Somewhere in north Tulsa, Oklahoma in the spring of 2003 I sat in our champagne colored Nissan Quest minivan waiting for Marie to come back out of a house that I’d never seen until a few minutes earlier. In the van with me was my nine-year-old son Jake, and Brandon. Brandon was an eight-year-old boy I had met the day before at a different foster parent’s home in east Tulsa and the half-brother of the little girl I was waiting to meet.
As the door to that little white house opened, out stepped Marie, my auburn-haired wife of seventeen years at that time. Marie was followed by Emma, the little girl I had come to meet, and Jodi, Emma’s foster mom. My eyes fixed upon Emma and I instantly knew this would be the only day I would ever know her.
Marie and I had been considering adoption for quite a while. Our oldest biological son Jacob had arrived to us after several miscarriages. What a blessing he is! So much so that Marie and I both wanted another child. Whatever the reasons we just couldn’t seem to get pregnant again and we began to wonder if we would ever have another child. Marie suggested adoption and I agreed it would be great to consider.
After a whirlwind of research, inquiry with the State of Oklahoma foster care system and weeks of evening adoption classes we were on a list of prospective parents just looking for the right child. Marie then received a call from Oklahoma asking if we’d consider a pair of siblings. Marie asked to meet me at an Arby’s off I-44 near her work for lunch where she then explained to me that there is an eight-year-old boy and his five-year-old half-sister that are in an “emergency” placement situation and would I please consider two, not just one. With some reservation and curiosity, I said “Yes. Let’s meet them.”
As Emma stepped out of that house to the concrete landing at the top of seven or eight concrete stairs she immediately grabbed for Marie’s hand. She was about three feet nothing tall with two pigtails, eyeglasses placed on the wrong part of her nose, an infectious smile from ear to ear and braces on her legs. All I could focus on was the braces.
When the State had called, they told us that Emma had cerebral palsy. “What is cerebral palsy?”
Keep in mind it is 2003 and we have a dial up modem. I did a little research through Netscape. Yes, kids. There was a time before Google had every answer to every question you could ask. And what I found wasn’t encouraging. There were a mishmash of results and, well, not very organized at that. Confusing, really. All I could really get out of what I was finding was that CP (cerebral palsy) was essentially brain damage, often caused by premature birth. Worse, there was no one consensus result for CP but rather endless possibilities as to what the challenges would be. Great. “We’ll meet her any way.” I thought. “And if we don’t want to move forward we can just look for a ‘better’ child.”
Down the stairs Emma came with one hand in the hand of her foster mom, Jodi, and the other my wife, Marie. With those braces supporting her rail thin legs, each step was a waiting adventure.
“I’m not doing this the rest of my life.” I said to myself too ashamed for anyone to hear. I mean, honestly, who looks forward to having a handicapped kid?
We had heard that Emma’s favorite meal was a chocolate milkshake and french fries from Braum’s. It would be too awkward to put a stop to this now so we’ll go ahead and take her to Braum’s, get her the milkshake and fries and then get her, and her half brother Brandon, back to their respective foster homes and go back and wait for that “better” child to magically appear.
I really can’t honestly say I remember what we ordered at Braum’s but I’m going to assume it was five chocolate milkshakes and five orders of french fries. When I brought the bounty to the table I was sat directly across from Emma. As I sat there and tried to make small talk and eat my fries and devour my milkshake I was completely distracted by this little girl sitting across from me. She wasn’t eating her french fries and she was barely touching her milkshake.
Emma mostly sat there at five years old, elbows on the table, hands beneath her chin, eyeglasses at the end of her nose, staring at me and seemingly not blinking at all.
“Oh, boy. I may be in trouble.” I didn’t say it out loud but I heard it loud and clear in my brain.
“Stay strong.” I told myself.
When Marie reminded me that we had promised to go to a local park afterwards I knew I had to fulfill my promise. It’s how I am even to this day. And though I didn’t want to have anything to do with a “handicapped” kid and her brother I was a “good” person because I keep my word. (I cringe even as I write this.)
Let me ask all you parents out there who drive minivans filled with kids a question; What happens when you have three children under the age of ten and you come to a complete stop in a proper parking space at any park with a swing sets, monkey bars and a tall, tall metal ladder?
That is right. Even before the gear shift of the Quest had been fully engaged into park the doors flew open with Jake and Brandon leaping out of the van, whooping and hollering as they set off on a dead run to the playground equipment about forty yards away… followed immediately by Emma.
Remember those braces on her legs? Remember her having to hold hands as she descended those concrete stairs? Emma could walk or run about ten steps and then every time would fall down forward, bracing her fall using her hands and arms as shock absorbers, and then get back on her feet. Over and over and over and over again covering those approximately forty yards to the playground equipment. What are Marie and I supposed to do?
Do we pick her up and carry her? Do we brace her falls? Do we hold her hands? How exactly are we supposed to protect her? Where is the manual that should have been given to us to have this child for even an hour?
We did try to hold her hand. I did try to pick her up. She was moving too fast! And too determined. “Hmm. I like her spirit.”
Emma didn’t go straight to the small child equipment. You know the ones, the duck or stool that wobbles back and forth. Or the smaller child swing. As I look back on my memories I realize now that I had no idea what the boys were doing because I was hyper focused on Emma heading straight for that tall, tall metal ladder. You know the ladder, right? It was about two feet taller than me with no siding on the slide.
And up she went. What do we do?!?
Marie immediately got in behind her standing on the ground with both hands just inches from her body so that she would be there to catch her when she inevitably fell. After all, this was the child that couldn’t run fifteen feet without falling down and now she wants to climb this ladder and slide?
About half way up, and with the limberness that only a five-year-old girl can possess, Emma leaned back, hands and legs supporting her on the ladder rungs, and looked Marie in the eye and boldly exclaimed “I can do this myself!”
With the speed of a lightning bolt, I fell in love.
Emma changed my life, my outlook and many of my views on just about everything. Emma set me on a course to become a better person, a better father and husband. Emma set me on a path to become a better human being. I write these memories as a keepsake of who I was and who Emma ignited me to become. I write these memories to preserve the light that Emma provided.
We lost Emma in February of 2018. Even in her tragic passing, Emma taught me more lessons. Sometimes we want to cry out to God and ask “Why?” Sometimes we cry out to Him in anger. And sometimes we just cry. Yet, this is what I know; God blessed us, me, with Emma for fifteen years. And for that I am eternally grateful.
It takes enormous hearts to struggle with a handicapped child, but even great hearts to adopt a child you know will have lifelong difficulties. Emma was very lucky to have you and Marie enter her life, and I know she was an absolute blessing to the both of you.
Thank you, Jim. She blessed me more than I could have ever blessed her.
There is something powerful about a story well told. You didn’t have Facebook then. You couldn’t record on video. But, to see the scene come to life from this moment so wonderfully told I can’t help but fall in love with this little girl and the relationship she’d forge with her daddy. Thanks for sharing this memory. It’s beautiful.
Thank you Criss.
Chris, what a compelling story. I don’t know many people who would spill their guts like you just did. I ADMIRE YOU GREATLY!. I am so sorry for your loss! Hang in there boss.
Emma was perfect the way she was. I thank God she had you and Marie to love her! Thank you both for being two of the most amazing people I know.
Beautiful, the entrance of love in a parent’s heart. And this for sure is an event that represents Emma. Strong and independent from the start. So glad you are sharing.