We had imagined this moment for a long time.
At first, we thought this moment was going to take place in June, when the 10-year-old superhero-in-waiting we had signed up to host in our home for the summer was scheduled to arrive with a group of children from his orphanage in China.
We had prepped for it. We had dreamed about it. We had already loaded up the car and begun imagining our drive home with the fourth superhero we had been praying for since April.
But when this little superhero became sick and was hospitalized the day before his scheduled flight, he missed his ride to the United States, and we missed the opportunity to greet him in a Chicago airport with 20 of his friends.
We were totally heartbroken.
For days, our agency fought for this little boy to still come to our home, even if later, even if for a shorter period of time. For hours, our team of superheroes brainstormed ways we could still advocate for the boy we had nicknamed “DJ,” even if DJ wasn’t able to be physically present for us to do so.
We printed business cards with DJ’s information. We used our military Flat Daddy experience to create a life-sized 2D DJ. We carried that foam figure everywhere around our town and told DJ’s story from the supermarket to the splash pad. And all of us dreamed about what it would be like IF ONLY we could hold that little superhero in our 3D arms.
And then Monday night, we got our chance.
As three other beautiful host families nervously waited with us in the baggage claim area of the Atlanta airport, all of us clad in Great Wall red and all carrying homemade signs with pictures of the superheroes we had been praying for for months, my heart raced. I felt like I’d been preparing for this event for so long, and yet, in that moment, I felt so ill-equipped. And when we all saw on the arrivals screen that our superheroes’ flight had landed, I experienced a 30-second moment of paralysis.
This little boy was older than our oldest superhero, which meant I had no life experience yet in rearing a child that old. My Chinese speaking abilities ended at “ni hao,” and my parenting toolbox included such advanced approaches as starting squirt gun fights and racing little boys around 7 acres to solve the world’s problems.
Really, what on earth did I think I was doing hosting a fourth superhero in our home? What’s more, what did I think I was doing hosting a fourth superhero in our home after my husband’s schedule changed last minute and he would now no longer be available to co-host? Don’t these orphan hosting program directors know that I am just faking it ‘til I make it, relying on coffee and Jesus to keep superheroes alive on a daily basis? The nurses at the hospital qualified me for parenting only because I had a safe carseat — there are no skills here!
But I didn’t have time to ponder or object, because our superheroes were disembarking the plane, and it was time to meet the little boy our family had been dreaming about for three months.
All four of our families grabbed our posters and globbed together as close to the terminal doors as humanly possible without breaking fire code or blocking the exit. In our nervous excitement, all of us became quiet, waiting anxiously and eagerly for those glass doors to reveal the matching red shirts we knew our superheroes were wearing.
And then, after what seemed like hours, we spotted them. Five energetic boys, five beautiful smiles, one host chaperone who deserved a medal and a pot of coffee the size of my head after traveling from Shanghai to Atlanta with five boys who had never ridden a plane in their lives.
This beautiful superhero of a chaperone, who had the patience of an angel but spoke very little English, immediately walked over to us and began looking at the pictures on our posters to match each child to his host family. As the volunteer airport coordinator for our group, I was responsible for checking all IDs and taking photos of each family before dismissing them. Which meant I was carrying a binder in one hand and my cell phone camera for photo shooting in the other. Which meant, even though our three superheroes were flashing the homemade posters they had poured their hearts into, the poster with DJ’s picture (as well as 2D DJ) was lying on the ground out of sight.
Which meant she couldn’t see the face of the child we were taking home.
Which meant that, as I met DJ’s perfect black-brown eyes for the first time, they were filled with tears.
And then I broke in two.
I dashed over to this boy, who looked so much older and taller in 3D form, where I let the chaperone know that I would be taking him in my car that day. As she held him to her side, comforting him following the disappointment of not seeing his picture on a poster when he first exited the building, she said something to him in Chinese and rubbed his shoulders. And then she gestured for him to look at me.
“Ni hao, DJ,” I said as soothingly as I could in my best recitation from Ni Hao Kai-Lan as I reached out to give this shaken superhero a hug. He was taller and his shoulders were broader than I had expected, and when he allowed me to touch him that first time, I felt the weight of a boy struggling to be “big” in this world fighting against the little boy inside who needed the comfort, security and acceptance of a family — if only for the summer. He didn’t melt in my arms, but he didn’t object. And I could feel his shaky legs even from my arms’ place around his shoulders.
What an incredibly brave boy.
The tears subsided for a moment, and I used the opportunity to introduce myself (ayi, which means “auntie”) and the boys, who ran to our little hide-out against the wall to grab DJ’s gift.
Two minutes with three superheroes and a bag full of goodies, and this sweet, nervous boy was full of life and smiles again.
I left our superheroes to get to know their super host brother for five minutes while I quickly snapped the photos of the other families for our agency. And then, after marking my checklist, I threw everything into my bag and returned to the little boy I hadn’t been able to take my eyes off from my place beside him snapping photos.
By this time, DJ was digging through one of FOUR Thirty-One bags I had filled with games and toys for our six-hour drive to and from the airport. (It’s an addiction. Don’t judge.) And as he pulled out each box of Legos and puzzles and Angry Birds Star Wars toys, he just exclaimed, “Woah!” over and over again. Light danced in his eyes, and I could tell that this was going to be one magical month.
Back at the hotel, DJ’s smile grew even bigger. The boys motioned for him to join them on the floor, and for two hours, we played Uno and Angry Birds and Legos and card games, using only gestures and Google Translate to help us communicate.
