“I simply cannot tell you about our beautiful girl, without first taking you to the painful beginning of the journey that ultimately would lead us to her. The end of 2002 found my family of five caught up in a blur of violence and trauma so severe it affects each and every one of us to this day. We were the victims of a violent home invasion, and through the course of that crime had been taken hostage at the hands of two young gunmen who terrorized us for more than three hours on New Year’s Eve of that year. The wounds and pain inflicted upon my courageous husband, innocent children, and myself; were deep and profound. It was as bad as you can imagine any home invasion could be where the victims narrowly escape with their lives.
At the time my husband Ben and I were just 30 years old, and were the parents of a beautiful shy and smart 8 year old girl (Shelby), a creative and sensitive 6 year old boy (Landon), and another energetic and athletic 4 year old boy named Carter. We were a typical American family with a double mortgage, two used cars, a dog, and hopes for an amazing future. I had unfortunately suffered complications following the birth of my youngest son that required a hysterectomy, but the pain that comes with realizing there will be no more babies had long subsided, and we were content with our family of five.
The night two lost and angry young men forced their way into our home; was the moment every single thing that Ben and I had carefully built, nurtured, taught, and cultivated within our family was destroyed. It went up in a blaze of burning rage, violence, fury, and fear; and I was left absolutely clueless as to how I would put us all back together. Our daughter disappeared (so to speak) right in front of our eyes. She managed to force herself to stop feeling any and all things be it good or bad for many years. What she had witnessed in those three hours had aged her from a sweet and innocent 8-year-old little girl, to a what seemed like a depressed middle aged woman who had given up on life’s happiness. Terrified to experience anything real, she hovered on the fringes of any and all activities; keeping her-self safe from ever having to experience any emotions again. Landon was transformed into a ball of terrified rage so intense that it threatened to consume each and every one of us at one time or another. Angry at the world and afraid of everything, he was the first to exhibit the hallmark symptoms of pediatric post-traumatic stress disorder. Those early days were the beginning of an emotional battle that my dear son continues to fight every single day at the current age of 21. Lastly was our Carter, our sweet and precious Carter. He had only turned four the November before those terrible events, and before the invasion had been our resident super hero wearing a cape and saving the world at all times. He was always on a mission to save his imaginary world, and took that job ever so seriously as he bounded off into the backyard with a big gap-toothed grin and a spring in every step. Unfortunately, our super hero was not able to stop the insanity that unfolded in front of his eyes that night, and that sweet and adventurous boy of mine was transformed into a simmering pot of explosive rage that he had no idea how to control. We began our long quest in vain to try and reconstruct who our babies were “before the invasion”. We would drag our own wounded souls out of bed every single day to try and gently piece back together the jagged and traumatized pieces of our children’s hearts that had been left behind.
Our transgressors had been apprehended and as we navigated the painful waters of the trial and punishment phase of our case; we learned that these two boys were only 17 and 18 years old at the time they inflicted such pain upon us. They were your typical lost boys, thrown away by those put in charge of shaping them into good people. They were tried as adults and sentenced to many years in the prison system where they remain today. As adults who had worked with youth at every church we had ever attended, knowing those two lives would also be consumed by the fires of this violence was not in any way comforting. Justice for us did not feel good, and it did nothing to heal our children. The only thing we found that could offer them comfort and provide any semblance of healing was time. That is what we counted on, that over time their memories would fade and it would no longer be the open wound it remained for so long.
Well, if you know anything about PTSD, you know that trauma does not fade over time. In fact, trauma often gets bigger and scarier if it is not dealt with. There were lots of moments of anger and sadness along the way, but we did go about the business of healing and soon we celebrated 2 years, then 5, and before we knew it my children were 10, 12, and 14; and Ben and I decided to turn all of our worlds completely upside down in the name of a “new” defining moment for our family. We decided that our children needed a new focal point to measure their lives and legacy with. This violent crime had become sort of the measuring stick that everything was held up against, and we knew that this was not a healthy place for them to be in. We needed a new focus, one centered on love and sacrifice to help them throw off the cynical glasses they had come to view the world through.
