It’s a funny thing to be handed a baby. Adoption does weird things to you. You go through so much scrutiny, paperwork, planning, more scrutiny, processes, more paperwork – it leaves you a little jaded on the other side. So, when someone approaches you and hands you a child and walks away – you kind of feel…strange. Are they sure? They just handed you a little person and walked away…after all that…work. And now this is it. Sink or swim – let’s see what you’re really made of Mom.
We drive away from the orphanage and I can’t help but stare at his beauty. It’s humbling. He’s snuggled against Anton and I keep thinking “are they sure?” and “really for real for real?”. But in my heart, I know it’s real and this is our son and they are sure.
Getting back to the guesthouse, we head toward our room and decide to do baby inventory. Not how many diapers we have and if the clothes we’ve lugged thousands of miles will actually fit – oh no. We do fingers, toes, eyelashes, birthmarks, and pretty much head to toe inventory. Not because we’re “examining” him like a piece of cattle – but because we are ENAMORED of him and want to know his little self intimately. To be able to say “his little toes are perfect” or “he has a birthmark on his arm” (which he does, in fact). So desperate are we to know him – to know everything about him. We survey this beautiful baby and keep glancing up at each other in awe. Really for real? Yes, really for real.
We remove the wrist tag he’s been wearing, which has his name and assigned number on it. Underneath, his skin has become irritated and is peeling. We also note that he has several patches of tiny pustules on his skin – covering him from his head to the bottoms of his feet. We have no idea what they are, and nothing we put on them seems to help. When his diaper is taken off, Quint begins scratching at the bumps on his stomach voraciously.
We experience a first bottle feeding, and I put too little formula in for his liking. Thinking he won’t be able to get any formula out of that tiny hole, Daddy cuts a bigger hole. Now the milk drains down his face and onto his neck. He plays with the bottle instead of drinking it and makes us feel forgiven for our mishap with his ready smile. Since we’ve gone and made a mess of him, we decide to do a first bath. Honestly, I want to bathe him to get the orphanage off and the redeemed on. Though it sounds bad – it seems a very natural need in the moment. We fill up our small bathroom sink and gently ease him in. He is delighted and plays happily, splashing us both with water.
We put him to bed as night approaches, and he gazes up at us with a sleepy smile. He’s asleep in a matter of minutes and we are reveling in our new role – piece of cake. Was that all it took? What’s all the hype about? (sigh…so naïve)
Looking over the schedule the orphanage gave us, we can see that he will probably be waking up for a midnight feeding. What the..? Who makes these schedules? Middle of the night feedings should drop off around 4-5 months. We’re in the 6th heading toward the 7th month. Deciding not to disturb his current schedule and freak him out with too many changes, we honor the routine when he wakes at midnight on the dot and fusses for his bottle. But, sweet as ever, he eats and goes right back down. This is the last night he wakes for this feeding and we are grateful.
Unfortunately for me, so begins my own routine of severe sleeplessness. And now we come to the payoff.
Around six am the next morning, Quint begins to stir in his crib and since we are like kids in a candy store, we anxiously open our own eyes and look over at him. We are greeted with a smile that would melt the coldest heart. I find myself bouncing out of bed to get to him, and so with that I cuddle him, kiss him, and bring him in between Anton and me. Snuggled close, he coo’s and giggles. We give him a bottle and this time, think we get it right – because he happily chugs the warm milk down.
