Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Story (So Far) of My Adopted Daughter

I had a few free moments (not really sure how that happened), so I thought I'd write up the story of my adopted daughter.  Eventually, she'll want to know this stuff, and it is important not to forget where we come from.  Her story doesn't begin too well, but hopefully it can be said that it leads to a happy place.

Her story began 7 months before she was born (of course).  At some point and under conditions we do not know, her biological mother became pregnant.  We do not know who the father is, as he has never been identified.  For that we are somewhat grateful, for were it not so our adoption of our little girl may not have been so straightforward.

In any case, 7 months passed with her in her mother's womb, and during that time it is clear that her mother failed to refrain from substances that could harm the baby she was carrying.  The full ramifications of those failures we have yet to discover.  Even so, we do know that when our baby girl was born, she was fully addicted to methamphetamines.

Her birth wasn't an easy one, as we estimate that she was born a full two months before she was due.  According to medical records, we know that her mother was hemorrhaging -- blood everywhere -- and the doctors at the hospital decided to perform an emergency C-section.  The date was February 4th, 2012.

Once delivered out of her biological mother, the doctors whisked the child away to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to help her recover from her addiction and to care for her frail little body.  Her mother walked out of the hospital as soon as she could without signing any paperwork, including that required to name her baby girl.  This was the 5th child that the mother had born alive and she expressed no interest in her newborn child.  It was clear that the long legal path to keeping her, having born her drug-addicted, was one she would not follow.

Being premature and addicted to drugs, the poor little thing -- all 4 pounds 2 ounces of her -- proved to be a fighter.  Just a few weeks later, she had fully recovered from the methamphetamines and was making good progress.

The nurses in the NICU soon came to love the little child, though they couldn't keep her forever.  Without a name, the nurses took to calling her Annie.  At some point, her grandmother called the hospital (though never visited) and said she wanted the child to be called Heather.  This wasn't to be, either, as will soon be told.

Some unknown number of days before we picked her up on February 23rd, the social workers with the Department of Child and Family Services were busy trying to coordinate the placement of the baby's 3-year-older half-brother into a foster home.  It seemed likely that he would need a permanent home (and so would she), so they contacted the Children's Bureau of Southern California, an organization that specializes in placing foster children that are likely to be adoptable.  With two children needing a place to go, they looked in their files and discovered my wife and I, who had just finished our certification for foster care a week before.

We had told the Children's Bureau that we would take up to two children under the age of 5, as long as one of them was a girl.  With three older children, we were experienced parents, and my wife's background in special education was a bonus, as it was quite possible that these children would eventually need that kind of help.  We were a perfect match, and they called us on February 22nd. 

My wife received the call in the morning.  It was a Wednesday.  They asked if we could come to the hospital that very day to pick up the baby girl and the next day to pick up the toddler boy.  The only things they told us was that there was a little boy that was 3-years-old, and a newborn girl who was premature but doing well who had been born addicted to methamphetamines.  Oh, and they were Caucasian.  This latter detail was perplexing to us, as will be told in a moment.

My wife said she needed to call me to confirm, which she did.  We took a few moments to pray about it -- something we had been doing in a general sense for a very long time -- and I told her over the phone, "Let's do it."  My wife called the social worker back and told her we would take them.  A few phone calls later, we were told that we shouldn't arrive that day, as there was some concern on the part of the agency of placing a baby as diminutive as she was.  At that point, she weighed just under 5 pounds, and they had a policy against taking children as small as that.

So, we had a night to think things over, but we never once contemplated not taking them.  We spent the afternoon preparing our 3 older children, the evening talking between ourselves about what needed doing, and the night attempting to sleep in our anticipation.  Come the morning, we made our way down to the Children's Hospital of Orange County, where the baby had been moved weeks before.  It was a long drive that I don't remember, so distracted was I with my thoughts.

