Unlike with childbirth, where physical pain and intensity steal the show until the moment baby arrives, the damn then bursting from pressure release, pouring emotions out in a rush of complete joy and exhaustion as you meet your child for the first time … preparing to meet our child through adoption felt more like preparing for marriage.
Our hotel room has one gigantic bathroom mirror and one full length mirror, both of which saw way too much of my face yesterday. I changed outfits, fussing over how they fit, debating one which one he may like best. As I blow dried my hair and applied a tiny bit of makeup to cover the black rings around my eyes, I wondered: would he like how I look? would I look like someone he could be safe with?
The feeling of wanting to look nice because this day is critically important, life changing, brought back poignant memories of standing in the church hallway before a gold lacquered mirror, applying more lipgloss with nervous hands while the first tones of the bridesmaid’s march came sliding by. And then it was my turn. The primping was over, it was what it was, and all that was left to do was to offer myself to my husband in love and be thankful that he loved me.
The importance of meeting our son for the first time, reminded me of that. That feeling that this day is forever marked on our life calendar; set apart. Two worlds, many lives, coming together into one circle; two people offering themselves to someone in love and wholly grateful for the opportunity to do so.
I could see that I was not alone as the other moms we met up with had also put time into their appearance and yet water brimmed above the eyelashes, hovering there until given permission to flow.
We all excitedly boarded a double decker bus, couples anxiously snapping pictures of themselves for the very last time before meeting their children. Within a 5 minute drive, we were there.
The street we pulled up to was lined with small shops, electrical cords jumbled, hanging low and weaving through tree branches, scraping the top of the bus as we pushed into the scene – a street teeming with motorbikes and people milling all around just going about their day seemingly unaware of this large group walking before them, hearts hanging off their sleeves, emotions dangling like willow branches, easily caught by passing winds.
The civil affairs building was tucked back in a concrete courtyard, a sea of gray all around. It was under construction and underneath our feet was a bunched rug twisted upon the broken slabs. Dimly lit, with the sound of jackhammers in the distance, we traveled up a set of stairs, through a large double door and into a well lit hallway with polished wood flooring.
The hall emptied into a midsize rectangular play room with interlocking foam mat flooring as we often see in American child centers. The colors were muted from all of the feet that have walked there. On one side was small plastic play equipment: a little slide, one swing, a few ride on toys. The other side had a line of leather couches.
Before we even made it to that room, it was announced that two children were already there waiting for their parents. Audible cries rang out. The parents were directly before me and when they found out, the mom turned to me, her face overcome with shock and emotion, and we all flowed with her. I grabbed her camera and began taking pictures of their first meeting, her son crying hard, confused and scared.
And that is how it went for over two hours; a child would enter the hallway, holding hands with or being held by their nanny, and as they walked down the aisle towards us, the waiting room would erupt with noise, a flurry of excitement, flashing cameras.
Some children were timid, barely fussing at first, while most were completely distraught. Soon nine families had their children: cocooned in mama’s or daddy’s arms, playing, sucking on candy, most sweaty with tear streaked faces, exhausted from the whole tramatic ordeal.
Yet one family and ours, we must wait. The car bringing our little ones from Luoyang had broken down on the way and they had to repair the car. What was supposed to be a 2.5 hour car trip turned much, much longer.
The wait was agonizing but then finally, the last flurry of activity began as two nannies, holding hands with two little ones appeared at the head of the hall. As they came down it was clear that the first little pair of feet toddling towards us belonged to Xi Rui Zhu: Leo.
They walked slowly, Leo taking in everything. Waving and beaming we greeted him: “ni hao Rui Zhu, ni hao.” I fell to my knees in the hallway, arms outstetched, waving: “ni hao Rui Zhu, ni hao, hah la, hah la” (hah la = it’s okay, cooing).
The nanny and agency representative’s voices cut through the chaos and I could hear them saying “…. mama, mama.”
I pointed to my chest and said “mama” a few times but mostly I just waved and smiled at him, in hushed tones repeating “ni hao, ni hao”, trying to speak love to him through my voice.
