A friend recently told me that I talked about wanting to adopt children when I was in high school. I don’t recall that clearly. I believe that I used to say I wanted a big family, and I wanted to adopt some of my children. I don’t know why. What I do remember is Nene.

When I was in college, I spent two summers in Mexico working at an orphanage for children who were HIV positive, or who had special needs. In addition to those summers, I made shorter visits during spring breaks and weekends. To get to the orphanage, I carpooled with someone, or drove to the border of Mexico, left my car at parking lot, swung through the rusty turnstiles, and took a bus two hours south. The orphanage was at the end of a dirt road. All my friends know that I have no sense of direction and struggle to find my way around my own hometown. But I could always find my way to that orphanage.

There was a girl we called Nene. She was a toddler when I met her. She couldn’t speak. They thought she had autism–although I wondered if she was actually severely hearing impaired. She bit people when she got mad. She did not interact well with the other children.

Nene had a strange, perceptive quality about her. She was stubborn. She was fascinated by details. She scrutinized the movements of the adults around her. She would grab my face with the flat, sticky palms of her hands, press her forehead to mine, and stare hard into my eyes. Her movements were awkward and unstable, but she was strong and sturdy–heavier than she looked. She liked to look outside the orphanage gate. She didn’t sleep well at night. She was intelligent–you could see it so clearly in her eyes–but she was trapped in a wordless world.

I was studying communication disorders in college at the time. Whenever Nene uttered a fragment of a word, I phonetically transcribed it. I found some flashcards, and worked on object labels with her in the evenings after dinner. Her hair would hang in wet curls from her bath. The house mothers would roll their eyes at me and mop the floor in annoyed loops around us. I would walk back to my apartment with an awakened passion, wondering why the stars looked so yellow over the tomato fields.

I asked Nene to point to pictures of trees, cats, and apples. I showed her a picture, asked, “¿Qué es esto?” and thrilled when she finally said “pápi.” She meant lápizPencil. I also tried to teach her sign language: Comer. Más. Agua. I took a Mexican Sign Language course at a local church. I was in love with Nene.

During the seasons I spent at the orphanage, I began to learn about the process of adoption–international adoption, in particular. I learned about the cultural differences between adoptions in the United States and adoptions in Mexico. I saw some families navigate these differences with grace and intuition. I watched others rush in with genuine love and heroic dreams, but flail and depart brokenhearted.

A fellow volunteer dreamed of adopting a little boy from the orphanage. She worked there for a long time, calling him her son. I don’t know whether she tripped and fell while jumping through the high and unpredictable legal hoops, or whether the emotional strain finally wore her down. But she left.

Watching other people attempt to adopt the children, however, opened my eyes to the possibilities. I even shyly mentioned to one of the missionaries who ran the orphanage that I would like to adopt Nene. They told me I was too young, and that I was meant for other things. This wasn’t for me. Besides. She bites, they said.

I went home and made a collage of Nene pictures above my bed in my dorm room. When I questioned my career path, I thought of her. She gave a face and purpose to my work as I studied communication disorders and special education. She buried in my heart the seeds of desire for adoption. The thought of her made my heart and arms ache.

Years later, I would meet another wordless girl who was heavier than she looked, who noticed details, who sometimes bit people when she got mad, and who pressed her forehead hard against mine so she could stare hard at me with her intelligent eyes….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *