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Our Stories :: In the News :: "Blind Date in Addis", from The New York Times Relative Choices Blog

November 8, 2007

By Dr. Jane Aronson

I met my son Des for the first time in October of 2003. Well, it wasn’t a real meeting — just a video tape meeting. A dear friend who had adopted a child from Ethiopia wanted me to consider an adoption from that country and told me that I could see some nice waiting children on a video if I contacted the agency she used. I had no intention of doing such a thing and that was that. I did not call the agency.

One fall day, I received a video tape from that dear friend and I didn’t open the package. I knew what it was and didn’t dare. I was happy with one child, my partner, and my work and was afraid to make any changes. By about 1 a.m. the next day, I hadn’t opened the package, but had passed it by enough times to want it. Finally, I put the video tape into my TV and watched it by myself as my 3-year-old son, Ben, and my partner, Diana slept upstairs.

I did some fast forwarding and saw that, yes, there were dozens of very cute kids on this tape. I stopped the tape and watched TV for a while and then put it back on. This time I watched each child introduce themselves as an agency person said some inane things: “Getachew is a very nice boy … he likes to play soccer with his friends … now, Getachew tell everyone what your name is….speak up.” I was annoyed by the repeated prompts of the voice on the tape as dozens of kids, some in sibling pairs and groups, smiled and enchanted me. How demeaning, I thought, that kids should be taped like this as they painfully experienced themselves being looked at for their value as adoptable children; these children had lost their parents to AIDS and other diseases or plain misfortune. They were traumatized and yet they were vital and yearning for a family. I did however understand from my work as an adoption medicine specialist that video was a very common means to connect with a child in an orphanage and I knew that it worked for many families.

Then I saw a sweet boy, maybe 4 or 5 years old, with darling eyes and nappy hair that was tightly curled and uneven in appearance. He looked down and then up and said in clear English, “My name is Desalegn. ” (pronounced Des-ah-leen)I had a feeling I did not have while looking at the other children. I was overwhelmed by his magic, his kindness, his sweetness. He was beautiful in every way. I was captivated, lured closer to the TV. I pulled a stool up in front of the screen and watched him over and over again.

Fast forward to me convincing Diana that Desalegn was the boy for our family. She was not eager to have another child at the time though we had talked about adopting again that summer. She had enough interest for me to jump start the process. I called the agency and made our request to adopt him. There was a rumor that he had “been spoken for already,” I was told. But I was determined and frantically muscled my way to this boy.

I filled in the application and filed the paperwork — all the things that I had done in 1999 and 2000 when I was adopting Ben from Vietnam. It’s like childbirth, I suppose — I had forgotten how painful this process was. But now I was on my way, organized and methodical about the steps toward a new boy for our family and even enjoying the protracted, obnoxious process.

By March 2004 I was cleared to adopt Desalegn. There were now many images of him and packets of papers in neat piles all over my study floor. I had one wonderful photo from the agency that showed him opening the one-gallon Ziploc bag I sent to him, with a t-shirt, Lego toys and a photo album with pictures of our family.

One night I placed all of these photos on the floor seeking to know this unknowable boy. He didn’t look the same in each photo. Was this really him in each frame or was I looking at some other boys? There was no context. He was young and small in some and old and tall in another. I took out a family album with photos of Ben and realized that he looked different from moment to moment, too, but I knew the circumstances of those moments. I had been in the photos or was taking them. I knew him and all of the facets of his personality. I was going to have to go to Ethiopia and meet this sweet fellow to really know him.

And then I went back to preparing for the trip to Addis Ababa, the capital. I asked one of my foundation’s Orphan Rangers, Meade Barlow to join me on the trip. Meade had met Des while he was working for the foundation and I thought this would help me and Des in our first days of meeting; it would also allow me to have my meetings and do some foundation work and also be able to complete the adoption paperwork at the embassy.

For me, the trip to Addis was a great moment for my work. I had meetings with Dr. Sophie, the foundation’s Ethiopia director, to fine tune the plans for the new pediatric H.I.V./AIDS clinic. I also examined lots of children, some who were very sick with AIDS. I photographed some of the babies and then sent those photos to their American parents back in the United States, along with physical and developmental reports.

We arrived in Addis tired and jet lagged, went to sleep and then traveled to the orphanage to meet Desalegn.

I walked through the orphanage gate very apprehensive, but excited. There were kids playing, running, kicking a ball made of tied up socks. They were giggling and happy, drawn to us the minute we arrived in their midst. Some of them got very friendly and wanted to be held and touched.

