Mom’s spirit lives on in adopted son
By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
November 13, 2016
We have these things in common: We both liked to sew, and we are both Steven’s mom.
I don’t think of her that often, but when I do, she appears suddenly in my imagination, young and tall, calm and strong, a Luo woman from western Kenya. “Whatever happened, I’m so sorry,” I want to tell her. “But thank you for loving Steven like you did.”
No one knows her name.
My five biological children’s early lives were recorded in a thousand jotted notes, in stories endlessly recounted, in monthly letters to family, and in boxes full of photos, because I have a compulsion to document memories and details through telling, writing, pictures and objects. This little person, as he or she is now, must not be forgotten or obliterated.
Steven came to Into Africa’s home for street boys in Kisumu, Kenya, at maybe 5 years old. His story comes into focus then, with photos, reports, stories and documents. I long to reconstruct his life before that, but it is like reaching into a deep foggy emptiness for clues and clarity, for something to grasp and feel and see, and finding only an occasional cobweb.
A missionary told me that all the village women in that part of Kenya bathe their babies in plastic tubs, outside, and then they set the babies in the sun to dry and rub them all over with Vaseline until they simply shine. So I assume it was like this for Steven as well, bathed and oiled and then tied tightly onto his mother’s back with a piece of cloth called a leso.
He recalls a mom and a dad, vaguely. Playing with friends, fetching water — a job he didn’t like. The plastic jugs were heavy.
What happened next is unknown, but Steven remembers living on the streets, like so many other street children in Kisumu, eating leftovers at open-air restaurants and watching the rivalry and violence among the older boys.
Someone took him to Into Africa. Our family arrived a few years later for three months of volunteer work.
We loved all 25 boys, but Steven especially charmed us. All the other boys had at least one relative, the social worker told us, maybe an uncle or grandmother out in a village, but they couldn’t locate any family, anywhere, for Steven.
So we adopted him into ours.
Once in a while, unexpectedly, something triggered a memory from Steven’s mysterious past. One day he noted the woven-poly bags at our seed warehouse and said, “We used to sleep on bags like that when I lived on the street.”
I wrote it all down, documenting the precious details.
My favorite piece of information emerged when he was in my sewing room one evening, idly examining the dials on the sewing machine. The mists parted and he said, with dawning memory, “My mother had one like this.”
My eyes popped open. Your MOTHER did?
Yes. He paused, locating the elusive memory. “She went like this,” and he rocked his foot up and down.
So she had had a treadle machine. I had seen my mom make the same motion many times, sewing for her Amish family.
So his first mother also knew the feel of cotton cloth, the rhythm of the needle moving up and down, the accomplishment of a finished shirt or tablecloth.
I knew I would like her, and we would have something in common, if we ever met.
We have something much bigger in common, of course, and that is our love for our son. This bond with her grows only stronger as Steven moves into his adult life.
Whatever hardships his mother must have faced, I am certain that she loved him, that she birthed and nursed and held him with a fierce and genuine attachment, because at the center of his being is a capacity to love back and a solid trust that the world is safe and if he falls, someone will always be there to catch him.
So many things must have gone wrong — disruption and despair, illness and fear, everything out of control — and yet something at the core of his heart went right.
International adoption is not only the suspicious and dangerous process that the U.N. cautions against in all but the gravest circumstances, and it is more than the happy portraits of smiling multiethnic American families posing in a green backyard.
Adoption always has a story of loss behind it, of deep grief and of precious things taken away from an innocent and helpless child.
But, done well, adoption is also a story of redemption, of hope after hopelessness, of healing and of rebuilding a new and different and beautiful life. It’s a story of a lost child becoming part of a family and coming home.
People praised us for adopting Steven. “What a gift you are giving him,” they said. “How lucky he is.”
Maybe, but we know the greater gift is ours.
Last Sunday, we celebrated Steven’s 22nd birthday with our normal Sunday dinner of chicken and rice and corn, and with Steven’s choice of dessert — pumpkin pie. I gave him a book by his favorite author, Ted Dekker.
I also nagged him about keeping his hair oiled. His first mom, of the thoroughly applied Vaseline, would agree with me, I’m sure. He laughed, with a noncommittal “Hmmm. Yeah, I know.” And then he brought us up to date on more important things — his paramedic studies at Chemeketa Community College in Salem and his work as a firefighter and EMT in Aurora.
The rescued has become the rescuer, says Audrey McAninch, co-founder of Into Africa.
In giving, our family received, and in blessing, we were blessed. In Luke 6:38, the Bible says, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
Last week, Steven sent me a text at 1:25 a.m. “Love you, Mom.”
“Love you too!” I texted back, happy to be awakened for such a message.
“Thank you!” I added, silently, to him, to God, and to the beautiful woman who first mothered this son of mine.