“Not of My Blood but of My Heart,” Ensign, Apr. 1991, 48
We sat like two small children waiting for permission to open a present. Across the desk sat Molly, our adoption worker. It was 1982, and in Ray’s pocket was the Disney-character teething ring he had bought several years earlier for our “next baby.” Our first child, Anna, was fifteen years old. After her birth, a series of miscarriages had led us to adopt Micah, now four years old. In the years since the adoption, Ray and I had often wondered where our “next baby” was. Now it seemed that we might have found her.
Molly had called us the week before to see if we would be interested in adopting a Native American baby girl. “This child is deaf,” she said, “and has some medical problems.” I told her that didn’t matter. So Molly sent us some information on the baby.
We spent a week studying Molly’s reports, reading medical journal articles, talking with doctors, and discussing this opportunity with our family. We also spent some time in fasting and prayer.
The doctors and the medical journals were not encouraging. The medical problems of this eleven-month-old girl were numerous and severe. She suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, which meant there were possibilities of facial disfigurement, central nervous system damage, and mental retardation. She had encephalomalacia, a softening of the brain, which could result in other disabilities. Her head was too small and was not growing. And she had a profound sensory-neural hearing loss in both ears.
Her prognosis was “guarded” as well as publicly and privately despaired over. One doctor bluntly advised against the adoption. Our family physician told us he wept for us when he read the reports.
Yet we felt this adoption was right.
Those who have adopted know the feeling of apprehensive eagerness present at that first meeting. Is this child you want so badly really right for you? Will it work?
Ray was in front of me and saw the baby first. I heard him suck in his breath. Then I saw her. The recognition of us was in her eyes. Yes, this was our baby. That special witness burned within us, telling us that this child was ours.
As we watched her and played with her during that first meeting, we knew she was very delayed developmentally. At the age when most children are learning to walk, this baby could barely roll to one side. Eleven months old, she had just learned to hold up her head, a skill babies usually develop at six weeks. She could sit with support, but her spine curved. Her muscles were the consistency of marshmallows. There was no joint stability at all. When I gently pulled her hand, I had the feeling that her wrist and elbow would stretch forever.
We didn’t care. Ray placed the teething ring in her hand and closed her fingers over it.
Molly gave us permission to take the baby home with us. As I wrapped her in a quilt, I cried with joy and love. I had that sweet, comforting feeling within that despite everything, all would be well. We decided to name her Emma Rae.
Unaware of Emma’s truly fragile nature, we bundled her into a van five days later for a trip to Texas. We thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for Ray’s family to see our new baby. I dismissed Emma’s eating and sleeping difficulties during the trip, assuming these problems were related to a lack of previous discipline.
When we got home, I took Emma to our family doctor for a well-baby check. I learned that Emma had lost weight, something she could not afford. The doctor commented on her poor muscle tone and lack of neural responses. I did not feel alarmed. She was just like a two-week-old baby, which was as long as we had had her, and nothing felt abnormal to me. What did bother me was the doctor’s diagnosis of strep throat. No wonder she couldn’t eat! He gave her a penicillin shot and told me to bring her back if anything else came up.
At about that same time, we contacted our local school district about services for Emma. We knew that state and federal law required school district cooperation. Immediately a steady stream of professionals started coming to our home to test Emma, watch Emma, and ask questions about Emma. Adjustments had to be made in our family routine to accommodate it all. Fortunately, our older daughter and son were in school. Things began to settle down—sort of.
Emma’s sleeping difficulties became more clear. It was not just a matter of discipline. She did not breathe well at night. She would wake frequently, gasping for air. When she did sleep, she jerked. It seemed the only way to get her comfortable and to keep her breathing was to hold her upright all night. She slept; we didn’t. Ray held her one night, and I held her the next, in a pattern that would continue for over a year.
The routine was becoming overwhelming as I tried to run an active household on only half the sleep I needed. Several weeks after Emma joined our family, I decided that there was just too much on our schedule. Something had to go, and there was only one true source of help in choosing what to keep. After much thought and prayer, the list began to shape up.
One of the changes we made was to reduce the number of professionals coming to our home. We decided to do the physical therapy ourselves. We found that that was an inspired decision. Now all of our family could work with Emma, play with her, and help her to use her muscles. Micah showed her his gymnastics tricks, which made her want to move. Anna played patty-cake and took her on the swings. Ray roughhoused with Emma, gently forcing her to reach and roll. And I did all the formal things recommended by the professionals—rolling her on a ball, moving her arms and legs for her, and pulling her up by her hands.
Shortly before Emma’s first birthday, I laid her at the head of my bed and let her lick a lollipop; then I went to the foot of the bed and held it out for her. Emma struggled, grunted, and tried to pull herself to me. She succeeded mainly by rolling, and I saw a look of determination that was very encouraging to me. I felt then that she and I would manage her physical therapy just fine.
At Emma’s first birthday party, she grabbed for the cake. It was the first time she had grasped anything on her own.
We worked with her through the summer, trying to get those little flabby legs and arms to support her. Finally, one day in early October, she pulled herself up and took her first steps. We were thrilled.
Helping Emma with her physical therapy was also bringing our family closer together. A poem somewhere in adoption literature describes the adopted child as one “not born under my heart but in it.” By working with Emma, we were each developing a loving heart.