[Here’s where it should be said that a “bottle” was no easy task. Formula had to be bought in advance so that he would not have to change food. The babies are served bottles that are hot. In our guesthouse, there is a microwave, but they say to never heat a bottle in the microwave – says it all over the container. But considering we are without power sporadically throughout the trip, it was a poor option to begin with. Meanwhile, we have to ask the house staff (who don’t speak English so it’s a lot of pointing and gesturing) to light the stove so we can boil water to heat the bottle up. This takes over ten minutes and we quickly realize that we need to find a way to wean him off the “heated” bottle. Especially when we can hear the baby melting down as he waits way to long for that bottle to come…]
Something else is becoming rapidly apparent - Quint is sicker than our original assessment. He wakes up with a nose full of mucus – dried and caked over his nostrils. It is apparent that he was thoroughly cleaned up each time he saw us. He becomes cranky when we try and clean it up, and his cough has become more obvious. It’s wet and rugged. And constant. He appears very tired, and goes through phases where he will not sleep. Others where he sleeps very well.
His eating is sporadic and I cannot get him to follow the schedule I’ve been given by the orphanage. He does not appear to know anything of solid foods – even though his routine shows that he eats solids three times a day. We soon realize this might just have been what they thought “we” should be feeding him. Never mind he had never seen a spoon before.
He begins having trouble sleeping in the crib and we worry we are heading for a tight fit in our Queen size “hard as a rock” bed. If we lay him down, he screams. If we walk into the room and he hears us, he cries. Not wanting to traumatize him, we pick him up – which soothes him immediately.
At dinner one night, he projectile vomits repeatedly until he finally calms. We are all stunned and heartbroken for him. I am shaken and cannot believe what I just saw. He still cannot breathe through his nose and his mucus is getting worse. By the third day his eardrums perforate from the pressure and he begins draining thick green puss from both ears. Since I have never been a mother before, this sends me into a panic. It does not appear we have any resources available to us, other than what we can conjure up ourselves. We are given the option to return to the orphanage to visit the doctor there – but I am reluctant after her shrug off diagnosis that he merely had “allergies”. And even though we were given Antibiotics before leaving the orphanage – it is an outdated 30+ year old method of antibiotics. Surely there have got to be stronger meds for this type of infant sickness? But no. None that are available here and once again we are reminded of the harsh reality of being in a 3rd world country.
Our days are spent mainly at the guesthouse – eating, napping, reading, and taking walks. We enjoy the company of the six property dogs and four tortoises.
But we do manage to end up taking a drive somewhere almost everyday – mainly out of necessity. We visit the store a few times to stock up on our ever dwindling baby supplies and we also visit the U.S. Embassy to obtain a Visa for our boy. This is the only way we will be allowed to leave with him, and likewise, enter the states with him. After meeting our attorney, we follow him on the street for several blocks and then find ourselves turning over our possessions while we enter a building to raise our right hand and swear to tell the truth. In minutes, it is over and we are on our way back outside to make the walk back to the car. It seems too easy and yet – difficult because we are on constant personal guard. Afraid of a pick-pocket (which we are warned several times about) or just nervous because we’re in a foreign land and stand out like a sore thumb. There are armed officers and no photography allowed of any kind. As we walk on the street, people stare openly and some even point. It must look funny to see us – waltzing down the road with this little Ethiopian baby, two white people who are sadly out of place.
Because the water is contaminated – we have to use bottled water for all our needs. Brushing our teeth requires a “stop and pour” technique. We also find out from another family that even though the guesthouse provides a laundry option, clothes came back missing, damaged, or are found on the lawn in the mouth of one of the dogs. Since we have packed so light – we have no items to spare and opt to wash our own clothes. This is a much bigger task than I originally planned on. Because Quint is spitting up and/or throwing up, we are going through his clothes and bibs much faster than we can keep up. Showers are fine, if the electricity is running. When it’s not, we have no water pressure to speak of, and the water is very cold. We bathe anyway and I learn just how hard it is to wash thick hair with a drip, drip, drip of water.
Food is good most nights and breakfast is very nice. We get scrambled eggs, fresh squeezed orange juice, and toast. My run in with unpasteurized butter is interesting – as it has a rancid flavor. I shrug it off and happily devour my eggs and juice every morning.
