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Entries in adoption (22)

6:34PM

The girls . . .

Went from 25th percentile for height and weight based on age to almost 75th percentile in the six months with us.  I think Metsu (older at just over four) has grown almost four inches in the half-year.

This is not unusual for kids who come over.  They catch up at a stunning pace.

Lazy eyes gone, knock knees gone.  Just about every physical tick or delta from the norm is gone.

Amazing what good nutrition and a lack of constant parasites and disease will do for a child.

Both are all sinewy muscle now.  I shudder to think how many cross country trophies they're going to win!

"Abbie" never stuck with Abebu, who goes now as that, Bebu and Abu.

Metsuwat goes as Metsu, Mootsu (Abebu nickname) and just Moot.

5:37PM

Our Africans take snow in stride

It is weird to see how quickly Metsu and Abebu absorb things. Still kind of slow on English because they speak a lot of Sidamo to each other, but that's a fair trade-off for their clear comfort level with us--understanding they still get to act like a 4- and 2-year-old, respectively, and throw fits now and then.

Anyway, first snow for them while I'm in China.  They head right out and play in it, like they've seen it a hundred times.

Several inches last night, so today, after workday put in (easy when jet lag wakes you up at 0400!), I go out and shovel up a ramp going down front lawn and into our cul-de-sac, and I get it smoothed out by putting Metsu in a blow-up inner tube and hurling her down the incline.  She hops on readily like she's fully read into the subject already, and whoosh!  Down she goes several times until the path is hard and slick.  Then she takes turns with Abebu, Vonne Mei and Jerry.  Abebu watches Metsu do it once and then she's eager to step up and get whisked down the lawn.  No fear whatsoever.

I guess I was expecting more wonderment. Instead, the two of them dive right in like the rest.  I mean, these two grew up about five degrees above the equator.  I can't believe they have anything to compare it to, but they just laugh it all off.

11:45PM

The Disney rasta hat

Last time we went to Disney was, like the previous two trips, over New Year's.  Just the six of us then. Anyway, it was New Year's Day itself and we're in Epcot, and it's frickin' freezing, so I'm buying these four-fingered Mickey gloves cause we's suffering for some hand coverings.

Somewhere along the line we pick up this Disney rasta hat that's pretty popular.  I think it's officially a Goofy hat for some reason (that queer movie with his kids?).  Knit-style head-covering cap with over-the-ear-flaps with ties, but the draw is the neon rasta lengths that extend from the top.  I can't remember who gets it, but we bring it home and I think to myself, nobody is ever going to wear that . . . so distinctly Jamaican get-up.

Flash forward three years (?) and we have two girls from Ethiopia, which has its own, deep, strange, worth-researching historical-cultural-all-sorts-of-things link to Jamaica.

And it turns out my now-youngest, Abebu, who lacks her older sister's long locks, simply loves this hat and wears it ALL THE TIME.

I come up tonight from the basement and I notice it in the hallway, telling me she got up to go to the bathroom because when I chased her to bed tonight, she was wearing it.  

And it's so totally her in so many appropriate ways, that it just makes me laugh at the end of a shitty year that's just gotten a whole lot shittier lately.

So you remember to appreciate your kids.  Stuff and situations and challenges, they come and go, but your family--done right--stays on.  It is a primal connection, whether you're a plank-holder or just three months on the squad. Doesn't matter. You're in all the way.

And they bring you so many delights, that it makes everything else worthwhile--or just bearable.

7:57PM

Last call . . .

Future cheesehead.  The team needs all the support it can muster right now.  Hell, Abebu may need to suit up for Miami.

We undid Metsu's corn rows (quite the task) and discovered Whitney Houston underneath.  We're experimenting with letting her grow out and play with various clips, etc. But I love it wild like this.  The scrape on her left check:  Metsu tried to match big sister Vonne Mei's jumping off the playset swings and wiped out. What impressed me was that she already seeks to emulate and impress Vonne Mei.

And yes, before I get emails, we do have Disney wear that features the African-American "princess" from "The Princess and the Frog."

7:20PM

The first test missed it

Both girls have tapeworms.

As they say in the sitcom world: . . .  and hilarity ensues.

Well, at least their bizarre food intake levels make sense now.  For a while there, I half-expected Sally Struthers to walk into my kitchen one night, turn to the camera and plead, "Won't you spend just a few extra dollars and feed them just a little bit more?"  I mean, these two eat like their lives depend on it, and now we know they were eating for themselves and maybe a dozen or two inside friends.

Bad days to follow with giant pills, but these too shall pass--literally.

Had to go with the gag pic; the real stuff is just too godawfully gross.

So, to sum up, when we got them they had: 1) bronchitis 2) ear infections 3) giardia 4) hepatitis A, and 4) tapeworms.

And people wonder why your average kid in Africa might not summon up all the mental strength required to score as high as their northern brethren on IQ tests.  Well, if you spent that much of your body's energy every day fighting that array of stuff, you'd have less power to your brain too.  It's as simple as that.

I have to tell you, these are two tough little kids.

8:28AM

Girl (nickname), interrupted

From the girls' front:  third round of antibiotics seems to do the trick on Abebu's stubborn ear infection.

Both are now on a lengthy round of a specific antibiotic compound to kill the specific giardia (small intestine infection caused by parasites discovered in secondary tests--the first test missed these apparently) they suffer from.  A lot of their bad times struck us as gut related, so Vonne insisted on rerunning the tests and--sure enough--they both clearly had it.

With the help of these antibiotics, then, all of that is settling down reasonably over time.

The English is coming, but they still speak to each other a lot in Sidama, their local southern Ethiopia tongue. We know that capacity gives the pair a lot of mutual comforting in their new and somewhat confusing lives (they will often talk each other to sleep at night), and it'll be sad to see it go and be replaced, even as we'll readily welcome the easier communications. But the language is so obscure (less than 2m speakers) and there are no language training assets beyond a fairly crude english-amharic-sidamo dictionary we picked up in Awassa, that we don't see how we can preserve much of anything (language is a muscle, you use it or you lose it). Still, they delight in picking up the english because they like the feeling of making their ideas and feelings known.

The relations with our three other kids is going amazingly well. Hardly nirvana, but like Billy Preston or Eric Clapton sitting in with the quarrelsome Beatles, everybody is suddenly on their best behavior because it's like we've got these permanent house guests. Everybody is trying so hard to get along. But it is stressful in a macro sense. Everybody likewise feels like they're putting out as much as possible and limits are frequently reached, but little traditions are emerging in spots--here and there. We may not have any lyrics yet, but melodies are appearing. We escape the house regularly, but only is small spurts with the girls, who find all such trips simultaneously exciting and very intimidating. Everybody we meet is fascinated by them and showers them with attention, which they like but are simultaneously overwhelmed by. Still, as the GI issues disappear, the tendency to retreat into dark moods likewise lessens. I think the giardia left the girls with only the thinnest veneer of good spirits that was easily disrupted. As their health solidifies, you can see the resiliency expand exponentially.

One tidbit:  when we got the girls, they had dark lines across their otherwise good-looking teeth (almost no sugar in their diet and a decent amount of calcium judging by their love of yogurt).  The cause of the dark lines:  using twigs to clean the teeth.  As we use regular toothbrushes, those lines quickly disappeared and their teeth look good (special trips to the special peds dentist await, and we expect some trouble but hopefully not too much).  Better yet, no gum bleeding, so compared to Vonne Mei coming from China, this is looking pretty good for now.

The trick of this new family (and yeah, it does suddenly feel like a new family with Emily off to college and near-twin girls roaming the house) is this:  while plenty smart, introducing the pair into our home is suddenly like having a pair of babies thrown into the scrum:  they need a lot of care and you have to translate their needs, but their capacity for mischief is way out of proportion. These are "babies" who can open doors and exit the house and take off down the street if the mood hits.  So we scramble to set up the rules by which we collectively monitor them even as we know everything will evolve quite rapidly--i.e., they'll "grow up" into their actual ages in a matter of weeks and months, not months and years.  

Fortunately, Kev, Jerry and Vonne Mei have all elevated their game considerably in response, which has been a joy to watch.  Kev is suddenly the eldest now that Em is gone and he's stepped into that role with surprising grace.  Jerry has always been a great older brother and is experienced with taking somebody in under his wing. And Vonne Mei is suddenly no longer the baby but the supervising older sister.  Meanwhile, the cats are all taking a pass on this for now.

So like any family crisis (and while this is all good, it does make sense to adopt a crisis mindset which promotes the notion of rapidly changing conditions, rules and outcomes), this involves a lot of intense parenting, or concentrated, precedent-setting, with-lotsa-downstream-impact interactions.  And these are exhausting for everybody.  Days seem to go on forever.  We can't believe they've only been here three weeks, because it seems like forever.  Again, all very exciting but likewise all very exhausting. You find yourself allowing more slack in the system because--yeah--we're in crisis mode and so we let some things slide so we can concentrate on others.  But likewise, you find yourself feeling the need to make special efforts with the "incumbent" children, or the "vets" forced to take in the "rookies."  So a lot of bonding experiences whether you want them or not; you simply find yourself bumping into them.

Decisions flow in rapid succession . . .

One clear casualty is the notion of nicknaming Abebu "Abby." Because Metsuwat is going as Metsu, Abby just seems too Americanized--too out of the blue for our (now) third brown-eyed girl (Vonne Mei still owns the top bunk on that score). Everybody likes calling her Abebu (ah-BAY-boo) and the only person who employs a nickname is Metsu herself, who calls her little sister Abu (ah-BOO) much of the time.

So Abby is retired and Abu emerges.  And everybody seems pretty good with that.

We've finally set new birthdays for the girls, discarding the loose estimates we were provided by the orphanage in Awassa (their two b-days were suspiciously close to the day they entered the orphanage).  Metsu will be 4 in late October (my aunt's birthday--she too was adopted) and Abu will be 3 next February--my mom's birthday. We wanted to connect each of the girls to strong women in our lives.

These birthdays will be legally set when we re-adopt the girls in US courts, and then they'll populate their officials records (US birth certificates, SSNs, passports, etc.).

UPDATING FRIDAY 6PM:  just-in test results said that both girls had hepatitis-A as well, now finished.  So when we took custody, they both were with upper-respiratory infections, ear-infected, Hep-A and giardia--and still they were awfully lovable most of the time, even if they were cranky as hell overnight and were terrors on the toilet.

