Learning to Say Hello

Learning to Say Hello

From Chicken Soup for Every Mom's Soul

Learning to Say Hello

Each handicap is like a hurdle in a steeplechase, and when you ride up to it, if you throw your heart over, the horse will go along too.

Lawrence Bixby

It was December 1986. As I looked out the window of Chicago’s O’Hare International terminal, the sunlight seemed unusually bright and warm. This helped to soothe me and remove some of my anxiety. The precious passengers on Northwest Airlines Flight 517, Korean babies who had been adopted by American couples, had just begun to deplane. I watched with awe and anticipation as, one by one, blanketed bundles with little black tufts of hair peeking out were carried closer and closer to the door. I knew that one of those little bundles was mine—my daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Hee-Jin. Sarah had spent ten of her eleven months of life in an orphanage. When I heard my name called, I panicked. What right do I have to mother this little girl? What can I, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian, offer this orphaned Asian child? Dear God, what was I thinking when I decided to adopt Sarah? I wanted to hide, but people were crowding around me. And then I saw her. She was pathetically thin, dehydrated and obviously frightened and confused, but there was something about her that was beautiful. I fell in love with her as she laid her tiny head against my breast, closed her black eyes and fell asleep in my arms.

A full year passed, during which time I poured my entire being into this little girl’s emaciated body and neglected soul. I adored each of my other children, yet my love for this little one was a new experience, far beyond anything I had felt before. It was inexplicable. But my love was not blind. I could see something was not right. She was not developing: Her eyes did not connect with people or with things in her environment, her motor skills were minimal for a two-year-old, and she wasn’t babbling or making any attempt to speak.

We took trips to doctors’ offices. There were referrals to new doctors, which led to further referrals to still more doctors with strange titles who lived far away. One day, as we sat in one of those doctor’s offices, our hearts pounding, a tired Sarah fussing and crying, the doctor explained to us in a patronizing tone and in words of twenty syllables, that Sarah was retarded, “microcephalic.”

“Micro—what?” We made the five-hour trip home in stunned silence, but in my head, the roar of “NO!” echoed over and over again.

Every day for the next week, I went to the library and read all that I could find on microcephalia. Something about this diagnosis was not right. What they described was not my Sarah. After so much study, it was I who discovered what was really wrong with my heart-child. I told the doctors that Sarah was not microcephalic, but had a chromosome disorder. They didn’t believe me. They said grief did terrible things to a mother’s mind. But I had found a new courage inside, and I finally persuaded a doctor, a woman doctor who was also a mother, to do the simple test to find out. We took blood and we counted the chromosomes. Sarah had one too many.

But being right brought no reward, only a new kind of nothingness. My child might never walk, might never talk. I was told, with compassion, just to love her and enjoy her as much as possible.

For the following week or two, I was numb. I ate, I slept, I packed lunches for my school-aged children. I went to work, leaving Sarah with a sitter. I drove to a nearby lake and stared at its vastness. I tried to feel grief, or anger, or anything at all. I looked around me hoping to see something black or white or even gray, but there was no color in my life, only a gaping abyss into which my soul had fallen. I wanted my friends and family to take all of their well-intentioned words and hang them on the pieces of someone else’s broken heart.

Even in my shattered condition, I knew I was a good mother—but was I the kind of mother this little girl needed? I didn’t know how to be a retarded girl’s mother. But I loved Sarah; I loved her in a way that was beyond my understanding and I wanted to keep loving her for as long as she lived. So I decided that I would love her and love her well. It was then that my courage surfaced again, and I found a new word to define it. Yes! I told myself. Yes, she will walk. Yes, she will talk. Yes, she will, she will, she will.

That spring Sarah and I went to the library every day to learn together. I worked her muscles and taught her limbs to move correctly. We licked spoonfuls of peanut butter to make her tongue move more accurately. We played with a flashlight in a dark room to make her eyes focus properly. Minor achievements became major miracles. My courage was contagious: Daddy did the physical therapy; big brother liked to eat peanut butter; big sister dug out her old Dr. Seuss books and read aloud to Sarah. I claimed “dark-room duty.” It was my place of refuge. It was my place of prayer. Sarah stared at the flashlight in silence, and there was peace in the silence.

See Sarah. See Sarah run. Run, Sarah, run!

Hear Sarah laugh and sing the ABC song. Sing, Sarah, sing!

Listen, Sarah, listen. Your teacher is calling your name.

She is saying, “Welcome to kindergarten, Sarah.”

It was the first day of school, and as I stood at the door of the classroom, I heard Sarah’s small voice say, “Don’t cry, Mama. Sarah ‘yub’ you.” She thought my tears were saying, “No.” She couldn’t know how much they were saying, “Yes!”

Yes to new dreams and hopes, to new possibilities and simple pleasures. She didn’t know that as she hugged me and said good-bye, I said hello.

Kathi Rose

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