Our arrival at the hospital was without fanfare.  I remember it was a sunny day, pleasant temperatures.  We were a rarity in the crowds -- Caucasian, middle class, blonde.  After some inquiries, we finally made our way to the NICU and rang the bell to the outer door.  The nurses were expecting us and quickly ushered us in.  Two baby stations to the right was a rocking chair and a glass case with a most precious treasure inside.  The attending nurse pointed us to it and we locked eyes on our new baby for the first time.

My first thought: "She's so small!"  Indeed, our own biological children had been born exceeding a sturdy 8 pounds, so that little thing was tiny to us indeed.

My second thought: "Are you sure this is the right one?"  The last thing we wanted to do was become too familiar with the wrong baby!  After we had been assured that she was indeed the right one, somehow I ended up being the one to take her out of the crib.  She was so very, very small.  She easily fit into one hand, even wrapped up in a blanket.  Babies in general look very much alike -- small, squished, rolls of fat -- but we were stunned by how much she looked like one of our babies.  I handed her to my good wife, whose face was filled with awe and a pure love.

And in that moment, she was ours.  We had an intellectual understanding that we were "just" fostering her, and that there was a chance she could be reunited with her biological family, but in our hearts we knew: she was ours, for then and for forever.  It would be a year-and-a-half to make it so, but we still knew.

I ended up changing her diaper first -- no biggie, as I am an experienced, hands-on father.  My wife watched in bemusement.  The day progressed boringly.  We had to wait for the agency social worker to arrive to sign the right paperwork, for the child to endure a "car seat test" to make sure she could handle the stress of travel, and for a small mountain (we have a whole mountain range now) of paperwork to get copied for us.  All the while, my wife and I pondered a name.

In the years we had been trying to have another child on our own, we had settled positively on the name Eliza Karen (two solid family names that pleased us when put together) if we ever had another baby girl.  It took us only seconds to realize that it didn't fit the baby at all, so we spent much of the afternoon mulling over names.

For my wife and I, choosing a name for our older children had always been a rather scientific process.  We would generate lengthy (!) lists of options, import them into a spreadsheet for highlighting and annotation, and go through them slowly removing the names we didn't like until we had a few final candidates.  From there the negotiating began between us, but we usually settled pretty quickly.  For this new baby girl, it wasn't so easy.  First, we had no spreadsheet, little access to the internet, and very few other ideas.  Ultimately, though, we felt really happy with Olivia -- a name we both thought was beautiful and from which we could derive several cute diminutives.  We weren't totally convinced, though, so by the time we were finally allowed to leave the hospital, we were calling her that tentatively.  It took us only a few days, though, for it to settle in without any doubt, then the hunt for a middle name commenced.

As it was, leaving the hospital was a very strange thing.  First, it was done while my wife was in full health -- indeed, we often joke that she looked her absolute best when leaving the hospital with our last baby and that it was the easiest recovery she had ever had.  Second, the baby wasn't ours!  We had a borrowed car seat, a borrowed baby bag, even diapers that had been given to us as a gift.  With only a day to prepare, everything we had for her was donated from our most amazing friends who lived nearby.  Even the baby girl was borrowed!  It was just plain weird driving away with somebody else's baby.

Then we were off to the offices of the social workers, where the baby's older half-brother was waiting to be picked up.  That story will be told another time, but even so, when we saw him, a blonde haired boy with fair skin and features, we wondered if she would be the same.  Time would confirm, surprisingly, that she, too, would look so very much like our own biological children.  Indeed, it will likely prove to be that nobody will ever doubt that she is our own flesh and blood because she looks so much like us.

This fact alone is amazing in its own right, but considering that most children in "the system" (~90%) are children of Hispanic or African-American descent, which we were prepared to accept, the fact we would end up with children that were not only Caucasian, but blonde and fair like our own children ... truly God aligned things this way for the eventual benefit of these children, who will never feel apart or different from our other children.

Upon arriving home with the two new children, she did what babies her size do.  She slept a lot, ate when she didn't, and pooped when she was doing those two other things.  Being born premature, she needed to be fed every 2 hours, which was downright exhausting.  My wife and I took turns feeding her, and we were exceptionally blessed that she was a well-mannered child who had no colic, ate as she should have, and only cried when she was truly uncomfortable.  Even so, we were terribly sleep-deprived.  Taking turns still meant that we would, at best, get 4 hours of sleep at a time.