10:44AM

Metsu, in fine form

Since sister Abbie posted yesterday, I felt I owed one of Metsu. Both girls came out to local society last night at my younger son's cross-country meet (first of the year).  Jerry took a whopping 39 seconds off his personal best on a hilly course in 83 degree conditions, and secured a top-20 ribbon in a big, tough field (17th place). The girls were a bit wary of so many strangers, but by the time we were on our way home with Five Guys burgers in tow, they were chattering away in Sidama (their obscure tongue) and we considered the outing a huge success.

Today we find out, thanks to testing, that they have no internal parasites of any sort (whew!), so other than a nasty thigh wart and a rather odd gait on Metsu, we have no medical issues to address beyond making sure their ear infections went away.  We count our blessings, because our bank accounts are cleared out.  Then again, I wasn't put on this Earth to stockpile cash for my funeral.

3:03PM

Couldn't resist

Abebu in my home office

9:53PM

Girls are in the house

Short story, as I am not sure I will be posting anything longer:

Vonne and I fly over Thursday, 19 October, on Lufthansa via Frankfurt into Addis.  We meet friends from last trip at Frankfurt and ride in with them to the TDS Guesthouse Friday evening.  We got the "big" suite on top, meaning a good sized hotel room with balcony, bit of a antechamber between that and bathroom, which is big, but very mid-level Addis. We crash and I get up to do some yoga, only to find the floor covered in ants, which me no like.

Later that day I get the staff to work the issue a bit, but I eventually hit a local bodega for my own spray and do the unit up right (former superintendent talking here).  

Saturday we go over to the WACAP Transition Home and meet the girls for the first time in many weeks.  Both are bronchial and wheezing, as is everyone there.  It's the rainy season, but we are mindful that this is how their father passed (something small becoming something big during rainy season).  The girls seem good. Vonne brought all these balloons and I blew them up for the kids.  Then I painted hands and arms with my face paints. That was a lot of fun.  Metsu and Abbie looked good, but both--again--carried a whiff of the coming problems.

We then did some shopping to kill the rest of the afternoon, going back to the area around the post office, where we bought little.  Then we went to a jewelry shop (by general acclaim, the best in Addis) and got gifts for ladies who helped watch our kids over the two trips.  Then an interesting jaunt to a cooperative staffed by former female fuel carriers who now weave these great shawls.  Got one myself as a scarf for winter. Tweeted a shot from there.

For the life of me, I cannot remember what we did for dinner that night.  We had skipped lunch after the breakfast at the guesthouse.  Oh, wait a tick!  We all went out for the usual cultural evening at this fabulous restaurant that had a band, singers, and lots of traditional dancing.  It was a spectacular show, even if my vodka martini turned out to be a snifter of brandy (lost in translation).  I stared longingly at the Belvedere in the distance.

Sunday was the day we took custody of the girls.  Back to the orphanage for time with them, then they ate lunch, and then a bit of ceremony with pictures taken and video shot.  Some docs (past histories) turned over. Then sad farewells and we're in the van heading back over to the guesthouse.  Minutes later we're alone for the first time together--a point I remember well with Vonne Mei in Nanchang, China.  It went well.  Older one, Metsu, is a bit of a Carol Burnett, as in, never seen an audience she didn't like.  Very much the mischief-maker in her threesomeness.  Finds herself hilarious--all the time.  Abebu was a bit off, and we found out soon enough:  discharge (fairly heavy out of right ear).  I happened to be carrying ear drop antibiotics, along with Vonne's pre-planned antibiotics (oral), so we dosed both and tossed the rather not-too-good-looking antibiotic we got from the orphanage, but kept the other drug (for airway congestion) and started using on both.

I race out for take-out--not very good burgers and fries.

Abbie had a terrible night with the ear pain, something I remember all too well from similar times in my life. Nothing was going to work too well first night, but we eventually got a platypus water bottle to work with hot tap water from the shower as an impromptu heating pad for her head.  After she suffered cramps around 3am and I successfully got her to the head on time (another plot line that's common), she finally fell asleep around 4am, only to wake up at 0700 Monday with Metsu.

After breakfast downstairs, we do paperwork with the lawyer from the orphanage in anticipation of our all-important US embassy appointment on Tuesday.  I am fairly blitzed and take a long time filling the forms out in double--for both girls.  After I crash for about 30, I head back over to the orphanage with other parents and relatives and we decorate a nursery and an outdoor alcove with giant stickers the various couples had amassed in anticipation of our trip.  It was fun work and really revived me and it improved the bare walls by a ways.

Back to the room, Vonne was doing okay with the girls, so I headed out for take-away (favorite Italian restaurant run by Indian lady, we get beef stroganoff and spag alfredo--both of which go over big).  Second night we get the girls to crash with much greater ease, after Metsu does her usual and tries on about six pairs of PJs before deciding (a continuing problem).

Tuesday is the all-important visit to the embassy, which culminates in a right-hand-raised oath-swearing before a USG official.  The whole trip, from stem to stern, runs about 4 hours.  This night I start packing up, because I flew out at midnight.  I take everything I can that we're not donating so Vonne has little to work with the girls when she returns three nights later.  Back to same Italian place for pizza, and I'm out the door at nine.

For some reason I get bumped to biz class on flight back to Frankfurt, but I still can't sleep any.  While in Frankfurt airport for six hours, I rework the briefs for upcoming talks, actually getting a ton of work done.  I also do some reading. 

Get into Dulles Wednesday around dinner time, get rental, and head to Mandarin.  I lay down on bed to relax a bit and wake up with call from front-desk (smart on my part) 12 hours later, Thursday morn.  Up and quickly suited up, I get picked up by intern from McNair and am driven to the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, where I've opened the school year now for something like 8 years (two of my talks are CSPAN vids).  Usual great scene and great audience, and after I warmed up a bit, I did nicely.   Went 70 and then 15 Q&A.  Then further Q&A with two State economists.  

Spent afternoon at Center for Naval Analyses with old colleagues, then evening with DeAngelis downtown. Then late night drive to Quantico, checking into Comfort Inn just outside main gate.  Crash.

Up at 0700 Friday, suit up, and then drive onto base.  Cruise down Barnett Avenue on way to US Marine Corps University.  Speak to same "economics of national security" class that I've addressed now for several years (always new students, but same instructors).  The history-of-America chapter (3) from "Great Powers" was the required reading that week.  They ask a lot of questions, right through the brief.  With break, total brief was about 120.  Q&A went 45.

Drove back to DC and just made 1300 meet at Eurasia Group.

Then dash to airport and get home just in time to meet kids (Em off to college in meantime) arriving home from middle-child's cross-country practice.  We eat out, watch something in the home theater, and then crash.

We're up early Saturday morn and drive as family to Ohare (3.5 hours, with oldest son driving most of way) to meet Vonne and girls, who walk out of customs around 1330. Tough ride for Abbie (still ear problems), so we dash back to Indy, and I and my oldest son take the girls to the ER to get checked out.  Perforated eardrum for Abbie and both with infections in ears (actually, mine back now too since I turned over my ear drops to Abbie in Addis).  We get materials to collect other samples (don't ask) and get home late.  Wipe the girls down and they are off to bed.  We use the intercom as monitoring system (cool feature). 

Our first full day together is today. Some errands by me and oldest son, but rest of day is simply Vonne catching up on sleep, me organizing house, and kids playing with Metsu and Abbie all day long.  

We expect many more days of such cocooning before we take them anywhere.  It all goes well--amazing really, with the only tears being Metsu's usual ones when I put her in her PJs (she hates having clothes chosen for her--a lot!).

I type this as I wait for the girls to crash in their room (they sleep with Vonne Mei, our Chinese daughter). Metsu's tears go about 4-5 mins.

All in all, we feel very blessed.  We're figuring the GI trouble is Hep A, which is cropping up among other kids once home.  We're checking for all the usual parasites (internal only), and Metsu walks a bit funny on one side and has a rather common wart on one leg, but other than that and the ears and the residual bronchial stuff, the girls are in great shape, prettier than ever, and wonderfully fun to have around. 

We are really using the dutch doors throughout the first floor, however.  They keep the girls from wandering into inappropriate/dangerous spots and still allow the 3 Siberian cats the ability to go where they want (we keep the top sections open). Never knew we'd use those so much.

Brain dead.  Need to get up to run everybody to school and then begin a very long workday. 

I'm hoping Vonne got all her sleep back . . ..

Now that the girls are home, I don't plan on posting any further pix, just like with Vonne Mei.  But if you're lucky enough to get an Xmas card from us, note that I've already bought two Packer cheerleading outfits for the girls for the group shot.

Plotting the blog's regular return for Wednesday.

[POSTSCRIPT MONDAY MORNING:  Looking back over the day, I remain amazed at how peacefully it unfolded. It was a quiet, calm household throughout, one that allowed me time to fold laundry in the upstairs guest bedroom for about an hour undisturbed.  Yes, many difficulties lie ahead, along with some negative medical surprises, I am sure, but loads to be thankful for.  I ended the evening like I used to with Vonne Mei:  Abbie sleeping on my chest in the home theater.  Again, hard to complain.]

12:01AM

Blast From My Past: Gotcha Day remembered

A family photo where we celebrated our first anniversary of Gotcha Day ion 15 August 2005 a couple days early at my mother-in-law's

Gotcha Day refers to day you take custody of your child in an adoption.  

Our first Gotcha Day involved meeting and receiving Zhou Yong Ling, renamed Vonne Mei Ling at a hotel in Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi Province, China on Sunday, 15 August.

Here's my first-write-up memory of that day, posted 16 August:

We have Vonne Mei Ling

Lakeview Hotel, Hongdu Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, China, 16 Aug 2004

Quick rundown. Later email will attach pictures. No broadband in room so have to use biz center.

Got up yesterday all packed. Used car seat box to store clothes so we could stuff all our sovenirs into suitcases. Cases picked up at 8am. We had breakfast a bit earlier and then just hung out two hours. That was when I wrote about day 3 &4 in Beijing.

At 10am on bus to airport with our group. Then two-hour flight on Air China to Nanchang. Nice flight in old 737. Vonne and I seated far apart, but no problem.

Land in Nanchang. About 95 with 95% humidity. Place is a lot like Florida--water everywhere. Real SE Asia.

Small bus to hotel and get in room around 3:20. Told to be in conference room in 40 minutes with all the various envelopes of cash, presents for officials, and all our paperwork, plus food for baby and toys. We scramble like crazy getting bottles together and counting out cash (finally got exact figures on bus ride over). Get into conference room on dot and it is full of babies.

