“Would I retreat to my comfortable life and to my settled plans, pretending I didn’t know about the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the millions of orphans? Or would I surrender to God’s call and let my heart engage with a cause I was pretty sure would include buckets of pain and sorrow? I didn’t know what would happen if I said yes to this increasingly strong urge to engage — what did “engaging” even mean? I felt like I was standing on the edge of a giant precipice; I couldn’t go back, and yet the way forward looked like stepping into a void.”
Dangerous Surrender: What Happens When You Say Yes To God
Part 3: Stepping Into a Void
Have you ever had an experience that you didn’t appreciate enough at the beginning? So that when it was over, you found yourself wishing you could go back and reuse the time from the beginning of the experience; a recycling effort that would squeeze every opportunity and moment out of the experience. In a small way, that’s what happened in the first few days of our time in the orphanage; when we were leaving the orphanage, I desperately wanted to start over again. I wouldn’t waste a moment if I could do it twice! But, since we only get once chance, the reality was that our first and second days were mostly lived on autopilot, simply soaking in the overwhelming new reality that one can’t imagine until one has lived, breathed, heard, and felt it.
The babies room with the infants who don’t cry. Ever.
The little infant who just arrived and hasn’t yet learned that no one is going to come… his lonely cry piercing the silence in an eerie reminder of what this place should sound like.
The way that his cry immediately stops with the slightest touch, the gentlest rocking, but when another task beckons and you must move on, his cry starts again as if you’ve lifted your finger off the pause button.
The children stuffing their pockets with animal crackers; at first it seems a bit greedy until it dawns on us that they are saving them for later. For the time when they don’t have food.
The little CP boy who sits in the corner of the room, tied to a wooden potty chair where he sits for 8-10 hours a day. Incontinence in a place where no one has the time to pay close attention to you means that you simply must never leave the potty.
Our first few days were spent trying to make this new reality somehow fit with the one we knew from back home… you know, the one where a 6-month-old is bought a new toy because mom feels bad about taking him for his immunization shots. Or the one where the “necessities” of child rearing include a dizzying array of gadgets and gizmos such as a diaper wipe warmer.
Where the dogs get more attention than these children do.
I can remember seeing things that horrified me, and I wanted to wake up. I really did. I wanted to shake my head so vigorously that these images would flee and never return. I didn’t want this to be my reality.
I know I’m spending a lot of time on this, but I can’t emphasize enough how much we just wanted to escape at this point. I really identify with the Kay Warren quote at the top of this post… for us, this was the moment when we were faced with a choice. Stay and suffer or build a wall around our hearts, shutting out what we were seeing and feeling so that we could more easily turn and run when our week was over, retreating to our comfortable life and settled plans.
One thought kept running through my head… This is where the forgotten are.
And though it sounds mean and selfish, I wanted to join the masses and forget. Knowledge brings responsibility, and this weight was far too heavy. At the time, I didn’t yet understand whose burden it really was to bear, and I didn’t think I could survive the sorrow. So what kept this from being a blip on our radar of life? An “Oh, that was an incredible missions trip experience, and now we’ll go home, get on with real life, and give our 10 percent to orphan related causes.” type moment?
Well, probably a lot of things, but mostly I think it was her.
During one of those first few days when the tours had finally stopped and we were left alone in the toddler room with the expanse of an afternoon before us and no idea what to do to fill the time, Jacob confessed something. “I don’t know what to do,” he said, his voice breaking from the emotion of knowing that so much needed to be done and understanding our inability to really do any of it. He looked desperate. I didn’t know either, but as the female, it was expected that I had some idea of what to do with the toddlers pawing at our ankles. “Pick one up,” I told him. “Just hold one of the kids. We aren’t going to be able to do much for them, but I know what they want and need is attention, so let’s just give them that for a few days.”
So, he reached down and picked up the nearest child. She was a petite and small little girl, with thin hair and a quiet demeanor. While the other children clamored for attention, she was content to stand in the background, quietly observing the chaos. She was sick. Even for two non-parents, we could feel the heat of a high fever radiating from her little body. She was wearing, and continued to wear for most of the week, a thin, striped, blue sundress, which was clammy and damp from her sweat — partially from her fever and partially from the stifling heat. The first thing we really noticed about her were the pale blueish-purple birthmarks covering most of her body. It looked as if she’d been bruised; we weren’t really sure what to make of it. We’d never seen it before, but we knew it was probably the reason she’d wound up in this forsaken place.
For some reason only God knows, she connected with Jacob. From that moment on, she was content to spend hours in his arms. Cuddling into his shoulder and even falling asleep, clearly feeling safe and comforted nestled deep in his arms. Some of us on the team took the approach of “sharing the love” — spreading our attention and affection over as many children as possible. To a degree, Jacob did as well. But if his little girl was in the room, that’s where he went… scooping her up for a marathon session of cuddles and holding. I have never seen a child so content to spend hours in one place. She never wanted to be put down, and within a few days, when she saw Jacob enter the room, she immediately ran for him… not in the aggressive and demanding way of the other children, but in a hopeful way… as if she wanted to know that he wanted her.
I realize I’m probably reading a lot into her behavior, perhaps too much… but I do know one thing. She was a broken child. There was a look of emptiness and sadness in her eyes, a resignation and surrender to this sad existence. Hopelessness isn’t pretty. You don’t see it much, but when you do, it rips your heart out. Jacob gave her something else… a taste of love. A hint of another kind of life. A breath of hope. She wanted more, but she was fearful that it would only bring pain. Others abandoned her. Why expect different? I saw this in her timidity, a fledgling desire to reach out for attention in spite of her better judgement; in spite of the pain it might bring.
One morning just as the sun was rising, Jacob and I were having another heart-to-heart on the balcony overlooking the field. We were talking about the little girl with the birthmark… and we realized that without really meaning to, we’d both stepped into the void Warren talked about. We were too far gone to go back. Jacob loved her. Fiercely. Seeing him like this with a child turned my heart in a way that I couldn’t have expected. Though I didn’t have a relationship with her at this point, I was willing to do anything to help this child. One part of that conversation stands out to me in particular. We were talking about whether or not we could be her parents… purely wishful thinking, because at 23 and 25, this was not an option (China requires parents to be 30). We also both admitted that her special need was overwhelming to us; thinking about how to help a child with such a visible special need navigate through her teenage years with a healthy self-esteem left us feeling inept and unprepared.
But at the same time, she was going to go through her teenage years one way or another. Either as part of a family or on her own… under which circumstance would she have the best shot at a healthy emotional life? It dawned on us at that point that it really wasn’t about us. I realize everyone needs to go into special needs adoption territory with caution, wisdom, and a healthy dose of self-awareness, but if we were in a position to adopt her, our own feelings of fear didn’t seem like a good enough reason to say no. This lesson has stuck with us and will influence our decisions about which child we should adopt when we are both finally thirty. Anyway, I digress.
It’s funny looking back, but at this point I told Jacob, “You know who would be really good parents for her?” He shook his head no, and I said, “Your parents. I mean, I realize it would never happen… they are just getting an empty nest after raising 4 boys; they aren’t in a position to start over. But they would be amazing parents for her. Their ability to find each child’s strengths and encourage and build up their children would be exactly what she needs. I hope she gets a family like them.”
He shook his head in agreement, and with that we went back to the orphanage, and he went back to his little girl.
In the next installment: A moment of desperation and the silent cry.