Journey to Judah: Part 2 - The Day We Met
May 6, 2018
I slept restlessly all night, probably because we received a phone call from our agency guide and in-country advocate just before we attempted to go to sleep.
“Hello, Kayla? This is Minal. I will meet you in the hotel lobby around 9:30, and we will head to the orphanage at 10:00. Does that sound okay?”
Did it sound okay!? It sounded unbelievable. After 5 months of staring at a few photos and 5 years of dreaming about what our son would be like, we were actually about to find out. Our information about him was pretty limited. We had received information, photos, and video clips when we had been matched 5 months previously. We had only received 1 official update from the orphanage since then, and 0 of our questions had been answered by them, even though multiple emails were sent. Thankfully, through some pretty crazy connections, we had two more sets of photos and a video of him as well. Honestly, we had way more photos and videos than most people get, and God moved our adoption process way faster than most people’s process moves. It still felt like we didn’t know much about our little boy though. All we knew for sure was that he was tiny (not even on the American OR Asian growth charts), that he could sit up by himself (but we weren’t sure if he had met any more milestones), and that he was described in his file as “a happy baby” (but he didn’t smile in any of his photos or videos). We also knew that he was ours, and we couldn’t wait to learn more.
I woke up and got ready before my alarm was even set to go off. I just keep thinking: May 6, 2018 - The day we meet our son! (It also happened to be the day that he turned 13 months old. With our girls, I stopped tracking their months after they turned 1, but you better believe I was going to celebrate and recognize this monthly milestone!)
It took me forever to decide what to wear....because you know, a 13-month-old would totally be judging me for my outfit choice, right? I found myself asking Marcus questions like, “Do you think this is too bright?” or “Will red overwhelm him?” Hello, I’m in India, land of the brightly colored EVERYTHING....but I went with more muted tones instead, just in case. Marcus just shook his head at me but told me I looked beautiful in all my outfit changes. I also pulled my hair into a ponytail to keep it off my shoulders because I knew there was a good chance the orphanage was infested with lice.
Marcus was up early too, and once he was ready, we headed down to the breakfast buffet. We were too excited about the day ahead to eat much of anything. We silently sipped “meter coffee,” a type of traditional coffee served in Southern India, and could hardly wait until 10:00. We met Minal, our advocate, at breakfast. She went through the plan for the day with us, and told us to expect to spend a couple of hours at the orphanage. Then we rented a hotel car to take us to meet our son.
On the drive to the orphanage, I just kept thinking about everything I’d heard about the place we were about to visit: underfunded, overcrowded, not enough food, not enough caretakers, dark- both physically and spiritually, rumors of abuse, terrible care....none of which you want to hear when you know your child is living there. I had started telling people not to tell me anything else they knew about the orphanage because it was just fueling my anxiety and worry. Instead, I used my worry as a reminder to pray. I prayed often over those 5 months that our son wouldn’t be hungry, that he would have clean water, that he would keep growing, that he would meet developmental milestones, that he would be healthy, that someone would hold him, that he would be talked to, that his caretakers would love him and protect him, that he would THRIVE no matter what his environment or living conditions might be.
The orphanage wasn’t too far from our hotel, and as we turned down a dirt road, I heard Minal say “This is it. We need to go to the main building.” Our car drove past several white buildings and stopped in front of an older one near the end. A security guard met us at the car and granted us permission to go inside. We took our shoes off at the door and walked into the building, which was where the main office was located. The building was dark and dingy. The floors were black, and there were no windows at all in most of the rooms. I felt my worries resurface as I heard the sound of children in this building, but I fought them back down again.
Once in the office, our advocate talked to a woman who seemed very surprised to see us. She made a couple of phone calls, and the only thing I understood was, “Mahesh.” My heart skipped a beat because that was our son’s given name in India. (Long before we knew who or where our son was, we decided to name him Judah, which means “the Lord will be praised.” But here, in this place, he was known by what would eventually become his middle name, Mahesh, and that’s what we would call him for several days as well.) Then my heart seemed to stop, however, as she spoke to our guide and they began to argue. We didn’t speak Telugu, so I wasn’t sure what was going on, but it didn’t seem to be going well. Our advocate looked at us and murmured, “I told them we would be coming to visit today and cleared it with the Madam. I don’t know why they won’t let us go see him.” Then my heart sank and I thought: May 6, 2018 - The day we ALMOST met our son.
