The Plan From Here

Before we left for the Congo, the plan was for Ken and I to trade off childcare duties until January — me on part-time FMLA leave, and Ken filling in when I had to work, since he has so many Saturday and Sunday hours. We would then put them in preschool, and likely Kindergarten for both of them in the fall of 2013, or hold her a year back.

Then we met the kids. And over the last few weeks we’ve realized that our plan may need to be modified.

So we had a 5 HOUR appointment on Monday with Vanderbilt’s International Adoption Clinic, in addition to our family doctor on Thursday (who is FABULOUS, by the way) and had a long discussion about who our kids are and what they need.

Let’s start with Addie: most of her behavior issues have been solved by good sleep and good routines. She’s a happy 4 year old girl, but something still didn’t seem quite right. She has difficulty with feeding herself, being too loud, and is extremely difficult to walk with because she very much still toddles rather than walks. Stairs are still hard for her. So we saw an occupational therapist, who told us that in addition to lacking fine motor skills (Um yes, if you’ve never had a pair of scissors before, it’s hard to know how to cut out shapes with them.) she lacks “body awareness.” It’s hard for her to know where the different parts of her body are, especially if she’s moving. So it results in clumsiness, difficulty in controlling how hard or soft something is done, how loud she is, in addition to fine and gross motor skills. She qualifies for therapy, but after a long discussion with the therapist, one of the best things she could do is attend preschool with a wide variety of motor activities — fine and gross. It would also help with her English skills, which also need some help because she talks mostly to her brother. We’ll reevaluate her in 6 months or so, but we all think that putting her in an enriching environment in addition to good nutrition and sleep will help her to catch up. If she’s not caught up, then we’ll talk about therapy.

Palmer is a little more complicated. The rule of thumb with orphans is developmental delay. It is nearly impossible for kids from traumatic backgrounds to be advanced because the trauma often stops their development in different ways. As we’ve gotten to know Palmer, we’ve realized that he is very advanced for a 5 year old in most ways. (We’re not sure about language because he’s not speaking much English, because he speaks mostly to his sister.) He can scissor-kick and rainbow-kick a soccer ball, which is difficult for even high schoolers to do. So we thought, maybe he just played a lot of soccer . . . in an orphanage with no balls. Hmm. Then one day, Palmer found a baseball bat, and picked it up correctly, so Ken decided to toss him a few balls. He hit 9 out of 10 right handed. Then he switched hands and had the same accuracy left-handed. Hmm. Not even using a tee for tee ball. We have a 5 year-old switch hitter? He can catch a tennis ball thrown overhand from 20 yards away. He can also throw with great accuracy. And on and on and on. 5 years old? When developmental delay is the rule?

He is also missing all 4 of his upper incisors, and has two upper permanent teeth grown back in, which is rare in a child with a history of malnourishment. On average, his teeth reflect a 7 to 8 year old.

He’s very tall for his “age,” while most Congolese are short. He has very good attention span. He colors meticulously. He is enthusiastic about learning.

As we talked to the Adoption Physician, she suspected that Palmer could be as old as 9 years old, since the rule of thumb is delay, not advancement.

So we had a bone age done on Monday — an x-ray of the wrist and hand to determine how old he could be. Unfortunately, it wasn’t extremely helpful. It placed him between 6-7, but with a range of 18 months on either side. So he could be as young as 4 1/2 or as old as 8 1/2. The doctor wants to check it again in 6 months once he’s had some good nutrition because it may advance.  We’re pretty sure he’s not 12, but that’s about as much as we know.

So school has become increasingly important for Palmer. After all, we don’t want him going through puberty in the 2nd grade. The adoption pediatrician strongly encouraged us to get him in school. Technically, he could be 5 years old, so we won’t seek to have his birth certificate changed. (Remember that in Africa, dates are not meticulously kept like they are in the United States, so there is a high likelihood that it’s incorrect.) But we will monitor. And the pediatrician recommended keeping him at officially 5 years old, but is quite curious about his development compared to his chronological age.

So this week, we also spent a great deal of time with Metro schools, and private preschools.  Testing, tours, interviews, discussions. We’ve talked about their special needs and how they can be met.

We had lots of blood work, stool samples, vaccinations, physical exams. They have some medical issues that will need to be addressed in addition to their social and academic needs. So we have lots of doctor visits, psychologist visits, and on and on and on. This will continue for months.

So, the plan has changed. The consensus is that our kids need school, for different reasons, but they need school all the same. We have had 6 weeks at home as a family, and things are about to transition again. Fortunately, they both are excited about going to school. In the Congo, they asked about school, but we were going to put it off. Not so any more.

So school it is.

We also need to finish up the readoption process in the United States, apply for social security cards, apply for their U.S. citizenship, and refile our 2011 taxes. It’s been impossible to make good progress on these things since Ken and I have been working and alternating childcare responsibilities, or both attending appointments at the same time with both kids, because frankly, it still takes two of us right now.

