A JOURNEY TO REMEMBER
In the July of 1997, my mother had asked our priest, Fr. André Issa, who was traveling to Lebanon to bring my husband Jerry and me home a baby! This is the beginning of our journey with the Lord in bringing us together with our sons.
When Jerry and I were married on June 3, 1989 we knew that we always wanted to have children and that we would be happy if we were to become pregnant. Well as the years went on we found that having biological children wasn’t so easy. But we never felt the need to try fertility or go that route. We always said we would like to adopt sometime and that if we were meant to have children we would. We made a conscious decision not to try fertility in any way. That was what was right for us. So…when my mother had asked Fr. André we were a little shocked but soon became quite hopeful. When Fr. André left for Lebanon in Aug./Sept. 1998, we were in constant contact and the phone lines were burning up! He had come across a couple of children that may have been “the one”. But the Lord had something else in mind for us, we were just to self absorbed to listen.
Then through the grace of God we found Fr. George Rados and his secretary. We had then thought that this was our path and began to pursue adopting from Lebanon. Fr. Rados could not have been more accommodating and helpful as was his secretary. They sent Jerry and I a list of how to get started. Such as birth certificates, marriage licenses, finger prints etc. the list goes on. I would look at the list and think “How am I going to get through this on my own?” Are we really ever on our own? No! How about asking the Lord? Well as you will see that was hardly my first choice, yet the Lord never forgot me and continued to push us on down the path. So, at this point I was overwhelmed at the idea of ALL this paperwork and called Fr. André. He was always there for me giving me strength to keep going. He calmly says “Now tell me how much of the list is done and check them off.” Well I did and found that half the list was done and the rest was not so bad. We were within days of finalizing our paperwork with Fr. Rados and yet things still did not feel “right” to us. But we just thought that the uncertainty of adoption was what were feeling. Wrong again! Two of my aunts (and now 2 of the20 grandmothers to our sons) Gerri Farris and Ramona Darmour had just come back from the Village. They wanted Jerry and I to read the information about this orphanage in Guatemala which is run by Orthodox nuns. Instantly we felt that this was the way for us to go. It was what we were searching for. To just adopt and be able to give back was what we had been struggling with. This was the way to give back for the rest of our lives and the lives of our children.
It would be remiss of me to not at this point thank Fr. George Rados for all of his support and for putting us on the path to adopting our children by giving us the list of appropriate documents needed. And to thank Aunt Gerri and Aunt Ramona for giving us the name of the orphanage: The Hogar Rafael Ayau. When I look at my children now I always am reminded of how they tracked us down to tell us about the Hogar. They were the messengers of the Lord and helped to put us on the correct path.
As I continue, you will notice that I will not call the Hogar an orphanage. That is a word that I do not like. We are all children of God and none are orphans. Hogar means home and that is what it is to all the children.
After we decided that the Hogar was the way for us, and began to listen to my heart, we again tried to move forward. Unknown to us was the fact that the agency we thought was working with the Hogar had been released and we did not receive this information until much later. We progressed blindly to this fact. The agency had told us that there were two ways to adopt from them. One was from the Hogar, if they had children available and the other was privately from them. So we said well we will check off both boxes and see what happens. Oh and adopting privately from them was more. Surprise, surprise. Well, a month goes by and we receive this phone call that there was a baby born and do we want him and we can name him any name we want!. Well, of course, we said yes and proceeded to make numerous phone calls. A few months later we receive pictures and off to CVS we go to make pictures for anyone we see! Then we say we want to finalize our paperwork with the agency and want to go meet them. Well…they call back and say our baby that we had known about for two months was suddenly “unadoptable”! Well, to say the least, we were heart broken. I speak for myself solely, when I say that my faith in the Lord regarding His faith in us was what made me the angriest. I kept saying “ Are we such bad people?” I told Fr. André that I was mad at the Lord and his reply was “ Well, I hope the Lord is on vacation from you!” That made me smile but did not help me renew my faith. Fr. André had also said that maybe we were not ready to become parents yet and that we had more to learn about ourselves. Well that did make sense to me but still did not help. I was on a bad path when it came to my faith at this time. My cousin, friend and sister Barbara Aboid had said to me “ When you are ready, take your Bible and pray on it and then just open it and the Lord will reveal Himself to you.” Yeah right. But I did pick it up for a few days and just cry on it. I am ashamed to say this but up until then I had never really picked up my Bible. So to believe this was a little to much for me. Then a few days later I did. When I opened my Bible, I opened to Psalm 46: The Lord is my strength and my refuge and present in my time of need. Needless to say that had opened my eyes, but apparently not enough. The following day my family attended this non-denominational church and my husband and I did not want to be there. We were there in support of one of my aunts’ and her blessing of her marriage to her husband. As we were sitting there all we could think about was when would this be over. When one of the woman ministers rose to give her sermon she says “ Now, let’s open our Bibles to Psalm 46.” At that point my mom turns her head and says “Did you HEAR THAT?” She of course had known what happened when I had prayed on my Bible. At that point I look up and say “O.K. O.K. Lord I hear you!” I did not like the place He chose but I definitely heard His message. Oddly enough a certain inner peace did come to me and one month later my life and that of my husband’s was to change forever.
