The Straka Family

(left to right) Kelci, Noelle, Chris, Andy, Bonnie, Aimee, Lily


Andy and Bonnie February 2009

-Beijing  (New Day Foster Home, Love Without Boundaries Heartbridge)

-Jiangxi province (Luke's home province for adoption)

-Guangzhou (American Consulate)

February 18, Red Couch Picture White Swan Hotel, Luke, Mommy, and Daddy Preparing To Return Home!

February 18, Red Couch Picture White Swan Hotel, Luke, Mommy, and Daddy Preparing To Return Home!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Easter Update

We have now been home with Luke for a little over 7 weeks. We are starting to achieve a new family equilibrium and Luke is settling in, carving out his own niche. We celebrated Easter today as a family of eight, with Chris home from Duke for the weekend. Luke loved the trail of chocolate eggs that the bunny left, and marveled over the stash of goodies that awaited him in the basement! Our very clever Easter bunny even color-coded the eggs for each child, and once Luke realized that he was supposed to collect all the chocolates that were wrapped in green, he was off and running, chirping "GaWeen! GaWeen for Luke! Oh my goodness! GaWeen!". His unbridled enthusiasm is such a joy to see. His excitement over finding an old pair of plastic purple sunglasses in the car was so great that he almost couldn't even put them on for the sheer joy of holding them in his hands. His backpack is still his almost-constant companion. Only the contents change a bit from time to time. He loves to bake with me, explore outside almost anywhere and everywhere, to read, color, "twiggle" and play. He loves his clothes and has already declared a few favorites: his brown belt, his robot T-shirt, and his bathrobe. He is such a little man.

Luke had his cardiac catheterization 2 days ago, on Good Friday. Andy and I spent the day with him at UVA Hospital. Results showed that there is a significant narrowing of his Pulmonary Artery on one side, and that will need to be corrected surgically on May 15 when he has his open heart surgery. Thankfully, it seems that his Pulmonary Valve is OK, and so the surgery will focus on closing the shunt that was placed in China almost 2 years ago, correcting the VSD (hole between the 2 ventricles), and removing some overgrown heart tissue in the area of the VSD. We will be meeting with Luke's surgeon on Thursday and should know more about the specifics after that.

As Luke sat on my lap at one point during our Easter church service this morning I marveled at how this little guy has handled so many big changes with such a resilient and cheerful spirit. He seems so much a part of our family now; it is hard to imagine life without him. As I pondered the holiness and mystery and glory of the Resurrection, I couldn't help thinking about how adding Luke to our family has also been a holy and mysterious and glorious thing. As I held him in my arms after his cath, snuggling him hour after hour as he recovered from the anesthesia and the trauma of the procedure, I had time to think and to just be. To be a mom, holding and rocking her little one. And I realized how much I love this little guy. This tiny little guy, who was born in a foreign land and entered our family with a fully formed personality and a past that didn't include us. This little guy, connected to wires and IV's and monitors, who lay plastered against my chest, curled up in my lap, who has attached himself to us, trustingly, lovingly, courageously. This little person who calls me "mommy" and who blows me kisses and announces "Wo Ai Nee Mommy. I love you!" Holy. Mysterious. Glorious. Truly, I am blessed.

To God be the glory.


Sunday, March 15, 2009


We’re home!                           
We arrived home with Luke late at night on February 19 after traveling for over 30 hours.  It sure did feel good to sleep in our own beds again!  Luke was immediately pampered and loved by his 4 older sisters.  He mostly took all of the big changes in stride, but did NOT like our 2 dogs (cockapoos Ginger and Mowgli).  This was one of the hardest things during our first few weeks home, as our doggies are very much part of our family, and they were confused and sad about being shut away from us whenever Luke was around.  Over time, thankfully, Luke started to accept the doggies; first Ginger, who is older and more gentle, and more recently, Mowgli.  So we’re (mostly) one big happy family again.  Whew.
I call Luke “my little man” as he sometimes reminds me of a miniature version of a little man, shuffling around purposefully, heading somewhere that is terribly important to him, at least at that moment, backpack typically on his back and filled with his treasures of the day….he loves books (which is good because we are all readers and have books everywhere!), chocolate (another Straka passion) and being outdoors (except when it is too cold and he starts shivering).  He loves to count and still measures big and small objects by labeling them “mama and baby”, much to his great delight.  And if there are 3 different sized objects, then “daddy” joins the group.  This family cluster is very meaningful to him.
At other times I am so struck by how physically tiny Luke is.  He will be 4 on May 1st, but fits best in size 18-24 months clothes.  When he is sad or scared his little pitiful cry sounds like a tiny baby, and when I scoop him up into my arms to hold and rock him I feel as if I am holding a newborn rather than a little boy.  He is funny and spunky and adventurous much of the time, but little things can trigger times of anxiety and panic and then he is just a tiny little guy who needs to be held and reassured. 
We brought Luke to the cardiologist when we were first home and after an Echocardiogram, EKG, physical exam and review of Chinese medical records it was determined that Luke’s Tetralogy of Fallot was “in good balance” and his shunt repair was still viable, meaning that he didn’t need emergent surgery but could wait a few months until he had been able to attach and bond a little more with our family.  There are still a few unknowns about his situation, and so he will have a cardiac catheterization by Dr. Scott Lim at the University of Virginia Medical Center on April 10 (Good Friday) to give us more information before his surgery. 
We will meet with Luke’s surgeon, Dr. Ben Peeler, also at UVA, on Thursday April 16 to go over the results of the Cath and also the specifics of his surgery and information about his post-operative course.  Luke’s open heart surgery will be Friday, May 15, most likely first thing in the morning.  Please join us in praying for a successful surgery, for healing for Luke’s little heart, and for strength for us, his family, as we walk through this time ahead. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Luke and the Lions

We never fail to be amazed by the sometimes strange and wondrous process our adopted children have gone through to develop a healthy mother/child and father/child bond.  The change can happen in only a few days.  But often, it takes weeks, months, or even years.  