Ben and I had extended family we had witnessed walk through the adoption process, and we had some dear friends at church who had modeled the journey as well. We knew it would not be easy, but anything would seem better than the devastated ash heap our lives had become. We tossed around the idea of adopting internationally after seeing a documentary film about the fate of female orphans in and around the red light district of Kolkata. We were deeply moved by this film and the stirrings of our calling began to take shape. Our children were reluctant at first to hop on board. Cautiously protecting themselves from disappointment of any kind, they smiled and agreed to our grand plan with much less enthusiasm than mom and dad.
A job change had left us with some disposable income in the year 2010, and after lots of prayer we took that first big leap of any couple seeking to adopt…we called an agency. Known for its long history of successful placements from India, Illean International and its founder, Anne Bell, became our fiercest advocate and dear friend. And so began our rise out of the ashes and headlong into the long journey to bring a medically fragile little girl across the ocean and into our home.
God knew using a sick little girl to “fix” the brokenness inside our family was not part of this plan, and so I firmly believe that every second of our journey was intentional. The truth is our adoption journey and process was as chaotic and messy as the circumstances that sparked it. It is not an exaggeration when I tell you that every single conceivable delay one can imagine was thrown our way as we desperately fought to bring our baby home. That’s right, I said baby. She was a 9 month old baby the first time we laid eyes on her. A blurry picture of a baby wearing a bib that said “amrita” across it in black marker arrived in my email box. We were told that if all went well, we could maybe look at having her home before her third birthday.
She was diagnosed with a genetic blood disorder called Beta Thalassemia, and I was in love the second I saw her. I began to pour over books about thalassemia and the nurse in me sprung into combat as I worked to try and subvert a changing international adoption system and get her home as quickly as possible.
Then, just as we felt like we were looking into a future with a fourth child in our midst, the first period of radio silence occurred. I must explain to you that at this time (2010), the United States had decided it was going to crack down on the international adoption process, and no longer allow international adoptions to occur from countries who were not compliant with the Hague Treaty (a list of laws and regulations agreed to post WW2 that was designed to prevent the exploitation of the world’s orphans through child abduction and trafficking). Several high profile cases of child theft and trafficking had been in the news, and had led to an increased scrutiny of the international adoption community as a while. The state department made the decision to start enforcing these rules to the letter of the law, and the process to bring a child home from a foreign country became extremely difficult. India was not Hague treaty compliant when we started our process, which means any and all documents that we had initially sent were now invalid. The ministry of adoption decided that the best way to fix the problem was to shut their borders to all adopting couples, and completely revamp their adoption process. It was devastating news for us at the time, and it meant we would have to wait.
By the end of 2012 we were still waiting for India and their ministry of adoption to re-open their borders. We had heard nothing from India, and the idea that the baby with “amrita” written on her bib would still be waiting for us when India solved their treaty issues was long gone. I had refused to allow myself to even look at the photo. I was sure that the sweet face with the impossibly long eyelashes was now happily adopted by some other lucky couple. I was bitter, I was losing hope, and I was angry at God for “messing with my plans to do something good”. Where did he get off trying to interfere with my desire to heal my family, and why on earth was he making this so incredibly difficult? I was thrown into an intense spiritual battle with myself, and it was through the love and gentle guidance of some dear adoptive couples and organizations that I was able to hang on at all. These people kept me grounded and my agency desperately tried to get me to understand that everyone seeking to adopt from India at that time was going through the same thing we were.
We certainly were being tested, and through the waiting we discovered that the rest of our life had to go on. It is so hard to explain what it feels like to try and act normal all the while realizing your child is thousands of miles away from you sick and lonely. But you do it, because you have to. As the time passed our other children went from middle school to high school. Their therapy continued, and we began to see real and lasting change within their hearts and minds. Those experiences began to renew their faith in the world, and I watched them slowly become involved in our process. They sold t shirts and bath salts, offered up prayers and began to tell everyone about their tiny sister waiting to come home. They still met their milestones and we still had to put on a big smile and celebrate Christmas and Easter and Birthdays without that piece that we now all felt was unfairly missing from our lives. That period of waiting was one of the most excruciating periods of my life. I would love to tell you I walked away with profound wisdom and a new lease on what it means to wait upon the Lord, but I would be lying. It was hard, and my advice to anyone who is currently sitting in that pit of terrible and heartbreaking waiting; dig in and hang on to the promise that he who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it. On the 25th of February 2012; I received a photo in my inbox of a smiling little girl whose long eyelashes had become even more impossible! It was our Amrita, and she was now 2 years old and still available for us to adopt. God was remaining faithful, and in doing so was teaching my older children that anything is possible.
