OK, This one’s probably going to be the toughest. In this episode we finally meet our daughter who we’ve waited some four years for. There are some details about her that we haven’t made public, which certainly played into our first few days with her, but have since become fairly inconsequential. You’ll see what I mean.
We wake up Monday morning in Changsha. It’s still Sunday evening in Missouri. We’re up early, but not so early as we fear with the time change would have us. So it’s 5:30 a.m. and we flip the tube on to catch the last quarter of the Seattle v. Chicago game. Then, we watch the Jets’ surprising defeat of New England. All this is doing a fairly good job of distracting us from the monumental life change we are about to undertake.
At halftime, we bundle up in our sweaters and fleece to go down to the lobby to get to our breakfast buffet. We’re unsure of what to expect. There’s supposedly western breakfast available. In fact, there seem to be several styles. Their idea of which constitute western and which are Asian is questionable. Along the western side there are sausages and bacon, French toast and cereal, fried eggs and dumplings? Meat buns? Steamed buns? Polenta cake? Where does that come from? I suppose it isn’t China. Anyway, all this non-western western food is bringing the reality of what we’re doing a little too close to the surface, so we head back to the room to warm up and watch the final death throes of the Patriots.
At 10 a.m. we bundle up to meet our guide, Richard, in the lobby. Jim and Cora are there as well. Jim and Cora got news that their daughter and her caretakers weren’t able to get an early train to Changsha, therefore she will be delivered to them at the hotel. This frees them up to take pictures for us and act as support that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. Jim’s idea of support seems to be to make fun of Angie. He takes a few cracks, but we’re all pretty stiff. The anxiety is a little high.
It has started snowing; something we’re told doesn’t really happen all that often in Changsha. The locals are bundled up like they’re in the Alaskan tundra. I would guess it’s about 27 degrees Fahrenheit, maybe even slightly warmer.
The five of us pile into a taxi van to brave the Changsha traffic. Richard explains to us that there are two types of drivers in China, crazy and crazier. The Changsha traffic is kind of like the pictures I’ve seen of the trading floors of Wall Street just before the final bell. Nobody uses lanes, traffic signs seem to be merely suggestions that no one follows, and the drivers can’t stand to be stopped for more than a second. If you’re stopped, you change lanes. It doesn’t matter that no one is moving in the next lane over, you just push your way through there anyway. If there’s no other place to go, just drive in the oncoming traffic. If you can’t get to the opposing lanes, just pull up on the sidewalk and drive to your destination from there. If you’re a pedestrian, be ready to jump. The drivers don’t care if you’re softer than their car. In fact, they see that as their advantage.
We somehow survive the Changsha traffic to find ourselves delivered at the Hunan Adoption Services building. It’s this fairly insignificant looking office structure tucked in behind apparently more important institutions. We walk into this cave-like industrial structure directly to the elevators, no inside lobby. Our hearts are really beating now.
All we’re doing today is picking up the children. There is no paper work being done, this is all about the families meeting the children. There will be several other families in the same room receiving their children.
It’s important to note here just what Angie and I know about Maire before meeting her. We had gotten sick of waiting for the traditional process, so we had gone to the waiting child list to find a child we felt we’d like to adopt. The waiting child list is made up of children older than two and those born with birth defects or deficiencies. Cora sent us Maire’s profile from a group called Love Without Boundaries, an advocacy group for special needs children who find children and try to get them adopted faster. Sometimes, as with Maire, they place them into foster homes until they are adopted.
Angie and I had discussed it at the time and felt that we were really the perfect candidate family for a special needs child. We once adopted a blind and deaf dog that had many other problems. That dog was the best dog we ever owned. We’re both extremely patient people. Angie chooses to work with three-year-olds. Plus our shared laid-back personalities just told us it made sense.
Maire’s special needs did not seem that severe initially. We were told she was developmentally delayed, which was no surprise for a special needs child. That’s no surprise for any orphan. We then got word that she had been diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy. Even before we met her seemed as if any CP was very mild indeed, if not entirely inaccurate. In the pictures we received she did seem to hold some tension in her arms and hands, but she seemed to improve as she got older. She only started walking in August or September. She turned three in December, so that tells you quite a bit about how delayed she was. Then in December we got news that she had been diagnosed with pediatric epilepsy, not CP. This came as a bit of a shock to us, but did not rock us in our resolve that she was the right child for us. We realized that this meant it was going to be a more difficult transition for her and us than we had initially thought, but we figured we could work through it.