Luke apparently has his own ideas of how to begin forming an attachment with his "Mama" (Mommy) and "Baba" (Daddy).  His favorite bedtime reading has been Mama, Where Are You?, a picture book written by Diane Muldrow and illustrated by Rick Peterson.  At first, he loved to go through the pages with Bonnie repeating "!" as he gleefully pointed to the pictures of the animal mothers and cubs.  Of late, he has begun changing this routine to alternate his exclamations. "!!" he says as he moves from picture to picture.

But by far Luke's favorite way to begin conceptualizing his idea of Mommy and Daddy are the ubiquitous Chinese stone lions standing guard in front of thousands of buildings here.  These statues are always displayed in pairs, with the father lion to the right, his paw on top of a ball representing the world, and the mother lion on the left, her paw playfully atop an upside down cub.  

Whenever Luke spies these statues, he begins running back and forth between the two figures,  crying out "Baba!" at the male lion, then "!" in front of the female lion. He never fails to elicit smiles from everyone in the vicinity.  

What could be more universal than this?  

A little boy trying to come to terms with what a family means to him.


Sunday, February 15, 2009

Becoming Luke's Mama

We arrived in Guangzhou yesterday and are staying once again in the beautiful and elegant White Swan Hotel.  Luke loved the plane ride from Nanchang to Guangzhou; he loved the big seats with the tray table that went up and down (and up and down…), he loved zooming along the ground and taking off up in the air, and he especially loved the peanut snack and his very own bottle of water. 

By the time we had checked into the hotel we were really hungry, and so we headed off to Lucy’s for some good ‘ole American food (well, kind of).  So now we know that Luke loves pizza, French fries and ketchup, and spaghetti.  He will do fine in America.  He hasn’t met a drink yet that he doesn’t gulp down, including milk.  Forget the dumplings; give him a dinner roll or banana bread.  Oh, and did I mention the chocolate pound cake at the buffet breakfast? What could be better than entering the Straka family with a pre-existing love of chocolate?!!!!  I’m seeing his May 1 birthday cake:  chocolate with chocolate icing, chocolate chips and chocolate sprinkles…the “Straka birthday special”…

Luke continues to enjoy running to each and every elevator, pushing the “up” or “down” buttons, and then the appropriate floor.  He announces loudly to anyone or no one, it doesn’t matter, “ONE!”  or “TWO” depending one where we are going.  With great authority and enthusiasm, I might add.

But at some point yesterday evening, a bit weary from our travels and from trying to negotiate life in a different culture, living out of a suitcase, packing and unpacking, and attempting to get to know a fully formed little boy with his own personality and life experiences that haven’t included me until 1 week ago, I started to feel a bit pitiful.  I commented to Andy that while I loved Luke’s merry and outgoing personality, it seemed that he would be just as happy going off into the sunset with our guide, or any other friendly adult for that matter, as staying with us.  While my intellect knew that bonding and attachment take time and don’t happen in a significant way after only knowing someone a week, my heart was yearning for a sign that Luke recognized me as someone more than anyone else, someone special, his mommy. 

I think this is the hardest part of adoption for me: trying to be patient as the attachment and bonding process works itself out over time with consistent parental love and affection and the relentless pursuit of a child’s heart.  But I always long for instant attachment!  I  yearn for my child to want to be held as much as I want to hold him or her.  I want my child to trust me, while knowing that there are layers of loss that need to be tunneled through and shed before deep trust can exist.  I know these things, and yet such knowledge doesn’t erase my heart’s desire to love and be loved in return.  It is this waiting to be loved reciprocally that is especially hard for me at the beginning of an adoption journey with a new child.  I can wait for that love to develop, I will wait; but it is hard. 

My most fervent prayer recently has been for Luke to feel our love, to know that we are his forever Mommy and Daddy and not just 2 people passing through his life, and for him to be able to love us back.  Not just in his endearing, charming, sweet, Luke kind of way.  But in a special I know you’re my parents and you’re totally for me and will be with me forever kind of way.  I know, that’s a lot to ask of a newly adopted 3 year old.  But God is a big God and nothing is impossible for Him.  In the midst of chaos and change and uncertainty, God is steadfast; His love is everlasting, deep, unfathomable.  I know these things.  And so I ask for my own little miracle. 

After Valentine’s Day dinner with 2 other families in our travel group we arrived back at our room where the highlight is always the before-bed bath.  Luke LOVES the bathtub!  He loves playing in the water, loves scrubbing his face, loves the soapsuds, the washcloth, the freedom of floating in the big tub with his little body, and most of all the nightly bath capsule that magically turns into a farm animal.  Last night he chose a green one, and was ecstatic to see it turn into a duck.  “Quack quack” he chirped, breaking occasionally into a mixed Chinese-English rendition of “Twinkle twinkle little star”.  Merry as could be.   Life is good.  Really good.

Until a bit of a slip in the tub from some overexuberant “swimming”, and Luke must have hit his lip or bitten his tongue…something to do with his mouth, because out of this little guy came the most pitiful wails as he put his hands over his mouth and just sobbed.  We scooped him up out of the tub, checked for disaster (no blood, teeth seemed intact upon quick inspection in mid-wail), and then I cradled him in my arms, his tiny little body engulfed by a giant bath towel.  I rocked him and held him and loved him while his wails turned into shuddering sobs and then forced little bleats….I held him close, and he melted into my arms.  His “real” cries turned into “fake” ones (those of you with the same kind of mommy ears know what I’m talking about) and it occurred to me that Luke liked this embrace, this rocking, this being held within the cocoon of the towel…he was letting my love and comfort sink in, and wasn’t this what I had begged God for?  For Luke to feel my Mommy-love and to sense, to know, that this was different than anyone else’s love?

