an odd and jarring encounter

“If you show me that again, I’ll throw up! It’s so weird!” she shouted, while her hands grasped her neck and she made exaggerated puking gestures.

It was Saturday morning at the McDonalds playground, and this little 7-year old girl didn’t seem to know how to cope with my 1-year-old son’s missing left hand.

After a few more puking gestures and shouts announcing Josiah’s difference and proclaiming its “weirdness,” the girls and I made our exit.  Josiah, blissfully unaware, remained happy in my arms.

The encounter had started as a really positive one.  The little girl was initially enthralled with 小弟弟 xiao didi (little brother) and made a big deal of how cute he was.  Because his sweatshirt was covering the end of his arm, his difference wasn’t obvious at the start.  But when she grabbed for his hand to help him up the stairs to the slide, she realized something was up.

“Grace mama!”

“小弟弟的手指怎么了 Xiao didi de shouzhi zenme le?”

“What’s wrong with little brother’s fingers?

Many of the children in our circles refer to me as “Grace mama” or “Rose mama.” (Cute, huh?)  This particular little girl knows me as Grace’s mom, as she and Grace were preschool classmates a number of years ago.  She was also part of an enrichment class where I taught English and has been to our home with her mother a couple of times for holiday events.

In response to her question about Josiah’s fingers, I gave her what is now becoming my standard explanation for children:

“He was born missing his left hand; it just didn’t grow in his birth mom’s tummy. But he’s ok – he’s healthy and smart, and he can do the things other one-year olds can do.”

I’ve had the opportunity to have this discussion with curious little ones a few times now.  At this point they are usually satisfied, unphased, and ready to get back to playing.  But this little gal considered my words, and then for whatever reason began to shout repeatedly:

“小弟弟没有手 xiao didi mei you shou! 太奇怪了 tai qi guai le!”

“Little brother doesn’t have a hand!  It’s so weird!”

After a few such shouts, and when it was clear she had no intention of calming down, I pulled her aside and said: “Yes, little brother was made a little differently, but shouting is not polite.”  And then in a rather serious tone, I told her firmly, “That’s enough.”

I really thought that would be it.  But around this time, one of my girls pulled up Josiah’s left sleeve so that the girl could see for herself that all this was really no big deal.

That’s what brought about the puking gestures and the rather over-the-top behavior I described at the start of this post.

As I reflect on this experience, I have a lot of compassion for this little girl.  I imagine that she has her share of social struggles, and it seemed clear that her mother (who I spoke with later) didn’t know how to handle her.  Thankfully, as the girls and I began to pack up to go, the little girl became more subdued.  She seemed to realize that her behavior had chased her playmates away.  Her demeanor allowed me to have a more positive goodbye, and I had a chance to talk with her about not needing to be uncomfortable around those who are different.

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the boy in the red sleeper (thoughts on adoption)

I can’t get this image out of my mind . . . the little boy, nearly two years old, in a red sleeper.  His face is turned away from me, and he is rocking on all fours, rhythmically, soothing himself somehow with the sensation of his head hitting the floor, again, and again, and again.

I want to go to him, but there is a glass window in between us which separates his room from mine.  And my arms are full as it is, with another little boy dressed in his own flannel sleeper.   He cries each time I try to set him down.

So I won’t set him down anymore . . . at least not until volunteer hours are over at 11:00.

This orphanage is better than most.  The kids are warmly dressed.  They are well fed.  There are clean toys to play with, a comfortable mat to play on, and a neat row of cribs with quilts for each child.  There are volunteers who visit regularly to hold and play with the children.  The older children have the chance to go to school in orderly classrooms with kind teachers.  Special visitors come to bring treats, and sometimes the kids go on outings to McDonalds or for pizza.

But it’s an institution.  The room I visited that day had fifteen children around the age of one year old.   Some are healthy, but some have coughs and colds, and others have more serious medical concerns.  There are two caregivers this day, and two volunteers, so I’m sure the ratio of a caregiver to child is far better than many places around the world.  But it’s still not nearly enough, especially when it’s time for all fifteen to have their bottle, be changed, and put down for a nap.   To be held or rocked while being fed is a luxury these babies seldom experience.  Children lay alone on their backs, and stuffed toys serve to prop up bottles until each child gets their fill.  On a previous visit a friend made the comment: “How it must affect their minds and hearts as they grow, to be just one of so many.”