After taking care of our older children -- who endured the difficulties in the home as champions -- and managing the extreme and difficult transition of the 3-year-old (again, another story!), we would go to bed facing a night where there would be too little sleep.  However, we looked forward to it.  The baby girl was warm and cuddly, didn't fuss unexpectedly, and didn't mind if we watched something on Netflix while she was eating.  (Indeed, we would both watch A LOT of TV in the middle of the night, something we had NEVER in our lives done before.)

These early days felt like the Twilight Zone to us.  We don't remember them well because they were such a blur.  I was managing a full load at work, my wife was taking care of a challenging toddler while home-schooling my pre-teen daughter, and the other two older boys needed attention to keep their school and other activities on track.  But we recall it as a happy time with her.

Soon, though, something didn't quite seem right with her upper lip.  We had seen children have a fat upper lip before due to the pressures of eating a bottle (or even nursing).  Hers, though, began to grow out in an unexpected manner.  When we took her to the doctor, we learned a new word: hemangioma.  Her blood vessels in her upper lip were growing beyond control.  The doctor indicated that it would eventually resolve itself, but it could take up to 10 years before it would return to a normal size; he recommended surgery immediately.

But that was not to be.  As a foster child, everything has to move through the courts, and the courts move excruciatingly slow.  It took over 9 months before we finally got approval to move forward with the surgery, and that only after we had to get grumpy with the county social workers who several times dropped the ball.  By that time, the hemangioma had grown excessively and she looked like she had a permanent fat lip -- or was a duck.  Her appearance was charmingly quaint in its own way, but as she grew we knew it wouldn't remain so.

Finally, after all that waiting, her surgery occurred on February 1st, almost a year after she was born.  The doctor's final report after the surgery indicated that he had removed about a golf-ball sized amount of flesh from her upper palate.  He was surprised by how far inside her upper mouth the hemangioma had grown, which accounted for why the surgery took several more hours than expected.  Nobody was pleased with the fact it had taken so long, and because of it, the surgery was more difficult for her than it would have been had the surgery happened six or more months earlier.  She may even have longer-term effects, but that remains to be seen.  Today, her upper lip is still enlarged, but not exceptionally, and she may have another surgery or two in her future to correct the shape of her mouth and to remove additional growth that wasn't cleared in the first place. 

Otherwise, she seems to have grown normally in almost every way, if a bit behind schedule.  She has received all sorts of services to help her out, including physical therapy and occupational therapy, and she is going to begin speech therapy in a few months because she's still not speaking as much as she should.  How much of these delays are inherent, how much are from the prenatal drug exposure, and how much from being born premature we do not know.  We love her even so.

A few months after bringing the baby home, we learned that her grandmother's sister was expressing interest in taking her.  We were exceedingly alarmed.  We came to find out that the grand-aunt had recently married an older fellow with grown children from a previous marriage.  We surmised he wasn't too keen on starting over with a baby, but she was interested in "starting" a family.  She lived out-of-state, though, which complicated matters for her.

At one point, she came into town to visit family, and a meeting was arranged between her and the baby girl.  We were exceptionally unhappy about this, but we didn't have the right to refuse.  My wife and I both went to this visit (which was unusual, because when it came to family visitations for the baby's half-brother, I always went alone while she took care of all the other kids).  We wanted her to see my wife and I together, so she could see that the baby was well loved and well cared for.  We think our gambit worked because a few excruciating months later we discovered that she had changed her mind about offering to take the baby and instead offered to take one of the baby's other half-sisters who also needed a place to go.  To us, this was always the more logical thing to do, and we were greatly relieved that she had come to this same conclusion.

(As an aside, had the grand-aunt lived in California, we most likely would have lost the baby immediately on her original whim to take her.  Happily for us, this wasn't to be, but unfortunately for the grand-aunt and for the baby's older half-sister, the cross-state-line-boundary problem, to date, still hasn't been resolved and they haven't been able to place the older half-sister with the grand-aunt, despite being willing and able to take her.)

