Note: This is part of a longer story. To read earlier chapters, click on the category “Adoption Stories” (and work from the bottom up!)
Considering what we had been going through for the previous three weeks, our flight to Addis Ababa was surprisingly uneventful. There was even a funny incident at security. My sister-in-law had given me a straw baby-carrying basket – sort of like a natural Maxi-Cosi – which I used as my carry-on. We got to Security and I put it on the conveyor belt to be scanned. Suddenly four agents came rushing at me with horrified looks on their faces, shouting “NO! Don’t do that!!”
It was true that I was less than 24 hours away from becoming a mom and had zero childcare experience, but I knew at least enough to not send a baby through an x-ray machine at the airport.
That tiny bit of comic relief helped a little, because we had our final phone call with Mr. T on our minds the whole trip. What exactly did it mean that the judge had not finalized the adoption? What kind of clerical mistake was made and how quickly could it be corrected? We pushed those worries aside and concentrated on our daughter. First thing tomorrow morning, we would be going to the Missionaries of Charity and holding her in our arms.
The plane landed on time in the middle of the night and we had no problems getting through customs with our many extra suitcases full of donations and medicine. We exited the airport terminal and stopped to get our bearings. The next step was to find Mr. T with his umbrella in the Ethiopian flag colors.
There was a large, fairly empty swathe of concrete in front of the airport that vaguely reminded me of the de-militarized zone between the Koreas, except that a lot of soldiers with machine guns were milling around on it. On the other side was an area between this zone and the parking lot, filled with hundreds of people waiting to pick up passengers.
About half of them were carrying red, yellow and green umbrellas.
With our 7 suitcases and white skin, we knew we would be easier to find, so we slowly made our way to the other side of the DMZ, hoping Mr. T would notice us. The first two men to approach had no umbrellas and offered us taxi rides. Then a small man came toward us. He had a deformed foot that gave him a swaying limp. He had crooked protruding teeth and wore jacket that was three sizes too big. He was smiling and carrying an umbrella. I recognized his voice immediately. It was him.
We proceeded to his car which was much too small for all of our luggage, so a long, seemingly complex negotiation with a taxi driver ensued. Our luggage was loaded willy-nilly inside and onto the roof of the taxi; we got into Mr. T’s car and were off.
The car itself was a rust bucket patched together with duct tape. There were no seatbelts and the windows wouldn’t open. Half of the knobs on the dashboard were missing. Mr. T told us he had borrowed it from a friend but offered no apologies for its sorry state. He also made no apologies for our messed up adoption. Instead, he launched into a convoluted story about what had happened (during which, I remember, he used the phrases “stupid secretary” and “stupid judge”). He told us confidently what his plan of action was. I watched with detached interest as he ignored the red light and barreled straight through a major intersection. He told us he had an appointment with So-and-So and was preparing a petition to the emergency courts, now that the regular courts were closed down till the end of September. I listened as best I could while taking in impressions of the city and waiting for my chance to bring up the subject foremost in my thoughts. Was everything set for tomorrow? When would he be picking us up to go to the orphanage? Would the elusive Mrs. Herewego be there?
Yes yes yes. Everything was set. He pulled into the driveway of the Mission we were staying at, rang the bell, and a guard opened up the gate. As we drove in, I wondered at all the pointy shards of glass cemented onto the top of the wall surrounding the complex and the row of barbed wire above them. We hauled all our bags into the house and then said our thanks and goodbyes to Mr. T. We thought we would be seeing him again in about six hours, but it was actually only five minutes before he knocked on the door of the Mission house again. His car wouldn’t start. Could my husband give him a push?
The manager of the Mission showed us to our tiny room. A sign saying “Fire Exit” was posted on the door and an axe was hanging above it. Apparently this room was only used when they were completely filled up. Inside, there was just enough room for the double bed, one table and chair and a crib which had been neatly prepared, complete with mosquito net. It was clean and friendly. The bed was comfortable and we were exhausted. We hardly slept a wink.