So that’s where we’ve been and where we’re at. Your prayers for this transition are appreciated!

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Our Journey: The First Weeks Home

The night we arrived home, we were of course exhausted. We put the dogs outside to introduce them to the kids later, since in the Congo, dogs are pack animals, not pets. Most children are terrified of dogs. We were showing the kids their new room, which they were delighted in. I’m not sure how the dogs got in, but they rushed in and caught Addie Rose by surprise, and she was terrified — as in throw furniture and climb up the nearest person terrified. Not a great first introduction. It took us more than a week to get her to the point where she could be in the same room as the dogs.

My parents were here from Oregon while we were away and in the first week and had done and were doing many needed renovations on the house: we had new flooring installed, new walls in the basement stairwell, gutters cleaned, new cabinets in the kitchen, new paint, a new play set in the back yard, and on and on. Managing household projects, two new kids who have opposite personalities who were in culture shock, dogs who were totally confused and now banned to the backyard, and things like unpacking, making meals, grocery shopping, and laundry were just overwhelming. We all were exhausted. Still.

Additionally, Ken had to be back at work 36 hours after we arrived back home, and I had to be back at work the following day. We’re trading off work hours — Ken working full-time, and me on part-time maternity leave, but maintaining a full teaching load and most of my Mercury Courts work.

We survived the first few weeks. I can’t say much more than that. Our goal was to try to keep the kids from being overstimulated and overwhelmed — either positively or negatively, since they have a hard time unwinding from any strong emotion.

I think in some ways, we all have Little Orphan Annie in the back of our minds — Annie goes to Daddy Warbucks house and is overwhelmingly excited about all of the new wealth she has fallen into. Her world has just instantly changed for the better. There could be nothing better than a fairy tale come true.

The truth is, internationally adopted kids come to adoption from a point of severe and devastating loss. They are whisked away from all they know: family, friends, caregivers, food, language, and are put into the arms of strangers who take them on a strange and long journey where there seem to be almost all white people. As nice as it is in our minds, I don’t know if they think it’s quite so wonderful. At least yet.

They are coping. They are using their survival skills — for Addie Rose, it’s contagious laughter to hide the pain that she’s feeling. While it seems that she is continually happy, we have realized that she also laughs hysterically when she is scared, nervous, or frustrated as well. Palmer is just the opposite — it takes very little to set him into a distant pout, or into hours of screaming and crying, kicking and fighting. He is quickly overwhelmed by new situations. These are the only ways they know how to process what they are feeling. And without speaking the same language as we do, it’s very difficult to help them process their emotions or explain to them what is going on. As overwhelming as the process is for us, at least we have an adult understanding of what is going on. They are merely children trying to figure out how to deal with all that they’ve lost. We don’t dare do things like parade them in front of crowds of people or put them in overstimulating situations — it just wouldn’t be fair to the fragile emotional state that they are in.

Ken and I are coping. We are still adjusting to working opposite hours, not seeing each other very much, parenting two children who really only talk to each other, and still trying to process adoption paperwork, tax paperwork, social security, insurance, and on and on. We are trying to figure out schedules, discipline, English lessons, rewards, and needs and how to best meet them. Meals brought to our home every other day have been a sanity saver.

Overall, I had vastly underestimated the emotional toll of such a taxing trip, returning immediately to work, and also caring for children who are mine but still feel like virtual strangers. They cannot speak to me to tell me what they need or how they are feeling — they have each other for that. It’s strange to be lonely in a house full of children.

But this is a journey, not a final destination, and we’re all working on continuing to figure out what it means to be a family. We’ve always known that this would be a difficult transition, and we’re working through it. We make progress every day — some more than others, but still laughter is becoming more genuine, learning is taking place, routine is more secure, affection is becoming spontaneous. And tomorrow is only a day away.

Our Journey: Into the Arms of Singing

After a week in the Congo with only about 20 hours of sleep, after all the fighting with police, after arguing over boarding passes and passports, we finally sat down at the airport gate to wait for the bus to come and get us with some sense of relief. I passed out dinner — it had been hours since we had eaten– peanut butter sandwiches, Pringles, applesauce, and drinks and the kids ate. We discovered that there’s no running water in the airport, and I was thankful for an ample supply wet wipes. And for airplane restrooms. Who would have ever thought anyone would be thankful for airplane restrooms?

As I chatted with our African angel, Ken took our now fully rambunctious kids to the back of the seating area, put his arms around them, totally spent from a day of struggles.

Then, on their own, the kids began to sing.

“Here I am to worship,

Here I am to bow down,

Here I am to say that you’re my God.

You’re altogether lovely,

Altogether worthy,

Altogether wonderful to me.”

Even the children sensed that our ability to depart from the country was nothing short of a miracle. In the midst of the filth and chaos of the airport was pure loveliness coming from the mouths of children who have known much more hardship than a police stop or a passport refusal. Beauty from ashes.

