, fascinated by the movement of the balloon above her head. While I smiled at her antics, I found myself also thinking of the parents in the windows above us who, just once, would like to see their child dance with a balloon.

We left that day with a healthy diagnosis. Jennica's development, now almost a year later, continues to be normal and on track. She is a rowdy, obnoxious, strong-willed 2-year old, with huge brown eyes and a smile that melts our hearts every single day. She is truly a miracle--the only member of her immediate biological family without major developmental delays.

To the parents that we saw that day, you touched my life forever and made me appreciate what I have. I was humbled by a brief glimpse into your daily lives. May you be blessed with love, peace, and wisdom. I still get exasperated, exhausted, and plain old worn-out sometimes from keeping up with our busy lives. But that day changed my life with a view of a much different perspective.

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