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The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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A Voyage for a Family…

Anna and Judah take a nap after a long day. (Photo Credit / Anna Thomas)

Anna Thomas dislikes a lot of things. She hates being asked about her “fertility issues.” She dislikes being compared to Angelina Jolie. She doesn’t like pushy people on the subway or ironing. She hates dating. She doesn’t like being questioned about finances. “I think the next person who asks me how much it costs, I’m going to ask them the last time they had an orgasm,” Anna says, a smile twisting at the corner of her lips. “No, I can’t do that.”

“It” would be adoption, the method Anna and Ben Thomas chose to start their family. The two-year process was soul- and wallet-draining, nearly wringing them of all sanity and grace, in the end gifting them with two swaddled babies, eager to give smiles and just as happy to receive them.

Dear Board of Toukoul,

It is with great joy and humbleness that I begin this letter, for how often do you find yourself writing perfect strangers who will change your life forever?

How, indeed. They had the idea a year earlier, and were wrestling with how to write such a weighted letter.

…our motivation to adopt came almost a year ago to the day and is hardly explainable.

It fell into Anna’s head clearly formed one day as she was riding the subway to work. I want to adopt from Ethiopia. She pondered over it as the train screeched along. She and Ben had moved to New York almost two years ago. They’d talked about adoption only in passing, but Anna, an army brat, had lived a hundred different places – 11 schools in 12 years – and Ben’s mother had adopted his three sisters from China. As a couple, they knew the colors of the world well. Yes, Anna knew, Ethiopia was where her children were. She got off the train and had a voicemail from Ben. “I want to adopt from Ethiopia,” he said.

This was not something we had talked about more than in passing, and took this revelation we both had, collectively and individually, as an absolute affirmation of our future…

And they were off. They started the research. They filled out paperwork. They set up phone interviews. They chose an agency. They filled out more paperwork. There were a lot of hang-ups, and Anna had knee surgery, effectively rendering her incapacitated. They finally finished and sent their letters in March 2007.

I have only felt that sense of resolution and certainty on one other occasion – the day Ben and I met and knew we would spend the rest of our lives together… “If ever two were one, then surely we…”

Anna and Ben had met before, but it was at a friend’s wedding in Virginia where they first got to talking. They chatted at the rehearsal dinner. A mutual attraction set in. At the ceremony, as Anna was descending the staircase, Ben nudged his best friend and said, “I’m going to marry that girl.” Eleven months later, he did.

Their first date was a few weeks later. Ben took the train to Richmond and they went to his dad’s house for dinner. He asked what she wanted to do after. She wanted to see her father’s grave at Arlington. She hadn’t been in awhile. A snack at Waffle House, and then they watched the sky. It was a lunar eclipse that night. When she drove him back to the train station, they sat in her darkened car.

“Ask me a question,” Ben offered.

“OK,” Anna thought. “What do you think about dating?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never really dated anybody before.” Pause. “What do you think about dating?”

“I think dating’s stupid. And I don’t want to date you.”

“Well, do you want to marry me?”

“Yes.” Anna didn’t even have to think about it.

Perfect. With the proposal aside, the couple could skip the pleasantries and awkward first impressions. Now they could really be themselves. Together.

Of course, they couldn’t get engaged on the first date. What would their families say? So they waited until March to tell them. They were married in September exactly eleven months after the couple had met at another wedding. 100 guests gathered to watch the brown-eyed beauty and blue-eyed gentleman exchange their vows. Anna wore a strapless gown, her dark brown hair tied up. Ben wore a suit.  They invited everyone they loved, but had to leave meat off the menu to make the budget. Anna did the flowers, Ben did the cooking. Every guest had a job. Their pastor got Crohn’s disease, and so a friend’s father married them.

First and foremost, we want to adopt because we want to have a family – a family that laughs, cries, prays and plays together.

The groom was so nervous, he stumbled in his vows. “I, Anna, take you, Ben, to be my lawfully wedded wife.” Anna realized what he’d said and burst out laughing. The moment is framed and displayed in their family room, her face forever captured in laughter.

They honeymooned in Elk Island for a week, in a house Ben’s sister had rented for them. It rained. They walked on the beach, played gin rummy, and drank Schlitz. It was a recovery period from the stress of the wedding. When they returned from their leisurely vacation, their new apartment was covered in mold. Everything. Covered.

They couldn’t find a new apartment. They wanted a fresh start. On the last Thursday of October 2004, they decided to move to New York. They moved four days later, to an apartment in Brooklyn, the day Bush was re-elected. It was nice to be a in a blue state when that happened.

As cold water to a weary soul, so is good news from a far country.

