My husband and I arrived in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. It was our first trip to Africa. Our travel from Minneapolis to Amsterdam to Addis, with a one hour layover in Sudan had gone smoothly. But after twenty hours of travel, we were tired. It was almost like giving birth, except this time Steve was as tired as I was.
We felt like we were in the movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” but the Ethiopian version would be, “planes, vans and donkeys.” We drove on a four lane road with shoulders that were crowded with people walking, standing or squatting. People were conducting business, herding goats, and talking on cell phones. And lots and lots of donkeys. Most of the women we saw were walking with jugs on their heads. I felt as if I had fallen back in time a few centuries, except for the cell phones, Coca-Cola ads and the random plastic bag blowing down the dusty road. We passed a pickup truck full of camels standing up in the bed. As we moved away from the city, stick and straw cone-shaped huts seemed to be the norm for housing.
Two days later, it was finally time to meet our son. We were driven to the orphanage and entered the courtyard full of crisscrossed lines of hundreds of diapers and baby clothes drying in the bright light. Steve and I laughed as we navigated through all the lines of clothes with the African sun hot on our faces. We climbed stairs to a room that had some circa-1970 couches. Another adoptive couple we had met were waiting for their child.
I think of my children at home: My biological son and daughter and my adoptive daughter, how I loved them the instant I held them.
An employee enters the room. She is holding a four and a half month old boy. It’s him. He is wrapped in a blanket. His only hair, on the top of his head, looks damp from a bath. His eyes are so big. He looks just like his pictures but smaller. She hands him to me. She attempts to unwind the blanket and we do an awkward dance to remove it. I don’t want to be distracted, not even for a millisecond. I’m not sure why I feel so impatient. Maybe because I have waited over a year to complete our family. This is the moment.
The blanket is off. I turn so Steve can see him too. Holding him I suddenly have a weird ache in my chest. I can feel the baby’s spine with my hand, each vertebra like a clothespin on the line. He is too thin. He isn’t chubby like a baby should be. I hear birds outside. I hear other babies crying. He feels–malnourished.
I am aware I’m being filmed. I don’t want my heart that aches to show on film. It’s ripping. The feel of his vertebrae vibrates through my core that weeps when it should sing. His eyes are so large. Steve holds him. The baby sucks on his own hand. He has the longest eyelashes I have ever seen. We sit down on the couch and play. I contain my pain. Other families enter the room and we thank our friends as they hand back our camera, but my throat is constricted and dry as the dusty roads.
After an hour we are driven back to our guest house. In our room, we make a bottle and feed him. We change his Pamper seeing for the first time his skinny legs. We exchange a long look, but don’t need to exchange words.
But then I hold him. I put him over my shoulder. Walk with him. Smell his clean baby skin and snuggle my nose in his neck. I am a little sad that I need to put him down in his crib so he can nap. I try to read, but mostly I stare at his chest rising up and down, up and down. Steve glances at me with a knowing look. He has seen this before with our other children.
When Xavier wakes up I read him a few books. We look out the window and walk on the balcony. I prop him up on the bed with pillows. He has so much to tell us. He speaks calmly, but with intention for he has a story to share. He is a happy baby but cautious, and oh does he study my face. He makes eye contact. He stares. He memorizes me.
Steve comes over and Xavier talks to him in the softest serious baby voice. We attempt to videotape his stories. At dinner, he is introduced to the other adoptive families staying at the guest house. Steve and I take turns holding him while we eat dinner and when I review the videotape, he doesn’t look as skinny.
Back in our room, we get him ready for bed. It is joy to hold him, change him, feed him. He is a baby and still has that look in his eyes that says to me I have a direct line to heaven. I have felt that with my other children and as they grow older it starts to fade away and they become children of earth. But Xavier still has a foot in each camp so to speak, heaven and earth. I promise him with my eyes, “I won’t leave you Xavier. Please gain weight.”
I reluctantly put him in the crib so he can sleep. Within hours, this baby has melted into my skin. I could pick him out blindfolded by his scent. I think he could pick out my voice.
I watch the setting sun spill into our room. It makes a yellow path on the floor as it slowly ascends the walls. Gold pours into the crib, illuminates Xavier, and softly fills the whole room with golden light. Like love.