My niece joined the family on July 12th, 2010. This special young lady's mother is my younger sister, which in classic Chinese culture makes me her Jiu Jiu (舅舅) -- thus the title of this blog. Here I intend to semi-regularly post reflections, thoughts, stories, and assorted whathaveyous pertaining to our trip to China, adoption in general, and (mostly) watching my niece grow up. Since the web is a very public place, I will attempt to maintain my family's privacy while telling the story... but I invite you to follow the blog and come along for the adventure!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Shadow Child, Ghost Child

This isn't one of my usual posts. This post is a train-of-thought essay about an aspect of adoption that periodically waves hello from the back of my mind but that I don't remember seeing any real mention of elsewhere... so here are some not entirely stray thoughts from yours truly to (perhaps) get some conversation started.

It's not uncommon for children to have imaginary friends, or for adults to occasionally have a verbal exchange with someone who isn't actually physically present. (Dude, you talkin' 'bout me?) It's common practice for individuals practicing a speech or presentation to visualize their audience, for lonely travelers to imagine their family at the dinner table with them, for people under duress to ask long-gone loved ones and advisors for guidance in difficult times.

Families involved in the adoption process are familiar with something very similar. Picture this: you've successfully completed reams of paperwork, survived having the details of your life and your loved ones' lives picked through by strangers, worked your way through fees and notarizations and fees and filings and fees and reviews and more fees, perhaps even completed the nursery... and now all you can do is wait.

Wait, and imagine what the child will be like.

"Hold on a second," I hear you say. "How is that different from the experience of any expectant parent, adoptive or pregnant?

Anyone waiting to become a parent via any method is going to (or should!) wonder & worry about the life they're about to add to their family. However, when you're adopting, you also have to worry about the entire process being derailed because a sheet of paper has gone missing, a single signature on a single page was forgotten, or the date on one form is different from the date on another form; because politics dictate slowing or stopping the process, charges of corruption are made, or a judge is in a bad mood; or because a parent who may live a few blocks away or on the opposite side of the planet changed their mind at the last minute (or, in some cases, up to a full year after the child has joined the adoptive family). There is likely no way to monitor or influence the health of mother and fetus. There is no baby bump to watch slowly grow, to marvel over, to lay hands on to feel the kicks and rolls happening inside. And then there is possibly the greatest difference of all: adoptive parents have no way to know if they will have to wait for months... or years.

While caught in The Wait, you are bonding with a child who is not there, a child who (in our case) is as far away as is possible without leaving the planet. We were not able to follow the progress of a pregnancy because at no time during the adoption process could we ask who the mother was; we didn't even have any way to know where, in one of the world's largest and most geographically diverse nations, that particular mother and child were located. There was no slowly expanding belly to admire, no happy exclamations about feeling a tiny kick, no late-night runs to the 24-hour convenience store for pickles and ice cream.

So we waited as the years passed. While we waited, we shopped. While we waited, we slowly turned a spare bedroom into a nursery. While we waited, we planned for contingencies and quietly panicked over reports of poisonous water, poisonous food, and poisonous air at different locations in China.

And while we waited, we developed strong emotional bonds with a child we all knew might not have even been born yet. (At least we knew it would be a girl!)  We had many discussions about what "the baby" or "the child" might look like and how our individual schedules would change so she would have plenty of time to bond with AJ.  We worried about IF the child would bond with AJ.  We worried about how traumatic it would be for the child (we would look, sound, even smell different from absolutely every other human being she knew -- and that's without the terrible loss suffered by children who had been in foster care and would thus be torn away from any family they had already come to know and perhaps truly love).  We wondered if she would still accept us as her family as she grew and realized none of us looked like her.  And somewhere in there we found time to also worry about most of the things any expectant family would worry about.

For us, The Wait lasted roughly five years but our lives began to revolve around "the child" before the first year had passed... a child who was not actually there.

A shadow child.

As time went on, the shadow influenced (sometimes determined) decisions about housing, finances, vacations, careers, and health care. She affected and subtly changed our view of the world, connected us closely with people we were unlikely to have otherwise met or spent time with, and placed constraints on use of personal time in a way similar to what she would in our post-Gotcha Day lives.

To some degree, most expectant families live with a shadow child... but human biology limits the shadow's lifespan to no more than nine months (frequently less). Our shadow child lived with us for almost five years.

Sometimes she was "Ladybug" or "Biscuit" and sometimes she was just "the baby," but for almost five years there was an invisible child in my family who was more real than any imaginary friend, visualized audience, or long-lost ancestor could be. We bought gifts for her, wondered when her birthday was, worried about her health, dreamed about her future, discussed how we would address issues with her, bonded with her, began slowly falling in love with her.  We talked about what kind of parenting issues might come up based on if her personality was like this or like that. We wondered if she would be a tomboy or a girlie girl or something in between; if she would be allergic to AJ's cats; if she would be introverted or extroverted; how quickly she would adjust to the change in food & environment; and what kinds of activities we could share with her.

For almost five years.

And then, suddenly, she was gone.

On Monday, May 10th, 2010, AJ received a phone call telling her she had been matched with a little girl, followed by an email with three tiny photographs attached... and the shadow child melted away unnoticed. All those whatifs, iwondwers, and doyouthinks that made up her form and image were replaced with the solid reality of a little girl who liked sleeping in bed beside her new mommy and who did a wonderful job of peeing aaaalll the way down from her new uncle's armpit to his foot without it bothering him for more than a moment.

The happiness of being matched, the excitement of preparing for & engaging in travel halfway around the world, and the indescribable emotions of the moment a 13-month-old baby girl was placed in my sister's arms for the first time (on Dad's 80th birthday, just two days before Mom's 76th) meant there was no mourning. The shadow child had been a placeholder, a bookmark that would let us return to pages in life's story and fill in fact where there had been only conjecture. And that's really how it's supposed to be. My niece is not a shadow or a figment of imagination -- she is a real, flesh-and-blood bundle of amazing.

And yet, much to my surprise, the shadow has not vanished completely.

Every now and then -- when I watch the occasional gotcha day video on YouTube or hear the occasional joking, "You got a good one!" --  I'll catch myself ticking off the differences between my beloved niece and the most frequently imagined aspects of the shadow who had lived in our homes for so many years. There is no actual list, and it is not a competitive "this is better than that would've been, but that would've been nice to have" kind of comparison...  It is just a realization that even with this wonderful little girl (finally) in our family, we had in a sense lost another, one who had simultaneously never actually existed and yet in many ways ruled our lives as much as Miri has from Gotcha Day onward.

In short, the shadow has become the ghost of someone who never actually lived.  There's the occasional thought of how much this is like what I had imagined or how different that is from what I imagined, all while the faceless image of an anonymous little girl floats through my mind. I can't (don't want to!) imagine life without the Pipsqueak but somehow, every now and then, that little ghost materializes just long enough to make her presence known before fading away again for an indeterminate time.

So... anybody else out there remember your shadow child, or encounter their ghost?

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