National News

Watching a family's love grow at Christmas

Posted December 30, 2017 12:07 p.m. EST

No matter how much we might plan, love is rarely on time. And so the family in the hallway is startled when the elevator doors slide open, and they see their daughter for the very first time.

She neither runs to them, nor they to her. Instead, it is an awkward dance of translated introductions and tentative hugs in an orphanage waiting room in the Guangdong province of China.

It is mid-November and Natalie and Jeff Brandes are some 9,000 miles from their St. Petersburg home. As of that moment, so is the 8-year-old girl standing before them.

Jeff and Natalie have talked about this for years. During the early days of their marriage, and through the births of daughter Lottie and sons Colin and Conor. They had the means, and they felt the calling.

And now they were learning the reality of adopting an older child.

So when does love arrive?

Maybe it starts when they are preparing to leave. Jeff, who once spent 14 months deployed in Iraq as a U.S. Army first lieutenant, watches as Fu Ying (a.k.a. Lizzie) forever walks away from the only home she has known, and drives off with a pair of strangers.

"When she got in the car with us,'' he says, "I thought this was the bravest little girl in the world.''

• • •

They have agreed to tell this story, not for themselves and not for Lizzie, but for all the children left behind.

They've been following them for a while. Through photos online. Through videos and dossiers. So many children, and so few families available.

The idea of adoption had been broached before, but life always got in the way. A new job, another birth, or a next campaign for Jeff, who is a Republican in the state Senate. When Natalie brought it up again as they drove to Tallahassee late last year, Jeff agreed it was time to start looking.

The mission was to find a child who needed them. Natalie's mother was born in China, and the country has an outsized percentage of girls in orphanages, so they began looking there for a special needs child.

Lizzie was a premature baby, abandoned in a box in a freeway tunnel. Because she appeared to have been born several weeks early, she was classified as developmentally disabled.

That diagnosis, along with increasingly difficult and bureaucratic hurdles to international adoptions, drastically reduced the chances of Lizzie being adopted early on. By the time the agency realized she didn't have any severe or long-term problems from her premature birth, she was already older than what most parents were looking for.

With a 9-, 6- and 4-year-old at home, Natalie and Jeff initially went in with the idea of adopting a toddler or baby. But after speaking with other parents who had adopted older children, and learning about Lizzie from afar, they decided she perfectly fit their desire to help a child in need.

Having said that, the first six weeks haven't all been easy. While she has no cognitive problems, Lizzie's emotional maturity seems to be somewhat stunted. She is closer to the level of her new 4-year-old brother, and has bonded with him more easily. She doesn't throw tantrums, but she does get manic when things go wrong. And the rest of the house is slowly learning how to adapt.

"I thought when I met her, we would just fall in love with each other. I knew in my head that it might not happen like that, but I had this hope,'' Natalie said. "That was very difficult at first, almost like I was failing somehow. But now I get almost daily moments of assurance. Just little moments when I can look around and say, 'This is all going to be okay.'?"

So when does love grow?

Maybe when Lizzie, still struggling to communicate, burps in front of the rest of the family. For a moment, she ponders the correct English response, and smiles when she thinks she has it.

"Good morning,'' she says.

• • •

One month into her American life, Lizzie loves chicken nuggets from McDonald's, Disney movies and swimming. All of which were brand new in her world.

Communication is a work in progress, but day-to-day life is pretty manageable. Natalie's mother, Winnie Jackson, was a little older than Lizzie when she came to the United States, and still speaks Cantonese.

Winnie accompanied the Brandeses to China (along with daughter Lottie) to be there for the adoption, and stayed with them for a short time when they got home. When she returned to her home near Boston, she would call Lizzie each night before bedtime to review that day and talk about the next.

Jeff and Natalie also have an app on their phones that allows them to speak an English word and have the Cantonese version spit back out, and vice versa.

The plan was to wait until January to enroll Lizzie in a private school, but she seemed so eager she began second grade almost immediately.

Little by little, she is picking up on her new culture. Winnie explained Christmas and Santa Claus to her, although Lizzie seems a little dubious.

There are other, smaller signs that hint to Lizzie's previous world. She is tough, for instance. Slow to cry if she falls or gets hit in the mouth with a toy. She clings to her possessions. Natalie had bought Barbie dolls for both Lottie and Lizzie while they were in China. Lottie's now seems to be MIA, but Lizzie's first doll rests prominently on her pillow.

"We started on this journey sort of looking at it through our own eyes, but it's kind of morphed,'' Natalie said. "You're exposed to this need, and you realize it's not about you anymore. It doesn't matter how difficult things might be on any given day because what they need is more important. There's no need I have that will ever compare to what they've been through.

"These kids have no families and their futures are bleak, and they deserve better than that.''

So when does love arrive?

Maybe when Jeff comes home from work, and Lizzie is the first child to greet him through the door. She hands him a gift wrapped in green tissue paper. It's a Christmas ornament she made that day in school.

Did you make this for me, he asks with a big smile.


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