Monday, May 5, 2008

A phone call, an email and word of a daughter, waiting 7,689 miles away

When the phone call I'd been waiting for finally came, I wasn't thinking about adoption or our new child but about pizza.

It was a Friday, two years ago today. I'd just left work and was doing my usually 1.5 mile dash to Ben's school. I was going to pick him up along with a friend, and the friend's family was going to join us for pizza. So how many pies to order, that was the question on my mind.

When my cell phone rang, I assumed it was Jim and didn't even glance at the number. It was our adoption agency in Minnesota. We had a daughter, waiting in Africa.

She was 17 months old. Her name meant "light." She needed a new family. I heard all that. I said very little. Though I ask questions for a living, I was nearly speechless. I had a daughter, in Africa. The agency official said she's email the file right away. I called Jim from the school, and he quickly called up the email.

There were two photos, a few pages of medical and background information.

"She looks sad," he said (he was right, she did).

And he laughed because she was wearing an outfit decorated with Mickey and Minnie (destined for Orlando, it seemed).

We shared the info with our son that evening. "She's adorable!" he said.

The photos were embedded in the file sideways, and we couldn't figure out how to flip them. All that weekend, the three us stared at the photos on the computer screen with our heads tipped to one side.

It is hard to imagine a child (your child) from a few photos. One photo was of Chakisae alone, standing by a bed in that Disney outfit. She was staring straight ahead, perhaps confused by the camera, perhaps just annoyed. Her eyes were big and dark and sad. The other was smaller and blurrier, a black and white shot of her and great-grandmother. Her great-grandmother had an arm around Chakisae. I'd learn later that this elderly, frail and blind woman living in a small village in Ethiopia had cared for, and loved, our baby -- her baby then -- for more than a year. I still do not know how she managed but am forever grateful that she did.

I stared at the photos often in the 9 weeks between when they arrived in our inbox and I arrived in Ethiopia to bring Chakisae home. It is a funny thing to be falling in love with pictures.

She would be 19 months old by the time I landed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. She was tiny by American standards but with a big belly we attributed to early malnutrition and bald because orphanage workers had shaved her head. The doctor we shared her records with said her head was a good size. Feed, he said, she'll grow (she did, five inches in the first five months home).

The papers described her personality with a single word: Quiet.

This was true when we were in Ethiopia together and even the first few weeks at home. But soon enough, she was babbling in the car, shouting her brother's name or wailing "jump!" when she spotted him on the backyard trampoline, and she hadn't been invited.

"Why did we get a report saying she's a quiet kid?"Ben would ask, delighting in the inaccuracy. "Mom, are you sure you picked up the right kid because this one isn't quiet!"

But he always answers his own question. She's the right one. In fact, he calls her "the perfect little girl" for us. We never disagree.

I think of Chakisae today, my amazing, delightful daughter. But also of the poverty and tragedy that marked her first family and, really, her first country. Ethiopia is beautiful and fascinating, literally the cradle of mankind, home to early Christianity, the only African country never colonized, a place proud of its coffee, its customs and its history. It is also terribly poor, home to millions of orphans.

Today, I also think of other parents (or parents to be) waiting for a phone call, an email, word of a child.

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