I learned today that November is Adoption Awareness Month. That, for me, provoked a series of poignant memories which transported me right back to China a dozen years ago to one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. It was then that a precious new addition, my granddaughter Lotus, joined our family. Lotus is a teenager now but this is the story I wrote way back then describing how we first met.
"Here, you do it. I can't stand making her cry!" my daughter Leslie says to me, tears streaming down her own cheeks. I, on the other hand, am so jet lagged from our journeys - Toronto to Beijing and then on to Xi'an - that I feel as if my brain is completely wrapped in wool. Things appear to be happening in very slow motion around me, however I do know my daughter is relying on me and I'm struggling to make things right for her. The last time I had to give antibiotics to a screaming child was 40 years ago when Leslie, herself, was a baby.
Now, there is this new baby - not a newborn child but new to us since we arrived in Xi'an yesterday afternoon. Baby Lotus is Leslie's long-awaited adopted Chinese daughter - 13 months old with a tiny bow-shaped mouth that has now opened into an huge, ominous cavern as she thrashes her arms and legs and screams at us in indignation. The baby is sick with a very bad bronchial infection; we learned this as an aside during the adoption ceremony. A young nanny from the orphanage handed us this precious new member of our family along with packets of antiquated antibiotics and said through her interpreter, "The baby is sick."
Today we're in our Chinese hotel room, sleep deprived after an emotional first night of walking the floor because Lotus refuses to close her eyes for even one minute. "Who are these big-nosed, round-eyed strangers who've kidnapped me?" she must be thinking as she fights to stay awake. Not only is she terribly frightened, she's refusing all food, her fever is going up and we can't keep her mouth open long enough to sneak the medication in. To tell you the truth, I want desperately to begin howling as well but I can't. I'm the grandmother, I'm supposed to be the wise woman. I hope that what I'm going to do next will not remain forever imprinted in my new granddaughter's memory. It's for her own good, I reason with myself.
Leslie and I wrap Lotus in a blanket, her arms pinned to her sides (now I'm crying, too). I pinch her cheeks and force her mouth open long enough to pour the medication down her throat. Of course she instinctively begins spitting it out but Grandma is there with her teaspoon and as fast as baby spits, I scoop and send it back into her mouth. We unwrap our unwilling accomplice who now has miraculously stopped crying. Leslie and I look at each other. The crisis has been averted for another three hours when the next dosage must be administered. Now we take turns resting so that there is always at least one coherent caregiver for this child who refuses to let us out of her sight. Perhaps tonight she will sleep.
We are not alone in this adoption adventure. We've travelled to China with 12 other Canadian couples who will be receiving their new daughters at the same time. Once in Beijing, our group has been assigned a comfortable touring bus and two very patient guides. With yellow flags aloft they lead us through the intricacies of Chinese adoptions and on sightseeing excursions. We follow like little obedient ducklings, pushing baby strollers through government buildings, to the Great Wall and into the Silk Market. The babies are fingerprinted, the parents sign documents swearing they will never abandon their new daughters and we go out 'en masse' to eat authentic Chinese food. Together we create common memories and learn about our little girls' culture. Later, when they are older we can teach them about it. We laugh at our new offsprings' antics; we're sad when they fret and we don't understand why.
During our five days in Xi'an, my daughter and I try to unravel this adorable Chinese puzzle called Lotus. Our little hotel room begins to resemble a Canadian version of a third world refugee camp as we attempt to eat, sleep, play, do laundry, and cook in the same 10 X 12 ft. space. The bathroom is our steam room where three times a day we run a hot shower attempting to unclog Lotus's bronchial tubes. She resists the moist air as her mother and grandmother sing countless off-key verses of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" to keep her amused. The baby understands no English but is intrigued by these two strangers making very strange sounds. We wish we spoke Chinese so we could comfort her. Eventually, her laboured breathing begins to improve.