Soon our bus came, and we gathered our kids and our things to go through final luggage searches and board the plane.

I was never so glad to leave a place.

The trip back to America was exhausting upon exhaustion. I caught a few hours of sleep, but we quickly learned that we couldn’t both be asleep at one time, as we found Addie Rose wandering around the plane. We were very fortunate that we had a wide range of movies on the flights. I may have jumped out of the plane otherwise.

We had a 7 hour layover in Brussels, which was as long as it sounds after flying all night. We had to check in and go through security again, and then we had to get a special sticker on our passports. In the process of doing that, they were issuing boarding passes. I was very anxious to see if our travel agent had been able to bump us up for the extra $110/seat so we could sit together.

By the time we got to the counter, we found out that Ken and I were each seated with a child, across the aisle and one row diagonal. Not bad. So thankful we got the upgrade and our kids weren’t sitting next to strangers! (When we got back to the United States, our travel agent told us that he wasn’t able to get us the upgrade to premium economy. Turns out, United had bumped us up because regular economy class was full! For FREE!)

The daytime flight was more difficult on all of us. We were all stinky, tired, and emotionally drained by the time we landed in Dulles and had to clear immigration with an American, Canadian, and two Congolese children being adopted. We were sent to several different stations, had to go sit in an office for a while, had to pull off and recheck our luggage, and clear security again.

It went off with out a hitch.

We couldn’t believe it.

We found the gate to Nashville, freshened up in a bathroom WITH running water, and boarded the puddle jumper to Nashville. It was now nighttime in Kinshasa, and the kids immediately fell asleep in spite of the turbulence and the bright midafternoon skies.

As we finally landed on the blessed and familiar soil of the Nashville airport, only 5 minutes from our house, it was like a weight had been lifted from our shoulders. We tried our best to wake our two sleepy Congolese kids and we reminded them that there was going to be a party waiting for them, but it was hard to convince them.

Until we saw the signs.

And the choir sang.

Balloons bobbed in the air.

Cameras flashed.

Hands were reaching.

Bags of toys and candy were handed out.  

Arms were outstretched.

Cheers erupted.

We were dazed, but relieved. We were too tired to cry, or even really talk much, but I knew that we were walking into the songs, balloons, posters, gifts, cheers, and arms of many of the saints who prayed us home.  They had no idea how hard we had to fight for that very moment of our airport arrival. Maybe someday they would read it in my blog, or sit down to talk over a cup few pots of coffee.

I’ve gone back just in the last few days to the Facebook posts that were posted on our wall during those difficult days of travel and the early days we were home. I didn’t have the time to read them all then, but now I can’t help but weep at the love that was captured in pictures, and the beauty of the words and prayers that were lifted up on our behalf. We don’t deserve such love or intercession from our family and friends, but we are thankful for each one who uttered a prayer on our behalf. We are especially thankful for those of you who took time out of your day to welcome us all home at the end of our nightmarish and wonderful journey. We needed you more than you knew.

As I sit here on my couch in our family room with Ken, our two Congolese kids, and our two dogs, I can’t help but marvel at the miracle that we are all here together, watching Lion King. We’ve begun a new journey of four strangers becoming a family. We are healing old wounds with the salve of stability, provision, and love. The enemy has fought hard to keep us from this moment, and the fight has not stopped merely because we’re back on American soil. I can only imagine what wonderful plans the Lord has for their life, given the ferocity of the fight to get them, and I’m so blessed to be a part of what God has in store for each of their lives.

Our Journey: Our African Angel

We were standing in the Kinshasa airport in dazed panic about what to do about our daughter’s passport and boarding pass being held by the officer behind the barred-in window, when suddenly, our beautiful African friend in the crisp white blouse who had ridden in the van with us appeared, and asked if everything was okay.

“No, it’s not. They’ve got Addie Rose’s passport and boarding pass, and they won’t give it to us.”

Without even discussing it further, our beautiful African friend stepped up to the window and started shouting at the official.

Oh no. Please don’t make it worse. Please don’t make it worse. Please don’t make it worse.

Then, the officer handed us Addie Rose’s boarding pass and passport through the window and waved us on to the next station. Just like that.

She didn’t make it worse. She fixed it. It was as if she was an angel sent by God when we needed a miracle. I told her that, and she smiled broadly and shook her head meekly.

We made it through the rest of the checkpoints successfully — visa processing, security, luggage hand searches, body scanning, and probably a few others, relatively without incident.

As we were waiting at the gate to board the bus to the plane, I asked our beautiful African friend if I could have her email address. She asked for mine as well, and I wrote it out for her. As we exchanged index cards with our contact information, she pointed out, “I even wrote it in all capital letters so you can be sure to read it.” Indeed, it was very clear, and she had also clearly printed her name so I could read it as well. I tucked it in my carry on, knowing that I would be sending her great thanks when we got back to the United States.