So now, we’re about to meet our little girl. We know she hasn’t had an incredibly happy life thus far, but in the past couple of months she’s really progressed and we’ve even seen a picture of her smiling. Before the elevator even opens we hear her crying. We’ve no reason to believe it’s her. She’s not even supposed to be in the room before we get there, but we know. The doors open and we see the words “Hunan Adoption Admin…” on the wall, we don’t look long enough to read the rest. We look over to our right and see a very unhappy stiff little girl in a white winter parka with multi-colored polka dots on it. She’s crying with tears running down her cheeks. There’s no doubt it’s our Maire. She looks just like her pictures. She’s tiny. Her mouth is locked open in a strain. Her face is still beautiful, her eyes sparkling from the tears.
They shuffle us into the room quickly. There’s a sense of embarrassment from the slight breach in protocol of not having us settled and ready to meet our daughter before we see her. Richard had suggested earlier we chose one of us to receive the child, so she can imprint on whomever might be the primary caregiver. There was no question that it would be Angie. She’s home much more than I. Plus, I didn’t want her the put on her angry eyes. Angie sits as they bring her over to us. We’re amazed to see her. The joy is palpable. Our smiles are too large. I shuffle out of the way, but not so far that I might be excluded.
Maire has never heard anyone refer to her by that name before. We’ve been calling her that for nine months. It’s the name given to her by Love Without Boundaries. We liked it so much we kept it. Her Chinese name is Chen Lou. Her foster family called her Chen Chen. We’ve decided to go with Maire Chen until she’s used to her new given name.
Maire shambles over to Angie. ‘Shambles’ is the right word, because she walks with such stiffness in her limbs. I suppose this is where someone felt CP might be an issue, but it doesn’t look like that to anyone who meets her that day and anyone she will meet during the rest of her time in China. She doesn’t seem to have any real issues with her motor skills, fine or otherwise. She just carries herself with such fear and an awkwardness that suggests she just hasn’t used her muscles enough.
Her face is in a perpetual grimace of concern. She whines pretty much constantly, but the tears and outright cries have subsided. The whines appear to be her only form of communication. We say “Ni hao, Chen,” a Chinese greeting, “Ni hao, Maire Chen. Ni hao.” She doesn’t appear to respond, but she goes to Angie as if she may know her.
She doesn’t close her mouth, and continues to whine despite the fact that she seems to be comforted by Angie. Because her mouth is perpetually open, she drools. There is a good deal of saliva coming out of her mouth. Her collar is soaked. She’s beautiful anyway, but Angie and I will confess to each other later that the amount of drool coming out of her mouth at that point initially concerned us. That combined with the extreme stiffness she displayed had us thinking that her problems were even worse than had been indicated to us. I was concerned, but never disappointed. My thoughts were that it would just be more difficult caring for her. My timetable for how quickly we could adjust shifted in my head. It would be a longer road, with more therapy than we might have anticipated. She was still our beautiful daughter.
Of course, another problem I had with the drooling that I never confessed to Angie, but she was likely to surmise from her own knowledge of me, was that I have a very sensitive gag reflex. We’ve never been able to adopt a dog breed that has been known to drool, because the drool just sends my gag reflex off. Again, that’s something I’ve never articulated to Ang, but I’m sure it was something we both considered each time we’ve adopted a pet. That day, however, my constitution was strong, and the drool didn’t bother me a bit. I didn’t even think about after a while, but I want it on record that the problem had occurred to me. We would later learn that our concerns about the drool were slightly misdirected.
As I’m watching Angie’s joy and Maire’s confusion, Richard taps me on the shoulder. I have to talk with him and the orphanage director about Maire’s medication. They hand me a bag full of stuff. Wow! There are a lot of drugs here. As you can imagine this adds to my concerns. They speak with each other in Chinese. There is a photocopy of what looks like a grocery list. Apparently this is the doctor’s prescription orders. They can’t read it. Doctors’ penmanship is even illegible in Chinese characters. Their chatter is getting more frenzied. You see, no one at the orphanage actually knows much about Maire because she’s been in foster care. I listen intently, as if I’ll catch a word or two. Unless they’re saying “I love you” to each other in Chinese, that’s not gonna happen.
After a failed attempt to call the doctor’s office and get the orders straight from the source, they call the foster mom. We’ll learn later why they were reluctant to call her. Most of the bag is filled with these purple boxes, but the director seems more concerned with the two bottles of pills. One is B6, obviously a vitamin supplement. The other is sodium valproate, which we’re told (and later confirm) is for her seizures. They’re not sure what the purple boxes are. Richard tells me, “It’s a Chinese herbal medicine.” When we start giving them to her later in the day they seem more likely to be M&Ms.
So the orders are 1 B6 a day, seizure medicine 3 times a day, Chinese herbal M&Ms 3 “pills” 3 times a day. That last one seems excessive.
