What it Means to be a Father

What it Means to be a Father

It was early morning when the plane landed in Rome. Due to the airline scheduling the layover there was a short one; while the plane was refueled a side door was opened to let fresh air into the Ethiopia airlines jet that was taking me to Addis Ababa, the capital city of this east African country.

There, I would meet my new son.

My wife Karen and I had been waiting for almost a year for this little four-year-old boy named Fasil. We had become familiar with Cheryl Carter-Shotts in Indianapolis and through her agency, Americans For African Adoptions, in Addis Ababa, we had viewed pictures she had sent of orphaned children there. One child in particular stood out.

In the picture he stands near a wall. He holds a card bearing his name in front of him in block print. He seems shy, but that shyness is overcome by his grin, which is broad and beautiful, and his eyes, which are dark and mischievous. When Karen and I see his face, we both get the sense that this is our boy. Our Fasil. 

We were on a shopping excursion to Iowa City two years earlier when my wife had hit me, rather squarely between the eyes, with a question.

"So,” she said, “What do you think about adopting a child?”

My mind had been elsewhere and I have to admit that my first response was no. Emphatically, no . We had three wonderful kids who were all out of diapers. I had a great job working as a writer/desktop publisher for the hospital in Pella. I was feeling, for the first time in years, like we were finally getting ahead, both emotionally and financially. My brother had passed away a couple of years prior, and I was still fighting some emotional demons over his death. I wanted, in a word, a little peace. Normalcy. Stability.

But the more my wife talked about it, (and she talked about it a great deal), the more I felt God tugging on my heart. The reasons for not adopting seemed to become more opaque; the reasons to adopt became more compelling.

My wife likes to think that she was instrumental in making me an adoptive dad. I like to let her believe that; she is at least partly right. But she and I both now know that this was a God thing. God took from me a rather stubborn, self-insulated heart and changed it. It is that simple. 

The plane lands in Addis Ababa, finally. The three other adoptive parents I have traveled with and I are completely exhausted. We have been on the plane for almost 24 hours, and the idea of breathing real air and eating something other than plane food is giving me a second wind.

At the airport, we are met by two other adoptive moms who had arrived a week earlier to help process paperwork and make daily visit to the courthouse to keep our adoption files moving.

In Ethiopia, if you aren’t persistent, your paperwork gets shuffled to the bottom, your reservations are cancelled, or they give your plane seats up to someone else. Taking part in that bureaucratic system means you have to be relentless. “Yes,” you have to tell the airline officials, “I am still planning on flying back to America in a week.” “Yes,” you repeatedly explain, “I am planning on keeping my hotel room again tonight.” “Yes,” you say with a sigh, “I am adopting this boy from an orphanage.”

Yes, yes, yes. Please listen to me.

It is the paperwork that is the problem. The people for the most part are wonderful. They are gracious, forgiving, and eager to help you out. They have so little, and would give you whatever they have.

Having visited a few cultures, I am beginning to learn that every culture reflects something of God’s image in them. From the Ethiopians, I learn that God is gracious. I see this very much in my son Fasil.

We travel down dusty streets, over bumpy roads in the city to get to the orphanage. I learn that Addis has no city plan. The streets are, for the most part, unnamed, and seem to weave directionless through the city.

I have to travel by taxi to the orphanage a number of times before I would even consider trying to get there myself.

Our taxi driver is a special friend to both the orphans and the orphanage. He is trusted; his name is Salaume (Sally-oom). Only trusted drivers are allowed to take us to its gates. There are people in the city that could not be trusted knowing where a small orphanage exists; there are unscrupulous people who take children from the streets and sell them into labor or worse. We are careful not to use any but our trusted Salaume as our driver.

Salaume honks the horn of his blue and white Lada at the gate, which is opened by the gatekeeper, an elderly man with white-bristle beard. Although the weather is in the seventies, he has a sweater and jacket on. I remember that seasonally, it is late spring in Addis and it is considered cold weather. I am wearing khakis and a t-shirt and I am perspiring. I am nervous. I am meeting my son for the first time.

The gate shuts behind us and we exit. I am directed back to the boy’s rooms in the back of the orphanage home.

After being in the bright sun, the room is dark. As my eyes adjust, one of the adoptive moms who has been here for a week directs me to the bunk where Fasil is sleeping. He is slowly rising, just beginning to wake.

I am a little worried. Will he know me? We have sent pictures of our family, our home, our dog. We want him to know us. We have heard that he keeps his little photo album with him in his bed; he sleeps with it under his pillow. I have grown a goatee since the photos were taken.

Will he know me? Will he be scared of his new father? Will he…

He sits up, sees me as I walk toward the bunk. He seems so tiny. He is supposed to be five years old; he looks three. He scoots to the edge of the bed as I approach, and a smile begins to break across his face, and my heart is relieved. He reaches out and I take him in my arms and he hugs me like he has been waiting for me to arrive for a year, which it has been. It has been a year of waiting for this little boy.

And he clings to me.

It is hard to believe, standing there, holding this little boy who is my son. He is my son. 

There are about 30 children at the orphanage, about half Fasil’s age or a little older, the other half toddlers and babies. It is a small orphanage, hidden behind walls like many of the homes in this part of the city.

There seems to be an almost fortress-like mentality in the buildings here. Addis is the capital city of one of the poorest countries in Africa, and crime is high. The average pay for a worker there is only $20 to $30 per month.