I held Luke and rocked him for a long while.  And then we moved on to the after-bath ritual of “creaming up”  (can’t have dry skin in a dermatologist’s family!), brushing teeth and PJ’s.  I planned to run downstairs in search of a Dove bar or 2 for Andy’s and my Valentine’s night celebration, but as I headed out of the room, Luke panicked and burst into tears, holding his arms up to me and crying out my name: “Mama!  Mama!  Mama!”  This has never happened before as Luke has seemed equally as happy with Andy as with me.  He is happy when we are both with him; he is happy with just one of us if the other is off somewhere; it’s been really nice in a lot of ways.  No clinging.  No anxiety.  And yet no signs of special attachment either.  Can’t have it both ways.

But now there is a little boy at the door of the hotel room calling out desperately for his mama, and I think that God has answered my prayer.  I forsake my quest for chocolate (not something I forsake lightly, but this is big, bigger than chocolate).  This is the first time Luke has cried for me.  I feel needed, wanted, special.  This is my little boy and I am his Mommy.   I scoop him up in my arms, and as he buries his head in my chest his sobs abate.  I can comfort him.  This is huge.

I cuddle Luke in the dark on the couch; I wrap him in a blanket, I hold him until he falls asleep.  I am part of the miracle of attachment.  I am Luke’s Mama.  Thank you God.   

Friday, February 13, 2009

Please Send Spaceship Now

We love our intrepid Luke.  And we love the Chinese.  We really do.  But there comes a time on every adoption trip when the rush of emotions, the adrenaline for the journey, and the exotic curiosity of the surroundings have worn off and we find ourselves simply longing for home.  It doesn’t help that here in the Middle Kingdom they have their own way of doing things, often beyond the comprehension of we mere Westerners. 

To our surprise, it has grown quite hot here in Nanchang.  Eighty degrees Fahrenheit the past couple of days.   Our guide Jenny informs us this is quite unusual for this time of year.  A stiff wind has also begun to blow, which, instead of clearing all the pollution from the air, only serves to stir it all up into a cough-inducing, eye-stinging soup of grit.

Maybe the unexpected change in the weather helps explain why the relative peace and quite of our hotel room was shattered yesterday morning by a man with a mallet outside our window banging loudly on the metal superstructure of some gargantuan piece of ventilation equipment two stories below. 


Okay, something in the mechanism must be stuck, we thought.  The guy was there to fix it. 

Except that he kept right on banging and banging and banging.  Soon, he was joined by a friend, and the two of them proceeded to serenade us in stereo with their clamor.  The philosophy seemed to be what you can’t solve with precision and accuracy, proceed to conquer with raw brute force…. whether or not it seems to be working…. over and over and over again.       

With brief breaks for lunch and maybe a Tsing Tao (beer) or two, the cacophony continued throughout much of the day.   By mid-afternoon, our bangers had added a rhythm section and actually seemed to be developing, in their own way, an elegant sort of cadence. 

Could it be that we’d completely misunderstood?  Maybe these guys actually had some kind of New Year’s Ming Dynasty ceremonial drum thing going on.   Or it could just be Morse code for Five Star Jin Feng Hotel My Green Home.

In any event, we were able to escape the noise, at least for a little while, with a pleasant and informative tour of the beautiful Tengwang Pavilion and a performance of traditional Chinese music and dance that stopped us all, including even Luke, in our tracks.  Finally, at five PM, the mysterious banging mercifully ceased.  

 After nine days of Chinese food (as good as it mostly has been) we finally broke down and sojourned to Pizza Hut for dinner.  “American style” pizza (cheese and pepperoni) and Chilean white wine served in a glass mug.  What a treat!  I am always stunned at how enthusiastically the Chinese have embraced Pizza Hut and KFC.  As our guide in Beijing informed us, there are now more KFC restaurants in China than in any other country on earth, including the US.  Luke loved Pizza Hut too.  He especially liked the side dish of waffle fries and ketchup.  (We’re already corrupting the poor kid with fast food.)

With our American fix fulfilled, we contentedly retired to our hotel for the evening where the bangers had apparently all gone home. 

Hold the anchovies and pass the earplugs.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"Tinkles and Poopoos"

For those of you with weak stomachs, or with little to no interest in the downside of traveling in a foreign country with a small child whose toileting habits are relatively unknown, feel free to stop right here and come back tomorrow for a new blog entry extolling the wonders of Luke.  (Because, trust me, this little guy has so many wonderful virtues to extol.)  But for those who want to know the seamier side of things here in urban China and for those adoptive families who have walked this path before and know that things are not always easy in such situations, read on….

First, a little background….Andy and I have done the diaper thing with many children.  We have done the toilet training thing.  We have washed messy underwear after “accidents” and cleaned throw-up off clothes and stuffed animals.  It’s part of being a parent.  Not glamorous, not fun, but part of the job description.  However, lest anyone reading this think that I’m overly stoic and unmoved by the smell of puke or stinky poop, please know that this part of parenting is not my favorite.  Nor Andy’s.  And so we were both very happy to learn that we were adopting a toilet-trained son.  Good stuff.  Bonus.

While visiting New Day I watched Luke use the potty along with his buddies.  Really good stuff.  Yes, the nannies informed us, Luke is completely potty trained.  Oh, by the way, we do get him up at midnight to use the potty.  Oh, and by the way, we often get him up again in the middle of the night (or was it early morning?) again to use the potty.  What?  Twice during the night?  Andy and I asked.  Yes, we were told.  Hmmm…might not be sustainable for us, but let’s see how it goes, we thought.

We noticed that when Luke was handed to us in Beijing his nanny took a soggy diaper off his little bottom.  Hmmmm, I thought, but chalked it up to an unpredictable routine and uncharacteristic travel.  The order of his New Day Foster Home life had been disrupted.  We would just have to work at reestablishing a routine of sorts to help out.  No problem. 