We visit the
But even the museum is dilapidated and run down. There is not much to “see” because the building is small, and our guide speaks broken English. We tip him and wait outside for our driver to return to get us. As we wait on the steps, we slowly become surrounded by curious school children. Realizing that we may be the first white person they’ve been close to, we smile and try to be friendly. This encourages more kids to gather around us. I take a picture that fails to capture the crowd, but shows the kids hovering.
On yet another day, we are escorted to the Mercado – the largest open air market in
Several purchases and so much to see, hear and take in, we grow tired and ask to be taken back to the car. On the way there, I notice a man standing in the road and urinating. Another man who is clearly very disabled comes into our view. He is right in front of us. His legs are lame and are wrapped in a thick black rubber, as are his arms. He drags himself on his stomach along the road and the rubber protects him from road rash. Once across the street, he continues on up the sidewalk. We are silent and after exchanging quick glances, I can see that these visuals are weakening our resolve to get through this trip. Despite the "normal" clothing the people wear, we know that most of them are living in poverty.
That afternoon we venture back to the orphanage because we are scheduled to pick up Quint’s final release paperwork and we have asked for that promised tour. We arrive and in minutes, we are handed the final documents that release Quint to our custody from the orphanage. I glance over a document as I sign and the words “who accept full and entire responsibility regarding the child, who is now their own child” and I take a deep breath and complete my signature. It’s a huge moment, and yet I still cannot take it all in. We are given a small woven backpack and inside we find a lovely African outfit for Quint; a gift from the orphanage to us. We thank them profusely for everything, and the director says “It is we who should thank you – for taking this child and giving him a home”.
As we step back outside the office, Anton draws my attention to the small building where Quint spent the last three months. Inside the floor to ceiling window, we can see an infant inside an infant carrier – a nanny hovering over to make the baby smile, and a man holding a camera next to her and leaning over the baby.
Immediately I recognize both the carrier and the purpose. They are taking referral pictures for waiting families. This makes my heart swell. I feel a sense of connection to those families – whoever they would be. I have been on the receiving end of those pictures and now I know just how they are made. I think about our referral picture...
After some time of waiting, we are finally ushered into the building where Quint has lived. We are told we may see his crib, if we like – and we are eager. But here is where the tables are turned and our initial excitement is quickly caved by grief. As we walk through the building, I can see very quickly that I am about to be changed. I can tell these are images that are going to go with me – walk with me – be with me – for many years to come. Maybe for the rest of my life. I turn the video camera on, and try to grasp what I’m seeing. I can’t. There is a heavy smell of feces and urine in the air. We are told this building houses only babies two years and under. I look to my left and right as we walk down a narrow and dark hallway. I think to myself “what do they do without power? How do they feed them or take care of so many when it’s pitch black in here”. But there’s no time to get an answer, because we begin to see the infants who live here and my heart begins to bleed. How do you describe this? There is a little girl on my left, in a room – by herself. She is wailing on the floor. A nurse approaches her, and the little girl screams out and kicks her feet. The nurse abandons the project and walks away. To my right, twelve little children are on potty chairs – all in a row. The smell is overwhelming, to be truthful, but they are cute and actually wave at us. We wave back and smile at them. On we walk – down this dimly lit hallway. I actually notice an exposed light bulb hanging from the ceiling – there is a buzzing sound coming from it. Can you visualize this scene? We enter a room where instantly we are surrounded by babies. My breath catches, because they are crying and reaching up to be held. Some are sitting, playing quietly. Some are asleep. Because we are following a nurse, we keep pace and must move on. We enter a second room, and our eyes meet the same scene. More babies – crying, reaching up to be held. I see a baby who is gorgeous, standing quietly in her crib. I know I have seen that face before, but I can’t remember which family back home has blogged that little face. I smile at her and say “Hi”, but the pace continues and I must keep going. Another room, and yet another – all babies…so many in tears. Snot running down their noses – clearly it’s no surprise why Quint is sick.
