It still surprises even me, but there are pictures in my basement and on my computer that I have never seen, it hurts too much…for now. Grace came to us with books of pictures, a baby book and a thumb drive full of years before she knew us, years before we knew she was our daughter. She wasn’t our daughter then, and that is such a difficult thought for my mind to grasp and accept that the reality of those pictures is just too much for my heart to handle right now. Honestly, I don’t even fully know why it is so painful to look, but it is getting easier…slowly.

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Then, there is Josie. Josie came to us with a handful of disposable cameras we sent in her care package. It took me about two months before I could develop them and take them in. After I developed them, the white paper envelopes from Walgreens sat unopened on my counter for weeks. I did not understand why it was so painful; only a few months before I met my girls every picture update I received in my e-mail was gold and made me sob for joy. Now, I didn’t recognize this gut-wrenching pain and confusion that absorbed every ounce of energy and emotion.

I finally opened them. I positioned myself at my dining room table with a cup of coffee in hand. I picked a day I felt fairly stable emotionally; they were rare in the beginning. I peeled back one envelope at a time, eight total, packed full of pictures. Poor quality, dim lighting, fuzzy images; one at a time I held each picture, tried to analyze each image, each scene and set, each child, nanny, and object.

Somehow, I knew Josie had a best friend, even before we saw him. Maybe it was just a good guess, maybe it was more. I knew. I asked her orphanage director and nanny while we sat on the floor of our hotel room in Jinan that day. Josie sat wide-eyed and limp in my arms, sucker in hand, “Yes, Yuanyuan and he have been together since they were born. They are best friends, they spend all their time together.” Then, her nanny pulled out her iPhone and showed me a picture, “Josie and he are the favorites,” the tour guide translated for the nanny. But that day was so blurry and chaotic. I forgot all about him until I saw his face again, and again, sorting through those photos. Of the many rolls of film and couple hundred pictures, only about fifty were distinguishable, and of those, more than fourteen were of Josie and her best friend, her orphanage “brother.”

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It must seem, to her, like death, like he died, like a part of her died. It must feel like she was split in two, like her identity was stolen, like she was stolen. I know it was right to adopt her, I do not question our decision. I know she had no hope of adoption in China or survival on the street or in an institution for the rest of her life. But family and opportunities do not make up for the loss and they do not quench the pain of loss. Of course she longs for China and the culture; China is part of her. Of course she misses her orphanage, the nannies and the other children; the white walls and rows of cribs were her home and now the setting of her memory. Of course she misses her best friend; he was the light in her day. She had no mother to hold her at night, but during the days, she had him. She had no mommy to hug and cuddle her, but she had his hugs, she held his hand, she gazed into his smile and his kind eyes, and she was not lonely. I know there were times she was hungry and cold, sick and uncomfortable, but there was never a time she didn’t have a friend and a brother.

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I am glad he is part of a strong and loving family now, and someday, we hope he and Josie Yuanyuan will play and hold hands and hug each other again. Nothing will make it right. Our baby girl will never have what I wish I could give her. She will never have her first mama, her first culture, her China, her first friends even… I can’t make up for her past and all the wrongs she suffered, but I can look ahead and try to make her future as bright as possible. And when she hurts and aches, I can ache alongside her because now I understand what hurts a tiny bit more. I can hold her and we can cry together and look at pictures. If she wants, we can dream together of living in China or in a loft in New York city, traveling to her finding place or exploring Hawaii, finding her first family one day or tracing her adopted family roots in Scotland and Ireland. I know it might hurt too much or it might be exactly what she needs.

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Soon, I plan to bring out the pictures again and allow the images of my babies in the arms of other women and in places I do not recognize to wash over my brain so I can attempt to know and understand them better. These pictures are a gift and a treasure; the only history we have of those early years. And if the pictures make my girls happy, I plan to take their favorites and frame them and hang them on our wall alongside our years of family pictures. The past is painful, but in time I hope we can remember the good and celebrate it and soak-in the complex mix of our beautiful mess. There was a time that my precious daughters belonged to another mama and to another country. Ideally, they would have travelled no further than from my womb to my arms, but I do not love a false image of Grace Jieling and Josie Yuanyuan, I love them. My daughters’ life stories are hard to hear and harder to embrace, most difficult for no one but them. Pain, heartache, and loss is part of their story, but it is not the theme. So, with waves of emotion, I will not ignore and I will not vainly attempt to erase; I will wrap my daughters up in my arms and embrace every tiny bit of past and future. I will not forget, that out of countless more accomplished and deserving women, there is only one woman in the world who has this privileged role in their lives. I get to be her for this day and for as long as we live.

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