Has it really been six years?
Oh, the places we saw, the people we met.
I look at these photos that seem like something out of a beautiful dream, and yet, my main memory is: Sick.
Sick, sick, sick. I did not go to the Taj Mahal — David and Judah visited the Taj Mahal while I holed up in a hotel room in an enormous foreign city with a migraine and a one-year-old.
Even so, I’m thankful for every single sight I saw: snow capping the Himalayas, orphans with beaming faces, enough stand-still traffic jams to last a lifetime.
And I look at the Julie in those pictures and ache for her, because it’s going to get so much harder, up ahead. I had yet to face the darkest moments of my life. God’s rescue was going to feel a lot like death.
But if I could, I would give her a big hug and say, “God is not punishing you. Nothing — not one single minute or one single tear — will be wasted. He is going to use all of it for your good and for His glory, I promise.”
Mostly I’d just say to her, “He will never, ever, ever leave you alone.”
I wish I could also say, “Your life will hold more pain than you know now, but it will also hold surprises so beautiful you couldn’t possibly dream them up.”
You know what’s funny? Why couldn’t God have just left all of that out? The whole journey to India, the illness, the abrupt return and grief and depression so bad I wanted to die. All the subsequent challenges of the last six years. Why couldn’t He have just plopped us down, right here and now in Columbia with our church and our family of six?
I don’t know, entirely, the reason.
What I do know is it’s all so inexplicably part of our story that I can’t imagine our life any other way — no, I wouldn’t want to imagine it. I am the person I am today because of what I’ve been through, the good and the bad. I trust God today in a way I never did before. I can sit with people who are suffering in a way I was oblivious to. I can be just a bit more patient in trials because I’ve tasted hope. I can look ahead to the future with confidence because I know nothing will be wasted, that God is going to make all things new.
No, I wouldn’t change a thing.
The best way I know to describe older child adoption or sibling group adoption, is that it’s like culture shock.
Let me explain. This is what it was like to move to India:
We planned and dreamed and worked so hard to get to this new country. And after a 24-hour trip in three different airplanes, we set our feet on the ground. I’ll never forget that first nighttime ride from the airport, the cool wind in my face, craning my neck to take in the streets and leafy trees and buildings. Everything. I was exhausted to my core from juggling two toddlers on the Longest Trip Of My Life, but I was full of wonder. We did it. This is our new home.
The four of us managed to sleep a few hours that first night, in our friends’ flat, and awoke to the blinding India sun the next morning. Jet-lag made us feel like we’d been hit by a truck. We took a shower in a floor-to-ceiling tiled bathroom with a shower head that, bewilderingly, soaked every inch of the tiny room. And then we tracked water across the guest room and got dressed and stepped outside in soggy flip-flops, cotton-brained and slack-jawed, into dust and trash and noise and cows and many, many people.
We’d studied about moving overseas and traveled to other countries; read books and taken classes and spent a month in New York City in an international neighborhood. I was prepared for the first stage of culture shock: The Honeymoon Stage.
Except, that it didn’t happen to us. For whatever reason — perhaps it was the country we chose, perhaps it was landing in that country with a three and a one-year-old — we bypassed the Honeymoon Stage and landed smack on our rears in Disintegration.
Reality didn’t so much creep in, as punch us in the face.
Now, please understand this. We chose to move to India — nobody twisted our arms. We wanted to be there. We knew it was the exact right thing.
And also, we were drowning.
Everything was different. Every possible sense was assaulted every minute of the day. There is no way for me to describe to you the smells, the sights, the dirt, the tastes, the crush of people, the noise. Oh, the noise.
But we made ourselves set one foot in front of the other and get out there. Every single day. With the help of friends, we moved into our flat. We bought furniture. We found the office to set up Internet, and a preschool for our three-year-old. We learned to pay in cash and shop for groceries (a process that involved not one but a handful of shops). We learned to hail auto rickshaw cabs. We hired a house helper and learned to navigate this strange new cultural relationship of having an employee in our home every day who didn’t speak a word of English. We learned to brush our teeth with bottled water, and to disinfect fruit and vegetables before we ate them. We took our kids to the playground. We ordered take-out.
I list things for you that took an unimaginable amount of time. Everything moves slower in this country. And nobody seemed as bothered by that as us foreigners.
Have you ever noticed this? When you’re in a season that’s difficult, time just slows right down too. And so the hours we waited for our internet company to come were actually twice as long as normal hours. Each day felt like a marathon.
And yet. Piece by piece, agonizingly long day by agonizingly long day, we began to find our bearings in a brand-new place.
