I’m staring at an alien. Granted she’s a very cute alien, but an alien nonetheless. She’s 34 inches high, weighs 25 pounds and has a head circumference of 18 inches. She’s surprisingly swift on her feet despite her wobbly legs. Oh, and can she scream! Blood-curdling, heart-wrenching cries that spring from the depths of her soul and pierce your heart and eardrums.
Earlier that evening, our arrival in Fuzhou turned out vastly different than anticipated. Bernadette and I expected to deplane, meet our adoption coordinator and be driven to our hotel, where we’d drop our luggage and have a final goodbye-to-DINKdom drink or two, or eight, before meeting our daughter the next day. We land as the night sky encroaches, collect our luggage, and find no one waiting for us with a neatly printed ‘Harding Family’ placard. This sets Bern off in search of someone – anyone – who speaks English while I play bellhop with a precariously balanced load of luggage.
Bern wanders outside into the taxi and limo area, where she sees a woman guiding people onto a bus. Somehow the woman persuades us to board. Seven of us share five seats in the back row of the bus as it meanders forever through southern China. I expect to see the skyline of Beijing where I’ll be dropped off, only to get flattened by Tina when I step off the curb.
Eventually, we arrive at a hotel — not ours, but at this point who cares what hotel — and everyone exits the bus. Not wanting to be the only ones remaining aboard (although the Samurai soap opera playing on the television behind the bus driver’s head was mesmerizing), we climbed out and were thrilled when this wisp of a woman squeaked in relief. Isabell introduced herself as our adoption coordinator and explained that a terrible traffic accident on the highway prevented her from getting to the airport in time to greet us. She ushered us into a van, we buckled up and exchanged niceties, and then she drops the bombshell: “So, are you ready to go meet your daughter?”
‘As in, this minute,’ I’m thinking. I turn to my wife. Her face registers panic, joy, terror, excitement, terror. Then she starts to cry. Bern can run through a gamut of emotions in the blink of an eye; the only thing that resonates with me is shock. I feel as though my body is draining through the floorboards and melting into the steamy Fuzhou streets. I’m having a massive disconnect with the idea that I am about to become somebody’s dad.
“But I thought we weren’t going to see her until tomorrow?” Bern asks. Well, we are told, plans change. It’s the Chinese way, our adoption agency warned us ahead of time. Expect things to change at the last minute, and just roll with it.
Flash forward to a reception desk on the 18th floor of our hotel. The adoption officials greet us and remark that our girl has been calling all the ladies she’s with “II-EE,” which means Auntie in Chinese, and that she is waiting in a conference room. Bern and I do our best impersonation of calm, rational about-to-be parents for the first time in our almost 18-year marriage as we walk down the hall. This is the next big chapter in our book. Despite knowing she may cry, and despite knowing that’s actually a good thing because it means she’s sad to leave the only people she’s known and more likely to bond with us, you cannot help but have that Norman Rockwell vision in your head of a happy family uniting with hugs and tears of joy.
The wooden conference room door swings open. Our girl is sitting on the conference room table, her skinny legs tucked beneath her, twirling the orphanage doctor’s stethoscope in her hands. She takes one look at Bern, then one at me. Then lets out the wildest shriek of terror I’ve ever heard in my life. She sounds like an animal being attacked in the woods behind our house. And I feel helpless, knowing there’s not a thing I can do to make the crying stop, except wait it out as patiently as I can.
In the morning, at precisely 5:17 am, I tiptoe around a darkened hotel room in Fuzhou frightened out of my wits that I will wake this creature and unleash her wrath. Of course, when I’m being quiet in a darkened room is when I accidently drop a glass, trip over a coffee table or stick my foot in the garbage can when trying to get my pants on. But miracle of miracles, I avoid these pitfalls.
Eventually, the alien awakes and rises to a sitting position. She takes a tentative look at each of us, while we look at each other like we’re standing in front of an explosive device like Batman running around the docks holding a ticking time bomb over his head in that cheesy made-for-TV movie in the 1960s (Oh come on, you remember: “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!” Oh, never mind!) Bern grabs the container of Cheerios and shakes it vigorously. She hands one to the alien who ponders it sitting between her thumb and forefinger before popping it in her mouth. She accepts one from me and another from Bern and another from me. Soon Bern lightly tosses a Cheerio into our little girl’s mouth and she giggles. There’s a dimple in her left cheek. It’s beautiful.
The bonding begins over a handful of toasted oats. And the world’s a wonderous place.