Story by Amma West
I became a mom at the age of sixteen, even if I didn’t know it yet. In fact, I didn’t find out for another 18 years.
My husband and I had known of each other since Mrs. Nancy’s 5-year-old Sunday School class, but all I really remember from that time is that I earned a chocolate pie for knowing all the books of the Bible and my future husband did not get a pie. By age 17, we were glued together and planning to have a big, adoptive family (including boy/girl twins) all agreed to in the middle of a hockey game, where important future plans usually take place.
I couldn’t have predicted the details, of course. Other than the boy/girl twins, apparently. They arrived only a few years into our marriage via domestic adoption, after the birth of our first and only biological child. (She was the one we never saw coming!) They grew us in every way and catapulted us into a life of gained perspective. Five years later, our lens widened even more when our Ukrainian beauty found her way to us. Then our son born in China, who we’d raced to; as he needed urgent medical care for survival. Finally, our tiny girl who had only recently arrived, our sixth and presumably our last. She was our second daughter with Down syndrome and our fifth with exceptional needs.
We were knee-deep in a life of PT, OT, ST, play therapy, blood transfusions, surgeries… focused on growing bodies and trust and relationships. Our hands were full, our hearts were full, our appointment book was out of control. So I didn’t understand why God was sending me to Haiti on a “mission trip” in the middle of it all. I had learned to lean away from “voluntourism” and the saviorism I’d ignorantly participated in, instead becoming an advocate of investing in and empowering natives. But I’m an even bigger advocate of radical faith and obedience when God speaks… so I went. Radical obedience is all I know and, when it comes down to it, all I want.
Living it out loud is what lead to this crazy beautiful life and now it was leading us toward two more girls… or young women, rather. Almost full grown. Sappy but true, we were magnetically, divinely drawn toward each other in the first instant. I found out later they immediately prayed “Please speak French, please speak French…” under their breath. (I could only count to ten and only thanks to Hamilton.) They’d lived entire lives already, a life so different from our’s, but we quickly became each other’s– whatever that was going to look like. Because they were over the legal age, there was no way to make it official. We just ARE because that’s what we decided. Together.
For a couple of years, we did our best to participate in their lives while living worlds apart. We never imagined God’s next ask would be to drop everything and move our entire family to their third world country. We never imagined the girls would hurriedly leave everything they’d known and move in too, this home now foreign to both of us. And when my husband and three kids were stateside for medical care, we never imagined a global pandemic would keep our family apart for seven months… or that we would never all be in the same country for more than a couple of weeks after that.
To state the obvious: adding two young adults to your family is a lot different than little ones. They have well-established habits, opinions, goals, triggers, and coping skills. They have people in their life that are our people now too. There’s the hard and gritty work of creating a space that’s safe, bringing everything to the table and figuring out what to carry forward, what to adapt, and what to leave behind– on our end and their’s. Preparing them for adulthood when they didn’t really get a childhood is complex and new to all of us. They need to know about life skills, budgets, sex, and social issues. But they also “need” to know how to play hide-and-seek, the feeling of jumping into a swimming pool, and what it feels like to open a gift chosen just for you.
We learned to make Haitian legume and they learned to make Nashville hot chicken. We learned to dance Koompa and they learned to two step. Together, we learned deeper meanings of grace and patience. We take turns on who does the teaching. There’s so much joy in seeing them experience things for the first time with childlike glee but grown up appreciation. It’s precious in a whole new way. Moments that most would consider commonplace become extraordinary, accompanied by squeals of delight when viewed with fresh eyes. Teaching our oldest to make pie at Thanksgiving, I heard her whisper, “This isn’t a movie… this is your life now.”
The other uses a planner to timestamp her recent memories.
January 11: We watch I Love Lucy, ‘Vitameatavegamin’ favorite so far.
October 31: Mama put apples in a bucket of water. Had to get it out with my teeth. No hands! All my hair wet! I drop the apple I laugh too hard.
December 24: Tonight I sleep under the stars with my brothers and sisters all together. We sing songs in the night and laugh and throw pillows. I will never forget this, my first Christmas.
That’s my favorite part- seeing all of the humans entrusted to our care, born in all corners of the world, choosing to be siblings. Not just living in the same space parented by the same adults, but sharing life and hopes and germs and treasured things. We’ve learned so much about parenting the little ones by learning to parent the big ones. Life together has given all of us the opportunity to combine languages, cultures, traditions, and now futures in some beautifully unexpected ways. The eight of them have taught us what it looks like to truly live. In the middle of messy and hard and boatloads of feelings, we fight for peace … and we’re feisty little suckers. “No matter what” isn’t just a sweet family motto, it’s love in action.
“I’m different.” she said. “How?” I’d responded. English was still new for her and my Kreyol was basic at best. Our verbal exchanges at the time remained simple but hopeful. “My heart… it’s … bigger” as she sunk into my lap, my arms wrapped all the way around her waist and we exhaled. Our oldest and youngest, our bookends, had become inseparable… only to now be separated indefinitely. For 16 months, we worked to be together, to create magic in whatever way we could in the midst of the chaos and unknowns that come with life in Haiti (or anywhere, it seems.) Our lease was up on our island home, two of our children needed more intense medical attention than was available and it was the safest option for the family as a whole.
So my husband and our five youngest are now back in the United States. Obtaining U.S. visas is notoriously difficult for Haitians, even moreso with Covid considerations. At first glance, it doesn’t look like our daughters will qualify. We aren’t listed on their birth certificates. There’s no adoption decree. They don’t share our last name, except where they’ve doodled it in daydreams. On paper, we can’t “prove” that we’re family, making the process even more daunting– if not impossible.
But it’s our shoulders they cry on when hurts rise to the surface, our hands that pray over them, and our necks they squeezed after their baptisms. They want Mama to braid their hair, comfort bad dreams, watch rom-coms and binge cookies. Daddy makes them feel safe, teaches them to fight and how to find the funniest videos on YouTube. The bigger sisters share clothes, inside jokes, and secrets after dark. The little ones steal personal items and space and always kiss without asking. Brothers ask silly/inappropriate questions and make sure life doesn’t ever get boring. I can’t imagine us being any more family than that.
While we are grateful for video calls, my flesh is beyond desperate to have our family together, hug all my children at once and yell at them to clean their rooms. I want to sleep next to my husband for the first time since New Years 2021, complain about his snoring, and nag him to fix the oven or something. I have to remind myself not to make an idol of our family and want them MORE than I want Jesus. It’s radical faith that got us here and radical faith that will bring us back together. We’ve learned to remain confident in His plan, even if we don’t know it yet.