She points to the remote put away high up on the bookshelf and makes a little noise, "Eh, eh." This translates to "I want to watch the Edi movie." We watch it again. It's seven minutes, scenes that changed my life in ways no amount of kids-will-change-your-life warnings prepared me. It's a movie about getting Edi.
Edi loves watching her movie. She is the star. I think she must think all movies are about her; after all, this is about the only movie she has seen. Supporting roles are played by Dan, her daddy; me, her mommy; and various Chinese citizens and merchants who were willing and eager to be a part of our amateur film.
The movie begins with scenes of Changsha, China, where ancient ways still permeate the modern world. An old man carries baskets on his shoulders as he walks along the traffic-leaden city street. The background music is a song by a Wisconsin folk singer who also adopted. My heart knows no distance, travels miles every day to an ancient land so far, far away ... I'd go half way around the world to hold you. A fitting refrain for Edi, whose sweet face stops strangers on the street or in stores, and they never fail to mention how cute she is.
The Edi movie alternates between her tear-stained face on "Gotcha Day" to her smiling self as our days together in China passed and we grew to know each other better.
The movie itself highlights our first weeks with our daughter, but the adventure had begun long before the trip.
The fall of 2002, my older brother Gregg called. We're by no means estranged, but we seldom call each other. My "what's wrong?" radar set off. After a few minutes of niceties, he got to his news: "Jeri's pregnant." I said in a Seinfield-esque way, "Shut up!" He said, "No. Really." I was shocked, and I realized that asking, "Is this a mistake?" is kind of a rude question to ask someone who has just told you that their family was expecting a bundle of joy. He was nearly 50; his wife was mid-40s; and their two teenage boys were, well, teenagers. This reeked of mistake. But far from it, they had wanted to add to their family. And although I was happy for them, another feeling had gripped my heart and surprised me. I was inconsolably sad because it wasn't me who was adding to her family.
I was also in my 40s at the time, and I had accepted that I would not have children of my own. I had a husband who raised four children and who had been honest with me from the get go that he was done having kids. I had four grown stepkids with whom I had good relationships. Why would I want to add a child, a.k.a. expenses, no more time for self or husband, untold reasons to worry. Why? That night as I lay sobbing in bed, my husband next to me said (and I will never forget it) "I guess we'll have to do something about this." "This" meaning my sadness or perhaps our joint childlessness. That night I had to get honest with myself, too, that what I wanted more than anything was to be a mom. I was so relieved to finally let that wall come down.
It took a little over a year to get through the misery of trying to get pregnant -- no easy task for a 40-something woman. Thankfully, there are alternatives. We looked into adoption. We bypassed the domestic route as too risky in all the wrong ways. We were both too old to spend years on waiting lists only to end up on the losing end of a biological mother changing her mind. So international adoption with its added expenses of travel was, to us, worth the money. Thus, in January 2004, we began gathering information about adoption.
Our first thought was to adopt from Korea. I have a friend who was adopted from there in 1968, and Dan has a nephew who was adopted from there as well. It was a sense of the familiar. At our first informational meeting, we learned that different countries have different limits. Korea has an age limit of 45 that we did not meet.
The emotional blow only lasted about 10 minutes as there were couples with their Chinese children who were there to speak about their experience of adopting from China. (China's age limit is 55.) There were three adopted girls at this meeting, and they were so lively and beautiful. We left that meeting knowing that we would try to adopt from China.
Right then, we started loving our daughter, not knowing that she was being born, right then.
As Edi was spending the first year of her life in an orphanage and in foster care, we were busy gathering documents to represent ourselves to the Chinese government. The creating of our dossier took about six months, and it was sent to China in July 2004. Then the wait with nothing to do was on. Finally, on January 6, 2005, we received our referral. This included photos of and information about the child the Chinese government had chosen for us. We had ten days to either accept or reject the referral. It took us about three minutes to check the "yes" box, sign it, and get it back in the mail.
