By Annika Paradise
Slowly, small clusters of adults anxiously enter the room: one or two Caucasians with one Chinese translator. They hold teddy bears, dolls, backpacks full of presents, cameras, sugared rice crackers and the required gift, wrapped in red paper, for the government official. The room is decorated in red, black and white…symbolically. Some translate from Chinese to Swedish, Chinese to Spanish, or Chinese to English making stilted small talk to bridge the tenuous silence. Beyond language there is a palpable bond between the adults. This is it. This is the moment we have been waiting for three to five years. There are four doors separating the waiting room from the children and their nannies behind. Each door is closed with a red, blue and black curtain, so that as we walk by, we can catch glimpses of the children. Is that her? No, that one is definitely her! My husband Will soon stands by one curtain and is making silly faces to the children behind. An official quickly comes to tell him that he must sit with the others waiting. Within the hour, each person will leave this room forever changed.
I grew up in Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley. Palo Alto was still a funky college town. Moms in my world stayed home with their kids, made their own granola and Ken Kesey was our famous neighbor. There was the bookmobile, picnics under oak trees, trips to Tahoe and fights with my sister, but always there was an impending call from Dr. Goodkind, my mother’s oncologist. Unlike other kids in my world, I don’t remember a childhood that was separate from sickness. My mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was three, went through chemo, remission, chemo, surgery, more surgery and eventually died from a brain tumor when I was eight. We did hospice in 1978 (before the hospice movement made it common) and she never slept away from our home with the final tumor. My well-meaning brownie troop leaders and my mom’s friends looked at me with pity, referred to our family as a “tragedy” and didn’t let my friends come to her funeral because their children weren’t ready for something so sad. When you grow up with that mantle, the upside is you’re ready for anything, especially when it comes thirty years later in the form of a beautiful Chinese 3-year-old.
As the first children emerge in the arms of their caregivers, an official takes the paperwork and says the child’s name in a loud declaration to the room as if announcing the next debutante into high society. Many of us have only seen photos that were taken six or more months before. Some wonder if they will recognize their child from the photos. As the proclamations begin, there are the sounds of great screams as the children clutch onto all they have known, a sudden cacophony of life’s abrupt shift. It’s like we are all in the delivery room together witnessing one another’s very private birth. Some are physically pulled from their Chinese nannies as they reach and scramble toward their old life, not making eye contact with this new big white lady. They whimper, eyes wide. The babies are soon silenced with a toy, a sugar cookie or by exhaustion. The older ones – some as old as five or six -who more fully understand, train their eyes on the door from which they came. They come around more slowly but are also soon entranced with their gifts and sweets. We wait and wait for our daughter’s name to be announced but there is a discrepancy with the spelling of her name on one of the forms. It needs to be corrected before we can meet, as if spelling can derail the seismic changes that are happening in our lives.
How much does a child understand in these moments? There is the one level of understanding but there is another magical level that can soften the blow. I knew my mother was dying on one level but on another I thought that the scientists at Stanford were monitoring how a girl responds to so much sadness. I steeled myself thinking that I was being watched. In my magical world there was no way my mother could actually die. So I was surprised when she actually did die one Saturday during cartoons. I ran to her bed, saw my beautiful mother turned greenish with white lips. I cried, then remembered the scientists and felt surprised that they would really take it this far. I wouldn’t give them what they wanted. I hid to cry, then made up some massive fantasy of my mother being kept in Eastern Europe while I was still being studied. If I could create such fantasies, what was my new daughter thinking and feeling? What was her fantasy world creating to soften her reality?
Mao Xin Feng, at almost 3, is the last child to emerge from the curtained waiting room. Each hair is meticulously arranged. Her lips parted, eyes wide as she looks out into the room of screaming children and parents. The crying room is slowly reaching its crescendo. Her expression is “speechless” and would literally remain speechless for most of the next 72 hours. She is accompanied by her nanny and a proud representative from the orphanage. I don’t remember walking toward her but I do remember reaching out for her. As she is lifted into my arms, she does not cling to her escorts but her body stiffly remains in the gesture of hugging her nanny, unsure of her next gesture.