Next, the orphanage’s social worker came into the room. We were introduced to him, and he let us know that because it was a Sunday, no one in charge was there to give us clearance. Then he began speaking to Minal in Telugu. Once again I wasn’t able to understand what they were saying, but it sounded like they were arguing some more. Finally, he raised his hand and motioned for us to follow him. I was afraid that we were being escorted off the premises. We were so close...how could they make us leave? I had this crazy thought of “If only I knew which building he was in, maybe I could get to him somehow.” I blinked back tears until I heard our advocate say in English, “Should we walk to the building or drive?” The social worker responded in English as well and said, “We will walk. It is just down here.”
I squeezed Marcus’s hand as we walked down the dirt road near where our car had turned in off the street. The social worker pointed to a building on the left, and we walked toward it. Another security guard sat outside the building and waved us on inside. We, once again, added our shoes to the small mound by the door and stepped inside. The social worker told us to have a seat and he would tell them to get Mahesh ready. Then he walked up the stairs. We sat on a wooden bench by the door, and I took in my surroundings.
This building was nicer and much newer than the first building. Thankfully, it looked very clean and bright with large windows and sunshine streaming inside. A faded picture of Mickey Mouse hung near the stairs. I could hear the sound of children playing, but I couldn’t see any children. Someone was sweeping the floor methodically with a soft grass broom, something we would see them do at least 10 times during our visit. I also heard some babies crying from behind a closed door to my right. After a couple of minutes, the social worker came down the stairs and said, “She will bring him down. Just wait.” Then he looked at us and said, “You can stay for 15 minutes.”
15 minutes!? I wanted to scream, “We’ve waited over 5 years for this moment, and all we get is 15 minutes!?” But 15 minutes was more than we had ever had, and I knew I would take any amount of time that they would give us with our son so I sat there silently. Thankfully, our advocate spoke for me. She confidently said, “We will stay for 3 hours.”
“1 hour,” the man responded, with a straight face.
“We’ll see,” is all she said as she threw a smirk and a wink in our direction.
We sat on that wooden bench for what seemed like hours, waiting in silent anticipation. In all reality, it couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes. Then, I heard him before I saw him. A high pitched baby squeal came tumbling down the steps, echoing off the tile floor. I stood up, watching, waiting, hands shaking, eyes glued to the stairs. One of the Ayahs (caretakers) was carrying him down, and I saw him as soon as she turned the corner to go down the second flight of stairs. I will never forget the butterflies in my stomach when I saw his face for the first time outside of some kind of electronic device. As she walked down the stairs, I walked toward them. I heard our in-country advocate say, “Reach out and take him. It’s expected.” I really didn’t care if it was expected or not, there was nothing that was going to stop me from getting my son in my arms....not even my own husband. (Sorry, Marcus. In all our days of dreaming, we never discussed who would go first in this situation.)
She handed him to me, and he came to me without hesitation. The son we’d prayed for for over 5 years was finally in my arms. It was unbelievable. It took everything in me not to sob with overwhelming emotions and tears of joy, but I held them back because I didn’t want to scare him. Instead, I hugged him and breathed him in. His face was emotionless and his dark eyes were wide, but he didn’t cry. He just stared right back at me. His tiny body felt so light in my arms. His size was shocking, even though, on paper, we knew he was very small. I held him for a couple of minutes, laughing, smiling, hugging him, before I realized that his dad had also been waiting 5 years for this moment. I handed him off to his dad and almost lost it - seeing Marcus with his SON for the first time. The social worker then ushered us into the office, which helped me compose myself again.
They had us sit down on a twin-sized mattress on the office floor. Looking back at photos, I realized that the mattress looked pretty gross, but nothing else - other than our son - mattered in that moment. I finally got my first good look at him. His bright eyes were a deep, dark brown and his eyelashes were the longest I had ever seen. His hair was longer than in any of our photos, and it was curly! The Ayahs had put some cultural marks between his eyes and on his cheek- Hindu marks of protection and health. There was no air conditioning in the orphanage, so I was surprised to see him wearing a long-sleeved red sweater and jeans in the 110-degree heat, but he didn’t seem to mind.
