The world’s eyes were wide-open during the shocking documentary broadcasted by ABC News in 1990—horrific and inhuman conditions of tiny humans living in Romanian orphanages.
If it wasn’t in God’s plan for me to carry a child traditionally, I would carry as many children in my arms out of those horrific conditions as they would allow.
In the wee morning hours in September, we anxiously set off to be parents. This was the last time we would sit together as just husband and wife. I have dreamt a million times of these details. A teary, loving new dad, the smell of fresh blooms, and a bassinet displaying a handwritten card describing the details of our new love.
A puddle of tears, I sat in the backseat letting my mind race along with the engine of the car.
Three long hours of dirt-filled backroads shared with horse and buggies was nothing I remember from my dreams. A man speaking broken English driving erratically to meet a promise of having us arrive on time.
In front of me stood orphanage number five, a state run home for 250 children ages birth to three years old. A massive granite building with large pillars almost giving it a castle appearance. My hand was immediately met with a speechless, loving husband who set out on this journey with me years earlier.
Inside, we were greeted by a stern-looking woman who immediately broke the framework of her face and smiled. We were motioned to sit in the dimly lit room. After showing identification and handing off the perfectly packed bag, enclosing meticulously chosen, fresh-smelling clothing, we were told “one minute.”
In 60 seconds, our lives changed forever.
With a full head of curls, our daughter Maria was placed in my arms. Bright blue eyes set off her olive skin. Two perfect chiclet teeth appeared in the smile that peered up at me. At 11 months and only 10 pounds, our daughter felt more like a newborn.
We were given a tour of the nursery. In the far right corner of an industrial looking room hung a handwritten index card taped to a pipe above a crib. That index care with Maria’s name on it was the only similarity I found in this experience that I had dreamt so many times before.
Not everyone is able to love a child they did not give birth to. I was asked several times if we were making the right decision. Maybe we shouldn’t have children if we weren’t able to make one of our own. Some worried that Maria would never attach to us as her parents. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Craiova, Romania, October 26, 1998, baby Maria Rose was born. Not grown in my belly, but in my heart. I have loved and longed for a child my whole life. Although having delays in speech and cognitive development, she was our Romanian princess, and we were in love.
Days of blowing bubbles, introducing new foods, anything to get her motor skills moving became my full-time job. By the age of three, she still wasn’t speaking in full sentences. Teaching Maria and ourselves sign language was a fun way to alleviate any frustration she had in trying to communicate.
Maria attended preschool for children with special needs in our local district. She was social and had a personality that often filled in the gaps that widened when being compared to traditional students. While my heart broke watching her struggle, my love had no conditions. For as long I took a breath, I would be here guiding and loving her.
Being the parent of a child with special needs comes with equal levels of joy and heartache. Isolation can take over if you let it. Advocating for your child doesn’t come with a predetermined finish line. You tend to listen to the helpers and turn away from the criticism.
Fast forward 21 years, Maria is still the love of our lives. With a heart of gold, she thinks of others’ needs before herself. Maria has an infectious laugh and smile and makes friends easily. She loves animals and all that comes with nature.
Maria went on to graduate with her peers and complete a program entitled Project Search at our local hospital. After finishing three rotations, she was given high praise for her work ethic and reliability, yet no employment was offered.
Finding a special person who is willing to take a chance on someone different from themselves can be difficult.
After the disappointments she has faced in her life, it hasn’t deterred her. Taking every challenge handed to her with an upbeat approach has made that her mantra.
After traditional education finished, we had to come up with ideas to keep Maria learning and being social. Then a pandemic hit, so most ideas were put on hold. After purchasing a simple paint-by-number set, she was hooked. Maria worried at first when she would paint outside of the lines. I remember her concern and thinking how can I explain what my heart is feeling.
We talked about the different lines in life—some are meant to be used as rules, like the ones you see on the highway. If you veer outside of those lines, you will probably get hurt. Other lines are in our lives to act as guides, and there is no risk involved. Maria’s finished paintings never look like the packaging. A creative soul, Maria puts her spin on the pictures and colors and creates masterpieces of her own.
We were recently contacted about the possibility of selling some of Maria’s paintings. From a mom merely bragging and sharing with friends over social media, feelings of possibility and excitement came with a renewed faith that everything will work out.
I remind Maria that our life is a journey. What might work for some won’t work for everyone. We may not walk the same path that others do, but along the way, we will continue to seek purpose in every step.
Maria has changed our lives immensely. Seeing the world through her eyes brings out the joy in all of us. With all that we have taught Maria, she has taught us so much more.