But just in case, the first night we decided to put a pull-up from the emergency supply we brought along, just in case….and sure enough, soggy diapers in the morning.

No problem, we reasoned.  We didn’t get him up twice during the night.  The little guy was exhausted and needed uninterrupted sleep.  We were exhausted and needed some sleep.  No problem.

The next night we got him up around midnight and sure enough, the next morning, a dry pull-up.  Great!  We can do this.  One of us is usually still up around midnight.  No problem.  Maybe this whole supply of pull-ups taking up space in our suitcase will go to waste.  Time to head back to those adorable little boy undies.

Ah, overconfidence in parenting is never a good thing, even with a sixth child.  I can verify, yet again, that pride really does go before the inevitable fall. 

Today we went to Elephant Park, a beautiful area of walking paths and a Taoist temple on the edge of a lake.  The weather was unseasonably warm, and we could even sense a little sun through the smog.  Truly the perfect day to enjoy a park.

We had been sticking pretty close to the hotel to keep things quiet and stable for Luke, to develop a bit of a routine, and to be near the all-important western toilet in our hotel room.  If there’s one thing I really do not like, it is the Chinese squatty potty.  And my experiences in the past have shown me that when traveling away from westernized hotels and thoroughfares a western toilet is often hard to come by. 

However, emboldened by Luke’s potty successes of the past few days, we thought a trip to the park for a few hours would be fine.  Just in case, we packed an extra pair of pants and a special pair of undies with trains on it.  Luke proudly wore the dark green pair with tractors and his khaki pants and doggy shirt.  Out we strode, ready to enjoy Elephant Park.

We hadn’t been there too long when Luke suddenly grabbed his pants, hastily pulled them down and squatted on the stone path.  Quick as a wink, our little boy.  No problem, I thought as I tried to react but felt as if I were in slow motion.  The Chinese children do this all the time.  

No problem, hadn’t we just the day before seen a Chinese man holding a small baby boy next to a tree on the roadside of a busy highway, encouraging the little guy to tinkle by freeing the important body part through a split in the clothing and making repetitive sounds that were, I think, supposed to elicit thoughts of running water….so this is how it’s done in China, no problem.

The problem, however, is that Luke has been taught to sit on a western toilet while tinkling.  And so as he squatted in the middle of Elephant Park, with us, his parents, the only non-Chinese in sight, he very adroitly tinkled all over his tractor undies and khaki pants.  While we all squatted helplessly around him, realizing that the damage was done before we even had time to react.

Hey, I reminded Andy.  You’re the guy, the daddy.  I think that if he is going to choose this method in China, then you need to teach him, you know, the guy way to stand and do it.  After all, you’re the guy.  I do girls’ hair and put in the bows.  I pick out their outfits.  I think this little boy tinkling thing is in your department.  Seemed reasonable.  Pass the buck, baby. 

For the moment, we were congratulating ourselves on having the presence of mind to bring along a change of clothes.  Great job.  No problem, this little tinkle accident.  Off went the wet undies and pants.  I pulled out the tissues that I always have with me in China (just in case).  And on went the new clothes.  I figured Andy could defer the tinkling lesson until we were in the privacy of our hotel room.  No problem. 

So on we went, and soon were within the hallowed walls of the Taoist Temple.  

Just as Andy was deep in discussion with our guide, Jenny, in answer to her question “Do you have any kind of religion?”, I noticed that once again Luke was pulling his pants down.  Ah ha!  I thought.  I know what this means.  And this time I was quick.  I mean, really quick.  I’m a fast learner.  (See, there’s that pride thing again)  So as Luke squatted I pulled his pants and undies down around his ankle, away from the potential stream.  But alas, our little guy can really squirt.  Another outfit, history.  And this time there was no replacement.  Our earlier parental pride was gone.  What to do?  How to save face?  How to get back to the hotel in such a state?  How to keep up with the hand washing of the limited supply of clothing for Luke? 

Once again, we stripped off the soggy clothing.  And we decided that it was time to say goodbye to Elephant Park.  So off we went, our formerly resplendent little guy now with only his jacket wrapped around his legs, little skinny totally adorable legs that they are.  Back to the hotel.  Thank goodness for the Lovelast liquid detergent that I brought along!  It is the best stuff.  But I digress….

Luke was merry as could be, completely unfazed by his many outfit changes, striding happily and with great confidence up the steps of our five star hotel with bare little legs and his blue Nike sneakers.  Thank goodness his shirt was big enough to cover the important areas that were completely bare.  Where does he get this confidence, this happiness, this sense that all is right with the world?  It is amazing.

Andy and I were a little more battle-weary, a little less confident, and suddenly I was very glad I had brought the stack of pull-ups along.  We agreed that when traveling away from the room in the future we should use the pull-ups rather than underpants, and wondered if our supply would last.  Who knew?

We lay Luke down for his nap with our new best friend, the pull-up, safely on his little bottom.  We let him sleep for close to 2 hours, and then decided to wake him up so he wouldn’t be awake all night…besides, I would put him right on the potty to help reinforce the “right” way to do things after the morning’s “episodes”.  No time to wake up slowly and possibly have another “accident”.  I had done this potty training thing before and knew the ropes.  I was a pro. 

I took my sweet and sleepy little guy and prepared to plunk him on the potty when I realized that his pull-ups were full of poopoos.  Whoa!  That was a new one!  Up until this point he had been great about doing those smelly poopoos on the potty.  Were we regressing in all areas?  Mayday!!!!  Squishy poopoos everywhere!

I stoically began the clean-up process and wondered where to put the smelly pull-ups.  I didn’t travel to China this time with those little blue baggies that smell so nice and help hide the odor of poopy diapers.  Nope.  Not this time.  I thought those days were over.  Sigh.

