After a laborious and stressful 50-some hour journey to Mumbai, India I was exhausted…probably more tired than I’ve ever been. But I could barely sleep.
My meeting with my daughter had been delayed by a full day because of travel troubles, but now it would be just hours until I could finally assume physical custody of my little girl. A two year journey whittled down to just hours. Wow!
Our nighttime arrival put us on track for a meeting that had been rescheduled at the orphanage for the following afternoon. I was a ball of anticipation as I tried to quiet my mind to sleep that night.
I dozed a few times on and off in our hotel room until I was jolted wide awake by the “call to prayer” sirens that sounded loudly before dawn. That was the first time I had heard that startling and intriguing sound, kind of like what Chicagoans hear at 10 a.m. on Tuesdays when officials test the emergency sirens. The foreign sound to me was a delightful, musical wake up call because it meant this wasn’t a dream. We were really here in India about to meet Angel!! This lifelong Catholic heeded the call, although it’s not as if I needed a reminder to pray for things to go smoothly.
I glanced across the hotel room and marveled in amazement at my sister in the other bed, who was clearly dead asleep despite the blaring sirens. She suffered along with me through the same, exhausting travel nightmare which had clearly knocked her out. (However truth be told, she never has a problem sleeping through loud noises — one area where our DNA clearly went in two different directions!)
I paced around the hotel room, so anxious for the day ahead to unfold. I looked out the window and my jaw hit the floor. The night before, my sister and I were out on the hotel bar’s rooftop patio admiring the highrises along the beautiful, ocean skyline. The light of day revealed an entirely different picture. There were literally hundreds of dilapidated shacks stacked on top of each other on the ground below. There was so much about my daughter’s homeland I was intrigued to explore.
First on the agenda, figure out a way to get clothes and essentials that we left behind with our lost luggage in Abu Dhabi. We figured out how to get ground transportation to the nearest mall — which didn’t open until late morning — and power shopped like never before. Time was ticking now because there was no way I was going to be late for our escort’s pick up.
For weeks prior to this trip, I had contemplated exactly what to wear when meeting my daughter for the first time. I figured she would be nervous and I wanted to appear warm and inviting. Yet I still wanted to appear somewhat professional and polished as I met her caretakers and discussed the business of completing the adoption. Bottom line, I gave it way too much thought and arrived at what I determined to be the perfect outfit for this rare occasion. Of course the problem was, it was packed in my luggage — and probably somewhere over the Indian Ocean at this point.
With only about an hour to shop, I tried to replicate an outfit with the same feel, while my sister and I also frantically grabbed some other bare necessities to get us through the following week or two. To our dismay, we could not find hair products in any store! Neither one of us has the type of “wash and go” hair that’s so prevalent among the beautiful Indian women. Oh well.. time to go.. now!!
We were so pleased to meet our escort, Anu, who was generous, lovely and comforting. I had a lump in my throat the size of Texas as we got in her car. I didn’t know if I was going to throw up, cry or scream for joy. Almost as soon as we got in the vehicle, the driver pulled over to let us out. We were shocked to discover Angel’s orphanage was just blocks away from the luxurious five star hotel we were staying at. One quick turn down a desolate, unnoticed road and it looked like we had entered a different country. India has been described as a land of extremes. Agreed. I would just clarify that the extremes are literally on top of each other, unlike most other places where cities and neighborhoods create parameters.
Upon our arrival we were greeted by the head of the orphanage, who was also very warm and kind. We spent almost an hour going over Angel’s papers, including medical records, her birth certificate and other key documents that I needed to bring to the U.S. Embassy before we could be cleared to come home.
After the business was taken care of, he then offered some advice: don’t come on too strong when they bring my four year old daughter in the room. The reason being, he explained, was that the caretakers were not allowed to give full hugs to the children; they could only put an arm around a child’s shoulder in a side hug. He thought a full on bear hug could scare her.
The thought of my daughter and the other children not getting some well deserved affection broke my heart, but I understood their rules and the reasoning behind them.
Then he also cautioned me that Angel was an “emotional child,” more than the others. …Huh?
“I have to warn you, there will be tears,” he said. I wasn’t sure what to expect as he flagged down a caretaker to bring her in the office.
Then, the moment I had waited for – for what felt like an eternity-happened. I didn’t even hear her enter, but I noticed my sister gasp and smile as she was looking across the room. I turned around to see this precious, little girl standing behind me along the wall. The sheer emotional impact of that moment I first laid eyes on her was one of the best and most powerful experiences I have ever been through.
My fast beating heart had now jumped, or moved, or something. It was a beautiful feeling so hard to describe.
She had clearly “dressed up” for the occasion, wearing a hot pink, lace dress with about dozen green bangle bracelets on each wrist. She appeared more tiny than she did in pictures, which didn’t do her justice. She was absolutely adorable.
But what struck me more than anything was how terrified she looked! I felt enormous empathy for this little child who had been through so much in her four, short years and was about to have her only security shaken by being taken from her home, as she knew it.
I wanted to squeeze her tightly so badly, but instead gave her a little side hug and told her, “I know you’re scared. It’s going to be ok.” I gently rocked her as she cocked her head sideways and stared at me with wide eyes. She didn’t speak English, but I figured she would pick up on my sentiment.
After just a few minutes, the magnitude of this moment started to sink in for both of us. Her look of panic evolved to tears welling up in her eyes. The head of the orphanage recommended we, “keep moving.” I questioned, “to another room?”
“No,” he said. “Time to head out.”
And just like that, I suddenly had full custody of this beautiful, delicate and scared little child.
She never did have the dreaded meltdown that we were warned about, though. She allowed me to pick her up and carry her outside and she snuggled into me during the car ride back to the hotel, my arm dangled around her.
The trip took all of about five minutes, but Angel managed to fall asleep as soon as she closed her eyes in the car. I gently woke her and picked her up as we walked back into our hotel. She seemed to relish being carried around.
Once inside our room, Aunt Laura called room service to order champagne, fruit, milk and cookies. While she was on the phone, I knelt on the floor and put my arms around Angel as she nervously sat on the edge of the bed. This time I gave her a real hug. She squeezed her shoulders together, glanced down shyly, and then slowly looked back up at me…and smiled.
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