— Proverbs 26:25.

It’s Anna’s signature. She signs it to every e-mail, every outgoing message. She’s lived in Hawaii, Central America, Colorado, and on. After college, she had 56 roommates in 7 years – all of whom she is still on good terms with. One early day in October 2007, as the leaves were beginning to turn, the news came – Anna and Ben found out that their lives and family would forever change.

Life changes quick. Life changes in an instant. “well, i must say that we are the parents of two little pancakes!” Anna wrote in her blog. She started the blog to keep her family updated. Now, they get upset when she doesn’t update often enough. She named it, ‘you better make it a double’. No, she does not have time for capital letters.

The happy family. (Photo Credit / Anna Thomas)

They found out who their daughters were on the same date they had met at a wedding three years prior. Saida (pronounced SAY-dah) Esme and Hilina Francis. Not sisters, not twins, but three weeks apart in age. The two babies smiled up at their parents, across the world.

We are anxiously awaiting the time when we will meet in person, when you place our daughters in our outstretched arms.

Anna and Ben started making plans. They could fly to Ethiopia and get their girls before Christmas! Imagine, a New York Christmas with the shining new babes… They decorated the nursery. They bought toys. But the court date was pushed back. Plans for a New York Christmas were smudged. It would be a little while longer – lots of parents wanted to get there before the holidays. They celebrated Thanksgiving. They celebrated a friend’s new baby.

On November 26, they found out the girls were officially theirs. Anna posted pictures of Saida and Hilina on the blog. The next day, she confirmed the airplane tickets and travel plans.

Life changes fast.

On November 28, three tests confirmed that she was pregnant.

Life changes in an instant.

They hadn’t planned on it – “We’re not that crazy.” Anna was shocked. She cried, laughed, then called Ben at work. Instinctively, they knew it was a boy. They were thrilled, but she was irritated by the “consolers” who had kept telling her she would get pregnant when she told them about the adoption That wasn’t their goal. Adoption wasn’t a plan B. And Anna and Ben see no difference in their love for their daughters than from their son. Adoption builds a family, just as giving birth does. “Simply put,” Anna said, “If you placed Saida and Hilina in my womb we could not love them more.”

Seven-and-a-half weeks into pregnancy, feeling the throes of morning sickness, Anna and Ben boarded a plane at John F. Kennedy airport and flew to Frankfurt. From there, they flew to Dubai, and spent Christmas Eve sleeping on airport benches. The combination of excitement and physical discomfort left both parents shaky with nerves. The next day they flew to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. They dropped their bags at their bed-and-breakfast, and went straight to the orphanage in Toukoul. Everything for the last two years had been leading to this.

It was Christmas Day when they met their daughters for the first time. 75 degrees and sunny. Tired and weak from the previous night, their nerves a bundled fray, Anna and Ben started crying as soon as the nannies brought in Hilina. She wore a frilly dress and looked up at her new parents – strangers, now – and smiled. In a dusty room in Toukoul, a family was being made. Life changes in an instant.

Around the corner, a nanny came carrying Saida, dressed in a green-blue romper and radiating with pizzazz, the personality Anna and Ben would come to cherish. “The selfish part of you wants to take them right away,” Anna says, looking back. The mama bear inside her was starting to roar. Though the girls had been well-taken care of, the water in their bottles was dirty. The room was hot – they opened the doors for air. They sat for hours, staring at their babies, memorizing their faces. They tickled them to make them giggle. They inhaled their scent to remember their smell. Their daughters were finally in their arms.

They stayed in Ethiopia about a month. They went to the orphanage every day, spending hours with their new babies. They didn’t want to push it, didn’t want to change their environment too quickly, “rescue” them from their home and take them somewhere new. Ben and Anna both caught respiratory infections, they think from Saida. Already whistle-thin, Anna lost 12 pounds in Ethiopia.

“When we left the orphanage, they knew who we were,” Anna said. They returned home, plus two, in mid-January. They had worried over how the girls would handle the long flight home. Their worry was for naught – they didn’t make a peep.

After they returned, the post-adoption calm they’d been expecting didn’t come. Along with two new girls, Anna was entering her second trimester. She was learning to be a mom at the same time her body was learning to be pregnant. She changed the blog name to ‘you better make it a triple’. They settled into the house. Anna had quit her job at a non-profit before they left for Ethiopia, and now she cared for the “pancakes” all day while Ben was working at a hedge fund. She introduced the girls around the neighborhood. Anna liked to tell strangers that the girls were three weeks apart, and then pause. If pressed, she would say they were sisters through adoption. She hated when people filled the silence with, “So, they’re not sisters…?” Yes. They are. Saida and Hilina knew mommy was growing a new baby in her tummy, and gave the baby constant kisses, until her stomach was covered in saliva.

