This is a long but still glorious story. I hope I tell it well. Prepare yourselves.
I am aboard our flight to Ethiopia, sailing along the coast of Albania. It is dinner time at home, night in Ethiopia. I am still considering all that has happened in the past nearly three years, from our decision to adopt to this day, when our third child will be placed in our custody permanently.
Our decision to adopt was born from infertility, infertility I suspected initially in my early twenties when my body just didn’t seem to work right. As I progressed though my medical education, I studied the detailed cyclical nature of women, the ebb and flow of hormones and blood, the precise and perfect release of an ovum, and I knew. We sought the advice of my physician two months after trying to start a family. For two years, we submitted to examinations and ultrasounds, provided temperature charts and fluid samples, tried pills and injections, inseminations. A process that is so simple, even accidental for so many, could not, would not be replicated in me. During this time, we moved to a new city, started new jobs, searched for a new church home. We only had each other since we had no established relationships in our new home.
We began exploring adoption even before our infertility treatments ceased. I think somehow I already knew that it wasn’t useful to continue. I did a lot of begging and pleading with God during this time, but I think I didn’t listen often. Sometimes I think if we had been more in tune with God’s desires for us, we wouldn’t have bothered. Adoption was such relief for me at first, a new process to pour my energy into, a break from each failed cycle. I had hope. I may not be able to ovulate, but I can handle paperwork. Our agency was very optimistic, promised an infant boy home in my arms in 9-12 months from our initial meeting. No one with our agency had requested a boy, all had requested girls, and there were boys waiting to be matched with families. We completed our home study and dossier in about 2 months. We prayed blessings over our stamped and sealed dossier and mailed it to Ethiopia.
By this time, we had waited almost three years for a child, and I was sinking. I avoided the mall because of the maternity store, blocked posts from a pregnant friend on Facebook, tried to avoid sending hateful glares towards strollers and bulging bellies. I attended to newborns in the hospital nursery every week, cupping each of their little heads in my hand and whispering, “God, I want this” while biting the inside of my cheek. Five staff members in my office were pregnant at this time, and I warred within my barren self. Infertility creates a bitterness that claws away any attempts to express joy over others’ good fortune. It was hard to pray, hard to know that God is omnipotent but wouldn’t do this one thing for us. I know the kind of prayer that has no words, the one that bubbles up out of dark places that no one wants to confess.
Six weeks after our dossier was mailed and after one long day on my knees, our social worker called with our referral. I stared and stared at that face, our son, the promised little boy, Mente. He was only 3 months old. I pictured him home in 2 months, thought about warming bottles, snuggling him up in sleepers, rocking him to sleep. Matt, overjoyed, showed everyone pictures of his boy. We gave him a second name, bought a tiny pair of black high top Chuck Taylors. We expected a court date within a month, home with him in two. Weeks passed, and we received no calls. I didn’t want to be obnoxious mother, so I waited 6 weeks before trying to reach our social worker. She didn’t return calls or email. Our agency had changed ownership, but we were never notified. Another adoptive parent finally placed me in touch with the new owner who promised to look into it for us.
During this time, I participated with some friends in a chronological reading through the Bible in 40 days. It was an enormous challenge, but as the timing of our court date neared, The Lord showed me 19 different scriptures to encourage me in our wait. I wrote each one down, little sprinkles as I waited for the rains.
Two more weeks passed, and our new agency contact called. She said there was a problem, one she didn’t understand fully, but it had something to do with our son’s paperwork. She said he never should have been referred to us at all, that he did not have appropriate paperwork to proceed with a court date. Ethiopian Agency staff had assured her that this was correctable with time. I had traveled in Africa twice already by this time, and I knew a little about what Africans really mean when they say it will take time. If they say hours, they mean days, and if they estimate days, they mean weeks or months. This was extremely unsettling for me since no time frame was given at all. Our agency contact said not to worry, the agency feels badly about this delay. “If you would like, there are other children who will be paper ready in a few weeks. They will refer one of these children to you, and when your son’s papers are ready, you can adopt him also,” she assured.