The good news?  Throughout all of this Luke didn’t grumble or complain.  He stoically stood as I cleaned off his tiny little bottom.  Happily jumped into the bathtub for yet one more bath (bonus! He seemed to be thinking.  Another bath!  My lucky day!  It’s all good.)  Whereas Andy and I were thinking, where do we put this diaper?  Man, I’d forgotton how bad a poopy diaper smells.  We are definitely going to run out of pull-ups.  Wish we had packed more. 

Well, this sordid tale has a happy ending, as I suspect all stories involving Luke will.  He’s just that kind of a little guy.  Andy cleverly carried the poopy pull-up down the hall to the conference room where, moments later, a room full of Chinese smoking heavily (on our non-smoking floor) would not even notice it….and I sat at the edge of the bathtub, watching Luke happily enjoying the bath, as if it were the absolute greatest thing in the world, this bath, this bathtub, our hotel room, my sitting next to him.  And so I had to grab my camera, to capture that moment.  To remember that even though my original life plan had not included changing a poopy pull-up on a child of mine at the ripe old age of 49, that it really wasn’t all that bad.  In fact, looking at Luke’s merry little face, beaming up at me, it really was pretty good. 


Happy Birthday, Lily

Today, February 11, 2009, is our daughter Lily’s 13th birthday.  And here we are, thousands of miles away, longing to celebrate with her and let her know how special she is.  Sure, we had a party and cake and presents before we left.  But there is something about your actual birthday that begs recognition.  And so, since we won’t be sitting at the dinner table in our home in Virginia with our birthday girl tonight, we will continue the Straka birthday tradition here on our blog. 

I would like to focus on one of my favorite birthday traditions in our home: to go around the dinner table and ask each family member to say something about what is special to them about the birthday girl/boy.  I love hearing the words of affirmation that are offered at each celebration; truly they are more important to me than any gift in a box or package.

So to you, our special Lily, I would say these things: I am glad you are my daughter.  You are precious and a gift from God.  In the 4 years and 3 months that you have been part of our family you have blossomed, grown, changed, and developed an inward beauty that has been a joy to behold.  You have learned a new language, become part of a family, and found God.  You have given your heart to Jesus, and you will never be the same.  Your quiet strength, your heart of service, and your desire to do what is right are all things in which I marvel and rejoice.  I love how you show up in the kitchen to help at dinner time, how you give Aimee and Noelle baths and play “teacher” with them in your room, and how you offered to share your room with Luke when we bring him home.

Lily, you have developed a strong work ethic that was not part of your life when you first joined our family.  You have excelled in school this year through your own hard work and determination; I love that you care about doing your best.  I love that you talk to me about things that go on in school, and I don’t just mean schoolwork.  Seventh grade can be hard in so many ways.  I love that you want to be kind and good and honest in your peer relationships, even in such a broken world in which we live, and even if it is hard to find someone else who wants to behave the same way. 

Thank you for the notes you sometimes write to me.  I save every single one.  Your words are more precious than gold to me.

And thank you for being willing to trust me, even with your heart.  I know it took a long time.  There were a lot of reasons that trust has been hard for you.   I admire your bravery and your willingness to take this leap of faith.  I will do my best to be worthy of your trust.

Lily Grace Taohong Straka, I love you.  Happy 13th birthday.




Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Adoption Day

Yesterday Luke officially became a Straka.  We signed the forms, added our thumbprints to our signatures, paid our fees and promised multiple times to never abandon or abuse Luke.  We told numerous officials that, yes, we did, in fact, “like the boy”.  We told them that we loved him.  We told them we would offer him the best medical care and educational opportunities.  We told them we would love him just as much as our other five children.  A few handshakes, a few smiles, a few more photos, and a last stop at the local police station for a photo of Luke (new Chinese requirement), and Luke’s adoption became legal under Chinese law.

But really, Luke has been ours from the moment God opened our hearts to starting the adoption journey.   Or I guess it is really more true to say that he is God’s child, given to us to love and raise, and the privilege from here on is ours.

Let me tell you more about our Luke:

He loves to eat.  He specially loves noodles, dumplings and banana bread.  (So, Sarah and Straka ladies, count him in for our afternoon tea time with fresh banana bread!)  Oh, and he loves chocolate.  He is a true Straka.

He has the world’s best smile.  It lights up his entire little face.  It is an all-encompassing manifestation of the happiness of the moment, often accompanied by a little chortle of glee.  We are seeing more and more of these smiles as Luke becomes more and more comfortable

with us.  His little eyes crinkle into half moons and he tilts his head back a bit, squinting up at us to see if we are willing to smile along with him…do we get how very good the particular moment is?  Is our funny bone tickled along with his?  Are we with him in the midst of his mirth?  One thing about Luke…he likes for us to join him in his emotions and activities.

Which brings me to the next Luke thing that I love: his little English expressions such as “Come on!  Come on!”  said typically with great enthusiasm as we are getting ready to head out our hotel room door.  He looks around for both Andy and me and makes sure to grab both of our hands (he waited this long for us to get to China, he’s not going to let us go!) and then with a huge grin on his face urges us forward to the next adventure.  It’s pretty amazing, really….he has no idea what is going to come next when we walk out that door, but he’s ready and pretty excited about whatever it might be.  He is capable of great enthusiasm and I like that.  I love his adventurous spirit and I marvel at his resiliency and ability to trust, even in the face of such huge changes.  He inspires me.  I want to be brave, adventurous and resilient like Luke.

I love the way he hurries from one location to another.  We call it the Luke-skip-shuffle.  It is his own way of ambulating, kind of a combination of a skip and a gallop and a shuffle with a little hop thrown in for good measure here and there.  It is merry and suggests that good things will be waiting at the end of the journey.

