Abe, Celia, Charlie, Finn, and Kate
Let’s just be honest, shall we?
When I mentioned adoption 15 years ago, my husband simply said “no”. Then he said he’d pray. Then, when I showed him the beautiful face of a little girl with Down syndrome in South America waiting for her family, he told me “no way!”. And over 5 years later, after pushing and pulling and gnashing of teeth (mine), after questioning whether or not my husband was “really” praying, Jesus sat down beside him in Waffle House.
Yep, Waffle House. “Jesus” was nosy that day and wouldn’t stay out of the conversation my husband was having with his father. After several minutes of interjections, this man gathered his things in preparation to leave. But before he moved toward the door, he said to my husband, “I’m not sure why I’m suppose to say this, but if you only read one verse in the Bible, let it be this…” and he quoted James 1:27. “ Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” My husband was stunned. Why did this man, this “angel”, this “Jesus” just share this verse with him?
He didn’t tell me immediately; he just wrote. He quietly penned the details of the conversation that the Lord used as a catalyst to change my husband’s heart. Then days later, he slid the pages into my hand.
Now, over 10 years later, here we are laughing through our days at the goodness and sense of humor of God. We have 3 biological daughters and 5 treasures with Down syndrome. Five. And they are all adopted! Yes, I am exhausted.
Not long after Waffle House, we were ready to move forward with an adoption. Through a series of events, our eyes were opened to the desperate need for families to step forward and adopt children with Down syndrome. The logical thing to do seemed to commit to an orphan in a far away land- one who had been cast aside with little hope of a family. So, we did. During the paperwork chase to adopt from Eastern Europe, I had a phone conversation with Robin Steele, the National Down Syndrome Adoption Network leader at the time. We exchanged information, and I dove back into international adoption paperwork.
Spring quietly slipped by, and we quickly found ourselves baking in the Georgia heat that takes me by surprise each and every summer. Chores were plentiful around our property, and we were working hard to mark as many off of our list as we possibly could before travel. I was raking and picking up rocks on the slope in front of our barn that Sunday afternoon when the phone rang. I heard it ring inside the house and let the answering machine pick up. Moments later, one of our older daughters came rushing out the back door to let me know she’d heard every word of the message. I stood motionless, mouth gaping as she rattled off every single word she’d heard as if it were some speech she’d been working on memorizing.
It was Robin, and she was calling to ask if we’d like to be presented to a birth mother that Tuesday. I screamed “YES!”. Our other girls squealed “PLEASE?!?!”. My husband looked at all of us like we’d lost our minds. Here we were, only a few months away from traveling half way around the world to adopt a child, and I (we) was asking to send our information to a birth mother expecting a child with Down syndrome. Robin needed information about our family and fast. I didn’t have it. I’d never put together a family profile. I didn’t have even two sentences typed out about us or why we hoped to adopt a child with Down syndrome. Still, I called her back, and holding back every ounce of eagerness and excitement, told her we’d love to be considered.
Phone calls with the placing agency were plenty. I was to fill out needed paperwork and return it to them as soon as I could, immediately would be best. Monday morning came and so did the concrete company to tear out and replace our driveway. I was frantically working on preparing documents for the agency when…silence. My computer wouldn’t respond. No, no, NO!!!! Not today, satan!! This cannot be happening TODAY!! In digging up our old driveway, the concrete company mistakenly cut several lines, every line I needed to finish and send our information to the agency.
But wait! Didn’t one of our girls have an annual club meeting at Starbucks that very night?! We arrived early so I could work and were sitting outside after the doors were locked so I could finish the task. Deep breath. It was done, and I was able to press “send”. Then, we waited.
For the next couple of days our routine continued as normal. Homeschooling, cleaning, playing outside remained constant, but we could all sense the anticipation in the air. I was making dinner when the phone rang. Our girls’ eyes were fixed on me and could not be shaken, so I excused myself and stepped outside. Her words were simply “she chose you”. My heart leapt, and even if I had been able to find words, I could not have spoken them. Was it okay to be excited? How could I shout and dance when another woman was choosing to place this most treasured gift in the arms of another? I wanted the caseworker to know our joy but was afraid of how eager my words may sound. I looked back and saw three sweet faces pressed to the glass and simply mustered out “Are you sure?”. Those were the only words that would come. And then I apologized and managed to blubber out every other word and thought that I had been suppressing.
