0n a warm September morning in 1999, my sister Laura called with thrilling news: She had finally gotten word from China that a little girl was available for her and her, husband, Jeff, to adopt. Laura and Jeff were to be the parents of a 3-year-old girl named Tuan Ming, who was at the same orphanage where a few months earlier we had found our own daughter, Jaclyn.
I was delighted when Laura invited me to accompany them to China. I wanted to take Jaclyn along, too, even though she was still quite fragile emotionally, and my husband, Rick, and I feared that she might think we were taking her back to the orphanage to live. Not sure of how much she understood, we asked several times if she wanted to go back to China to bring Tuan Ming home. Her answer each time was a resounding "yes." Her reason: She wanted to see "her baby," Xiao Mei Mei.
Jaclyn talked constantly about this frail young boy from her orphanage. Xiao Mei Mei had made a strong impression on me as well. He was the tiniest child among the 20 who shared a one-window room crammed with beds. The conditions of the orphanage were appalling-room after room filled with older children, nurseries containing row after row of cribs, too many to count. The painted walls were peeling and stained with mildew. The children-all of whom were there Because their parents had abandoned them-were waif-like: it was not unusual for them to be fed only twice a day, as the kitchen often ran out of food. It broke our hearts to realize that only 3 percent of these children would ever be adopted. This quota system allowed China to "save face" about the severity of the problem caused by their strict population control.
|Jaclyn visits Xiao Xiao at the orphanage in China|
But on the day Jaclyn said good-bye to the orphanage for good, there was nothing she or any of us could do for Xiao Mei Mei. As we prepared to go, the boy began to cry in a way I had never seen before-entirely still, making no sound at all, as tears streamed down his cheeks. As Jaclyn waved good-bye, he stood alone, silent and bereft. It was excruciating to watch.
Once Jaclyn was home with us in Michigan, I hoped that learning a new language and adapting to a new home (complete with two ready-made siblings-our biological daughter Kate, 6, and 18-month-old Christy, whom we'd adopted from China as an infant) would block out the shadows from her past.
Now it was evident that a shadow had come to live with us instead-a shadow named Xiao Mei Mei. Not a day passed that Jaclyn did not mention him or fret about how he'd get along without her to protect him.
A Second Farewell
On an overcast day in October, we left our home for Beijing. On the 13-hour flight, I prayed for my soon-to-be niece Tuan Ming and for Xiao Mei Mei. Most of my prayers, however, were for Jaclyn. Although I had done everything I could to prepare her, I couldn't imagine how she'd be able to say good-bye to Xiao Mei Mei again. In her head, she understood that he was not coming home with us, but not in her heart.
The next day, at the hotel, our travel group gathered for breakfast. One of the first-time moms proudly showed off a picture of the baby she was adopting. Jaclyn peered at it, then opened her backpack, pulled out a photo, and said, "Do you want to see my baby?" She beamed as the woman admired Xiao Mei Mei's picture.
I spotted Jaclyn's former teacher. "Xiao Mei Mei?" I asked. She immediately took us to the wing where Jaclyn had lived. Jeff and Laura (with Tuan Ming perched on her hip) hurried over, too. They were just as anxious as I was to meet this child we had all heard so much about.
He was in exactly the same spot where I had seen him on our last visit. Sitting on a hard wooden bench in the dank TV room, he stared blankly at the snowy picture on the screen, as did a couple dozen other children. He was wearing a bright-pink donated sweater that looked dirty and grubby. His bone-thin legs poked out from ill-fitting pants. He seemed not to have grown it all in the six months since we'd seen him last.
He did not smile when he saw Jaclyn, but it was clear he recognized her. For her part, Jaclyn became agitated when she noticed that his shoes were on the wrong feet. Remembering how solicitous she had been about smoothing his clothes on our last visit, I assumed that she would change them. Instead, she indicated that I should do it. Jaclyn is shrewd: She wanted me to feel for myself the warmth of his small body.
As I knelt to fix his shoes, Jaclyn handed him a snack we had brought. He held it in his hand while looking into her eyes. This upset her, too. She urged him to eat it and when he did not, she became insistent.
"The bad boys take it if he not eat it now," she explained.
We only had a moment so I quickly picked him up. I knew instantly that Jaclyn was right about this child. There was something special about him. He nestled into my body, relaxing into my arms. His big eyes locked on my own with unspoken trust.
Jaclyn watched intently, her eyes still clouded with pain. Since this was an unscheduled visit, Jaclyn's former teacher insisted that we leave, but Jaclyn was not ready. Xiao Mei Mei had not yet eaten his snack.
"It's okay," I said. "We left treats for the other kids, so nobody will take his." Jaclyn gave me a pitying glance. Clearly, I was too naive to understand the system.
"We must say good-bye to Xiao Mei Mei" I told her. Jaclyn stooped to the little boy's eye level and kissed him on the forehead, slipping the Happy Meal toys and photographs of the two of them inside his sweater. She then placed the little teddy bear we'd brought from home into his arms. "Now he not be so scared at night," Jaclyn said. "He hold bear 'cause he not hold Jaclyn's hand."
To find what happened to "Jaclyn's baby," read this interview with the book's author, Cindy Champnella.
For more information, visit Families With Children From China (www.fwcc.org), a non-denominational organization of families who have adopted children from China, and Half the Sky Foundation (www.halfthesky.org), which was created by the adoptive parents of orphaned Chinese children. Half the Sky funds programs that enrich the lives of the Chinese babies and children in orphanages. The proceeds from Cindy Champnella's book "The Waiting Child " (from which this excerpt was adapted), will help establish a preschool and infant-nurture program at a Chinese orphanage.