We stand on one wall and David, our guide, picks us out to come over and get Vonne Mei. We were about 3rd couple to receive, since third couple to show up. Took less than 3 minutes from time we walked in door. As other couples were strolling in later, bit of madhouse scene for first-time parents realizing their baby in the room already. Feel many thought they could be in room and babies would show up from outside, but otherway around.

So, as soon as we got in room, I knew we were within seconds and I started scanning baby faces. I spot Vonne Mei with just a quick sweeping glance. Woman is holding her and another child sitting on long conference table. She is almost golden looking in her orange onesie. But I recognize the face almost instantly. Then I'm a bit scared to tell Vonne, because I'm looking at the (by far) prettiest, most relaxed baby in the room and I figure, if I tell Vonne I think that's her and it's not (our photos are now 7 months old), then there will be this weird tinge of disappointment. Oddly tense moment--that.

But I did it anyway. I pointed her out to Vonne and I said, "I'm certain that's Vonne Mei. I recognize her mouth and eyes."

So when David says Barnett and we hand over our passports and other docs, I see the lady with the two babies call over another woman. That woman takes the arms of the second baby and the original nanny picks up Vonne Mei and brings her over.

Vonne is very quiet and sort of stunned by it all--she is so focused. Reminded me of her trance-like state in her labors. She is just laser-like on Vonne Mei.

I know what I have to do and whip our camcorder and digital camera and catch the handover on video and then shoot about 60 shots with my other hand.

After a while, I get to hold Vonne Mei and Vonne returns the favor with photos.

Then we crack out Cheerios, which she likes. Then some cryinging from her. Then I do the money transfers to various officials.

Vonne says she seems hungry and the water we quickly boiled in room is too hot. Elevators are jammed with people (several of these events going on at same time), so I dash up 13 flights of stairs in un-air-conditioned stairwell.

That was when I felt yesterday's Great Steps.

Getting Evian, I cut the bottle's mixture down to reasonable temp. We snipped the nipple on the Chinese bottle that Zhang Yu was kind enough to buy us in Beijing, because babies here drink formula very fast.

Vonne Mei sucks down the bottle with ease and then we spend some time just hugging and playing with toys.

Then off for official family photo and her passport photo.

Then we are cut loose for bit in room (about 20 minutes at 5:10). Then back to conference room to do official documents for hour and then interview with civil affairs official. Big question: "Why do you want Chinese baby when you already have three kids!"

We pass with flying colors.

Then to room for night. Really nice high-rise hotel. We order in room service. Vonne Mei had fallen asleep in my arms in conference room and slept until 10:30. Then we made another bottle, massaged her beautiful little body and got her back to sleep until about 5:30.

Working stroller this morning. Heading down to breakfast now.

Will send more info and some pictures later in day.

We are very pleased with how it all went. Only issue with Vonne Mei seems to be heat rash around neck and hairline.

She seems nice and strong and not thin in the empty sort of sense. Was with foster mom entire 9 months. She was removed from the home just an hour before the 3-hour ride to Nanchang. Given then, she is very accepting with us. Spent morning playing on mat with toys. Already fairly easy to make laugh.

So all in all, it went very well, if a bit rushed. Don't know how first-time parents handle it. More respect for my sister Maggie pulling it off with my Mom as a result. It is a high-stakes, high-stress moment. Fortunately for us, we have much experience in that with offspring, so we got through it with no explosions or mishaps. By and large, it went very well for the group as a whole.

All for now. Check in later.

Tom (for Vonne)

Here's my later write-up:

I know that face (some concluding thoughts on our China adoption trip)

Dateline: above the garage in Portsmouth RI, 31 August 2004

I have to admit that, two days back in the world, I am feeling suitably disoriented, like my life has been turned a bit upside down. That's not to say that I regret anything or that I'm feeling panicked suddenly as the father of four vice three, it’s more that I simply have a deep-seated need for such life-altering experiences. As an aging Type-T personality, you eventually have to move on to things beyond roller-coasters and their many variants in our sense-assaulting culture, and you need to reconnect to something a bit more intimate, which was really what this grand odyssey was all about.

In short, it was all about falling in love again: with my wife, with my kids, with this baby, with my life, with my faith, with just about everything. It was just one of those times where life pushes you to recommit, and if Vonne has but one genius, it is that: knowing exactly when such moments are looming in our lives spent together and putting in place those decisions, moves, and deals that must be concluded if forward progress in this grand endeavor is going to be maintained. My wife's great gift is her ambition, whereas mine is my optimism. She pushes hard because she fears failure, and I push hard simply because of my naive belief that it will all work out in the end--or at least segue into something I can rationalize as success. Our yin and yang go well together, as they should, and so we keep growing this family until life signals otherwise.

I don't mind this feeling of being adrift and I don't exaggerate its source. Hell, most of it comes simply from a lack of sleep, and you can get that with the last few days of pregnancy, then labor, then the first few days with a newborn . . . or . . . you can achieve it with the amazingly close approximation known as the international adoption process as offered by the Chinese. Both are exhausting journeys, typically stumbled into by the fathers at the last minute ("What, you mean we have to take it home with us forever now?") whereas the mothers tend to feel every pin prick over the many long months. Both leave you feeling beat up and vulnerable on the far side, swearing you'll never do anything so stupid ever again. But then time passes, and the good memories crowd out the bad, and you want to fall in love with everything all over again.

This time was different though, because we had to fall in love with so much more, and it was all outside, over there, instead of inside, over here. What was once an alien culture, not to mention a foreign face, are now quite intimate and familiar. Not in some deep, all-knowing sort of way, but in that just-falling-in-love sort of way. You just want to scream, "Isn't is amazing how similar we are?" You want to tell her all your stories and hear all of hers. You want to show her all the things you love and see all the things she loves. You want to do it all today, but know you will do it quite naturally over many years, so your sense of the future shifts from fear of the unknown to enjoyment of the anticipated.

Oh, the places you will go, my new love!

Yes, you feel responsibility and some real fear. There is so much to be done, to be prevented, to be put in place. But none of that hold the same sway in the end as simply holding her body against yours at those right moments and letting her know how loved and safe she is in your arms.

I attended the birth of each of my three biological children, and it was simply amazing--the most fabulously spiritual experience I have ever known. I recognized them all immediately as mine--I know that face.

I walk away from this whole adoption experience with the same mix of fear and confidence that I have always felt while falling--yet again--in love with someone (I've done it so many times with Vonne that I long ago lost count). It's that sense of sheer recognition: I just knew right then and there!

I know that face.

On 15 August 2004, just as our bus was pulling into the parking lot of the Lakeview Resort, our guide David reiterates that we need to come to the third floor conference rooms at exactly four o'clock. It's now 3:15 in the afternoon. Grabbing our carry-on bags with a real sense of urgency, Vonne and I head up to the 16th floor, and quickly slip into our hotel room, ignoring the surroundings completely and focusing only on the tasks at hand: we need to get the money together in the various envelopes and label them, we need to get some baby food and a bottle together, we need to get our moment-recording devices together--along with our heads. The minutes flash by so fast that we both feel ourselves almost out of breath as we storm out the door at 3:53 and catch one elevator down to the lobby and then another back up to the third-floor conference rooms. I can tell how psyched we both are by the way we keep talking past one another in a conversation that makes no sense whatsoever.

We can tell the moment is at hand. Yongfeng is more than a three-hour drive away and we're getting our babies at 4 pm. That means they are already here, even though David has been very careful to lead us to believe otherwise ("... and then you will meet the babies, yes?"). The orphanage workers want to start back early enough so they can get home before dark.

Of course! That means Vonne Mei is already in the building, long before we even touch down in Nanchang. This whole thing is set up to go bang-bang-bang the moment we hit the ground running at the airport.

Hell, we have it completely backwards: they aren't delivering the babies to us on the third floor; David is delivering us to the babies.

I can sense Vonne and I racing to the same conclusion as we move rapidly from the elevator and around the bend to the conference rooms, quickly but wordlessly glancing into open doors without breaking stride until we find one room full of babies.

We are just the third couple to show up, and the first one already has a baby girl in their arms. The emotional scene has already begun. It's like walking in on somebody's else private moment; you don't want to intrude and yet you can't pull your eyes away from the scene.

I exclaim without thinking, "They've already got their baby!"

David quickly calls out the last name of the second couple to arrive and over in the crowd of baby-holding women lining the far wall, one immediately stands up and swiftly moves in the direction of an older lady who's apparently in charge on the orphanage side--the director. The director takes the baby from the woman's arms and quickly checks the face photo pinned to her top as David makes the showy demonstration of checking the official referral document held up by the parents. When their eyes meet in acknowledgement, the director simply thrusts the child into the mother's arms and it's all over--just like that.

"Good God!" I think to myself, "We're next!"

At this point we've been in the room a good 90 seconds.

I turn and start panning my eyes over the line-up of women holding babies against the far wall. None of them seem quite right. Then I spot one woman holding two babies in her arms, sitting up against the U-shaped configuration of tables that dominate the conference room.

And I immediately realize--right then and there--that the tanned little girl in the orange onesy is Vonne Mei Ling.

From behind, I lean over into Vonne's ear and state emphatically while pointing, "I think that's her!"

David pulls away from the second couple once it's clear that the deed is done and simply announces, "Barnetts, you are next!"

I feel a real pang of fear. What if I haven't recognized Mei correctly? What if she isn't that golden beauty in the woman's left arm and instead is one of the other ones? Have I just taken some beautiful moment and ruined it by opening my big fat mouth too early? Will I spend the rest of my days wondering about what drove me to recognize that one kid and not my daughter on this fateful day?

The director strides firmly to the lady at the table holding the two babies. I can feel my pulse pounding in my chest. The lady starts to set down the girl in her right arm on the table in front of the director. Jesus! Did that mean . . .?

No, wait a second! Now, the woman hands over the little brown girl in the orange onesy to the director, and as this kind-faced woman closes the ten-foot gap between ourselves and this seemingly casual handoff, we lock eyes with Vonne Mei just as her new mother accepts her in her arms.

"I knew that was her!" I insist to Vonne. "I know that face."