Of course, at the time it didn’t exactly feel like it. It felt like struggle. It felt like one step forward, two steps back. It felt like being the stupid one, the one that didn’t know any of the rules or how to make friends. It felt like wanting to go home where life was familiar and comfortable, where we were known and respected. It felt like a whole lot of anger, gushing from someplace deep inside where we didn’t know it existed.
We put in the seconds and the minutes and the days and the hours, and fought hard not to give in to the thought that This will never get better.
And then eventually, without our hardly realizing it, it did get better. Although at the time it just felt like pointless hardship, all of those seconds and hours and days had been adding up to accomplish something, to get us somewhere.
Slowly we found some confidence and the right places to shop for meat. We could go on neighborhood walks and not worry constantly about getting lost. I could set out with my backpack and just round our street corner into the sea of humanity, and move along with them, enjoying the sounds and color and, well there was just so much life. We began to find things to love about our city, little things at first, but we clung to them fiercely, and added to their number. We made friends. We watched how our children saw everything in India as a great adventure, and we tried to be like them. We laughed more.
Friends, I wish I could give you fuller picture of our Independence Stage of culture shock, but as many of you know, we had to leave India suddenly after just a year and a half, due to my health. While the rest of me recovered and actually wanted to put down some roots in our new home, my body never did. And so we had to leave, when we’d only just begun. That was a whole other kind of shock, but it’s a story for a different time.
But after that first year, I tasted a sip of Settling In. The anger had eased. Our city began to feel a tiny bit like home.
And so, as I begin to reflect on our first year of adoption, this is the picture that comes quickest to mind. In fact, I thought many times over this past year, This, right here, feels exactly like culture shock.
It’s the head-spinning, earth-shifting, wonder-brimming, anger-gushing, bone-tired-exhausting, tears in bed at night, will-this-ever-get-better jolt. Except with adoption, I’d up the ante just a wee bit by adding, there’s-no-going-back. Ever.
I believe that my body and my mind and emotions experienced the trauma of adding two new strangers to our family, in the same visceral way as landing with a pile of suitcases in a completely foreign country for the first time and realizing on Day One that the honeymoon stage was the ride home from the airport.
But I’m hear to tell you today, at the end of our first year, that we’re okay! We’re emerging from the crazy. We find more things to love every day about this strange new country that is our family of six.
I’m so happy to be living here.
Last week some good friends we lived with in South Asia passed through Columbia and stopped in for the afternoon. It’s been three years and some change since we left so suddenly, one dusty, blinding-hot June morning. Since then we’ve built a whole life here in Columbia. We have work that we love. God brought us our sons. There is much to be grateful for.
Still, we carry our memories of South Asia like a wound that’s scabbed over. Every once in awhile we ache to be building our life there instead of here. Sometimes we talk about the “what if’s.” And so when any of our South Asia friends — the ones we planned to laugh and cry and raise our kids and sprout gray hairs with — come back to the States, we snatch at the chance to see them.
When I’m with them, even for a few hours, another tiny part of me heals. We’ve been through some of our darkest moments together, seen the worst parts of each other, and learned what real friendship looks like. My friend Maggie walks through my house and knows the exact shop where I bought my sofas and hand-stitched quilt, and who gave me the painted porcelain dish on the side table. We pick up right where we left off and can barely cram all the words into several short hours.
And through it all I see that God is faithful to them and He’s faithful to us. We’ll always be friends, near and far.
Our children’s reunion last week, after three years apart, only confirmed it (and we’ve collectively added four kids since then!). After they left, Judah pulled me aside and said, “Mom, I’m sad you had to get sick. Because I really miss India.”
Me too, buddy. Me too.
June 6th came and went without fanfare this year. Last year, it was the day I dreaded. This year, I didn’t even notice its passing until a week later.
Two years ago, on June 6th, we flew home from South Asia on medical leave. The kids and I never went back.
Isn’t it funny how life is full of sadness and happiness, all mixed in together? For awhile there I was afraid to say I missed South Asia because I didn’t want to sound ungrateful.
I’m healthy now, aren’t I? I’m able to be the wife and mother and friend I longed to be and couldn’t when we lived there. I love my husband’s job more than I thought possible. I have a home and a community right here.
But now I’m a tad bit older, and I know that’s it’s okay to feel both ways. It’s okay to be so very happy and content and to love my life, and it’s also okay to be sad sometimes. There’s an ache that I don’t notice for weeks on end, then sometimes it sneaks up and takes my breath away. A photo. A smell. An accent. The way the woven fabric of my green blanket feels against my leg transports me back to the shop where I bought it.