Her body was stiff in my arms, her rapidly beating heart, her breath on my neck, and I feel surprised that she weighs obviously less than my son who is exactly one year younger than she. Slowly, as our translator made small talk between the 5 adults, Xin Feng’s body starts to relax in quick jolts; her heart slows. After ten minutes of hugging and slow rocking, her small hands begin to hold on to me. Her nannies are beaming and telling her that she is so lucky to have her own mommy and daddy; that she needs to listen to us and be good; and come back to visit one day. How many times have these women delivered away these children they have raised? Are they conflicted inside? Unlike the diligent nurses who inspect the car seat before we left the hospital with our biological newborns, we brought Lucy Xinfeng Paradise home from the Guangdong Welfare Office in a hailed cab, without a working seat belt, and held her on our laps through the Guangzhou traffic.
The entirety of our two weeks in China is taken up with the required half days of government office visits and the other half is free time. When we walk around the area by our hotel, our son Kai and Lucy in a double-wide stroller, they start to bond. Kai’s white-blonde curls contrast with Lucy’s black bob. Chinese people want to pose with the stroller and take photos, saying “very good!” and giving me two thumbs up. Do they like the blonde boy, the siblings, or the fact that we are obviously adopting? I’ll never know. Kai and Lucy clink sippy cups as if to say “cheers”, share cookies and play peek-a-boo. Lucy has never owned more than one lovie and one change of clothes. She is enamored with this sippy cup, sleeps with the sippy cup, wants Kai’s sippy cup and seems to understand, if not verbally, the concept of “mine!”
Two doors down from the hotel is “Lucy’s Restaurant” with both American and Chinese food. On the menu is a special section for Chinese kids’ menu – most tables have one or more Chinese children with nervously doting Western parents. The waiter tells me that Chinese girls like “egg flower soup” and he’s right. On our second night together, Lucy wants a toy from Kai as we wait for our food. Kai is reluctant and Lucy gives him a strong right hook to the eye. Will grabs Kai and says loudly to Lucy, “Hey, you can’t hit my kid!” All 20 pounds of her looks blankly back to him. After a few minutes, I remind Will, “Lucy’s your kid now too.”
I used to lie with my newborns on my chest; let them sleep so I could stare and bond; hearts finding their synch. Instinctively, I did this with Lucy too. Her feet would do a kind of running motion which pushed her into a nuzzle on my neck. She was so intuitive about finding a way to bond. Her first words were “mommy,” “water,” “potty,” “ladybug,” and “where’s mommy?”
In the days and weeks after my own mother died, I would sleepwalk down into the study and fall asleep on the floor, lying as if her hospital bed were still there. My father would wake me, pick me up and hold me before taking me back up to my own room. My subconscious mind has been, for years, also asking, “where’s Mommy?” Now the adult in me has the privilege of weaving the answer.
Somewhere over the Pacific, we cuddle, trying to get comfortable laying across our seats. We point back and forth smiling and saying together, “Xin Feng”, then, “Mommy”. I used the colloquial with her nickname, “Ai Feng” to which she decidedly says, “may-o, Ai Feng!” She instead points to herself and says, “LUCY!” and from that day onward, I call her Lucy.
When Lucy is home for just a few days, jetlag still intense, language still being learned, we start to realize that the honeymoon is over. Lucy sits and sits with her cheeks stuffed with food at the counter. She is obviously full so we try to take her plate away and urge her to come play. She screams with terror. We read that this is common with children who always had limited food. So up she stays with squirrel cheeks bunkered against my encouraging smiles. Finally I realize that if I gave her crackers in a baggie, if she can hold some food, then she will leave her plate to do something else. Her one hand white-knuckles the zip-lock while she draws with the other.
Her tantrums are extreme. If I could give them a voice, they would say, where am I? Where are all my old friends? I want white rice and sugar cookies. I want you to understand my Cantonese dialect…now! What the fuck is going on here!? Has her magical thinking hit a roadblock? The tantrums are thrashing, banging objects and screaming. I physically restrain her a few times so that she won’t hurt herself or others. I am yelled at. I am yelled at again. And then yelled at some more. As much as I am her anchor, I am also being held responsible for the extreme change in her life. How do you tell a child that this new life will be better for them in the long run, that she will come to love us, that we can provide a nice life for her, and that our food and dogs won’t be so scary once some time passes. And that I already love her.