Only a few weeks remained of the pregnancy, and each day was filled with preparation. I felt as if I was floating during that time- moving about each day, dreaming of when he’d arrive, what he’d look like, how he’d feel curled up next to me. I didn’t know the first thing about boys and said that out loud on several occasions.
It was August, the season of children’s consignment sales in our area. I’d been working on tagging all of our girls’ clothes and toys to take to the sale. Hours upon hours spent on this mundane task, yet it was a task I’d done for years to help pay for clothing we needed the next season. The girls helped as I loaded the car- carrying and piling it all just so so that none of us ended up under a pile of garments while driving. And as I shifted and placed things just right, my phone rang. Where was my phone? I could hear it! We could all hear it…under the mountain of clothes we’d just arranged in the car. As we frantically searched, the ringing stopped. I knew the number…it was THE number. The one that I hadn’t seen in several days, the one that promised to call as there was news.
“Birthmom is at the hospital, Elisabeth! How quickly can you get here?”
Thoughts swirled. We had to drive 6 hours. I had to finish packing. We had to take the girls to my parents’. The clothes- my car was filled with clothes, and I only had 25 minutes to make the 20 minute drive to church and drop them off!! I’d spent way too much time printing, cutting, pinning and hanging just to throw these darn things back into our basement. It’s funny now to remember how I thought the clothes were one of the first things I needed to address.
We decided it would be best to leave the following morning, so that night we went to Waffle House for dinner. It seemed to be the most appropriate and perfect place to visit before the real journey began.
The drive to my parents- I wish now that I had recorded it. The girls and I chatting up a storm- excited, anxious, giddy. Hubby sat beside me, silent. Holding back tears, I hugged each of our girls “goodbye” and turned to face my mom. In that moment, the enormity of what was about to happen, of how our lives were about to change, came flooding over me. I sobbed as I squeezed my mom, then I stepped out the door, closed it behind me and took the first step toward this new life before me. This new life that had been kept secret from me for so many years was about to bloom, and my worn and tattered blinders were about to be removed.
The storm followed us, slowing our arrival and feeding the anticipation and nervousness that had already taken hold. The closer we got, the more I felt as if we were inching along like a snail. FINALLY!! Forget the umbrella, don’t worry about parking close- just park and RUN! I was probably a bit overbearing and bossy to my husband in those moments. We made it into the lobby of the hospital where one of the agency caseworkers was waiting. We talked and tried to prepare our hearts, but can hearts really be prepared for something like this? Moments slowly crept by; then it was time. My heart was pounding so loudly that I was certain each person I passed in the hallway could hear it. We approached her room; the door opened. Never in my life had I wanted to bolt toward and away from a place so badly.
We stepped inside. Please, Jesus, be near. The room was still and quiet. Lights were dim. From around the curtain, we saw the most precious woman holding the most beautiful, sleeping, content baby. I sat as close to her side as I could, and she handed him to me. This was the first meeting for any of us- never had we even spoken on the phone. The conversation was good. She shared information with us and asked about his name and our girls. She was so very strong.
Day two arrived, and as we prepared to go the hospital to visit, I called the caseworker to check in. She didn’t answer my call, so I left a message. I felt uneasy and gave her some time before calling again. Still, no answer. The day was slowly slipping by, so we decided to head to the store to gather a few supplies for ourselves and baby while we waited. Finally, late in the afternoon I received a call. Birthmom had had a rough day both physically and emotionally and asked that we wait until the following day to come back for a visit. My heart sank. What did this mean? Was she going to change her mind? She had every right to change her mind, this was her son, but what did that mean for us? In the end, she just needed time. She needed to spend quiet, sacred moments with him. She was confident in her decision and asked that we come the following day.