Then, Richard interprets a list of questions that we have about Maire’s everyday life. What does she like to eat and drink? When does she nap? Where does she sleep? And a bunch of other things that we were pretty much asking just because he said we should ask them questions. It really doesn’t matter in this situation because the orphanage director doesn’t really know any of the answers to these questions, since Maire didn’t live at the orphanage, but rather with a foster family. She pretends to know the answers, or Richard makes it seem as if she does through his interpretation. Also, we may have obtained a lot more information about Maire than most families would normally have in that situation. I’m not saying where we got it, but I was just going through the motions so Richard and the orphanage people didn’t think we didn’t care. It’s also good to see if the answers match up with our information. But, really, I want to see my baby.
I miss her first five minutes with Ang while I’m dealing with the orphanage director, so I’m not really sure how all that went down. When I turn to them, Angie hands me Maire and it’s clear almost from the start that Maire chose her own parental bond. She studies me intently. While I was talking with the orphanage director, Angie had given her a picture of me. She holds it in her hand. Looks at it. Looks at me. Looks at the picture. Looks at me. She does this for a substantial amount of time. It feels like ten minutes. She can’t believe the man in the picture is actually holding her. I can’t believe I’m holding this little girl whose pictures I’ve been looking at for the past nine months.
She does this thing where she looks from side to side very quickly. Like she’s watching a tennis match with a jet-propelled ball. She does it when she’s tense, but she also does it as play. After a while, I feel like her looking between my picture and me becomes a game to her, although her amazement remains.
She continues to whine and drool. We find a washcloth and mop her mouth as quickly as it comes out. We hand her books and papers. Richard’s daughter Cindy draws amazing pictures for her. Cindy and Jim had held a drawing duel at dinner the previous evening, and she proved herself to be quite the artist. It’s through Cindy’s drawing that we discover the most effective soothing device for Maire—crinkly paper. The physical texture of things works too, but not like the texture of sound. She crumples a paper right up next to her ear, and her whines almost turn to cooing for a moment.
There are a few other formalities that need to be taken care of. We’re rushed into a room at one point to take her picture for her passport. But, the majority of the fine print will have its ‘i’s dotted and its ‘t’s crossed tomorrow. Well, I guess it will be more like its little houses will be roofed and its exit symbols will be double forked. That’s a little Chinese writing humor for you.
Sooner than seems appropriate, we are bundling Maire up to brave the unusually wintery Changsha weather. We emerge from the elevator cave, and it seems almost like stealing now that we’re shoving this kid into our van, piling in and driving away. We didn’t even give them anything. ‘Course, like I said, we’ll be back tomorrow for that part. That will be our last chance to back out, Richard says. We’ll have to take an oath not to abandon her at that point.
The ride back to the hotel is quiet. Maire seems quite put out by being in the car. She also seems very comforted to be in my lap. Yes, I said lap. These people don’t drive in lanes, heck they’re not even on the street half the time; you expect them to have car seats? She sucks on her hand most of the way home. She also seems quite enamored of Cindy, who unfortunately suffers from car sickness by the time we get back to the hotel. By then, Maire is mostly calm.
It’s at some point between meeting Maire and getting her into the car that Angie discovers the main source of Maire’s drool. She likes to store things in her mouth. I initially thought it was another comforting mechanism, but I think it’s because she doesn’t know she can spit stuff out. If she gets something in there she doesn’t like, she just holds it in there. By the time we get back to the hotel room and Angie fishes out the cracker she’d been given just before she met us, it had been in there for almost two hours. Angie’s gag reflex doesn’t fare as well as mine.
We decide to strip her clothes off her. The Chinese believe that they have very poor circulation, I guess, especially as children. They layer like their trapped in the arctic. Although it’s winter, it ain’t as cold as they’ve got this child wrapped. We remove her coat. She’s wearing a red sweater. Angie snaps a picture of her sitting in my lap. I look happier than Maire does. She doesn’t like getting undressed. Too much change. She doesn’t do well with change. Well, I’ve got news for you darling.
We take off her red sweater. She has a striped wool sweater under that, and there’s some sort of wool garment coming up over that sweater from her legs. We take off her jeans. They’re thick jeans, with some sort of inner quilt lining. Once we have the jeans off we can see the wool leggings. They are a pair of wool knit long underwear with a split in the crotch for easy… Let’s just say easy access. It isn’t custom in China to wear diapers, at least not for orphans. The jeans were probably put on special for us, since they had no split in the crotch. Or maybe they did. I can’t remember.
So we get the wool sweater and leggings off and she has one more layer under that. We get a diaper on her, put a onesie on her, a pink turtle neck and a pair of new regular American jeans. We think that should suffice for the hotel room. If she gets cold, we’ll turn up the heat. We’re Americans!
Just as we realize we have no idea what to do with her now, Richard calls. The Jim’s and Cora’s baby is here. We race to his room with Maire and the camera to capture their reactions. Now, this will be fun.
Stay tuned for Part IV.