I encouraged her to join Facebook, so we could easily keep in touch and she could see pictures of the children, and she said she would like that. I told her that I had friends in Chicago, and used to visit there often for fun, and I would see what I could do to help her once we made contact in the United States. She thanked me for speaking with her and encouraging her on her way to America. She felt as if the Lord were confirming to her that she was exactly where she needed to be as well.

The bus came to take us to the plane, and we parted ways.

Back in the United States, I have tried to reach our beautiful African friend, studying theology in Chicago. I carefully typed in her clearly printed email address, and sent her heartfelt thanks.

No such address exists.

I’ve double checked the address. Tripled checked it. Stared at the clearly printed letters to see if there is any other interpretation for what was written. No.

I’ve searched for her on Facebook with her clearly printed name to see if we could be friends and communicate that way. No such user.

We’ve checked the Catholic divinity schools in Chicagoland. No student under that name could be found.

Perhaps she had enough of us and didn’t want to hear from us once she reached America. Maybe she changed her email address once she arrived in the United States. Maybe she misplaced our contact information too.

Or maybe she really was an angel, sent to us at that very moment on the prayers of the army of saints who were praying us home.

Our Journey: Stuck

By the time we boarded the van for the airport at 3:00 p.m., we were nearly sick with exhaustion and frustration. No boarding passes for the kids. Averaging less than 4 nights of sleep. Two rambunctious kids. A 33 hour journey ahead of us. I would have cried if I had the energy.

To add to the tension, we were now without any agency staff. No interpreter. No bodyguard. Only a driver who didn’t speak English. If we were stopped by the police again, there would be no one but this stranger to defend us. Our ability to get back to the United States rested on his shoulders. And we didn’t even know his name. Or his willingness to help us.

We drove for only a few miles before our van turned into a neighborhood of what looked like small apartment complexes or office buildings. Soon we found ourselves pulling up to a tall wooden gate between two high cement walls. A guard opened the gate, and the van moved forward. As the van pulled into the compound, Ken and I looked at each other wide-eyed. What was going on? This was clearly not the airport. No where near the airport.

A uniformed man pulled the gate closed behind us. And locked it.

The driver stopped the van, got out, and began talking to the guard a few yards away. Their tones were not distressed. Nor were they joyful. They were just loud. We listened, trying to catch words in French that we knew. Even Ken couldn’t figure out what they were saying.

Should we get out? Should we stay put? Was this the end of our journey, for good this time? After all, all of the people who had been hired to protect us were now off protecting someone else.

The midafternoon sun quickly heated the van to an unbearable temperature, as the 8 of us sat inside trying to figure out what to do. We were already nauseated from the stress of the day, and the heat was adding to it.

After 10 minutes or so, Ken offered to go ask what was going on, using the French that he knew. (Thank you to the Canadian school system that made him take 7 years of French!) He got out of the van and approached the driver and the guard.

A few minutes later, Ken returned, “We’re just picking up someone else on the way to the airport.”

Sigh. That would have been nice to know before we pulled in!

Almost immediately after Ken got back in the van, a few people came out of the building and a young woman dressed in a crisp white blouse squeezed into the van with her luggage.

I was immediately impressed with her beauty. I know it sounds strange, because I usually don’t think about people’s outer beauty, but she was stunning. A broad, kind smile graced her face. Perfect white teeth. Beautifully braided hair. Sparkling eyes.

As she settled into her seat, she asked, in English, “Are you all from America?”

We burst into laughter from the tension release we all felt, “Yes! We are!”

“Well, I am going to America today! What a blessing to get on a van with all Americans!” (And one Canadian, but at this point, that really didn’t matter.) “Would you mind if I practice my English with you?”

Oh my goodness, would we mind?! We loved it!

As we chatted with this young woman, we found out that she was moving to Chicago to study Catholic theology, and wanted to return to the Congo someday to teach others. We laughed when we noted that the two men on board were pastors . . . but protestant. She laughed in return that we all loved and served the same God. We told her about our adoptions and our hopes for our children. She told us what we were doing was a very good thing.

Our beautiful new friend knew no one in America, and was naturally a bit frightened, so we began to tell her about Chicago and the things she would see and do there. We described the city and the transportation, and told her that she would love America.

As we drove toward the airport, she was able to describe Kinshasa, the political climate, and the economic hardships of the country. We were captivated by her genuine concern for her country, and how other countries so easily take advantage of the hardships of the DR Congo. We were engrossed in every story and description she made of the sites we were seeing. We were so fortunate to have her on our van!

The time to travel to the airport went by more quickly than I imagined, and soon we found ourselves at the parking lot. The driver stopped, and indicated we were to get out and get our luggage. I was a bit dismayed because I know others who had paid for the “protocol” didn’t even get out of the van until the driver had walked through all the check points inside.