Then, a crushing blow. Anna’s mother, who worked in early childhood development, could tell: “Something’s wrong with Hilina,” she told Anna.

Hilina and her father play (Photo Credit / Anna Thomas)

Anna wrote in her blog: when you have a child you spend hours daydreaming about them, about what their future might look like. what they might want to do, if they’ll marry, if they’ll be as horrible a teenager as i was…

Hilina was the happy baby, always smiling – but she tilted her head to the right, and her right hand was always clenched. She began having ticks and twitches, hundreds of them a day. The doctors at the orphanage had told Anna and Ben it may be Erb’s palsy, a paralysis of the arm due to damaged nerves, but Anna’s mother feared something worse.

and i think very naturally i always pictured saida and hilina together. running on the beach chasing each other, covered in sand. sitting at the kitchen table doing their homework (in my head i always have a kitchen big enough to have a table to eat at!).

At 11 months old, in May 2008, Hilina suffered her first and only tonic clonic seizure. In the hospital, doctors deduced that she had had a stroke in infancy. Doctors were shocked by the size of it – she was surprisingly normal for so much damage to have occurred. They diagnosed her with epilepsy and cerebral palsy. Now, the pieces made sense.

i never once thought about how it will affect saida if she always feels like she has to protect hilina. because i never pictured hilina growing up differently…

They went on. Organized appointments. Met with occupational and physical therapists who would become family. They would kick the cerebral palsy; kids outgrow it all the time. The epilepsy, well, that was something they would learn to handle.

it’s like my life has gone a little out of focus this week and i just need to re-imagine it but i can’t because we just don’t know. maybe i just need to learn how to let tomorrow worry about itself.

August 8, their son was born. They had wanted a natural childbirth, but complications necessitated a Caesarean section. After their third baby entered the world, Ben asked Anna what the nurse should write on the birth certificate, her body still shaking from the shock of surgery.

“Judah Balthazar? Judah Balthazar?” he asked.

“OK!”

She wasn’t convinced on Balthazar; he wasn’t sold on Judah. It seemed a fair trade. They named him Judah to tie him to his sisters. The name Balthazar came from a Wise Man who followed the stars to baby Jesus. Some historians believe Balthazar was Ethiopian. When Judah was born, he had a five-point star on the folds of his foot.

And finally, some calm.

Saida had taken her first steps while Anna was in the hospital. When she came home, plus baby, the girls loved him immediately. Just as they’d loved him in the womb. Because there had always been two of them, there was no sibling rivalry, no tantrum-throwing for mama’s attention. Judah slept through the night his first night home from the hospital. Anna recalled, “It was like God was looking down on us, on our family and said, ‘They need a break.’”

Finally – this was it. Their family. Anna calls Saida, who bubbles and sparkles, the spirit of the family. Hilina, with her struggles and resilient smiles, is the heart. And Judah? Well, Judah is the joy.

When Hilina’s therapists come to coach her how to walk and talk, Judah is the attentive student. “He’s like the little sponge, absorbing everything they say.” Hilina has 12 therapy appointments a week, six hours total. The therapists have become part of the family. They sit and talk after the hard work is done. Hilina is making strides.

A therapist told Anna that when Saida crawled out of the room, she should follow her, leaving Hilina behind. It would teach her to follow. It broke Anna’s heart, but she did it. And now Hilina walks.

On her blog, she posted a video and wrote, the first steps she took were beautiful…and i cried like a little baby i was so happy. Her blog reminds her of the things she would otherwise forget. The photos, the videos, and her own words create a vacuum that her babies can stay in; protecting them in amber against the cruel passage of time.

* * *

It’s the day after Halloween, and the house is quiet. Ben is at church. He and Anna trade off church services; it’s too much to haul the three wee ones there. Right now, the babes are napping. They went trick-or-treating last night. Judah was a lion, Saida was Oswald the octopus, Hilina was a ballerina. She refused to be her mother’s idea of perfection, Little Red Riding Hood, oh yes, she did. When Anna asked her what she wanted to be, then, the delicate beauty raised both arms above her head in the quintessential ballerina pose. That was settled.

Ben calls, asking something about the hard drive Anna asked him to buy. “I don’t know,” she says, and listens. They need a new hard drive – their computer is turtle-slow, filled to the brim with photos and videos she takes of the children.

“I don’t know,” she repeats. “OK, bye,” she clicks the call to end. “I am so technologically challenged,” she says and the iPhone slips out of her hand, landing a few feet below on the hardwood floor. She pauses before reaching down to retrieve it. “That’s my third iPhone in a year.”