Why I especially bring up this memory:  I will be accompany Vonne back to Ethiopia to pick up the girls, as it wasn't working out with my mother-in-law and Vonne really wanted me there for the first couple of days of having the girls alone with us in the guesthouse and then going through the all-important visa show at the US embassy).  We leave in a few days (a big part of the reason why I'm skipping blogging this month--so much to prepare!), but I will be coming back three days before Vonne and the girls to keep two speaking gigs (Industrial College of the Armed Forces address to student body to start off their school year and then at the US Marine Corps University, where a course has "Great Powers" as required reading, focusing on the history chapter (3) and the economics chapter (8)).  So I will book back, do the two speeches, and then reach home about 24 hours before Vonne makes it back with the girls.  Naturally, we are scrambling across the board, so I thank you for your patience with the blog, because I really needed the break and am enjoying the time immensely with my family as we prep the house, train cross country, etc.  Tonight Vonne Mei and I repainted the new girls room, where Amish bunk beds and a day-bed await Metsewat and Abebu.  Vonne Mei is already breaking in the bunks with Emily on her last nights home before heading off to college.  Mucho emotion throughout the house!

New photos:

MetsueAbbie

11:12AM

More pix of the girls at WACAP house in Addis Ababa

Vonne and her mom (Nona Vonne) are a scant 10 days from leaving for Ethiopia, and we are but 18 days from welcoming the girls (much work to be done on the new "girls room" for Vonne Mei, Metsewat and Abebu).  Our eldest, Emily, is in the process of packing up for college and yielding her "biggest bedroom" for the cause.

Just got some more photos of the girls by parents currently in Addis.  Clipped them down to remove any other kids from the frame.

First is Abbie [our nickname going forward for Abebu]:


Her hair seems to be coming in nicely.

Next is Metsue [our nickname going forward for Metsewat]:

 

 

Then the pair of them:

The main reason why I'm chilling on the blog this month is all the stuff we need to get ready for the girls' arrival on the 28th.  We are a home in tremendous transition.

2:11PM

Another note from fellow adopting parents who ran into our girls in Addis

Just got this note this ayem:

My husband and I visited WACAP house the day we left Ethiopia and met your beautiful girls! They are so precious! Your younger daughter and I played "soccer" for a little while in the courtyard and she could not have been any cuter! I just wanted to drop you a note to let you know that the girls seem to be doing very well.

Very positive to hear.
12:11AM

The Embrace::Our African Mother

 

I was raised

in the great state of Wisconsin in a Scot-Irish-German family that didn’t do hugs.  Every emotion was delivered verbally.  As such, I can recall moments of great love and great pain, but always in the form of words.  I lived this existence until the age of 20, when I met the love of my life who’s still my wife—28 years later.

The hug that changed everything for me was delivered on June 22, 1982.  There was my life before that moment and my life since.  I will never go back.

I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, following my sophomore year in college there.  I had a job cooking pizza at the university’s premier Italian restaurant, called Paisan’s.  After 20 years of pretty much always sleeping with somebody else in the room (I was the sixth of seven brothers), I suddenly found myself living—and sleeping—alone for the first time in my life in an efficiency sublet from my brother James.

I was beyond free in this arrangement:  traveling by Sear’s Free Spirit 10-speed, I worked monster hours, partied to no end, and actively plotted to seduce women in my newfound man cave.  It was my personal summer of love.

Then I met Vonne, an oddly personable waitress at Paisan’s.  She was this gorgeous work of art, with a mind so nimble that I eventually cleaned up my act simply to keep up with her.  She was intense.  A lot of cooks at the restaurant fantasized about her but nobody—including me—could figure how to approach her.  In the end, she approached me.

I was sitting in a circle with friends at my sister Maggie’s legendary annual birthday bash in mid-June.  It was the quiet time after midnight but before the cops showed up, and we were talking movies.  Vonne was on the far side but actively sought out my opinions.  Later, she asked me to walk her to her bike.  On the way there, I realized I could easily marry her.

A week later I summoned up the courage to do something I had never actually done before—successfully.  I asked her out on a date.  We saw “Blade Runner” on our mutual day off, and then spent that evening riding around Madtown, she on her racey Motebecane and me on my Free Spirit, struggling to keep pace.  We made it to my lair around midnight, and I figured I was in like Flynn.

Instead, we sat on my bed and talked all night.  I realized what I was getting into:  she wanted the whole shebang but just didn’t know how to ask for it because life hadn’t led her to believe it was possible, especially with someone of my respectful—when it comes to women, that is—demeanor.

At dawn Vonne said she needed to head to her place to catch some zzz’s before her shift.  I walked Vonne out to her chained bike, and after I pulled off the lock, she suddenly grabbed me and gave me the most intense, heartfelt, soul-transmitting embrace of my life.  I can still recall it in all its heart-pounding glory, it was so shocking in its openness, its longing, and its strength.  I had nothing to say in reply—a first for this Mad’s-snappy-answers-to-stupid-questions maestro.  I just watched Vonne ride off, knowing in my heart that I would love her forever.

I have never felt that crushing emotion since.  I’ve been happily married to Vonne since 1986, fortunate to have married the person I respect most on this planet, so don’t get me wrong:  I don’t recall the moment as an instance of lost youth or anything like that.  It was my own personal “great awakening,” and I’ve been a committed evonnegelical ever since.

So it wasn’t just that I never expected to experience something like that ever again; I simply didn’t want to.  That saddened me some, because there’s nothing like falling in love for the first time.  Hell, it’s why I’ll watch every and any romantic comedy ever made.  We all want to go back to that virginal moment of glorious revelation, to which nothing in this world compares.

 

Twenty-eight years, 

fifty pounds and an emerging bald spot later, I’ve finally repeated the experienced with a small, thin and incredibly beautiful farm widow from southern Ethiopia, 18 years my junior.  It’s not a midlife crisis and it’s not a pathetic reach for past glory. 

Instead, it’s the collision of tragedy and hope that is an international, transracial adoption.  This widowed farm mother of four has put up her two younger children, girls aged 3 and 4, for adoption by American families through a local orphanage.  Three years after her second husband died from pneumonia just weeks following the birth of her youngest child, this 30-year-old has decided they deserve a better life than she can provide them, given the reality of competing responsibilities (the older kids by a previous husband) and enduring hardship (managing her small hardscrabble farm of banana trees and corn fields).  She’s not looking to marry again; she simply wants them to have more opportunity than she did—and to find those opportunities in America.

Vonne and I had three “biologicals” (Emily, 18, Kevin, 15, and Jerome, 10) before adopting Vonne Mei Ling Barnett from the interior of rural China in 2004.  Having grown up in a farm town myself, whereas Vonne grew up on a working farm in Ohio, we felt a natural kinship with this small-village babe of a mere nine months. 

But our little brown-eyed girl was an anomaly in our white-on-white family, and so we sought, in this allegedly “post-American world,” to make our tribe truly post-Caucasian—a perfectly American quest.

Ruled out from returning to China for a host of unchangeable reasons, we tried Taiwan (too corrupt), Kyrgyzstan (too unstable) and Kazakhstan (too many fetal-alcohol Russians) before finally realizing that our long-imagined ace-in-the-hole, Ethiopia, had silently risen to the top of the pile.  Many American families with Chinese adoptees had already turned in this direction, much like the Middle Kingdom itself is now “invading” Africa with all manner of immigrants, investments and long-term commodity contracts.

As an expert on globalization, the idea of pulling this trigger was highly appealing:  in this era, China is globalization’s primary engine and Africa is its emerging target of intense integration.  What better way to experience this world-transforming phenomenon than to raise glorious daughters of both great civilizations?

And so we applied yet again, submitting our fingerprints and background checks and home visits by prying social workers.  And we waited six months until those frightened eyes stared back at us from the photo, holding their names written in a foreign tongue. 

Bob-tailed Metsewat and shaved-skull Abebu, estimated at four and three years of age, respectively, had been offered to an American family who had requested one or more pre-school children.  When presented with the reality of sibling girls, the parents realized they couldn’t handle the full scope of the challenge and passed.

Next in line, we got the call in late March, at around 5pm.  Minutes later the email arrived with the photo.  We saw the tension and anxiety in the girls’ faces.  They were mere hours past being dropped off by their loving but heartsick mother, and suddenly found themselves among strangers in a major city.

We decided yes two hours later, but waited 48 hours until the formal medical review by an international adoption specialist working remotely out of Seattle came through.  After 60 minutes with him on the phone, we called our agency, WACAP (World Association for Children and Parents), and accepted the referral.

 

Approximately two months later 

Vonne and I are sitting in a reception room at the Ajuuja orphanage in the city of Awassa, capital of Ethiopia’s southern-most Sidamo region—famous solely for its coffee exports.  After brief remarks in English by the trilingual director, I spot a beaming Metsewat ambling around the corner of the walled-in courtyard, looking expectantly for her “white mother and father,” as she subsequently described us to her birth mom.  Minutes later my youngest child, fuzzy-headed Abebu, is sitting on the floor with me, playing catch with a rubber ball.

 

But we are not yet the parents of six.  We have traveled the many hours south by vehicle to meet the girls, but still need to return to Addis Ababa for the court adoption proceedings three days later.  Thanks to new rules, we are the first adopting parents to be required to meet the children prior to the hearing and to attend the hearing in person.   Amazingly enough, previous adopting parents had the option of skipping the court date and arriving weeks later for the follow-on US embassy immigrant visa drill, having already been made the child’s (or children’s) legal parents in abstentia.  Due to the cost of two somewhat lengthy stays (not to mention all those airfares), most adopting parents previously took the irreversible plunge without ever laying eyes on their new children.

Vonne and I had welcomed the rule change, because we were going to show up for the court date anyway, figuring it was the best possibility of meeting the birth mother—however emotionally charged that moment might be.  Since grandparents were helping out, the new rules justified the extra costs involved—not that grandmas are especially tough when prospective granddaughters are involved.

So, bidding our new daughters good-bye, we headed back to Addis and prepared for court.  Given preview of likely questions to be posed by the judge, Vonne and I wrote out our answers on stick-em notes and committed them to memory.  Having done this previously, both in Chinese and American courts, we knew emotions would run high and we didn’t want to stammer or seem hesitant in our declarations.  As far as we were concerned, the occasion could not have been more solemn, especially with birth relatives in the room alongside us.

We had little expectation that the mother would appear.  Typically, an older adult relative—a grandfather or uncle—does the deed, especially when great distances are involved.  But we were wrong in this instance.

 

It's a cool, cloudy morning

on 30 June 2010 and I’m sitting in the off-white waiting room of the Addis district family court, located on the third floor of a non-descript government office building.  Vonne is beside me and we’re both wearing black.  Somebody’s dreams are dying today, and we aim to respect that.