Nevertheless, we had no choice, so kids and carry-ons in tow, we headed inside. We were a bit behind the others as we stepped inside the airport doors.

Before we knew it, a police officer just inside the door was yelling at Palmer. We stood frozen. The kids were terrified. We were terrified. He demanded to search Palmer’s luggage (in French). We prepared to hand over Palmer’s backpack, and then he laughed and said that he was just kidding. After all, he said, Palmer was just a child.

We didn’t think it was so funny.

We found ourselves inside a great circular room with chairs at the edge, interspersed with a half dozen offices or windows with lines outside them.  We sat down. The driver indicated that the men needed to follow him, and the ladies were to stay with the children. They went to an office for 10-15 minutes, and then came back out with exit paperwork approved.

Then the driver indicated that our family needed to get in another line, while the other family waited. Our new African friend had lagged behind with us, and we asked her why we were going to the line. She told us it was so that we could get boarding passes.

Great! Boarding passes! That’s what we need!

We followed our beautiful friend to the line for boarding passes. There was a roped off area to start the line, and we stepped behind our gracious friend. Then a woman and her husband pushed their way in front of us. Then another older woman in a wheelchair and her family stepped in front of us. It seemed pretty clear that we became the people to cut in front of, but there was nothing we could do to protest. We were separated from our new friend.

After a considerable wait, we finally stepped up to the window, which was behind iron bars. The officer asked for all of our passports and our yellow fever cards. We surrendered all four. We were motioned to step to the next window, and we did.

The officer behind the next window handed us Ken’s passport and my passport as he confirmed our identity, and gave us each a pass. Then he went back to work.

We waited.

A few minutes later, he handed us Palmer’s passport, and his pass. Then he motioned for us to step aside.

But wait, what about Addie Rose?

Ken asked about her pass and passport, but he was ignored. We stood to the side, trying to catch his attention, but he wouldn’t acknowledge us. He began issuing passes for the people behind us. Handing back passport after passport to those behind us. Still nothing for Addie Rose.

We turned to our driver to help us . . .

Wait.

Where was our driver?! We had paid him a lot of money to stay with us to make sure our children got their boarding passes! We had been assured that he would stay with us until we got on the plane, which was still four hours away!

But our driver was gone. He had left us at the line for the boarding passes and was nowhere to be found.

With every person that got a pass and their passport, panic started to rise. Why weren’t they giving Addie Rose her boarding pass? What was the problem? How could we fix it? What did they want from us? How much did they want from us?

The giant circular room was filled with lines that were moving forward, paperwork was being processed for others. People continued to cut in front of us in line.

We were alone with no interpreter, no phone, no wifi, no way to call anyone for help getting Addie Rose’s passport and boarding pass. We had no recourse against the official behind his barred window who wouldn’t even acknowledge us.

Meanwhile, the officer continued to hand out passports and passes to everyone but us. 

We were stuck. Oh, how I prayed that our army of saints was praying for us at that very moment!

We needed a miracle.

Our Journey: Left Without Passes But Not Without Prayers

The night before we were to depart for the United States, our interpreter met with us over pizza to answer any questions about travel, go through phrases that we would like to remember in Lingala (like “I love you,” “Stop,” and “Don’t touch that.”), and to talk to the children about what it would be like to ride in a plane all the way to America. Because Ken and I had alternated nights of sleep by sleeping next to Addie Rose, there wasn’t much that was sinking in. We were exhausted from the stress of being detained by the police, from taking care of two very active kids who don’t speak English, and from having such limited options available to us.

We did remember to have the interpreter talk to the kids about needing to learn English to speak with kids in America. They nodded in understanding. We told them there would be a great party for them at the airport when we arrived in America with singing and cheering and it was because their new American friends wanted to welcome them home. They nodded in understanding.

And then we decided to ask again, through our interpreter, if Emmanuel wanted a new name when he went to America. He nodded his head.

So we told him a story about a young man named Palmer, who ran very fast, was very smart, who was very funny, and who loved God with his whole heart. He was a great dancer, and everyone loved him. We wanted Emmanuel’s new name to be Palmer Emmanuel. He smiled and nodded. (For those of you who didn’t know Palmer, he was one of our college ministry students who passed away in the summer of 2010 on a mission trip to Maine.)

As we wrapped up our conversation with our interpreter, our discussion turned to travel plans for the next day. To help with the travel arrangements, we decided to arrange for what is called a “protocol” in which you hire a driver to drive you to the airport and take you through all of the stations in the process of checking in. It takes about 4 hours to check in for a flight, with a half dozen different lines and processes to endure, in addition to the hour drive to get to the airport. If you want to check luggage, it needs to be taken to the downtown Kinshasa Brussels Airline office earlier in the morning, where boarding passes are issued, and luggage is checked to (hopefully) get back to America with most to all of its contents.

