Adoption Day – it’s the moment that you look forward to from the second you begin your adoption journey and receive notification that you’ve been matched with your child. Countless families find it difficult to prepare for this moment, as it’s impossible to know how your child will react in the situation. While some children run into their Forever Family’s arms right away, others may need time to process the loss of their old life as they transition into the new.
We knew it was going to be hard.
The sweet boy we’d been dreaming about for seven long months had been living in a foster home for the past three years. And from the reports both in his file and the ones we’d received in our updates, we knew that this shy and tentative boy was very well attached to his foster family.
We celebrated that our angel likely already knew the meaning of love, because we SAW love in his pictures, we saw love in his family’s eyes, and we EXPERIENCED the love his foster mama had for him as we read every word she wrote in each of her reports.
DJ definitely knew LOVE.
So we knew that taking him away from everything he’d ever known — not from a group environment where he’d never gotten to experience one-on-one attention, but from the home of a couple who loved him and another foster child from his orphanage so very well that he even slept in their bed each night — was going to be excruciating.
We’d asked in our update request if there was anything holding this precious foster family back from adopting this sweet boy themselves, and at the time, they just said they wanted Superhero 4 to have his own “true family.”
When we arrived at the civil affairs office for Gotcha Day, our guide and translator found out from the orphanage workers that DJ’s foster family was an older couple with biological children grown and out of the house who just loved children and took two at a time from the Wuhan orphanage to love and care for until they were adopted. The foster mama stayed home with the children and poured her entire life into them so that, even though she and her husband felt too old to raise these children again themselves, these children could experience LOVE.
Over the years, our little man lived with two different foster siblings and watched one of them leave for a forever family … all while he waited for his chance at “forever.”
But “forever” in fairytales is so different from the “forever” that happens in real life.
Because “forever” in real life means leaving behind to move ahead. And what this precious boy had to leave behind was an entire lifetime of love and care and attachment and relationship with a couple we will forever thank our God for giving to our boy.
All to move ahead with a family who didn’t look like him, didn’t speak like him, didn’t smell like him, didn’t KNOW him.
The hardest move of probably his entire life.
So when our family spotted the two nannies walk through the civil affairs door holding the boy we haven’t been able to stop thinking about for seven months, my heart nearly burst.
With joy for our family.
And with heartbreak for the loss of his.
As the nanny who brought him to the meeting place knelt down to introduce us to him, we all tried our hardest to give this precious boy a tiny bit of space. We found out that his foster mama had just dropped him at the orphanage earlier that morning, just hours before meeting us, and we couldn’t even imagine the kind of emotional roller coaster he was experiencing as one set of strangers took him away from his family and to another.
I could nearly feel my heart in my feet as I knelt down in front of the nanny who held our boy —the boy with the eyes so tender, so fragile, so scared, so broken, that I just wanted to close them and wrap them in love and transport them to a place months and months away from now to give him HOPE for a future I knew he couldn’t possibly understand.
But I couldn’t, and as Supersoldier videotaped and the boys and I knelt beside him, I could feel his fear and I could taste his loss.
His foster mama had placed a beautiful handmade silver bracelet around his wrist and sent him with a bag of treats and gifts. His clothes were clean, his hair was freshly cut and as he rejected the boys’ offers of banana puffs and cars and stuffed animals and snacks, I knew exactly what he wanted instead.
The woman he called his mama.
For two minutes, this boy they called “Long Long” let us just observe him and even gently touch the back of his hand, but when the nanny started introducing us as Mama and Baba and Ge Ge, his lip quivered and the flood gates opened as he cried for the only woman he’s ever known and loved: “Mama!”
My heart just broke for him. Superhero 2, who has more compassion for the pain of others than any other child I’ve ever met, began to cry. And Superman, without another word, immediately shut down and retreated.
I looked back at Supersoldier, and our eyes silently communicated what we knew we needed to do. He put down the camera, scooped up Superman, who was now sobbing, and took him to a corner chair, where he held him, loved on him and just let him grieve over the gamut of emotions we knew he might be experiencing in that moment.
