Did I mention that the first meeting was awkward?
It was awkward.
We arrived to the care center right on time, and I walked in on wobbly knees, heart racing.
She wasn't there yet. Sigh. All the kids were in a big room being read to by the Gladney volunteer who's been living there for the last eight months (she's amazing in a thousand different ways, by the way). These books are interactive, so with the kids all reading along and singing, it was loud in that room. The caregivers were all sitting among the kids, and all their eyes were on us, the two ferenji women who had just walked in. I spotted my Seattle friend's little boy sitting in the room . We waited, and waited, for truly what seemed like forever.
Finally, I sensed something going on and started to hear the word "Betelehem" scattered through the room. The bundle of electricity in my stomach started firing sparks again, and I just wanted to sit in a corner so I wouldn't pass out. One of the Gladney reps said, "She's coming."
I walked to the door, but she still didn't come. I don't know what was taking so long. Even though books were still being read, all eyes seemed to be on what what going on with us, a feeling I strongly disliked. I have never liked being the center of attention: at parties, I am happiest to be the wallflower watching what's going on and talking to individual people. In this case, I am about to meet the newest Rooney while her friends and caregivers from the last almost-year are studying me. I was suddenly aware of every hair on my head, what I was wearing, how I was standing, every single move I made. Awkward. I wanted to shrink. I hated how tall I am.
In retrospect, I should have just sat with the other kids and not waited for her at the door. But really, my emotions were so over-the-place that I seemed incapable of doing anything except standing at attention like a guard at a palace gate, waiting for the VIP about to enter the room.
One of the Gladney reps was standing in front of me at the threshold of the door when she was ushered in. She walked past him, then brushed past me to go join the kids listening to books. Her hair was pulled back into four braids which had become wispy and lovely around her head. She was wearing a blue school uniform over a white collared shirt, accented by sparkly sequined blue converse shoes. This two-second glimpse of her sent me over the edge. She was the daintiest, most lovely, Audrey-Hepburnesque five-year-old I had ever seen, and I was overcome. I had to walk away.
I stood in the hallway outside the big room and cried. Being able to quickly hide this eruption of tears was the one good thing about standing so awkwardly in that doorway. Gladney has a pretty strict policy about not letting your referred child know who you are. Many of the older children have suffered profound disappointment and even depression when the adoptive parents leave after court to go home to wait for the embassy trip. The idea is that it's too disorienting for children who have already suffered such loss to understand why someone comes to adopt them and then promptly leaves for weeks (or months), so the official policy with older kids is to remain as anonymous as possible.
I get it. I do. It's why I was trying so earnestly to hide my tears from her when I saw her walk in the room. I stayed there in the hallway trying my hardest to pull myself together. The big question mark for me though is whether she knew who I was anyway. Considering the circumstances of her having gone to school and then being sent home to the care center in the middle of the day to be greeted by two ferenji women who were visiting... my guess is that she probably knew.
I walked back into the room and found a seat on the low couches lining the walls. She was next to me. The caregiver next to her kept looking at me. I'm sure it must be a strange feeling for the caregivers to meet the foreign parents coming in to adopt the kids they have loved for months. If I were one of them, I would stare too, no doubt about it. That being said, this very much contributed to the awkwardness of this meeting. I have one particular photo that sums up this first meeting: Betelehem is smiling and looking ahead at the book reader while I am sitting on her right and the caregiver on her left is leaning forward to examine me.
In that moment while the books were being read, my emotions were just barely under the surface. I didn't notice until later when I saw a video of the moment that I was smacking away on a piece of gum. It must have been a distraction from the dominant thought in my brain of "do not cry again, do not cry, do not cry" and "I hope she likes me, I hope she likes me, I hope she likes me." As her caregivers examined me, she would only steal glances. Once, she looked up into my eyes and smiled. I smiled back. I wanted to do nothing more than reach over and hold her hand. But then she inched closer to the caregiver on her left.
I felt like I was auditioning for the role of "mother."
Book-time was over and exercises began. The whole group did jumping jacks and stretches. Then everyone paired up. Betelehem and I sat on the floor with our legs stretched straight out in front of us, the soles of our shoes touching. We stretched forward to touch our fingers to our toes while counting to ten. This was our chance to really study each other. We were face to face, feet to feet, fingertips to fingertips. Counting to ten. Smiles. I winked at her. More smiles. Then time to stand up for the hokey-pokey.
A small group of us goes up to see her room, and it is then that I realize how shy and introverted she really is. Even this was awkward. I wanted to carry her back down the stairs but I am a stranger.
I was meeting a stranger I had known about for six months, a stranger who would become our daughter six days later. What are you supposed to do when you meet for the first time a new family member? She's an immediate relative whose language I don't speak, who I don't look like, who shares no memories with our family, who has lost other immediate family members, and who doesn't know who I am. I am a stranger who sees her and starts crying. I am a remarkably tall white woman who puts a tattoo on her arm.
I cross my legs and she crosses hers and we sit facing each other. She picks out a flower tattoo. This is my chance. This is when I get to hold her hand. All the kids are gathered around watching (she wasn't the first to get a tattoo so by then, she knew the routine). I look into her eyes and she looks into mine. I ask if she's ready. I put the flower on her forearm, put the wet sponge on top, and we all start counting. I have thirty precious seconds to hold her arm in my hands. She counts too. She looks at me then looks at the caregivers. She's checking in with them. She looks back at me. I take the paper off and we all 'ooh' about the flower on her arm. It's still damp, so we blow on it to dry it. She smiles at me, then smiles at the caregiver.
The moment is up. It's someone else's turn. She gets up and sits among the crowd of kids as I put the next tattoo on.
We only had one hour. She was playing with her friends when it was time for us to go. There was no goodbye from her. Some of the other kids gave me hugs and kisses. Not her. She was with her friends and caregivers.
This is okay. Right here in this moment, we are still strangers.