I practically jumped out of bed and skipped through the hotel that morning. It was the day I’d longed and prayed for for years. We arrived at the hospital and were ushered to wait in a room just down the hall. It was an empty room, completely empty as the hospital was under renovations at the time. We laughed and made jokes trying to easy the nervousness we both felt. Was this real? And then our door slowly opened. Not speaking a word, trying to soak in these moments and continue breathing, we took a step toward forever.
She wanted to be the one to place him in my arms. Except for the tears, the room fell silent. She sat up as best she could, gathered every ounce of strength she had and moved this most precious gift of life from her arms to mine. Holy. The most holy experience I’d ever had. I saw Jesus in the hospital room that day. Broken and worn, heart completely shattered, this incredible birthmom chose to place her son’s life in the hands of another. She set aside all hopes and desires of her own in order to choose what she thought was best for him. We exchanged words that still remain etched in my heart. Promises. Words I will share with him one day. And then, with our new son in my arms, we had to walk away.
Charlie was welcomed with whistles and banners by our family and friends, and life continued, new and exciting. Our guy was so healthy and strong, so you can imagine our surprise with the pediatrician mentioned a heart defect 8 months later. A phenomenal cardiologist squeezed us in for an appointment and ran all needed tests. After the long echocardiogram, our hearts sank as we sat in his office (the one with the official desk) and listened to him say our son needed open heart surgery. No one guessed this would be the news we received that day.
Open heart surgery, crazy fast ROCKSTAR healing and our guy was healthy once again. Finally, life was settling a bit, and we were finding our groove. We struggled connecting with therapists we liked before landing at a wonderful little therapy center not far from home and developed some sweet relationships with the therapists and staff there. Late one afternoon my phone rang, and the director of the center greeted me at the other end of the line. She asked if I’d be willing to talk with a liaison that was searching for someone to support a new mom whose treasure had just been born with Down syndrome. Absolutely!! Because Jesus doesn’t like to allow us much time to think, the next day we drove 2 hours south to meet this scared teen mom and her beautiful daughter. The moments there with her were precious. She had many questions and concerns. When we left, I asked my husband what he was thinking. Without hesitation, he said, “I think we just met our new daughter.” And he was right. We met birthmom’s family and visited with them several times. We made trips back and forth from the hospital where Celia received needed medical care and monitoring. Our homestudy wasn’t current, but because she was in our home state, we were granted guardianship while completing all necessary paperwork. The following week, we brought home our second blessing with Down syndrome. She was just 18 months younger than her brother.
Feeding tubes, a major heart defect and repair, GERD, aspirating and much more quickly became a part of daily life. Our treasure struggled with so many health issues that first year. In the midst of it, I wasn’t sure she’d ever experience “normal”- test after test, open heart surgery, the most uncomfortable feeding tube replacements and adjustments, finding the perfect balance of what to feed her, how long and at what rate her body tolerated nourishment. She was so tiny and fragile. Until the day her heart was repaired, her fingers, toes and lips were colorless. Even now, I look at how rosy and beautifully pink she is and am overwhelmed. She is a miracle. The Lord healed her, and He wasn’t finished.
To rewind a bit…we met a family just weeks before we heard about Celia. They’d had a daughter a short time earlier and had asked us to parent her. Because we received both calls days apart, we were forced to make a choice and the Lord very clearly told us that the beautiful bundle we brought home was our girl. It was in that decision that our new friends found confirmation that they were to parent their daughter…and they asked us to be her God parents!!!
Fourteen months after our precious Celia joined this crazy crew, we received a call from our God daughter’s mom. Through some culture connections, she’d met a woman in New York City who’d recently given birth to a daughter with Down syndrome. Would we consider adopting her daughter? Jesus, Heavenly Father, God of all that is good…. HAVE YOU LOST YOUR EVER LOVIN’ MIND?! Remember, we had 3 biological daughters and 2 small children with Down syndrome. Charlie was 2 ½ and Celia was barely over a year. We’d just arrived at a place of stableness in regards to Celia’s health. Yet even in our uncertainty, the Lord made it clear that this was what we were to do and the most overwhelming joy and excitement filled my overflowing heart. Yes!! A few months later, after the paperwork process was complete, our newest daughter joined what was quickly becoming what we lovingly call “The Circus”. At this point in our journey, we all simply agreed that the Lord had a fantastic sense of humor, and we were to say “yes” until the He said “no”.