My elbows on my knees, I’m hunched over studying my stick-em notes, slightly annoyed by a fellow adoptive parent’s nervous chatter.  I glance up at Vonne sitting erect beside me, and notice the tears welling up in her eyes.  I’m about to say something rude about that chattering mom when a sudden chill runs up my spine and I straighten up instinctively.  Vonne knows the birth mother is in the room.

I slowly and surreptitiously scan the square room’s walls, going over the couple of dozen black faces attached to lined chairs.  As my gaze terminates on my hard right, I realize she’s maybe 36 inches to my kitty-corner, sitting alongside a slightly older woman and man.  I wonder, are these her relatives or other birth parents in the same boat?.

I steal a quick glance at the young woman and immediately recognize her from the stunning photo presented to us by the Ajuuja orphanage director two days earlier.  She is as strikingly beautiful as her daughters, though I need to see her smile for complete confirmation.

But naturally, none is forthcoming.  Arms and legs crossed, she looks tense and coiled and ready to get this painful event over.

I am humbled by her choice of sacrifice, and go back to staring at my shoes, unsure what to do next.

But long-range planner that I am, I quickly imagine my adult African daughters begging me with all earnestness to divulge any memory I can muster of their birth mother, whom I may never see again once she leaves this room.  I can plan for otherwise but I can assume nothing.

And so my inner journalist kicks in.  I know what to do because I’ve been in these rooms before.  You record everything:  every sound, every smell, every color, every everything.  I turn over my stick-em notes and begin scribbling every impression and detail I can assemble.  When they’re full, I pull out some blank envelopes from my backpack, and when the outside flaps are covered in words, I split them open and do the same with their interiors.  I pursue this effort for 30 minutes, stealing sideways glances at her now and then, grasping for the atmospherics surrounding her emotional turmoil—and my own.

At 1015 a.m., a stern woman emerges from the judge’s chambers and announces, “Ajuuja.”

Our birth mother is up like a shot and strides hurriedly into the room, only to be immediately escorted out by the court official.  It’s not yet her time.  Our eyes lock as she passes by en route to her corner seat.

After the first of three American couples exits into the judge’s chambers, our birth mom realizes that one of the two remaining couples will come to represent her hopes for a better life for her girls.  I can feel her gaze shifting back and forth like a laser beam.

Five minutes later the first couple emerges and the second couple is beckoned to enter.  I slowly turn to face the mother and see the look of recognition in her eyes. 

Now we’re both staring at our feet.

Five minutes more and we three are called in, with our various legal and procedural handlers.  Vonne and I sit to the judge’s right, and the birth mother sits opposite the simple desk that serves as judicial bench.  All eyes are on the judge, who is out of central casting.  A tall, imperious-looking Muslim woman, she is covered from head to toe in black robes, with only her face and hands showing.  She is quite beautiful, as well as intimidating in the way that only judges can be.

Papers are shuffled and the judge looks up with all seriousness to begin questioning the birth mother, who speaks Sidamo but not Amharic, so the Ajuuja orphanage director translates.

It’s all Greek to Vonne and I, but the questions are easy enough to guess.  The first ones are short, and fall into the category of “Do you understand that this proceeding is . . .?” 

The mother answers in mono-syllables, looking the judge in the eye but seeing only her daughters’ future.

The judge’s questions grow longer, and the mother’s answers expand in complexity.  After a total of ten or so queries, the exchange is finished and the judge turns to Vonne and I in concise English.

“Can you supply your passports?"

We do.

“What are the ages of your current children?”

By previous agreement, Vonne answers with suitable precision, matching the judge’s calm and deliberate tone.

“Why are you adopting from Ethiopia?”

My turn, and I explain our desire that our Chinese daughter not remain an anomaly within our family.  I also state that we had always planned to eventually come to Africa, because, as European-descent Americans with an Asian child, Africa was all that remained to complete our microcosm of the global village.  The world now comes to Africa, and we want to be part of that process, helping where we can.

“What preparations have you made for a transracial adoption?”

Vonne describes our training, both mandated and self-directed.

“What have you told your children about this adoption, and how have they responded?”

We both answer, emphasizing our past experience with Vonne Mei and our kids welcoming spirit.

“What have you told your family and how have they responded?”

More of the same from us, noting that we already have African-American relatives.

I sense the judge’s questions are completed.  As she prepares to make a signature, the judge turns with some surprise toward Vonne and asks, “Why are you crying?”

Vonne wipes her eyes and replies, “Because I am so very happy and”—turning to the birth mother and looking her straight in the face—“so very sad.”

Our newest relation stands up quickly and takes several steps toward Vonne, who matches her urgency step for step.  They lock in fierce embrace in the middle of the room, gasping in short bursts as they shower each other’s neck in kisses.

For two minutes, the room responded with respectful silence. 

 

I recognized the power 

of Vonne’s hug immediately.  What I didn’t anticipate was that, for the first time since that fateful June morning in 1982, I would feel that intense emotional release yet again, but this time from a wiry but strong Ethiopian farm widow in Addis Ababa.

And just like last time, when it was my turn to embrace our mother, I fell in love all over again—to my utter amazement.  I entered that same place, where words have no meaning and love has no boundaries.  In that flash, I felt my life divide yet again between “before” and “after.”

Our mother’s strength was such that she almost pulled me off balance.  As I felt myself tip into her, only to have her stop my momentum with her feral grip, I was whatever she needed me to be.  Our hearts now intertwined, her fears were now my own—her love our shared asset.

As I remained lost in our mother’s arms, Vonne turned to the judge, extending her hand with the words, "Thank you, your honor."

The judge, who later admitted to our WACAP handler that she was deeply moved by our collective show of emotion—for Ethiopians tend toward stoicism in all things, replied with utter conviction, “It is my honor.”

The next hour was a blur:  constant physical contact, more hugs and embraces, an awkward elevator ride and a giddy stroll down the street.  Then, over coffee, a heartfelt conversation of stunning openness:  fears expressed, pain exposed, dreams revealed, promises made.

When our mother smiled, I could see everything that defined Metsewat and Abebu:  the sweetness, the determination, the vast capacity for love.  No boasting was required, nor frankly any translation; we gave our pledges through our hugs, our tears, and our kisses. 

As we pulled away from the café around noon, I shot repeated photos through the van’s window of our mother’s wave, her smile, her absolute sense of relief and deliverance.

I have not been to get that hug out of my mind since.  The experience is permanently fused into my circuitry—for only the second time in my life.  I never dreamed I would ever repeat that sensation or that personal connection, but I will remain eternally grateful to that woman for letting fall in love once more on this Earth.

 

And I will spend

the rest of my days paying her back for that privilege.

12:08AM

Our girls are doing well in Addis

Abebu ("Abby") Akelu Barnett        Metsewat ("Sue") Akelu Barnett

My wife Vonne recently sent out an email to couples who had court dates around the end of June/beginning of July to see if any of them had come across our daughters in their new surroundings in Addis Ababa (the "WACAP House"), where they will stay until my wife and her mom (Nona Vonne) travel to spend time with them in mid-August prior to the visa hearing at the US embassy and then bring them home to Indy.  I will not be making the second trip because I have speeches scheduled and need to be here to move my daughter at Indiana University (a big event in itself).

Anyway, the hope was that we'd elicit impressions from parents who were passing through Addis during the time after the girls were transported north and put through their initial paces with doctor exams, etc. at WACAP House.

We got the following response from one mom we met during our trip (along with her husband):

I'm not sure about the dolls, but we definitely remember your daughters well! I will say that Abebu made herself known (in a good way!) She immediately came to [my husband] and then stayed very close to him all day long. She loved to be held, and got jealous whenever he held someone else. She was very sweet and we heard her laughing and talking a bit. Metsewat seemed more reserved, but she gladly accepted whenever we gave her a hand to hold. We saw a little sister rivalry going on - with them pushing a little - it was actually very sweet! The "fighting" was easily stopped and they seemed close. Abebu has such a bright smile and seems to have learned out to get her way - she definitely had [my husband] wrapped around her little finger! They both seem to be doing well and healthy.

What this tells us:  the girls have no bonding issues whatsoever, which is a big deal.  

I type this from my home office where behind me sits the hybrid crib/daybed/double bed that I just put together in the daybed mode (rails on three sides).  We need to buy a crib mattress for it, and it will be Abebu's first bed with us.  Older sis Metsewat will sleep on the bottom of a bunk-bed set-up we currently have being made (also by a local Amish furniture co.), with Vonne Mei occupying the top bunk.  The three girls will take over the largest bedroom soon to be vacated by our first-born as she heads off to college.

Whatever "empty nest" dynamics threatened our psyche will be dealt a terrific blow!

1:03AM

The first adoption trip to Ethiopia--diary with pix

First off, I need to note that my wife did virtually all of the planning and packing and purchasing for this trip, just like Jennifer handles all of my affairs on speaking trips.  I should also note that Jennifer came to stay at our house in Indy for the entire trip (8 days), holding down the fort with the older three kids (Em, Kev, Jerry), while our then-youngest (no longer!) Vonne Mei spent the duration in the sun at Nona Vonne's backyard pool in Terre Haute.

The purpose of this trip was four-fold:

  1. Meet the girls prior to the court hearing, so as to qualify for a specific sort of immigrant visa (meaning both Vonne and I had to meet the girls and not just one of us);
  2. Attend the court proceedings, now mandated by the new Ethiopian rules (in the past, parents could skip the court proceedings and then arrive weeks later only for the US visa process; we were among the first to be subject to the"two trip" rule, but it was a non-hassle to us since we planned to come twice and do the trip in that manner anyway, being aghast at the notion of adopting children without meeting them first);
  3. Meet whomever fate would present us with in terms of relatives of the girls (could be mother or uncle or grandfather--no way to tell in advance); and 
  4. Take advantage of the free time on the first trip to do some relevant sightseeing and purchase some "connecting" items (clothes, cultural items) that would thereupon serve us in our larger efforts to become--to whatever extent humanly possible--an Ethiopian-American family (in addition to already being a Scot-Irish-German-Chinese-American family).

