When I was in high school I went to Mexico on a mission trip. As part of our outreach, a group of us did service projects at a neighboring orphanage. Of course, this also included playing with the kids. One day, as my peers ran through the yard playing games, I walked through the bedrooms--alone. I wondered what it would be like to grow up there, where the ratio of adults to children seemed like eleven million to one. I thought about how, in a room full of ten other kids, they probably still felt so lonely. We could barely communicate with them and yet, they seemed so eager just to sit in our presence. As I walked through the maze of bedrooms, certain I was hopelessly lost, I heard a soft cry coming from several walls over. Quickly brushing through rooms of blue hand-me-down comforters and lone dressers--of which each boy probably had one drawer to call his own, I searched for the soul belonging to that cry. The nearer I got the louder the cry became until I burst through a door and skidded to a halt when I saw her. She was sitting in the middle of the crib, fat tears dripping down her precious face. Naked except for the bulging diaper, she saw me and reached her hands to me. I approached slowly. I could barely communicate with the women who ran the orphanage and I certainly didn't want to undermine their authority if she was supposed to be napping. But it yanked my soul knowing, deep down, that the women had their hands completely full with all the other children. And me, well, my arms were holding nothing. My hands were, at the moment, completely free. So I picked her up.
In some ways, that one act of picking up that one child shaped me forever. I didn't know where to find the necessary diaper changing materials so, for a few minutes, I simply held her. I wiped her tears away and the sight of my white hand against her brown skin made me think of the exquisite color palette we are painted with. I whispered to her in limited and broken Spanish. I spoke to her in English. I mostly babbled some form of baby talk. She frowned. Hard. I went to find a worker. When I did, the woman motioned for me to follow. She took the baby and, while she changed her, I managed to mutter enough Spanish and she managed to mutter enough English for me to figure out that the baby's name was Anna (Ona) and she had just turned uno. My breath caught in my throat. I was young but I knew enough to know that she was extremely behind developmentally. A result, I'm sure, of having to spend a great deal of time in a crib. She was the youngest child they had there and the orphanage wasn't well equipped for infants or toddlers. While I know she was loved and cared for by the workers, who were extremely generous and wonderful women, she never received much one on one time. Once changed, she was thrust, with a smile from the woman, back into my arms.
That's where she stayed. She clung to me like a baby monkey. Her eyes were glued to my face almost constantly. But still, the frown. And then I did something to make her giggle. The frown didn't reverse, it simply shook up and down as she laughed. I realized then that she wasn't frowning. She was smiling, upside down. I still wonder if she didn't get smiled at enough to know the difference.
Over the course of my time there, Anna and I became virtually inseparable. And, when it was time to leave for good, the lump in my throat felt more like I'd swallowed a grapefruit. She clung to me and sobbed as they tried to take her away. I pulled her arms off of me and shoved her toward the worker in a way that, to a one-year-old, suggested that I, too, was rejecting her. Then I spun on my heels and climbed on the bus. Looking out the window I saw her reaching her arms toward the vehicle, mouth open in a loud wail. I couldn't control the tears flowing down my face and I really didn't try. It felt like someone had reached into my chest and squished my heart in his fist so that parts of it were sticking out between his fingers but the majority of it was simply thundering against his palm. I couldn't breathe.
I was in high school. While I was certainly capable of raising a child, it was far from ideal. Not to mention the fact that you can't just take babies from Mexican orphanages and, even if you could, the government might frown on a high schooler doing so. But in our tears I knew that she needed me and I knew that I loved her.
And I think I knew then that I could love a child born not of my flesh but of my heart, instead. Years before infertility plagued me, I knew that I could unconditionally love someone else's son or daughter. I knew that ethnicity and gender and circumstance didn't matter. I was in high school. I hadn't learned most of what I know now. I wasn't a mother. Still, I knew from the moment I saw her in that crib that I could have loved Anna forever.
When we returned the next year I learned that she'd been reunited with her mother. Of course that was good news. But I ached because I'd longed to see her again. My heart was saddened by the fact that I had loved her for a whole year and would never get the chance to see her again. I have loved Anna for many, many years now. Though we will never, ever, be reunited, separated as we are by cultures and miles and years, I am so thankful that she tugged on my heart in that crib. So thankful that, in her outstretched arms, the Lord used her to grant me the spirit of adoption.