I pulled in Superhero 2 close, and Superhero 1, the practical, logical, total rock of our little falling-apart team, stood up to grab tissues while two nannies, our guide and Superhero 2 and I sat on the floor with the little boy whose world had been thrown into total chaos.
With half the room erupting now in tears, our guide, who was a total God-send from the moment we met her, suggested we move DJ into the back play room, where the older boys and I could bond with him and she could take the nannies outside to ask my three single-spaced pages of questions. (You get one shot to ask questions. This former journalist wasn’t going to blow hers. :))
There, with the nannies out of sight, the older boys pulled out the slide and the piano and everything they could find to distract their new baby brother, and, without any other familiar person in sight, this precious boy who was still stiff and hysterical allowed me to pick him up for the very first time.
As I held him, my heart melted for us … and just broke for him — for his story, for what he’d been through that day, for the deep loss I knew he was experiencing again for the SECOND time in his life — and all I could give, all I could muster, were a few measly words that I kept whispering into his ear over and over again.
This is so hard!
You are so brave!
Wo ai ni. Chinese for “I love you.” Forever and ever and ever.
Nothing calmed him. Nothing distracted him. And over and over again, he kept looking over my shoulder and around the room and just crying out for Mama.
In my wildest dreams, I can’t even imagine that pain.
The boys continued trying to play with him and offer him snacks, and as they did, I just rubbed his back, held him close and prayed silently over his precious, breaking heart. I wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t offended. I was heartbroken for HIM … and simultaneously SO VERY GRATEFUL. Because I knew without a shadow of a doubt that, even as he walked this world an orphan, though his pain was great today, he’d had someone to show him love EVERY DAY.
What an incredible gift to have that kind of bond.
As I sent the boys to go check on Superman, who had curled up tightly in his daddy’s arms, I moved out to the room where we had first met. I sat on the couch, where Superhero 1 approached his new baby brother with his i-pod. For a moment, DJ stopped crying, and he looked at this bright yellow device in fascination.
Superhero 1 didn’t waste a moment taking advantage of the opportunity, and he immediately pulled up animated games that might distract his new brother for a moment.
I stole that moment of calm to make space on my lap for Superman, who I motioned from across the room to join us. Supersoldier brought him over, where he snuggled up beside us to meet really for the first time his baby brother. With four boys now on a lap and either side, I looked up at Supersoldier, who had spent his entire Gotcha Day experience loving on the first boy who ever walked through civil affair office doors. And I paused right there to thank God for that moment and thank God for that priceless man.
While my arms were wrapped around the boy whose world had erupted, the man God had given me as my best friend, teammate and partner in crime was loving on and comforting the boy who had just been reminded of the day his world erupted, too. Supersoldier told me later that after a few minutes of cuddling, Superman told his daddy that the reason he was crying is because it made him remember that he once had a mommy before me … and seeing DJ cry for his first mama made him miss his, too.
In all his wisdom, Supersoldier just held that boy we love so much tight and told him how much his mother loved him — that she loved him so much that she wrapped him in a blanket and placed him in the corner of a hospital ward in a place where he could receive the immediate life-saving surgery he needed in order to survive — all at great risk to herself. He retold Superman his story, and he told him how true love sacrifices self for the greater good.
“We don’t know your whole story, buddy,” Supersoldier told him, “and we maybe never will. But we do know this — your mama LOVED YOU. And so do we. And you are every bit as special and important and precious as each of your brothers. You and DJ just grew in our hearts instead of our bellies.”
That affirmation of love and belonging was all Superman needed to rebound, join the group and then joyfully jump into the distract-DJ game that all of us had been playing for the previous 30 minutes.
With three of four boys now sans tears, Supersoldier and I signed the official custodial paperwork (adoption registration and finalization isn’t until this morning) and followed our guide, who had graciously gathered everything we needed from DJ’s orphanage while we bonded, to the minivan that waited for us in the parking lot.