A few minutes go by, and Ben comes back, hard drive in hand. “I brought you a Coke,” he holds it out to her.

“Oh, I already have one!” He goes into the next room to deal with the computer.

“Ben may be gone 10 hours a day at his ‘job’,” she punctuates with air quotes. Ben laughs from the next room. “But when he’s here he does a lot.” Anna hates to cook, so he takes that duty. She’s technologically challenged, so he transfers files and pictures.

It’s 3:15, and they have a birthday party to go to; a family friend’s daughter is turning one. The party started at 3, but Anna knew they’d be late. The mother of three is in no rush to wake the sleeping tigers. She’ll give them 20 more minutes. Fifteen pass, and then a wakening child’s cry filters into the room.

Soon, all three babes are up, though Judah is only half-awake. Ben sits on the bed, bouncing his son in his lap. Saida and Hilina stare up at their mama. Saida is in a funny mood.

“Ffffffff-ffffffff!” she hisses.

“Wh-at?” Anna tilts her head, a smile on her face.

“Ffffffff-ffffffff!” Anna and Ben laugh.

“Ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff!”

“Do you want to put on your shoes?” Anna asks.

“No!”

“Do you want to put on your jacket?”

“No!”

“Do you want to get on the bed?”

“No!” Anna and Ben exchange a look.

“Do you want to watch TV?”

“No!”

“Do you want to have some candy?”

“NO!”

Another look.

“Oh. OK, then,” Anna laughs.

“Do you want to watch Oswald?” Ben asks.

“YEAH!” she squeals, and runs into the living room.

“Well – I don’t know if it’s on…” Anna flips the TV. No Oswald, but another cartoon. Saida and Hilina sit happily at their red kid’s table. Anna pours some Goldfish across the top, and goes to sit on the couch with Judah. He’s still sleepy. He falls forward onto his mama’s chest. Ben goes to finish work on the computer.

And so they sit. Peaceful. Anna bounces her son a little bit, rubbing his back. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees a movement, and then Hilina is on the floor, Saida standing over her.

“What just happened?!” she calls, already knowing. Saida looks up at her mama, eyes wide. “Time-out! Two minutes!” Saida bursts into tears and runs to her room, exploding in a triplicate of screams only a two-year-old can muster.

“What happened?” Ben asks, and charges from the next room. He crosses the room in only a few steps, looks into the kids’ room.

“Hilina was trying to stand up, and Saida pushed her!” They leave her be.

Judah, still heavy with sleep, thunders across the floor to his da-da. In one swift move, Ben lifts Judah by the arm, then flips him upside down, lifting him up and down and up again, like a bicep curl. Judah giggles. Father and son go to the couch by the window and look outside, watching whatever the 14-month-old sees. After two minutes, Anna calls that Saida can come out now. She does, still gasping with tears. She comes to her mom and sister, tears running down her face. “Can you give your sister a hug?” Anna asks, and gently pushes her to Hilina. But Saida doesn’t raise her arms, just looks up to her mama and sobs.

“Do you need to go back to time-out?” Saida turns and flies back to her room.

“OK, then…”

A few minutes go by. Judah and Ben point at things through the window. Anna asks if it’s the landlady and his wife. It is. “Don’t look at them, they’ll think we’re spying.”

Ben looks over. “Sis is back,” he says to Anna. “On all fours.” A lilt in his voice hints at a hidden laugh.

“Don’t look at her.” The little girl army-crawls into the family room, looking for a pair of eyes to meet.

“Look, it’s Saida the puppy!” Anna squeals. Saida hugs Hilina, this time meaning it.

“Is Daddy hiding?!” the girls look at the couch, where Ben has hidden his face behind a pillow, the rest of his 6’3” frame in plain sight. Saida squeals and runs to her dada. The room explodes with giggles.

They have to get ready now. Anna puts Hilina in a high chair to do her hair. Hilina knows what’s coming and immediately starts crying. She gets so worked up when Anna tries to do her hair, they sometimes have to sedate her so she won’t start seizing. They don’t know why she gets so upset about it, but Anna insists. She knows how their hair is different, she knows the cultural connotations. When she lets it go wild, her white friends compliment it. When she braids it or ties it up, her black friends compliment it. Anna doesn’t want to seem ignorant.

She takes out the jackets and shoes, sets out to dress the kids. Ben’s not coming; he’s volunteering at a food op tonight, and covering Anna’s shift. He hasn’t volunteered there in months.

Another day. Another adventure. Another celebration. And off the family goes.


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