I write the word bittersweet on a white napkin, pushing it across the table toward our exchange student. His eyes absorb the word as he rolls it around on his tongue, his French accent punctuating it, his mind reaching to digest it. In French, they call it un moment doux-amer: a bittersweet moment.
I relive the feelings with him as we talk over lunch, the high emotions he felt as he walked out of his U.S. high school for the last time. The friends and teachers he would miss. The way he fell in love with the school after all, even though it was bigger and crazier than his small French village. The reality that he will not see some of these friends again.
“Bittersweet,” he says more firmly now, seeming glad to at least name the feeling.
Later, a friend would share with me that it is a mother’s job to help a child name things. With English fluency as the goal, I regularly named things for him. And, at the beginning of his student exchange year, I remember him seated across from me, announcing while pointing: This is my nose, these are my eyes, this is my mouth . . . Holy laughter bubbled up as I recognized that with the learning of a new language and a foreign culture, a host mother might witness the wonder of a 3-year-old, the curiosity of a 12-year-old, and the drama of a 16-year-old up all wrapped up in one talkative, yet reserved, French teenager.
I remember the week Isak came and how he routinely panicked unless he knew where I was—at Walmart, at the swimming pool, or even when waiting for us to come home. I was needed as he explored his new world, as a mother, a guide, and a friend. He and I shared a right-brained, intuitive, creative view of the world. There was now a human being within my home who noticed my new haircut, made dramatic statements about dreadfully ordinary occurrences, and plumbed the depths of human existence in daily conversations. I was smitten with mother-love.
Yet, the near-miss of our story with our host son was born from amère douleur or bitter sorrow. Our guest room, destined to be a nursery, lay empty, our dreams forever crumbled. “Not everyone who wants a child gets a child,” I tried to explain to others who thought late marriage, infertility, and three failed adoptions just meant we should keep working to become parents.
The baby was due on August 13. Instead, 16-year-old Isak arrived with jet lag and exhaustion on August 16. “This is like Wisteria Lane,” he said, as we drove into our neighborhood, and we laughed, rueful grins on our faces. The bittersweet truth is that we almost never summoned this boy-almost-man who would become our favorite host son. His bedroom was meant for another.
I sat next to my husband on our navy blue loveseat, a blank expression on my face. The shock would linger for more than 24 hours. Our birth mother sitting across from us on a sweetheart red sofa chair. Her, hardly able to get the words out of her mouth. My husband muttering some words like, “Well, thank you for telling us now.”
My memory recalls it even now as the day hope died.
Just two months before, she had sat at our dining room table, over a piping hot bowl of my husband’s beef stew, and told us she had picked us to be her baby’s parents. I remembered how she told us that this potential adoption would not be like the others. Then she uttered the words: “And I will never change my mind.”
She had placed a baby for adoption years ago, and she had become an acquaintance with whom I had shared our desire to adopt. She said she never wanted to parent at all and wanted to finish her college degree, to travel, to experience the world. And, because she had already been insisting for two months that she wanted her baby with us, we relented. But the question haunted us: Do we still want this? At ages 42 and 49? Could any of this be trusted?
Now, our birth mother sat across from me on a sweetheart red sofa chair, her whole body rigid as her mouth moved. I remembered the words she had used at our dining room table just two months before. I remembered the first ultrasound, the pregnancy clothes we found for her, the meetings and the messages. I remembered her calling us the day she fell down the stairs but mercifully discovered she and baby were still well.
And, what about the day she phoned to let me know the baby was a girl—a girl— and I screamed or squealed, I can never remember which. I remember how we were partners, she and I, in this unfolding drama. How she gave us her own childhood baby blanket for the baby. How natural it was to encourage her; how excited I was about her graduation that December; how I pictured us being there with the baby in tow.
Now, some unfolding family dynamics had caused her to question her decision. She wanted to become a parent after all. I had felt her uneasiness for the past week. I knew something was off, but my husband and I had promised up front that we would never pressure her or coerce her. If this was to happen, it would happen on her initiative.
I somehow managed to speak then, interrupting my thoughts: “But . . . you did all this.”
“Yes. And, I wish I hadn’t.”
Words came out of my mouth then, as my whole body continued to register shock. “We are heartbroken,” I said. “Not only because of the baby, but because we have come to care for you. Because we care for you now, and it will no longer work for us to have a relationship. That will be taken from us, too.”