Finally we come to a small room, all the way in the back. There are about four cribs and I spot three babies – two of which are crying.
That’s where he slept – I repeat in my mind. That’s where he slept. A tiny and empty white metal crib greets my cautious gaze and I’m held captive by it for a moment. Anton snaps a picture and I hold the video camera on it for a few seconds. My son’s reality becomes thick in my mind and heart. Here’s where he slept for the last three months – half a world away from me. Surrounded by crying babies and the hustle and bustle of a busy orphanage. Here’s where he lived. In this little space that I’m staring at. All those nights wondering how he was, where he was…here in front of me. I hear myself saying thank you and find myself quickly walking back the way we came – through a maze of rooms filled with babies. I grant myself a moment to make eye contact with a baby and she reaches up to me. I groan out loud – because we have not been given permission to hold the babies. I make my way back down that long hallway and outside, where I take a deep breath. I can feel my heart breaking. I want to cry and before I can stop it, the tears come flooding down my cheeks. Anton follows me with Quint, and I make my way back to the car. I sit down on the pavement and cry openly, though I am ashamed and afraid to offend the staff. Our driver tells me not to cry, but also reminds me that it’s hard to see, and that he understands. I sit with my head in my hands for a few minutes and Anton tries to comfort me.
I understand that they are in the best place, given the circumstances. I am actually very grateful that because of them, our son is now in our arms. Because this orphanage exists, we have our boy and a lifetime of getting to know and love him. But my heart…my aching heart…all those babies. Yes, Quint is chosen. Going home with his parents to be loved and cherished. But the babies that remain…who will love them? Who will come for them? Where are their parents to love and cherish each of them? It’s not right…why some and not others? Anton tells me “we can’t know why God chooses some and not others…its part of His plan”. And it does give me a miniscule amount of comfort – but I am burdened. Yes, I’m so glad my son had a warm place to sleep – but the emptiness and loneliness of that solitary little crib. The babies reaching up…”hold me…PLEASE…love me!” – these images are emblazoned in my mind’s eye. How do you forget that? Why would you want to?
I manage to dry my tears and we make our way to a small shop on the premises where handmade gifts are sold. The proceeds go toward the orphanage and we buy several beautiful items to take home with us. I know this is the last time I’ll be at the orphanage, and so I do take in all I can. But as we prepare to leave – I snap a photo of the window to his room. Take that image home with you and never forget what is behind that window, I tell myself. Never give up…never forget.
Quinty remains sick and his ears continue to drain puss. His nose and cough worsen. On a night when, in my sleep deprived and stressed out state of mind, I think it can’t get any worse, we lose power for what will be the next two days. During that time, I become sick with a terrible cold and I cannot swallow. My congestion builds and I cough constantly. On a day when we are scheduled to tour an American school, I bow out and Quint and I spend a quiet (and LONG) day at the guesthouse alone. Anton leaves for the tour and I feel myself starting to slip, just a little. While we lay on the bed in the afternoon, Quint begins crying and I know it’s because he is so miserable. I feel we are especially kindred spirits in this moment. But crying actually makes him worse, because it creates a runny nose and upsets his cough. Soon, I join him and begin crying myself. This somehow comforts both of us and we finally fall asleep crying.
As the night hits and I am facing another sleepless night, I beg Anton to take us home early. But not before Anton admits that he too has succumbed to being sick. I haven’t slept more than ten hours in 5 days and we are all sick. Quint is miserable - though several times throughout the day we are able to get smiles from him to send home to family and friends.
Can we tell people what’s really going on? No. We decide we can’t. Because it’s too hard to put it down in writing, what we’re facing. It’s too burdened. It’s too harsh to explain and not sound like whiny babies ourselves. No, we’ll just give the gist and leave the rest alone. And this not to say that there are no good moments, or that we aren’t enjoying our boy at all. Quite the contrary – despite his being sick, and us too – we find him to be a delight. He is happy, despite being so sick. We spend time together roaming the property and we do find that we are most certainly bonding through this life experience.
