December 5, 2013

The Risk

The eyes in the photograph are dark and serious.  He doesn’t smile, doesn’t even pretend to be charming.  Instead, he looks directly into the camera, despondent and hopeless, as if to say, “I know I’m not cute, and there is not much left in me that anyone would love.  But sure, go ahead and take my picture if you must.”   Does he know that this picture will end up in a social worker’s file in a country half a world away?

They see his picture on their computer screen, and their hearts are filled with compassion.  That face!  They have never seen such a somber expression, especially in a child so young.  They long to take him into their arms and tell him, “You will be safe now.  No matter what has happened in your life, no matter what loss and grief and pain you have experienced, we will love you and help you heal.  You are home.”

But they can’t.  Or maybe won’t?  To adopt a child on the other side of the world is terribly expensive.  A sum of money that seems astronomical and impossible to envision.  It would require great sacrifice.  Delayed retirement.  Postponing the repairs to the roof and next year’s family reunion.  Extended time off work to travel to another country.  Is this really a sacrifice they are prepared to make?

On his next birthday he will become a teenager, although because of poor nutrition and, until recently, no medical care, he is small for his age.  It’s hard to believe that this boy is about to become a young man.  Just like other boys his age, he loves to play soccer and listen to music and hang out with his friends.  His file describes him as affectionate, brave, respectful, and honest.  So many positive traits! He has his whole life ahead of him.  A life, that is, that may or may not include a family.

They already have a family.  Several kids and a dog, all cozy inside their home with the proverbial white picket fence.  They have so much that they could offer this child!  A warm home and loving, stable parents.  She is already mentally rearranging the bedrooms, while he is mentally rearranging the budget.

But realistically, raising children can be tough.  Exhausting.  Bringing a new child into the family, especially an older child with a painful past and undisciplined behaviors, can be stressful and disruptive.  Is it really fair to subject the other children in their family to such turmoil?  To risk traumatizing their peaceful lives?

His life has been a risk since his mother’s womb, a womb that infected him with its ugly disease.  He is the 5th of 7 children in a sort of makeshift family that barely functioned at all.  Because of his mother’s addiction to drugs and the long stream of broken relationships with the men in her life, he and his siblings were left in the care of their grandmother.  She did her best to raise all of them by herself, but it was a constant struggle.  They lived in poverty, in a city full of violent crime, illegal drugs, and government corruption.  It’s already too late for the older children, who are now teenagers: one in jail, two heavily involved in gangs, and one addicted to the same drugs as her mother.  But what about him?  Is it too late for him?

“Perhaps it’s too late for us,” they think.  Their own children will be fully grown before too long, and some of their friends are already enjoying their empty nests.  Well-intentioned friends and family members, in an attempt to offer guidance, have begun to question,

“Why would you pay that huge expense and travel to another country, when there are children here who need loving families and homes?”  Orphans are orphans, and every one of them is precious in the sight of the Lord.  Each one is a treasure that needs to be protected and valued and cherished.

“Why would you consider being burdened with more children, when you already have children of your own to worry about?”  Burdens?  Children are a blessing.  A gift!

“Haven’t you already contributed and served and devoted enough of your lives to ministering to others?”  Enough?  When is enough enough?  Does love have a finish line?

There never seemed to be enough food, and no one really knew or cared where he went.  From his earliest memories, he fended for himself.  Scrounging for whatever he could find.  Wandering the streets alone.  He was at the mercy of sympathetic neighbors and sometimes benevolent strangers, who offered him odd jobs in exchange for something to fill his empty hours and empty belly.  It was a life full of serious risk!  How easily he could have been kidnapped and harmed, caught into the dark, tangled web of human trafficking.  He didn’t even know it was dangerous; to him it was simply a way to survive.  A way of life.

Will he be able to adapt to a new way of life with a new family?  They can picture him tasting pizza for the first time.  Learning to swim in the neighborhood pool.  Opening gifts with them on Christmas morning.  But will it all be too strange for him?  Too foreign?  How will he adjust to sleeping in a bed at night, eating at regular mealtimes, trusting his new parents to care for his needs?  Is it even possible to tame a feral child?

For seven years - seven years! - he lived on the streets, with no one to care for him.  No doctors to treat his precarious health.  No dentists to clean his blackened teeth.  No education to give him a chance at a future.  No one to buy him clothes or provide his meals or keep him safe.

One day, his baby sister became ill, so gravely ill that she was admitted to the hospital in the city.  It would be months before she recovered.  When she was finally healthy enough to be discharged, to return to her home, no one came for her.  One day, two days, a week went by.  Where was her family?  Social workers began to investigate, and were shocked to discover the children’s dire circumstances.  The extreme neglect.  The lost children had finally been found!

The three youngest siblings were taken to an orphanage, where, for the first time in their lives, they received three nutritious meals every day, clean clothes that fit, a toothbrush.  He began attending school, although because he had missed so much, he was terribly behind.  It would take a lot of hard work if he ever hoped to catch up.

It would be so much work to parent this child!  He would need to learn a new language, the language of his new country.  He would need tutoring and possibly special classes at school.  For them, they would need to be proactive in getting him the extra help he needs.  It would require a tremendous amount of patience and perseverance.  Do they have the energy and stamina to face such a challenge?

For five years  - five years! - the three children have been waiting. Waiting for complicated paperwork to be filed, and for the tedious legal process to unfold, and for decisive court rulings to be made.  Waiting for a new family to come for them.  In a child’s life, five years is an eternity.

Despite his young age, he fully understands the situation.  He knows that there may be a family somewhere who would be willing to adopt his innocent younger brother and sweet-faced little sister, if only he wasn’t a part of the “package deal.”  He knows that they desperately need to belong in a family!  He knows that it would mean love and safety and predictability for them.  And so he bravely offers to let them go.  To be legally separated from them, so that they will have a chance to find happiness.  Without him.  It’s an excruciating, selfless decision.

How will they ever make this decision?  A battle rages within.  On the one side, their thoughts send an attack of paralyzing fear and poisonous doubts.  Their hearts, on the opposing side, defend with mercy and compassion, zeal and enthusiasm.  Which side will triumph?  How can they possibly make a decision of this magnitude?  This permanent, irreversible, life-changing decision?

What if they choose no?  What will happen to him?  He has his whole life ahead of him.  A life, that is, that may or may not include a family.  Is there a family for him?  A family who will look past his serious health problems, his ugly history, his “unadoptable” age?  Who will give him an opportunity to experience a joy-filled life? A life that does not have to include crime and gangs and drugs?  Who will love him and protect him and encourage him and support his dreams for the future?  Is there anyone who would be willing to take the risk?

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