“When I think about our family story and reflect on how much ‘life’ has been lived in the past 15 years – how high the mountain tops have soared and yet how low the valleys have plunged, it simultaneously causes such an overwhelming joy that my heart could almost burst, coupled with pain that makes my insides ache from the remembrance of the deepest kind of grief and fear we’ve ever walked through. Our story is one of beauty from ashes.
Stephen and I were high school sweethearts. He was a senior and I was a sophomore when we met, and at the end of that year he took me to his prom for our first date. Someone once described us as ‘crazy in love.’ He’s the hopeless romantic type and I knew within a few months of dating that I was going to marry that boy. I adored him and he treated me like a queen. We were complete opposites; he was outgoing and charming, a gifted singer and musician, and friends with everyone he met. I was much more introverted but had every bit as much passion and vision for the future. We were a good match and I was ready to marry him the minute I graduated.
What we hadn’t planned on was for me to get pregnant at only 17 years old while still a senior in high school. To this day I vividly remember the intense fear I felt when I looked at that pregnancy test. What would become of me? What was I going to do? I had always been the good girl – the one that got good grades and followed the rules. My own identity was shattered in a moment and I was overwhelmed with a sense of shame and guilt like I had never experienced. Stephen had been on his way to one of his college classes when I called him to tell him the news. He immediately turned around to come see me. I don’t remember what we said to each other, but I remember him holding me as we both cried for what seemed like hours. Then he started to pray. It was a humble prayer asking God to help us in our fear, to show us the way and to be with us. I never would have imagined in that moment all the ways God would answer that simple prayer.
Our firstborn daughter was named Kinsey Reese, which means ‘victorious spirit’ and ‘radiant one.’ She is a beautiful, passionate girl who has always been mature beyond her years. I absolutely adored her from the moment I laid eyes on her. Though there was much fear of becoming a mom at such a young age, I knew this precious little girl was such a gift. She’s brought us more joy than I can even express. Two and a half years later, we had a second daughter, feisty and bubbly yet ever-so-sweet, that we named Keira, and our family felt very full and happy. Stephen took a job leading the music at a church in Houston and I was very fulfilled in my role as a mom and homemaker. But as our girls continued to grow up, I couldn’t escape the feeling that our family wasn’t complete. Perhaps not even close.
From the time I was a little girl, adoption had been something I was curious about. Over the years, my parents had done respite care for several foster families and I remember being very close to some of the girls we took care of. They felt like sisters to me and I knew, even as a child, I wanted to adopt when I grew up. Stephen and I had talked about it when we were still dating, both of us agreeing we would love to ‘someday.’ So when our girls were six and four, we began to start researching what the adoption process is like. We went through all the foster care training for the state of Texas but then almost immediately took a job in Missouri. We were torn between redoing all of the training in our new state or deciding to pursue adoption instead. As we made calls to different agencies and asked questions, we kept hearing similar responses. ‘Have you considered Ethiopia? There is such a need right now.’ We had been open to international adoption but admittedly hadn’t looked into it that much. As we began to read and educate ourselves on the country of Ethiopia, we fell in love with the beauty of it’s culture and people. We were also heartbroken to hear of how the AIDS epidemic had ravaged the country. We knew in our hearts we were called to adopt from this beautiful country and within a year, we were on a plane to go get our new sons, Jude Surafel and Liam Esrael.
There is something about seeing the need with your own eyes and holding orphaned babies with your own hands that does something to your heart. We not only fell in love with our sons and with their birth country, but in my heart I knew, before we even left Ethiopia, that we would probably adopt again in the future. Our sons were three and almost five when we brought them home and it’s been a wild ride! Though it has been hard at times to work through some of the trauma they have endured (because adoption starts with loss and when you say ‘yes’ to adopting children, you say ‘yes’ to entering into their suffering with them. Neglect, starvation and abuse are things that children often deal with when they don’t have parents to protect them.) Still our boys are some of the most joyful and compassionate kids I’ve ever known.
A year after bringing our sons home, we had all settled into life as a family of six pretty comfortably. Our children were thriving and we began to talk once again about the possibility of growing our family. Not long after, I began to experience a long list of unexpected health issues. I became weak and lethargic, easily sick, strange stomach pains that sent me to the ER multiple times with no answers, and chronic pain and anxiety. I also had two miscarriages that year, one on the night before my husband’s birthday and the other over Christmas break. I felt like my body was shutting down on me and I was slowly dying. It was terrifying. After seeing multiple specialists to no avail, I sought out a holistic doctor that practices both western and natural medicine. I sat in her office and cried as I told her all the things I had been experiencing over the past year or so. To my amazement, she pinpointed exactly what was wrong with me (which was confirmed by a blood test that week.) I have a genetic condition called MTHFR which is where your body cannot properly absorb B vitamins, which can cause all sorts of health issues, including miscarriages. As I sat in her office, she said to me, ‘I’m pretty sure you have this condition and I’m also pretty sure you are pregnant right now. Go home and take these methylated B vitamins and take a pregnancy test.’ So off I went, back home to tell my husband what had just happened and to take a pregnancy test. It was positive.
We call him Hurricane Ethan and he is the sweetest, most affectionate ball of energy there ever was. Every time I look at his little face, I think about what a miracle he is. At five years old now, he is just starting to mellow from his ‘terrible toddler’ years. Once, when he was three years old, he put chocolate ice cream in the dryer and turned it on just to see what would happen. I found it, an hour later, while the dryer was still going and was coated completely brown from the inside out! He didn’t mean anything by it, he just wanted to see what would happen. That is our hurricane Ethan.
