In the days preceding our youngest daughter’s adoption, my wife and I take a hair-raising taxi ride to her orphanage for one of several two-hour visits. Odessa’s visibly run-down northern district lacks the charm of the city center but is still very much alive. We careen past crammed streetcars. Curbside sellers of potatoes and watermelons line the main thoroughfare. Stray dogs dodge packs of pedestrians on the move. Stylish-looking twenty- and thirty-somethings wait impatiently at bus stops alongside frumpy pensioners. Boys and girls clad in white shirts and black slacks or skirts walk smartly to school while young mothers guide sleek strollers in and out of corner markets and convenience stores.
We turn off the bustling avenue and into a maze of backstreets that wind between dingy playgrounds and towering apartments. All of the latter seem designed from the same oversized building cut-out, bleak and sharp-edged but flecked with drying laundry, signal flags of life draped from countless windows. A kerchiefed, brown-sweatered woman hunches over a homemade broom and sweeps the ubiquitous dust from one place to another. The crumbling asphalt track our taxi takes is creatively bounded by old tires–upright, partially buried half-moons of faded blue, red, and green. Near the end of the road, we reach the chain-linked fence enclosing the orphanage. Our cab slows and then lurches forward haltingly. We answer the driver’s quizzical look with a nod and pay as we open the car doors and exit. Handing our visitors’ pass to the gatekeeper, we enter and continue on a short distance to a bench outside the building’s main doors as our greeter branches off toward the office, flip-flops dragging laconically over the pavement.
We are not permitted to peer into the inner sanctum of the orphanage. But the warm weather gives us no compelling reason to gratify our nosiness. We sit on the bench and wait, watching small children under the supervision of clinical-looking, white-coated nannies file outdoors. Many of these three- to five-year-olds walk unsteadily, and the nannies hustle them over to the railing with relentless business-like efficiency. Clutching the metal railing, they descend five steps to an apron of neatly cut brick framed by beds of marigolds and wildflowers. There, the children are reassembled into fragile chains held together by tiny fingers hooked into belt loops. Some nannies construct these chains gently. Most just yell at their charges, roughly prodding shoulders or pulling arms when progress slows as curious smiling eyes linger too long on us. We get the sense that the nannies resent our intrusion. We represent a distant hope for which these young ones dare not dream. At the moment, we are a distraction in a strictly controlled environment that brooks no nonsense. It is, after all, playtime. And nothing as trivial as a pair of friendly faces should delay that for even a minute.
The rows of children march from the welcome area and disperse throughout the orphanage grounds. Still waiting, we gaze after them with swelling sadness. Fifty feet away the neat brick yields to darkened cracked cement paths leading to play stations with squeaking swings and splintering carousels. In one direction, a dour German shepherd paces in front of a dirty dog house to the irregular clanging of a thick rusty chain. The tiled skeleton of a swimming pool long-empty lies buried in the shade of a weeping willow. Turning elsewhere, we glimpse beyond some trees the ruins of an orange-speckled castle of concrete set in a corner of the grounds. We learn later that it serves as a makeshift latrine. So as sounds of pre-lunch recess rise sporadically to our ears, we become aware that these ripples of gladness will soon disappear into the depressing eddy whirling around this orphanage and its young occupants. The desire to take more of them home washes over us.
We are relieved to see the door open and A. emerge in the arms of a nanny. Jumping to our feet, we retrieve a few diapers from our backpack and hand them to the woman. Nodding, she accepts this Pamper ransom and then finishes fussing with a knit cap resting awkwardly on our baby’s head. It’s a sunny day in late August. We smile plainly, reluctant to seem grateful for tenderness when the behavior we observe may be little more than suffocation. Free to roam the grounds, my wife and I find a secluded spot and begin to savor this precious time with our daughter.
Just shy of her first birthday and having Down syndrome, A. has no words for us. I hold her. She regards me with warm ambivalence and tightly sucks in both lips, smacks them like a toothless cartoon granny. Slight tickles near her underarms elicit truncated giggles. Her eyes widen as her mouth goes taut in a wild breathless grin, a moistened tongue pressing firmly against her lower lip. Already, I know I love her.
I lay her down on a blanket, and she begins to kick both feet playfully in the air with comic rapidity. She stops abruptly after ten quick repetitions and grabs a colorful rattling toy. While on her back, A. lifts it to her mouth with one hand. I tenderly raise the other to form a mutual grip around the toy. The first hand flops immediately to the blanket. Observing the same mechanical response a few times more, I marvel at the realization that my soon-to-be one-year-old daughter cannot hold an object with both hands simultaneously. I picture a circuit in her brain where the breaker has flipped and flash ahead to the work that awaits us once we get her home. My wife–a one-time occupational therapist–sets about the happy task of helping our daughter develop the muscle tone and agility to support herself in a forward-kneeling position. A. grunts and groans as her limbs give way and bend under the pressure of my wife’s gentle hands.
This groaning, I reason, stems from fatigue or frustration. It is not a cry of discomfort, not the demand for material satisfaction one would expect from a baby. The sound she makes is more guttural and raspy, a sigh that seems to express a longing for something deeper. It’s different. It exerts. It penetrates, striking me as a primitive verbalization of her struggle.
Coaxing her to reach, my wife and I jingle a toy overhead. Bright eyes follow the flash of color, and a hand stretches to grasp it. A groan. With some difficulty, she rolls to lay on her stomach. We draw the knees underneath her torso and lift up to extend her arms. Pushing on the ground, limp muscles tense. A groan presses from her lungs just before shoulders and arms give way in a soft collapse. Stubby fingers open and close, and she listens attentively to the sharp zip of their scratching on the nylon blanket. She shifts her gaze to a little blue ball and fiddles with its rubber nubs. Again, a friction-laced cooing sound . . . a baby’s groan.
Alert to a light breeze sweeping across the orphanage grounds, she tightens her neck and back and cranes her head. She tilts her eyes upward even further and horizontal wrinkles cross her forehead. I pretend that this is the first time she has felt the wind on her cheeks. I study her countenance and see a person engaged in the struggle to understand her world. And I am awe of the persistent effort she makes. I imagine now that her groans are groans of anticipation . . . groans of hope.
She reminds me that all of us groan under the weight of our corporeal imperfections and disabilities. We may manage on most days–some even thrive, often–but none can escape the mundane pull of gravity. Its drag never fully dissolves this side of eternity. Some of us may gulp down the antidote of joy, gracefully supplied. Still, we pass the days in these bodies of ours–these tents, steadily sagging and rain-soaked. We reach and ache and long to shed this earthly skin and be crowned with garb more real . . . to be truly alive.
“For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened–not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” (2 Corinthians 5:2-5)
In Children of the Living God, Sinclair Ferguson writes about this groaning–this longing for a home yet unseen . . . but one that we know has been prepared for us.
“We are waiting eagerly ‘for the adoption of sons,’ when, in the resurrection, our whole being will share in the new life of the risen Christ, who is our Elder Brother. Then we will bear the full family likeness of the sons of God. This is not a groan of despair; it is a groan of hope. And because we already have the firstfruits of the Spirit, the adoption certificate and guarantee, we know that our hope will not be disappointed.” (pp.125-26)
So as I listen in wonder to the groans of my daughter, I smile and think wistfully that her groans express hope . . . hope for the day when we will welcome her home. As a father, I long for that day. And when I contemplate my Heavenly Father hearing the groans of His children with an even greater love and longing, it brings tears of joy.