Answers in a Pink Backpack

It’s a strange thing, this not having answers about the beginning. A mother is supposed to know the story of the day her daughter was born and the first days of her life. It’s the natural order of things.

And the questions have stacked up in my mind these last few years. Was she left in a safe place? Was she not? Was it morning, noon, or a cold November night? Was it hard for someone to walk away? Who was it that walked away? A father, a grandmother, a friend? A mother? Did they stand in the background watching to make sure she was discovered? Did they run away for fear of being discovered? Did they feel backed into a corner – all victims of custom and culture and policy and law? Or did bias and brokenness freeze soft hearts solid?

My daughter is still far too young to have many of her own questions yet. She’s tiptoeing around the edges of this story… sticking her toes into the deep waters of a murky and painful history, with all its twists and turns and unlikely-yet-miraculous circumstances that brought us together. She’s already asking poignant and profound questions; why didn’t I get to grow in your tummy, mama? Why did you pick me? But they are still just questions dancing at the edges of the full story. And I think one of the reasons I wrestle with the questions is because I want to be prepared for when she asks them someday. I didn’t labor to bring her into this world, and it almost feels as though I’ve believed I need to bear the full, painful brunt of her story as a labor of sorts, to earn my stripes as her mother. I’ve felt an urge to feel all the anger and pain and sadness on her behalf, as though I could shield her from some of it by bearing it myself first. I’ve felt like I need to be prepared for her questions — as prepared as a mama can be.

If I couldn’t be there the day it all happened, maybe I could at least rise to the occasion and be a strong and sturdy support for her to depend upon when its time for her own reckoning. I can’t fix what happened, so I find myself holding her story like an uncut diamond. I twist it and turn it and peer through it from many different angles. Unpolished and uncut, it isn’t clear what all it holds, but somehow I’ve found myself holding out hope that if I just try hard enough, if I just try long enough, if I just ask the right questions of the right people at the right time, maybe I can figure out the best way to help her cut the stone so that it gleams brightest. Maybe I can help her avoid taking the wrong angle or cutting too deep.

I want to save her from more pain; save her from more injury. I would undo all of it if I could, and yet would that mean I’m wishing we never belonged to one another? I don’t wish that, of course. I want the ending without the beginning. I want her to live in our ‘Happily Ever After’ without ever walking through the darkness of ‘Once Upon a Time.’ But this isn’t how it works, is it? If I’ve learned anything these last couple of years in my own life, it’s that no one can save us from our own stories.

But as her mama, I haven’t stopped trying.

I confess, I came to her hometown wanting answers. In spite of the fact that I know I can’t walk out this journey of discovery on her behalf; I can’t, in fact, shield her from the full brunt of it, I couldn’t let it go. I wanted to know concrete details about the beginning of her story. Who, what, when, where, how. Why, God, why? I came with so many questions, and truthfully I’m not leaving with any new answers.

But I’m leaving with peace.

More than 6 years before our daughter was born, we met our dear Chinese friend Blake. After 4 years together in Beijing, we all moved back home. Jacob and I to America and Blake to Zhengzhou in central China. Blake began practicing law in his hometown, which also happens to be a city near to Alea’s hometown. Because of his legal connections, we were able to have dinner last night with the District Attorney for Alea’s hometown and the police officer who signed the police report regarding her finding; the police officer who responded to the call about a baby being left in an unlikely place.

When the police officer arrived to dinner, he came carrying a small brown paper bag. Inside was a beautiful pink backpack and Alea gasped in delight. You see, she starts Kindergarten this year and I hadn’t yet bought her a new backpack. (In fact, since the one she had was less than a year old and perfectly nice, to be honest I hadn’t planned on buying her one. To say this was a sore spot she has with me would not be an understatement.) So this beautiful new backpack? It was the perfect gift. He saw her delight and smiled and said, “I thought she might be about to start school and hoped she might like it.”

All through the dinner, Alea kept running over to the side of the room to put on her backpack. At one point, she came to me and said, “Mama, how did he know I wanted one?” I smiled and said I didn’t know. She beamed even bigger and said, “I know! I think God must have told him.”

And you know what, I think she might be right. You see, more than answers to concrete questions she’s not even asking, at this stage of her life Alea really only wants to know one thing: am I loved? The questions I’ve been asking are mine, not hers. And that gentle and kind police officer with the pink backpack answered her question resoundingly clear: YES! He apologized and said he didn’t remember any details from the day he took the call about the abandoned infant who became my daughter. At the time, it was a day’s work and not the first – nor the last- time he’d had such a call. We didn’t get answers to my questions. But as I’ve thought about it today I’ve come to realize that what we got in this visit feels even better than details. What we got from this visit was the assurance that she mattered.

The policeman didn’t come with a gift for her father or for me, something that would be more typical in this culture than bringing a gift only for a child. He didn’t come with an all-business brusque manner or the attitude of someone who was “just doing his job.” He came for her. He came with tenderness and kindness and warmth. He listened to the nudge in his heart that said she might like a pink backpack and he went out of his way to bring her a gift. He treated her like someone who was precious and worthy and valued. And it made her heart soar.

Earlier in the day, one of the orphanage staff members brought Alea’s nanny to visit in the hotel lobby. We visited and reminisced and her nanny told us how hard she had cried in the days after Alea left the orphanage. “I knew getting adopted would be the best thing for her, but I still missed her a lot. I saw her more than I saw my own family.” If you know my Alea, you know she is a cuddle bug… affectionate and tender-hearted and always ready to give hugs and kisses. Seeing her nanny and feeling her warm embrace made me understand more deeply what a difference she made. Alea’s heart is so astoundingly whole because she gave her part of her own. She loves well because she’s always been loved.

And now when we talk about the very beginning of her story, I can say: “Do you remember your ShuShu (Uncle) who gave you the pink backpack? He was there that day. He kept you safe and made sure you were ok. He took you to the orphanage and your Ayi (Auntie) helped take care of you until Mama, Daddy, and Sister could come get you. She loved you very much and still remembers how you liked sucking your two fingers when you were sleepy. She still keeps your picture on her phone. My dear daughter, you were never, ever alone. There’s always been someone by your side who cared for you.”

And it will be true.

It may not be the facts I thought I needed to gather for her. It’s not concrete answers. And though I had said this before, the truth of another reality settled more deeply in my heart after our experiences yesterday: there are circumstances and situations where not knowing may be better than knowing, and I can trust God will reveal what needs to be revealed to answer the questions that need to be answered for my child at the time that is best for her. That timetable may not be the same as it is for another family or another child, and that’s OK. I don’t know what the future will hold. I know we will come back. The policeman said he will be Alea’s honorary uncle and the DA told us this town isn’t just the city where Alea was born, it is the Chinese hometown for our whole family. We want to honor their sincerity, and we want Alea to know her past is our past as well.

Alea may want more information or maybe she won’t. If she does, we may or may not find out what it is she wants to know. There may always be empty places in her story. But as my dear friend Lori said today, “It sounds like those empty places are being filled with people who cared for her and made the best decisions they could on her behalf.”

And I think for now, that’s answers enough. And they came packaged in a perfect pink backpack.


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