We were terribly disappointed. Not only were we unable to conceive like most families, we were also somehow unable to adopt as well. I simply didn’t understand how God could promise this child to me and not deliver him. I held up the 19 promises I had read during my 40 day study, and argued with God, reminding him of each of those promises. Around this time, we learned that our son’s Ethiopian name means “God can do anything.” I rationalized this delay as God’s way of giving us two children instead of one.
About a month later, our agency called while I was in the midst of an international medicine course out-of-town. “I have a referral for you,” she said, “a girl.” How was that possible? The waiting time for infant girls was nearly two years, and yet there she was, a petite, pink-lipped baby girl, my Lulu. I spent the rest of the afternoon searching a photo listing where other adoptive parents place photos of the children still living in the orphanage for pictures of my baby girl. I found only a few and studied her crown of shiny ringlets, the fuchsia birthmark behind her left ear, and her candlestick-thin wrists. Within the month we were given a court date a few months away. We packed and prepared, spent a weekend in New York babymooning, and relished our last few months without a child at home.
Finally, on September 24, 2010, we left the crisping, colored trees of our home and set off for Ethiopia, our third visit to this nation of coffee, injera, and incense. On the flight, I studied scripture and prayed to pass the time. These verses from the book of Haggai drowned out the engine noise:
” . . . from this day on, from this twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, give careful thought to the day when the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid . . . until now, the pomegranate and the olive tree have not borne fruit. From this day on, I will bless you.”
Another promise, the barren now bearing fruit. I believed our court date would be a success. I am especially sentimental about Ethiopia because I first met Africa there. Stepping out of the airport we received an assault by color and fragrance, woven scarves, bright blue taxis, cooking spices, soap and exhaust. We rested that evening and arose early the next morning to meet our daughter. When we arrived with five other adopting families, we found all the children asleep. My Lulu was asleep in the first crib, her legs tucked under, fist clutching a square of pink satin. I knelt by the crib to watch her, wanting desperately to hold her but not wanting to wake her. She awoke as I snapped a picture, raised her little head, grinned, and then buried it in her lovey. She popped up again, smiling wide. I lifted her, held her close for a few minutes, whispering to her, then lifted her to her daddy. We heard her growl and coo, watched her rake for toys that we offered and practice standing on our thighs. We fed warmed bottles and held her when she napped. We stood in the Federal Court of Ethiopia and a gentle Ethiopian judge pronounced, “She is yours.” We had only to wait for her visa to be issued several weeks later by the U.S. Embassy.
While in Ethiopia, we visited the orphanage across town each day to see Mente, the child we believed to be our son. The orphanage director was very optimistic, thought he and the social workers had nearly solved our paperwork problem. We had very little time with him each day since visiting hours were limited and we also wanted to spend time across town with Lulu.
We returned home to await our Embassy appointment, bought dresses and patent leather shoes, invested in a baby carrier, and packed a bag for our daughter. One month later, we were on our way back to Ethiopia to bring Lulu home. We relished spending time with our daughter, and each day, we visited Mente in the orphanage. This time, the orphanage director felt he had done it, repaired the paperwork awaiting only one more document. We journeyed home optimistic for our future with our two children.
Three weeks after Lulu’s homecoming, our agency contact called to tell us that Mente’s paperwork was complete and had been submitted to Ethiopian court. We eagerly shared this news with our family and friends. Not long after, we were given a court date on February 14, 2011, Valentine’s Day. Finally, this boy would be ours. We bought a second crib, imagined our two kids playing together in our home.