Before leaving, I got the blog all pre-stocked and set up to run on automatic (all posts scheduled through 5 July), with my eldest Emily doing the comment approvals.  I also wrote "ahead" two WPR columns and a WPR feature (yet to be posted).  I also acquainted myself with our new Canon AVCHD combo camcorder/camera and the associated DVD burner.  Finally, I packed the four large suitcases of donations, plus the two small roller bags of our clothes, etc., plus the two backpacks we carried.  Then it was just a matter of a final mowing of the yard and cleaning the house.  Nona Vonne and Grandad Carl showed up Thursday night, 24 June, just after Jennifer arrived by plane. Carl then drove Vonne and I to the airport Friday morning at 0400 for our 0600 flight to Dulles on United, which accepted our four big bags with no charge because we were connecting to a sister-airine's international flight (Ethiopian Airlines).   We carried on our two rollers (which we had to gate check because the commuter plane was so small) and our backpacks, after a quick breakfast (McD's was the only thing open that early) at the Indy terminal.

Flight to Dulles was a breeze and we got there 2.5 hours early. Ethiopian Airlines' computer was down, so everybody had to get in line to have seat assignments hand-written.  We had just barely squeezed onto this flight days earlier, so we had to suffer middle seats (aisle and middle of a three-seat middle column). Fortunately, our cellmate was a nice Zimbabwean woman who was opening her own orphanage there.  We had met her in line and chatted her up prior.  We filled up our "Platypus" collapsible water bottles before the flight, which was roughly 9-10 hours to Rome, then one-hour there to refuel without getting off, and then 6 more to Addis Ababa.  The flight departed two hours late at noon because of the computer problems.

Nice meals on the way over.  Kinda weird, but there seemed to be a wide variety of meals (two over to Rome and one to Addis). Plane was full of church people on various missions, plus Africans from all over, plus a small smattering of tourists.  I read a ton of papers and mags I had accumulated, and then switched over to our Sony DVD portable to watch several opening "Upstairs, Downstairs" episodes with Vonne, switching to the first season of "Deadwood" after she moved onto to mystery books and sleeping (I don't sleep much at all on planes).  We landed in Rome sometime early in the ayem, and then laded in Addis about 10am local time (+7 from EST).  

Oh, we had to gate check our carry-on roller bags in Dulles because they were overweight (15# limit). Ethiopian Airline official waved the usual fee because of the computer glitch.

When we landed at Addis, we went through the visa drill ($20 a head) and then waited on our luggage, and waited, and waited.  But all six came through just fine.  Then we get some carts and get in line for X-raying by Customs.  Then out the door to our driver from WACAP.  Nice young fellow, he puts us into a special van and makes the short drive to the TDS Hotel.  We check in to a very nice room and then head downstairs for a meal in the restaurant.  We thereupon head out by foot to buy some bottled water and snacks from a nearby supermarket (very small) and check out a kids clothing store.  Not the best neighborhood, but okay.  We note the three-to-four unarmed guards at the hotel door who double as doormen and porters.  I only have 100 birr notes on me, so everyone involved gets the equivalent of a $7-8 tip.

After the meal (Ethiopian tibs for me, with plenty of injura, the spongy bread), we feel braindead enough to crash.  I sleep to about midnight (maybe 9 hours) and then manage another four. Up at four a.m., I organize the luggage because we're leaving some behind in the hotel and taking just what we need to head south to see the girls at 0900.  I then do yoga to loosen up my back after the 13 hours on the thin, mattress-like substance that covered the wooden bed frame.  After shower, I watch some more "Deadwood" and then wake Vonne up  in time for her to do the same.  We head down and catch the free breakfast and meet the other couple that will accompany us down (US software exec Matthew and French veterinarian wife Emmanuel--guessing around 40 each).  We pile into a pretty old VW-like minibus driven by an older Ethiopian (white haired, so I'm guessing in his sixties) after the driver and doormen strap down our luggage on the roof. Prior to departing we meet Megan, our WACAP contact who just got in the night before (she is very experienced across Africa and has an African spouse), and she tells us that the 250km trip may take up to 8 hours.

Megan is a bit pessimistic. I simply remind myself that Ethiopia has the highest auto-related fatality rates in the world.

It is a strange Sunday morning traffic crush to get out of Addis, but once on the highway south to Awassa (Sidamo province--yes, that of coffee fame), our guy averages about 60kph.  Road is very straight and in great working order (nary a crack in the asphalt). Problem is all the varied traffic:  people walking, small three-wheel taxis, wooden flatbed carts pulled by donkeys and containing either crops or people crammed on top, other cars, some trucks.  Our driver is textbook for developing-country transport:  he drives about 20 kph faster than it can be safely done.  He has a strange knack for speeding up at exactly the moment when I would have otherwise pulled my foot off the accelerator.  There are too many close calls to mention, especially with all the wandering cattle and goats, who are often tended to by shepherds ranging from 5 to 10 years old. But we escape unharmed. 

Some shots on the way down:

View from inside van.  I purposely show only a non-crowded scene because whenever they occured, I was too nervous to shoot or film anything.

View of countryside.  Lots of corn growing, plenty of large termite mounds, and trees mostly spread out like this (no forests).  Pretty mountains and lakes in the distance.

Typical shot of traditional farming/rural hut, made of wood skeleton covered over by mud, and then topped by thatched roof. We saw hundreds upon hundreds along the way.

We stopped about halfway in what turned out to be a six-hour trip to gas up and have some local coffee at a rest stop.  The coffee was strong and served in small cups.

We arrive in Awassa around 2-3 and were checked into the Oasis International hotel by 3.  We met up with Becky and Antonio (he Mexico City born and now in gas and oil in Houston, she a teacher, maybe early 30s) who had spent the previous week camping around the area. Soon after, Ato (as in, Mr.) Girma, the orphanage director of the Ajuuja facility, showed up and we had lunch together, the seven of us.  Ato Girma tells us how excited he is about international adoptions picking up finally, because he says his orphanage needs to move kids out to make room for the new ones that keep coming in.  He's pushing for more domestic adoptions, naturally, but is most welcoming of the international demand in the meantime--especially for the girls, whom he says are far harder to place locally ("What you are doing is great.  I do not have the words to explain.  To save the life of one child--this is blessed." And then looking at Vonne and I, he adds, "Two is even better!").

Girma says he presently has about 25-30 kids, and that his orphanage recently ranked #2 in quality among Awassa's 15 facilities in an official government evaluation.  His kids live 4-5 to a room, and each room has its own permanent "mother"/nanny that sleeps with them every night.

Girma explains that we cannot take pix of any kids for privacy reasons, and cannot even photograph our own kids prior to the court proceedings.  We can only shoot their individual rooms [with no kids in the shot] and their nannies.

We are disappointed, because this is our only chance to photograph the kids for many weeks, as we won't see them after returning to Addis, because they'll come up to the WACAP house days later for the duration.

Girma's compromise:  he--and only he--shoots photos of our initial meetings and then promises to let us have them after the court date makes us the children's legal parents.  That way the letter and spirit of the regs are upheld--and rightfully so.  Like everything we see at the orphanage, this decision reflects some serious thinking of the consequences. Frankly, Girma's strictness on the subject impresses me all the more: imagine all the other small things he decides in this manner, carefully balancing the needs of all players?

Vonne finds out later that Girma, who does all the photography of the kids for documentation, is using a borrowed camera with limited memory.  She pulls out our safety Sony digital camera and gives it to him.  I later come up with a large 32G extra card from our supplies.  Girma is most thankful, saying he otherwise sometimes ends up deleting pix that he would have liked to pass onto to adopting parents (like early shots to show the child's history of development).

After the meal, we pile into the van and make the short trip to the orphanage.  The street outside is a bit rough, to include the occasional large-sized monkey hanging around on a wall, but once inside the compound, the vibe changes to one of great calm. A courtyard filled with trees greets us, along with clothes lines of drying diapers.  The facility is spartan but incredibly clean.  Bug freak that I am, I cannot spot a single ant in the place over two hours of traipsing around.  The stone floors and walls are all swept or scrubbed to within an inch of their lives.  No toys in sight, and only an aging TV to give the kids any entertainment, but all the children seem very happy in that way that's easy for an experienced parent to spot.  This is a very safe and calm and loving environment, but spartan.

We are led into a receiving room that has a few chairs.  Girma gives a small speech and then introduces the impressive female manager of the facility, who, like him is trilingual (speaks English, Amharic--the dominant Ethiopian tongue, and the local Sidamo language--used by only about 2-3m people in all).  She is a very warm person who insists on hugging us all individually.  

She then goes out and gets the kids (our two girls, estimated at just over four and three, a three-year-old boy for the second couple (already with two bios and an adopted child) and a four-month baby for the last couple--their first).  We are waiting anxiously when I spot Metsewat ambling around the corner in the courtyard, big dazzling smile leading the way.  The manager introduces us and she kisses and hugs us both.  Then the same follows with smaller Abebu, whose previously shaved head now spouts a thin sheen of hair.  Both are neatly dressed and smell of perfumed soap.  Metsewat's hair is done up spectacularly in a bob.  Both have simple plastic shoes that look like they come out of the communal pile.  After some hugs and fun with Metsewat, the toys come out (Vonne, naturally planned ahead and brought some, which was crucial, because they were the only ones in the place) and I blow up a ball and play for a long time with Abebu, who matches my actions exactly: roll the ball, bounce the ball, roll it down my arms, etc.  

Some pix as provided later by Girma, after the children became legally our own:

The first hugs.

Metsewat, all smiles.

Abebu, happy with Vonne's ball.

Metsewat, similarly excited.

After an hour, play time is over and the tour begins.  We are allowed to see their room and photograph their beds.  There are three bunk sets in the room, along with a single crib.

The woman in the foreground is the room "mother."

After the tour our time is done and Girma leads us on a short tour of the city that ends with some walking time around the city's biggest park.

A few shots of the lakeside park:

No shortage of monkeys in Awassa.

Local kids along water's edge.  Arguably my best shot of the trip.

Hard to screw that one up.

That night the three couples have a nice meal at the hotel, aiming no higher because we were all a bit drained from the travel and meeting the kids.  One amazing day.

Try to sleep in that night but make it only to 2am.  So yoga, then shoot that pigeon with my phone, tweeting it successfully from the deep interior of Africa.  Then finish season one of "Deadwood."

We're up to meet Girma again after breakfast, then we go shopping for stuff we want to spontaneously donate to the orphanage, based on our observations of the previous day. Vonne, as always, leads the way when it comes to donations, and organizes our approach.  She also picks up matching outfits for the girls at a local shop.

