I’m so very grateful for the hardest day of my life, and it almost didn’t happen. My sister and I were in remote northwestern China a decade ago to pick up my oldest daughter. In 46 hours, I went from waiting to board a plane in Wichita, Kansas, to having my new daughter in a dated, dingy hotel room in easily the most foreign place either of us had ever been in. There aren’t words to describe the shock of that much transition in that short a time. The orphanage director who had brought her to our hotel had stayed only long enough to exchange brief pleasantries through the translator before leaving. Our translator, an employee of the non-profit agency we were working with and a veteran of many of these handoffs, had graciously excused herself shortly thereafter to give us our privacy. The three of us were alone. At first, the evening went well. We brought out the toys and snacks we had brought. They were a hit, especially the soft Asian doll with the almond eyes I had found in a catalog. But bath time and bed time were another story. They had warned us that she may not like baths, as most Chinese children did not receive them. The warning was right. Maybe I should have waited, but she was so dirty, and her clothes were worse. I got her clean as quickly as I could, and she cried herself to sleep that first night.
The next four days were better, spent getting to know each other, receiving official stamps from government bureaucrats on endless paperwork, and doing what little sightseeing there was to do in the remote capital city. We gradually grew hungry, unable to eat most of the local food. I learned that after a couple of days, your body rejects a steady diet of Dove bars and Coke, recognizing it’s not real food…I wouldn’t have believed that before it happened (my sister had also told me as we talked in the dark one night, that my stomach growled at night; I apologized). I had a choice on our last day of whether to visit my daughter’s foster family and orphanage. My sister advised against it, believing it would be too hard on her to see them and then giving them up again. Everything I’d read said to do so, that the child would somehow get the message from the handoff itself that it was ok to go with us. I wavered, but I wanted to be able to tell her what I could about the first part of her life. It was the right decision. The Li family was gracious, and my daughter was clearly glad to return to their home. Mrs. Li was intent on sharing every detail she could about my daughter’s time with them, inherently realizing what I as a mobile American did not fully comprehend: that we would likely never see each other again. The orphanage director treated us all to an interminable lunch at a local restaurant–food I could not eat, dreading what was to come, my daughter fussed over by the only mother she had known, who corrected my care of her.
After lunch, we visited the orphanage she had been in prior to her foster family. We were treated like visiting dignitaries, and my daughter was glad to see the caregivers she clearly remembered. The grim facilities are difficult to adequately describe. There were two low-slung, gray cinderblock buildings which strangely reminded me of chicken coops. The first building was where the children ate and were cared for during the day. The second was where they slept. There were two bedrooms, one as full of cribs as it could possibly be, at least eight to ten of them, side by side, with barely room to walk between them. The second bedroom was the same, though instead of cribs it was chock full of metal twin beds with rusting paint. The windows had bars on them, and the one door into each bedroom, which opened to the outside, had a padlock on the outside. Clearly the children were locked in by themselves at night. I was horrified. But the third room was the worst: it was a small classroom, with a blackboard on one wall and desks lined up against the opposite wall. I barely registered the room itself, but I will never forget the children at those desks. These children were older, with visible medical and developmental issues. It was easy to see with a single glance that they were unlikely to ever leave the orphanage. That night, my sister and I talked about this place long after we had turned out the lights back in our dingy hotel room. Neither of us could sleep, but for different reasons: me because I could not bear that thought that my daughter had lived there; my sister for the children who still did. But throughout that difficult tour, I knew the worst was still to come.
The details behind the goodbye between my daughter and her foster mother aren’t important, but I still can’t think of that event without tearing up. I’m not sure I’ve ever cried that hard in my life, even at the deaths of beloved family members. We were all utterly exhausted by the time we got back to our hotel after a very long two-hour drive. Our only consolation was knowing that we boarded a plane the next morning and would literally leave that experience behind us. The next three days in tropical, Western-friendly Guangzhou were closer to heaven than anyplace could be except home. We stayed in a 4-star hotel and filled our hungry bellies with New York style pizza, McDonald’s, and Hard Rock Cafe. And we rested our bodies and our souls.
I am so grateful for the experiences of that hardest day, for I can share a period of my daughter’s life with her that I would not have been able to without it. And I can tell her about some of the generous, caring people in her home country who gave of themselves to give her the opportunity to come home to her forever family. I have believed since I laid eyes on her that she has some important life work to do. I don’t have any idea what that is, but she will always know that many people played a part in ensuring that she could discover it.
“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” –Maya Angelou