Read an Excerpt
Facing Loss and Gaining Hope
Journey of Destiny
The story of how I came to be a mother started twenty-two years ago. When my story began, it didn't seem like it would end with a nice, big 'happily ever after.' It didn't begin as a story about adoption and destiny. It didn't begin as a story about answered prayers. If you told me as a child that my story would be a testament to the greater plan and the secret granting of a sick girl's prayers, I probably would have laughed. Or cried.
Once upon a time I was six years old. I was laughing carelessly with my sister in our bedroom with the innocence and all-consuming joy that only children can feel. We were giggling and starting to undress for bedtime when my sister pointed at me and screamed. Her scream shattered my childhood and jarred my world into a crooked place. She cried, 'What is that? Mommy, come quick! There's something very wrong with Keriann!' I followed the trail of her pointed finger, down to a large bulge on my stomach.
It was determined that the bulge was a hernia. But during a routine operation to repair it, the doctors found a large mass on my ovary, so large that it caused the hernia. A doctor told my parents that their little girl had between six weeks and six months to live. Ovarian cancer is one of the deadliest and most unstoppable forms of the disease, and it is very rare in children. They could do absolutely nothing to help me.
What they could do, the doctor said, was take me home and allow me to live the rest of my days with my family. My parents would not accept this answer. They pleaded and searched for any hope, for any chance to save their six-year-old's life. Finally, a doctor mentioned an experimental study of a chemotherapy drug regimen. Desperate, my parents opted for that lone hope. The next several years of my life were empty of childhood laughter and games with my siblings. Those treasured would-be-memories were replaced with horrific operations and recoveries and two and a half years of biweekly chemotherapy treatments. Those treatments were brutal, a hellish nightmare. The moment the needle hit my vein, I could feel the cold surge of toxins begin to course up my arm and through my little body. I instantly became nauseous and dizzy. This terrible poisoned sensation would last for a full week. Just when I had the strength to walk and hold down food again, Friday would come with a trip to the clinic. The whole sickening cycle would start anew.
I remember my mother during those times, and how she held me, stroked my hair and tried to comfort me. 'It's okay to cry, darling,' she told me. 'I know you're strong and that you're going to beat this.' She would sing, 'Don't stop thinking about tomorrow, don't stop, it'll soon be here.' And my dad always told me, 'You are a survivor.' I always thought I was being strong for them, but now I know they were being so incredibly strong for me.
The chemotherapy cycle continued for over two years. I missed school, I missed friends, I missed playing with my brother and sister, I missed eating and feeling strong and being silly. Most of all I missed that last picture of my careless childhood: laughing and changing into pajamas with my sister before bed. All that I had missedand it was gone forever. But I was alive, and it was time to start living.
The doctors said it was uncertain whether or not I would be able to have children. I did still have one good ovary, and it might be possible for me to be a mother one day. As I developed into a young woman, the remaining ovary seemed to be functioning well, and doctors assumed fertility would not be an issue for me. But in high school I was checked for something called cardiomyopathy, a condition resulting from damage to the heart tissue. The doctors said I had it. I felt fine, but I had to take blood pressure medicine every day as a protective measure. So I carried on with my life, determined to live it my way.
I became a teacher and married, but after a couple years of teaching and running myself ragged while happily married to my husband, Brett, I began to long for children of my ownchildren I would teach not only to read, but to walk, talk, dance and sing, and enjoy life. I wanted a child to hold and comfort in the night when they had a bad dream.
At the same time these feelings were surfacing, I started becoming very tired, like I have never been before, and I could never seem to catch up. I felt like I was eighty years old, not twenty-three. I was in congestive heart failure, and I spent the next year making huge lifestyle changes to my diet and schedule, even cutting my teaching time in half. I still wanted a baby, but doctors warned that pregnancy would be a serious risk to both of our lives given my weak heart.
They were concerned that during pregnancy, my heartthough working sufficiently nowwould not be strong enough to pump effectively for both my body and a developing fetus. In addition, the medications I took daily, which were in large part responsible for my regained health, are not recommended during pregnancy. Moreover, I was told that even if everything somehow worked out and I miraculously had cardiac reserve enough to function as a parent, who was to say that the child would be healthy, given the exposure to toxins my ovaries had undergone during chemotherapy?
I cried for hours on the kitchen floor. My body had betrayed me, first failing me as a child and now too riddled with poison to bear life. I couldn't leave the house, and I made excuses for every occasion involving parenthood or children. Eventually, it seemed I could not go anywhere without seeing a mother and child. Again, I prayed in bed for another miracle, the same prayer echoed from my childhood nights.