We awoke on Monday morning, knowing that even though our flight didn’t leave until almost 9:00 p.m., it would take us most of the day to be able to leave. After breakfast, we packed our suitcases with the items that we could fit. We had already left one behind at the orphanage, and another would be left at the convent, filled with things like a hot pot, peanut butter, pull-ups, and bug lotion that other adoptive families would find useful. Other families had done the same for us.

When the luggage was ready, Ken took the two suitcases and paperwork and went with Stuart, the other dad we were travelling with, to the Brussels Air office to check luggage and get boarding passes.

When the arrived, Ken and Stuart were put in different lines with different agents. Stuart was able to check his luggage and was issued boarding passes for his family of four. Ken was told they would only issue boarding passes for the adults. Ken argued, as best he could in French, that we had purchased separate seats for the children, as they were too old to be lap children. It did not help. They still refused to issue boarding passes for Palmer and Addie Rose. He pointed out that Stuart had gotten boarding passes for his entire family. It did not help. The ticket agent refused to budge. They told him he would need to get boarding passes at the airport instead, which was not part of the plan. We weren’t even sure we could get boarding passes at the airport, because that is not how we had been told things were done at the Kinshasa airport.

Eventually, Ken had to leave the Brussels Air office empty-handed, but desperate to get boarding passes for our kids. Even though it was early in the morning back in the States, I started emailing our travel agent, Lindsey at Golden Rule.  He emailed back within minutes. He said that is was possible that there was a glitch in the system preventing us from being issued boarding, and that we would have to just try to get the boarding passes at the airport. He also told me that we were not going to be seated together on the 9 hour flight from Brussels to Dulles because we had to book so late. (We traveled less than a week after we got our visas and tickets.) Our seats would be assigned once we got to Brussels, but there were no economy seats together. We could try to beg people to switch with us, but I didn’t like taking a chance with two sleep-deprived and culture-shocked new children. I tried to authorize him to charge our credit card for an upgrade to premium economy ($110/seat) so we could be together, but because Ken had already checked in for our flights, he was having trouble moving our seats. Then the internet went out.

It was time to leave.

Our interpreter was not going to be able to go to the airport with us, as she had to leave to go pick up another family at the airport. We hoped that paying for “the protocol” would help us with getting boarding passes for the first flight, so we asked our translator to tell our driver clearly that he needed to stay with us until we passed through the final security checkpoint. We would pay whatever he asked — we just wanted on the plane. All of us. Once we were at the airport, we would be without a working phone, wifi, or any way to communicate with anyone who could help us. Everyone else who had paid for “the protocol” just sat in the van while the driver took the exit letters, passports, yellow fever cards, boarding passes, go passes, etc. through all of the checkpoints, and then all the traveler had to do was get out of the van, clear security, and get on the plane. We were a little nervous because we couldn’t give him the kids’ boarding passes, so we weren’t sure how it would go. But at that point, we had no choice but to try. And pray.

We were counting on the army of saints who would see on Facebook when they awoke that our kids were not issued boarding passes, but we not longer had the ability to update since we no longer had internet.

We paid a hefty sum, and our interpreter told us that he understood that he needed to stay with us until we were getting on the plane. (You can see the gate from outside of security.)  She assured us that everything would be just fine, and that our driver would make sure that we got on the plane.

If only we all had known that wasn’t going to be the case at all.

Our Journey: The Beginning of the End

Saturday, we knew the agenda: tour the agency offices, go to the orphanage, and go to our attorney’s house for dinner. Seemed like a pretty safe plan. And as a bonus, we were told there was a chance our exit letters would be ready on a Saturday. The office that issues the exit letters isn’t typically open on Saturday, so I was a little dubious.

We were told to be ready at 1:00, so at 1:00 p.m. sharp, we were ready at the front porch of the convent waiting for our driver. Our interpreter was there, and helped us corral interact with our kids, trying to keep them from rolling around in the dirt in their clean clothes, from picking fights with each other, and from screaming.

In tow, we had hundreds of flip flops, donated to the orphanage by the families in the children’s ministry at our church, as well as gifts for all of the “mamas” (the caregivers) at the orphanage.

We waited an hour. Two hours. At three hours, our interpreter told us that our driver had been arrested on his way to get us. Ken asked her what he had done to get arrested. Her only response was a quizzical look, as if to say, “There isn’t necessarily a reason for people to get arrested, they just are.”  Ah yes, we had committed the same crime only days earlier.

We loaded up in the van, and headed just a few blocks away to the office for our agency. It was small but adequate. We met a secretary, another attorney, and then met with our attorney who told us that we would next be heading to the office where he would get our exit letters. We asked if they were typically open on Saturday, to which the response was, “Sometimes, if the electricity is on, but since we don’t have electricity on many Saturdays, they are not always open.” But that particular Saturday, they were open!

We loaded up in the van and headed to the Congolese immigration office that would release us from the country. After waiting in a hot van for a 1/2 hour or so, though not in police custody this time, our attorney appeared with the letters, and we were off to the orphanage.

