American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Winter 2016       EARLY CHILDHOOD

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The Power of Your Story

by Kimberly Schildbach

From the Editor: Kimberly Schildbach homeschools her five children in the woods of Massachusetts. Her family is adding another blind child to their tribe in 2016. This article is an open letter to Kimberly's daughter, Anelia. You can follow Kimberly and Anelia on Facebook at <https://www.facebook.com/kimberly.schildbach>.

Anelia Schildbach wears a big smile, showing her missing front teeth.Your story, Anelia, the one you will tell one day, will be very powerful. It might begin with your time in the orphanage, where you tried desperately to stimulate your brain by any means at your disposal. Or it might begin with incredible loss, the place where my own story starts. In that story you lose the only life you have ever known. You lose that life because we chose you.

I desperately hope that your story will contain something of love. Surely you didn't feel love at first, but now, I hope, you feel it fiercely for us. My side of the story contains so much, but at its core is my love for you.

I believe in the power of stories. In my work as a family therapist, I stand in awe of how clients take pain and turn it into triumph. I have seen that even the most privileged individual, with access to all the right resources, can feel wholly alone. Hearing a person's story is such a holy experience, an experience where you feel God very close. I believe my training and work as a therapist uniquely prepared me to be your mama.

Adoption is such a funny process! Who knew we would adopt a blind child? There were inklings of it from time to time in our favorite movies, through children we encountered, or during late-night discussions about where we were heading as a family. Adoption was always on our minds. But as many who have taken the plunge will attest, the money issue would derail our dreams for many years. God spoke at last, giving us a hearty shove in the right direction.

I still find it amazing that over thousands of miles, with all the hurdles of adoption (money being just one), we found each other! How is this possible? Your listing picture showed you in the chair where they sat you. You have chubby brown cheeks. On the chair's tray is your little piano. One tear runs down your face. Your big brown eyes look forlorn and lonely. Your blindness is part of the package of you, and we wanted all of you, no holds barred. We fell immediately and intensely in love.

I am so curious about what your life was like in the institution. You didn't learn to speak--or maybe you learned, and something silenced you? We will never know. The records we got were spotty at best. You were considered "delayed in all areas." Doctors reported "repetitive movements" and "lack of skills," but we knew better. In that one short video we were given, the careful movements of your fingers over the piano told a different story.

Nate, your papa, visited you in October. It was warm in Bulgaria. You were in Sofia, the capital. When Nate showed up at your orphanage, the director was not there to greet him. He entered the common room, turned to the left, and there you were. "And guess who I saw? Our sweet Nellie girl, rockin' out in her chair," he would tell me later. I pumped him for every detail, even the smell of your head!

Nate took you out of that chair the next day and played leapfrog with you. He brought you another little piano. He came every day and spent hours playing, just with you! What must you have thought? You were not used to having anyone pay so much attention to you. He got in the way of your rigid schedule, but you were seriously amused by him.

For five days he played with you. He showed you Braille and gave you tactile toys. He took videos of everything you did.

Then he had to say goodbye. On that last day he stood outside the orphanage and bawled while he waited for his interpreter to hail a cab. He says he literally bawled like a baby. His interpreter averted her eyes. He said leaving you was the hardest thing he had ever done. He wanted you tucked away in his suitcase, heading for home, but we had to wait another five months.

I wonder how you felt after Papa visited. Did you think it had all been a dream? Maybe you resigned yourself again to sitting and rocking.

Dear girl, we ached to bring you home! Those were the longest five months of our lives! We had videos and pictures--lots of pictures, since I had to live vicariously! Yet I couldn't bring myself even to look at them. I went into a kind of depression--waiting for you. I missed you so much I didn't want to hear your name. We missed you, and we hadn't even been properly introduced. The heart is an amazing organ!

Finally, when Papa went to pick you up, you were inconsolable at times. He had no tools for dealing with your grief. He could only truck on, survive the hotel room, get you home. Every day he took you to a park in the capital. There was fresh air, but you would have none of it. You had never been outside before. You were a model orphanage child, quiet, still.

In a stroller Papa took your six-year-old body to the park, where he met other parents who were picking up their children. You wouldn't leave the stroller. You were almost catatonic.

I started coaching (read: being a know-it-all) from America. In my defense, being at home was excruciating! "Place her hand on something," I said. "Unstrap her and see if she'll get out of the stroller."

You did! You started to explore some concrete animal structures. You smiled! Oh my dear heart--you lived!