We learn to think creatively. The bathroom is also the sterilization area. Baby's drinking water is boiled in the kettle provided by the hotel and stored in the room's ice bucket. Alongside our shampoos and soaps sits a row of newly cleaned baby bottles and nipples. My daughter warms the food by sitting it in the hand basin filled with hot water. When we adults get hungry we snack on "Cup of Soup" or pizza with Chinese toppings washed down with Tsing Tao beer from the Pizza Hut next door. There is no table top free of diapers, toys and pacifiers - we sit cross-legged on the hotel room floor.
Little by little, Baby Lotus begins to trust us and starts to give up some of her secrets. We learn that she won't touch the Western scrambled eggs on the breakfast buffet but loves Chinese-style steamed eggs. My daughter and I beg our waitress to summon the hotel chef so he can see with his own eyes how he has thwarted our 'little Gandhi's' hunger strike. The amused man not only makes his appearance but teaches us the secrets behind this simple dish the baby loves - mix eggs and water and steam over boiling water for ten minutes until the mixture hardens. Sprinkle with a few drops of soy sauce and serve. I vow to cook this specialty for Lotus on her first sleepover with Grandma.
Leslie stays behind at the hotel with Lotus while I make my way through teeming streets to the Chinese grocery store. My plan is to observe what Chinese mothers are buying to feed their babies and to bring some of that home for Lotus. I enter. There isn't another foreigner in sight and after several attempts at communication I surmise that not a soul speaks English. Approaching a female employee who looks kind, I take a deep breath and begin my grandmotherly pantomime. Step One - cradling an imaginary baby in my arms, I rock her back and forth. Shoppers around me stop what they are doing and stare in wonderment at this possibly deranged grayed-hair woman. I persist with Step Two - holding a pretend spoon in one hand and bowl in the other, I begin eating. A crowd starts to form. I am undaunted. My granddaughter is hungry and I am going to bring home food. The clerk seems to understand. She beckons, I follow through the aisles and there lies the answer - rows of Nestles powdered formula and jars of Heinz baby food - each with an additional Chinese label pasted to the product, each three times the price I'd pay for the same thing in a Toronto supermarket. I stock up on spaghetti with noodles, tangy applesauce, and mashed yams planning to convince Lotus that this is what all other babies in China eat.
Just as our little family unit settles into somewhat of an unorthodox routine, our two-week stay in China draws to a close. Mixed emotions abound. We can't wait to reunite with family and friends but 22 hours in transit with a baby in tow is daunting even for the bravest travelling woman. Leslie and I stay up late devising our battle plan. We stuff two carry-on bags with survival gear -- diapers, toys, towelettes, pacifiers, bottles, formula, baby food, spoons, lots of chocolate bars (to keep our energy up), storybooks, bibs, pajamas (to convince Lotus it's sleeping time) an extra set of new baby clothes designed to dazzle those waiting at the airport, snowsuit, baby blanket, and a few more chocolate bars because we know we are desperately going to need them.
Things go exactly as we expect them to go on the plane. Lotus cries, Lotus, eats, Lotus cries, Lotus sleeps, and my daughter and I devour chocolate bars. We take turns catnapping while the other holds the baby. I learn that no matter how tired a grandmother or a mother is she will not allow herself to sleep if she is holding her precious little bundle. We arrive in Toronto 22 hours later, two semi-conscious bedraggled caregivers and one beautifully rested baby. Lotus dazzles our welcoming committee.
We're settled in now - Leslie and Lotus in their flat and I in mine. Life goes on and our newest little family member is making wonderful progress. She's sleeping through the night, her bronchial infection has cleared completely and she has discovered the wonders of animal cookies, chocolate ice cream, and salty potato chips. When I stop by to visit she squeals with delight. That makes me believe she doesn't recall the antibiotic incident but remembers me kindly as the nice lady that brought home the tart apple sauce with the Chinese labels.
This post was previously published at Journeywoman.com