As many of you probably already know, the Dobrovits family lost their special little boy named Henry last week.
The story of his short two years on earth, and of how he ended up in their family, is an amazing one that needs to be shared. I had the honor of meeting Henry’s mother, Carla, at the Behold Conference both in 2011 and this year, and was profoundly impacted by the story of her discernment to adopt, and the journey they’ve been on since then. I’m glad Carla has been keeping a blog the whole time, so I can let her tell you their family’s story in her own words.
Here’s how it all started:
Usually I spend the first week of each January deciding what I want to focus on over the next calendar year. One year it was running – and I did a 1/2 Marathon. One year it was having my household run more smoothly – and I streamlined my laundry and cooking system to what works so well for us today (I really should add in cleaning one year though……)
But on January 1 of 2011, I did something totally out-of-character for me….I decided to let God decide what He wanted me to focus on this year. And as I prayed I thought it might be “helping orphans.”
Not knowing where else to start, Carla Googled helping orphans, and came across the Reeces’s Rainbow site. She saw the faces of all these beautiful special needs children in desperate needs of homes, and her soul was rocked. She continues:
I thought I had my mission. So many amazing families were raising money to pay the “ransom” to get these children home….there was NO TIME to save the thousands of dollars needed….these children had to get here to the US now!! So I resolved to give money to RR families in 2011. I was SURE that was what God wanted me to do in 2011.
But then, as I shared in my last post, I started looking at the “Waiting Children” listings….and I saw Henry.
It was like a lightning bolt.
He was the same age and at the same orphanage with a little boy called “Winston” who was missing part of his leg….Winston had a committed family with a few weeks. But Henry did not.
So I resolved to pray specifically for Henry to have a family. I prayed for him every day….often at Eucharistic Adoration (where Catholics go spend time in the presence of Jesus who we believe is present body, blood, soul and divinity in the consecrated bread)….and then one night….at 3 am….I woke up….and knew that God was telling me that WE WERE HIS FAMILY.
I did not hear voices. I knew this in the deepest part of my heart. I truly had no thoughts AT ALL of adoption before this. I was just going to pray and send money.
But God had other plans.
And then the thought hit her: how could she tell Paul, her husband?! Henry had severe special needs that would require extensive medical intervention. International adoptions are always expensive, international special needs adoptions even moreso — but this one would be a whopper even by those standards, not to mention the huge amounts of time and other resources this kind of adoption would require. Carla’s family already had six kids, so it’s not like they were sitting around with nothing to do. Carla was terrified. So here’s what she did next:
I was scared to death. Paul and I had been talking about how we were going to afford to send Brent (my oldest) to college in the fall and then Luke the year right after him…But we had also been talking about how to truly live our Christian faith in the very secular suburbs we were living and raising our children in.
So I prayed some more….asking God, “ARE YOU SURE??? I ALREADY HAVE 6 CHILDREN!!!” and also, “Please help me tell Paul. I am so scared.”
So on January 30 I presented all the information about Henry and Reece’s Rainbow to [Paul]. I told him that he is the head of our household and that I would not badger him about it but that I really felt this was what God was calling us to do in our marriage and family.
Then I did one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life.
I SHUT MY MOUTH for a month.
And over the next month their family faced severe, intense spiritual attack (yes, it’s real, and I will note that I’ve rarely seen it be as obvious and intense as when couples are discerning adoption). You can read Carla’s post for all the details, but let’s just say that pretty much everything that could have happened to make their lives difficult and put pressure on their marriage happened that month. Carla kept praying through it all, not badgering her husband about the adoption, but instead turning it over to God:
So I kept praying and Paul kept trying to keep up with the unexpected repairs and bills….and one Sunday…February 28….
Paul came home from an afternoon watching sports and celebrating his brother’s birthday with his mother and other brother….
and said we should do it. We should commit to Henry.
And we never looked back.
You can read her blog archives to get a feel for the roller coaster that ensued, with countless delays and frustrations getting Henry home. Finally, in September of last year, Carla was able to bring Henry home to meet his new family. Just a few weeks after they had him home, though, they found out that he’d been given the wrong diagnosis in his country, and that his disabilities were more severe than they’d realized. Thus began a whirlwind of doctor visits and therapist appointments and surgeries, sometimes far away from home. The medical bills and appointments began to pile up. Just last month Carla was writing about how desperately fatigued she’d become from yet another hospital stay full of complications and problems. But there was never any question of whether it was worth it, no calculations of whether the sacrifices the family was making for Henry were “paying off” for them. On November 3 of this year, Carla wrote:
When your adopted child rouses from post surgery anesthesia on a vent searching frantically with his eyes… And his meet yours… And his whole body softens and relaxes and he squeezes your finger and slowly and peacefully closes his eyes again.