The children at this orphanage may be among the more blessed of their peers; they have a roof over their heads, three stomach-filling meals (not quite square meals, as protein and meat are hard to come by), and a safe area to play.

We see other children on the streets, which are almost always filled with old cars, taxis, buses, and pedestrians. Pedestrians everywhere. There seems to be no quiet, no safety, no places for children to play. Everyone is busy working to stay alive; who has time to play?

There are the middle income and the wealthy here too. We see evidence of them occasionally in the streets, as when a dark Mercedes goes by. But these are rarities. For the most part, there is little sign of the lifestyles that we Americans find everyday, normal, and mundane. 

In the orphanage, Fasil and his buddies Tesfaye and Wandye are playing soccer. I join in. I join in whenever I can. I feel like I have so much to catch up on in his life.

I see that for his size, he is a good soccer player. I see that he sits quietly with the other children when they eat. I see that he likes to be wherever I am. I see he enjoys that I tuck him in when he takes his afternoon nap.

It is hard to leave the orphanage and return to the hotel when evening comes. I just want him to know that I am his father. That I will be that way, God willing, forever. That he is going to be leaving for America with me soon. His English is limited. How much does he really know about how much his life is going to change? 

The hotel room is small. I have a hard time sleeping there. At three o’clock in the morning, I can hear a muezzin calling out a prayer at a nearby Muslim mosque. His voice whines and holds phrases from his faith and dogs bark in the still air. I step out to my mattress-sized balcony and see one of the hotel guards walking near the walled entrance to the hotel, an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, his footsteps clumping lightly and crisply against the concrete walkway.

I just want to go home. 

And that day finally does come. After an afternoon celebrating with cake and candy at the orphanage, as well as some tears from those who are left behind, we begin to pack up belongings.

I have given Fasil a cross necklace that I purchased in an Addis market. He had jumped into my arms when I had arrived at the orphanage and pointed to the cross, then to his own neck. I gladly turned it over to him.

Later, before we left, one of the older girls was crying in another room as we prepared to leave. All of the adoptive parents had given her hugs, assured her that she would be leaving for America herself in just a few short months, but to no avail. She was disconsolate.

Fasil had beckoned to me, pointing at the necklace around his neck, urging me to untie it, which I did. I then followed him to his old bedroom where the teenage girl, Helania, was sitting by his bunk.

He hands her the necklace. They hug and cry. I stand there, feeling like I am the most blessed parent in the world, to have a son that would give away a gift. On the way to the airport, all the children stare out from the car at a world many of them have only seen glimpses of in their lifetime. They are excited and wound-up a bit from all the sugar they ingested at the party.

We wait in the airport for what seems like hours to get processed to leave and all the children begin to settle down. I can’t believe how well they handle all this.

That thought strikes me again when we lift off in the Ethiopia Airlines jet that will again make a tarmac stop in Rome, then on to Newark, New Jersey. None have ever been on a plane; the closest many have seen a jet is the dot in front of a vapor trail in the sky. Yet when the plane lifts off, there is no fear, no crying.

They look out the plane window, enchanted. The airline food is gourmet to them. The adventure is enthralling.

My thoughts are many miles away. Iowa. My family. Our family , I think, looking over at where Fasil finally sleeps beside me, his head on my leg, his body fetal-positioned on the seat. An elderly Muslim woman, wrapped in traditional Ethiopian dress, fusses over him, covering him with a skimpy airline blanket. She can’t help it. 

By the next afternoon, the adventure is wearing thin. Fasil and I have split from most of the rest of the group. We take two of the orphans, Salima and Tsegaye, to Chicago, where an airline attendant takes them on to their final stop in Ohio.

Now, it is just Fasil and I. The final leg of the journey is a series of images. Fasil making faces, first of distaste, then joy, the first time he eats ice cream. The stewardess asking about Fasil, then allowing us to go up to cabin of the plane as we journey from Chicago to Des Moines. Bobbing and weaving, Fasil listens to my portable CD player as I try to keep him awake for the last twenty minutes before we land.

But he can’t stay awake. Exhaustion takes over. His head droops, and as we come in for the landing, he is asleep.

I hear later from Karen that Fasil was something of a celebrity on the plane. Fasil and I were seated in the back of the commuter that brought us to Des Moines. By the time he and I exited the plane, many of the people were talking about him or talking to Karen. “They’re coming,” they said. “He’s so beautiful,” they said.

And then, we were on the walkway, and then, we saw them. Then we were being hugged. Then, and only then, we were home. At first he was quiet and stayed close to me. It had been such long journey for such a little boy. It seemed so overwhelming, even to me, to be back home.

Now, just a few months later, it is as though he has never not been part of our family. 

There is a passage in Ephesians 1 that says that God chose us before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. Verse five reads, “In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will -- to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.”

That passage hits me deeper now.

I picture Fasil, weary, hungry, sleepily waking, arms reaching out to me.

Now, I picture myself, weary of the world, hungry for love, in a world that keeps my heart and soul in a dulled sleep. And then I am awakened, as I must be, to the picture of God, who adopted all of us, as his heirs. Who holds out his arms. Who holds us. Who would travel any distance, endure anything, even death, to be with us.

And I have just the beginning of an understanding of what it means to be a father.  

UPDATE:  This story was written 2 years ago. The Huizinga family has grown in wonderful ways since Fasil first came home.

Black, White and the Cornrow In Between

Hair Care, Culture and Pride