When in my mind I begin to list all that we are facing, I give myself an extra measure of grace. First time adoptive parents, culture shock, extreme poverty that is all pervasive, horrible jet-lag, sick baby (and I mean sick), sick parents, no medication or very little of what we really needed to see improvement, no sleep, you can’t drink the water, lack of electricity and no warm water to bathe or lights to see or do anything – any one of these things by itself gets difficult. Add them all together and you get a recipe for the biggest case of anxiety and upset…there are no words.
Begging and pleading with AB “please, take me home…take us home…I can’t take it another day…”. I threw myself almost literally at his feet. I had no problem groveling. Please, don’t make me do another day. Get me out of here. This conversation was by candlelight – because we had no power. And because he is an amazing husband, and because he loves me - he tries – but he quickly finds that we can’t secure tickets to leave sooner because of the cost. It is horribly inflated. Stay we must, and stay we will. We have four days left – four days that I am sure will be my downfall.
Night after night, I am sleepless. Hours go by and I watch the clock. I sit in the living room of the guest house, swatting at the heavy layer of flies, and trying to find something to watch on TV. There is cable! Eureka! But after sifting through all 450 channels, I can only find predominant Muslim, Arabic, or Amharic stations. The only English speaking channel I can find is BBC News. I’ll take it. Hours and hours of news – people with British accents. I am suffering from lack of sleep, but soon I start to have night terrors. I fall asleep and quickly jolt awake, scared to death. This happens over and over to the point where I am afraid to sleep. This then perpetuates my lack of sleep. When I see nighttime is approaching and we are winding down our day, I cry because I am dreading the night. I pick up and put to use the simple phrase “I hate nighttime here”. Anton gives me a sympathetic nod – he’s just as worried about my lack of sleep. Meanwhile, he has bruises on both hips from the hard mattress. Each morning I am awake already to hear Quint rouse. He is the highlight of my morning hours, and waiting for them both to wake up seems to take a lifetime.
Our final excursion is a car ride to the top of the hill that looks down over Addis. My spirits are starting to pick up, because I know we are leaving in two days. I try to take in all I’m seeing and snap several shots as we trek up the mountain. The countryside is beautiful and leaving the city, we also leave behind the heavy pollution. I can breathe for the first time in days, and I greedily suck in the cool fresh air. Up and up, we wind and still, the poverty is all pervasive. We see scattered houses and children are on the street playing. The higher we go, the happier I feel. We pass a small village and see many people milling about.
On our way to the top, we pass an Ethiopian flag – battered and bruised and symbolic of a struggling country...
Once we arrive, we get out and pay a pittance to travel a short path to a lookout point. We pay and make our way down the green path. It’s beautiful here and the air is lovely, but heavy.
We find several boys milling about at the lookout and they start to explain to us what we’re seeing down below, and about the fragrant eucalyptus that is growing all around us on the mountain. We manage to take a few pictures before the rain begins to fall, and we quickly retreat to our car. Once inside, we realize that the boys expected to be paid for their improv “tour de mountain” – they are looking at us with frustrated expressions and shrugging their shoulders. We are finding that being white in this world equals inexplicable wealth – any interaction with the locals leaves an expectation for a “tip”. Our driver reminds us that we’re easy targets and not to worry about it. But we still feel guilty as we drive away…
On the way down the mountain, we stop at a beautiful vantage point and take a final look at the city of Addis – that, in mere minutes we will be enveloped in, once again. From here, it seems normal – peaceful…quiet. From this place, you can’t see the poverty. From here, you can block out the masses of people dying, begging, starving…sick, homeless…from here you can pretend its all ok down there. Suddenly our car is surrounded by curious children – our driver warns them back, and they giggle, but do not retreat. After several warnings in Amharic, he jumps out of the car and begins to give playful chase. But the boys are faster and head straight up a rocky hill. We are all laughing and capture the moment with a click of the camera.