It started with a series of colds and bouts of bronchitis, pneumonia, and dehydration. Each time Emma got sick, the doctor treated her with penicillin. Just before Halloween, she had a bad reaction to the penicillin and was in the hospital for six days. In November, she was back in the hospital again with dehydration. Emma was reverting to her former state and was losing a lot of her hard-won skills.
Then came the real low. The second week of December, Emma began shivering with a 105-degree temperature. The fever would not break. Our doctor hospitalized her again with the same diagnosis—dehydration.
It was ten days before Christmas. Joy was everywhere but in our home. We had no Christmas tree and no presents. Emma had been on IV fluids for four days. The doctor told us that if things didn’t turn around soon, we would lose her. We felt we could not leave the hospital. All of our energies centered around this one little girl.
The doctor estimated that Emma could only live about six more hours—probably fewer. Ray and our home teacher gave her one more blessing. Our hearts were overflowing and breaking. We were trying hard to prepare for letting her go and to submit our will to the Father’s.
The necessary legal and religious work had been done. Her adoption was final. She had received her name and a blessing. And if we had to, we could have her sealed to us by proxy.
But Emma had been promised many things on the day she was given her name and a blessing. My hopes clung to that blessing. She had to grow up to fulfill the blessings she had been promised. Yet I knew that sometimes blessings are not fulfilled exactly as we imagine they will be.
Then the peaceful assurance came to us that all would be well. I went home.
Ray sat up all night with Emma in his arms. He watched over her, prayed for her, held her, loved her, and did not sleep. At dawn, the change came. Emma’s determined look returned, replacing her look of stress and pain. In two more days we took her home. It was Christmas Eve.
Our doctor felt that perhaps allergies were at the root of the problem. So Emma was placed on a new diet and taken off penicillin.
January and February were pretty calm. The changes were working. Emma began to walk again, climb on things, and get into mischief. She signed her first word—shoe.
Then suddenly Emma was sick again. While the episode was not as bad as others initially, I knew she was becoming dehydrated. Ray was out of town. Before I took her to the hospital, I called our home teacher, Brother Leonardson, and asked him to bring another elder and give Emma a blessing.
Brother Leonardson gave her a blessing. He did not recall one word of it after he finished speaking. But I will never forget that blessing, and in particular, two sentences: “Emma Rae, you shall grow to maturity, and none of your earlier problems will interfere. You shall become well, and strong, and whole.”
Never had the Spirit encompassed me so strongly. I knew. I knew the encephalomalacia was gone. I knew the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome were reduced or taken away. I knew there would be normal intelligence, normal physical activity, and that Emma’s head, which was so small, would grow. I knew also that her hearing would not improve, but that it would not matter. I felt confident that she would learn all that was necessary and be able to function fully in the world and in the gospel.
Throughout the spring and summer, Emma had new vigor and interest in her surroundings. She had turned two and had all the curiosity and determined learning of a normal two-year-old. Periodic checkups let us know her head had begun to grow. She gained weight. At the end of the summer, the doctor declared her a “miracle baby” and noted the absence of illness stress. Emma was able to breathe at night and was beginning to sleep through till morning. She was even able to travel.
We made arrangements to stay with my parents in Idaho. They had not yet seen her, and it was time to take Emma to the Logan Temple to be sealed to us there.
As we knelt across the altar in the sealing room, it was hard to contain our tears. We felt so thankful for the love and mercy we had been shown. We felt again the sure knowledge that this adoption was right before the Lord. Emma was sealed to us as surely as if she had been born to us. Anna and Micah, along with my parents, my brother and his wife, and Ray’s aunt and uncle, wept with us in our joy.
Emma is nine years old now. We continue to have our share of successes and struggles. When Emma was three years old, we began trying to arrange a deaf education program for her in our small town in South Dakota. Our efforts were met with a year of ups and downs, but ultimately with success.
Four-year-old Emma’s frustrations included lost hearing aids and slowness in learning sign language.
In 1986, we were allowed a dream come true—eight months in Washington, D.C., while Ray took a sabbatical at Gallaudet University. Here Emma was accepted into the Kendall Demonstration Elementary School—the deaf program which many others use for an example. Our family was also able to attend the Washington, D.C., Deaf Branch, and Emma associated with deaf adults for the first time. She even had a full-time interpreter for Primary.
However, before our eight months in Washington, D.C., were over, Emma began having seizures. Her first seizure lasted six hours, and during that time in the hospital, we felt her life was hanging by a thread. After the crisis had passed, the hospital staff referred us to a neurologist who was regarded as one of the best in the area.
Of course, this new doctor wanted to see the original CT scans of Emma’s head made in 1982 to compare with the current ones. When they arrived, the doctor asked me to check to see if the South Dakota hospital had sent the right scans. I assured him they were correct. He put the old films next to the new ones in the viewer and invited me to look. Where previously there had been enough damage to cause grave concern, now there was normalcy. Complete normalcy.
Someone once told me that love can do a lot. My mind went back to a particular spring night and a certain sacred blessing pronounced upon Emma’s head. The love expressed to our family on that night was being offered again. I had no doubt that I was now being allowed to see the literal manifestation of the works of God.
The doctor told me that Emma’s seizure had likely been caused by scar tissue formed during healing. He thought she would probably outgrow the problem in time.
He didn’t understand that my tears were tears of joy.