What if we had missed this?
By Mary Beth Picker
On June 5, 2009, Casey (’03) and Mary Beth Stanford (’03) Picker’s yearlong adoption process culminated in the news they were now parents — and their 3-year-old son, Caleb, a big brother — to a baby boy in Ethiopia. The Pickers named him Josiah, meaning, “God has saved; God has healed.” They kept his full Ethiopian name, Marefu Sumamo, as his middle names, a nod to his birth mother. Before bringing Josiah home to Little Rock, Ark., the Pickers chose to meet the young lady giving them this gift. Through her blog entry, Mary Beth takes us on that incredible journey.
When we first began this adoption process more than a year ago, I was terrified of a potential birth family meeting. Within the first few weeks of our adoption application, we ran into two different families who had adopted from Ethiopia. They both encouraged us to pursue a birth family visit. I have to admit that the very idea of meeting my future child’s birth family made me sick to my stomach. Lucky for me, so I thought, our adoption agency [Holt International] was new to Ethiopia and unable at that time to arrange birth family visits. After I was quite reassured on that point, I put the issue aside to focus on all of our adoption paperwork.
At that time, I was operating under my usual scarcity philosophy. It’s a habit I often fall into without realizing it. I believed that if I acknowledged the role of a birth mother/birth family in the life of our son, then I would be lessening my own role and importance in his life. I didn’t want to share motherhood with someone else; I wanted it all to myself.
But as we continued our adoption journey — as I read more, prayed more and planned more — I couldn’t set aside the nagging whisper in my heart. Orphaned babies do not appear out of thin air; there is always a background, always a person or a family, always an undesirable circumstance, and always, always pain.
I kept imagining what I would do if I couldn’t feed or provide for Caleb. What would that feel like? What would it mean for me to purposefully choose to let another family be his family, to ask another woman to be his mom? The thought kept me up at night. Soon I was praying not only for our future son but also for his birth family, specifically his birth mother. And, without my realizing it, over the next several months, God completely changed my heart.
Last spring, several weeks after we received our referral for our sweet little boy, we got word from our agency that birth family visits were now available. If we chose, we could travel the five hours south of Addis [Ababa, Ethiopia] with our agency staff and visit Josiah’s birthplace and his birth mother. We immediately said yes, absolutely, unequivocally yes, yes, yes. But there was still the chance that she would choose not to meet us.
The whole way out of Addis, I kept thinking about her. She had made that same trip two months earlier to appear before a judge for our adoption court date. It’s a long way there and a long way back. What was she thinking as she traveled this road?
As we neared the village, I grew more anxious. What if she didn’t like us? What if we didn’t like her? And worse yet, what if she didn’t come?
When we arrived at the agency offices, we were assured that all of the birth families had come. We unloaded with the rest of our group, quiet and nervous. As we entered the dimly lit room, still without electricity, there was a group of Ethiopian women and one man huddled in a corner. They whispered quietly to each other as they looked over each of us.
One of the social workers stood in the center of the group and explained to us in English that, as there were only three translators, we would have to take turns visiting with our birth families. He would call us out one family at a time, and we would meet in adjoining rooms for our visit.
To our surprise, he called us first. “Marefu, Marefu’s family. Come with me.” We stood up and followed him out into a small office. As we took our seats, we heard him gently coaxing someone in the hallway. Seconds later, a young woman slowly stepped into the room.
She was so beautiful, so shy, so quiet. I’m sure she felt extremely anxious about meeting us. We were overwhelmed. We smiled, stood, mumbled some unintelligible English, and welcomed her to her seat. The translator came in and sat next to her. He was ready to get things started; I was at a complete loss. How does one begin a conversation like this? So I started with pictures. We had brought a small photo album for her with pictures of our family and our home. At the last minute, I had included the most recent picture we had been sent of Josiah [Marefu]. When she opened the album, his picture was first. She smiled and kissed it, and my heart cracked a little.
I couldn’t help but think of how much I missed Caleb, though we had only left him a week before and would be home with him again in another week, and we had talked almost every day we had been gone. How much pain was she holding in her young heart?
