Families come in all sorts of wonderful varieties. My wife Jana and I have been blessed with a loving, growing extended family brought together from vastly different parts of the world. And though my path to fatherhood is not the most traditional of journeys, the bonds formed with our children are no less rewarding or strong.
Seven years ago, Jana and I made the decision to adopt two children from Ethiopia. We left our two young boys with their grandparents in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and boarded a flight for Addis Ababa. After arriving in Ethiopia, we met the new additions to our family. My daughter, Trualem (then ten years-old), had lost both parents at a young age and was raised by an abusive stepfather before being placed in the orphanage by a concerned uncle three years earlier. My new son, Peneal (then eight), had lost his father to illness and had not seen his mother, also battling terminal illness, in over two years.
We spent four days in Ethiopia with Penn and Tru trying to establish a new familial rhythm before bringing them to their new home across the ocean. It was a challenge. Tru was devastated about leaving her friends and her uncle and refused to come out of the girls’ dorm. Penn was even more reserved and was barely communicating on any level.
During our final day in Ethiopia, we attended a party at the orphanage organized for Tru and Penn. It was not really much of a celebration. Although they still clung to hope, most of their friends at the orphanage were beginning to recognize their dim prospects of adoption. They spent their final day with Penn and Tru admiring their new shoes, new parents, and new lives. Two hours before we had to leave for the airport, a woman quietly entered the orphanage accompanied by shocked whispers and a handful of photographs. Penn’s dying mother had come to say goodbye.
Through an interpreter, we learned that she had spent days hitchhiking across Ethiopia and then spending two weeks trying to find the right orphanage. She had not received any notice that her son would be leaving on that day. Incredibly, her journey was prompted instead by a dream she had of two little white boys kissing her son on the cheek. We also learned that Penn had a younger sister who had been adopted out on the same day he arrived at the orphanage. No one was able tell us where Penn’s sister had gone or anything about her new family. Penn’s mother had only one request before we left the orphanage: please find his sister so the children could be in each other’s lives.
Due to antiquated and unreliable records, the task of locating Penn’s sister was even more difficult than we had anticipated. We had only a first name and an approximate date of adoption. But last fall, after years of searching, we received a call from a caseworker in my father’s office who had been working closely with the State Department. They had found a young girl in Spain who fit the profile of Penn’s sister.
Nervous emails were exchanged with a wonderfully supportive woman in Spain who had adopted a beautiful baby girl from Ethiopia nine years earlier. After the adoption and as her language improved, her daughter told her stories of an older brother. Despite her mother’s desperate inquiries back to her adoption agency, no one was able to locate a brother, and after several years, she gave up looking for him.
After our initial email exchange, photos were sent back and forth that immediately confirmed our suspicion that we had found Penn’s sister. This answer to the final wish of Penn’s mother was later validated by a DNA test. This week, I will be traveling to Spain with Penn, now about to enter high school, to reunite him with his biological sister.
My path to fatherhood is really the story of three amazing women all deeply connected to the same little boy and of a young girl – the newest member of our extended family – who I have not yet met but love as though she were my very own.