Although we had been blessed with four children, my husband Jeff and I always felt as though our family was not quite finished. After several disappointing miscarriages, we seriously considered fostering or adopting a child, but nothing ever worked out. All too soon our kids had grown and flown, to college or jobs, throughout the country. But Jeff and I did not feel ready for an empty nest. We found the sudden silence of our empty home oppressive, missing the vibrancy, noise, laughter, and chaos that children only can provide.
Looking and feeling far younger than our years, we believed we still had the ability to parent another child. We wanted a more permanent, less heart-breaking arrangement than the foster system so began to seriously consider adopting, spending two years researching both domestic and international adoption. We even discovered an online support group for people like us called GAARP (Gracefully Aging Adoptive Refined Parents) described as ‘a forum for adoptive or would-be adoptive parents over the age of 40, who plan to be adoptive parenting into their silver and golden years.”
Then came the intensive research of various countries and adoption agencies. Finally, we selected an ethical agency whose main goal was to find families for older children, not just the healthy baby girls most people wanted. They sent their social worker to meet us and conduct our home study. We were approved and decided to adopt a six-year-old boy, Abi, living in an Ethiopian orphanage. Our adoption journey was long and complicated, involving bureaucratic wrangles and one frustrating delay after another. Did we have doubts along the way? Definitely. Jeff and I talked for hours – were we truly making the right decision at this point in our lives? One friend tried to persuade us to shelve the whole idea, suggesting that at our age we should consider a relaxing sea cruise instead. Yet, despite our doubts and fears, we both felt compelled to continue the process. I knew, come what may, if we did not adopt Abi, we would always regret it.
My lifeline/support group was other families who had adopted children from Ethiopia. After a flurry of emails flew back and forth late into the night from other families who adopted kids from Ethiopia, my anxious questions receiving reassuring answers that only those who had been there, done that, could possibly provide. At last, the long roller-coaster journey came to an end.
Life was very different from then on, both for him and for us. Older adopted children come with baggage from their past, and Abi was no exception. Still, we bonded well and quickly. Adopting him was certainly the most challenging, emotionally stressful thing we’ve ever done but at the same time the most significant, life-enhancing and rewarding. There was so much for Abi to learn – and we learned along with him. Bright and curious, he picked up English at astounding speed, and soon could express himself amazingly well. At first, he had a few word confusions we found adorable. He called pictures “pishkers,” and recipes “siripees.” He loved riding up to the sixth floor of Daddy’s office building in the “alligator.”
We weren’t sure if Abi was Jewish from birth or not, but were informed he’d been circumcised at one week old. However, since we wanted him to be fully accepted by our Orthodox community without question, we decided to have him undergo a halachic conversion. The first step of the process was the hatafat dam brit which, though it took only a moment, was not a pleasant experience for little Abi. Fortunately, he recovered quickly when we went for ice-cream afterwards. The second step of the process–immersion in a mikvah–was far more enjoyable. Abi loved the mikvah (hey, a small swimming pool!), and was disappointed he couldn’t splash around in it longer.
He soon grew accustomed to going to shul with us on Shabbat, participating in the Kiddush, and afterward, eating the traditional pickled herring with crackers. He adjusted well to a Jewish day school and now speaks Hebrew far more fluently than we do. When Abi was old enough to understand, we told him of the 2,500-year-old dream of Ethiopian Jews to return to Israel, and their bravery to undertake that long difficult journey.
At first ,people tended to stare at us, a young, brown-skinned boy with a white couple old enough to be his grandparents. But Abi, a good-looking, captivating child who charms everyone he meets, soon became an accepted part of our community. Jeff and I enjoy marching to a different drummer as a conspicuous, interracial family.
Abi had given us a rare opportunity to turn back the clock. Suddenly, we were ‘young’ parents again, attending PTA meetings and soccer games, helping with homework, and reading bedtime stories. Just as Abi has grown used to our culture, we’ve tried to incorporate some elements of his into our lives. We learned a few basic words of Amharic, became friendly with some sweet Ethiopian teenage girls in our community, and keep in touch by email with other adoptive families of Ethiopian children. I even learned to cook Ethiopian food (thanks to Youtube videos), though I draw the line at eating berbere, a fiery spice similar to jalapeno peppers.
One afternoon Abi and I were walking past a dumpster on our street when he noticed a huge teddy bear perched on top of it. His brown eyes went wide. “Why they throw away a nice bear?” he asked, shocked.
“Maybe the kid who owned him doesn’t need a teddy bear now because he’s all grown up,” I suggested.
“So why his mommy and daddy don’t go to adoption agency and adopt a new kid like you and Daddy adopted me?”
For a moment I was stunned. Abi is well aware of the fact that he is our second-time-around child, but we’d no idea how normal a process he thinks this is. We rescued the teddy bear, perfectly clean and in great shape. Perhaps on some level, Abi identifies with it. Someone else no longer wanted it, but he sure did. Though it’s a huge bear, taking up a lot of space in his bed, he sleeps with it every night. It’s exactly the right size to fill his heart, just as Abi has filled ours.