And so we talked. We asked questions; she asked questions. It was difficult to really communicate through a translator, but we did the best we could. After we were finished talking, she gave us a bundle of tall grass. The translator told us that in their region grass passed from one person to another was a symbol of a covenant. We had made a covenant to care for this child; we were so honored.
We walked back into the main room to allow other families their turn with the translator. The staff had provided the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony: strong coffee and popcorn. We sat close together, unable to talk. Casey got out our digital camera to show her the pictures we had taken of Marefu. She looked at them so carefully, so thoughtfully.
I felt so connected to her; I wanted to tell her so much more, to really talk with her. I knew that our time with her was slipping away. I felt so helpless, so I offered her my hand. We sat, holding hands, while we waited for the other visits to conclude. After everyone was finished, we went outside to take some pictures.
As we gathered in a large group — adoptive families and birth families — the social worker announced that one of the birth mothers was going to pray for us, the adoptive families. So we moved closer together and bowed our heads. I reached for her hand again as another birth mother prayed. As I listened to that prayer, in her native language of which I understood not one syllable, I was completely overwhelmed. My heart broke in awe of my merciful God, our merciful God. The one who understands every word in every language. The one who knows us, both Marefu’s birth mother and me, inside and out; who knew about our little boy and planned every detail of his life before the foundations of the earth. The one who has seen every tear we have shed on his behalf; the one who turns sorrow into joy; who, I pray, will turn her sorrow into joy. I sobbed nearly uncontrollably.
After the birth mother’s prayer, Casey prayed, lifting up these precious birth families to our father who has adopted each and every one of us into his family.
And then it was time to say goodbye. We hugged and cried more, and, finally, we loaded back up in our vans with the other adoptive families. She walked to the door and held Casey’s hand through the window until we pulled away.
A day, I would almost say an hour, has not gone by since then that I have not thought of her, this woman who has given me her only son. I think of her constantly and pray that God will heal her pain and sorrow and bless her with joy and happiness in abundance. I pray that I will see her and hold her hand and hug her again. But she is always with me; I see her every day in my son’s eyes.
I cannot wait until we are reunited forever in heaven, and I can tell her, without a translator, how grateful I am. And we will laugh and cry and talk as only mothers can. And we will share every detail of Josiah’s life together, and “Ooh” and “Aah” over his first step, his first word, his first love . . .
I am so humbled right now by my amazing God. I have to praise him for not letting my selfish, stubborn heart get in the way of having this wonderful meeting. As we went to bed that night, Casey and I kept saying to each other, “What if we had missed this?”
And what will we tell Josiah? What will we tell our precious little “God has saved; God has healed”? In his journal that night, I began with, “You were born in the most beautiful place on earth …” I cannot wait to see his life unfold, to see all that God has planned for our little one.
To read more about the Pickers’ adoption process, visit their blog, “Picker Point,” at www.caseypicker.com.
McDonald declared ‘Angel in Adoption’
While many families struggle through the early stages of adopting a child, Michael McDonald (‘97) of Memphis, Tenn., dedicates himself to aiding adoptive families after the fact. Because of his work with The Adoption Support Center, a division of Agape Child and Family Services Inc., the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute named McDonald an “Angel in Adoption.”
Serving as the center’s director, McDonald has helped families obtain training and counseling through the program, which has given the center a 98.9 percent success rate in their adoptions. The national average for failed adoptions can be up to 25 percent.
As a result of his honor, he was able to travel to Washington, D.C., with 190 fellow “angels” to speak to Congress about adoption issues Sept. 30, 2009.
When beginning at Agape, McDonald worked with “special needs adoptions,” helping children who were in state custody waiting to be adopted. “My proposal was to provide specialized counseling and support for these families, to help the kids deal with the grief and loss of their birth families, and to help the families integrate the children better into their homes,” said McDonald. The program gives in-home therapy for these adopted children and provides curriculum to parents and children before the adoption to help prepare them for the road that is before them.
McDonald cites post-adoption counseling as key to change. “Sometimes, it’s just the knowledge that somebody is there to help and support them when they need it.”
Since the center’s beginning in 2004, the original number of 280 adopted youth and family members served has grown to nearly 2,750 children. — Jennifer Hannigan