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Blast From My Past: Gotcha Day remembered

A family photo where we celebrated our first anniversary of Gotcha Day ion 15 August 2005 a couple days early at my mother-in-law's

Gotcha Day refers to day you take custody of your child in an adoption.  

Our first Gotcha Day involved meeting and receiving Zhou Yong Ling, renamed Vonne Mei Ling at a hotel in Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi Province, China on Sunday, 15 August.

Here's my first-write-up memory of that day, posted 16 August:

We have Vonne Mei Ling

Lakeview Hotel, Hongdu Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, China, 16 Aug 2004

Quick rundown. Later email will attach pictures. No broadband in room so have to use biz center.

Got up yesterday all packed. Used car seat box to store clothes so we could stuff all our sovenirs into suitcases. Cases picked up at 8am. We had breakfast a bit earlier and then just hung out two hours. That was when I wrote about day 3 &4 in Beijing.

At 10am on bus to airport with our group. Then two-hour flight on Air China to Nanchang. Nice flight in old 737. Vonne and I seated far apart, but no problem.

Land in Nanchang. About 95 with 95% humidity. Place is a lot like Florida--water everywhere. Real SE Asia.

Small bus to hotel and get in room around 3:20. Told to be in conference room in 40 minutes with all the various envelopes of cash, presents for officials, and all our paperwork, plus food for baby and toys. We scramble like crazy getting bottles together and counting out cash (finally got exact figures on bus ride over). Get into conference room on dot and it is full of babies.

We stand on one wall and David, our guide, picks us out to come over and get Vonne Mei. We were about 3rd couple to receive, since third couple to show up. Took less than 3 minutes from time we walked in door. As other couples were strolling in later, bit of madhouse scene for first-time parents realizing their baby in the room already. Feel many thought they could be in room and babies would show up from outside, but otherway around.

So, as soon as we got in room, I knew we were within seconds and I started scanning baby faces. I spot Vonne Mei with just a quick sweeping glance. Woman is holding her and another child sitting on long conference table. She is almost golden looking in her orange onesie. But I recognize the face almost instantly. Then I'm a bit scared to tell Vonne, because I'm looking at the (by far) prettiest, most relaxed baby in the room and I figure, if I tell Vonne I think that's her and it's not (our photos are now 7 months old), then there will be this weird tinge of disappointment. Oddly tense moment--that.

But I did it anyway. I pointed her out to Vonne and I said, "I'm certain that's Vonne Mei. I recognize her mouth and eyes."

So when David says Barnett and we hand over our passports and other docs, I see the lady with the two babies call over another woman. That woman takes the arms of the second baby and the original nanny picks up Vonne Mei and brings her over.

Vonne is very quiet and sort of stunned by it all--she is so focused. Reminded me of her trance-like state in her labors. She is just laser-like on Vonne Mei.

I know what I have to do and whip our camcorder and digital camera and catch the handover on video and then shoot about 60 shots with my other hand.

After a while, I get to hold Vonne Mei and Vonne returns the favor with photos.

Then we crack out Cheerios, which she likes. Then some cryinging from her. Then I do the money transfers to various officials.

Vonne says she seems hungry and the water we quickly boiled in room is too hot. Elevators are jammed with people (several of these events going on at same time), so I dash up 13 flights of stairs in un-air-conditioned stairwell.

That was when I felt yesterday's Great Steps.

Getting Evian, I cut the bottle's mixture down to reasonable temp. We snipped the nipple on the Chinese bottle that Zhang Yu was kind enough to buy us in Beijing, because babies here drink formula very fast.

Vonne Mei sucks down the bottle with ease and then we spend some time just hugging and playing with toys.

Then off for official family photo and her passport photo.

Then we are cut loose for bit in room (about 20 minutes at 5:10). Then back to conference room to do official documents for hour and then interview with civil affairs official. Big question: "Why do you want Chinese baby when you already have three kids!"

We pass with flying colors.

Then to room for night. Really nice high-rise hotel. We order in room service. Vonne Mei had fallen asleep in my arms in conference room and slept until 10:30. Then we made another bottle, massaged her beautiful little body and got her back to sleep until about 5:30.

Working stroller this morning. Heading down to breakfast now.

Will send more info and some pictures later in day.

We are very pleased with how it all went. Only issue with Vonne Mei seems to be heat rash around neck and hairline.