Luke loves his dark blue GAP baseball cap that I brought from home.  He puts it on first thing in the morning and wears it all day.  He sometimes takes it off to look at it, or maybe try it on my head or Andy’s head so that we can giggle together about how it doesn’t fit!  But then it’s right back on Luke’s head, a few sizes too large so that it is impossible to see his eyebrows and sometimes even hard to see his eyes!  When he has it on and wants to see us or talk to us he has to tilt his head way back just to see…it is so incredibly cute.  One of the memories of our first days with Luke I will always treasure is of a little boy, tiny in stature, with his too-large cap on his head, tilting his neck back to look up at us, or anyone else, for that matter.

Luke is not going to be a pants-sagging American boy.  He is used to the Chinese way of hoisting his pants way up on the waist (with many layers underneath, of course).  And so even when I pull the waist tabs way in on his American-made pants, they fall down lower on his waist than he likes, so he goes around all day with one hand on his pants, tugging them up, and up, and up….today he is dressed in overalls and seems relieved not to have to be working so hard to hoist up those other pants!

Luke loves to wash his hands and brush his teeth.  Thank you nannies at New Day for teaching him so well!  He has taken the task of hand washing and elevated it to an art form.  He is so tiny that he can’t reach the sink in our room, so we turn the baby bathtub upside down and he stands on that, perched at the edge of the sink for the hand washing experience. I learned very quickly that this is not a rapid event but more of a marathon type of thing that is to be enjoyed, experienced and exulted in.  Here’s the technique: after wetting his hands, Luke gleefully grabs the soap.  Next ensues a good minute or more of squishing the soap, dropping it in the sink and exclaiming each time “uh oh” with a huge smile on his face, grabbing it up again, and so 


Eventually Luke allows himself to part with the soap, and then in true surgeon fashion rubs, scrubs and rings his hands over and over again, grinning the whole time.  He loves this process!  Finally he will joyfully rub his soapy hands over and over again under the running water, escalating, if allowed, into seeing how far he can squirt the tap water across the sink and counter…at that point I typically turn off the water and announce “All done!” and it’s time to dry the hands and move on to the next exciting endeavor.  Never have I seen a child enjoy hand washing as much as Luke.

Luke is a very relational child.  He seems to be drawn much more to adults than children.  He rarely passes by an adult without searching out eye contact and typically waving.  He rebounds quickly from the ones who don’t respond, and then moves on to the next person who might be a potential friend.  When his efforts are rewarded, and someone smiles back or talks to him, he is very pleased.  What pleases me, however, is that he seems to know that Andy and I are the ones he needs to stick with, and even though he likes relating to others, he doesn’t run over and climb into the laps of strangers.  When others hold out their arms to him he typically shies away, preferring to stay in the safe grasp of Andy or myself.  That is good.  Even though deep attachment and bonding will take time, I love the fact that Luke already seems to know that we are the ones he needs to stick close to; we are his “Mama and Baba.”

I marvel that this little boy can accept our love so readily and that he can turn around and trust us when we are still relative strangers to him.  Even during the brief time he wept after his nanny left him with us, he never once pushed me away in his grief.  As I held him and rocked him, he leaned into me, as if asking me to help take his pain away.  He allowed me to love him at a time when he could have just as easily run to the other end of the room or railed against me for the confusion of the moment.  Maybe this is part of Luke’s gift to us: to trust us when he doesn’t really know if we are trustworthy.  And to allow us to love him, even in the face of grief and loss.


Monday, February 9, 2009

The Legend of the Green Foam Turkey: Luke Becomes Ours

GreatWall's Nanchang guide Jenny brought Luke to our hotel room at 4:30 Sunday afternoon, accompanied by the assistant orphanage director and a nanny from New Day who had traveled with Luke all the way to Nanchang from Beijing by train.  Luke had already gotten to know us a little at New Day, of course, but this was the official hand-off, the moment we would take custody of Luke.

All went well with the introduction to the assistant director and the paperwork (much more to come at Civil Affairs tomorrow) and with our reunion with Luke.  Soon, the inevitable moment arrived for the nanny to say goodbye, and the others all began leaving the room.  Who knows what thoughts, what terrors, must have hit Luke then?  His smiling little face disintegrated into a wall of tears, he tried to run after his nanny, crying “Mama!, Mama!” 

Everyone beat a hasty retreat from the room, leaving us behind with the wailing, grieving Luke.

“Mama!” he kept repeating over and over, in a hoarse little voice.

Who could blame him?  Even though he knew we were to be his new parents, his three-year-old little heart had just been ripped away from the one remaining contact with the last two years of his life.  He had been left alone with us in a strange hotel room a thousand miles away from his time at New Day.  

Old pro adoption parents that we are, (right, who ever really has a clue what to do in this kind of situation?) we resorted to holding Luke and rocking him, first Bonnie for several minutes, then I.  We tried giving him food—a banana, cookies.  We tried distracting him with toys.  We tried a Chinese cartoon on TV (Dad’s brilliant idea).  Nothing seemed to work.


Luke wailed on for another twenty or thirty minutes or so.  And we, at our wit’s end, about to join him.

“Hey,” Bonnie suggested.  “How about we try giving him a bath?”

So into the bathroom we flew to begin drawing hot water and big soapy suds, Luke still wailing away, his whimpers and cries now echoing off the tile and stone bathroom walls like some piteous torture chamber.  (Lord knows what our hotel neighbors must have been thinking.)  We stripped off his multiple layers of clothing (typically Chinese) and plunked his little scrawny self into the bath.  This failed to end his cries, but at least they seemed to ratchet down a notch.  

That was the moment it started to happen. 

Bonnie had brought along a package of foam bath capsules like the ones our two little girls, Aimee and Noelee, love back at home.  With a surgeon’s skilled hands, she adroitly removed one from the wrapper and quickly handed it over to Luke to plunk in the hot water.  He stopped crying for a moment and looked at it, fascinated.  Bonnie showed him how to put into the water and begin swishing it around.  Very soon, a little green foam turkey began to emerge from the capsule, much to Luke’s delight. 

“It’s working,” I said.