On a lighter note, did I mention the baby is a total Daddy's girl?  Big time.  When I come home from work, she only wants to be with me.  When she's unhappy or hurt or bored or hungry or excited or thirsty or cold or warm or just right, she only wants to be with me.  I'm flattered to be the favored parent, and I love it.  Someday it'll probably be annoying, but a year-and-a-half later someday has not yet come.

Throughout all that time until just last month, we had social workers coming to our home on average once a week.  This was on top of the therapists coming and going to provide services for her.  We had social workers from the county, social workers from the agency, social workers from adoption services ... so many people who cared for the well-being of this precious little girl.  She'll never know how many people were involved in bringing her into our family, but we do, and we are amazed at the small army that it took.  Most proved to be competent and helpful, others not so much, but all of them played a role in her life.

Eventually, the courts worked their work and the parental rights of her mother were terminated.  No other biological family members were identified who could take her, so an offer was eventually extended to us to adopt her.  Would we take it?  Of course!!  There was never a doubt.  She is our baby!

From that point on, it was a matter of finalizing the adoption in the courts.  We arranged for a lawyer, the same one who had facilitated the adoption of her older half-brother a few months before; and this lawyer took care of the details of getting things in order and scheduling a court date.  Then, finally - finally! -- on August 30th, we were able to take this precious little girl before a very kind judge, who waved his hand, said a few magic words, and made her legally ours.  She cried through the whole thing.  (Of course, it was the middle of her nap time and the lawyer was late ...)  Our two favorite social workers terribly inconvenienced themselves (this is no exaggeration) to be there, which was wonderful!

But we weren't yet done.  While she was legally ours here on Earth, that wasn't good enough for us.  So we very quickly arranged for interviews with our bishop and stake president and scheduled time in the temple to take her to have her sealed to our family.  We decided that we wanted our parents in Utah to be able to attend the sealing, and we further concluded it would be fitting and poetic if we were to have this baby girl sealed to us -- our last child -- in the same place where my wife and I were sealed as husband and wife 15 years ago.

The Sunday prior to the sealing, we took our baby girl to church in a beautiful white dress and I gave her a "baby" blessing.  She wasn't a baby anymore, but it was a truly special experience for me to finally be able to stand before Heavenly Father and pronounce her name upon her.  After not being named by her biological mother, a temporary name by the nurses, and yet another temporary name used by the social workers as pronounced by her grandmother, it was with great pleasure that I was finally able to make her name her own, both here on Earth and in Heaven.  We named her Olivia Grace.  It was a fantastic feeling to finally make her name her own!  Her middle name was intentionally chosen, as we do indeed feel that she has been a gift to us, delivered by the grace of God.

The following weekend, we made a pilgrimage to the Jordan River Temple.  There, each of our other children were able to be in the room with our parents and many of our siblings and their spouses (and one of their children) when we were sealed to her.

That day, September 7th, was very special.  We first had lunch with my family at an all-you-can-eat buffet, which my older kids absolutely loved.  Those of my family who were able to be there joined us and it was wonderful to see my siblings celebrate the day with us.  One of my sisters actually traveled for 5 hours to be there (and then turned around and drove 5 hours home afterwards ... so amazing!).

My father wasn't doing so well, having had surgery on his foot a few weeks earlier.  He was in a wheelchair, but made the trip, anyway.  In truth, had my parents not been able to make it, we would have rescheduled, so we were glad they were able!

After lunch, we rushed off to the temple, where we took all 5 of our kids in the front doors with us -- a singular experience that we won't be able to repeat again until they are all grown.  We ran to the front bathrooms and changed clothes to put the kids in their church clothes, and our baby girl in her beautiful white dress.  After that, we ran outside to get a few pictures.

Returning to the front desk, we showed our temple recommends and took our children, hand-in-hand, inside the temple.  We delivered them to the children's waiting area, which had plenty of toys to keep their attention for a while.