Yeah, that moment…
Worth every penny, every sleepless night, every hardship.
Then, last Wednesday, after fighting an infection that suddenly got worse after one of his many surgeries, Henry passed away. He was only two years old.
The same day that Henry was called home, this amazing article by Cristina Nehring was published in Slate. Nehring was a self-described career woman who never wanted children, and she writes powerfully about what she has learned since becoming a single mother to a daughter with Down syndrome who is also battling cancer (h/t to the Evangelista). The piece centers around Nehring’s response to a book by Andrew Solomon that examines parent-child relationships, often from a coldly utilitarian perspective. In response to the “what’s in it for me?”, “I want to have perfect kids that don’t interrupt my important goals” mentality that pervades the book (as well as so much of our culture), Nehring responds powerfully:
[Her daughter, Eurydice's] gifts are the opposite of my own: Where I am shy, she is bold; where I am good with (known) words, she is good with drama, dance, and music; where I am frightened of groups, she loves them, and the children in her preschool compete hard to sit by her side at lunchtime as the nurses in her hospital petitioned to be assigned to her room.
Am I “cheerily generalizing” as Solomon says of other Down syndrome parents, “from a few accomplishments” of my child? Perhaps I am. But one thing I’ve learned these last four years that possibly Solomon has not: All of our accomplishments are few. All of our accomplishments are minor: my scribblings, his book, the best lines of the best living poets. We embroider away at our tiny tatters of insight as though the world hung on them, when it is chiefly we ourselves who hang on them. Often a dog or cat with none of our advanced skills can offer more comfort to our neighbor than we can. (Think: Would you rather live with Shakespeare or a cute puppy?) Each of us has the ability to give only a little bit of joy to those around us. I would wager Eurydice gives as much as any person alive.
I kept thinking of that second paragraph as I mourned Henry’s death along with Carla and her family, and watched from a distance as they displayed such hope — and even a certain kind of joy — in the face of their circumstances. If there were a crystal ball that would have revealed how everything would play out with Henry’s adoption — that he would be on earth with his family for a painfully short time, that he wouldn’t live long enough to be able to say “I love you,” or even to lift his little head — worldly wisdom would tell the Dobrovits family to skip the whole thing. The cost-benefit ratio would tell them that this adoption wouldn’t be “worth it.”
But the Dobrovits’ understand something that the world does not: That you can’t run cost-benefit ratios when it comes to relationships with other human beings. It’s impossible. Because on the “cost” side you might have finite things like a dollar amount of medical bills, or missed deadlines on personal projects; but on the “benefit” side you are have an eternal connection with another soul that will last even after everything in this world falls away. You can’t compare dollars or time to love; one is finite, the other is infinite.
Carla and I were exchanging notes earlier this week, and she talked about the explosion of love and graces that came from Henry’s short life, that have had an impact far beyond their own family. At the end of one of her emails she said, “I just keep thinking how God truly uses ‘the least of these’ to do his most important work.” As Cristina Nehring said in her article, we walk around thinking our worldly ambitions are so important; we worry about other people inconveniencing us and preventing us from carrying out our oh-so-important plans. But to look at a life like her daughter’s, or Henry’s, is to be profoundly humbled, and to realize that none of that matters. The most important contribution any of us could ever make to the world is also the simplest, and perhaps the hardest: it is simply to love.
The other day I was talking with a friend of mine about the spiritual challenges that we face on a day-to-day basis (which is completely representative of all of our conversations; we only ever talk about how we might grow in holiness, and would never, ever spend 30 minutes complaining about the annoying things we saw on Twitter that morning). She asked me what my biggest struggle was, and I came up with this:
Knowing the difference between difficult situations that are crosses that God is asking me to carry, and difficult situations that that are hard and bad because I need to change something.
The example I always think of is of a time back when we had three kids under age three. The baby didn’t sleep through the night, my heavy 18-month-old still wasn’t walking, my two-year-old was going for an Olympic Medal in the Terrible Twos, nap schedules were too critical to my survival to risk leaving the house, Joe was working 12-hour days, and I had no help during the week. Oh, and, to give me a little foretaste of what I would eventually experience with baby number five, our second child spent a large percentage of her waking hours screaming at the top of her lungs. A gust of wind blew her hair the wrong direction? Five minutes of screaming. I offered her green beans and she wanted peas? Eight minutes of screaming. She had been happily drawing on the couch with a sharpie and Mommy No-Fun took it away from her? Fifteen minutes of rolling-on-the-floor, kicking, thrashing, screaming.
Those were some long days.