Marcus and I sat on that mattress and took turns passing him back and forth, all while smiling at each other in disbelief and pure joy. We also took some photos toward the beginning of the visit because we weren’t sure how long they would actually let us stay after the conversation between the social worker and our advocate. At some point, though, the social worker left the building, and we didn’t see him again until the next day...which meant that he actually had no idea how long we stayed at the orphanage. Because it was a Sunday, it was just us, our son, our advocate, and some Ayahs. We had heard that, at this particular orphanage, things were very closed off. We probably wouldn’t get answers to our questions, we wouldn’t get a tour, we wouldn’t be able to see the rooms where he spent the first year of his life, we would be discouraged from taking photos, we wouldn’t meet any other children, and we wouldn’t be able to feed our son any snacks. We soon learned that it was actually a blessing to be able to visit on a Sunday when no one “in charge” was really around because every single one of those warnings ended up being false on this particular day.
We sat on the dirty mattress with our son for 2 hours, and it seemed as if the rest of the world had stopped. We held him, we played with him, we counted his toes and fingers, we tried to show him that we loved him without overwhelming him. He crawled on and off the mattress. He sat in our laps. We could tell he wasn’t too sure about us, but he was pretty interested in the little blue car we brought for him to play with. He didn’t know what to do with it, but he liked to throw it when we rolled it to him. He was also very interested in the Puffs cereal snacks we brought him. At one point, Marcus tickled him, and he let out the cutest giggle. It was one of the only sounds and the only emotions he displayed that entire day. In fact, we left the orphanage that day wondering if he could make any sounds or babble at all.
After the first two hours, some of his Ayahs came into the room. (Judah) Mahesh would let out a high pitched squeal of excitement whenever he would see one of his caretakers (the only other noise he made that day). They would come over and pinch his cheeks, and he would reach his arm out to them. Then we would give him a snack to distract him and move his focus back to us. We weren’t above using bribery to get him to stay with us. It was obvious, though, that he was attached to his Ayahs, and we took some photos of him with them as well. We wanted to remember the women who stepped into the gap for us until his family could get to him.
His main caretaker could speak English. She told us a little bit about him: he liked throwing everything, he could clap, he liked dark colors, he liked soft things, he liked to take his vitamins, he was happy. Then she showed us a book where she had written some things down about him as well. Next, she caught us off guard as she began quoting the words from the photo book we had sent (Judah) Mahesh back in March. We had heard from others that he may never receive the book and we may never see it again. We prayed that someone would at least show it to him once, and then this woman had most of it memorized! I’ll never forget when she looked at us and said, “Love is patient. Love is kind...you are so creative!” This Hindu woman had no idea she was quoting scripture from 1 Corinthians 13.
After that, the orphanage doctor came into the office. Our advocate helped us talk with her about any questions we had, and then they decided to take (Judah) Mahesh to get some blood work done at a clinic. Doing it that day could save us some time in New Delhi toward the end of our trip. I did not want him to leave, but I knew it would be best to get it over with now because it was nearing lunchtime. I hugged my boy and told him I’d be waiting for him when he got back. Our guide said that they could use our hotel car to take him to the clinic down the street. I watched an Ayah get in the front seat of a car, put my son on her lap, and drive away without a seatbelt on. Be still my heart.
While we waited for (Judah) Mahesh to return, we sat back on the wooden benches by the door. Two little boys, probably 5 or 6 years old, snuck around the corner to giggle and smile at us. Their sweet smiles showed off their teeth, riddled with severe tooth decay. Marcus gave them high fives, and I guess they ran off to tell their friends because a few more boys came running out of their rooms - chasing each other, sword fighting with sticks, spinning around, and laughing as their bare feet pitter-pattered across the tile. Their Ayahs corralled them back into their rooms and I wondered, “If we hadn’t said yes to accepting our file, would that have been Mahesh in a few years- so full of life, so adorable, but still without parents to care for him?” My heart broke for those boys and all the children I could hear but couldn’t see, eating lunch somewhere down the hall.
