Seven fingers, seven toes, and absolutely perfect. The first time I laid eyes on her I knew she was my baby.
Except that she wasn’t.
She was five months old when she arrived at my 33rd birthday party with her 19 year old mother who had once been the foster child of a friend of mine. Her lower legs were shortened because they were both missing the Tibia. Both feet were severely clubbed and one was only half formed. Both hands were missing fingers and had cleft palms. These phenomena were the result of a genetic condition called Tibial Aplasia Ectrodactyly. She was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen and I wanted her instantly and desperately.
Her mother had lived with my friend during her pregnancy. I remembered the ultrasound that showed abnormalities in the baby’s limbs. At the time the young mom, "C", planned on adoption for her child but had later changed her mind. She was now 19 with a two year old boy and a special needs baby, fresh out of foster care herself and still battling mental instability.
I declared that I would call the baby "Angel" because I felt her given name did not suit her. I said that surely her mother had brought her here to be my birthday present. "C" thought that was pretty funny and when it came time for a picture with the cake, she suggested we get my "present" in the picture too.
I started taking the baby for a few hours whenever I could and "C" was happy to have me do it. It was clear that she was not prepared to be such a young mother. I started the process to get licensed as a foster parent, suspecting that it would not be long before these children would end up in the system.
There was a lot of upheaval over the next 10 months and the kids moved around a good bit. For two months Angel lived with me. "C" had decided she could not handle a special needs child and we were talking adoption. Then she changed her mind and took the kids and moved in with a friend two hours away. That was a VERY hard time that I will write about later (mostly I try not to think about those 4 months.) Angel was living in a single wide trailer with three adults and three other children, one of whom had special needs far more severe than her own.
I knew that "C" was not stable and I continued to work on my foster licensing in the hopes that CPS would rescue the children. Just before her first birthday Angel underwent a planned amputation at Scottish Rite Hospital. The free hospital specializing in orthopedic issues had determined that Angel’s best chances of walking would be through amputation of her deformed lower limbs, and later being fitted with prosthetic legs. I went to the hospital (four hours away) to see her the day after her surgery. Her resilience amazed me! She played in the hospital crib and you would never have imagined that she was one day post-surgery, much less so complex a surgery as a double amputation! (Technically it was a disarticulation since they went through the knee and no bone was cut.)
I got the call Sunday afternoon from the caseworker asking me to go get Angel from a town 2 hours away, (the place where I picked her up was the 7th place she had lived since I had met her 10 months before,) and then go with her for a several day stay at the hospital to get her new prosthetic legs and begin therapy with them. It was about 5pm on December 18th, and a very dear friend really answered the call for us! I was overjoyed, but terrified too, and felt too jittery to drive the two hours to get Angel that very night (her appointment at the hospital was for the very next day.) My friend literally dropped everything and drove me to get my baby girl!
Angel was asleep when we got there. The lady brought her out to me and went back in to gather her things. I held the sleeping baby, marveling at the wonder of having her in my arms again. She stirred and lifted her head and looked up at me. She had seen me two times in the last four months, and being as how I was not expected to be there in that place in the dead of night, I expected a wail. Instead she looked as me and seemed to say "oh, it's you..." and put her head back down on my shoulder and went back to sleep.
She slept in the car as we drove, but at one point when I looked back at her I found her quietly staring back at me. She was 15 months old, in a strange car in the middle of the night with one stranger and one person she vaguely remembered from somewhere. While I was glad she didn't set up a panicked sob, it also worried me a bit because it did not seem like the response one should expect from a baby in that situation. The fact that this sudden and bizarre occurrence did not alarm her meant there has been so many sudden bizarre occurrences in her life that such a thing was just to be expected. It was clear this was not the response of a child who has formed a secure attachment to her mother.
The very next day I drove us both 4 hours to the specialized hospital that made her prosthetics. She was still in the pajamas she was wearing when I picked her up the night before. They did send some clothes and toys with her, but everything smelled strongly of cigarettes and I had put all the clothes in the wash and the toys were airing out in the garage.
It was a tumultuous exhausting time. I still did not know how long I would keep her, and CPS wasn’t really clear on that either. Although they were not allowing "C" to see the kids, they did not yet have a court order to formally remove them from her custody. I was afraid that either bio parent might show up at the hospital and try to take her. I knew very little of the father other than having been told I had reason to be afraid of him.
Would I be taking her back to that shelter placement I got her from after her visit to the hospital, or would I be keeping her for Christmas and then giving her back? Or would they let her stay with me though I was not yet fully licensed as a foster parent? The caseworker basically said "I’ll get back to you on that."
I should mention here that a children's hospital is actually a very cheerful place at Christmas time, at least this one is. (They made it such a fun atmosphere that I wanted to book a stay for the next Christmas too, but apparently it doesn't work that way...)
Finally I heard that the court was officially removing the children. Because of Angel’s special needs and her half brother’s own behavioral issues (he was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder) the court was willing to split them up, though they usually prefer to keep siblings together. CPS put 15 month old Angel with me as a kinship placement until my license was finalized, and nearly 3 year old brother went to a home with more experience handling his needs. It was a tremendous relief to know that "C" would no longer have the power to simply change her mind and take Angel away again as she had before. It would now be up to a judge to decide whether "C" was ready to have her back. Angel’s father, "B", also planned to prove his own competence to have custody of her. The two parents were not together and had a great deal of animosity towards each other at that point. Though they each wanted her back for themselves, each was clear that they would rather she be with me than go with the other parent.
I tried to put worries about the future out of my mind and concentrate on raising the baby girl who seemed to have changed a lot in the four months she’d been gone. Previously she had been a very friendly baby who was content to go to anyone, or to sit and entertain herself with toys for ages at a time. Now she was clingy and fearful and wanted to have a hold on me at all times. My heart broke wondering what experiences had brought about these changes.
The next year was a whirlwind of growth and change! Angel did not like being handed over for visits with her parents, but those did not last very long. After two months CPS stopped visitation for several reasons. Over the course of the next year neither parent was able to follow the court’s instructions or take the steps necessary to get the kids back, so less than 13 months after she was placed with me, our adoption was finalized.
People often remark how lucky Angel is to have been adopted, as though I have somehow "saved" her. They simply don’t understand the situation at all. She is the chosen one. I am the lucky one. I wanted her the moment I laid eyes on her, and I thank God every day for allowing me to be her mother. She has such a light in her and is such a bright spirit! Her strength amazes me every day.