A Whole New World

By Kersley Fitzgerald

We stepped off the plane from Detroit to Birmingham exhausted. We hadn't slept the entire 25-hour trip from Bangkok. JT, of course, had slept soundly for the last two hours. At the end of the concourse, Catheryn and Robby waited.

"Can I hold him?" Catheryn asked, a millisecond after stashing her camera.

"I dunno," I said. "He only likes me to hold him."

"Com'ere, precious," she said in a sing-song voice. "Com'ere, baby."

He went straight to her.

Robby and Dev loaded up the van with our stuff, while I confronted my fear.

"He doesn't like the car seat. We tried to put him in it in the hotel room, and he screamed. I'm sorry if he cries all the way to Montgomery."

Catheryn reached to the floor of her mini-van and picked up her son's stuffed cat. "Look at the kitty," she said, bouncing it in front of JT's face. "Is it a sweet kitty?" JT grabbed "kitty" and started chewing on its nose. "Kitty's going on the seat." Catheryn drew kitty away, toward her son's car seat. "Do you want to go with kitty?"

JT let her buckle him in and didn't make a peep the entire drive.

When we reached our house, a low-slung, brick ranch, JT started to fuss. We opened the door. It was dark. It was enclosed. The windows had glass. He tried to squirm away, to stay outside. Until he saw the dog.

Kids in orphanages in Bangkok are taught at an early age to avoid the dogs. Many of them (the dogs, not the kids) have rabies, and thousands of strays roam the city. But JT lived on a farm with three dogs and a smattering of cats. He saw our black and white Australian shepherd and practically leapt onto her. "A dog!" he seemed to say. "Well, this is all right!"

The dog went a long way in helping JT accept his new life. Robby and Catheryn were indispensible in teaching us how to be parents. Dev and I adopted JT, but we all had to adopt a whole new life.

Everything is different. I liked Bangkok. I mean, I liked it considering it was the first non-English speaking country I'd ever been to and I spent almost all my time surrounded by English-speakers, and I was half scared to death. It had a Starbucks and a 7-11 and a Tony Roma's, for pete's sake. And the food at the hotel was amazing. But the average temperature in Bangkok is 7004 degrees. Average humidity approaches that of four feet below the surface of the ocean. The average temperature an American couple sets their hotel room's air conditioning to is 43. Sometimes lower. Bangkok smells like fish sauce heated to 200 degrees and drained into the sewer. JT's foster family's house sat off a dirt road in the country. Over a rickety-board bridge that crossed a deep creek, past the large mangosteen tree and several irrigation ponds, nestled among large rice paddies. A kitchen and storage area sat on bottom and a single room above, on stilts. Up the stairs/ladder to the living area: a handful of hutches and shelves, one carcass of an old remote-control car, a TV, a small shrine, and a king-sized mattress on the floor. The orphanage had given the foster family a small crib, to prepare him for his adopted home. But JT slept in a family bed with his foster parents and their two younger sons. The average diet of a toddler in that situation is milk and soup with a lot of rice and either chicken or pork.

Alabama can get cold in February. Sometimes. Relatively. Humidity is generally reasonable. It smells like plants. Wet plants. Sleeping arrangements include a room and a crib. General diet for a toddler in this situation is whatever food the parents' friends have brought over. Usually involves spaghetti.

I'm sure there are family bed proponents out there who would chastise us for not continuing the tradition of JT's foster family, but we just couldn't. We were so overwhelmed emotionally. And physically — we hadn't slept well in over a week. And we had yet to develop those super-human abilities most parents possess. You know, the ones that involve not showering or eating for days on end? We understood we had adopted this seventeen-month old out of everything he knew, but at the time we had to concentrate on seeing to his direct needs without losing our minds.

And we admit that the change for him was bigger. New language, new smells, new dog…How like a new Christian, inundated by expectations it never occurred to him to have. It must be intimidating to be a new Christian in a strange church. What's the singing about? How come that guy's wearing a tie and the other one's in shorts? What's a "tithe"? I grew up in the church; I can't really imagine all the weirdness new believers must face.

It takes time. It took JT nine months before we could put him down in his crib and he wouldn't cry. (Of course, his babysitters could put him down peacefully almost from day one.) It took the installation of a crib tent before he wouldn't crawl out. It took about ten minutes before he realized he would not get food outside his high chair. But several weeks before he figured out the stroller was pretty cool.

Similarly, it takes time for a new believer to get the hang of their adopted church family life. And sometimes the new stuff hurts. New paradigms can rub against old lifestyles — even the best of a new believer's former life. It's hard to hear that something — or someone — you thought was great is wrong. And it takes time and consistent, gentle patience on behalf of the new family to come to accept it. Old, established Christians tend to forget this — tend to not understand the draw of the former life. But this isn't just a new habit or a new home. This is a new identity.

New brothers and sisters are a mixed bag. Once we got JT inside the house, Robby stayed with us so we could shower while Catheryn went to their house to make dinner for us and their three kids. Later that night, seated around their farm table, JT engrossed in a train set with their son, we asked them if they'd be JT's God-family. Three enthusiastic "Yesses!" The youngest girl folded her arms. "I already have a brother, and he's enough."

Ironically, JT had the opposite reaction. He looked up at her pale skin, her white-blonde hair, and her bright blue eyes and fell in love. He followed her around for two years trying to get her attention — to the chagrin of the older girl who loved him as much as her own brother. He thought she was an angel from heaven. She thought he was a pest!

The metaphor of the Earthly family and the spiritual family has been better-developed in other places. How odd it must be, though, for an adopted child or a new Christian to enter into this new family. People you will be affiliated with forever, but you really don't get. These are long-established Christians, right? So how come some are mean or hypocritical or just distracted? How much of what they do is your new norm, and how much is personality quirks? How much of what they say is the truth, and how much has more malicious intent? And how much is just blind tradition?

It is difficult for a new adopted child — physical or spiritual — to let go of their old way of life and feel a part of a new life. 1 Corinthians 8 tells us to take care of the new believer, to make allowances for them as they mature. It's equally relevant to the adopting family.

Next: Some final thoughts about adopting a family and a new life.

Adoption, The Series

Part 1: Adopting a New Way to Look at God
Part 2: Adopted by Father-God
Part 3: Adopting a New Life
Part 4: A Whole New World
Part 5: Adoption is Forever

TagsChristian-Life  | Church-Issues  | Family-Life  | Personal-Life

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Published 5-7-11