Driving through Kinshasa is absolutely insane. Traffic jam on a divided highway? Just jump the median and drive down the other side of the highway. There were hundreds of 15 passenger vans that were stuffed with 20-30 people. Often, the passenger door would be open, and one or two people would be leaning out the door. Hanging on with one hand. At 60 miles per hour! Stoplights were rare. Drivers just forced themselves between two other cars, making one screech to a halt.

Another interesting thing I found in the Congo was that everyone was dressed very nicely. Everyone always looked like they were going to a party or out on a date. Whether traditional Congolese dresses, or western clothing, everyone looked very nice! Ladies hair was always beautifully groomed with braids or extensions.  For the second poorest country in the world, you would never know it by looking at their appearance. I felt a little shabby in my simple knit dress!

After an hour of driving, we headed onto the dusty dirt roads of the town where the orphanage was located. Children were toddling along the streets, hauling water. Others were playing soccer with whatever piece of garbage was lying around.

Finally, we reached the gates of our orphanage just as the sun was setting.

We drove inside the gates to a small courtyard area, just bigger than the vehicles that drove through them. Sitting on the porch were a dozen women (the caregivers of the orphanage). As we opened the doors and the children jumped out, the “mamas” shouted each of the childrens’ names with great joy. The children ran to the mamas and were greeted with hugs and enthusiasm. After we greeted the mamas as well, we were ushered inside, where 75 children were sitting in their little plastic chairs at small plastic tables.

The room was exceptionally crowded and dim and hot, but the adults had all been outside waiting for us. It seemed like the children were largely just patrolling themselves, and they were remarkably well-controlled, given the excitement of the moment.

I was asked to take pictures for several specific families, and had brought along a small measuring tape to measure them, so I immediately went to work trying to find 8 children amongst the 75. The interpreter and our bodyguard were helping me locate individual children, when the children began to sing.

Our interpreter told us it was a song about the children going to America. They sang a verse for each of the four children who were leaving the orphanage, including their name. Then they began to sing a different verse saying “we’ll see you in America.” After all, this is an American orphanage and all of the children are headed to either the United States or Canada. Emmanuel and Addie Rose were singing right along and were bursting with smiles. They sang a few more songs that I did not recognize, and then I began to recognize a familiar tune,

“Here I am to worship,

Here I am to bow down,

Here I am to say that you’re my God.

You’re altogether lovely,

Altogether worthy,

Altogether wonderful to me.”

How beautiful to hear the voices of children who have been abandoned, abused, betrayed lifting their praises to God in spite of their circumstances! They literally had nothing to their names, just their voices to offer to their Heavenly Father. The angels themselves would have a hard time competing with their chorus.

Ken brought in the suitcase of shoes for the children and showed them, but we quickly realized that absolute chaos would ensue if we tried to fit 75 children with flip flops at one time. So the mamas tucked the suitcase into storage, in order to distribute the flip flops in a more organized way at a different time. Each child was given a sucker, which was accepted with great giggling and smiles.

Emmanuel ran around the great room, showing his friends my camera, and taking pictures of the friends that were most important to him. Addie Rose found “her” baby (girls as young as 4 are caregivers for babies in the orphanage) and set her up on her hip and toted her around.

We took a brief tour of the kitchen, the bedrooms, and the back yard, where cooking and showering took place. Back inside, we saw that there was one toilet for 75 children, and only about 5 packages of diapers. I’m sure they went through those daily. We found out that Emmanuel had been in the nicest room of the orphanage — the one for the oldest boys.

Before I had even finished looking through the bedrooms, it was announced that it was time for us to depart. After all, we were running hours behind, and dinner was waiting for us at our attorney’s house. I found out that each child had a primary mama who cared for them, and we asked who Addie Rose’s primary mama was. Our interpreter told us that it took all of the mamas to care for Rose. We laughed in understanding. We were finally introduced to the mama that was responsible for both of our kids, talked to her briefly through our interpreter, and hugged her goodbye.  We snapped a few last pictures to share with families who have children there, and climbed back in the van. We waved goodbye to those who had been our childrens’ family for the last time.

It was dark by the time we reached the gated home of the attorney. It was very nice by any standard. We had a lovely dinner of fish, goat, fufu, plantains, and spinach and drank Fantas and Cokes by the light of the lawn lamps . . . and then in the dark when the electricity went out.

Eventually, we were asked to go into the house with our attorney, where we met his 5 children, and he handed us large packets of paperwork — some from the embassy, some from the office that he had just received that afternoon. We took pictures to commemorate the Congolese end of our adoption journey.

Our van driver had since left, but we still had to return back to the convent, so three adults and four children piled into the back seat of the car, and our interpreter hopped in the hatchback for the hour back to the orphanage. Our attorney assured us that our driver was a police officer himself and would be able to ward off any trouble that we had previously had.  

