My first glimpse of her was a wallet-sized photograph from an official looking envelope. It came in the mail on a Tuesday afternoon, mixed in with the bills and the grocery store fliers.
We knew what it was – we'd been anxiously waiting for days. But before we opened it, we put it on the kitchen table between us and stared. There are a few moments in any life that change its course forever, and even fewer that you know about before they happen. This was one of those moments.
The road that led us there had been long and twisted. We'd delayed parenting because of our careers, so we got a late start. Then, with all the challenges of raising our first child, we waited a few years to have our second.
When we got pregnant right away, we bought a bigger home to make room for our growing family. But on the day we moved in, my wife miscarried. We unpacked our grief among the boxes and moving men, and it took us a while to pick up the pieces. It was months until we worked up the nerve to try again. And when we did, nothing happened.
At first, the infertility doctors were optimistic. But after months of hormone injections, and mood swings, and the monthly rollercoaster of hope and despair, we began to lose heart.
I was the first one to bring up adoption. My wife, who was exhausted and dejected, said: "I don't have anything left right now. You're going to have to do the work."
So that's when my pregnancy began.
At first it didn't feel much different. There was a lot to learn, but I dove into it with a passion. I read books, made appointments, and got organized. But then my file full of paperwork began to swell. There were applications and personal statements, references and background checks, and much, much more. I completed every piece of paper in quadruplicate: one for the agency, one for the home study, one for our files, and one to send to Vietnam.
Soon my accordion file was bursting at the seams. I expanded to a filing cabinet, but that filled up too. After a few months, I didn't think it could get any bigger – but still no baby.
The thing I didn't count on was that my pregnancy had no real due date. When your adoption is overdue, you can't just roll back to the operating room and have them pull out a baby. So we waited. Nine months. Twelve. Eighteen. And just when I felt like I'd bust wide open if I had to wait another day, we got the call. It was time to pack our bags.
Or so we thought. Rumors of "baby-buying" by the French had caused adoption officials in Vietnam to scrutinize every case. The pace of new adoptions slowed to a crawl. And now that a baby was ours, every day was another day of forced separation. It was excruciating – like labor pains. But they weren't real.
There was an "irregularity" in the birth papers at the orphanage. That was all they told us. "I'm sorry," said the woman from the agency. "There's nothing we can do. But we'll put you back at the top of the list. It shouldn't take as long this time."
When they called a few weeks later with news of another baby, they warned us not to get our hopes too high. They had to verify the paperwork. But on the day that her picture came, when we saw her face, we knew. No more false labor – this was for real. This was meant to be.
It was four more months before we got the green light. Every day felt like a year. But when it finally happened, it happened fast. We had less than a week to put work and kindergarten and our lives on hold. We packed our bags, scrambled onto a plane, and took off over the Pacific, chasing the setting sun.
Three stops and twenty-six hours later, we landed in Saigon and boarded a "puddle-jumper" to Da Nang. One of our seatbelts was missing, and another didn't work. As we rumbled down the runway, the fuselage rattled like it was held together with duct tape. I closed my eyes and whispered to our baby under my breath. "Hold on," I said. "I'm coming."
We arrived at the orphanage with several other families who were picking up babies, too. The building was cramped, but tidy, and all the walls were painted a brilliant turquoise that's still my daughter's favorite color, even today. The orphanage ladies were sweet young women in worn-out flip-flops and clean, threadbare clothes. One by one, we told them the names of our babies, which we had painstakingly memorized in Vietnamese.
"Dong Thi Ha-Hoa," my daughter said, carefully pronouncing each syllable as if her life depended on it. A smiling, weeping woman walked up to us and lowered a bundle into my daughter's arms, and we gathered around as closely as we could. Two impossibly dark eyes stared up at us with a look of wonder, and we all began to cry.
During the months of waiting, I always thought that the day we finally got her would be the day we'd celebrate over the years. But in time, memories of my long pregnancy and painful labor began to fade. They were replaced by new memories, and by the here and now. And most of all, they were replaced by the wondrous, miraculous presence of Juliana herself.
These days, Juliana's adoption date often passes without notice. Most of the time, I forget she's even adopted. My connection to her feels as primal and powerful as any bond of blood. Instead, we celebrate her birthday, May 14th – the day her quirky, joyful spirit first came into this world. And though we don't have any ultrasound pictures, or a video of her birth, we do have that little photograph that came in the mail on that Tuesday afternoon – her dark, serious eyes staring back at us from half a world away.
That's when I knew she was real. I felt her moving inside of me – telling me something.
"Hold on," she said. "I'm coming."