Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Love Wins.

In Rwandan culture, mothers take the name of their first-born child. I have officially been Mama D'Assisi for about 36 hours. It's a name that I will never take for granted.

So many thoughts and questions are rushing through my head, and it's hard to wrap my around what motherhood entails. So perhaps I'll just start with how the adoption went, for my friends and family who have been asking about it, and also so that I never, ever, ever forget all the beautiful parts of yesterday.
First day together, four years ago. 
He was such a tiny little thing. 
The past few months have been at times a soul-crushing blur of paper-gathering. I gave tax returns, police background checks, graduation diploma, attestations of my character, and various official forms to my lawyer for our adoption dossier. Translations and notarizations, copies and more copies. A local official who refused to sign the papers. I had multiple meetings with him that he would blow off. With a little convincing from the nuns (okay, a lot of convincing from the nuns and my lawyer), he finally signed them. I thought we were going to have a court date in January, then March, then May. I didn't know if I'd ever see the end of the paper-gathering process.

Francois D'Assisi, the day we first met. 
Finally, our dossier was complete we were granted a court date at the tribunal in our district for his adoption hearing. A judge would decide if I could become D'Assisi's legal parent on July 19. I awaited the date with a mix of excitement and apprehension, even fear. I wanted so badly to be his parent, and was terrified at the idea of the court saying no.

Many people reminded me that even if the judge ruled no, I'd still be able to be a part of his life, and that's very true. I'm extremely blessed to have been able to stay in Rwanda, just 30 minutes from the convent where he lives, and to be able to see him on a regular basis. Although I would be able to see him on weekends and sometimes for a quick meal midweek, it felt like he had grown a foot and aged five years in between. I wanted to be there for the life "in between", the small moments like eating breakfast together and reading to him at night. I wanted to be able to make medical decisions for him. I wanted to provide stability (he lives with 8 sisters, but they switch out every two years or so depending on what the order needs them to do, so he's had over twenty parents in his life already). I wanted to provide him love.

Before I knew it, it was the night before our adoption hearing. I couldn't sleep from thinking about all of the what-ifs and maybes. I finally fell asleep around 3 am, and awoke to the blaring of my alarm clock at 6:15 am. I picked up my lawyer and one of the nuns who would serve as a witness, and we drove the two hours or so to the rural tribunal, first along smooth, paved roads, and then along rough, rock-strewn ones that wound through the hills near the Burundi border.

In the car, my lawyer quizzed me on questions the judge might ask:
"You are now single. What if you get married and your husband does not accept D'Assisi?"
"I would never marry anyone who didn't accept him."
"Oh. I didn't think of that."

"How can you prove that you are not a child abuser or trafficker or just trying to adopt a child to serve your own purposes?"
"Umm....I lived in a convent for 2 years and the nuns are supporting me in the adoption? And I don't know, if I were trying to traffic a kid, I probably would have given up on this one a long time ago and gone for someone easier?"
"Okay, noted."

My lawyer asked me if I'd like to defend myself, in Kinyarwanda, or if he'd do all the talking. I gladly gave him the responsibility. My hands were cold and clammy, and my throat was as dry as a cotton ball, and my lawyer certainly had a lot more experience than I did.

At last, we pulled in front of a small brick building where a few people were waiting on benches outside the court. There were signs hanging up on the doors that said "Corruption is forbidden. You don't have to pay for your rights." We went inside to the simple courtroom, filled with rows of wooden benches, a raised platform for the judge in front of a large framed picture of the President in the front of the room, and a Rwandan flag. My lawyer put on his lawyer robes: black satin with ancient-looking white puffy sleeves at the wrists, and we waited for the judge to arrive. I expected that we'd be alone in the courtroom, especially since ours was the first appointment of the day, but other people who had hearings that day all crowded onto the benches inside.

I tapped my feet nervously as we waited for the judge, and Sr. Alphonsine held my sweaty hand to calm me down. The judge came about 40 minutes later, wearing black robes and a round black pillbox-style hat, and everyone stood up. He called my name, trying his best to pronounce my unfamiliar last name, and the hearing began.

My lawyer presented him with the meticulously collected dossier, as well as copies of all of D'Assisi's medical files from Rwanda and our trip to Kenya. My lawyer presented our case. In short, D'Assisi had been abandoned as a baby, was HIV positive, and was taken in by the nuns, since several of them worked at the health center. I lived with him for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and fell in love with him. A year and a half ago, we discovered that D'Assisi had brain lesions and doctors in Rwanda couldn't diagnose what was causing them, so we travelled to Nairobi to see a pediatric neurologist there, who discovered that he had brain parasites. The treatment was successful, and he's healthy now, but the nuns have limited means and aren't able to provide a steady environment.

Given the quizzing in the car, I expected us to be at the tribunal for hours, with an intense volley of questions from the judge. My lawyer talked for maybe forty minutes, and answered a few questions ("How old is the woman pursuing the adoption?"). The judge paused, and said, "It's so obvious that this adoption would be a clear benefit to the child, and I really have nothing to argue about. The adoption is successful. Come back at 2 pm to pick up the signed official documents." And just like that, the judge called someone else's name and it was all done.
Toddler picture. That hat! Those little legs. 
My lawyer and Sr. Alphonsine stood up to head outside, and I followed suit. I thought I had perhaps misunderstood the decision.
"So, we won?"I asked.
"We won. You're a parent. Where are we getting drinks?" my lawyer responded.

I burst into tears, which shocked both my lawyer and Sr. Alphonsine.
"Why are you crying?! You're supposed to be happy!"my lawyer exclaimed confusedly.
All I managed to blubber through the tears was that I'm an American, and sometimes we cry when we're happy too.

I called my parents, even though it was around 2 or 3 am Nebraska time, and told them the good news. We had to come back to the court to get the documents in a few hours, so my lawyer wanted to get buy some maize flour at the local market, and I tried to answer a few emails in the car. It was a surreal experience, having your life completely and utterly changed forever, and then trying to focus on some mundane, real life thing like answering an email.

Sr. Alphonsine had to get back to her work at the local school, so we drove her back. All of the sisters and I hugged, and I cried all over again. D'Assisi came back from school for his lunch break, and I practically smothered him I hugged him so tight. We ate lunch with the sisters, the usual rice, beans, and boiled greens, and I then I asked D'Assisi in Kinyarwanda, "Ese urashaka kuba umuhungu wanjye?""Do you want to be my son?" He responded, "yego."

Four years, one month, and six days passed from the first day I met D'Assisi until I became his mother. I could not be any more grateful for the time we've spent together, for his health, and for the support from family and friends near and far. I'm looking forward for all that is to come.

Love wins.
Mama D'Assisi


  1. Thanks be to God! Such tremendous news! I think both of you are a benefit to the other and to the larger community! This made my day!

    A Reader in NYC

  2. Oh Claire, this is incredible. I'm so happy for you and your now official family! He's lucky to have you, and vis-versa! So much love and congrats!

  3. So happy for you!!! Congratulations!!!