We had heard about this attorney in Canton who is directly working with the Hogar. I found out her name and this time I called the Hogar directly and asked them about her. Her name is Attorney Mary Lynn Pac-Urar and she comes highly recommended and she is to be completely trusted. She is the wife of an Orthodox priest Fr. Ian. We called her and set up a meeting with her. At this time in our journey, all of our paperwork is completed. We were at a great place in the process. We met Mary Lynn in December of 1998 and knew instantly that this was the right path that we were on and decided to go through with this again. She was and is the sweetest and most compassionate person and one of the Lord’s many earthly angels sent to help us. On January 4, 2000 I receive this phone call at work and someone is trying to fax me. I tell them to call my husband and send him the fax. Jerry calls me and says firmly “ Get off the phone I have something very important to fax you.” Well I did and boy was he right! I call him back and could not believe my eyes! The heading at the top of the fax was from The Hogar Rafael Ayau! It says that our children to adopt are Christopher, age 18 months and Roberto, age 3. If we would like to we needed to respond in 5 days. How about 5 seconds! I called Mary Lynn to see if we could say yes to both. She would look into it for us and would call us the next day. That night I told Jerry at dinner to not say a word for a few seconds. He did and then asked why. I said that the moment of silence you just heard would never be heard again after we bring the boys home! We knew without a doubt we wanted them both and felt slightly selfish. But knew that if this was meant to be that it would happen. Mary Lynn calls us the next day and says “Yes!” we can have them both! So now Ameritech phone lines become extremely busy with all the phone calls to be made and will continue to be busy until we bring them home!.
From this point on is when our faith was tested. At times we stumbled and at times we held strong. In the Apocrypha in The New Oxford Annotated Bible in a chapter on Tobit. In Tobit 12:6 it states that we should give thanks for the Lords many blessing and tell all those living. This is why I am writing this. To tell all that our Lord is a good and compassionate Lord and that to pray, have faith and to trust. And yet at times I still couldn’t have that little faith and yet the Lord never left me. He surrounded us with wonderful family and friends who were a constant support and they too carried us through the next year and a half. Throughout that year and a half we were blessed to have known Vicki Bellas, Tia Vicki to our sons. She would visit the Hogar and then come home and call me to tell me about the boys and then in the mail a few days later I would find pictures from her. She and her pictures and comforting words is what got us through. She is truly a angel and is doing the work of the Lord. Vicki is someone I will always be thankful for and proud to call her a friend. By now a small pattern is forming and if we look close enough, we can see that what we do in life we cannot accomplish on our own. With prayer and the help of family and friends anything is possible.