Breakfast at the Mission was full and tasty with great coffee and we began meeting the other people who were staying there – a strange mix of missionaries, doctors, tourist groups and other adopting couples. They were all friendly, very excited about meeting our Mitzi later that day, and they all wanted to pray with us. At 9:00 am on the dot, the bell of the Mission gate rang – our ride had come. It was the last time something would go as planned.
Mr. T introduced us to Mrs. Herewego and she instantly fascinated me. She was a tall, very proud-looking woman who towered over her companion. She was daunting – at least until I caught the first twitch of a smile and the tiniest twinkle of dry humor in her eye. She was clearly trying to remain in the background, but her imposing stature made that difficult. Her excellent English also made me suspect that she was quite well educated. These two people made the oddest couple. We kept the polite small talk to a minimum because we were so anxious to get going. Mitzi was waiting. For five weeks she had been waiting. For almost four of those weeks, the only thought in my head was how much I needed to get to her. Now we were so close.
And here, I have to disappoint.
People have a mental image in their minds of the first moments when adoptive parents and children come together and it is beautiful and romantic and the fulfillment of dreams. Tears are shed and love is immediate. Unfortunately, that isn’t true. I have told many prospective adopting parents not to build this moment up in their heads too much or they are bound to be disappointed. I’ve given similar advice to brides-to-be. “Don’t expect to enjoy your wedding. But take a lot of pictures anyway. Five years from now, you will look at them and remember yourself as enjoying the day.” It’s the same general concept.
The fact of the matter is that when you meet your child, you are too damn nervous and confused to feel anything else in those first moments.
It is mostly a blur. Driving through the city, arriving at the big blue gates, being allowed in, walking up to the main entrance, being brought to a different doorway and asked to wait, a nun walking toward me, a bundle placed in my arms, small black eyes peering out of it at me . . .
I have no idea how long we stared at one another before I had to hand her over again – to her new papa. I have no idea what was said by the people around us in those first minutes. I imagine that we made a fairly helpless impression, though, because the nun, Sister Mariska, asked us several times if we were sure we wanted to take her with us right away. Mitzi had been quite sick with diarrhea the preceding week and she could stay there for a few more days if we wanted. Sure, why not? I could also chop off my arm and leave it there for a few days too. Or a piece of my heart.
When it was clear that we meant to take her with us, we were led through the orphanage to a room where the babies were bathed and diapers changed. Sister Mariska took Mitzi from me and gave her a fresh diaper. Only then did we see how dire her physical condition was. She was emaciated. Spindly little stick-like legs and arms covered in loose and wrinkly grayish skin jutted out from a round belly. Her entire diaper area was red and raw – it turned out to be not only diaper rash, but some kind of fungal infection. Sister Mariska told us about the sickness she had suffered in the week before but that she was on the mend. She asked us what kind of formula we had brought with us, and then gave us a tin of Pre-Nan (the type for premature babies) as well as information about where we could buy more in Addis. She dressed Mitzi in the clothes we had brought along – the tiniest size we could find – and they were still way too big for her. Baby Born doll clothes would have fit her better. She also gave us a bottle and a blanket for the ride home. I still have those things in a “treasure box” in my closet. Someday I will give them to Mitzi on a special occasion.
And then it was time for us to leave. The nuns had work to do and we were in the way.
The next thing I knew, I was sitting in the back seat of a very dodgy car with a baby on my lap, no seatbelts, weaving our way through now heavy and chaotic traffic in one of Africa’s biggest cities. Mr. T was talking and talking about how he was going to solve our adoption problems and Mrs. Herewego sat in silence. We got back to the Mission and made our goodbyes. Mr. T said he would be contacting us soon.
We spent the entire afternoon in our room, nervously learning to do things that would become routine in a very short time. The first bath, the first bottle, the first diaper change. We mostly just lay on the bed with Mitzi between us as we watched her sleep and wake and drink and gurgle. We learned her signals – what this sound and that cry meant. We became fascinated with the number of milliliters she drank in one go (only about 15 – so a third of a shot glass), the exact timing of the feedings (about once every hour and a half), the color and consistency of her poop . . . It was in the course of that afternoon that those earlier elusive feelings of love washed over us.
