In an effort to share some of our adoption story here on the blog, I've decided to write a handful of posts dedicated to our time in Uganda and our first few weeks with Zara (you can read part 1 here). These are stories that have been etched so deeply into my heart and I look forward to the day that I can recount them with Zara... It feels practically impossible to translate these moments into words, and this particular post was incredibly hard to write. When I asked Lance why this post was so flippin' long and hard to write, he said "probably because it was the longest and hardest day ever." True. So true.
Friday November 1, 2013
Our guardianship court hearing was scheduled on Friday November 1, 2013. Just 4 short days after landing on Ugandan soil and barely 2 days after just meeting Zara. We were all still majorly adjusting.
The court date is a big deal. Like, a really big deal. We were told to wear our "Sunday best"... suit and tie for Lance, dress and tights for me. Zara was expected to be dressed up too... which was slightly humerous since when we were packing and preparing for this trip we had no idea what size she was. Our adoption agency and attorney prepared us for the big day as best they could, but really, there's no way to be fully prepared.
We noticed that Zara seemed to not be feeling 100% that morning... but what did we know? We'd only been parents for 3 days, and honestly we had no idea what 100% even looked like at this point. But Friday morning as we were trying to get ready for our court hearing we experienced our very first tantrum. I remember walking the halls of our hotel for over an hour, singing the only lullabye I could think of over and over and over again. As soon as I thought we were in the clear, I'd try to make my way back to our room so I could attempt to get dressed, but the moment we crossed the threshold to our room it would start all over again. Eventually we made it to the room, but there was no way Zara was going to let me put her down. This was my first test in make-up application with a toddler in your lap... this sould be considered an Olympic event people. At one point Lance was blow drying my hair (I know, he's a saint) while I tried to comfort Zara and apply mascara at the same time. All of you moms out there that get ready every morning with a toddler attached to your leg are my heros.
Of course this would be the one flippin' day that we all actually needed to look presentable... and be on time. I couldn't just throw on jeans and a t-shirt today. (insert curse word here). I had to put freakin' tights on... On me AND Zara. (insert more curse words). Somehow we managed to get out the door all in one piece. It was nothing short of a miracle.
Our court hearing was scheduled for 11:00am, so we decided to try to take Zara to the doctor beforehand. Brilliant idea, right? She was sounding really congested and kept pulling at her ears, not to mention that she hadn't pooped at all since being with us. Again, we were still learning her. We had no clue what was normal or not normal. We waited at the doctor's office for an hour... outside... in the sun... in our tights and suit jacket. Fantastic.
We found out that yes, she did have some type of cold/congestion... but no, she did not have an ear infection (we later learned that pulling her ears when she cried was just one of her little quirks). We were also given a little bottle to collect some of her poop so when she actually did go we could test her for any kind of intestinal worms. Oh, joy.
But forget all of that... we had a court hearing to get to.
We were told to be prepared to be at the court house all day long... like allllll day long. We are now on the Judge's time... not ours. He sets the schedule for the day... if he gets bored and wants to leave for the day, then he does. Thankfully our judge stuck around... but just to give you an idea of the kind of time-frame we were on for the day... our hearing was scheduled at 11:00am... we finally saw the judge sometime after 5:00pm. So... yeah.
For guardianship court hearings, any and all of the child's birth family are required to be at the court. Sometimes this is just a social worker if the child is a true orphan, other times this can be an entire extended birth family... anyone involved in the guardianship decision. Zara's birth aunt (her birth mother's sister) and her birth father were both required to be at the hearing. We were very confident that Zara's aunt would be at the hearing, but we were nervous about her birth father showing up. Our attorney hired a driver to travel to Zara's father's village to pick him up and bring him to the court house to ensure that he would be able to make the trip.
I was in no way prepared for what was about to become both the best and hardest day of my life. Up until this point, we had very little information about Zara's upbringing and care. We knew that her birth mother passed away when she was just a few months old, and that her maternal aunt was her main caregiver for the first year of her life. Zara was only in the orphanage for two short months, when her aunt simply could no longer provide for her. From what I understand this transition was very difficult for both parties... understandably.
Zara's aunt loved her. Truly... selflessly. If not for her aunt, I honestly don't know if Zara would be alive today. Her aunt loved her enough to let go. To give her something she knew she couldn't provide. That.is.love. I have a lot to learn from such a brave woman. And I desperately pray that one day Zara truly understands how much she was loved and adored from the very beginning.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. At this point, I didn't fully comprehend the love between Zara and her aunt. I knew that Zara loved and missed her aunt... but I didn't fully know.
Until this day.
Zara spotted her aunt at the court house before I did. But I knew instantly when she saw her. Zara cried. She kicked. She screamed. She longed for the arms of someone familiar. She longed for the arms of her aunt.
This moment crushed me and terrified me all at the same time.
Side note: Before we arrived at the court house, we were given strict instructions not to talk to any of Zara's birth family until after the hearing was over. (This photo was taken later that evening, after our court hearing.) Bribery is prevalnt in Uganda, and we needed to make absolutely certain that there was no question of our motives with the birth family. So, I walked outside desperately trying to comfort my daughter... this tiny little girl that still barely knew me. I paced up and down the courtyard rubbing her back and once again singing the only dang lullabye I could remember.
She cried. She flailed. She thrashed. She bit... hard... twice.