In China, there are no car seats. There are sometimes no seat belts. And there are no times when you do not fear for your life as your drivers are forced to play chicken with the merging cars and bicyclists that just don’t stop.
So I buckled up, pulled a still-sniffling DJ onto my lap and just held on tight as I prayed that we would make it long enough to experience our first day as a family of six.
Superman asked to sit next to DJ in the car, and, when he noticed how enamored he appeared to be with electronic devices, asked to use my phone.
From his place in the captain’s chair beside me, Superman turned on my cell phone camera and began snapping photos he could show his baby brother of himself. And at the exact moment he snapped his first photo, DJ stopped crying, looked into my eyes for the very first time and SMILED!
It literally took my breath away.
He looked at Superman. And then he looked up at me. And his eyes lit up and he smiled again.
I was just a puddle.
I squealed for the boys and Supersoldier to see this boy’s sweet smile, and when they appeared around the chair from their place on the back bench, he smiled again at them.
“Mom!” Superhero 2 exclaimed. “I was so sad inside because he was so sad missing his mama. But this smile makes me so happy and warm inside, and I’m so, so happy for him now!”
Superman giggled his infectious giggle and named himself the car ride photographer as he had the very important job of documenting DJ’s very first smiles inside our family.
The entire 15-minute ride back to the hotel, DJ smiled and observed and explored and giggled, and all of us who had prepared our hearts for MONTHS of total rejection and grieving just sat in awe.
Although we knew we were still at the very beginning of the journey, we knew it was God alone who could have transformed a devastated, grieving little boy into the content and contagiously happy creature now sitting in my lap. Even if for only a car ride home.
When we arrived back at the hotel, I prepared myself for another breakdown. Walking into a new room in a new structure with strange people was going to be scary, and I knew it could cement for him the goodbye he’d experienced earlier that morning.
But the boys, in all their brilliance, didn’t give him a chance to grieve. Within seconds, they’d busted out puzzles and Legos and books and toys, and they had him sprawled out on the bed with him just taking in all the entertainment they had to offer.
Supersoldier and Superhero 1 ran to the bank and the grocery store with our guide, and Superhero 2 and Superman stayed back in the room with DJ and me, where they looked at each other with twinkles in their eyes and then initiated DJ’s first pillow fight.
This boy who had experienced two different foster siblings but never older brothers paused momentarily, not knowing what to make of these two older boys tossing him pillows. But within seconds, he began laughing hysterically and immediately joined in on the fun.
For almost 20 minutes, these boys romped and wrestled and pillow fought their hearts out as we saw our first glimpses of our new boy’s fun-loving spirit and heart. His reports had described him as quiet, shy and very much against rough or loud activities.
Apparently until he had brothers.
Because it took all of five minutes for this boy to become the loudest and most raucous pillow fighter of the crew.
I just stood back and videotaped and allowed these brothers to bond the way our boys at home always have — through a little bit of physical play. They’re not big huggers, our superheroes, but they will romp and wrestle with each other all the live long day.
And the newest superhero didn’t waste a moment getting in on that crazy action.
By the time Supersoldier and Superhero 1 returned with water bottles and lunch (YUM, amazing dumpling cart down the way — we will definitely be visiting you again!), this boy’s shell had been cracked wide open, and he was a wild, free-playing spirit with an infectious laugh and a huge appetite.
He did have two small breakdowns during the day — moments where he looked around and realized that familiarity was nowhere in sight — but one lasted five minutes and one lasted 15, and he allowed me to hold him and love on him and snuggle with him during both. And although during the first one he called out for Mama, during the second, he just let me hold him and serve to fill her shoes.
As we ate our dumplings, Kathy, our guide, sat down to download all the information she had gathered from DJ’s nannies while we were bonding in the civil affairs office. She let me know that he took a nap every day from 12:30 to 3 p.m. and I should probably go put him down before she shared with me all the rest of the detailed information.