While we were still waiting, the orphanage doctor also came out of the room to our right. She didn’t close the door all the way, and I could now see why I heard crying behind that door earlier. I walked over to get a closer look. About 30 infants were in the room with only 2 Ayahs. Some babies were in bassinets, some in cribs, some on mattresses, some sleeping on the hard tile floor, 1 in each of the Ayahs' arms. I was overwhelmed by the number of babies in that room. I was about to take a photo when the doctor noticed me standing there and came back to close the door. As I stood there, I prayed that those babies had mommies and daddies coming for them soon. I knew the harsh reality, though, was that even if they did have families coming for them, with all the red tape and difficulties surrounding adoption, their parents probably wouldn't be able to get to them until they were at least toddlers. Then I thought about how I had just seen a handful of the children in this building. There were many more rooms in this building, there were many more buildings at this orphanage, there were many more orphanages in this city, this state, all over India. I knew the statistics. There are an estimated 20 million orphans in India and some statistics say that only 3.2% of them will be adopted some day. My stomach churned at the thought as I watched the woman sweeping the floor again with the soft grass broom.
After about 30 minutes, (Judah) Mahesh came back. He had a bandaid on his arm and the same straight face he’d been wearing all day, but I seized him immediately. I knew he would have to go eat lunch and take a nap soon, and I wanted every second I could get with him. Then one of the Ayahs said the most surprising thing to me, “Would you like to come up to his room while he eats?” We had heard that we wouldn’t be allowed to see any rooms, and here they were, inviting us upstairs into the place our son had called home for most of his life.
As I carried him up the stairs and into the small room, I looked around. Cribs, playpens, and bouncers lined 2 of the walls. The other 2 walls were lined with twin-sized mattresses resting on the floor. I didn’t see any toys at all, but I hoped it was because they were somehow put away somewhere in the very bare room. There were about 25 kids in this small room ranging from about 12-18 months old, although they all looked much smaller than their ages. We asked about them, and the caretakers said only a couple of them were in the process of being adopted right now. There were 3 Ayahs in the room, feeding kids 1 at a time. How long would it take to feed everyone each day?! Did they even have time to do anything else with them?
Some children, probably the ones who had already eaten, were asleep in various spots around the room. The others, were in cribs or playpens staring longingly at the meal or crying because it wasn’t their turn yet. Our advocate picked up a crying toddler and held him until he settled down. After a few minutes, she put him down and picked up another. This process repeated, and later she said, “I can’t do much, but even holding them for 5 minutes can really change their life. For 5 minutes, they feel safe and cared about. It’s also good for their brain.”
Because we were there, (Judah) Mahesh got to jump to the front of the lunch line. I wondered how many days he was one of those babies, staring over the edge of a playpen, crying for some of the food. An Ayah brought over a metal bowl filled with soft rice and mashed vegetables with a small metal cup of water. She began shoveling the food into his mouth by heaping spoonfuls as fast as he would eat. Every once in a while, she would put her hand on his forehead, tip his head back, and pour the water into his mouth without letting the cup touch his lips.
While we were watching this, I discretely told Marcus to get some photos of his room. He also took a video of it so we could show our son someday. Then the Ayah looked at me and said, “You feed him.” I eagerly jumped at the chance to feed my son for the first time. I never quite got the hang of pouring the water into his mouth, and I ended up getting him all wet. I cringed, frustrated at myself, knowing he would probably have to stay in those wet clothes and hoped they would dry quickly and maybe even provide some relief in this heat.
After he ate, the main caretaker brought us the photo book she had recited to us. She said, “When we read it, he likes to rub your faces.” She opened the book for him, and that’s just what he did. My heart silently praised God that someone had actually shown the book to our son. She asked if we wanted the book back and seemed disappointed when we took it with us. She also showed us the type of formula they were feeding (Judah) Mahesh. I was surprised because formula was very expensive and only available at the pharmacy in India. I wondered how often they really gave it to him, and then I snapped a picture so we could stop by a pharmacy on our way back to the hotel so we would be prepared when we took custody of him.
After that, it was time for him to take a nap. I held him, not wanting to let him go yet, but we had been there for almost 4 hours already. He rubbed his eyes, laid his head on my shoulder, and then reached for the twin mattress in the corner. One of the Ayahs said, “He knows his spot on the bed. That’s where he sleeps.” I looked at the 2 other kids already sleeping on that mattress and knew he’d be joining them soon. I hugged him, kissed him, and handed him to his daddy. Marcus hugged him and said, “I love you,” and I contemplated whether or not that was the first time he had ever heard those words spoken to him. I told my son that I loved him too and that we would be back for him tomorrow. Then we handed him off to his caretakers and walked back down the stairs.
As hard as it was to leave him, we knew we’d be back the next day to pick him up and take him to court with us where, Lord willing, Judah Mahesh would officially become a Mackey...