The screaming and anger are relentless; I want to help her, but I also want to scream back at her. Hands shaking, rage rising I need to walk out the door. I am ashamed at my lack of patience and the fire that is stirred within me. I am the nice one; I’ve never had anger issues. Where has this rage been buried? I had no idea the extent of my limitations until those moments. I close the door and leave my daughter alone to scream it out. After her intense loss and pain in her short life, what kind of person am I, to walk away from her? I am walking away both to protect myself and because I’m surprised to meet a girl in me who wants to yell too.
Summer has come to Boulder, Colorado when we return home from China in June 2010. My two biological children are in the garden, barefoot finding the irises, peonies and helping weed the vegetable garden. Lucy screams from the doorway. She will not step down onto the dirt without being carried or wearing shoes. She cries when the tall grass touches her arms, cries when any dirt gets onto her clothes. As we look through the photos from the orphanage, we realize that her world had been paved. The playground was cement, the courtyard tiled and as we know she had never left the orphanage, we conclude that she has probably never touched grass in her life. Not only is she tormented by lack of control in her life, in culture shock and learning a new language, she is also meeting the natural world for the first time.
In the months of yelling, screaming and PTSD in the house, Lorna and Kai spend more time with a babysitter than ever before or since. I feel guilty for how little emotional reserves are left for them and how insignificant their needs are on my day-to-day triage. It’s only when five year-old Lorna cries that she misses her mommy that I doubt this crazy path we have chosen. But when I overhear Lorna telling a friend that she is now part-Chinese, I wonder what her trip to China and the integration of her sister into her life has imprinted onto her own identity. I hope that maybe all this chaos has shown her that messy is OK and families are more about love and commitment than biology.
Back before we left for China, I read volumes about the possible issues with toddler adoption and my anxiety went through the roof. As Melanie, our 22 year-old baby sitter, said to me in the spring of 2010, “don’t we all have attachment issues, Annika?” She was so right: if you put either Will or myself into the literature’s matrix of whose history would cause attachment issues, we’d both be off the charts. Perhaps saying yes to Lucy was saying yes to all of us who have had rough start. And really, I’ve learned of myself that I had something to prove: that none of us is broken by our early circumstances. Even me.
In June of 2011, back from China a year, we visit my mother in law in the Boston area when we decide to do the typical tourist Duck Boat tour. In these tours, WWII amphibious vehicles give a historical tour of both downtown Boston and Boston Harbor. The historical facts bore the kids, but the crazy vehicle is exciting for all, especially after 45 minutes when we finally drive right into the Charles River and start the boat part of the tour. The driver then stands up and turns to face the hundred or so passengers. He asks if there are any volunteers who want to drive the boat. Lucy’s hand shoots up and, before being chosen, starts marching up the aisle. This is the Lucy who has shown up in our family ever since: jump in with two feet, even before knowing all the details, especially if it means steering your own ship.
Days pass without obvious change but only as the years pass do I look back and see that we are all new people. Lucy tantrums over the first day that is cold enough to warrant long underwear; instead of being irritated over the tantrum and being late for school, I smile that this is a really normal thing to scream about. I hate long underwear too. Instantly, I’m aware it’s been a really long time since she screamed about something. I wonder if the summer of screaming ever really happened or was it just some kind of weird dream.
Today, in March 2015, Will and I come to Lucy’s 1st grade parent – teacher conference. The teacher has mostly glowing reports. Lucy is a favorite playmate of her peers: enthusiastic, attentive and confident. Lucy is one of her brightest students and she lays out all the ways that she will give her extra challenges so that our gifted and talented girl will not be bored. I want to cry thinking how far Lucy has come, but try to remain composed. I want to tell her that she learned English equal to her peers after being with us for just three months – of course she is smart. Her teacher does mention, as “an opportunity for growth”, that Lucy lashed out to another student who touched her things. I remember the right hook she gave to her younger brother, how she clutched the zip-lock of crackers in her early days, her obsession with her first sippy cup. In this moment, I see that the scars, although faint, are still fading.
Author’s Note: This essay is the honest answer to the oft-repeated question, “what was it like to adopt a three year-old?” Usually I just give a one word answer, like “great”, but this is what I would really say if I were being honest. Lucy is my hero.
Annika Powell Paradise lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband, three children, 5 chickens, 2 ducks and a pug. When she is not mothering, she writes poetry, essays and is currently working on a YA historical fiction novel.