For many years, I dreamed of adopting. Four biological kids and a few international moves over a spread of 6 years made it seem daunting, if not impossible. But finally, the season came when our family felt ready to extend our welcome to another child. Our exposure to orphans and children with disabilities in the country where we live, Azerbaijan, made us certain that we wanted to adopt a child with special needs.
As we worked on our dossier, I can remember looking over the long list of medical conditions that we needed to say “yes” or “no” to, and feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of dealing with many of them in our current context, where health care is substandard and many therapies and resources are nonexistent. Nevertheless, we checked “yes” to nearly all, trusting that God knew our capacity and would bring us the right child. I also remember feeling anxious about needing to “choose” a child, or to turn down a child that was referred to us. We asked God to orchestrate these details and decided that the first child we heard about would be the one we would say yes to.
We started our home study in Spring 2015, and by Feb 2016, our dossier had been approved for adoption by the country of Georgia government. We were told to anticipate a 6-18 month wait for a referral. A few days later, our adoption agency, Children’s House International, posted information about a “waiting child” on their monthly email update. It was the first time that Georgia had given permission for information about adoptive children to be publicly shared in this way. After seeing a grainy photo and reading a short report about a sweet little girl with the pseudonym “Mia”, we decided to ask for more information… Within 2 weeks the referral was completed, and we learned that “Mia” was really “Mariam”. This seemed a sweet sort of confirmation for us: when I was pregnant with my fourth child, we had chosen the name “Mariam” if the baby were to be a girl. “Jacob” was our fourth, and now we indeed had our “Mariam”!
Because our home in Azerbaijan is just an 8 hour drive from the orphanage in Georgia where Mari was living, we were able to visit her 3 times (each for several days) before we brought her home in August 2016. The orphanage was home to about 50 babies and young children with special needs; at age 6, Mari was the oldest and only ambulatory child at the home. We were consistently surprised by the warm care and attention given by the orphanage staff. One woman, in particular, had shown particular love and attention to Mari, taking her along on family vacations and bringing her home for holiday celebrations. She had spent weeks with Mari in a Turkish hospital when Mari was sent there for an airway operation. This dear woman gave us dozens of photos and videos of Mari from infancy until present; this, along with her love for Mari, has been an indescribable gift.
We continue to visit Georgia periodically, for vacations or basketball tournaments for our older children. About 2 years after Mari’s adoption, we decided to visit the orphanage, and called a day earlier to ask if we could come by. When we arrived, they had prepared a small party, and had invited several former orphanage employees and doctors who had cared for Mari to celebrate with us. Later in the evening, the former orphanage director, who had been in charge during most of Mari’s stay, invited us to his home, along with several people who were significantly involved with her. It was a delightful time of toasting, eating, and expressing thanks to one another for the care and love given to a girl that we mutually adored. Many happy tears were shed.
Mari’s primary medical diagnosis was severe tracheal stenosis. She was born prematurely, and likely developed tracheal stenosis because of a prolonged time on a ventilator. Surgeries to correct this were unsuccessful, and so she spent her first 7 years with a tracheostomy tube. One year after adoption, she underwent a major airway reconstruction in the US, and 6 months later was breathing through her mouth and nose! She has continued to do well.
Mari is also profoundly Deaf and only began to learn sign language after joining our family. Her language deprivation over 6 years significantly impacted her cognitive capacities, but she continues to grow in understanding and using American Sign Language (ASL), as does the rest of our family. At the time of our referral, I remember thinking, “How in the world will we manage to learn ASL in a context like this?” I remembered back to my college waitressing days when I had a coworker who was studying ASL interpretation. I decided to reach out for advice, not even knowing if the 15-year-old email address I had for her was still valid. From 12 time zones away, she responded within the hour… and long story short, packed up her family and moved to Azerbaijan to live with us for our first year with Mari! Miracles upon miracles.
Not only our family, but our entire international community has been impacted by Mari’s life and loving personality. Countless people have learned some sign language in order to communicate with her. Mari is deeply compassionate, and liberal with her affection. She has a special way of making almost everyone feel like “her favorite”. Last week was Mari’s 10th birthday. Though a quarantined birthday wasn’t her plan, we had lots to celebrate. She breathes easily; she communicates readily. She is happy, healthy, and home.