I asked the social worker to find Des. He was in the pack of kids playing soccer. I didn’t recognize him and he didn’t know me — the photos hadn’t really helped — but I asked Henoch, the translator, to go over to him to tell him that I was his Mama. He was tiny and shy, wearing red shorts and a yellow and gray striped shirt and yellow flip flops. I held him closely and he smiled, but he was very tense and afraid. Recently Des told me that he remembered that day, but didn’t really understand he was being adopted. He wasn’t sure who I was in fact, but he loved my big round, blue glasses.

Dr. Jane Aronson with her son, Desalegn Aronson, in Ethiopia, 2004. (Photographs by Meade Barlow)

Then I asked him to take me to his room to see his home there and to find the photo album that I had sent in the Ziploc bag. We found the album in a heap of junk in a cubby and we sat for a few moments. I had the translator explain who the various people were in the photos. He pointed to people and started to know our family, including our dog, Gypsy.

Then we went off to the Lion Zoo in Addis which was a dirty and sad place. I had many thoughts about those poor captive lions, but could hardly share these with a boy who had never seen a lion before. Each day there were many activities with visits to orphanages, hospitals, clinics and labs as part of my work. Des went back to the orphanage for some of this, so he could be with his friends and not be bored.

The nights and the mornings were toughest. We had nothing to say to one another and the TV at the Hilton had limited children’s programming. I helped him get cleaned up and dressed each morning. I showed him how to use a toothbrush and a toilet. I instructed him about toilet paper and introduced the concept of baby wipes after a bowel movement. I gave him his first bath and read to him in bed each night. We sat in our room together quite silent and uneasy. I worried that he didn’t like me and I wondered if I liked him.

One day, Meade, Des and I were walking from our rooms to the elevator. We were talking and the elevator came quickly. The doors opened and Des stepped in; then they closed before we could step in. We were both frantic. We didn’t know if he went up or down so Meade went down and I went up. We were without Des for a few minutes, but it felt like forever. Meade found him in the lobby quite wide-eyed and shaken and brought him upstairs to me. I grabbed him and squeezed him to make certain that he knew that I cared about him and that I was sorry for not being right there with him. I am not sure what he understood.

The most difficult moment for me with Des that week was when we went to Arrat Kilo, where he had been found by the police before he was placed in an orphanage. It is an area of Addis for homeless people. People told me not to go there. I wanted to see if Des recognized anything and have Henoch talk to him about what he remembered. We drove down some of the streets and he told Henoch that he recognized a shoe store, but nothing else. He stared sadly out the window, almost daydreaming. I saw children come up to the windows of our car begging. Street people were everywhere. I became very sad and cried. Des told Henoch that kids smoked there and that he saw people going to the bathroom in the streets. I asked Henoch to drive away at that point. I was sick at heart.

We went off to Missions of Charity, Mother Theresa’s orphanage where Des went after the police found him. I wanted to find out as much as I could about his past. There wasn’t much information and Des was not able to answer many questions at that time; this changed once he came to the United States.

At the orphanage, Sister Naharika immediately recognized Des. She opened a record book and pointed to the date of his admission and discharge in May 2003; he was there for about a month. It was a scary place….there were dead bodies in body bags near the medical clinic and an area for children that housed hundreds of kids, many of whom were mentally retarded and ill with complicated childhood illnesses and deformities. It was a very hard place to visit and almost impossible to imagine that Des was there for even a month.

That night, Des asked Henoch why I had cried earlier that day. Through Henoch, I told Des that I was sad that he had been alone in the streets and that I wanted him to know that he was safe now and that our family would take care of him. Even in his language, it seemed beyond his comprehension.

But looking back, I think that the fact that Des knew I was upset and dared to ask was amazing. That’s just who Des is in his core — aware of those around him and sensitive to feelings.

What did I feel about Des in those first few days? I was busy most moments, but very aware of a panic growing inside me. Each night was increasingly difficult for me. I became very aware of my fear that I had made a mistake adopting this boy. I wondered how I had taken this risk. How could I love this boy and love Ben? I was trapped — that is what I felt. There was no going back and I knew it, but I was afraid that I had taken on too much for my family to handle.

I called the friend who had sent me the video so many months ago . I remembered that she had experienced a post-adoption depression during which I had supported her with lots of e-mails and phone calls. She would understand this panic, this post-adoption depression in its earliest stages. And she gave me just the right advice: “Forget about your fears. Forget about loving him. Just take care of him and don’t expect to love him now….”

We even laughed during that phone call. I would lighten my load emotionally and take care of a likable 6-year-old boy. It was a blind date for sure. You have to be open for a blind date to work. After all, many people end up together for a lifetime after a blind date.

When I woke the next morning, I was happy to see Des. I smiled at him and helped him put on the clothes I brought for him. They were all too big. I had guessed very badly and nothing fit. That was appropriate. I didn’t know who he was yet, but I was on my way to knowing him and to allowing him to know me.

Getting to know each other at the Lion Zoo

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  This page last updated March 5, 2008 5:07 PM EST