As we drove away, I had both Addie Rose and Emmanuel in my lap, and they were soon fast asleep. And so were my legs.

We arrived back at the convent at 10 p.m. with full bellies and satisfied hearts, knowing that we now had permission to leave the country — at least from the government immigration officials.

Our Journey: The To-Do List

Friday in the Congo was blissfully boring. There were no trips, no meetings, no agenda: just enjoy our new family and our new friends.

As I watched our kids play and interacted with them, I realized that, if all went well, in about 72 hours I would be getting on a plane with them to go back to America . . . on a 33 hour trip!

Now a trip that long is hard on anyone, much less a child, much less a child who doesn’t understand the rules of western society. These precious gifts from God were, well, a little on the wild side. I wasn’t quite as worried about Emmanuel as I was about Addie Rose. She is boundless energy and high volume from the moment she wakes up to about 15 seconds before she falls asleep. (During those 15 seconds she whispers to herself.)  There were many things that American children and/or children who do not grow up in an orphanage already know that Addie Rose and Emmanuel had just started learning:

  • Washing hands
  • Using a toilet
  • How to color more than one line on each page of a coloring book
  • Not belching 427  times a day
  • How to sit still for longer than 15 seconds
  • Brushing teeth
  • Not destroying toys
  • Using an “inside voice”
  • Wearing a seatbelt
  • Not hitting someone when you want something
  • Obeying adults
  • Sharing toys
  • Using utensils to eat
  • Covering your mouth when you cough
  • Not stuffing every piece of whatever you find interesting into your backpack

Add into it the stress of tiny bathrooms, foreign languages, customs, security, immigration and sitting for hours and hours on end with little to no sleep and I knew we were in trouble. All of this can be overwhelming for even a seasoned traveler. There was so much to learn, not even for our sakes, but for the sake of the people we would be sitting next to for 8 and 9 hours at a time.

It’s hard to appreciate how much time and effort is put into teaching children manners, rules, and guidelines until you begin to parent two children who haven’t had such guidance for the first years of their lives, or that have had them undone while living in an orphanage with little adult intervention. While they are trainable, and generally want to please, there was just so much to learn in precious little time.

My goal in the following 72 hours were to get them airplane ready, because ready or not, we were going to embark on an incredibly long journey.

If only those would have been the biggest battles we were to face. . .

Our Journey: Down By the Riverside

After we said goodbye to our kids’ birth family member, our interpreter told us that our attorney felt terrible about what had happened to us the day before. He wanted to make it up to us by paying for an outing for us to the river.

Um, no thanks.

Leaving the convent unnecessarily had recently fallen into the “over my dead body,” category. Pretty literally.

Our interpreter insisted. The attorney wanted us to have a good time at the expense of the agency.

I wanted to live.

I said no. Ken said no.

Finally, our interpreter told us that we really didn’t have a choice. He is the director of the program in the Congo, and the trip was not optional.

Well, what’s almost dying one MORE time?

Soon we packed up and headed out with our kids and the other family.

We headed to a museum that overlooks the Congo river, walked around, and took a few pictures. Then we all piled back in the car, but rather than heading back to the convent, we headed in the opposite direction.

I was immediately on edge.

We drove a few miles on a very nice road, and then we turned down a small road that passed between two high walls.

On the other side of the walls, it was a different world. The streets were narrow and there were 50 gallon burn barrels lining the street, and dozens of people milling about next to the cars and darting across. The street was one lane, so it was very easy for the car to get trapped among the crowds of people closing in on us. On the homes and shops surrounding us, there were no windows or doors, pieced together with whatever garbage was found. The dust rose from the roads as we jostled over the bumps. The further we traveled, the more the roads seemed to close in on us.

Ken leaned over to me and whispered, “Isn’t this a scene from Blackhawk Down?”

I leaned back over and said, “I guess this is how we’re going to die.”

After winding through the narrow neighborhood streets, we finally came to a parking lot, where there were two monkeys tied up. We were told to get out of the car. The kids thought the monkeys were hilarious. We were just hoping that they weren’t dinner. Even more so, we were hoping we weren’t dinner.

We were led down a narrow path, and the scene opened up to a very nice restaurant with a swimming pool overlooking the Congo river.

It was . . . beautiful.

The sun was just beginning to set, and we sat and drank Fantas while the rush of the water behind us soothed the fears we had created in our own mind.

We left after a short time, traveling back down those same narrow and crowded streets, and headed back to the convent, being dropped off again after sunset — so we ate ramen noodles and beef jerky for dinner.

We were told by our interpreter that though  even if our exit letters would be ready the next day (Friday), our attorney had a wedding to attend, and wouldn’t be able to pick them up. Our hopes to leave the Congo over the weekend were dashed.

As we decided to trade off nights sleeping next to Addie Rose, our tiny fighter, so we could trade sleepless nights, one thought ran through my mind: As nice as the outing had ended up, we just want to go home.