Sometimes God would provide a bit of comic relief through the sheer absurdity of some of the delays we had to navigate. When India finally opened their borders at the end of 2011, and gave the green light for adoptions to begin processing; our first attempt at mailing our completed home study to Delhi resulted in our documents (many of them originals) ending up on the bottom of the ocean floor. Yes, my home study that was worth a lot of t-shirt sales fell from the sky as the plane it was in crashed. They were later recovered from the shipping container that was fished out of the ocean and sent on their merry way about 4 months later. Then there was the judge who took three different vacations that averaged one month or longer, as we waited for him to sign off on our adoption decree. Then, to make things really complicated, he decided to quit altogether after his last vacation. This meant we had to wait for a new judge to be appointed, get settled, and start putting cases back on his calendar. It was now 2012 and as we waited for the Indian courts to be straightened out, we headed into radio silence period number 2.
Through the rest of 2012 and halfway into 2013 we continued to receive photos of Amrita from the wonderful orphanage she lived in in Kolkata; “The Society for Indian Children’s Welfare” (or SICW as we refer to them). We would occasionally get to skype with her and we received periodic health reports which were becoming increasingly grim with each arrival. It was clear her immune system was not functioning well, and she was plagued with chronic infections.
Her ears would not heal and we could tell each time she skyped that her hearing was becoming more and more impaired, and that she was falling further and further behind developmentally. My anxiety as a critical care nurse began to grow and I obsessed about the health of my little girl. Throughout this time, the presiding judge over her region just flat out refused to hear adoption cases in his court because he didn’t feel that they should have to (these hearings were part of the new system). It was absolutely maddening. Time passed as court dates were set and he ignored them. Our daughter graduated High School and started college to become a speech pathologist. Then our oldest son Landon graduated from high school and set out into the mission field to care for the orphaned of the Dominican Republic. Carter started high school and was a decorated athlete in multiple sports; our lives were moving on and she wasn’t with us to experience it! I felt so cheated, and had no idea when or how this would end.
At that point in our journey my spiritual health hit a low point. My whole purpose for embarking on this journey was to work together as a family to rescue this little girl, and thus be healed and made new with a new lease on life! I was such a fool.
I would have these ridiculous temper tantrums in my mind and scream at God for his ineptitude. Why wasn’t he allowing my grand plan to work and what was the problem? Was it too much to ask for him to give me the orphan I wanted to rescue so she could enjoy her siblings before they all entered adulthood and moved out? What was the point in all this waiting God? Why won’t you let me fix all of this? I had yet to learn that it would only be when I moved out of the way and began to trust in God’s perfect plan and will for all of us, that things would begin to fall into place.
As we entered 2014 we had just finished celebrating another Christmas without our Amrita, and my father was in the throes of end stage Dementia. I was very busy helping my mother with him, and going on about the business of our lives. I had begun to release the death grip I had on trying to control all of this, and had found going through my daily routine focusing on one minute at a time was the best way for me to proceed. At that point our worry for Amrita had been so long running that we knew only a miracle would bring her home. God would give us what we needed to keep us going, and placed a hedge of protection around Amrita to keep her physically alive until it was time to go and bring her home. And that was our life. We were an incomplete family with 90% of us in Nolensville TN, and that much loved 10% stuck in an increasingly crowded orphanage in Kolkata India.
She celebrated her 4th birthday without us, but we did get up at 2 am to watch her blow out her candles. Amrita had come to love watching us and our two dogs on the computer, and we had promised a visit with her for her birthday. It was as we gathered to do this that everything became clear to me. I looked around as my sleepy but determined older children sat awake at 2 am to watch their little sister (whom they had never met in person) blow out candles on a cake. I looked as they gathered around the lap top and laughed as she sang songs about ducks and baa baa black sheep, and tried to pet the pups through the computer. A sense of peace washed over me in that moment because I knew we were all going to be ok. We were already living and breathing our new defining moment, and our culture had changed without me even noticing. It was in pulling together to press on through the pain of waiting that we healed. I knew then that we would be ok whether God saw fit to grant her safe passage to us or not. Enough healing had taken place that these three wounded warriors of mine had come to believe that God was good enough to make this happen for our family, and they were bravely risking being hurt to allow their hearts to love another. They were trusting enough to step outside of themselves and were hopeful. That was all I had ever wanted for them, to be able to hope and trust that the world was good and there was a whole lot to hope and look forward to. It was a very profound moment of clarity in my life.
