“Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean.” – Proverbs 14:4
Nine months home, and we’re still trying to make sense of it all – attempting to figure out our new normal and all the change that these months have brought. Life is radically redefined. And most days, that Proverb feels like it was written specifically about our messy manger. Adoption is not for those who want their families to remain neat and tidy. It’s more about sacrificing your home, your finances, your health, your family, and your have-it-all-together image to wage war for the healing of one child.
Getting through some moments takes hard-core survival skills. Yet when we look back, we see progress – movement, be it teeny steps, toward health and wholeness and just life like a regular kid. How about a timeline and photo dump, then keep on reading for the heavy stuff.
Months 0-2: Malachi is in America. Five and a half years old and fresh out of the orphanage. He knows absolutely no English, and we’re using visual schedules to trudge through the day. He’s monkey crawling around the house and eating like one too. He’s got parasites, a potentially life-threatening bowel blockage, 7 cavities, an unexplained rash on his abdomen, and a mom-diagnosed anxiety disorder. He’s terrified of Mia the dog. We’re visiting the doctor every other day trying to triage all of the orphanage health problems plus get a grip on spina bifida – his permanently disabling birth defect. Maddox and Malachi are screaming at each other constantly, and we’re using hula hoops to confine them and survive play time. Do not, under any circumstance, leave the hula hoop, little ones. Malachi learns his English letters and sounds. He eats only pasta and rice. In a moment of subsequent joy and utter panic, we find out I am pregnant.
Months 3- 5: We now have braces, a walker, a wheelchair, a nightly enema routine, an occupational therapist, and a physical therapist who outlaws crawling around like a monkey. We start making him use his walker 100% of the time. Malachi has two surgeries and a major post-operation meltdown in the middle of Orlando’s Ronald McDonald House. I’m alone with him, 12 weeks pregnant, and bear hugging him to keep him from harming himself or me. In other news, Mitch leaves his job, we sell our house in Clearwater, begin to plant Redeemer City Church, move in with my parents, and start building a house in Tampa. The transition causes Malachi fear and more anxiety and temporarily wrecks progress. He starts a half-day program in school, and does remarkably well (minus the spitting in a kid’s face episode). English is improving. He’s blending sounds and reading three-letter words. He’s learning the Kuhn family way of rewards and consequences. He now likes pizza, cheese steaks, carrots, milk, ice cream, and peanut butter sandwiches.
Months 6 – 9: Malachi celebrates his 6th birthday. He learns to ride a bike with training wheels and special pedals. An occupational therapist helps us teach him to self-regulate. We start to see him cope with anxiety a little better, and we begin constantly throwing out scripts like “stay in the green.” We learn all kinds of occupational therapy tricks that help us manage behavior and stay half-way sane. He becomes responsible for time management and his own “tasks.” Most days he manages to do his super-long bathroom routines 75% independently. Maddox and Malachi find a more stable and typical brotherly love-hate relationship. They share a room at Gigi and Papouli’s house and decide they’d prefer not to have their own rooms in the new house. (Not gonna happen. It was designed with 4 bedrooms for parental peace. You two shall be separated.) They can play independently together for up to an hour of busting ghosts and saving the world from villains. Malachi rocks it counting by tens in his end-of-the-year school program. He begins using forearm crutches instead of his wheeled walker, and we only pull out the wheelchair for long distances. He is almost fluent in English and learning to swim. He has begun guitar lessons, and he eats whatever we eat.
Looking back at progress is beautiful, but surviving the individual days is unsightly. The moments where we choose frustration instead of compassion are too many. We never know the right answers, and we struggle to offer enough nurture with the structure. We trudge through night terrors and wounds that we pray God will someday heal. We’re just limping along asking God to make up for the 50 million ways we’re sure we’re doing it wrong.
Each day is a battle with our own broken flesh. This child has forced us to look at our own sinful, ugly hearts and wrestle with idols we never before knew were inside. Any winning moments where we choose true empathy instead of selfish annoyance come from something outside of ourselves – a supernatural grace. Adoption has wrecked us…. albeit wrecked us afresh. For now, we see and savor the amazing grace that is showered from above. Just enough grace for each day. And tomorrow morning, His mercies will be new again. At some point you realize, this might never get easier and that’s ok. For this is our privilege and calling.
We said yes to this life in what we now realize was a moment of God-given naivety. Thank you Jesus that when we saw a photo of that 4-year-old boy in September 2014, we were innocent enough to think we had the guts and gusto to parent a child who came from a really hard place – to face daily enemas and catheterization and physical therapy and surgeries and trauma and neglect. Because we now know full well, we didn’t and we don’t.
We read all of the adoption books. But none of them said that he’d be absent-minded and unintentionally destructive. We couldn’t foresee that he’d be tense and hyper in even the most relaxing family moments. No one told us the wheels of his walker would destroy the baseboards and run over our toes, and his braces would scrape the car. We didn’t daydream about what incontinence would actually entail. We didn’t envision skipping our anniversary because after 8 months home he still wasn’t ready to be left with anyone else. I’m thankful for ignorance, lest we would have given the wrong answer when we heard the call – and God forbid, rejected His invitation to an entirely new normal.
We thought this story was going to be about assimilating a child from a broken past into a comfortable, stable home. We were wrong. Our two worlds had to be forged together. And our home, which I think had been comfortable and stable, was shattered under the weight of the brokenness it welcomed. We plucked him from his life and forced him to change. But he has done the same to us. Adoption changed his life, but it changed ours more. It has transformed us – not with the pretty and picturesque but with heavy burdens and difficult truths. This little boy has pulled back the curtain of our hearts and exposed what most of us willfully and successfully hide – that we’re all broken and messed up. We’ve got lots of junk filling our deceitfully wicked hearts. And as heroic and humanitarian as we want to appear, we just really really need a whole lot of Jesus to get through every hour. In most ways, adoption has wrecked our lives. We’re just now wise enough to recognize it has been wrecked for the better.
Our soon-to-be three little oxen make our manger a beautiful mess. But oh do we love them to the moon and back.