I did all I knew to do... I just kept holding her. I watched some of the local Ugandan woman give me pitied looks, offering to help in various ways, unbeknownst to them that each offer for assistance was a jab at my very new and sensitive motherhood-ego.
Lance helped in any way he could... fetching milk... baby food... toys... anything. I was finally able to calm her down enough to lay her down in the grass to change her diaper. Her.very.poopy.diaper. Which I would later learn was part of the problem... baby girl DOES NOT like to be held when she's pooping (I mean, who would?). We stripped her clothes... got our poop sample for the doctors office... and finally settled down.
I sat in a rickety plastic chair in the shade of the courthouse building, softly humming my lullabye as she finally drifted to sleep from pure exhaustion. My arms throbbed from where she bit me, and I remember tears welling up in my eyes as I took in her scent... this was it. This was the joy and pain of parenthood... all wrapped into one.
As I listened to my sweet girl snore quietly in my ear... I asked Lance to get Zara's aunt. Her aunt had intentionally tried her best to stay out of Zara's view, which I was incredibly thankful for. But I also knew it had to be killing her to listen to Zara cry out for her. I wanted her aunt to see her... to touch her... to know she was okay... to know she was loved.
Her aunt came over and softly touched my arm, then rubbed Zara's back... it was as if to say, "This is hard... for all of us." We made small talk while Zara snoozed, and I remember being impressed with her English, all while worrying that Zara might hear her voice and wake up.
Zara's birth father also came over to sneak a glance... this was probably only the second or third time he had ever seen her at all. He was not involved in her life, and didn't pretend to be. He was a smart, strong man who seemed to want better for himself... and her. He appeared to be proud of Zara. Like he was hopeful for her... for the life she would have and the opportunities that would be given to her.
At this point it was somewhere around 4:00pm. Zara had woken up in a much better mood and we spent our time playing in the courtyard... singing songs... listening to the nearby monkeys... and eating puffs (or wearing them).
There was another family that had their court hearing right before us... we asked them how it went? How was the judge? What kinds of questions did they ask? Etc, etc. And if I wasn't nervous before, I definitely was now. The judge was pretty rough on the parents that went before us... even bringing the wife to tears. Oh, great.
All questions would be directed towards the new mother... me. Lance would likely barely be addressed. And for any of you that know us, know that Lance is the smooth talker in our family... not me. He's the one with quick wit and graceful answers. But today, that would have to be me. I remember Lance and I quickly praying in that courtyard.... praying that the Judge would have favor on us... that he would be kind to me... that I would remember the Ugandan culture trivia we were told to study up on... that Zara wouldn't flip out when she saw her aunt.... that it would simply go well.
Finally somewhere after 5:00pm (six whole hours after our scheduled court time) we were told the Judge was ready for us. I remember Lance was sweating profusely... partly because it was just really flippin' hot... and partly because of nerves. He kept blotting his forehead with a damp handkerchief. We filed in the courthouse and sure enough, Zara caught a glimpse of her aunt and the tears came again. I stepped out of the courtroom attempting to console my daughter. Eventually our social worker came out and told me that the Judge wanted me back in the court room and she would hold Zara in the hall.
I nervously walked back in the court room, sat down next to Lance as he gave me a reassuring wink. The Judge first questioned Zara's aunt, then her birth father... and our attorney interjected occasionally. Of course all of this was in Luganda (the native Ugandan language), so Lance and I had to rely on social cues and facial expressions to even have the slightest idea of what was going on. It was almost unbearable, knowing all of these conversations were taking place about our daughter, right under our noses, but we really had no clue what was being said. It was, however, plain to see that the Judge was not easy on Zara's birth father. Even we could tell it was a little tense.
At one point the Judge asked our social worker to bring Zara back into the court room so her birth father could hold her. At first I had no idea what was going on... but then it was plain to see. The Judge wanted him to understand. Truly understand. "These will be your last words to your daughter... this girl you barely know... look into her eyes and tell her what you want her to remember." We later learned (when our attorney debriefed us) that Zara's birth father told her he hoped her luck would be better than his... that we (Lance and I) seemed like good people and we would take good care of her. Zara watched him carefully as he spoke to her... studying him. The Judge then turned to Zara's birth father telling him, "This is where your luck changes, my friend... this is good. Your daughter will have a good life." And I think he believed him.
Then it was my turn. I awkwardly stood up and with every question addressed the Judge as "yes, your Lordship" or "no, your Lordship" just as I was instructed to do from our attorney. I told him about the Ugandan cultural places we had already visited and about the others we planned to visit during our stay. I told him about our struggle through infertility and how grateful we were to be on this difficult journey. I told him how much we already loved this little girl... and he looked at me and said, "I know. I watched you pace with her for hours in the courtyard... You are a good mother."
You are a good mother.
Those words. Coming from this stoic Muslim judge that we heard was going to be incredibly hard on us... it was the affirmation my heart desperately needed that day.
The questions didn't last long after that... The judge signed our guardianship papers and sent us on our way... with.our.daughter. Lance and I hugged tightly... let out a deep sigh of relief. I remember getting in the car to head back to our hotel, now sometime after 8:00pm, with my sweet baby girl sitting on my lap, letting out tiny little giggles as we drove home.
Yes. This is it. This is the joy and pain of parenthood. This was by far the hardest and best day of my life. A day I will never forget. A day I will cherish always.