A decade ago at this very moment (Kazakhstan time), I began to live a really great story. I became a mother for the first time and my oldest daughter became a daughter for the first time. We didn't meet each other in the usual way. We weren't at a hospital. We weren't even in a room with a birth mother and a social worker. We were in a country that most people have never heard of. We were united in an orphanage, full of hundreds of parentless children living in conditions less than favorable. Right there, in the most dire of conditions, began this beautiful story, a story that the best of fiction writers could not write. This child, my daughter, was handed to me. Dressed in a bright yellow sweatshirt and skin covered in scabies, she was seven months old when I met her. At all of ten pounds, she was the size of a newborn though not the age of one. As I set eyes on her for the first time, I was, well, completely overcome. I don't have the words to tell you just how. They don't exist. I wonder what she was thinking as she reached out for my face. I wish I knew.
We survived our six weeks together in Kazakhstan. It was quite the adventure. The adventure is a story in itself, one that some say has been told enough. She had been in Kazakhstan for nine months by the time we left, and while she acclimated to the conditions, her sick little body was giving the signals that it was ready to get away for a while, perhaps forever. By the time we left, I would have done anything for that child.
We arrived home, to throngs of family and friends who doted on her like nothing I'd ever seen. And as we recovered from jet lag and began the long process of reversing the daunting effects of her institutionalization, I threw myself into motherhood like nothing you've ever seen. My friend told me years later that I was a "hobby parent". I had the best of intentions; I was going to be the perfect mother with no mistakes on the agenda.
Of course, as each second passed, I fell more in love with her. I was joyful. Happy. Euphoric. Ecstatic. I had never known love like this. I rejoiced in every move of her finger, in every twitch of her mouth. I swear I watched her so closely that I could see her hair grow. For two and a half years, I did nothing but watch my perfect child and bask in the glory of her being.
And then, life happened. As we all know, life isn't all play. It isn't all fun. I had to get some things done. And so, I realized that I needed to make some changes. Begin a routine. Set some boundaries. Establish some rules. Expect certain behavior. As as I did, my sweet daughter wasn't sure what was happening. She didn't know that life wasn't all play and hugs and laughter when you throw your food off of the high chair. Her initial seven months of life were all about routine and rules and behavior. As she and I tried to get used to a new normal, I quickly learned that I had made a motherload of mistakes.
And as we navigated our new waters, something happened. This child would try to learn the new thing, I would correct her, she would try her best, I would correct her again and so the cycle would go. The poor girl. I was messing up. And each time I messed up, she would forgive me. She would love me even though I wasn't very lovable, even though I was changing the rules on her. This pattern of me changing the rules and her giving me another chance to get it right would continue for some time. A decade, in fact.
I still haven't gotten this mothering thing down. I screw up every day. And when I do, she is right there, ready to forgive, ready to love unconditionally, ready to give me another chance. Wait. Wasn't it my job to teach her unconditional love? Wasn't that what I, the parent, was supposed to do for her, the child? Oh, the surprises life brings. My daughter has taught me what it feels like to be loved unconditionally. She has taught me that I am loved in spite of my failings. She has modeled what I am supposed to be modeling to her. She has given me a decade of the gift called Grace.
And so, as I reflect and cry copious volumes of tears in gratitude and joy, I write this story because tomorrow night we will celebrate a decade together. And as we celebrate, the emotions will keep me from verbalizing just how much she is loved and what a gift she is. A gift completely undeserved by me. Grace.
To those of you who watched the adventure, thanks for being there through it all. And to John and Mom, who were there at the beginning, thanks for walking this road with me. I couldn't have done it without you.
Happy Gotcha Day, CPT. Your mom loves you more than words can say.