Yes.  Indeed.

I look through the glass again . . . the little boy in the red sleeper continues to rock, and another little one stands facing me, face scrunched up, crying . . . crying . . . crying.  He persists in his cry, a sign he has not yet given up hope that there is comfort to be found.  I’m glad for that.  Two others his size toddle over to bring comfort.  One pats his back, the other pats his head.  I smile at the sweet scene of little caregivers hardly old enough to pat a back without losing balance themselves.  And were it all taking place in a MOPS group, moms would laugh while grabbing for cameras, all the while praising their little ones for being such good friends.  But here, such precious moments feel different.  The boy stops crying, but whether he is comforted or just distracted, I am not sure.

I ride my bike home, taking in the scenes of the city, stopping for a moment by the canal to try to process it all.  But today, as is true for every other day, there are no simple conclusions.  I think of my daughters’ origins and their lives now,  so vastly different from what I’ve just seen.  I think of our Josiah, miles away in another of China’s many orphanages, and hope that someone held him while he drank his morning bottle.   I look around at the energy and noise of the city and think of the complexity of the socio-economic and cultural forces which have led to what I saw this morning.  The sheer magnitude of the orphan crisis is staggering.  The problem is great.  The numbers are huge.  Solutions are only partial.

It is the wait for Josiah, I know, which causes me to feel and experience all of this so deeply.  I have tried to insulate my heart from the pain and agony of the wait.  I try to set safe and realistic estimates for when we can expect to hold that little chubby wonder in our arms and welcome him home.  I try not to think too much about his life in an institution, for although I have been told and trust that he is under good care, I also know that an institution is no place to grow up.   It’s these bi-weekly visits to the orphanage that so definitively cut through my resolve, intensifying the longing I feel to care for my own son. But though the visits bring heartache, they also expand my heart to love more deeply and effectively.  It is a gift to have the opportunity to be a part of these children’s lives, and has been one of the greatest blessings of these recent months.

I read an article today, written by an adult adoptee, expressing some disdain with what she sees as a trendy modern adoption movement.  And though I agree with many of her points, it’s hard to know what to do with such criticism.  There are certainly realities in the adoption ‘industry’ which are nauseating.  But at the same time, adoption is my hope and prayer for these little lives I see each week.  There are a handful of kids in this orphanage who I know have families who are waiting to bring them home, longing to embrace them and celebrate their lives.  When I see these sweet kids each week, I am beyond thankful to know that this is true.  A few weeks ago when I learned that one little gal with CP has a family coming for her, my heart smiled all day long.  This is good.  A glimpse of His redemption.

And yet, the image of that little one in the red sleeper, rocking alone with no comfort, is the stark reality of many orphans around the world.   It’s a sickening reality.  And there are – literally – millions like him.  Certainly, the current adoption scene is flawed and is not a perfect cure to the orphan crisis worldwide.  Another blog post I read recently really hit the nail on the head:

 “Is adoption the answer? Not in the long term. Adoption is chemotherapy to the cancer of the orphan crisis. And like chemo, it is painful and sickening and makes your hair fall out and sometimes it doesn’t even work. In a perfect world, there would be no adoption. There would be no need.

But our world is far from perfect. 
And this imperfect world is full of orphanages full of children.”

I don’t really have romanticized views of the adoption process, as far as the way that it practically plays out in the midst of economic, cultural, and sinful complexities of our broken world. And yet . . .

I find adoption itself profoundly beautiful.  I rejoice that the Lord has given this provision for his children and marvel that this is but an earthly reflection of our own adoptions, as sons and daughters of the King.  As John Piper says, because adoption at the horizontal level is rooted in adoption in the vertical level of God adopting us, “adoption is greater than the universe.”

Yes.  Indeed.