Then I was with my sister-in-law one day on my couch. She is adopted, and she bravely asked if I had ever considered adoption.
"I won't,' I said. 'I can't. I'll never consider it.'
She was silent. 'Why not?' she asked eventually.
'What if one day that child, who I raised and held and loved their whole life, wanted to meet their birth mother? I couldn't handle that. What a slap in the face it would be. I just don't need it. I can't take that.'
My throat ached as I told her that I wanted to be able to look into my child's eyes and see my husband's handsome brown eyes gazing back, or watch my child be able to paint and draw because. . . . My voice almost closed off. 'Because she got it from me,' I finished.
But time passed and my longing for parenthood only grew keener and my self-imposed isolation unhealthier. I decided to go back to teaching after the coming summer. I also tried to attend more family activities. At my godson's sixth birthday party, one little girl was having a hard time. She was standing away from the other children, by a side table covered with presents.
'What's the matter?' I asked her, squatting down to her tiny size.
She glanced up with shiny black eyes, then looked away. 'I miss my mommy,' she said.
'Yeah,' I said. 'Me, too.'
Her eyes flicked back to me. 'Where is she?'
'Well, she's in . . . ,' I started.
'Hey, wait. There she is!'
I pointed to a little girl in a pink dress, picking gum from the bottom of her shoe.
The girl beside me stared at the gum-picking child, and looked quizzical. 'That's not your mom,' she said.
'What do you mean?' I said. 'Of course it . . . oh wait.' I pretended to squint my eyes and scrunch my face. 'I'm not wearing my glasses. Maybe it's not my mom.'
The girl regarded me for a moment, then started giggling.
'Do you like pizza?' I asked. She shrugged, studied her fingers, then looked up and started nodding vigorously. 'Me, too. Let's go get some.'
By the end of the party I had made a new friend, and she was playing musical chairs with the other children. I was actually sad to watch her leave. For the last hour I had felt like a parent; I had bonded and watched her grow from a scared little girl to one laughing while jumping on the musical chairs during the game. And she looked nothing like me. It sounds silly, I know, but I think I had an epiphany that day, as if God took my hand and held it as we walked all the way to my daughter.
Brett and I sent our application to an adoption agency and soon found out we were on our way to becoming parents. A few months later, we met our social worker at the hospital where our soon-to-be daughter had been born the night before. As we walked toward the room to meet the birth mother and the baby, I was numb with anticipation. We entered the tiny room, and our social worker introduced us to the woman who had 'chosen' us. I tried to smile with frozen lips, handing her the flowers we had brought her. That bouquet of daisies and little white buds was a sorry gift compared to the one she was giving us.
She said she was happy to meet us, and that she knew immediately upon seeing our profile that we were the parents for her daughter. I thought I would feel nervous, that I would worry I didn't measure up to what she had expected, but instead the air in the room was filled with a comfort of all that was meant to be. I could tell she felt it as well and was at peace with the moment.
The nurse brought the baby into the room. At the first glimpse of the back of her head covered with a pink knitted cap, I felt everything begin to spin. My heart leapt, my eyes teared, and my husband squeezed my hand. 'You can pick her up, don't be afraid,' the nurse said. And when I held our beautiful six-and-a-half-pound girl, the world that had somehow been knocked askew by my sister's almost-forgotten scream gently slipped back into place.
I look at my daughter today, every day, and I know without a doubt that this was meant to be. I am grateful for every moment of pain and horror and despair that brought me to her. I wouldn't change anything, not anything. Every day, my beautiful daughter Lillian brings me the joy of new experiences. Whether it's because she fell down and cut her lip, or because she said a new word, or simply because she gives me the long-lost feeling of childhood when we gallop like horsies together in gym class, she moves me in a way I've never been moved before and like no one else ever could. And she does it every day.
We write letters to Lillian's birth mother twice a year. I always look forward to writing and sending her pictures, and I hope our letters bring her comfort and peace to know that she brought this amazing person into our world. I will raise Lillian to be grateful to her birth mother for two very special gifts: her life and her family. I hope she wants to meet her birth mother some day, I realize now. I hope she will want to say 'thank you,' and I hope the voice of the little girl she gave birth to will be a far better gift than the daisies we bought her on that afternoon in May.
Miracle in Miami
When my husband Craig and I decided to start a family through adoption, there was never any question of where we would find our child. The only choice for us was Colombia, as my family is from there, going back at least three generations on both sides. I am very proud of my heritage, and I wanted a child with whom I could share a language and cultural background.