We boarded our Ethiopian Airlines flight with the same optimism as our prior visits, sure that this time our promised son would be given to us. He toddled after balls we tossed and played peek-a-boo from under the crib railing. He played on a blanket spread across the grass of the transition house, the Ethiopian sun grazing us. In court, the judge said, “Everything looks to be in order, but something is missing.” We did not pass court, and we had no idea why. The in-country agency staff didn’t know either but promised to tell us the following day. I spent most of the night on my knees weeping and begging God to fix this. What had I done wrong? We returned to the transition home the next day and were informed that no staff was available as it was a holiday. We departed Ethiopia that night, without a son and without knowing why.
For weeks we heard nothing from our agency despite calls and emails. I prayed fervently, but God was also silent. I felt no encouragement, no reassurance. Nearly a month later, our agency contact phoned with devastating news: “You did not pass court because Mente’s extended family has been located. They’ve spoken to his mother, and she has decided to parent him.” There was such conflict inside me, this intense grief at losing this little boy and still gratitude that he would be united with his birth family. I felt like he had died, except that he hadn’t. I felt foolish for grieving a child who was never really mine, silly for owning two cribs but having only one baby. I imagine this is a little like a miscarriage, a great loss of a child you love intensely but still never really knew, and there is no real support from others because you lost something you never really had. They do not understand.
The agency promised us another referral within a few weeks since we’d already paid fees for two children and appeared in Ethiopian court for the adoption. This felt so strange to us though, as if we were replacing one child with another. My husband explained it to a friend this way: “Imagine going to pick your child up from daycare. Your child’s teacher meets you at the door and says, ‘I’m sorry, we’re not able to give your son to you, but if you like we have this adorable little boy you can take home instead.'” I wrestled so much with my disappointment with God during this time. After all, he promised Mente to me, and I believed in faith that he would come home, despite his paperwork problems. The Bible instructs us to have great faith, and I had been obedient. Why would he promise this boy to me and then allow this? Did I misunderstand? I was truly thankful that Mente would live with his birth mother; there is no better outcome for him, but why then, was he referred to us at all? Why would God allow us to endure this heartache? I could not understand how to balance having great faith and disappointment, and I could not make sense of any of it.
In May 2011, our replacement referral finally arrived, and I began the process of moving on from Mente and allowing myself to love another baby boy, Teme. Teme’s paperwork was complete, and we were assured no problems with his adoption. We did not have to travel for court, so we waited at home for things to progress in Ethiopia. After already losing a child, I was anxious about falling in love with our new son. I wouldn’t allow myself to look at his picture or imagine him in my home. I called him “Maybe Baby,” afraid to get too close. My reservations weren’t unfounded. The Ethiopian Ministry of Women, Children, and Youth Affairs office (MOWCYA) must approve every adoption before it is granted by the judge, and they had announced that they would only process cases at a rate of 5% of their previous rate, which meant it was very difficult to pass court quickly. There were rumors that Ethiopian adoptions may cease altogether. Night after night, I prayed late into the evening, covering the morning hours in Ethiopia with prayer for Teme. We fasted regularly. It took two months for us to pass court in Ethiopia, and another four months before we had clearance from the U.S. Embassy to bring Teme home.
