Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Hardest Day

Chatting with my friend about Abi when she first came home has me reminiscing today. For the first time, I can go there mentally without having an overwhelming feeling of panic. It’s taken a long time to put enough distance between myself and those days: those exciting, terrifying, wondrous, crazy days of bringing my child home.

There was one day in particular on that journey. One day that changed me as a person. It was a hitting bottom, yet going through it empowered me. Here’s the story of that day.

First, I need to give a little background. I’d already stayed with Abi for a week in the guesthouse. During that week I spent as much time as I could learning about how she did things, what she said (in Amharic), how she liked things. I was scared to bathe her lest I do it wrong and scare her. I tried to take mental notes on what she liked to eat, and which of the little toys I’d brought that she liked to play with.

The women who worked at the guest house were wonderful. One in particular, Genet, had worked in the orphanage and knew the routines and the children. She translated Abi’s three-year-old chatter for me and showed me how to bathe and oil Abi’s skin.

When it was time to leave the guest house and board our plane, I felt as though I was being cast adrift. Thankfully, God provided a beautiful Ethiopian woman in the seat next to us on the first flight. It was she who took Abi to the tiny airplane restroom for the first time.

We left the Ethiopian airlines in Johannesburg, South Africa. We had a five-hour layover there, and then we boarded the long flight to Atlanta. Seventeen overnight hours were spent crammed between the window of the plane and a 6’4” Marine. I think I slept maybe 30 minutes.

Then came THE DAY. We deplaned in Atlanta on US soil. I had clutched in my shaking hand the packet of immigration papers that our agency had given me. If they had done their work well, Abi would go through. If they had skipped one signature, she would be detained. I followed the crowd of people, my tired eyes unable to read any of the signs.

The line was long. It inched along for two hours, and the crush of people made the room swelteringly hot. I’d already had a problem with my woman’s time, and I’d had no opportunity to clean up or change my soiled clothing. Abi, completely overwhelmed, was sweating, whether with fear or the heat I could not tell. In one hand I held my new daughter, and in the other I held a suitcase, packet of papers and bag, dragging them along with me.

We finally reached our turn at the counter. Without letting go of Abi, I fished my passport out of my hidden wallet. We were led to an immigration room for our interview. Abi took that opportunity to proclaim that she wanted “Shintabayt” (bathroom), and I pleadingly asked the woman in the office if there was a restroom we could use. She affirmed that we could go find one, although I could tell this was a breach of protocol and an imposition on her busy schedule. I asked for specific directions.

“It’s over there around the corner,” she said, waving a hand vaguely ahead of her. “You’ll see it.”

I sighed. I would have to find a friendly passer-by for better directions when I got closer.

With Abi in tow, I ventured out. I’d tied the Ergo baby carrier around my waist to try and hide the problem clothing, and its buckles flogged my legs as I walked. I made my way down the wide airport hallway and around a corner where luckily the only door turned out to be the women’s room. Abi and I both went, but I had not thought to bring my bag, and had no extra clothing in it if I had. I tied a coat around my waist and we headed back into the office again.

To my intense relief, the papers were all approved. The shot of joy that coursed through my system carried me through the next few minutes, although I could feel fatigue nagging at the corners of my mind and limbs. We gathered our things and I took my newly minted American citizen in my arms, heavy as she was and headed into the Atlanta airport.

We only had a few precious hours to find food and figure out where our next flight was. I put Abi in the Ergo on my back. I figured keeping her there would work best for both of us. Then, I took a firm hold on my suitcase and bag and we were off.

The shopping mall-like hallways full of shops and restaurants was almost too much. I felt the last of my reserves leave and panic set in. I could not read any of the signs and the glittering light fixtures sent shards of artificial light into my tired brain. I was hungry, and my blood sugar was low. My body wanted breakfast, although in Atlanta, I think it was closer to dinner time. I stood for a minute in the center of the bewildering place as people hurried around me. I wanted to cry.

Food. I needed food. I tried in my hypoglycemic haze to center my brain on that one thought. I started meandering, trying to smell my way toward a restaurant. Whatever I got had to be something Abi would eat, and it needed to not contain much sugar or I might end up making myself sick and miss our next flight.

I walked near the shop doorways, looking through the too-bright lights and the hurrying crowds to try and determine what each shop contained.

Lots of black, square stuff. Electronics.

There’s a shop with food. Looks like all sweets.

Please, God, help me.

That one has souvenirs. Stuffed animals and sports memorabilia.

That one has candy bars and magazines.

There’s a lounge. It’s dark and they aren’t going to let Abi in there.

At last, at last. One that looked like some kind of buffet. Chicken, I think.

I entered and a pleasant young man asked if he could help me. Thankfully, I made a beeline for him and asked him they served. He pointed to the menu behind him that I couldn’t read, and I asked him wearily if he just had any combos or specials. I finally learned that he had a grilled chicken, rice and veggie plate.

That would work. I thought Abi might at least eat the rice.

I paid an exorbitant amount and also bought a $4 water bottle. I maneuvered suitcase, tray, bag, papers and child to a nearby table and sank gratefully into the seat. We ate, Abi receiving bites of chicken and rice into her mouth like a little bird. I tried out my stumbling Amharic on her. “Doro?” (Chicken) “Wooha?” (Water).

“Ow,” she said, which meant yes. Apparently she wasn’t in the mood to be picky. Small blessings.

She ate very little, and went back into shutdown mode, which at this point did not bother me. Better than screaming.

It was now time to find our departure gate. Summoning all the physical strength I could muster, I reinserted the heavy three-year-old onto my back in the Ergo and wrestled the rest of my possessions into submission.

Once again in the echoing, bustling hallway, I searched for a departure board. I was on the verge of stopping a hurrying passer-by to ask for directions, knowing I would get confusion and rolled eyes, when I spotted the big, square screen. I hurried toward it, praying that it was positioned low enough that I could get close enough to read it.

It was. I fumbled with my paperwork, and found my flight number. Then the gate.

Next, I had to find the way to departures. I got close enough to a sign to figure out the right way to go. Atlanta, of course, has to shuttle you to the farthest building, and time was beginning to run low. I hurried to find signs that I could read and figure out the shuttle system. Partly by following crowds, partly by asking a series of questions from people, and partly from sheer luck, at last, at long last, I found our gate. We were none too early, and it wasn't long before it was time to board.

Settling into my vinyl seat, this time next to a heavily tattooed young guy from the Army, I breathed a long, long sigh of relief as the panic began to recede. Someday, this nightmare trip would be over and I’d be home again with my family. I waited gladly for the plane to taxi and take off.

At that moment, a little voice beside me asked, “Shintabayt?”

It would feel like 137 hours until I stepped into the snow and sunlight and waiting arms or my family. In reality I only had about 6 hours to go. It was in those moments, when I dug deeper into reserves I never knew I had, that I changed. I grew. I learned that I am weak, and that I am strong. I learned again that single steps eventually bring you a thousand miles. And I learned just how far love will go.

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