We brought her down to the dining room in the evening and introduced her to the other guests. Amidst all the cooing and fussing, the earnest professions of “God bless you” and “Praise the Lord!”, I couldn’t help but notice the looks of concern in the eyes of the more experienced mothers. While saying Grace before dinner, the Mission manager made a special and long appeal to God to look out for our new family. Mitzi’s physical condition was truly serious, but in our lovesick state, our inexperience as parents, our inability to see her as anything but perfect, we weren’t really able to recognize just how sick she still was. That slowly came home to us over the next four days, each of which included a visit to a doctor.
On the advice of our pediatrician at home, we had already arranged to take her straight to a doctor for a check-up. Friends of ours (who will be introduced and become major characters in the next chapter) suggested the Swedish Clinic in Addis Ababa – so that is where we went on our second day. The doctor there admitted that early or preemie child care was not his strong suit, but he treated her fungal infection and set up a second appointment for five days later when the specialist would be attending. He also weighed her – she was just 2.1 kilos (4.6 pounds). In the meantime we came in two more times, once after a horrendous night of labored breathing and again when Mitzi’s chicken pox appeared. Each time we left reassured as the doctor pointed out all the signs of improvement and weight gained. By the fourth visit we were developing some confidence about her recovery and the specialist confirmed our feelings. He did all sorts of tests to check her reflexes and development and she passed with flying colors. He declared her to have all the abilities of a normal term baby, but that we could expect her to remain small for her age until she reached two or three years old. The human body – miracle that it is – will stop its own growth to protect the brain. In such cases, the return to normal height and weight can take a few years. The specialist agreed that she was a very alert baby and he didn’t believe she had suffered mentally from her physical hardships.
The tests he performed were really awesome. In one, he held her in a certain way and she sort of walked across the examining table. In another she was hanging in the air with just her fingers wrapped around his – about two feet above the table. I instinctively reached in to catch her and he said, “Don’t worry. It’s safe” And then he lowered her down. The other little treat was that this doctor was young and French and absolutely gorgeous. (“Praise the Lord!”) Small pleasures like that went a long way in that otherwise extremely stressful time.
You see, while we were preoccupied with all the doctor appointments and medical concerns, the legal side of our adoption was going seemingly nowhere. Mr. T dropped by or called several times, but each time he told a nice new story about how Plan F hadn’t quite worked out after all, but now he was sure that Plan G was the ticket. It would all be resolved “tomorrow” after he talked to this official or that judge or yonder president. After a week or so of this, he finally informed us that we had a court date. He and Mrs. Herewego would pick us up at 9:00 the next morning. Kick off time for what would turn out to be one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.
Mrs. Herewego showed up on time, but Mr. T arrived an hour late all nervous and chaotic. We proceeded to the courthouse and started traipsing from room to room, from clerk to official to clerk to cashier, back to official . . . all the while documents are being passed back and forth and discussions had. The letter from the Swedish clinic detailing Mitzi’s medical condition was waved around a lot. No one told me what all the discussions were about unless I insisted. They just kept assuring me that all was going well. By noon, the whole file was handed to the judges’ assistant and we were written into the docket for 1:30 pm.
I went home for lunch, happily thinking that by 2:00 or so, the worst would be over and Maria would be legally ours. The fear that I was carrying around – that someone would come and take her away from me – would finally be over. We arrived back at court on time and then sat, cooling our heels in a cold concrete courtroom, on uncomfortable wobbly benches facing three huge throne-like chairs. After an hour of this, I asked what the delay was. It seemed that three judges had to be present and only two were there. After another hour we were finally summoned into chambers.
We walked into something like a conference room, where three men in their forties were sitting around a table at the far end. One of them immediately started angrily yelling at Mr. T who seemed to start shrinking in size next to me. He stammered a little, but basically couldn’t get a word in edgewise. He was sort of bowing and making self-humbling movements. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, but the body language of the scene was unmistakable. Particularly when one judge picked up our adoption file and flung it across the room at us, yelling what was surely the Amharic phrase for “Piss off!!” As Mr. T bent over to pick up the scattered papers, the guards approached to escort us out of the room. Their body language was also perfectly clear – it was time for us to leave. The machine guns at their sides punctuated the message, leaving no room for interpretation.