Thank you for passing the milk.
Thank you for helping me with the dishes.
Thank you for the Christmas present.
In most situations, thank you works. It's appropriate and conveys the intended message. But sometimes, words just aren't adequate.
On July 27, 2006, I stood in a sweltering reception room in the Guiping Social Welfare Institute in China's Guangxi province. I had in my hand a little green box containing a gold necklace with a heart-shaped charm, a good gift for a foster mother, our guide had assured me. Most of the people from our adoption group had already left the room to go to lunch, and our translator was poised with her pen over a tiny piece of paper, waiting for me to tell her what to write.
Over a year before, in the very beginning stages of our adoption, I'd happened upon a stranger's "Gotcha' Day" video that affected me deeply. A toddler was being adopted and for some reason, going against protocol, the foster mother was delivering this child to her adoptive parents. The foster mother handed the girl to her new mother, but then quickly pulled the child back, hugging her to her chest and sobbing. A man in the room spoke harshly to the foster mother and with large hand gestures insisted that she give the child back to her new mother. The little girl was hysterical and the foster mother, clinging to her, ran for the door. The man stopped her and forcefully pulled the girl from her arms and gave her to the distraught adoptive mother. The whole thing lasted probably less than thirty seconds, but it disturbed me so much that I called our adoption agency that day.
"I don't want to go to China and take a child away from a loving family," I said to our adoption coordinator. "What I saw today is not what I signed up for. I completely support foster care, but if a child is loved and cared for and cherished, why am I even there? I can't do that."
Kathy, herself an adoptive mother many times over, listened calmly and said that it's a great gift to adopt a child who can form strong attachments, that it may be harder initially, but that in the long run it's always better. I agreed. Of course a foster family is preferable to an orphanage. "I'm sure it's better for the child," I said. "I'm sure it's better for the adoptive parents. But what about the family left in China? Was it better for them? Did that foster mother want to adopt the child she'd raised from a newborn and keep her as her own? Was it only money that held her back? Shouldn't the love of a family trump money?" Kathy, our ever-patient advisor, listened and reassured. "Foster families go into this knowing these kids won't stay," she said gently. "They are the heros of the adoption world. If you're fortunate enough to adopt a child who's been in a loving home, be thankful."
When we got our daughter's referral, we saw on her paperwork that the box which said "institutionalized" was checked. She was living in the orphanage in Guiping and at age six months the nannies there described her as "a very obedient baby who will not cry to affect adult's work." I couldn't even read that sentence aloud when I called our extended family members to tell them our good news. My voice caught every single time. Babies should affect adult's work. That's just what they do. This baby needed a mommy and we so wanted her in our family.
When we arrived in China, our guide handed us a paper with updated information. After reading her schedule, and her likes and dislikes, we read at the very bottom, "living with foster family." I told our guide that that was wrong. We saw her paperwork only two months before and it said she was in the orphanage. He said that it had only been a few weeks, but that she was now with a foster mother, father, and older brother. I rejoiced for her, for our daughter who I knew needed a mother, but I couldn't shake that heart-wrenching video. Like a mantra, I just repeated Kathy's words in my mind: This is a great gift. Be thankful. Foster families are the heros of the adoption world. This is a great gift. Be thankful. Foster families are the heros of the adoption world.....
We met our daughter the next day, a charming and developmentally on-track little 11 month-old. She was absolutely perfect. And I was thankful, oh so thankful for her foster family, truly heros of the adoption world.
So on our visit to the orphanage, I brought my little gift of jewelry, feeling it was silly and inadequate and wishing I knew what they really wanted or needed. We spoke with the orphanage director and she said they could not divulge the name of the family, or supply a photo of them, or facilitate contact. She did say that they are kind people and an experienced foster family.
Now it was time to leave and I wanted to write a note to go along with the gift. The translator had pulled out a piece of paper only slightly larger than a credit card. She stood waiting, looking toward the door where everyone else had already gone.
"Thank you," I said quickly. "Tell them thank you."
"Xie Xie" she said, writing.
"And that we'll always be in their debt."
She looked confused.
I tried again. "That we can never repay them for their kindness."
The translator nodded and wrote, nearly filling the paper. "Anything else?"
"Yes, " I said. "We love her."
She wrote the characters. "Very good," she said, folding the paper and placing it in the box.
On the bus, on our way to lunch, I looked at the envelope of pictures the director had just given us--pictures from every month she was in the orphanage, and starting at nine months, pictures from the foster home. The difference was startling. Yes, the environment had changed, but more than that, the pictures showed a change in our daughter. The blank expression was gone. She was eager and happy. Her eyes sparkled with a light that hadn't been there before.
The photo below was taken on the day she left the SWI. In the orphanage, staffed by kind and loving women, whose work she did not affect, she never smiled for the camera.
In her foster home, I get the impression she affected their work, oh just a little bit. Either waiting for someone to give her a ride...
....or sitting in the middle of the desk. The desk, which I noticed held photos of other babies, presumably others babies they had also loved and sent off to permanent homes.
And because these babies knew what it was like to give and receive love, they were better prepared to meet and attach to their new families.
There truly are no words to express the gratitude that I feel for them, these heros of the adoption world. All I can say, with sincerity and a horrible American accent, is Xie Xie. From the bottom of my heart, Xie Xie.