Kate was healthy. She struggled with hypotonia more than our others and shared with us that stubbornness really is stronger on that 21st chromosome. Because of her strong will and loud voice, I wasn’t overly concerned when she first began to let me know that she’d rather sit and watch instead of move and work. My concern grew, though, as the weeks past, and she just seemed off. She was noticeably tired and developed low-grade fevers. When she cried hard, petechiae would pop up all over her face. In April, we celebrated her birthday down by the creek. I remember, she wore the sweetest pink shirt with silver stripes. Her big sisters made her clover flower crowns, and some threw rocks into the water while others enjoyed a snack. Our day was low key and perfect. There was something wrong, though, and my heart knew it. Less than 2 weeks after her first birthday, she went to bed Sunday evening with a tiny red spot under her left eye, and when she woke Monday morning, the spot had spread. Our girl had what appeared to be a black eye. I called our pediatrician and requested immediate blood work. That afternoon, we heard the words only a nightmare could bring- Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Our world was ROCKED. This was not a club we requested to join. NO!! Over the next 7 months, Kate underwent intense chemotherapy. Milestones meant to be met and celebrated with the ones closest were instead met in the confines of her hospital room while poison pulsed through her veins. We spent so many days in the hospital that year as Kate received treatment, had to be admitted several times for fever and infections, suffered from seizures because of an unknown drug allergy. July came and we received the most glorious news- Kate was in remission!! She finished treatment in November, and we all took one long, deep breath. It was time for rest and healing.
Then, there was that all too familiar whisper, and I pretended like I didn’t hear a thing. The gentle whisper, the one that was soft and sweet when I first heard it, eventually became louder. It was Him. Again. Lord, don’t you realize that we just walked through the trenches and lost our boots in the muck? We were tired and spent, struggling with the deep emotions that battling childhood cancer brings. But He urged until…we said “yes”. The same caseworker who’d written and updated our homestudy time after time over the years just laughed when I called her. Could she, would she deny us? Maybe? Nope. She was thrilled to, once again, update our study and in record time. Only moments after our homestudy was complete, we learned of the most precious 8 month old boy who needed a family. Little did I know then that he was a part of us. Of me. A gift the Lord had kept secret knowing how much we needed each other.
Our Finn. His placement was a whirlwind. We drove hours to attend a court hearing and take custody of him just days after hearing his name. He was scared and unsure. Having not received the love of a mommy for his first 8 months, Finn clung to his cords and wires for safety and comfort. His eyes were beautiful, dark and deep, but they avoided finding mine in fear of what they may see. He was dependent on supplemental oxygen for his every breath and a feeding tube for nourishment. He feared love and touch, and I had no idea what to do with that. And he was sick, so sick. Alarms sounded almost constantly. We had an oxygen concentrator that plugged into the wall, so as long as we were in the hotel room, his needs were met. But let’s be honest- remaining in a hotel room, despite the fact that it was a suite, with 4 busy little ones and one teen quickly became less than ideal. Hubby had to return to work in our home state, so it was our teen and I in charge. We ventured out when we could but had to remain mindful of Finn’s oxygen supply. Medical suppliers aren’t very eager to send portable oxygen tanks out freely to adoptive families from visiting states.
