Every journey changes your life. For my family, it was the trip in the summer of 2005 that made the difference.
That’s when my wife, Mary Frances, and I flew to China carrying two weeks’ worth of luggage and a suitcase full of baby clothes, infant-care supplies and medicines. We had three tickets for the return trip to LAX.
We were there to adopt our daughter.
We hadn’t met her yet, but two months before we had received three photographs from her orphanage in Chengdu and a one-page affirmation of health from a local doctor. We named her Grace.
We were far from alone on this trip. About two dozen other couples from the U.S. were part of the same venture, organized through the Chinese government. We started in Guangzhou, then moved on to Chengdu.
Why China? Because that country’s one-child law had put many of its children in peril and because China’s international process seemed more predictable than any other adoption path.
In the days before the official hand-off, the organizers kept us busy being tourists. Through temples, parks and shopping streets, we paid scant attention to everything, imagining days ahead.
And then, 20 minutes before we parents-to-be were to meet our children, there was a knock on the door of our room at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza. It was the adoption team. Grim faces.
“There’s been a problem,” one of them said.
Three children were sick, too infectious to allow in a room with others. Our daughter was one of them. And the adoption team had an urgent question for us.
“Have you had chickenpox?”
The question wiped our memories blank. While most of the other parents were joyfully meeting their children, we retreated to call our mothers in California and repeat the question.
We also wondered: Is this a delay or something worse? Would they try to send us home without Grace? Would they suggest some kind of switch? We weren’t having that.
What could we do? We worked the phones and the web, satisfying ourselves and the authorities that Mary Frances and I each had chickenpox in childhood. So when would we see Grace?
Nobody knew. To keep us occupied the adoption team packed us off to more tourist attractions. A folk village. An embroidery studio. And on a 100-degree day, we found ourselves at China’s foremost panda preserve, where Mary Frances was invited to cradle a young red panda that was the size of an infant. She forced a smile, the saddest I’ve ever seen.
We pestered authorities, dragged translators to medical offices, waited for our phones to ring and commiserated with the two other couples in the same situation. One night as we sat in the hotel, a tour bus rolled up and out stepped the rest of our new adoption group, back from a day of play. Through a glass window we watched the moms with babes in arms, the dads brandishing new strollers.
This is only temporary, we told ourselves. Everything is only temporary. But it still felt rotten.
On the second day, we met our girl. At 13 months, she was 15 inches tall and 15 pounds, her face dotted with a yellow paste to dry the red welts, her brow furrowed in confusion. And then after 15 minutes, we had to say goodbye. She wasn’t well enough, the authorities said.
A second visit ended the same way.
On the third day, the team took us to City Hall, and there was Grace in the arms of Mrs. Chen, an orphanage foster mother, who offered a quick lesson in mixing formula (heavy on the sugar) and gently handed her over. We were a family at last.
Once all of the postponed families were united, the distracted tourism continued, but now happily, because we were seeing the world through Grace’s watery eyes.
Some of it now seems like a hallucination. The temple thick with incense fumes. That traumatic first encounter with ice cream.
Did we really, on a 105-degree day, end up in a rural theme park with cockfighting, high-diving pigs and Cher on the public address system? Yes, we did.
The 15-inch child is now 5 feet tall. She has a learner’s permit and a bedroom full of trophies from Irish dancing. Her school’s mascot is a panda.
We have the ups and downs all families have. But we’ve been incredibly blessed (or lucky, if you prefer). On a trip to China in 2013, we got to show her Chengdu and tell her how, in the wake of that miserable three-day chickenpox delay, a family was born and the arc of three lives bent immeasurably for the better.
All it took, we remind ourselves, was a step into the unknown, a measure of patience and resolve when things went wrong, and a little faith. On our very worst days, as on our very best, it’s good to remember that everything is temporary.