This is part of a 5-part series in the run-up to Orphan Sunday.
Each post will be a full or partial chapter from my soon-to-be-released Lily Was the Valley. Stay tuned for details before the end of the series on how to pre-order your copy. Today’s chapter (portions of which may have been posted on a former blog long ago) is:
“Adoption’s Beginnings: Conflicted to Say the Least.”
Now hot, now cold. Or, To alternate.
I loved a girl.
Kitty was the most mysterious girl in all of second grade. Her eyes could capture a boy’s soul with a glance. She even spoke to me once.
But I do not mean that girl.
Nor do I mean the flautist in my sixth-grade band. My budding love for tall, smashing Dawn was slightly less childish, but my world barely bordered the worlds in which she would soon be starring. Jazz band, tap dancing, the cool boys. Cool boys didn’t wear Huskies.
I do not mean that love.
I am not speaking, either, of my youthful love for my high school girlfriend, nor of my pretended love for the list of girls I obtusely joked about liking during the same time.
The girl is none of them.
The girl is not even my wife, though our love is real and true, spanning decades, transforming. I am not speaking here of that love.
I loved a different girl.
It was not love at first sight, for never had I seen her. I loved her without sight.
A love skeptic, practically, taken by surprise. Blindsided.
Blindsided by love at no sight.
* * *
Adopting had not been my idea.
My wife had been thinking about adoption since she was a teenager, and even while dating we’d discussed it a few times. Adopting sounded fine to me, and when she continued mentioning it after marriage and after we had kids, it still sounded fine. But I considered it something for the future. Someday, sure, let’s adopt.
But one day Tammy pressed a little. The whole family had been discussing adoption quite often of late, and our four-year-old daughter had been regularly praying that God would make it happen. “Honey,” Tammy asked, “are you seriously up for adopting? Honestly, truly? I mean, are you okay if I start researching adoption agencies that we could use?”
I looked at her. I had been thinking it over. I had no real objections, no reasons it absolutely had to be later rather than now, so I innocently ignited her dry tinder with two words:
Within hours, pamphlets, packets, and portfolios came flying in from all over the country. The kitchen table listed dangerously.
“Oh, you meant, like, right now, did you?”
Whereas I might take days weighing the pros and cons of a pair of shoes, research for Tammy did not entail sitting around on one’s brains all day.1 Research was an action verb. She looked at me with a twinkle and shot back, “Why not?”
* * *
It’s the director of adoption services from our adoption agency. She’s never called me before. It’s a sunny spring day, and the windows and both sunroofs of our borrowed silver minivan are wide open. I have parked on the side of the road to take the call, and my wife is passing out snacks to our children—ages seven, five and one—in the back.
“Mr. Johnson, I have a little girl for you.”
“Are you joking?” I hear myself ask, grinning. As if the director might reply, You got us, Mr. Johnson. We just love prank-calling our waiting families.
I swivel to face the passenger seat, cover the phone, and, still grinning, mouth one word in a silent shout: “Referral!”
Raised brows and a blank stare.
Jabbing my finger toward the phone, I mouth it again, slower. Still nothing. My wife, absolutely unhampered in any other mode of communication, is a hopeless lip reader. Yet, unaccountably, I mouth my capitulation to her as well. “Never mind!”
I go back to the call and she goes back to the snacks. I learn the little girl’s special need—a cleft soft palate, no cleft lip—and the province where her orphanage is located.
With my question, “When was she born?” my wife is finally in cahoots. I catch a view of her hands flapping. We’ve been waiting for this a long time. The joy spreads to her feet, her arms, her whole body. She narrowly misses ejecting from the vehicle entirely.
Another final question or two and I hang up.
My wife is crying. I am crying.
The kids cry, “Why are you crying?”
We explain, and they get excited too. Our crying turns to laughing: a mysterious sister-to-be has become real. Her arrival is near.
Even the one-year-old is laughing.
It was pure fun, that call.
April 15. Tax day in the United States. We took the call in Texas but had spent the previous four tax days out of country, so April 15 for us had already begun to lose some of its usual consequence. Now it was gone for good. Henceforth, April 15 would be Lily Day. The day we got the call. The day an idea—that we would add to our family via special needs adoption from the People’s Republic of China, our second home—became reality. We were matched.
We got the van back on the road and drove, madly scanning for wireless so we could download the referral email. We found an open network in some parking lot and gazed wonderingly at three pictures of a girl who had not yet been named Lily when they were taken. In the next two days, we would forward translated documents and measurements to our pediatrician, await her medical opinion, and submit our official written acceptance letter. Not until then would the referral become the official match.
But grinning and crying there in our sunny van, we already knew.
It was gonna be love.
* * *
Or was it?
I had the dubious distinction of falling in love with my wife three years after I’d married her. We’d been at a retreat where my heart came so alive and felt so raw that I wondered it didn’t burn a hole through my chest and fall to the street. Every breath pressed me up against a world I’d never known existed. Feeling everything, I saw how accustomed I was to feeling next to nothing.
“Do you mean to tell me that you live like this all the time, Tammy? Like, you know exactly what you feel all the time, without having to stop and think about it?”
She laughed at me. “Yes, dear, of course. I am a woman.”
I couldn’t believe some people—men or women—had been walking around their whole lives like that.
But we went home, and the boil subsided. The old me returned. I just wasn’t the passionate, or compassionate, type.
I’d always held my wife’s compassion, on the other hand, in a bit of awe. For instance, when it came to orphans, she could sit down to look at webpages full of children waiting for families…and actually feel things. Not me. I generally had one emotion looking at pages like that: overwhelmed. There were thousands of such kids. Far too many to feel anything for them individually. Tammy would look into the eyes of a little face and be filled with compassion. I saw strangers. Kids I didn’t know, far removed from me.
I couldn’t imagine crying over one of them, and logic ensured I never would. For how could tears for one not highlight how all the rest were being ignored? And not just from that webpage but from countless others like it? There was no way to feel compassion for one child because I knew I couldn’t feel compassion for all of them. I could gaze at children with missing limbs, a cleft lip, or cerebral palsy and be sobered or grow pensive; but I never experienced heartbreak as Tammy did.
For the most part I felt nothing.
Had I seen a picture of Lily before Lily Day, I would not have taken special note of it. I would not have thought her especially beautiful. I was excited the first time I saw her picture because someone had just told us she was ours. But, like after the marriage retreat, excitement faded. I was as taken with imagining the process behind the scenes that had whittled down those endless pages to one child as I was with the child herself.
Will I be able to love this child like I love Enoch, Haddie, and Elijah?
I didn’t know.
Even while our firstborn, Enoch, had grown in my wife’s belly, I’d not been able to predict what I would feel at his birth. It took that first glimpse to bring the tears that I had honestly not known would come or not. And of course the births of Haddie, our daughter, and Elijah, our made-in-China boy, moved me, too.
But ahead of time? Feelings remained just out of reach. With Lily, all we had were a few pictures. Yes, we knew she was eating, drinking, growing, crawling, teething. But she did not feel real. I couldn’t help but think about how—up until our match—she had been one among nameless thousands. We couldn’t see her, nor would we see her until we went to sign the final papers. What would I feel up until that time? Would adoption lead to genuine feelings of love in me?
I had no idea.
There was every chance I might end up feeling nothing at all.
End of excerpt. Details on how to pre-order Lily Was the Valley will follow in an upcoming post.
1 A phrase I borrow from Mr. Henry F. Potter’s summation of Ernie the taxi driver’s job in It’s a Wonderful Life.