As we turned to go to bed a desperate message appeared on the screen. Amrita was in India throwing a three alarm fit because Mommy and Daddy had logged off and she was absolutely refusing to continue with her birthday party. She wanted us, which meant she loved us and longed to be with us as much as we longed to be with her. It was all I needed to sustain me through the next several months. My girl knew I was her mom and that we were hers, it was a feeling very similar to the moment my other children were put in my arms after they were born and it felt really good.
We had always heard that once the adoption decree was granted, things would move really fast and they did. Amrita’s adoption decree was signed in July and she applied for her passport. The passport arrived in September and we were flying to India by the end of September 2014. It was time to go and get our girl, and nothing was going to keep us from bringing her home. Naturally, after being with the wonderful people of SICW for 4 ½ years of her life it was very difficult for Amrita to leave them. When we walked in and saw just how tiny she was (Amrita weighed just 18 pounds at 4 ½ and wore an 18 month toddler clothing), my nursing instincts told me there was something profoundly wrong going on within her body. I wanted to get her home and get some answers. From the moment we met face to face I knew we were meant to be together. I witnessed her amazing courage as she bravely left the only people she had ever known; and as she trusted enough to let me hold her and rock her that very first night together, I have been on a mission to love this child so completely and unconditionally, that nothing thrown her way will ever be tough enough to beat her. She is literally the most amazing human being I have ever had the privilege of knowing, and on October 1, 2014 she entered the US as Amrita Susan Nelson!
Amrita’s first year and a half with us was a blur of hospital stays, therapy appointments, medication infusions, surgeries, nutrition classes, and patience.
We discovered she did not have thalassemia, which was great news; however, it meant we had no explanation for her small size, developmental delays, and frequent infections. Her ears had been destroyed by chronic infections, and she was fitted with hearing aids soon after arriving in the states. Because she did not begin hearing language and sound correctly until she was almost 5, Amrita’s language and speech development is delayed, and school is very difficult for her to this day. During her first ear surgery in September of 2016, we discovered the reason she was sick all of the time, could not gain weight, and was failure to thrive. She had been fighting an antibiotic resistant bone infection in the mandible and skull for many years. It had almost eaten through the skull and into her brain. She endured 12 weeks of IV antibiotics every 4 hours, and since clearing up that infection we have been able to make slow but steady progress with her growth. Amrita’s ears have now been fully repaired, and she can hear without hearing aids at all. Life is not easy for her, but through every single bit of her struggles, she has remained a force to be reckoned with. Amrita never complains, and is eternally grateful for anything she is ever given. She is pretty much always smiling and is filled with enthusiasm, creativity and joy! She loves horses and mermaids and girl scouts! She adores her three older siblings and the feeling is mutual in every way.
All three of my older children are no longer living in the house with us full time, but they are still very much a part of Amrita’s life. She is her brother Carter’s biggest fan cheering for him as he plays in his college football games. He learned to channel that anger into athletic ability and is currently attending college on a scholarship. Shelby graduated with honors from college and stood to give the commencement address as student government president. She is an amazing young woman full of confidence, and now dedicates her time in grad school working with other children who struggle with communication disorders. Landon spent atotal of three years working with orphans in the Dominican Republic, Swaziland, South Africa, and Haiti; and is currently on sabbatical with hopes to start school soon. Amrita is finishing up the first grade, and is excited to celebrate her 8th birthday later this month. She has broken the 30 pound threshold, and is proud to wear a size 4/5 toddler clothing! One of my favorite ways to describe her is to quote Shakespeare; “Though She Be but Little, She is Fierce.” That is the perfect way to describe this amazing miracle that slowly found her way to us and changed our worlds forever. She is a constant reminder to be grateful for everything you have, and to focus continually on your blessings.
She is my muse, my inspiration, and a source of great joy in all of our lives. She is the beauty that rose from the ash heap of our dreaded past, and we have all come to know that her love is more than bright enough to cast off any ashes that might still be hanging around. For this I am eternally grateful and blessed.”
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