After the shopping, we then head back for our second meeting. It's far more relaxed and fun than the previous day, especially thanks to the new toys Vonne picks up locally (some noisy pretend cellphones and some other stuff). Some pix:

The cellphones fascinate to no end with their buttons that each produce some amazing sound.  The toys are Chinese, as are the recorded voices and language.

The matching outfits donned.  The decision to buy them was impactful.

The story: we later found out that Metsewat and Abebu's mom came back the next day (her second time back to the orphanage) and was told by Metsewat that her "white mother" gave her and her sister new clothes. This made a big impression on the birth mom, who took it as a very positive and bonding sign.

After our second play time, I came away with several impressions. First, the girls are both younger than their stated ages.  I think Metsewat is 3.5 or so versus 4, and agree with the international adoption specialist that Abebu is more like 2.5 than 3, especially after I saw her zero in and play in that isolated way of two-year-olds with a doll we brought along.  She just acts like a two-year-old. 

Both girls exhibit plenty of intelligence and warmth.  They are--and were--clearly cared for very well and loved very much.  Both have enough teeth to suggest future braces (crowded but neat teeth), and I didn't spot anything that suggested any developmental delay whatsoever.  Some parasites are to be expected (intestinal), but the girls are clearly thriving, so I'm doubting that will be a big deal.  Indeed, we heard from Girma later that the birth mom came to the orphanage about two weeks ago and was amazed at how Abebu was thriving. When dropped off, Abebu was exhibiting some signs of backsliding, probably for lack of nutrition.  Girma said he spoke to the birth mom about her choice, and she was very firm in her decision ("I brought [Abebu] to a good place.  I am happy.").

When we are in the office with Girma, he shows us a picture of the mother from their files.  She is stunningly beautiful, like her children.  We are also told that she is a practicing Protestant Christian, which surprised me, because my pre-trip investigation online indicated that the rural farming population of the south were about 4-1 Muslim over Christian.  But when you read about the Sidamo people themselves (Wikipedia), they're about 65-70% Protestant, so the fix was in--apparently.  We feel good about this, Vonne and I, not because we would have had any problem accepting the children of Muslims, but because we feel better now about not changing the spiritual path of the kids from Islam to Christianity.  Of course, we will switch the kids within Christianity, which is a big deal to some but less so to us.

After the second time at the orphanage, we bid the kids good bye. We won't see them again until we come back in August for the visa procedure at the US embassy.  The kids will be transported to WACAP House in Addis a few days after the court proceedings.

We thereupon head out to the best meal of the trip, in my opinion, in a local downtown restaurant.  I get the spinach-filled ravioli.  

We spend the rest of the day doing some shopping for traditional Sidamo clothes and cultural items. We also pick up a Sidamo-Amharic-English dictionary.  We luck out and find a shop that has a lot of great clothes.  A shot of the owners, who make the clothes themselves on an old Singer machine with footpump, just like the antique we have in our bedroom (my night table):

Wonderful guys.  We end up chatting with them for about two hours.

I will say this with absolutely no bias:  people in southern Ethiopia are better looking than those up north. Also, driving around the country some makes you realize how many African-Americans are of Ethiopian descent. I would bet money that Sean Combs is, because I met his stunt double more than once in Sidamo.

We end up walking all over the city, eventually making it back to the hotel just before a cloud burst.  We eat at the hotel, comparing the local beers and then crash for the night because my lack of sleep catches up with me.

The drive back to Addis is far more scary than the way down on Sunday.  One, the traffic is much heavier--of all sorts.  Second, the driver is hot to get back, and passes like a madman throughout.  His engine is way underpowered for the stunts he pulls, and I find myself moaning "No, no, no!" throughout.  We do stop for a great lunch along the way, though.

A shot from our table:

Back in the TDS Hotel in Addis, we meet up with our WACAP person, Megan, who lets us get our big bags out of her room, where they stayed during our absence.  After a long period of catching up with her and meeting even more adopting couples, we spend two hours going through all the toys and clothes and other stuff, dividing it up between what we want to go to the Ajuuja orphanage and what we want to go to the WACAP House in Addis.  We lean toward the former, generating two giant ziplock bags (and I do mean giant--like big rollerbag luggage-sized!) of gear for Ajuuja and one for WACAP.  I bind up the Ajuuja bags with duct tape and make a taped handle, assuming they may head down there on the roof of a vehicle and--after all--this is the rainy season.  After that's all done we crash after some room service, as it's 10pm and we're braindead.  

We get up early on Wednesday and think through our answers to the expected questions, writing them down concisely on stick-em notes. 

After breakfast and all-suited up, we get into a van and head to the Addis district family court building.  It's fairly non-descript, save for the official government sign outside that's official enough that we're told by a cop not to photograph it.  We walk upstairs through stairwells crowded with people sitting on steps, waiting for their own proceedings.  Once in the court antechamber, we find ourselves in a large room on the third deck. The windows are open on this cool, cloudy day. We meet up with our official WACAP official, Ato Teklu, a former supreme court justice who's been doing this for several years now and is a legend at WACAP.  He's a very serious but kind man.  Vonne actually gets him to smile once--but only once.

I'm sitting there studying my notes as we wait about 30 minutes for the proceedings to begin. I look up at Vonne and I'm about to tell her to check her notes once more when I see that she's sitting erect with tears welling up in her eyes.  She's anticipating the solemnity of the situation, I think, but then I realize that something more is going on.  It dawns on me: the birth mother must be in the room.  I turn my head slightly to the right and realize that in the corner of the room, maybe 36 inches from me, is a striking 30-year-old woman dressed simply in a dark woman's suit.

I scan the rest of the room.  She must be the mother, I'm figuring. I steal a glance at her face and I know it's her.  

She seems tense and expectant, as one would expect.  She's flanked by a man similarly aged--her brother? Or the widowed father of the four-month-old baby?  It turned out to be the latter. When I saw Ato Girma, the orphanage director, come over to talk to them both, I knew for certain it was her.  And I have to admit I was shocked she was there, figuring it would be a related older male who'd make the long journey to the north.

I try to be respectful of her space in this hugely emotional moment and don't make any more attempts to look her over even as I want to record the image for eternity.  Who knows if we ever to get to meet her again? Who knows if she'll talk to us or disappear immediately afterwards? I could be spending years down the road answering questions from daughters who want to know every single detail I can summon of the event.  So I just start writing down everything I can think of--every image, every sound, every feeling, every everything. I pull out blank envelopes and start tearing them apart so I can write on them inside and out.  I spend maybe 20 minutes doing this until a woman emerges from the judge's chambers and announces, "Ajuuja."

Our birth mom jumps up and strides in, clearly aching to get this over.  She's quickly escorted out, as the first case is our fellow couple who's adopting a boy abandoned two years ago, so there's no known relatives.

As she walks back to her chair, we lock eyes, and there's zero doubt now in my mind, even as there's plenty in hers.  After the first couple walks into the chambers and the door is shut, I can feel the birth mom checking us out along with the other remaining couple.  

Five minutes later the first couple is out and the second is called in.  Now the birth mom realizes that Vonne and I will be adopting her daughters.  She stares at us, taking us in.  We defer from matching her natural inquisitiveness, believing the moment to be hers to own.

Then we're called in.  

The judge is out of central casting:  tall, intimidating, and stunningly beautiful, she's in very elegant Muslim garb with only her face and hands showing.  She commands respect in that way only judges can manage, so you instinctively feel like you're in good hands.

The birth mom sits opposite the judge with Mr. Girma translating. We sit to the judge's right with Megan.  

The questions start with the mother.  Short at first, they elicit monosyllabic answers.  I can just tell they're the usual legal boilerplate.  Then the questions get longer and the answers get more complex.  After a total of maybe ten, it's done.

The judge turns to us in English and gives us  the following questions:

  • Can we supply our passports for purposes of identification? We do.
  • What are the ages of our current children?  Vonne answers.
  • Why have we chosen to adopt from Ethiopia?  I answer.
  • How have we prepared for this transracial adoption? Vonne answers.
  • What have we told our children and how have they responded?  I answer.
  • What have we told our larger family and how have they responded?  Vonne answers.

We can sense we're at the end, and tears start to flow from Vonne, who remains nonetheless completely quiet. The judge is intrigued and asks, "Why are you crying?"

Vonne says, "Because I'm so happy and so sad," turning to look the birth mother in the eyes with the last words.

The birth mother stands up and walks toward Vonne, who also arises and moves toward her.  They lock in an intense embrace that extends over the next couple of minutes, kissing each other repeatedly on the neck.  

The place is completely silent. Nobody says a word.

As they begin to unlock, I step up and do the same with the birth mother. This goes on in respectful silence for another minute.

While I'm hugging the birth mom, I feel such emotion coming from her that I almost fall over into her, losing my balance a bit. I can't tell if it was just the strength of her arms pulling me in or that I was overcome with my own emotion. It was easily one of the most memorable moments of my life, dividing it easily into a "before" and "after."

The judge later asked Megan about it all, saying she was touched by the display of emotion on all sides. Ethiopians, she stated, almost never display emotion in public, preferring a certain stoicism.

When Vonne approached the judge to shake her hand after I finished hugging the birth mom, she said, "Thank you, your honor."  The judge replied, "It is my honor."

We staggered back out into the waiting room, and our birth mom was like a person reborn.  She insisted on hugging all of the other four adopting parents--almost giddy she was. You could tell that this huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders and she was joyous at the personal connection.  As we exited the room, she and Vonne walked with their arms wrapped around each other, kissing back and forth.

The group then walked to a nearby coffee shop where we spoke with the birth mom for an hour, with Mr. Girma translating. I got her speaking on tape and shot many pix.  Vonne asked a bevy of very good questions and we got very complete answers.  I took word-for-word notes as best I could.  She told us about how their father had died, her life as a farmer, and why she decided to take the kids to the orphanage and what she told them when she did. She also described seeing them twice since and remaining confident and comfortable with her decision, and that her family was at peace with her choice.  It was an amazing exchange.  Like she and Girma proclaimed at various points in our interactions, I simply don't have the words to explain it, although I plan to find them soon in a more detailed write-up.

Where we spoke with the birth mom and took a lot of pics.  I sat to the right in the chair.  Vonne sat on the couch with the mother. Girma was opposite me.

The cafe.

We parted at around noon, as the birth mom and others needed to start their long trek back south.

We spent the rest of the day at a local market, getting some things for the girls, trying to pick out future family heirlooms.