We traveled back to Ethiopia in December 2011 to bring Teme home. We were horrified to find him malnourished, with sagging skin around his abdomen and thighs, dull eyes, and a silent cry. His scalp had two painful infections that needed treatment. We spent our first few days feeding him, holding him, hydrating him, spooning medications into his mouth, and he brightened quickly. He clung to us constantly and fussed anytime food was nearby and not immediately in front of him. I ached over his insecurity and promised him he would never hunger again. On our third day in Ethiopia, we visited the orphanage to bring donations for the children there. We were met at the door by Yacob, a man we hadn’t met before. He informed us he was the new director. He thanked us for our donations and then offered to allow us to visit the children. In the first room we entered, my eyes fixed immediately on Mente. I fell to my knees, reached for him, and he stared at me. As Matt walked in the room Mente cried painfully. He would not calm until Matt left the room. Somehow, he remembered us. It had been nearly a year since we were told that Mente was going to live with his birth family. My mama anger rose up, and I demanded to know what had happened. Yacob assured me he would go directly and look at the file. I spent a few minutes with Mente, his hand resting on my shoulder, and returned to the office where Matt was waiting for Yacob. Yacob poured over documents coated in Amharic script, Mente’s picture affixed to the top corner of each one. We explained what we had been told by our agency. Yacob exclaimed, “All lies!” Our agency had done what every adoptive parent fears. They had lied. Mente lacked a critical document to be eligible for adoption. Rather than go through proper channels in the Ethiopian government to obtain this document, our agency had substituted documents from a child who had died at the orphanage. The courts had either recognized this falsehood or identified the family of the deceased child, so we could not adopt him. Either option is terrible. Yacob had other bad news. The agency, the orphanage’s primary source of support, had ceased providing any financial assistance in July 2011, five months before. They had mounting debts with the school, the hospital. The rent was unpaid, and they had very little food for the 86 children who remained there, Mente included.
I spent the night on the floor in the bathroom of our guest house, fists clenched, begging God to tell me what to do next. We couldn’t trust our agency, yet they were primarily responsible for Mente. We knew nothing of Yacob other than what he told us. My son was in a struggling orphanage. How could I leave him? I poured over my Bible for instruction and read, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God . . .” (1John 4:2). Did God mean for me to have three children instead of two? The following day, we met Yacob and bought groceries for the orphanage. In the car he asked, “Miss Kelly, do you know Jesus?” He told me that he is an educated man with a university degree in agriculture that could easily find work with a private company. Instead he feels called to care for orphans, so he stays at the orphanage despite not having any regular pay or any guarantee of support for the children there. He trusts God to provide for them. Yacob pledged his support in helping to complete Mente’s paperwork and transferring him to another agency to facilitate the adoption. Later that day, we went to the Embassy with Teme to obtain his visa. I happened to be in line behind a woman holding an emaciated infant. When asked by the Embassy guard which agency she was with, she responded, “None. This is a private adoption.” I chose a seat next to her in the waiting area and asked her to tell me her story. Like us, she had been with a corrupt agency. She broke all ties with the agency and hired a consultant to help her finish the adoption process, EthioStork, based in Virgina and run by an Ethiopian-born American woman, Duni Zenaye, fluent in both American and Ethiopian customs and intimately acquainted with all stages of the adoption process. My prayers had been answered. We at least had a plan.
I contacted EthioStork on Christmas Eve, the day after we arrived home. A few weeks later I received a reply from Duni. She agreed that Mente’s adoption was awful on many levels, and she wasn’t certain that she could help, but she offered to try. I sent her some information and awaited her response. Meanwhile, we mobilized other adoptive families to provide support to the orphanage. Some missionary friends offered to facilitate providing food and helping to pay bills there. Duni visited the orphanage on a trip to Ethiopia in March 2012. At that point she understood Mente’s paperwork problems and knew how to fix them, but she needed the approval of several governmental officials for it to happen. We contracted with her formally. In May, she advised us to apply with a new agency, one she had selected for its reputation for ethical work in Ethiopia. Mente’s paper problem was nearly resolved, but there was still no guarantee that he would be sent to the new agency. I gathered signatures and notary stamps, pressed our friends for recommendation letters, and hired a social worker for a new home study. On June 1st, Mente was transferred to our new agency’s transition home, and I could breathe again knowing that he was in a stable environment. We completed our dossier in just 4 weeks, and Mente was formally referred to us by our new agency in June.
We had little hope of receiving a court date prior to the 6 week court closures of the Ethiopian rainy season. Courts generally close for the season in the first week of August and reopen in October. This year, the courts remained open until August 22, and we were given a court date on August 6th. We returned to Ethiopia, this time certain that all was in order, and Mente became our son. We received our Embassy clearance just over a month later, and now we return to Ethiopia to bring him home. God can indeed do anything.