Tribute to my adopted son’s nainai-his Chinese foster mother: She held you one last time in the heat of that Asian humid summer day. Her lips kissed you over and over again, while her nose smelled your face one last time. You were comforted by her long and tired arms. Your two year old body knew her slim and rather short frame. Her walk is paced and slow, revealing her old age now. Her wrinkled skin hid years of life long battles and successes, and yet to you, she was your comfort and your source of safety. Your bright and luminous smile did not detect any signs of goodbyes and departures that day. You clang to her legs, oblivious of what was happening around you not before casting a playful smile towards me. To you, it was just another day in the courtyard of the orphanage. Another playful game in the beaming sun. Another set of white faces perusing through the orphanage. As long as she was near you, you felt brave to venture out into our arms.
We arrived at the orphanage anticipating with delight the moment we’d hold your tiny frame and kiss your sweet face. Like any mother would, I’ve memorized your facial and bodily features from the few pictures we were sent of you. Pictures that gave us a small glimpse into who you were, that held us over until we could finally meet you face to face. A good chuck of the guessing games and hundreds of questions about to be answered today, as we hold you into our arms. Today. I’m trading the worn out and faded pictures with the actual you. For us, this day is the epitome off all the paperwork, detours, delays, months of waiting, prayers and preparations, family talks and church wide fundraising events. Today is the day we’ve all been praying for with much anticipation and delight. Today, is finally here!
The orphanage director ushers us all into a tall, white room with large wide-opened windows, red Chinese knots plastered on the walls. A small table laid before a brown sofa, covered with Chinese artifacts and memorabilia. The room looked rather simple and yet, there was no doubt that it carried the airs of its beautiful cultural heritage; a warm breeze blew through the open windows, along with flies and car noises from the street.
Beyond the clutter of finalizing last minute legal documents, the chaos of language barriers, orphanage staff coming and going, foreign languages and new faces…there was this one goodbye that was the most silent one of all. The heat left a rosy mark on her white cheeks, and her eyes were red and swollen. She must have cried all night. The child she carried to this meeting room one last time, is the orphan boy her heart grew to love the most. I thought we were ready for this, but no one prepared my heart for what my eyes were discovering: the broken heart of a foster grandmother who was holding back tears of separation from the orphan child she’s been nurturing ever since he was found at the orphanage gates. In a few brief minutes, she’d be separated from the orphan baby her arms rocked to sleep in the middle of the cold winter nights; the baby she held close when sick or afraid; the baby she fed and taught to respond to human touch.
Son, from the moment you were born, you passed from one set of arms to another, and yet it was her arms that held you the longest. She is your loving nainai (foster mother), the one comfort and certainty, the one whose arms substituted for ours. All this time, she has been my arms and my heart; the mother I was not able to be to you!
Here she was, in front of me: a silent hero, an unacknowledged motherly figure to our son. In that tall, white Chinese room, with red knots on the wall, and wide open windows, one of the most courageous and selfless acts of love happened in all of your adoption story, when she passed you onto me. Two mothers locking arms around you, and safely transferring your little body into my arms, not before she stole one last kiss from you.
Today, son, you are turning 3. You’ve been home a year now. The English words have been rolling off your tongue with more precision, growing faster every day. And yet, your favorite words are the ones you utter often throughout the day: “Mommy, need a hug!” You need my arms around you. Your arms lock around my neck, just like she taught you. Just like she held you. Your nainai is not here to see the fruits of her unrecognized labor. She had no papers to sign, no saying in it all. We don’t even know her name. I left that white Chinese room with full hands; while hers were empty and alone. She must have hurt that day…and the day after…and the day after. No accolades, no recognitions: just joyful memories of a once giggle-filled room of a once orphan baby boy the orphanage brought over for her to foster to life. She must be hurting still…
To all the nainais out there, the brave and selfless foster moms, carrying day and night for the orphans and the rejected: you are heroes! There are no adequate words to fully describe the immense gratitude and the heartfelt appreciation we should all have for you. Your selfless work provides the tender human touch and the loving safety a child so desperately needs. You surround these children with the human compassion of a loving touch that helps them thrive. Grow. Flourish. You are standing in the gap until, hopefully and prayerfully, that forever mom comes in and takes it over. You are indispensable! Irreplaceable. And always remembered.
As my healthy boy’s arms shoot up towards me, with cajoling eyes and a playful smile, uttering “Mommy, hold me!”, I can’t help but remember his brave nainai’s last and silent goodbye hug, in that white Chinese room with wide open windows.