While I searched the States for adoption agencies with Colombian programs, I set my relatives to work in Colombia, with my cousin researching orphanages in Bogotá, where my extended family lives. The situation came together like those wonderful coincidences in life where magic, chance, fate, divine intervention and whatever else all form tiny links in a chain that brings a child home to a family. My cousin had a friend who worked at an orphanage in Bogotá and who was also adopted from there as an infant. That same week I discovered an agency that worked exclusively with this orphanage. The combination offered the perfect, and only, choice.
Within six months of starting our home study and paperwork, we received the heart-stopping news that the child was a boy, and he was waiting for us in Colombia as soon as we could get there.
Jacob was eleven weeks old when we first held him. He was all I'd hoped for in a child: beautiful, angelic looking. But my little boy had been sick with a nasty cold. The stress of our first week of parenthood, which would have been terrifying enough, was compounded by Jacob's illness and his trouble sleeping and eating because of congestion. Within the first ten hours of being with us, our son was examined by a pediatrician, who said Jacob had a lot of lung congestion and was to be placed on a regimen of respiratory therapies. In Colombia, pediatricians and therapists come to your house and the pharmacy delivers prescriptions to your home. A therapist visited us every other day, and at one point Jacob was filled with five different medications, for the lung infection, an eye infection and colic.
Craig had to go back home after the first week, along with my dad, sister and aunt, leaving my mom and I alone with Jacob. My memories in Colombia after they left have a faint, bittersweet tinge. We moved into my aunt's house to live with her and my uncle, cousin and grandmother for the remaining four weeks we were to be in the country. I think it was a healthy adjustment period for my son, being loved and coddled and held, fed, changed, bathed and put to sleep by all of his live-in relatives, with many others visiting on a regular basis. Spending his first month with our family in the arms of a Colombian household that spoke his language was, I hope, a soothing period for Jacob, easing the transition from his foster home to ours.
But with every sweet new thing he did, each gurgle and chubby hand wave, I smiled and cried, feeling the sweetness with a fishhook of pain in my throat. He was developing before my own eyes, but not in front of his dad. We missed Craig terribly. In Jacob's crib, we placed the T-shirt that Craig had slept in the last night he was with us, hoping his son would sense his enveloping presence that way.
But unfortunately, even though we saw the pediatrician and therapist through the entire month, Jacob never improved. He seemed to be stuck in a constant state of lung congestion. At night I would listen to the raspy wheeze of his breathing, wishing I could hold him and use my love to suck the very illness out of him. Two days before we were scheduled to go home, he was put on an inhaler to help clear his blocked airways. It seemed to help a little, and he was deemed healthy enough to travel to the United States.
We were warned, however, that his system might react badly to the air conditioning at the Miami airport, since he had never breathed air-conditioned air. As we prepared for takeoff in Bogotá, Jacob projectile-vomited all over his pristine (and carefully planned) white outfit, the airplane window and my lap. He seemed to feel much better afterwards (he was the only one, mind you), but I was sure that he would get very sick the moment we arrived in the air-conditioned Miami airport.
As soon as we arrived in Miami I noticed something different, but I could not place it at first. I'd become so accustomed to his perpetual and rhythmic breath, like a small accordion under my arm everywhere I went. Suddenly there was silence. I walked for several paces, looked at him, then walked several more. I stopped. Jacob was looking around the airport with bright interest, his mouth open slightly. His breathing was quite clear, with no rasp at all! It was entirely bizarre, beautiful and instantaneous. We had scheduled a visit with a stateside pediatrician before we even flew home, and when he was examined they found nothing wrong with his lungs. No congestion, no sickness. Poof! It had all gone away. We're not sure if the inhaler did the trick, or the humidity in Miami, or maybe both. Maybe it was feeling my sense of relief and happiness that we were finally home with Craig.
So after four weeks in Colombia we were home with our sweet son, who was more than I had ever hoped for. He has brought sunshine into the lives of everyone in our family. Our family in Colombia adores him, and he has brought us closer in touch than we've ever been in the past. Our family in the States is crazy about him, too, and we couldn't be prouder.
Jacob is two now, and he speaks Spanish and English. My parents and I speak in Spanish to him, and Craig and his family speak in English. He is a Colombian with a new heritage, and with a wonderful American heritage, too. The joy he brings us, and his instantaneous recovery to good health, are a daily reminder of God's presence in our lives.
©2004. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Born in Our Hearts by Filis Casey. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.