Bonnie smiled. “I think so.”

The little green turkey progressed from plastic embryo to full-blown foam bath creature in short order.  Luke poked and prodded his new bathtub buddy around his miniature lake and soon began to discover that he really like this big tub and all these soapy suds floating around.   

At last, he looked up at Bonnie and me with his soul-searching eyes.  Okay, he seemed to say, I’m with you guys now.  For better, or for worse.  Love you, forever and forever.


Sunday, February 8, 2009

Beijing to Nanchang

The rest of our time at New Day was filled with getting to know Luke and the other children, observing the routines of his little life, taking a visit into town with Doug and Sarah Grace and sampling the delicious Mandarin oranges, eating in the dining hall, being served breakfast each morning in the guest house kitchen, meeting and listening to Karen’s sister and brother-in-law and being awed and humbled by their life’s journey and ministry, helping Ellie (the New Day nurse) with medical care for the children, visiting a few foster families, and overall soaking it all in, trying to take mental pictures to last a lifetime.  Andy shot more video and I took a few photos the second day, but I found the kids were more open in approaching me if I didn’t have a camera in front of my face. 

Each time Andy and I reappeared, Luke looked a little surprised and then a huge grin would cross his face and he would reach out his arms to be held and cuddled by one of us.  Yes, he really is a cuddly, sweet little boy.  Thank you Lord.

We also spent time here and there with staff members such as Carrie, who coordinates the sponsorship reports, Caroline, who coordinates all the visitors and volunteers, Doug, whose daughter was adopted from Leping SWI, and who is responsible for the relationship with the orphanage director there and hence the finding of Luke.  Lauren, as mentioned previously, is spending a year at New Day teaching preschool, and will be heading to college next fall.  They are all Americans with generous hearts and a love for God as well as the children and mission of New Day.  What a privilege to count them as friends.

After lunch with Luke, many hugs, and final photos, we left New Day for a visit to the Heartbridge Unit at New Hope Foundation’s foster home about an hour away.  We were treated to an afternoon of touring the building, meeting many of the children, and getting to know Joyce and Robin Hill.  Joyce is a physician who oversees the care of many special needs orphans and has a tremendous ministry in China.  She helps coordinate the medical care of the 18 children who have beds on the second floor of the New Hope building and comprise LWB’s Heartbridge Healing Home. 

What a wonderful, colorful and peaceful place.  As we wandered from one part of the building to another I was able to scoop up children here and there for a few moments of cuddling and love.  I kept looking for little Xin, a post-operative 2 year old little boy with congenital heart disease whom we have been sponsoring through our office.  He has been doing so well that he has been moved downstairs so that he can play more with other children.  I finally found him in the very last playroom we visited…there, through the glass I spied a darling little boy with a huge smile on his face.  He looked just like his photos.  I went into the room with Andy and Joyce, wondering if Xin would allow me to pick him up.  No worries!  He literally ran up to me, arms outstretched (in full Luke mode), a huge grin on his face, eyes twinkling.  I scooped him up and danced around the room with him, stopping for a few photos just to document the moment (Wendy, I’ll get those to you when I’m home).  He is darling!  What a gift he will be to his forever family.  Another little life forever altered by the life-saving surgery that was funded and coordinated by LWB. 

We lightened our suitcases even more by leaving medical supplies behind with Joyce, and then we bid our new friends goodbye and headed to our Beijing Hotel, the Poly Plaza, in the downtown area.  We dropped our things off in our room and then headed outdoors, down the street, for a little “adventure” in nighttime Beijing….we perused the many restaurants and decided to have dinner at a place that was filled with Chinese, hoping that was a sign that the food was good and reasonably priced.  We were not disappointed, and enjoyed dumplings, an eggplant dish, chicken stew, and some type of beef sliced very thinly and coated in sauce.  I like eating in “local” hangouts when traveling, as long as there is a picture or English name next to the menu item so I don’t end up eating something that I will end up regretting….the Chinese have a very interesting and different array of meats and animal parts that seem to be widely available in restaurants and stores, and I’m just not that adventurous!

We decided to forego the Great Wall tour the next day (BTDT) in favor of spending a leisurely day exploring the area on foot, catching up on emails and blogging, and organizing our suitcases and life a bit in preparation for meeting Luke the next day in Nanchang.  Andy found a local cell phone and sim card that worked as my phone and the sim card we bought in the Beijing airport did not.  I puttered around the local market and picked up a few trinkets but am saving most of my shopping/buying for Guangzhou.  We skyped our kids back home and caught up a bit with their lives and were happy to see that Chris and Julia had made the drive from Duke and were with the girls.  Thanks guys!  And thanks, Sarah, for your wonderful care of the girls during the week. 

We were up very early this morning (Sunday) for a 2 hour flight from Beijing to Nanchang, the capital city of the Jiangxi Province.  Luke spent 3 months at the Leping SWI, in the northern portion of the Jiangxi Province, before being taken to New Day, so all his Chinese adoption paperwork will need to be completed here.  We are staying at the Jinfeng Hotel, a beautiful 5 star hotel in downtown Nanchang.  We splurged by upgrading to a larger room than originally planned so that we have a king size bed for snuggling Luke and room for him to play as well as a large Jacuzzi tub where I anticipate that he will have some fun bath time enjoying the foam animal bath capsules we brought along.  I remember how much Noelle loved those foam animals on our trip to adopt her last year.  A highlight of the evening routine.

We are waiting for our guide, Jenny, to bring Luke to our room any minute now.  I am not sure if we will also meet the orphanage director or anyone else, but being flexible is the key, and I am glad that they are bringing Luke to us rather than our having to travel somewhere outside the hotel to meet him.  We know that he took the overnight train with a New Day staff member last night, and I bet he is tired and a bit overwhelmed with all that has gone on over the past 24 hours; certainly a break in his routine.  I am so glad that he has already met us and that we will not be complete strangers to him.  I will show him once again the photo album I pulled out at New Day and I also have a little set of cars for him to play with. 

