My oldest son was born with Down syndrome, and for a while, all I could see when I looked at him was that diagnosis. Every day I would research more about Down syndrome, telling myself it was to be a better father to my son, but I was really searching for an answer to the question “Who will my son become?” Now I see how pointless that search was because my son is as unique as any individual, and no research can predict who he will become or what his life will be like. Research couldn’t tell me that he would become hilarious and deeply thoughtful–that wasn’t in his diagnosis. This week he told me he wants to be an Indian when he grows up so he can use a bow and arrow to shoot “chickens…wild chickens.”
Still, there were benefits to that time of “research,” because I discovered a number of families and groups that are involved in creative ways in adoption of children with special needs. My family learned that in many other nations, children with special needs are often placed on waiting lists because they are harder to place with adoptive families.
One day in 2013, a colleague shared a blog post with me that was written by a dad training for a triathlon. He was raising money for a foundation that helps fund adoptions of kids with special needs. I clicked over to that site, looked at a few of the profiles of kids waiting for families, and emailed my wife to tell her it was time to start the process. Over a year later, we traveled to Hong Kong together to bring home our daughter, who also has Down syndrome. We figured that we were already familiar with the therapies needed and the medical issues associated with that diagnosis, and we found more reasons to say “yes” than “no.”
The risky thing about adopting kids with special needs is exposure–to more of them. (Not a phrase original to me, but it is true). So in September 2016, my wife learned of a little guy in Ukraine who needed a family. He was blind, non-verbal, and even though his age was 14, his body was the size of a 6 or 7 year old. He was living in an institution for men and boys and desperately needed out of that situation. I thought we would not be qualified to adopt again because the size of our family, the age of our youngest child, or our income, but none of those things disqualified us. We found many reasons to say “no,” but we found even more reasons to say “yes.”
The adoption process for Ukraine requires multiple visits–first to establish a connection and “accept” the referral, then to see a judge to make the appeal, and finally to complete remaining paperwork, visa, and passport appointments. Some people remain in the country for the entire 4-6 weeks required for the process, but with work and family needs, we decided to break up the trips. Since my wife was needed at home, we determined that I would go alone to Ukraine.
So on Father’s Day of 2017, I set out on my first trip to Ukraine to meet Slavik. It was a warm summer day when we drove out to the rural village where the orphanage was built many years ago as a residence for people with mental health issues. Now it is a home for men and boys with physical and cognitive disabilities. Slavik stayed in a building with other boys who are not able to go outside without special assistance. The majority of his life had been spent inside those walls. After meeting with the director a few minutes, I was led back to a room with only essential furnishings and a heavy curtain over the window. Slavik was wearing a lime green t-shirt with some graphics on the front, and he sported a buzzed haircut like all the other residents. When I approached him, he grabbed my hand, pulled himself into my stomach to smell me. Based on my smell, he recognized me as a “visitor” and then anxiously pulled me toward the door to take him outside, since only visitors would do that for him.
When we went outside, the nannies at the orphanage spread a blanket on the grass where we could sit. Slavik was wild and uncontrollable for our entire visit. Now I know that is because he has never been on grass, and even now he starts to panic when his hands or feet touch grass, or anything other than a solid surface. He never settled down after that. He had no way to regulate himself and his behavior was erratic and aggressive. While I attempted to manage him, I was being observed by the nannies on staff and the local social worker assigned to our case. I had no precedent for a visit like that. During that initial visit, I was also busy processing the environment around me–the looks on the faces of the men and boys who live at the orphanage and the reality that this would be how they lived out their days–conditions that you would not believe still exist in a European nation. I say that with full respect and appreciation for those serving in these institutions. They have an impossible job, and most people there are doing what they can to make life better for the boys.
Slavik and I chronicled many more stories on the subsequent visits, but now that he has been home with our family for more than four months, I can tell you he is not the wild, erratic boy I met in June. He spends most of his days sitting contentedly on the sofa or at his chair in the kitchen laughing in anticipation of the next meal. He has siblings all around him, including one persistent little sister, who always want to help him find a sock to play with when he cannot find one on his own (the only toy he likes at this point). Slavik is at peace. He is not aggressive, anxious, or tense. He delights in being held, picked up, or swung around in my arms. He has 1,000 expressions, and every one is fun to discover–for him and for us.
Saying “yes” to the next thing God reveals will lead all of us on different journeys, but it is worth whatever the cost because He has good things in store. Unimaginably good.
“If we suffer with him, we shall inherit with him. The whole point is that you’ve got it all coming. Everything is yours. You don’t need it now. Give yourself away. Make this little two second vaporous life span a life of love and not a life of accumulation and maximizing comforts and pleasures here. Spend it for others.” -John Piper on Romans 8:17