When she rose from the chair, I hugged her, because I knew I wanted to choose love. She was stiff as a board as I told her once again: “We still believe you can do anything.” As she walked to the front door, tears leaked out of her eyes. I closed the door behind her.
The day hope died I went to bed and pounded my fists on the mattress, screaming at God: How dare you do this to us? We didn’t ask for the adoption. We felt we could never weather such a loss again. We’ve done nothing to deserve it! “Ditto!” my husband said, from the other side of the bed. This was no time for carefully reasoned theology, for neat boxes and tidy categories. We were keyed up for lament and anger, for raw pain and shaking fists.
We couldn’t see through to tomorrow, and we didn’t want to remember yesterday. I remember the few people who came close. They recommended a period of mourning and extreme self-care. They brought food and expressed their own anger over our ambiguous loss—a loss that’s usually not named or spoken but is just as real. “You lost a baby daughter,” one friend said, and I nodded, wordless at the naming of our grief.
For a few months, I felt like Naomi in the Old Testament book of Ruth, who wept bitterly and with good reason. I purposed to ignore those who minimized our pain. I journaled, fed my soul with theological truth about God’s love for me even when I couldn’t feel it. I cried while praying, and I decided to do so until the clouds started to rise.
July 31, just 13 days from the baby’s due date, I realized I missed our birth mother. I wondered how she was doing and whether she was getting the support she needed. Yet, I noticed that the heaviness was starting to lift. All of the sitting still with Jesus, the lament, the tears, the realization of his love, the quietness where no words were spoken was accomplishing something internally. Somehow, though perhaps, I could not see how, all would be well.
An email pinged on my phone, and I looked down. With the school year just two weeks away, the local high school had one more slot for an exchange student to fill. Addressed to a group, it was a last-minute call: Was anyone interested in hosting an exchange student?
I paused. Something in me that day wanted to reject the script I had been handed. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I desperately wanted to be a coworker with God in my story. I was tired of being defeated by our lack. Perhaps the year would not end with only more sadness and sorrow; perhaps there was something we might do about it.
I felt, then, that the Holy Spirit was prompting me to ask my husband a simple question. “Would bringing an exchange student into our home this year bring you joy?” He had just sauntered in from work and time seemed frozen, suspended. I expected a “maybe next year.” But 10-15 seconds of silence ended with: “Yes.”
Within 48 hours, we had been approved as host parents. How strange it was to watch a bedroom meant for a nursery quickly transformed into a bedroom for a 16-year-old. Sarah, the coordinator, had her eye on a teen named Isak from a small village in France. His student exchange profile was filled with superlatives and exclamation points. He was excited to come to the U.S. to see the skyscrapers and so many other things; we were growing excited to welcome him.
When someone is pursuing adoption, they make a profile of their own for prospective birth parents, filled with pictures and information about themselves. The front of ours contained a picture of us laughing together on the sofa with the caption: “Our home is filled with love and laughter, quiet trust and open arms.” Did we still have that love and support to give? Or had some of it evaporated under the weariness of our accumulated losses?
We painted closet doors for Isak’s bedroom, nabbed a used pine desk we found for his studies, and refinished a dresser. Truth be told, all was set in place hours before he arrived. There was no way to avoid our bittersweet moment of releasing to lay hold of something different and new. We must simply enter it, trusting enough to take the next step.
As Isak exited the plane, me holding the “Welcome Isak” sign with eagerness, he looked a bit startled and exhausted all at once. He gave me half of a French air kiss in greeting, as I was not practiced in receiving it. Later, he would exclaim: “I just kept thinking, these are the people with whom I will spend 10 months of my life!”
Already three days late for school, Isak was overwhelmed by the high school, which was the size of his French village. He hardly understood what the teachers said, as it flew by so fast. Everything was so startling, in fact, that he once said, “I am shocked by everything all the time; now I just expect that being shocked all the time is normal.” It was the boisterous ways students pushed each other in the school halls between classes; it was 20-minute lunch breaks instead of two-hour ones; it was the students’ sloppy and “non-French” way of dressing.
We worked with teachers to try to get help for him, and for his part, he worked harder than he probably ever had. He was scrappy and determined, but this was so hard. Amidst the struggles, we somehow found time to delve deep into the mysteries of life as he reasoned his way through complex issues, until I often insisted we talk about something more lighthearted, that we come up for air.