So today, February 8, is Luke’s Gotcha Day.  Tomorrow will be his official Adoption Day.  We will meet with the local officials early in the morning to complete all the necessary paperwork and then will have the rest of the week to get to know each other and explore the local area until we fly to Guangzhou on Saturday Feb 14.  Valentine’s Day!  (On a side note, I brought multiple bags of chocolate for the big day, not to mention before and after, because Heaven forbid I should be out of chocolate in a foreign country!  Or anywhere, for that matter….ah, chocolate, my comfort food.)

Tomorrow is the last day of the Chinese Spring Festival (aka Chinese New Year), so the officials are very motivated to complete Luke’s paperwork first thing in the morning as they have the afternoon off work to celebrate.  I have a new appreciation for the magnitude of this Chinese holiday.  It lasts for weeks!  Fireworks were going off all night long in Beijing both nights we were in the Poly Plaza Hotel.  And since the room was quite warm and our windows were open to try to cool things down a bit, we really heard those fireworks!


Saturday, February 7, 2009

More Photos Of Luke

The Beautiful, Brief Life of Paul

We have just stepped inside the door to the children’s wing of the New Day Foster Home outside Beijing with the Foster Home director, Karen Brenneman.  In a moment, a mini-avalanche of precious, special-needs toddlers will come barreling toward us down the hall.  Among them, shyly at first, our new son Luke. 

But on the wall up the stairs to our right, hangs a beautiful photo of a little Chinese boy standing in a wheat field wearing a straw hat who looks strikingly similar to our son-to-be.  This, we will soon come to learn, is Paul.  

Paul lived at New Day for two years and was very special to all of his caregivers.  He died from complications of heart surgery at a hospital in Beijing.  But his spirit lives on through Luke (who was originally given the name “Seth” by the New Day Staff after the biblical story of Seth who was born after the slaying of Abel by Cain) and through the dozens of other children still at New Day.

So we pause here for a moment on the threshold of introducing you to Luke in memory of Paul.  Luke and the Straka family are just one small part of the much greater story of the love and life-saving treatments provided here and at the New Day Healing Home by the incredible, faith-filled staff.  Luke and the Strakas are just one small part of the even greater story of the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the thousands of sweet, underprivileged children, their bodies broken but their beautiful souls intact, offered special grace through places like New Day.  We wish we could take them all home.    

Friday, February 6, 2009

First Hours With Luke

After meeting Luke in the hallway we moved into the nearby playroom where several nannies were holding babies and playing with toddlers.  Luke and his buddies trailed along with us,  into the playroom, with looks of expectation on their faces.  The older children knew we were Luke’s mommy and daddy and that this was a big event.

I sat down in a corner of the room and pulled out a little photo album I had put together before leaving home.  There were photos of Luke in the beginning, and then photos of our home and family.  Luke’s initial shyness wore off quickly as he gleefully thumbed through the album and then settled on the fun activity of pulling individual photos out of their clear plastic holders and then re-inserting them, over and over again.  Soon all the older children had crowded around to see the photos and to be part of the action. 

I marveled at the fact that Luke, our new son, was settled so happily in my lap.  That he was so light and tiny.  That he looked so incredibly cute in his carefully selected khakis and oxford button-down shirt.  That he was meticulous and neat in the way he returned the photos to the album just so, in the right place, right-side up.  What was he thinking?  How long would it take before he would know, really KNOW, that I would be his mommy forever.  That I would never leave him.  That we could look at photos over and over and over again, time after time, year after year. 

How long would it take before I would know, really KNOW, him?  Before I knew who he was, in his entirety, what he liked and didn’t like, what made him happy or sad, how his mind worked, what made him laugh, how he was best comforted when sad or scared. 

While these thoughts raced through my head, I looked around at the other children who were crowded around us, the children I had read about and whose photos I had looked at over and over again.  They were adorable, beautiful, soulful; some were immediately engaged, asking to be held or cuddled; others hung back a bit, watching, waiting to see what would happen.  It struck me so forcefully how much each child needed to be sitting on the lap of his or her own mommy or daddy, looking at their own family photos.  I can never get the faces of the children left behind out of my mind.

Soon it was time for preschool.  The older children ran happily down the corridor into the classroom, a brightly lit and colorful place with tables, chairs, toys, and a wonderful 2 story custom-built playhouse.  There are 2 teachers: Lauren is from Alabama and is taking a year off between high school and college to live at New Day and teach the children.  Sarah is Chinese.  The 2 women alternate teaching the lesson; Lauren was in charge on the day we were there.

The children learned colors, numbers, songs and phrases in English.  They sat around the table listening carefully as Lauren taught, waiting with their little hands folded for their M&M reward.  When it was snack time, and a plate of cut up pears was passed around, Luke made sure that his new Mama and Baba each had a piece before he selected one for himself.  So sweet. 

The children had lessons and songs interspersed with play time.  It was so much fun to watch Leah, Julia, Adah and Brett make a beeline for the playhouse where Brett hung out the window and grinned and the girls dressed and undressed their baby dolls.  Abigail, Luke and Olivia pulled out puzzles and toys and played at one of the tables with them while I roamed around taking photos.  When Luke noticed that Andy and I were not by his side he would find us, grab our hands, and gently lead us back to his side.  He had been waiting for us and did not want us to wander off!  

The highlight of the preschool morning was when Andy carried in his laptop for Luke and his friends to see and talk with Kelci at the other end of Skype back home in Virginia.  There was great excitement among the entire group as they crowded around the computer with the talking blond girl on the screen!  We told Luke that this was his Jie jie, the oldest of 4, and that he would see her soon.  I'm not sure what he understood, but I loved looking at his little face, earnest, serious, deep in concentration, as he sat on Andy's lap.