In January of 2000 Jerry and I fly to Guatemala to meet our sons, Roberto and Christopher. Prior to this I did not know any Spanish and had tried to teach myself. As we were landing Jerry and I looked at each other and knew our lives were to change forever and that we found what we were looking for. Upon arriving we were extremely nervous and I could not understand ONE word of Spanish. We then arrive at this awful hotel and try to call home and find we cannot get through. I finally reach one of my cousins, again a sister and a friend, and tell her that we are fine and are heading to the Hogar. We arrive at the Hogar and find that we cannot communicate to the guards that we are expected. The Hogar is in the middle of Guatemala City which is poverty stricken and not very safe. Fourteen foot walls surround the Hogar which occupy one city block. We enter the Hogar and find children looking and playing with us through the glass doors as we are waiting to meet the nuns. They were all girls and one was named Jocelyn who has a brother who is a close friend of Roberto. We didn’t know it at the time. What we did know was that our hearts were already melting just by playing with these children through the glass. We then meet Madre Maria and she is just wonderful! She asks if we would like to meet our “sons”. We stumble and manage to nod yes. She takes us to a room where Neueronet therapy is done and has the older girls bring the boys to us. Roberto goes instantly to his Papa and Christopher to me his Mama. And yes, the tears start to flow. It was almost surreal and I remember this as someone who was watching and not participating. I could not believe or want to believe this was happening. The oddest part and also comforting was that I felt as if we had all been together forever. The bond was instant and fast and good. Roberto played with his Papa and Christopher let his Mama rock him for a nap. Does it get better than this? We had met other families who were there to take their children home. One family was Fr. Nicholas Papedo and his wife Presvytera Lois, with their son Nicholas. Presvytera Lois was a great help to me in preparing for our first trip to Guatemala and for what to expect when we went back to bring them home. She always made time to talk to me whenever I called her. Another angel from God.
We had planned to stay for 10 days but after our first day and getting through vespers, Jerry felt that he could not stay that long then have to leave. He said “ It feels as if they put your heart out on a platter.” Vespers is an experience in itself. The children all know and sing every word of the service. I always say that after experiencing vespers if you don’t cry or get choked up you don’t have a pulse. Imagine 40 angels singing at the top of their lungs. These are angels who, when entering the Hogar, run up to you and hug you and call you Mama or Papa. They form this circle and you feel like you never want to stop hugging these children. Once you start hearing the history of their lives prior to the Hogar, you wonder how they can be so happy and loving. Then after a couple of days you understand why. The Hogar is a heaven amidst a hell and the nuns show them love and discipline at the same time. All the children are taken care of by nannies and have all needs met. They go to school if the are old enough. They go to church at least twice a week and the older ones every day. They eat 3 very well balanced meals with two protein drinks a day. They are bathed daily and loved continuously. Madre Ines the Abbess is one of great strength and love and wisdom. Her eyes say don’t hurt my babies and that she will fight for each and everyone to the end. All the children love each and every nun and fight for a hug or just a touch or a smile. But when the nuns mean business the children know and back down respectfully. They enforce the “look”! How we as parents can do that, I don’t know.
Needless to say, Jerry and I stay for the remainder 10 days and we move to the Radisson, thanks to Madre Ivonne. Roberto and Christopher never really played with each other due to their age even though they were in the same room. But by the time we left they knew that they belonged to us and us to them but weren’t sure why. We played and laughed and tried to feed them. And at the end of day we were left with a crying Roberto for his Papa and boy was that hard! He would wrap himself around Jerry and not let go. We kept telling ourselves that soon we would all be together. Every day we were there we would thank God for His blessings and all that He has done for us. His wisdom is beyond any sort of comprehension. Again to have the faith of a mustard seed… We played and played and tried to relate to them that we all belong together and that we all will be together soon. By the end of our 10 days the boys were playing with each other a lot and that made us feel wonderful. And yet we had to leave. Saying goodbye brought on another wave of tears and Madre Maria by this time knew it and would smile and chuckle and hold my hand.