I think I have told you before about the crazy moment when I was standing in the middle of my living room, begging God for help, and I heard a knock on the door. I answered it, and it was a new neighbor asking if I needed a babysitter. She was in between jobs, and looking for a short-term gig. Also, because she didn’t have a car and needed something she could walk to, she was willing to offer me a ridiculously low, single-digit hourly rate. (And I am not exaggerating when I tell you that she knocked when I was literally in the middle of saying a prayer.)
I stared at her for a moment, trying to take in the craziness of this situation. Finally I caught my breath, and I boldly answered: “I need to think about it.”
“You said what?!” Joe asked when I recounted the situation later. He added a request that “if Publisher’s Clearing House shows up at our door with one of those huge cardboard checks for a million dollars next time you’re saying a prayer, please do not tell them you need to think about it.”
I sighed, and put on my extra-weary voice as I replied (wishing he could see me gazing into the distance like a saint on a prayer card), “Alas, we can’t afford any help.” (I think I actually said “alas.”)
He pointed out that, at that low of a rate, just cutting back on groceries would mostly cover a few hours a week of this lady’s help. We could draw from savings to cover anything beyond that, especially since it would only be for a few months until she found another job. Then I responded that we didn’t know if we could trust her, and he countered that she had friends in the neighborhood and I’d be home while she was here anyway. We went back and forth like this for days, me offering a reason it wouldn’t work and Joe offering a reason why it would, until I finally ran out of excuses. And when I contemplated the prospect of accepting this as an answered prayer, I was mildly terrified.
I hadn’t wanted this prayer answered — not really. Maybe if God had arranged it so that Joe could work from home, or my mom could retire and move in with us and found that she wanted nothing more than to volunteer to watch the kids half the day, that would have been cool. But I didn’t really want help with my situation if it wasn’t help that was on my terms. Though I had been all ready to have a scribe document my sufferings for a future volume of The Lives of the Saints, the reality is that that suffering was easy for me in a certain way. Yes, my days were long and hard and pushed me to my limit. But I was in my comfort zone; it was a kind of struggle that felt familiar to someone of my temperament. It was a safe kind of suffering.
And — most importantly — I was in control. Sure, the kids and I were trapped in a house all day every day and we were kind of starting to lose our minds, but at least there were no unknowns. I was queen of my own little world. Granted, it may have been a little world that had all the vibe of a pirate ship about to teeter into mutiny, but at least I was queen of it.
But the prospect of accepting this answered prayer changed all of that. Accepting someone else’s help would mean introducing all sorts of question marks into my life. I felt almost suffocated under the weight of the unknowns: What if she and I didn’t click?! What if the kids didn’t like her?! What if she judged me for being a terrible housekeeper?! What if she was so shocked at our feral existence that she ran out the door, screaming while dialing CPS?!
One of my favorite writers, Marion Fernandez-Cueto, once wrote an article called Surrender the Choosing that I’ve kept to review often (and possibly tattoo on my back). She says:
Most Christians are willing to suffer a cross, I think, but we want them to be crosses of our own designation, not Christ’s. Thus the saints have always taught that a small suffering imposed by circumstance and embraced for love for God can be worth far more than the strictest voluntary penance. However virtuous the latter, it is often marred by the stamp of self-will. In contrast, the unsought burdens of life present marvelously pure opportunities for grace; our self-will, which recoils from them, is utterly absent from their origin. In the vacuum left by our own designs, God waits to flow in. It is Him alone we must choose.
So I got the babysitter, and everything changed. As an introvert, it was initially a challenge for me to have an adult I didn’t know in the house during the day, but the way that situation stretched me was healthy, needed, and good. Now that I no longer had the excuse that I could do nothing more than survive each day, I looked around and noticed some seriously neglected areas of our family’s lives. I ended up being called to change and grow and carry plenty of new crosses, only these weren’t comfortable and familiar like my old, self-imposed one; with these, I actually had to rely on God since I had no idea what I was doing. (It’s also worth noting that the babysitter was a fallen-away Christian whose relatives had been fervently praying for her, and we ended up having some great, long discussions about religion. Maybe it was an answered prayer for her, too?)
The situation is kind of silly since it didn’t involve any dramatic, life-and-death discernment issues, but I think of it often since it was such a clear case of clutching my own, self-made cross rather than openly following Christ and accepting whatever sacrifices I encounter on the path. As I said to my friend the other day, I think this is an area of discernment I’ll always struggle with: I’d rather suffer more and be in control than suffer less and be out of control.
Unfortunately I haven’t come up with a clear checklist of Signs that You Might Be Being a Control Freak and Not the Glorious Martyr You Think You Are, but I’m learning to be better at discernment in this area. I’m certainly motivated to do so, because I have found over and over again that God’s burden is indeed the lighter one. The crosses he gives us come with the grace to carry them; the crosses we drag along on our own my have worn, familiar grooves that make them fit nicely on our shoulders, but ultimately, they are so much more heavy.