When we reach the day before our plane is to leave, I find I am too sick and weak to care for Quint. I can hardly function any more and I must seek medical help. Anton finds a Swedish clinic in the city and has our driver take me there. I cannot breathe with all the fumes and so I cover my face with my shirt and lay in the back seat while we make our bumpy trek to the office of the doctor. Once there, I am seen to quickly and given a strep test, which I pass. We are relieved, because we can see white pustules on the back of my throat. The doctor is kind and warm, asking all kinds of questions about our trip. His office is clean and organized; a stark comparison to the chaos just outside his doors on the street. I am given medication for pain and for sleep and we leave with much lighter pockets, but don’t care. As we pull out of his driveway, we must wait for a herd of goats to meander by the car. I sleep on the ride back to the guesthouse and once there, I am put to bed.
Finally, the time to leave does come – and packing up our things, I feel an excitement that I cannot describe. I am so anxious to get on the plane. Just get me on the plane and I’ll be ok from that point. There is no part of me sad to say goodbye. I can think only of my home, my bed and the possibility of sleeping sometime soon. I am anxious to get on with life and leave this city behind. Anton admits to me that despite having seen and lived in a third world country and extreme poverty – he is tired of Addis and can’t take another day. He is ready to go home. This surprises me – my rock who I thought could not be broken by extreme travel – has succumbed to the hard life around us. It’s not surprising – because I succumbed on day one. It gives me comfort to know that I am not alone in my anxiousness to leave.
Our airport experience is difficult and lengthy. We are forced to go through seven checkpoints, and are literally exhausted when we finally take our seats aboard. We find both the plane and our seats are much better than the ride out. We have a bulkhead and tons of leg room. We are also given a bassinet, which hooks on to the bulkhead. The flight is 15+ hours and Quint manages to sleep thirteen of them. We are blessed and grateful. As are the people around us. Plenty of Ethiopian women seated nearby give us advice. He’s too cold. He’s too hot. He needs a blanket. He’s hungry. He’s beautiful (I knew that one!). On and on – but their intentions are good and I feel I have just hours longer before life goes on. I am desperate to hear American people speaking. Might seem silly, but I have heard nothing but accents for ten days and I am longing to hear someone say “ya’ll”.
We arrive in Washington D.C. the next day. After several checkpoints there as well, we push through two large double doors and quite suddenly find ourselves in America. Officially. I know this, because I spot a Starbucks out of the corner of my eye. We both become weepy and tell our son “You’re home now! You’re home!” But really, it’s us who are HOME and we are overwhelmed by the reality of what we have just experienced on all levels and in so many different ways. We are grateful and exhausted. We have one more leg of the journey to get to our hometown – but not before we get in line at that Starbucks and savor some coffee goodness. And boy, do we!
Finally, we find ourselves on that last plane ride home. It’s a short flight and we are surviving on adrenaline. Quint is still happy and giggly. He sleeps another two hours and we feel blessed to have such a wonderful son. The moment is surreal as we step off the plane and head to baggage claim.
Once through the revolving door, we see a multitude of friends and family – cheering for us – balloons, gifts, and smiles.
We are overwhelmed with this outpouring of love and speechless in many ways. So many emotional miles to this moment. So many tears. So many heartaches and heartbreaks. So many stumbles along the way. So many obstacles. And yet, here we were…finally – on the other side of the journey. Holding our son and listening to those we love congratulate us, ooh and ahh over our sweet boy, camera flashes going off, and hands extended to hug and greet us, to pat us on the back and tell us how beautiful Quint is. Here we are…finally. Our boy is home. We’re a family and we're home...
Epilogue to come…(if you are put off by this story in any way, please come back to read my final thoughts after having returned home and putting distance between myself and Ethiopia. I have tender thoughts I would like to share with each of you about our post-adoption journey)