They came home today — your friends who spent ten summer weeks in America; those chosen few who were hosted by foreign families while you and your peers suffered summer camps where boys with big feet played soccer barefoot and shared tiny packages of dry Ramen noodles and cheap cigarettes to curb the gnawing ache of almost empty stomachs. Chaperones met those McDonald’s-fed, sun-kissed teens-with-spotless-new-shoes at customs in Kiev and navigated them to the buses and trains and taxis that would transport them back to the rural Ukrainian orphanages you call “school.”
Mothers on the other side of the Atlantic drove home from international airports with one less passenger in their minivans, one less hungry mouth to feed from the drive-thru window, one less goodnight hug before bed. Today was a goodbye day. For them.
You know how your friends feel —the jet lag, the internal exhaustion from fighting back tears and holding your game face in place as you say farewell to your first taste of a “normal” family and return to the familiarity of a building bursting with single beds, cold showers and communal clothing. You know the fear of being fifteen and without family in a country at war. You know how it feels to hold those empty guns in your almost-man hands and have Ukrainian Army physicians examine your every crevice to see if you are fit for service to your country. At barely sixteen, you have already been groomed by recruiters and experienced unnecessary operations to prepare you for life as a fighter.
What those recruiters don’t know is this: you already are fighters. You fought for your dignity when life handed you nothing but rejection and shame. You fought to be somebody in a country where orphans are nobodies. You fought to be first for seconds when food was scarce and your friends were hungry, too. You fought my initial attempts to love you when you were strangers in my home last summer. And you fought the urge to beg My Honey and me to adopt you, although your eyes betrayed your hearts the day I hugged you in our minivan and whispered, “I love you” one last time before you left.
I’m a fighter, too. You don’t know that about me, yet. You will learn. You will see what this Mom is made of. You lost your birth families. They lost their fight with life. You see, they fought other battles, battles I pray you will never need to fight. Addiction is a terrible thing, my boys—a destructive thing. Chemical dependency eats families from the inside out. This, I know. Someday I will tell you my story.
I type these words from our double bed in the cluttered room the four of us share here in Kiev— Honey, me, and the two of you. I can lean my head to the left at this very moment and watch you sleeping in your bunks: your rhythmic breathing almost in sync as your summer-browned shoulders peek from the covers. You are my sons. The judge said so two weeks ago. (Of course my heart has known that truth for over a year now, even from before I wrote you an open letter at the end of last August.)
Yes, I HAVE fought for you. No, not with fists or guns, but on my knees and in my heart. My first and greatest battle was against FEAR. I was afraid: afraid to love you and afraid NOT to love you. I didn’t want to be hurt. I didn’t want to give and not receive. I didn’t even know how to love teenage boys with another culture and another language. I was afraid of holding on too tight and of not holding you tightly enough. Sometimes I wept into my pillow because fitting you into our family was SO HARD. Then you got on that airplane and left for Ukraine.
I could barely breathe for weeks. I hibernated. My friend lured me out with chips and salsa and guacamole (my favorite). I went through the motions of work and church and life. But life did not feel right without you in it. My heart had two holes. Big holes. Holes the size of teenaged boys, one with long, long arms and the other with strong, quick legs—both with tender hearts. I knew we had to bring you home.
This year was tough, the paperwork almost overwhelming. Honey and I didn’t know where to begin, but we KNEW we had to file I-600’s before your sixteenth birthdays. We started there. And then, blank by blank, page by page, dollar by dollar, we began the process of international adoption. Before we were even allowed to ask whether you wanted to be part of our family, we filed papers with the United States Embassy.
When we hosted you again in December, you weren’t the same kids. Four months is forever in the life of a teenager. I mourned the loss of your childlikeness and longed for you to again beg for some small toy in the grocery store checkout line. You were too cool for that. Instead, you wanted watches and phones and gifts for your girlfriends. I created a Go-Fund-Me account to raise money to cover our adoption expenses. Forty-some thousand dollars is a LOT of cash! It was difficult and humbling to ask for help, but we needed to speed the process along. We wanted you home before you were grown.
Our loved ones and community cheered our decision to adopt. For months people have prayed for you (and us) as thousands of dollars were donated. We could never have done this without the help of the people God inspired to give. He has plans for you, dear boys— such big, BIG plans!
I watched you bid goodbye to your friends today. I know it was tough. The clenched jaws and multiple hugs and handshakes did not escape me. You are leaving what you know. Stepping out in faith that the life we offer will be better than the one Ukraine hands to aged-out orphans. You have chosen wisely—even when the concept and culture of a family feels as foreign as that Algebra placement test you took on Tuesday. I know you are used to running around after school and being accountable to no one for hours on end. I know our restrictions feel like straitjackets and that sometimes everything within you wants to break loose and go back to the familiarity of your freedom. I sense that tension each time Honey and I set new boundaries. Change is hard. For all of us.
But, you know what? We’re gonna make it. Yeah, I said, “gonna.” I know I told you yesterday that “gonna” isn’t a word. Sometimes I don’t always practice what I preach. Having you in my life will keep me on my toes. It will also keep me on my knees, fighting with every ounce of the almost-overwhelming mother-love God has placed within my heart. I will plead for your salvation. I will break, in Jesus’ name, the generational strongholds the enemy has woven through your family bloodline. By the laws of Ukraine and the United States of America, I AM your mother. Because of this, something has shifted in the spiritual realm. I now have a legal right to intercede for your souls as never before. So, I will fight for you, my sons. Your new father and I will fight for you. You will know that you are loved; not only by us, but by the ONE who knew your name before you were born. You will see…
So tonight, as your travel-worn friends fell asleep in crowded quarters with the freedom to ignore their toothbrushes and not wash their feet, you got back-scratches and hugs and bedtime prayers. You have fresh breath and clean feet and parents who love you. Welcome to forever, my sons. We will go home together.
*For more information about orphan hosting, please visit Host Ukraine. If you might be interested in helping us purchase new soccer balls and shoes for boys in one of my son’s schools, please email us at email@example.com or make your donation online.