It is 9:00 p.m. and I am watching “How to Train Your Dragon.” My right arm is asleep, but I can’t move it because my little girl is also asleep and lying on it.
I can’t help but notice the contrast of her skin against mine, her coal black hair falling lazily to one side. My wife is on the couch with us and she is taking the opportunity to catch up on her slumber as well. It has been a long past few weeks for all of us.
While watching this DreamWorks film, by myself at this point, I have an epiphany. The premise of this movie is that while the human thinks he is training his dragon, in turn, the dragon is training him as well. They are both gaining from the experience. Isn’t that a perfect picture of our lives?
I became a dad when I was twenty-seven. I had a beautiful baby girl. It was the most amazing thing. She didn’t get my eyes or my wife’s mouth, though there are times that I think she has her temperament and penchant for stubbornness.
I didn’t know I had become a dad until four years later. Across the globe, a brave, beautiful, and brilliant little girl was waiting patiently for my wife and me to give her what she would otherwise never have, a family. Interestingly, what we thought we were going to give her, she gave to us. Without her, we were just a couple. Now, we are a family.
One might ask, “Why did you want to be a dad in the first place?” Throughout my life I have always wanted to pass on who I am as a person more so than my looks or even other attributes, but the most important part to me is making a difference in someone else’s life. I have coached high school wrestling, taught young adult and youth Sunday school, driven school busses, you name it to make a difference in the lives of those around me. How much more of a difference could I make as a dad to a child who didn’t have one? This is in part what precipitated my desire to become a dad.
The adoption came about through my church. There are several families at our church who have adopted or fostered children. A few of the moms have setup a program specifically designed to bring awareness to the local community about adoption, fostering, court appointed special advocacy (CASA), and other means of helping children have better lives.
They hosted a Called to Care event to promote these various avenues to families who were interested, or in our case, just looking for information. While there, we met a caseworker for Lifeline Children’s Services, a domestic and international adoption agency.
The caseworker had two of her own children from China there with her. They were beautiful. She then explained the need for adoption, more specifically why China was so special.
At the moment, China has the most stable and streamlined adoption process in the world. Generally, the process is expensive, but takes only 12-15 months to complete (ours took 14) as opposed to many other countries requiring 2-5 years to complete. After many hours of discussion and prayer, my wife and I decided to go through with the process.
With the decision made to adopt, we needed to find a child that fit our ability to manage their needs.
You see, for all children in China and most other countries, adoption programs are listed with one or more “special needs.” These range from mild to severe, things such as cataracts to missing limbs, or blood disorders to birthmarks.
Also, the older a child gets the less likely he or she is to be adopted. In China, children age-out of the programs at 14. Many are turned out to fend for themselves in the street and the lucky ones are given a chance to work through rehabilitation services.
As we assessed what we thought we could handle, we knew we did not want a baby, which is what many adoptive families are looking for.
We decided to look at children between ages three and eight with mild to moderate special needs. Severe special needs would entail more than we would be able to provide given our proximity to major cities or hospitals.
Our caseworker reviewed our case along with her knowledge of us through interviews and used this information to select a file that she thought would fit what we were looking for. She did tell us that we could refuse the file and look at another.
She also mentioned that most families would look at 3-4 files before making a decision. When we looked at all of the attributes that the child in the file had as well as what her special needs were, we were hooked.
Her file stated that she liked to read, was playful, and sometimes obstinate. My wife and I looked at each other and said that fits us to a T. When we saw her picture, we knew that she was the child that we wanted to become part of our family. After almost a year of more paperwork, what I like to call “political ping pong,” we were on a plane heading to China to pick up our little girl. This was a daunting adventure from the start. We had a 13 hour flight from Detroit to Beijing only to have to endure a seven-hour layover there. This was brutal.
We were exhausted, nervous about the days ahead, and did not speak a word of Chinese. When we finally got to our destination, a little rural town of 1.5 million people called Nanning, we attempted to get some rest.
The next morning, we met our guide and walked around the area to see what was there. It was hot. I thought I was accustomed to heat being from South Georgia, but this was different. Because of the smog, the sun cut like a knife and the humidity was near excruciating. This is what we experienced the entire time we were in China.
The next morning we went to the local children’s services building to get our little girl. We anxiously awaited her arrival. While waiting, we saw several other families in the same boat as us. As we witnessed them getting their children, we could hardly wait. With every little girl that came in, I wondered is this her?
Finally, the moment came. She walked in with her nanny and came over to us. This moment was breathtaking. She looked at us and smiled and I melted. I handed her a little doll we brought for her and she giggled shyly and ran back over near her nanny. We had packed several toys and many suckers to help her like us immediately. My wife gave her a sucker which she accepted and laughed. (To this day, her laugh is still one of the best sounds in the world to me.)
Over the next several weeks, we experienced the gamut of emotions from emotional breakdowns to hysterical cackling episodes. It was stressful, but so rewarding to see how much she enjoyed experiencing things she had never seen, tasting things she had never tasted, and doing things that she had never done before.
During the flight home, she had ice in her drink for the first time ever. She played with it for a bit before taking a sip. So many things we take for granted, she had never had. The look on her face when we let her pick out a pair shoes at the store was priceless. She had never really been given a choice before.
Things were not easy at first. You might say my daughter is definitely a daddy’s girl. She and my wife did not initially bond well, and their relationship is still a work in progress. Also, just as a baby cries and a parent can only use trial and error to figure out why, we had a similar experience. She would cry at times and at others babble on incessantly to us while we had no clue as to what she was saying.
Becoming parents is a learning experience regardless of whether you have them biologically or you adopt them. There are complexities to both.
So just as both the dragon and his rider had a mutual “training” experience, I have too with my daughter. Going into the process of adoption, I had all of these ideas and plans that I expected to do with her, things such as teaching her to play guitar, how to fish and hunt, how to wrestle, and how to enjoy a conversation over a cup of coffee.
While I have made a little progress with her in these areas, though to my chagrin she likes the piano more than guitar, we have made leaps in my own “training.” She has taught me that a four-year-old will do things that will annoy an adult for no reason other than they are four years old. She has shown me that there is more to life than social media, reality TV or most of what I thought was living prior to becoming a dad.
Perhaps the most important thing I have learned from her is that the greatest thing a person can do in their life is give back for no reason other than love. That is it. She has taught me how to love. Not because she looks like me, talks like me, thinks like me, or gives me money, but because when I look at her smile, I know that I have made a difference. That is living. That is love.
P.S. Live, laugh, love abundantly and if you can, adopt.