The just-concluded High Holy Days season has always meant doing a lot of soul-searching and self-reflection on where you’ve been and where you’re going – a process that only intensifies the older you get.
That’s why, as the Jewish calendar turned from 5782 to 5783, I found myself in a more reflective mood than in the past. Much of that was due to having recently turned 70, an age that, as I’ve mentioned in my recent columns, has made me more acutely aware of my mortality.
But this year, my thoughts turned to the blessings in my life, and specifically to the Jewish New Year 25 years ago, when my wife, Lynne, and I had just returned from taking the most meaningful trip of our lives, one that forever transformed our world.
I’m referring to the nearly two weeks that we spent in China, where we had traveled to adopt our first daughter, Arianna. I’ve written about some aspects of the experience in the past, but I want to revisit it here to provide more insight into why the adoptions of Arianna – and her sister, Alana, five years later (the girls aren’t related and come from different provinces in China) – remains the most important accomplishments of our lives.
The trip of a lifetime
It’s hard to imagine what our lives would have been like if we had never made that long voyage, more than half a world away. We left our home in North Attleboro at about 5:30 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 15, 1997, and arrived back home on Sunday night, Sept. 28, just a few days before Rosh Hashanah.
But as long as the trip was, the journey actually began more than 1½ years earlier, when we started the long process for an international adoption by attending an informational session with a Massachusetts-based adoption agency, Alliance for Children. We began the process at a time when thousands of Chinese children were being adopted annually by parents in the United States and other nations due to the Chinese government’s one-child policy (which ended in 2015).
What proved to be a laborious process started in February 1996 and required jumping through a series of bureaucratic hoops, including passing an FBI screening, getting fingerprinted and filling out paperwork that would be sent to China.
After a series of delays, what was supposed to be a six-month wait to get a referral – the photo of the child you’d be adopting – became a longer wait. Finally, on Aug. 13, 1997, one day before my 45th birthday, we received the picture of our daughter, named Shen Yao, who was then 14 months old. We soon found out that we’d be traveling in mid-September, shortly after our daughter turned 15 months old. We had decided to keep her Chinese name as her middle name, and named her Arianna ShenYao Kessler.
About a month later, our departure day arrived. We flew out of Boston’s Logan International Airport bound for San Francisco, where we caught an 11-hour flight to Hong Kong. When we landed, it was 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. After spending most of Wednesday touring the city, we went to the Hong Kong airport that evening to catch a flight to our daughter’s home city of Hefei, China. Before boarding our flight, we met many of the 10 other families included in our travel group by our adoption agency.
After landing in Hefei that night, we found out that we wouldn’t receive our daughters until Friday, one day later than expected. Many people, including us, were relieved to have an extra day to collect ourselves before becoming parents. Nonetheless, the reality that we would be handed a life to take care of was daunting enough to make our final childless night a sleepless one.
The hand-over of our daughter to us on Friday, Sept. 19 – which we celebrate as our daughter’s adoption day – went as smoothly as possible. The snacks that we brought came in handy, and the girls gradually adapted to their new families. The growing pains would come later; fathers and mothers walking the hotel halls at all hours with their kids became a common sight during our stay.
The two weeks in China breezed by, and before we knew it, we were back in the United States. I’ll never forget how animated my daughter was when we got into the town car at Logan airport. Sensing the excitement, she clapped her hands, as if to say: “Get me home already.”
Once we got back to our North Attleboro home, our friends and relatives couldn’t wait to meet Arianna, but introductions had to be delayed as I had developed a bad head cold and ear infection. I wound up celebrating Rosh Hashanah at home – but felt extremely blessed despite being under the weather.
All grown up
Once home, we found ways to immerse our daughter in aspects of Chinese culture, but we also resolved to raise her as our daughter. At the same time, we made a commitment to stay in touch with most of the parents from our adoption group, which included families from New York, Rhode Island, Florida and Massachusetts.
Starting in 1998, we began holding annual reunions in different families’ cities and towns. Over the years, the get-togethers proved important for both the parents and the children. And now, with our daughters having become thoughtful adults working in many professions, they’ve been staying in touch on their own through social media and occasional gatherings, including the group’s first two weddings.
It’s hard to believe that a quarter-century has passed since Arianna’s adoption day in China, but it remains not only one of the proudest days of our lives, but also something that could be called a miracle, given how much it changed the girls and their parents.
LARRY KESSLER (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro. He blogs at larrytheklineup.blogspot.com.