The Laughing Boy Under the Table
By Kathleen W
My eight-year-old daughter, Ruby, tapped me on my shoulder and whispered. "Where's Adugna?"
"What?" I said. I took a big whiff of incense and toasted coffee beans and sighed. I was sitting with our Adoption Group #51 in the lobby of the Horizon house. The little girls from the children's orphanage had just finished their traditional Ethiopian dance. Everyone's eyes glistened as, one by one, they said goodbye to the children who were leaving to live with their new families in America.
"Where's Adugna?" Ruby asked again.
"I thought he was with you," I said, getting up, accidentally stepping on her hand.
"Ow!" she said.
"Didn't you take him to shint bet (go to the bathroom)?"
My thirteen-year-old boy, Jimmy Ray, gave me a light sock in the thigh. "Mom, he's under there." He pointed to the wooden table in the center of the room with the platter of dabo (Ethiopian bread) on top.
Adugna, our newly adopted son, two-and-a-half years old, was crouched underneath, bumping his head on the table and laughing at the clank of the bouncing knife and bread on the platter.
I don't know how I could have missed that. I chalked it up to the fact that my toddler-radar hadn't been used in years. I looked over at Dave, my husband, who sat in the back of the room in a fluffy chair. I pointed to Adugna under the table. He thought I was pointing at Merawat, the smallest of the older girls, singing the traditional farewell song, so he smiled and nodded, touching his hand to his heart. Clearly, Dave's toddler-radar was also due for a tune-up.
I crawled in front of a row of people (I'm sure placing my rear-end square in the lens of at least three video cameras--sorry guys) and out into the center of the room. "Hey, buddy," I said. "Come here."
He gave me that rascal smile of his: eyes twinkling, head cocked to the side, half his face in an expression of full throttle joy, the other half, looking like he wondered what was so damn funny. "Hey buddy, we've got to sit over there." He had no idea what I was saying.
Nine days prior to this moment, we'd gotten off a twenty-hour flight from Los Angeles to Addis Ababa. Within the first hour of our arrival, we found ourselves standing in the hallway of the older kid orphanage. I had heard one of the sisters say Adugna's name. When I saw him running toward me, instinctively, I knelt down. I knew it was him. I'd spent the last four months of my life studying his face in the referral photo.
"Mama! Mama!" he said, throwing his arms around my neck.
I was shocked there wasn't the awkward moment I'd been preparing Ruby and Jimmy Ray for. I had told them not to expect Adugna to be thrilled to meet us, that he might even be afraid of us. I told them there was going to be a transition period, and that no matter how hard it would be for us, it was going to be particularly tough on him. But there I was, holding my new son in my arms, bonded in an instant, thinking maybe I had had it all wrong. Maybe all the adoption books I'd read didn't apply to us. Maybe our story was going to be different.
Then I saw Sister Tirhas, the woman who ran the older kid orphanage, laughing with Dave, eyebrows raised, arms folded, shaking her head. In perfect English, she said, "You're going to have your hands full with Adugna."
We subsequently learned that our guy and a couple of his buddies were responsible for the pile of toys that had been thrown up on the corrugated metal roof next door. He was famous for his ability to climb bookshelves. He leapt off of anything with some height and an edge, and did somersaults where ever possible, the closer to a brick wall, the better. That was day one.
On day two, we packed up and drove down south to Awassa for our family visit. Dave and I were apprehensive. Adugna was what they called a "half-orphan," which meant that one of his parents was alive. In his case, it was his father. He also had a brother, a sister (the same ages as Jimmy Ray and Ruby) and a baby half-brother and step-mother.
This wasn't what we'd imagined when the idea of adoption first came up at the breakfast table. We were looking at a photo spread in the Los Angeles Times of the two million orphans in Darfur.
"I want another brother or sister," Ruby said.
"No," I said. "I'm all set. Boy, girl bookends. I don't need another kid."
Jimmy Ray pointed to a photograph of a child with tears in his eyes, the shape of his bones exposed through sunken skin. "Looks like he could use a family," he said.
"That's not fair," Dave said, looking over the top of the sports section. "We can't save the world."
"But we could save him," Ruby answered.
After extensive conversations for months-- covering such topics as: biracial adoption, reactive attachment disorder (RAD), Should we reconfigure our home so the office could become a kid's bedroom? What if he hates us? What if he sets our house on fire? How are we going to come up with the money for three college tuitions? How can I be positive we're not taking some woman's child away from her? etc.-- I began to investigate our options. I'd written to a number of different agencies, all of which sent back form letters and applications. I wasn't ready for that. WHFC was the only one that had an actual human being contact me. Our case manager was frank, smart and kind, gentle in her answers to my sometimes stupid questions. To this day, we have never laid eyes on her, yet she's had a profound impact on our lives. The decision to adopt and the huge love it has brought our family is not something I could ever sum up in words. At the tail end of our back-and-forth, where the case manager and I had touched on every scenario, debated it and pondered it, there was only one thing left to do. Her e-mail read, "Okay, Kath, let me know if this feels right for your family and we'll move forward." Adoption-speak for fish or cut bait.
We had a pow-wow in the family room and took a vote. It had to be unanimous or we weren't doing it. I'd heard too many stories about the high emotional price when even one member of a family is not onboard in the decision to bring a new child in the home. We mulled over every angle until I stuck my hand out and said, "I'm in."
Ruby and Jimmy Ray put their hands on top of mine and said, "I'm in."
It was Dave's turn. "Kath. . ." He shook his head.
"Okay, guys. It's over," I said. "We're not doing it."
"What?" Dave said. "I had something caught in my throat. Hell yeah, we're doing it. I'm in." He put his hand on the top of the stack. "Let's go to Ethiopia."
Eleven months later, I was under a table in Addis Ababa, grabbing the ankle of my new son, the light of my life, and pulling him out so he wouldn't knock the table over in the middle of the coffee ceremony. We crawled back to our spot among our new friends. I held him in my lap and we enjoyed the buna (coffee), the dabo, the laughs, the tears, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the music, and the people we had come to love in our time in Ethiopia.
In retrospect, the very thing that we had most dreaded, meeting Adugna's family and extended relatives, turned out to be the most enriching experience of our trip (outside of that initial hug, of course). The interpreter, Hagirso, was sensitive to everyone involved. He explained in detail the cultural differences and challenges that enabled Adugna's father to make the decision to give him up for adoption. We met Adugna's grandmother who had taken care of him when his mother was sick and after she had passed. We asked Hagirso to ask Adugna's father what the most important thing was for us to teach Adugna about his family in Ethiopia.
Adugna's father fought back tears as he spoke in Sidami. Hagirso listened intently. Adugna's father turned away. Hagirso folded his hands in his lap, took a deep breath and looked up at us. "He says he wants Adugna to know that he was loved, that he was always loved."