After each game, this little superhero, who jumped into the crazy chaos of our Cuthrell clan without any hesitation, did something so amazing, so rare, that my jaw nearly dropped: HE CLEANED UP AFTER HIMSELF! WITHOUT BEING ASKED! Every time he got out a new toy or a new box, before opening another, he beautifully packed up his box, checked his area and returned his toys to the bag that he FIRST REORGANIZED.
And then my Container Store-loving heart burst.
A room-lighting smile, a tender heart AND a penchant for cleaning and organization?! Does it get any better than this?!
I was just starting to feel comfortable and confident in the middle of a game of Uno when, out of nowhere, silent tears started flowing from this sweet superhero’s cheeks. Surprised by this out-of-nowhere event, the boys and I stopped, and I pulled this tender-hearted superhero onto my lap.
He began to sob.
I held him as the boys, who are thankfully as compassionate as they are crazy, surrounded us and began stroking his arm, grabbing him toys, doing anything they could to try to make him smile.
His sobs grew louder, and that’s when he said it — something so clearly in Chinese that I could not understand in English.
I speed dialed Mackenzie, the incredible God-send of a college student who tutors our boys in Chinese as she plays with them six hours per week, and asked her if she could possibly talk to DJ in Mandarin and figure out what he needed.
“Is it food? Is it more or less clothing? Is it something he needs? Could you please ask him, Mackenzie?” I asked her somewhat desperately as I held this tiny, broken boy in this large, half-man’s body.
I handed the phone to DJ, who listened to Mackenzie’s melodic, sing-songy voice comfort him in Chinese. He repeated to her the same words through tears he had begun saying over and over again to us. And when I put the phone back up to my ear and asked Mackenzie what it was he needed, what we could do to help this sweet boy on his first night away from his orphanage, likely ever, she paused.
“Michelle, he said he wants to go home.”
We all just hugged this boy, who was stiff in the arms of our affection, either because he didn’t like physical touch or because he wasn’t used to it, and for 20 minutes, on the floor of a hotel room at 11 p.m., loved on him the best we knew how.
Mackenzie then texted me a message in Chinese characters that she directed me to show to him.
“It says, ‘Hi, friend, I am Kailan jiejie, who just spoke with you on the phone. Don’t worry, you have a lot people who will take care of you here, and they really like you. You’ll be able to go home soon, so no need to be anxious’,” she typed.
I showed the message to DJ, unsure how well he could read, and he read the words perfectly in Chinese and immediately stopped sniffling. He then crawled off my lap and looked ready to embrace whatever these crazy Americans were going to introduce to him this month.
And then I gave Mackenzie a raise and named my next child after her for saving my life at 11 p.m. in a hotel room in a different state with four boys all by myself.
By 11:30, I showered all the superheroes, helped brush teeth and tucked all of them into beds, where DJ slithered between Superhero 1 and Superhero 3 with a big smile on his face. (Superhero 2, our sleeper, had already claimed the other bed and a night cuddling with Mom, who DOESN’T kick in her sleep.) I read a Chinese nursery rhyme book, prayed over all the kids and then turned out the light. By the time I finished getting ready for bed myself, the melodies of four snoring superheroes sung me to sleep.
And as I crawled into my bed, snuggled up next to a superhero who told me earlier in the night, “Mom, it hurts my heart to know that DJ doesn’t have a mommy,” I thanked God for this opportunity.
This month, DJ is going to miss his home. He woke up that first night at 2 a.m. crying for home once again, and I just held him and prayed for him as I helplessly sat beside him, wishing I could make it better. Don’t we ALL always crave what’s known, what’s familiar, what’s normal to us, whether it’s what is best for us or not? And that’s okay. Because we’re not trying to REPLACE his culture, his experiences, his memories with what sound like wonderful nannies or even his friends. Those are vital to his story and things we pray his future family will work hard to preserve for him, no matter where he’s physically located.
We’re just praying we get an opportunity to help change his story, so that “home” isn’t a place where workers are paid to care and love for him but a place where family GETS that privilege for free.
That “home” will become a place filled with the love and laughter and individual attention of parents who get the HONOR of loving on and investing in a superhero who deserves all the love in the world.
That “home” will become a soft place to fall. A place where LOVE fills the air. A place of bottomless forgiveness and crazy, wild grace. A place where the people love, not because it’s their JOBS, but because it’s their PRIVILEGE. Because after being adopted themselves and loved by a REALLY BIG GOD, they can’t help but give REALLY BIG LOVE in return.
That “home” will become a place he can live past the age of 14. Because right now, “home,” as much as he desires to return, is only a place he can live for three and a half more years.
This boy needs more. He deserves more. While he SHOULD take the comforts and foods and culture of his first home with him wherever he goes, he SHOULDN’T have to worry about whether home will last until he is a legal adult.
We have 30 days, one short month, to love on this superhero in this place we call home. In an imperfect place with two REALLY imperfect parents who make big mistakes and follow them with big apologies and don’t get it “right” nearly enough.
But here in this home, he will experience love by GRACE. Love by DECISION. Love by ACTION. He just woke up from his second night ever with our family (which means that’s my cue to go!), and after one full day amid the crazy chaos and unconditional love of a FAMILY, he’s already smiling and thriving. There were no 2 a.m. wake-up calls. No morning tears. Just smiles, an awkward hug and a spirit of adventure to embrace whatever these crazy Americans have planned for him this morning.
And we’re praying that, after 30 days in our home, he’ll have a family who will share their home with this boy forever. Not until the age of 14. Not until he’s legally released from the Chinese orphanage system. Forever. In a place where he will be unconditionally loved by CHOICE, despite his failures, despite his past, despite his mistakes, despite ANYTHING he might say or do.
A place where he will be welcomed and accepted and BELIEVED in. Forever.