We come home and now begins the end of our patience. All we want to do is go back and be with our sons. On May 16, 2000, my mom and I fly to Guatemala. What a trip that is. She and I are trying to be brave for the other and all I can do is pray that all goes well and we arrive safe. Thank God we do and can’t wait to get to the Hogar. We arrive and see Leo first. I had told my mom that it won’t take long for him to ask for his Papa. He runs to me and the hugging and tears begin. I can’t believe my eyes! Then he does true to word ask in Spanish, “ Where is my Papa!” We start to laugh a little and manage to get him to understand that Papa will be here in a week along with Gidie, his grandfather. Throughout the next 7 weeks that I was there, Jerry , Mom, and Barbara take turns in staying with me in Guatemala. Mother Ines said that on May 25th, we could take the boys with us to the Hotel until it was time for us to leave. What wonderful and shocking news for us. We bring them with us and wonder what to do. The Lord has timing and His was great because my Mom was there and Mom’s know everything and can keep you calm and give great ideas! We made it through our first night and each night after that. We had bumps in the road, uncertainties of the future and the when’s and why’s of what is happening. But all along the Lord never left us and kept us safe. Even at the hotel we found that they too became our family while we were there and they were always watching out for us and helping me with the boys until we left Guatemala on July 3, 2000. The last week in Guatemala, Jerry had come back to Guatemala, so we could go home as a family. He brought a photo album of family, friends and pictures of our house and the room and beds that the boys would sleep in and of their toys. Every night at the hotel, after prayers we would go through each picture and say who was in there. From grandparents, to aunts and uncles, to cousins and friends. We arrived in Cleveland to greet about 50 family and friends at the airport. Then on to my parents home where another 50 family and friend were waiting for us. Our boys fit into our family instantly. On that day we never saw them until late that night. It was as if they were a part of our family since birth. I truly feel that they were. Roberto has taken on traits that of his father and Christopher has the traits of his Sitie (grandmother!). The next day the boys would walk around the house and say “ Mi Casa!” (my house)! They recognized everything from the pictures from the outside to the inside of our home.
When you come home with children, after never having children, is an adjustment. Looking back, I feel that the 7 weeks that I chose to stay in Guatemala was where I needed to be. The one on one time spent with the boys was what they needed from me and I needed from them. We were able to know one another without having to deal with normal day to day problems that you experience at home. Living at the hotel gave us the freedom to learn about each other and to bond in a way we could not have done otherwise. There was no laundry to do, no house to clean and no meals to make while living at a hotel. I look back and wish I could have that time again and do it better and appreciate it more. I had wanted to go home so bad, I didn’t realize another gift that the Lord had given us, time alone. Everyday I ask for forgiveness in not trusting in His plan. When we came home we had, of course, adjustments to make. We at that point truly bonded and did not feel like strangers. Just the surroundings and boundaries completely expanded and seemed boundless. What I needed to adjust to was the fact of being a parent and not getting it right the first (or second) time. My mother gave great advice, “Enjoy each moment now, because they grow up fast.” How true that is and it took awhile for me to listen.
When Roberto came home he spoke Spanish and very little English. Christopher spoke no Spanish and no English, yet understood Spanish. Roberto understood English much quicker than he spoke. Teaching them English wasn’t a challenge for us. Speaking English proved frustrating for the boys. Not being able to say what you need to say was rough for them. I am so proud of them and how well they speak. Now Roberto is at the “Why” stage! To me, staying with them, making them really understand that this is home and not another hotel was what was important. Once they felt secure, life just clicked for us. So much so that we never for a moment think that they weren’t here since birth. If I have to give advice and I am not an authority, it would be this: Just spend time with your children when you all come home. Don’t push school or worry that they are not up to the “grade level” that they should be. The children just want right now to be loved and spend unlimited time with their parents. School will always be there. You know your child and do what is best for them. We kept Roberto back from kindergarten and it was a wonderful decision. He is thriving and confident. Christopher never wanted to be held and now can’t seem to give enough kisses and is quite a character. The time spent with your children is time that will make the biggest and greatest impression on who they are as they get older. Having family and friends around was a necessity and a luxury for us. One that Jerry and I will treasure forever!
To say that we are blessed is an understatement. The Lord gave us a wonderful circle of people who love us and help us along the way. How to say thank you? I am not sure. But I do feel that by telling our story and trying to help just one child find their parents and parents to find their child is one way. Or just raising awareness of what is happening at the Hogar. From Mother Ines on down, they are the miracle workers and workers of God. The foundation that they give the children is one to be admired. No matter how busy they are or how hard it is to make ends meet they ALWAYS have a smile for the children and a hug. And always are teaching and living in the Lord. Our sons are our pride and joy. They are constantly teaching us and that is the Lord living in them. When you open your hearts just a little the light of the Lord pushes His way through. I feel that we were always supposed to be together and now we are. One of the ladies at my church said, “You don’t pick your children, they pick you.” She is right. I believe that there is a plan and we need to trust in the Lord so that plan can come to fruition.