Despite having five beautiful, full-of-life children, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that our family was not complete. We had settled into a beautiful home in North Dallas as my husband took on a new position he was truly excited about. I looked around and thought, ‘Surely we have room for one more, right?’ As we began looking into the adoption process once again, what caught our attention this time was the topic of older child adoption. We felt drawn to China for several reasons. In China, you age out of the system the day you turn 14. The statistics for children that age out are heartbreaking and so, after much prayer and research, we formally began the process to adopt an older child from China. Early in the process, we saw our daughter’s profile on an advocacy site for waiting children and I knew in my heart she was suppose to be our daughter. We worked hard to complete the mountains of paperwork and long list of educational classes and training. Our daughter, Penelope Xiao Hong, at 11 years old, was two years younger than Reese and six months older than Keira. One of my biggest prayers during that process was that our daughters would grow to love each other fiercely and be lifelong friends. It was another prayer I had no idea the ways in which God would answer.
At the risk of sounding crazy, and at the half way point in our China adoption process, I told my husband I believed we were suppose to adopt two children from China. I believed wholeheartedly there was a second child we were supposed to adopt. In China, you could only adopt two unrelated children on a case by case basis and so after much talk and prayer, my husband agreed we should apply to adopt two children and if both our agency and China said yes, we’ll take that as our sign. Most of the children being advocated for have some degree of special needs and I was at peace knowing that our child would likely need some sort of help medically. When I saw our son’s profile I knew it. He was a 1-year-old beautiful little boy with weakness on his left side, likely due to a stroke as a baby. My husband and I prayed and prayed over him as we waited to hear back from the China Center of Children’s Welfare and Adoption. Several months dragged on and I felt my heart sinking at the thought of them saying no. I was so sure both of these children were supposed to be in our family. I remember getting ready one evening to go out with my husband and some friends, and I was on the verge of tears as we talked about how it seemed unpromising that we would get the approval at that point. I was brushing my hair and staring in the mirror, fighting off tears as I told my husband how I had been so sure. Why had I been so sure? At that moment, my husband’s phone dinged and he checked his incoming email. It was an official letter forwarded by our agency from China. We were approved to bring home both children. We had our sign.
Our entire family flew to China in August of 2017. My parents also came to meet their new grandchildren and be an extra set of helping hands. We were in China for three weeks as we went through the final adoption process for both children and we all absolutely fell in love with China. We flew in through Beijing and had several days to explore and see the Great Wall (and get through the jet lag!) and then made our way to the East coast province of Nanjing to get our son, Lincoln, three days before his second birthday, which we spent riding boats on a beautiful lake there, and then down to the Southern province of Guangxi to meet our daughter on her 12th birthday. I will tell you there is often a lot of fear for older children that are being adopted and our sweet daughter was no exception. I’m sure she had lots of questions about whether or not we would love her and truly take care of her. She had been through a lot in her 12 years but it was absolutely beautiful to see her slowly but surely start to trust us and bond with us. She adored her new siblings immediately and was even holding hands with Ethan as we walked into our hotel the first day. It is an incredibly beautiful, yet fragile process taken one day at a time as you patiently build trust and precious memories together. Just over a year later, Penelope is thriving and frequently tells me, ‘I love you, mom.’ It is such a joy and privilege to be her mom.
Our youngest son, Lincoln Jie Rui, is such a warrior. We knew when we adopted him he had a stroke sometime before he was 7 months old. However, we didn’t know what had caused the stroke, even after having an international specialist review his medical records. But it didn’t matter to us. We knew he was our son no matter what. Shortly after coming home, we had him seen by a pediatric neurologist who confirmed he had been having tiny seizures called epileptic spasms which are treatable, but then the big news came. An MRI revealed that our precious son has a brain condition called Moya Moya, which is where the blood vessels are restricted and unable to provide adequate blood flow to the brain, thus causing his stroke and putting him at high risk for more strokes. As the doctor sat across from us, showing us images of our son’s brain, he said, ‘Without brain surgery, it is not a matter of ‘if’ he has another stroke but ‘when.’’ Those months leading up to his surgery were some of the hardest of my entire life. As I processed what this meant for Lincoln and the risks involved, I was also in the middle of packing up our home due to a change in job for my husband. We were relocating to San Antonio in what I had deemed ‘the worst timing ever.’ I was not prepared to uproot our family from the home we loved, especially so soon after bringing our newly adopted children home. Many afternoons, I would put a movie on for the kids and then hide in my bathroom, sobbing and utterly heartbroken as I prayed for the courage and strength to move forward.
In September of this year, my husband and I flew with Lincoln to California for him to have two brain surgeries done by the most renowned doctor for this condition, Dr. Steinberg at Stanford. The surgeries, one for the right side of his brain and one for the left side, were scheduled for one week apart. It is a strange feeling, being so terrified as you watch them wheel away your baby into the operating room, and yet we felt a sense of unexplainable peace over us as we waited to see him again. Lincoln did remarkably well through both of his surgeries, though his sweet little face got so swollen at one point that his eye was completely shut. But he was such a little star with all the nurses in the PICU at Stanford. On the day after surgery, he was sitting up and smiling and laughing as his daddy played peek-a-boo from the end of his crib. After three weeks at Stanford, we were finally cleared to go home and Lincoln has no restrictions for his future, though he does have some pretty epic battle scars! We are working hard on physical, occupational, and speech therapy and seeing great progress. We hope to see him walking soon.
As I look back on the last 15 years of our family’s story, I can hardly believe how good God has been to us. It hasn’t all been easy. In fact, quite a bit of it has been really hard. But there is so much beauty in the journey and in all seasons of life. If the next 15 years are anything like the first, we’ve got a wild ride ahead of us.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Amanda Miller of San Antonio, Texas. You can follow their family’s journey on Instagram and their blog. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.
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