She seems nice and strong and not thin in the empty sort of sense. Was with foster mom entire 9 months. She was removed from the home just an hour before the 3-hour ride to Nanchang. Given then, she is very accepting with us. Spent morning playing on mat with toys. Already fairly easy to make laugh.

So all in all, it went very well, if a bit rushed. Don't know how first-time parents handle it. More respect for my sister Maggie pulling it off with my Mom as a result. It is a high-stakes, high-stress moment. Fortunately for us, we have much experience in that with offspring, so we got through it with no explosions or mishaps. By and large, it went very well for the group as a whole.

All for now. Check in later.

Tom (for Vonne)

Here's my later write-up:

I know that face (some concluding thoughts on our China adoption trip)

Dateline: above the garage in Portsmouth RI, 31 August 2004

I have to admit that, two days back in the world, I am feeling suitably disoriented, like my life has been turned a bit upside down. That's not to say that I regret anything or that I'm feeling panicked suddenly as the father of four vice three, it’s more that I simply have a deep-seated need for such life-altering experiences. As an aging Type-T personality, you eventually have to move on to things beyond roller-coasters and their many variants in our sense-assaulting culture, and you need to reconnect to something a bit more intimate, which was really what this grand odyssey was all about.

In short, it was all about falling in love again: with my wife, with my kids, with this baby, with my life, with my faith, with just about everything. It was just one of those times where life pushes you to recommit, and if Vonne has but one genius, it is that: knowing exactly when such moments are looming in our lives spent together and putting in place those decisions, moves, and deals that must be concluded if forward progress in this grand endeavor is going to be maintained. My wife's great gift is her ambition, whereas mine is my optimism. She pushes hard because she fears failure, and I push hard simply because of my naive belief that it will all work out in the end--or at least segue into something I can rationalize as success. Our yin and yang go well together, as they should, and so we keep growing this family until life signals otherwise.

I don't mind this feeling of being adrift and I don't exaggerate its source. Hell, most of it comes simply from a lack of sleep, and you can get that with the last few days of pregnancy, then labor, then the first few days with a newborn . . . or . . . you can achieve it with the amazingly close approximation known as the international adoption process as offered by the Chinese. Both are exhausting journeys, typically stumbled into by the fathers at the last minute ("What, you mean we have to take it home with us forever now?") whereas the mothers tend to feel every pin prick over the many long months. Both leave you feeling beat up and vulnerable on the far side, swearing you'll never do anything so stupid ever again. But then time passes, and the good memories crowd out the bad, and you want to fall in love with everything all over again.

This time was different though, because we had to fall in love with so much more, and it was all outside, over there, instead of inside, over here. What was once an alien culture, not to mention a foreign face, are now quite intimate and familiar. Not in some deep, all-knowing sort of way, but in that just-falling-in-love sort of way. You just want to scream, "Isn't is amazing how similar we are?" You want to tell her all your stories and hear all of hers. You want to show her all the things you love and see all the things she loves. You want to do it all today, but know you will do it quite naturally over many years, so your sense of the future shifts from fear of the unknown to enjoyment of the anticipated.

Oh, the places you will go, my new love!

Yes, you feel responsibility and some real fear. There is so much to be done, to be prevented, to be put in place. But none of that hold the same sway in the end as simply holding her body against yours at those right moments and letting her know how loved and safe she is in your arms.

I attended the birth of each of my three biological children, and it was simply amazing--the most fabulously spiritual experience I have ever known. I recognized them all immediately as mine--I know that face.

I walk away from this whole adoption experience with the same mix of fear and confidence that I have always felt while falling--yet again--in love with someone (I've done it so many times with Vonne that I long ago lost count). It's that sense of sheer recognition: I just knew right then and there!

I know that face.

On 15 August 2004, just as our bus was pulling into the parking lot of the Lakeview Resort, our guide David reiterates that we need to come to the third floor conference rooms at exactly four o'clock. It's now 3:15 in the afternoon. Grabbing our carry-on bags with a real sense of urgency, Vonne and I head up to the 16th floor, and quickly slip into our hotel room, ignoring the surroundings completely and focusing only on the tasks at hand: we need to get the money together in the various envelopes and label them, we need to get some baby food and a bottle together, we need to get our moment-recording devices together--along with our heads. The minutes flash by so fast that we both feel ourselves almost out of breath as we storm out the door at 3:53 and catch one elevator down to the lobby and then another back up to the third-floor conference rooms. I can tell how psyched we both are by the way we keep talking past one another in a conversation that makes no sense whatsoever.

