" Aww mom- he's broken!"
I glanced around for the missing leg, which was nowhere to be found. "No he's not- he's just a one legged construction worker!"
"But what can he do with one leg mom?"
"Oh he can drive a truck and operate the crane. He can be the architect or the carpenter- in fact he can do pretty much anything!"
I pulled my iPad out as we released Corbin's younger siblings from their captivity. "Do you want to see some kids who can do all the things you can do but may not have legs?" I asked him as I pulled up my favorite special needs/Chinese adoption Facebook group. With all kids crammed around me to get a better view, we flipped through pictures and noted a little gymnast missing one forearm, a boy without legs who rode a battery-operated tractor around while his brothers peddled bikes, and many other amazing kiddos who clearly were not letting a missing limb or differently shaped fingers get in their way of being kids. Corbin was in awe and gave his one-legged construction worker the seat of honor in his yellow pick-up truck. Leo meandered back to his other toys but Mila remained on my lap, staring intently at the Chinese faces on my iPad.
We know that Mila was close to one or two of the young children at her orphanage. I have a few photos of her life before us- her referral photos, a group shot of all the kids from the orphanage, and a couple pictures of Mila with another child. We were only a few weeks home when I showed her the group photo. She looked closely at it with recognition and then proceeded to melt down and be inconsolable for the rest of the day. We put photos away after that. At just three years old, the risk is that without seeing these photos often, she will completely forget those friendly faces. Yet, at only three, she lacks the communication to tell us if seeing the photos are comforting or harmful to her. Are they really friendly faces? With her so transfixed on the other Chinese children, I decided to try again. Instead of pulling up the more personal photos that we had received from the orphanage, I instead showed her one of her friend's referral photos- a little boy who will be joining his forever family in the next few months. I remembered that this little boy was perhaps closest to Mila and that the two of them called each other 'brother' and 'sister.' She squealed at seeing his familiar face and jabbered off in her special language. Her excitement drew Corbin and Leo away from their trucks and soon all kids were asking about and talking to the little boy on the screen. I said his Chinese name quietly and Mila perked up again. We looked at a few other kids from her orphanage and she recognized them as well.
We flipped through photos of our trip to China and she happily tapped Austin's face and said 'Baba' and my photo as well and declared proudly, 'Mama!' The first photo we took of the three of us - squished together in a van with Mila looking very afraid- was received well, but from there on she began to withdraw as she saw photos of herself in China. Finally she hopped off my lap and turned to some of her coping methods that we have seen all but disappear in recent days. I turned the iPad off, scooted the boys back to their trucks, and spent some time snuggling Mila. She was soon smiling and giggling again.
What started as an attempt to avoid super gluing another 'guy' turned into a moment of recognizing that there was life before becoming a Nielsen for Mila. I am reminded of this more often than you might think- as we make the rounds of doctor appointments, there are always more boxes left blank for unknown than checked yes or no on the forms. Her ability to put shoes and socks on by herself serve as reminders of some other woman's hands who must have patiently showed her how to stretch the socks out or untie the laces before fitting her foot in. And when I first climbed that ladder that started this whole crazy story, Mila took one look at my lower half dangling out of the ceiling and began sobbing and stomping the floor. I just have no idea...
So how does one honor an unknown past? Because that truly is our desire. Not to fabricate a fairytale or portray a grand rescue, but to tell the truth, as much of it as we know, as she is able to receive it. Our time in China was perhaps the most challenging two weeks of my life. Yet I look back fondly and with nostalgia, a love for a new people and a new place that did not exist before that amazing adventure. At this point, our time together in China is not a fond memory for Mila. I don't know if it ever will be. But as the one entrusted to keeping the fragmented pieces of her past, I will do my best to express my gratitude for unknown hands that tied little shoes, unknown friends who reached through the bars of cribs, and most importantly, an unknown mother who chose life for her daughter even though it would mean making another heart breaking choice later on. I am honored and humbled to have this responsibility and forever grateful for all the unknowns that brought our little girl to us.
The common phrase is "demons in your past". And while I know there are things that we are probably better off not knowing the specifics on regarding Mila's first three years, I'd rather focus on the God of Mila's past. The God who protected her from inside her mother's womb, watched over her as she was found outside the orphanage gates, provided for her physically in a destitute and remote village, and instilled in her a fiery spirit that would persevere despite her cold surroundings. A God that redeemed a hopeless situation for a little girl in China and a God who is teaching a very average family how to love extravagantly, just as He loves them. The God of her past who will hopefully be the a God of her future as she grows to trust and love Him.