My wife and I turned around and were led to the records area where we worked through the paperwork to be sure everything was in order (it was -- we didn't leave any of that to chance).  Then we were led into the changing rooms where we changed into our temple clothes and then led up to the main hallway where the sealing rooms were.  The attendant deposited us in a sealing room right next to the records office to wait for all our family members to be in place.  As it turned out, it was the same room that my wife and I had waited in prior to our own sealing 15 years earlier.  It was surreal to be in the same place as all those years before, holding my wife's hand, who was still my beautiful bride after all this time -- only more beautiful.

We sat there and appreciated the solemness of the moment.  15 years earlier, we were all atwitter with young love and were overwhelmed with the emotion of the moment.  The details of that long ago day remain a blur in my mind, but this past weekend my mind was clear, focused, and determined.  It was a day we had worked for, anticipated, waited on, and prepared for.  We had taught our older children the importance of the day and carefully crafted the order of events in the mind of our littlest boy so that the day would go smoothly for him.  It all came to that moment, and we were well-prepared and relaxed.  It was glorious.

Finally the sealer came for us.  He sat and asked us a few questions.  Asked us if we had any questions.  We had none.  We were ready, and he seemed unsure what to say to us after that.  I found it somewhat amusing.

One surprise we did have was that were not to hold the little girl during the sealing itself, but that we needed somebody else to do that.  We hadn't anticipated that, so we had no one in mind.  After some short discussion, we elected to have my wife's mother wrestle with her.  Did I mention our baby is a Daddy's girl?  We figured there were no good solutions, and that my wife's mother would be the most patient with a struggling infant.  It was the right decision.

Eventually, we were led to the sealing room.  We entered and saw both of our fathers on the left, ready to be the witnesses to the sealing.  That was a special treat in itself, as they also served as the witnesses at our wedding.  Our mothers and those siblings who were there made up the rest of the company.  Everybody just watched us.  My wife and I smiled graciously and took our seats.  The sealer came in and spoke a few words to us about what a great blessing it was to be able to adopt children and to bring them into the fold of God.

Then the moment came.  The children were brought in.  The older children were asked to stand to one side of the altar of the temple while my wife and I knelt on either end.  My mother-in-law carried our baby girl in her arms and leaned her over to be near us.  As the words of the sealing prayer were said, I held her little hand on ours while she just grinned in my face (Daddy's girl!).  She thought the whole thing was funny, and I couldn't help but beam with happiness back at her.  My wife, on the other hand, was caught up in the emotion of it all and quietly wept with joy as our family was finally brought to completion.  The daughter we had wanted, the one we knew had been prepared for us, was finally ours.

And just like that, it was over.  We stood and I, of course, took my newest baby girl into my arms, and we went around the room expressing thanks for people's attendance and giving hugs.  It was the sweetest of sweet moments.  All 5 (finally!) of my kids were well-behaved (miracle!) and it was with reluctance that we cleared the room.

The moment over, we went outside for a few more pictures and then to another family meal, this time with my wife's family, and the following morning we made the long drive home.  It was done.

And now we honestly, truly have 5 children, for now and for forever.  I always refer to them as my "handful", a not-too-witty expression which has the obvious double-meaning.  Clearly the road ahead is still long.  She's just a baby, and there will be problems as she grows.  We still don't know the extent to which she will be affected by the drugs and alcohol exposure she had in the womb.  Her developmental delays are obviously part of that, but how much more -- how much worse -- we will not know until time makes it evident.  Even so, she is finally ours!  No matter what the future brings, we will endure, we will wait, we will support her, and most importantly, we will love her with all of our hearts, for that is what true mothers and fathers do.


Nikki said...

I ran into Angel a few months ago at our ward with Olivia, and I kid you not, she wanted me to hold her. She beamed at me and let me snuggle her, and I got a little teary eyed. She is such a special little thing and she and her brother are so incredibly blessed to have you guys! From one family full of adopted kids (mine and Wes') to yours, congratulations!

Just a german Teenager. said...

Wow your little girl is just the cutest, you are so blessed with having her, I am sure she will have a great time in her new family, congratulations!

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