The two we decided upon are pictured below:  a stone carving depicting St. George and commemorating the Battle of Adewa against the Italians in the late 19th century (a seminal event in Ethiopian history), and a processional cross from the Ethiopian Orthodox faith, which is very similar in practice to the Catholic Church, as we discovered the next day in a long, personalized tour conducted by the curator of the museum at the Haile Selassie Cathedral Church in Addis.

I will tell you that imagery of St. George is EVERYWHERE in Ethiopia. He is the country's patron Christian saint, anyone will tell you.

Topside is Christ, with the Virgin Mary and Child to the left and St. George to the right.  Angel Gabriel is in the middle. Like the St. George imagery, Ethiopian-style crosses are for sale all over the place in Addis--simple or elaborate, nickel or just plain wooden. I realize the US considers itself a highly Christian nation, but it's hard to imagine finding similar stuff for sale all over Washington DC. But in Addis the same store that will sell you a big Ethiopian flag (I got one) will also sell you a cross. The identities (national and religious) are truly inseparable here--at least in Addis.

That night Vonne and I just chilled in a nearby Italian restaurant, talking for hours about the day's events. The emotion of those moments were such that we needed the hours of time passing before we could actually sit down and start deconstructing them. I slept like a dead man that night from the exhaustion.

Thursday, our last day in Addis, was spent traveling around the city in the taxi of one Fekadu, a great guy we had met the previous day.   We rented out his cab for the day, seeing the Haile Selaisse Cathedral and associated museum, then the National Museum (where "missing link" Lucy is found), then a nice lunch downtown, then a tour of the national culture museum in Selaisse's old palace, where some of his personal rooms are preserved.  

One story to mention:  while at the Selassie Cathedral, walking out of the museum, I spot an intriguing memorial to the left, behind a fence. I also see an officer and enlisted soldier sitting on chairs nearby and figure they're part of the perimeter security for the Prime Minister's compound, which lies generally to that side. I walk up to the fence and shoot the marble marker that says the memorial is to the victims of the Derg.  

From Wikipedia:  

The Derg (Amharic) or Dergue was a communist military junta that came to power in Ethiopia following the ousting of Haile Selassie I. Derg, which means "committee" or "council" in Ge'ez, is the short name of the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army, a committee of military officers which ruled the country from 1974 until 1987.

Between 1975 and 1987, the Derg executed and imprisoned tens of thousands of its opponents without trial.

Eventually the Marxist regime of Mengistu emerged from the Derg's rule, and the rest can be found in my PhD diss.

Anyway, as soon as I shoot the marble plaque and look up to the actual memorial (stunning, really) in the distance, the officer is yelling at me and I glance leftward to see the enlisted guy with a Kalashnikov suddenly in my face.  My first thought is, man, that gun's so old it's almost beautiful. I knew I had crossed a line; I just hadn't figured a photo would do it, but it was not my first crack at getting in trouble in Africa with a camera. The enlisted asks if I shot the memorial itself.  I say no, only the sign.  He wants me to show him.  I get the pic up and then I get scared--I was never in danger but my camera was, and it contained all the priceless stuff from the previous day (i.e., the pix and vid of the birth mom). I can tell I need to show this guy the pic is erased, but for the life of me, I can't remember how to do it!  After five or six tries, though, I finally get it done and show it to the guy, proving there's no such photos in the memory. He yells back to the officer, who grunts, and we're let go.  Enough excitement for the day.

Clearly, the period of Marxist rule remains a touchy political point. I had previously spotted a huge column in Addis with a red star on top.  It too was fenced off but was still there, probably not to be photographed either.

While at the national palace/cultural museum I found a drum with a painted lid that displayed the traditional depiction of the Holy Trinity in Ethiopian Orthodox faith--matching a giant painting above the altar in the Cathedral.  A pic of it:

We finished our day at the St. George Cathedral, getting a personal tour of the cathedral and museum from the arch deacon/curator.  Like the Selaisse tour, this was simply fascinating.

Pix from the day:

Selaisse Cathedral

Museum there.  Vonne and our driver for the day.

Home of Lucy's bones, which I videotaped.

Staircase monument outside of Selaisse's palace:  each step commemorates a year of Italian occupation, ended symbolically by the Ethiopian lion on the top step.

The octagonal St. George Cathedral.  Look up your Ark of the Covenant lore.

We finished our touring around 6pm, then grabbed another pizza at the same restaurant from the night before.  We caught the WACAP vans for the ride to the airport, being just about the only couple with no adoptive kids (we, again, were the first of the "two trippers").  

We got on our plane around 10pm, hitting Rome about 3am and Dulles about 0730 EST Friday.  Noon flight to Indy got us back home with the kids--the four oldest, that is--around 2pm.

I later went swimming with my boys, going off the high dive about 20 times before coming home and falling immediately asleep during the DVR-watching of the first new episodes of "Futurama" in seven years.

It was an amazing trip, solely because of the three females we spent time with.  I meant it when I tweeted: we now have three new relatives, and we do indeed feel like an Ethiopian-American family that's--for now--missing its two African daughters.

3:27PM

Back from Ethiopia

No great problems on the trip.  Court and meeting girls and meeting birth mother (widow) all went about as well as they could go.  Actually, the whole thing went a lot better than I could have possible dreamed.

Will pen something for Monday, maybe.

The key news:  Metsewat Akelu and Abebu Akelu are now legally our children, per the court proceedings in Addis Ababa on 30 June.  Metsewat is estimated at just over four, but struck me more as 3-and-a-half.  Abebu was estimated at just over three but struck me more like 2-and-a-half.  The birth estimates carry considerable swag, and we'll have to adjust those--per our best judgment--as we eventually apply to have birth certificates generated here in the US as part of the re-adoption process in US courts.  No hurry there.

Their legal names, as we now plan them, will be Metsewat Akelu Barnett and Abebu Akelu Barnett.

Metsewat is pronounced as MET-sue-what and Abebu is pronounced as ah-BAY-boo.  We plan the nicknames as Sue and Abby, respectively.  Their current last name, to become their middle names, is pronounced ah-KAY-loo.

They are exceedingly beautiful souls, as is their birth mother.

We are currently scheduled to return to Ethiopia in early August for a set embassy date regarding the immigrant visas, but there is some vulnerability there regarding reduced staffing that month (corresponding to reduced Ethiopian government operations that month, as is the custom).  We should know more in the next couple of weeks, but we are hopeful the scheduled date will hold.

I am now the father of six children.

1:21PM

The blog strikes again!

Just our luck:  a longtime reader with the exact Ethiopian experience we're looking for--Sidamo.

She and her husband are willing to talk to us tomorrow.

Detail freak that I am, I am eager for the data dump.

Long live the blog!

1:24AM

Choosing my girls over the Global Forum

Original generic-but-copyrighted photo found here (not the international adoption agency we're using).  

I blanked out the faces lest anyone think I was posting actual pictures of the two girls we're adopting, because there are hugely strict privacy rules involved.  So consider the shot, which is beautiful (alas, not as beautiful as the two girls we're adopting!), as a placeholder until the legal proceedings are completed later this month.

Well, Monday afternoon we got word that our referred case now has a court date in Addis Ababa in late June. Although I had long considered the odds of that date interfering with the Time/CNN/Fortune Global Forum to be quite low, it managed to force an untenable choice:  I could make the court date but would miss the long trek south by car to first meet them in person.  Absent the meeting, a whole different visa pathway would ensue.

That's the technical issue.  

The personal issue would have been not being with my spouse on such an important trip deep in the middle of Africa. Remembering what it was to go to Nanchang and meet Vonne Mei alongside Vonne, I decided I simply could not miss this moment in my life as a husband and father.  The Global Forum would have been fabulous, and very good for my career, but lying on my deathbed decades from now, I won't be saying, "If only I got that one extra fab speaking gig!"  I'll be remembering beautiful moments like the first time I laid my eyes on my African daughters.

So an easy decision to make, if hard to execute.  This is only the second gig in about 15 years that I've ever cancelled (the other being over kidney stones--another birth-like process!), and I have gone on stage no matter what through more sinus infections and migraines than I can count (thank God those days are over). But again, you're not who you say you are, you're what you actually do or choose to be through your actions, and I choose husband-father when push comes to shove simply because I dig those roles so much more than my career.

Details:

  • Thanks again to the three individuals who sent us otoscopes from Amazon.  If you want to help us out with donations, there's still plenty of time before we take the second/bringing-them-home trip in July/August. See the FAQ page for details on how to send us donations.
  • I will be building up the blog queue for the duration of the trip, so it'll be a bit more latent than usual (understanding that this is not a breaking-news blog). I will not attempt to keep the usual frequency of posts, because there is just too much to do in the few days before we leave.  I will have my biz manager Jenn handle approving comments while I'm gone, because the access over there will be spotty and I don't want to spend my days there working the blog.
  • I will try to tweet here and there, understanding that any pics will be generic travel photos and I won't be sharing any details on the girls or our time with them.
  • I will likely make a trip post when I get back, although that too may be awfully generic for privacy issues.

That's all I can think of for now.  We are gearing up mightily, as we leave in a matter of days now.

12:06AM

Great thanks to two individuals who sent us medical instruments for orphanages in Ethiopia

Our thanks to the two individuals who sent us medical devices so far.

For anybody interested in donating medical devices or children's clothing (Land's End, Hanna Anderson, Gymboree), click here for instructions.

Thank-you's hundreds of languages found here.

1:41PM

We accepted the referral for the international adoption

Reviewed all the records presented, and had them analyzed by a doctor who specializes in advising adopting parents who are considering children from Africa.  Sum result was that we collectively saw nothing to prevent us from accepting, weighing all the risks for the kids themselves and our extant family of six (3 biological kids, one adopted Chinese daughter).

So we notified our agency of our acceptance of the referral of the two girls--sisters.

We anticipate an initial trip in mid-June, based on a scheduled court date in Addis Ababa, and a return trip in mid-July to pick up the girls.  

The doctor thought they were really quite beautiful.

Again, if you want to help, see the FAQ page for the listing of desired children's clothes and medical diagnostic devices you can buy online and send to us for carriage over and delivery through our agency (an unusually savvy and long-experienced bunch in-country).   For the June trip, we'd need stuff to us by the beginning of June.

We now consider ourselves a family of eight and have already initiated our plans (furniture-wise) for a reconstituted girls' room  (Mei Mei and her two younger sisters) in the biggest kids bedroom in the house--the one our oldest daughter loses when she heads off to college in August.

The transition has begun . . ..