About eight weeks passed between that day and when we left for China. Chicago to Beijing, a few days of sightseeing -- The Forbidden City, The Great Wall, etc. -- then on February 28, we were in Changsha, Hunan Province, China, to meet our daughter. We traveled in a group of 10 families, and we all received our daughters that day. I wish that that day were more strongly implanted in my mind, but it was too emotional. Thankfully, we have pictures.
Prior to going to China, we were educated about this -- our "Gotcha Day." Our social worker cautioned that we shouldn't expect a magic moment. Although this would be the day we had been anticipating for a very long time, our daughter would be experiencing the worst day of her life. Imagine being these kids: they are taken from the only good life they've ever known and given to strangers who look nothing like anyone who has heretofore been a part of their lives. Then the people they do know and love go away, leaving them with these strangers. It was true. The Provincial offices where we picked up the kids was full of the sound of crying babies and at least a few crying grown-ups. Remarkably, some of the kids were laughing by the time we got back on the bus and headed for our hotel. I do remember that we had brought a sippy cup of water and some Teddy Grahams for Edi, and these things were a comfort to her. We returned the next day to finalize the adoptions.
OK, I'll admit that living out of a suitcase in a hotel (albeit a nice one) in a crowded Chinese city is not my ideal place for an introduction to parenthood. We spent eight days in Changsha waiting for Chinese passports so our daughter could travel. These days were intense. I would never trade any bit of the experience for anything, but, really, what a gamut of emotions. My husband Dan is more adventurous than I am -- he encouraged outings every day when we weren't sightseeing with the group. Looking back, it was the best way to spend our time. But I was stressed. Chinese cities are crowded places. The best part of those eight days was spending time with Edi in her native province. We spent playtime with the other families and bonded with them for all time. We were immersed in each other -- no phones, no jobs, no other concerns of any kind -- just priceless time to focus on our young child and to help her feel safe and loved.
Our next stop was Guangzhou, Guandong Province, where we spent four days basking in the warmth of Southern China. We were in an isolated part of the city where several foreign consulates are located, and we were spoiled. Much of that community is set up to cater to adoptive families. We bought squeaky shoes and cute little outfits. We drank strong coffee. We ate in restaurants that served American food (although not as good as the Chinese you could get) and offered silverware. We were granted our daughter's visa and took flight for home.
Guangzhou to Hong Kong. Hong Kong to Chicago. Twenty hours later, we were on I-90 heading home when we ran out of gas just south of Janesville. Were we ever going to get home?
That was almost six months ago, and my life has changed -- duh -- in ways I certainly wouldn't have thought to imagine. My schedule used to be determined by my job or my whims, especially during summers; now my schedule is ruled by naptime. I used to run through town unencumbered and inconspicuous; now I push a jogging stroller with a beautiful baby and sing my ABCs. I used to read novels during summer afternoons; now I read "Toad Eats Out," "The Mitten," "Early Bird," and others like it many times in a row. I used to rent movies; now I watch Baby Einstein or the Edi movie. I will still cry sometimes when we get to the part where Edi is in the arms of her caregiver. She doesn't know that her life is about to change, too, in ways that she would never imagine.
After these six months, here's what I think: A few years ago, my mom died after suffering from Alzheimer's for years. I bring this up because I'm not sure that I would've pursued this adoption without what that experience taught me which is this: a person can live her life trying to control and manage and working for a certain thing, like retirement or travel or peace and quiet -- it could be anything, really. But there are no guarantees that what you're shooting for will still be there when you get there. We brought Edi into our lives at a time when I was beginning to feel like it was time to coast. We're not coasting any more. Inviting Edi into our lives invited the expected: more expense, less time, more worry. It also invited the unexpected: more music, laughter, joy. Edi is the pith of all. She is her own person, even now when she is only a year old. People see her and say, "She is lucky to have you." We are the lucky ones.
-- Gretchen McLain