We can tell the moment is at hand. Yongfeng is more than a three-hour drive away and we're getting our babies at 4 pm. That means they are already here, even though David has been very careful to lead us to believe otherwise ("... and then you will meet the babies, yes?"). The orphanage workers want to start back early enough so they can get home before dark.

Of course! That means Vonne Mei is already in the building, long before we even touch down in Nanchang. This whole thing is set up to go bang-bang-bang the moment we hit the ground running at the airport.

Hell, we have it completely backwards: they aren't delivering the babies to us on the third floor; David is delivering us to the babies.

I can sense Vonne and I racing to the same conclusion as we move rapidly from the elevator and around the bend to the conference rooms, quickly but wordlessly glancing into open doors without breaking stride until we find one room full of babies.

We are just the third couple to show up, and the first one already has a baby girl in their arms. The emotional scene has already begun. It's like walking in on somebody's else private moment; you don't want to intrude and yet you can't pull your eyes away from the scene.

I exclaim without thinking, "They've already got their baby!"

David quickly calls out the last name of the second couple to arrive and over in the crowd of baby-holding women lining the far wall, one immediately stands up and swiftly moves in the direction of an older lady who's apparently in charge on the orphanage side--the director. The director takes the baby from the woman's arms and quickly checks the face photo pinned to her top as David makes the showy demonstration of checking the official referral document held up by the parents. When their eyes meet in acknowledgement, the director simply thrusts the child into the mother's arms and it's all over--just like that.

"Good God!" I think to myself, "We're next!"

At this point we've been in the room a good 90 seconds.

I turn and start panning my eyes over the line-up of women holding babies against the far wall. None of them seem quite right. Then I spot one woman holding two babies in her arms, sitting up against the U-shaped configuration of tables that dominate the conference room.

And I immediately realize--right then and there--that the tanned little girl in the orange onesy is Vonne Mei Ling.

From behind, I lean over into Vonne's ear and state emphatically while pointing, "I think that's her!"

David pulls away from the second couple once it's clear that the deed is done and simply announces, "Barnetts, you are next!"

I feel a real pang of fear. What if I haven't recognized Mei correctly? What if she isn't that golden beauty in the woman's left arm and instead is one of the other ones? Have I just taken some beautiful moment and ruined it by opening my big fat mouth too early? Will I spend the rest of my days wondering about what drove me to recognize that one kid and not my daughter on this fateful day?

The director strides firmly to the lady at the table holding the two babies. I can feel my pulse pounding in my chest. The lady starts to set down the girl in her right arm on the table in front of the director. Jesus! Did that mean . . .?

No, wait a second! Now, the woman hands over the little brown girl in the orange onesy to the director, and as this kind-faced woman closes the ten-foot gap between ourselves and this seemingly casual handoff, we lock eyes with Vonne Mei just as her new mother accepts her in her arms.

"I knew that was her!" I insist to Vonne. "I know that face."

Why I especially bring up this memory:  I will be accompany Vonne back to Ethiopia to pick up the girls, as it wasn't working out with my mother-in-law and Vonne really wanted me there for the first couple of days of having the girls alone with us in the guesthouse and then going through the all-important visa show at the US embassy).  We leave in a few days (a big part of the reason why I'm skipping blogging this month--so much to prepare!), but I will be coming back three days before Vonne and the girls to keep two speaking gigs (Industrial College of the Armed Forces address to student body to start off their school year and then at the US Marine Corps University, where a course has "Great Powers" as required reading, focusing on the history chapter (3) and the economics chapter (8)).  So I will book back, do the two speeches, and then reach home about 24 hours before Vonne makes it back with the girls.  Naturally, we are scrambling across the board, so I thank you for your patience with the blog, because I really needed the break and am enjoying the time immensely with my family as we prep the house, train cross country, etc.  Tonight Vonne Mei and I repainted the new girls room, where Amish bunk beds and a day-bed await Metsewat and Abebu.  Vonne Mei is already breaking in the bunks with Emily on her last nights home before heading off to college.  Mucho emotion throughout the house!

New photos:


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