The first time I remember him truly smiling is over a pan of unbaked chocolate cookies. The act of baking cookies was a cross-cultural place of joy and contentment for him. It was a connector between his French world 4,000 miles away and his U.S. one in which all was foreign.
One weekend, Isak asked something about children. Although I don’t remember how it was phrased, our story came tumbling out through tears: The birth mother. Her asking us to adopt her baby. Us supporting her. Her changing her mind. Him coming just three days after the baby was due.
His sensitive face filled with grief, and I wished instantly that I could soften the blow. I didn’t want this to be too much for him, and yet it was his question that had brought the story to the surface. I didn’t want to pretend; I respected his wanting to know and understand why we did not have our own children.
“This is an injustice,” I remember him saying sadly. “Why are some people never having children who want them? And then others getting pregnant who don’t want their babies?”
I nodded. I had to agree with him that there are some things in life that don’t appear to make sense. But there is still love through it all. For me, that love originates in God, who neither wills our childlessness or looks down on us for it but weeps with us in the brokenness and pain.
Through all of those moments and days that fall, Isak’s struggle to learn English, to study, and to fit in, was a bittersweet gift in itself: David and I were given the opportunity to transfer our attention from ourselves to helping Isak. We found tutors; we took impromptu walks to clear our minds and hearts, played games, and initiated spontaneous adventures. And, every day brought discovery and healing to our hearts; we were finding new ways to appreciate each other.
With the holidays, Isak’s childlike wonder burned brightly, and David and I received hand-painted frames filled with photos of us together: “Merry Christmas to my favorite host-mother!” and “Merry Christmas to my favorite host-father!” After the holiday break, we practically had a new teenager in our home. He was adjusted, less homesick, more excited about all of the things that had shocked him.
Driving home from our spring break trip, Isak’s music was blaring through the car, a mix of French and English tunes, when we were surprised by Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” “Isak,” I said quietly, “You know we will always love you, no matter what?”
“Yes,” he said from the backseat, “I know that.”
I began to be afraid of how fond we were becoming of Isak, of how seamlessly our temporary family was melding together. Family and friends were crazy about him as well. “Oh, how will you let him go?” one said. I had no idea.
Of all the days of the year, Mother’s Day for me is consistently the hardest. Even when content with your childlessness, parent holidays seem best to avoid. This one would be different, however. We planned a leisurely picnic at a local park, just Isak, David, and me. And, just as I sat down on the blanket and opened the picnic basket, I found a Mother’s Day card and small gift inside.
When I opened it, time stood still: “Thank you for being my mom and my friend, a cheerleader when I need a fan . . . I love you, mom.” Isak went on to say he couldn’t have a better host mom and that I had been his cheerleader all year long. He mentioned how thankful he was, and signed it with a heart followed by Y.F.H.S, “your favorite host son.”The tears spilled out. Thank you, I said. I love it. I will keep it forever.
And, so the word bittersweet on the napkin, written on his last day of school, was the only one I could think of to describe our year. Without the bitter pill of our loss, the indescribable joy Isak brought would never have entered our lives. The birth mom had needed our support but not our home for her baby; she had grown to become a mother herself. And, now Isak’s brown eyes stared back at me, emotional and full, his heart near to bursting. I held the emotion with him, so he would not have to carry it alone.
We had this funny “good morning” song I would play right outside his bedroom door on special days. He requested it for his last day, and so it rang out, “Good morning to you!” With both heaviness and excitement, we scurried through the day, packing too many things into too few bags. After holding him tightly at the airport, I hugged him again and let go; it would be at least a week before the pain became bearable.
Five days later, we made a Skype video call to his parents, with Isak sandwiched in the middle of them. Thank you for everything you did for our son, they said. When are you coming to our home for a visit? We have a beautiful countryside to show you! How can one be related to people 4,000 miles away that do not share your language or culture? And yet, we are now, forever.
He left nearly five months ago, but not before I asked him if he would stay in touch, and he looked at me, incredulous: “Who do you think I am!?!” As if to say, “You are stuck with me now.” Just when I think our Skype conversations are about to end, I sometimes hear, “Wait! I have more ‘good new’ to share!” I am only too happy to listen.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, read it and many more in the book Everbloom: Stories of Deeply Rooted and Transformed Lives.