Two years later we still have questions. Sometimes David and I sit in the quiet of an evening at home or a date night and one of us will speak, What if? What if we hadn’t left? What if we could’ve kept our dream and it got better and better and we were there right now?
We don’t have answers of course. You could say God brought us home to plant a church in Columbia. That’s part of it, but what a roundabout, inefficient, expensive way to go about doing it, huh? If that’s what He really wanted, why did we ever have to leave and have to suffer?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that God is not efficient and He doesn’t have to explain Himself to me. Beware of people who try to explain God to you, who try to wrap suffering and mystery up in a pretty package. God is wild and free and so much bigger than we can imagine.
I trust Him more than ever though, you know? Even in the ache. He knows. He knows exactly what He’s doing. Maybe one day I’ll know too, maybe I won’t.
There’s healing in crying sometimes, in missing my friends and my apartment and my house helper and the food. In missing the quirkiness and color and exasperation of life overseas.
I miss the South Asia part of myself, who hailed auto rickshaws and greeted in Hindi and navigated crazy city streets on foot to buy vegetables. Will I ever meet her again?
A couple months ago our friend Brewer sat across our table eating lunch and asked us, “Would you do something for me? Would you tell me your story of South Asia?”
So we told him. The words caught at first, but then they tumbled out faster. He listened. We talked. And there was healing in remembering. We realized, South Asia is part of the fabric of our being and that will never change.
I still ache for it sometimes, but mostly I thank God fervently, over and over, for letting me live there. Eighteen months didn’t feel long enough but it was the exact length of time He had for us to be there. It was hard and shocking and so beautiful.
I thank Him for the gift of South Asia, and I thank Him for rescuing me and giving me a new gift.
I thank Him for the quiet beauty of my life now that fits like a glove.
Two years later, He’s good.
One of the saddest thing about moving away from South Asia was leaving the friends God gave us. It was only for 18 months, but we made life long friendships there. Moving to another country rooted up the good, the bad, and the ugly in our hearts, and it was a gift to learn to love others and be loved through it.
Our friends John and Alison and their boys Joshua and Caleb are in the States for a few months and visited us from North Carolina this weekend. It was a joyful reunion and after close to two years we were so happy to see our kids pick up without missing a beat. We ate good food, drank good drinks, talked a mile a minute, and laughed until we cried about life in South Asia.
These friends feel more like family, and we’re grateful for them.
I’ve been dreading this day, June 6th, for months and months. And now it’s here. One year. One year since we stepped on a plane and said good-bye to South Asia. And, because of the time difference, also one year since we stepped off a third plane twenty-four hours later into a hot Columbia summer evening.
I guess I’ve dreaded this day because the one-year anniversary of our departure seems to hold a new kind of finality. Like a chapter forever closed. No longer can we say, “This year, when we lived in South Asia.” No, now it’s, “. . . over a year ago.” Another life.
And so I’ve wanted to hold these last few months close, to grab on to the still-recent memories, the smells, the tastes, the sounds that still fill my head when I scroll through photos. I haven’t wanted to say good-bye.
But this morning, on the day I dreaded, I awoke and I saw that long, muted airport hallway stretching before me, and at the end of it my family. I saw my cousins Eddie and Liz with their kids, I saw my cousin Betsy, I saw my brother, Kenny. I saw Shari and Owen, and I saw my one-year-old nephew Oliver for the first time. I saw all their smiles.
I cried all the way down that carpeted walkway, my shaking arms barely strong enough to hold my two-year-old. I was so sick back then. David and I both were. On June 6th we were each on antibiotics for separate bacterial infections, mine left me at close to a hundred pounds. I was all spent and my dreams were emptied out and I was so very tired and sad.
And there was my family, waiting with all their love.
I had no idea that humid June evening what our future with South Asia would hold, no idea we wouldn’t be going back. That things would get harder before they got easier.
But on June 6th I was very, very relieved to be home.
That’s a memory I’ll keep holding onto.
I miss auto rickshaw rides at dusk, the wind whipping my face and hair, the twilit sea of humanity melting together
I miss rich, doughy-sour dosa folded and dipped into fiery sambar
I miss children’s school uniforms in colors as varied as schools
I miss throwing my doors open to cool winter mornings
I miss walking to Nilgiri’s for groceries at 8:00 at night, the streets alive with people and noise and life
I miss the swelling satisfaction upon finding that elusive baking ingredient
I miss flowers that demand to be noticed: hot pinks and oranges and tropical red
I miss Deepakshi’s rajma