Our paperwork was taking days upon days upon days to clear ICPC, and Charlie desperately needed a haircut. Because he became Hulk the instant scissors appeared, we planned to find a salon for kids and enjoy a nice lunch afterward. Charlie was surprisingly brave and jumped right up into her chair. She looked at his messy shag, and as sweetly as she could, asked if I knew he had lice. Tears!! Mine. We were well over 2 weeks into our stay with no end in sight. We’d moved from one hotel to another, so we could be as close to the state line as possible for ease of travel when “the call” from ICPC came, and Charlie had lice!! This meant one thing- all of us had lice. (It turns out the first hotel we stayed in was infested. Yuck!) Never in all of my parenting years had I experienced this. I quickly googled “natural lice remedies” and drove to the closest Walmart. We filled our buggy with food, diapers and lice obliterating necessities only to step outside into a monsoon. Our daughter was a trooper- helping me unload 4 small kiddos and all portable medical equipment in the pouring rain with only a double stroller, arms weighed down with bags. We arrived inside our hotel room to find that one bag had been left behind at Walmart. The one bag needed more than any- the lice killing supplies. Y’all. I lost it. I cried and yelled and spit at satan for thinking he could win this battle, steal joy from this journey. And we were stuck- Finn had no more portable oxygen tanks. Our oldest daughter agreed to drive 2 hours to bring us what we needed and cut my hair. Satan did not win this, he couldn’t.
After spending over 3 weeks in Finn’s home state while we awaited the powers above to clear us for travel, we made the trek home only to be allowed one night there before moving into the hospital. We found a balance, figured things out for him and were released. The hum and alarms of machines continued for months, night and day until, finally, he was completely tube free!! Today, he craves my touch and seeks me out all day long. He is loved and loves so deeply and with such JOY! This treasure that the Lord kept secret from us has been the balm to our souls.
But wait!! In 2016 and in crazy love Jesus fashion, an advocate named a sweet little Chinese boy “Charlie”. His name immediately caught my eye, and I laughed as I watched the greatest video of him playing and dancing at a camp far, far away. The day I saw his name and that round face with a smile so wide his eyes disappeared, I knew. So many things were stacked against him- he was 8, a boy and lived in a country where his worth was considered none because of that awesome extra chromosome. Until we settled on a name for him, we lovingly called him “Chinese Charlie”. Maybe not very politically correct but funny nonetheless. In November that same year, hubby and I flew to the other side of the world and added to our family once more. Just moments after our meeting, we were convinced he was brilliant. I’d handed him some flashing light glasses to help ease a bit of the tension and uncertainty of that first meeting. He immediately opened his backpack, pulled out an apple and used an earpiece from the glasses to slice the apple. He then handed each of us a piece with such confidence and spunk. Now, Abe is quite sure he was planted here to use all the tools and perfect his mangatile creations.
Today, life is busy. FULL and good but busy. Our Big Girls, as they are so lovingly referred to, are becoming the most inspiring women. Two are married with babies of their own and live very close by. One is still home, and I am soaking in every moment with her before adulthood takes hold. Jesus has used their siblings to transform their hearts and fill them with fire for adoption and individuals with special needs.
After Kate’s diagnosis, we ditched all therapies and have never looked back. The time put into therapy was stealing our children’s natural desire and drive to learn. Because we still homeschool and now live with a much more flexible schedule, they have freedom to read, draw, build, cook, dance, take care of our chickens, splash in the creek, hike, pretend and play all day. And they are thriving and absolutely blowing our minds! Abe is settling in. He is our engineer, creating and building his days away. Charlie- we call him “The Mayor”. While wearing his signature button up shirt and bow tie, he introduces himself to, shakes hand with and tells all who will listen about Jesus, monster trucks and his pet chicken, Hazel. Celia is a princess, self-proclaimed. As she spins and dances in her most elegant dress up dress, she tells us of her dreams to fall in love and marry a “gentle and kind prince”. Kate still isn’t afraid to express her opinion especially when it comes to her favorite color and which book she’d like to read. She’s our collector of coins and other small things. And Finn. Oh, Finn. He is loud and messy and fast but makes sure to flash is heart-melting smile all along the way. His love language is bananas, and I may be guilty of feeding him 5 some days in an effort to simply find 3 minutes to gather my thoughts.
Early in our adoption journey I was told that we’d experience colors of the rainbow that we never knew existed. What a beautiful picture of the exact life we live. We’ve been stretched in the most uncomfortable ways, wrung out until we weren’t sure there was anything left and FILLED with the most free, undeserving love by these most unsuspecting gifts. Jesus, thank you.