Boy, do I have a beautiful moment to share with you. It’s kind of a bonus. I shared a lot of Natalii’s story here but there is so much more to her story!! A piece I’d like to share with you is when and how I first met Natalii. Man, hold on, it’s goooooood.
So to rewind a second, let me set the scene: Collin and I were in Africa for the very first time. We were NOT expecting to adopt internationally and this little man ran by me and I realized I had been having dreams of his very face for years…YEARS! So we asked the other kids about him and no one knew how old he was or where he was from. What we learned was that he was quite reserved at the orphanage and that although he had lived there for several years, he had not learned the national language (French) which all the staff and children speak. He still spoke his tribal language, Fon. I believe the exact words that were told to us were “Oh, he does not speak. All he knows is ‘Come to eat’!” (He was more Schuiteboer than we realized! We, Schuiteboers are not afraid of food.)
When we asked our friend Patrice about him, she said Elisee’s grandmother had brought him and an older brother to the orphanage almost 3 years before because she could not afford to feed them. Patrice hadn’t seen the grandmother since then, but was willing to call her to ask about adoption. The grandmother of Elisee and his brother Jeret, came the very next day to meet us. She agreed to sign any paper to adopt her grandson to us. This was a shock since it is not common practice to adopt in general, in Benin. We asked questions about Elisee’s parents and she covered her face each time, sighed a lot and said “They are dead.”
Altogether, it was an interesting meeting since each person had to be translated and the grandmother’s words said she was so willing to help but her body language was so closed. We were left with many questions and a huge to-do list to get the adoption going. After our meeting, Elisee was brought in to meet his Grandmother. There was no recognition, but only curiosity in him. He was intrigued by her. Patrice, explained what we were discussing and in her blunt African way, turned him to look at her and asked “Who would you like to be your mother?” He giggled, looked shyly at me and pointed. (Thank goodness she spoke in Fon, because I would not have been able to handle that question in that moment!)
Immediately, we set out to find all the necessary papers to begin an adoption. First and foremost was to prove Elisee was indeed an orphan – we needed death certificates of both parents. His father’s was easy to find with the help of Janice, but his mother’s could not be found. There was no record of her death. Patrice took a day to go into Natalii’s village and ask questions and it was there she found out Natalii was not dead but alive! After questioning the grandmother further, her response was “She is dead to me!” (Ahem…. Different kinds of “dead” wouldn’t you say?) And so it was that Natalii was sent money for travel and food to make the day’s journey to us.
I have been blessed to see such a momentous occasion! Sweet, humble Natalii, who hadn’t seen or heard of her own young boys in over 3 years was able to come and kiss their faces. She entered our story with such humility and gentleness. Tiny Ruth (Elisee’s sister!!) was tied on her back while she rode the moto (motorcycle) into town. Her unkempt hair was covered with a hat and she wore what I’m sure was her only and most valuable possession, her good cloths. Her nails had been carefully painted at one time but were worn and chipped. The anxiety in her heart must have been real, but her face was full of peace and hope.
Natalii didn’t shout or smother the boys in kisses as I would have imagined, but the pride in her eyes when she saw those boys was unmatched. Her eyes fell on each one with a mother’s gaze of knowing so much more than meets the eye. I bet she could see their Daddy in them. They were so much bigger than when she saw them last, and they were happy and well fed. Both boys are strong and full of Jesus. It was obvious to Natalii that they had been loved in her absence. Jeret recognized both her and Janice right away. He spoke to them in his confident, firstborn way. Elisee, on the other hand, was quite taken with his little sister Ruth. He grabbed her hand and held on tight as he dragged her around with him. Her cherub face adored him in return. He giggled and showed her off to his friends and they chattered away in their own language.
I wonder if Natalii cried herself to sleep that night. Perhaps with relief and perhaps with sadness? Had she been wondering where her boys were? I don’t know if she knew they were even alive or whether or not they were still with their grandmother. Had she been worrying over them or laying them before the throne of grace begging for their futures? Could she possibly allow one son to leave Africa and become part of another family and culture? To travel across the ocean possibly never to return? Did Natalii trust her Papa God to keep her children safe for her? No matter the answers to these questions, I praise God that I got to be the instigator of their reunion! Part of me wanted to stay and experience it all with Natalii. I have cried out in prayer on behalf of this woman and her son for years without knowing. I was privileged to see them together again! Part of me wanted to take everyone away so they could be alone – be a family even for just a few minutes. ALL of me wanted to search the whole earth and find whatever was necessary to make a way for them to live together as a family forever… But Natalii was married. Her new husband was the head of his household and he said “No”to another man’s children.
Blended families are a unique and beautiful piece of American culture. I don’t underestimate the difficulties that come with blending children, spouses, traditions, and disciplines. It is not for the faint of heart. Families with a willingness to work hard and continue loving against every odd are simply inspiring! In Benin, and many other places around the world, it is not so. Natalii’s new husband would not stand for the boys to come home with Natalii. They were not his. (Praise God that somehow Ruth was miraculously welcomed safely in his home.) And Natalii wanted the very best for Elisee, no matter the cost to herself. She was willing to help us with the adoption and signed every single document. She agreed that we could take him to America and she knew he would no longer be hers. A consent, I cannot even imagine! And we were on our way, another step closer to getting our boy home.