He and the nanny stopped about 3 feet from the spot where I was kneeling and with arms outstretched – he came to me. His little arms reaching out, his toddling feet finding me: an image and feeling that will be etched into my heart for a lifetime.
Since Luoyang orphanage was the last to arrive and the other families had been waiting for hours, the next few minutes were a flurry of activity as Mike and I greeted our new son, filled out paperwork, took official government pictures and quickly were shuffled back to the bus.
Leo took everything in and he shed not one tear. Not one. His affect and complacency were gut wrenching.
While the others had fought, screaming or crying, and a couple of very joyful older children smiled; Leo quietly sat and watched.
While every other family lovingly looked at the pictures and albums that the orphanage had prepared for them, images of the child’s life until now, we had nothing to see.
While other families pulled out favorite toys and snacks, papers describing the child’s life, or even gifts for the family from gift bags the orphanages had sent with the child, Leo had nothing.
Leo came to us with a black, ripped, small plastic trash bag.
Inside that bag were the three things we had sent him: the jump drive we had sent in hopes of acquiring any digital photos of his infancy, a disposable camera for the orphanage to use to capture pictures until we could arrive, and a photo album I had made of our family so that he could see us before we came.
The album had never been touched – it is hard cover and when I went to open it for him while he sat on my lap for the first time, I had to crack the binding, pushing it open, pressing it down to see the pages, like you have to do with brand new books the first time you read them. I could feel my heart break as I loosened the binding, knowing that he was sitting with a stranger.
The nanny hid as we walked out so as not to be seen and cause more outbursts from the other little girl who had come with Leo from Luoyang. Leo saw her however, twice, but it was as if she was not there, as unknown to him as the person holding him.
He came sick, rattled breathing in his chest, a bloody nose, a big bump on his forehead, and covered in mosquito bites, most scabbed over.
Leo had not one possession to his name and he weeped for no one.
We went back to the hotel and just held him, kissed him, sang, read, and talked to him. We also offered snacks which he seemed to like.
The only tear he shed all day was when I took off his one sandal. His bright pink sandals were stitched shut. His bottom lip turned down, face scrunched and one tear slipped out. I immediately scooped him up and Mike tried to put the sandal back on, but the opening was so small that we couldn’t do it without hurting him. His shoes were clearly his security so for the rest of the day, he wore one sandal. We had to stop by Walmart (it is the main grocery nearby) to get a few things for him and people just stared at us, a few pointing it out to me that he had but one shoe. I smiled and nodded, and tried to keep my hand around his bare little foot.
At 3pm we had to report to another meeting room to file more government papers. After this, we were very hungry and so we decided to take him to dinner.
We found a beef noodle restaurant. Leo sat on my lap and then a high chair and he ate, and ate, and ate. He is a very slow eater, usually tucking food into his hand for safe keeping throughout the meal or even long after, and only using his free thumb and forefinger to pinch his food to eat.
Ultimately we can coax the mushy food out of his hand as he likes to be clean and does not seem to like dirty fingers. It seems to be a struggle for him to decide which is better: clean fingers or security of food clenched in his palm.
We tried not to rush taking off his clothes as that is literally the very last shreds of his previous life that he has, but he was so dirty and his file said that he enjoyed baths so we thought it may be nice for him. He did not complain at all about his clothes coming off but he stared at the tub as if it was a foreign object. I gently urged him to sit in the water. He did not play, only once touching the water with his finger. We quickly bathed him, wrapped him up and got him into some pjs.
He wanted to be held, clutching onto me, looking for that comfort. I held him like a baby and tried to give him a bottle but he didn’t want anything. I sang to him and when he was almost asleep, I attempted to lay him in the crib (his file said that he does not need held before bed and sleeps alone, on his stomach in his crib), but he woke right up and made the sad, about to cry face, reaching one leg over the side attempting to crawl over, hands stretched out to me.
Mike pulled down the big bed for us, and I layed down, Leo on top of me, just like our babies at home. He was asleep in less than one minute. After a time, I was able to slide him off of me so he was next to me, between Mike and I. He slept all night. Snoring and sucking his thumb.
This was our first day with Leo. A critically important, life changing day for all of us; one Mike and I will never forget.