Not knowing what routines his foster mother had followed when putting him down for naptimes, or even where he napped, I just guessed from the notes about his co-sleeping and snuggled up in bed next to him.
I thought for sure we’d face Meltdown 3. After all, sleeping is a special and intimate thing, and I didn’t look or smell or snuggle like his foster mama did. But he snuggled up next to me, looked into my eyes and just smiled. He stuck his fingers in his mouth and within five minutes, fell fast asleep.
Supersoldier, who was snuggling on his other side, and I just stared at each other over the top of his snoring little head.
Seriously?! I mouthed at him. There is NO WAY that was that easy!
But it was.
Supersoldier took a nap with his newest son, and I carefully got up and strolled back in the other room, where I called Kathy to finish giving me all the information I needed about DJ’s diet, schedule and routine. I was still on Cloud 9 that this boy not only went to sleep at the drop of a hat but also apparently slept EVERY DAY for 2.5 whopping hours!
Until, that is, she told me what time he goes to bed every night.
Are you serious right now, foster mama? 10 p.m.! 10 p.m.?! You couldn’t have thrown this turns-into-a-pumpkin-after-7:30 girl a bone?! Supersoldier and I no joke go to BED by 9 p.m. most nights, and last week, we even crawled into bed at 7:30 after tucking in the superheroes! There is no stinking way we can keep these eyes open until 10 p.m.!
Kathy must have noticed the glazed over panic in my eyes, because she reached out to me and said, “You try 8:30. Then 8. That’s a good bedtime for a child his age.”
Only the other three superheroes, who ALL still go to bed between 7 and 7:30 every night, heard this comment … and Miss Kathy pretty much ruined my life.
“Wait, 8 is a good bedtime for a 3-year-old?!” Superhero 1 exclaimed. “I’m 11 and I still go to bed at 7:30!”
Our perfect, early-to-bed life is now ruined. Ruined, I tell you.
After Kathy gave us the rest of DJ’s diet and routine information, she left us in the hotel room to bond, where we kept this shy boy’s world very small by filling our hours with coloring and Lego constructing and card playing.
In order to not disrupt the awesome, happy flow God in all His goodness had graciously established all afternoon, we decided to hit up the Korean restaurant inside the hotel for dinner.
There, this boy who was said to have a small to medium appetite ate EVERYTHING, from the kimchi to the Korean beef to the watermelon to the lotus. In fact, when all the other boys were finished (and these boys eat like horses), he kept shoveling in even the relish dishes.
Like the perfectly made fit to this food-loving, new-dish-exploring team. <3
As we took the elevator back upstairs, Supersoldier and I prepared ourselves for the meltdown we were fully bracing for at bedtime. We knew that DJ co-slept with his foster mama, and although we planned to put him in bed with us, we knew that we weren’t her, and our routines were not her routines.
We offered the bathtub that the hotel staff had graciously brought to our room (which was much less scary than the hard-pounding shower), and his eyes lit up as he tried to jump right in.
Superhero 2 asked if he could help with bath time, and this proud big brother washed DJ’s hair and helped him in and out and, when I put on a new diaper and dressed him in new striped pajamas, hilariously commented, “Ahhhh, DJ looks like a little robber! How cute.”
After bath and books and teeth brushing (which he was NOT excited about) and prayers, we ALL tucked ourselves into bed at 8:30 … and, as he drifted off to sleep, this boy who was an orphan 24 hours before looked up at me, touched my face and smiled.
And I thanked God for His grace, His providence and His ability to make all things new.
Written by Michelle Cuthrell
Great Wall China Adoption is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization based in Austin, Texas. Since 1996, Great Wall has placed more than 8,000 children with forever families. Between the headquarters located in Austin, Texas and the sister office in Beijing, China, we work on behalf of families each day to be experts at exceeding China’s requirements and adoptive families’ expectations by staying updated on aspects of China adoption.