But when you arrived home, it was a different story. You grieved heavily. You wanted only your thumb, and food, and a corner. You wanted nothing to do with us.

I wasn't prepared for how "delayed" you were. I feared labels such as autistic, unreachable, post institutionalized. I didn't fear your blindness. For this one grace I am grateful. It forced me right from the start to have high expectations for you.

You loved the piano. You loved a warm bath. You loved your bed. I started adding new things. I used essential oils to wake you up and help you go to sleep. I put toys in the bath.

At piano time I sat near you. I added in hugs, even though you pushed me away after a moment. I knew you needed the contact in order to heal.

After X-rays confirmed that you had no orthopedic issues, we insisted that you walk. We insisted that you climb stairs, holding a hand at first. We insisted that you come to the table for supper and seat yourself in your chair. We showed you how to brush your teeth and eat with a spoon.

Things changed a bit after a while, and you knew it. Some things I think you enjoyed, and some things you liked not so much. Daily I reminded myself that you were intelligent, that neglect had clouded this picture. I prayed hard and leaned heavily on the Author of All who created you and who created me the way I am, with all my intensity and fortitude, to be your mother.

Baby steps, I reminded myself, and I allowed myself to grieve. We smelled foreign to you. We sounded foreign. We had different routines and different behaviors. I know you must have felt that way, because I felt that way, too. I loved you fiercely, but I didn't know you, and you didn't know me. You didn't smell like my child. Wiping your nose or cleaning your bodily functions was an act of will in the beginning!

The reciprocal nature of our relationship was not established. When I comforted you, you pushed me away. When you laughed, it wasn't in response to anything I did, and it wasn't your way to make contact with me. I was learning moment to moment, and so were you.

Yet you did start to love us. Is this not an amazing thing? You began to interact with your siblings. Jericho, age eight, became your protector. Olive, age three, was your buddy and Seeing Eye sibling. Lucas, age nineteen, was your elusive big brother. He was at college all day, but he gave you great hugs before bed. And your sweet Gaelan, fifteen, swung you high and put you on his lap while he read. He got through to you as only he could--with silliness. That was exactly what you needed!

You were healing. You were happy most of the day, so again we expanded on the things that brought you comfort and happiness. Gross motor activity was the name of the game! We took trips to the park, swung you around, hung you upside down. You responded with verbalizations and giggles. We put away the stroller; you walked now, albeit reluctantly. Your muscles grew stronger. Perhaps your heart healed a little bit. Maybe we weren't so bad after all.

You loved books. You loved tactile images, and you loved to run your fingers over the Braille. We read more books to you. We spent time every day doing finger rhymes and games with you.

Then I pushed the envelope and snuggled you next to me during our bedtime reading. The first night you screamed. The second night you deeply considered your new situation. By the third night you were turning pages. Now reading time is your favorite time of the day!

You loved music and all things auditory. We made sure you had hours at your beloved piano. We played a variety of music for you, from classical to Leonard Cohen, from Bobby McFerrin to the Chipmunks. Nothing was off limits! Even though you didn't speak, you would hum a song you knew. Now we hum songs you love together. It's like a little conversation through pitch and harmony.

Now, home just over one-and-a-half years, you are thriving! You can feed yourself and ask for more! You can choose a toy and even drag one of us to find it (and you remember where you put it!). You spend hours composing songs on the piano. You still enjoy gross motor activities, but you are starting to engage in fine motor activities, too. Anything with jingle bells involved is a good activity indeed!

You are a sibling. The sound of Olive's voice always gets a smile from you. Jericho's often repeated chorus songs become your hums. You can say "No!" Once you said it to let Gaelan know that you wanted Mama's hand and not his! Your siblings are like gold to you, and you in turn are their treasure.

What will the future bring? I often say that you will have a place in this world in "any way you choose to express yourself." But I have specific hopes for you. I hope that you will learn to read and write Braille, so that you can enjoy on your own and with increasing complexity the books you love me to read to you. I hope for you to go to college and major in music, if this is your choice, so you can express your heart in this very special way. I want you to continue to love and be loved.

If I am very honest, I will admit that most nights I go to bed praying for you to find your voice. This whole story is very one-sided. These days, your future is dancing on the tip of your tongue, waiting for you to breathe life into it. What will you say once you decide to talk? We patiently await your voice, as we tried to wait patiently for you to come home. It will surely be a holy experience when you start to speak, and I can't wait to hear you!

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