A Chance to Live

Yesterday, while I was waiting for the sad little stovetop in our apartment to boil water for broccoli, Alex called me into the living room to see Elliott crawl for the first time.

Now, at nineteen months old, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a toddler to crawling … or walking … or climbing up and down stairs.  But at the site of my son grimacing at the effort of a few, independent movements across the floor, my heart swelled with pride at the knowledge of the larger accomplishments that they represent – that he is here at all.  And with a small tightness in the back of my throat, I identified an ache that I am sure will accompany the joy of every milestone Elliott reaches.  Not only is there a young woman out there in the world somewhere not watching her biological son crawl for the first time, there is a grandmotherly woman not too many miles away who deserves most of the credit.

Baba went to school to study sociology and social work, because she always had an interest in people and making their lives better.  She was particularly interested in working with and helping children, especially those no one else wanted.  In a region of the world where orphanages are the norm, children with special needs are considered an unwelcome burden, and foster care is a new or non-existent concept, Baba’s dream was to turn her home into a place of love and safety for children who had no where else to go.  Once her own children were grown and starting families of their own, Baba and Jaja set out to do just that.

It isn’t easy to be a foster family in a country that is still coming around to the concept.  The kids that come into Baba and Jaja’s home come because they aren’t considered stable enough to survive an orphanage or children’s home.  They have special physical, emotional, mental, and/or behavioral needs.  Many of them require almost round the clock care, and there are never any breaks.  There is no respite care, no babysitters, no chance to get away for a breather.

Jaja runs his own business out of their home to support the foster children and be a present father-figure in their lives.  Baba makes nearly all of the meals from scratch to ensure they are eating healthily.  They are always busy, yet always find time do everything with the kids from playing games to teaching them table manners.  Through her English-speaking son, Baba counted out on her fingers the difficulties of foster care that turn literally everyone else off to the idea.

“You need room in your home, you need extra income, you need to be willing to have no breaks …”

“You just need to have a heart.”  Jaja interrupted in Polish, shaking his head at the thought that any reason would be an acceptable one for turning away innocent children.

Yet in the region where Baba and Jaja live, comparable to a U.S. state, they are one of only two foster families.  There is currently a waiting list eighteen children long to come and live with Baba and Jaja – all of whom are deemed too unstable to make it in an orphanage, but simply have no where else to go.  The problem is staggering, but a few children at a time, Baba and Jaja are making a difference.  The house is bursting with love and laughter and children that the rest of the world forgot, just like Baba dreamed.

And it all started nineteen months ago.

Baba and Jaja had officially become foster parents, a lifelong dream taking shape.  They were ready for their first placement when the phone rang asking them if they would be interested in taking in a newborn baby.  He was sick.  He was small.  His prognosis wasn’t good.  They said yes, of course.  This is what they signed up to do.  And so, with grandbabies years older than this orphaned boy, Baba and Jaja took him in.

From the start, things didn’t look good for the baby.  They were told by the doctors that he was nameless at birth.  Instead, the hospital had given him a nickname that openly displayed the sentiment they felt for what they considered to be an abandoned, sickly, unwanted child – a derogatory version of a Polish name, labeling him unmistakably as a second-rate child of poverty.  Worthless of even a name of dignity.

The doctors told Baba and Jaja that they were wasting their time.  The baby was too sick, too malnourished.  His head was much smaller than it should be, showing that his brain had not developed properly and never would.  He would be a vegetable.  He would never grow up, never have the mental or physical capability for anything.  More than likely, he would not survive at all.  They could take him, but only with the understanding that they would probably be taking him home to watch him die.

If you knew Baba, it would not surprise you that she dismissed this opinion immediately.  She was not in the watching-babies-die business, she was in the nursing-babies-back-to-health business, and she certainly was not going to give up on her very first foster child just because a hospital deemed him incapable of life, unworthy of a name.

Baba decided then and there that this baby would be her special project.  She took him home and gave him a new name and a new chance at life.  She began contacting every doctor and therapist she knew, and signed the infant up for every type of rehabilitation that would take him.  Five days a week, she drove the 30 kilometers from her home in the village to the city for physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, massage therapy.  Every couple months she would move with the baby into the hospital for 6-week long rehabilitation intensives.  She showered him with love and attention and physical contact, demonstrating to him every day that there was nothing he couldn’t do, that he was worthy of a chance to live – even if no one outside her house thought so.

And as the days and weeks and months went by, the baby grew.  Like all babies, he learned to hold his head up and roll over and recognize the loving people around him.  He became interested in eating and keeping food down, sleeping through the night and drinking in the world around him.  Baba read him books and took him on walks, constantly flooding his mind with new information.  He was still very small for his age and reached milestones at a slower rate, but before Baba’s eyes and under her watchful care, he blossomed.

At his next doctor’s appointment at the hospital, Baba insisted that the doctor come in and see him and measure his head, even though he felt it was a waste of time.  When he finally came in, he was astonished.  The baby’s head had grown by 10 centimeters.

By the time he was a year old, the baby (now toddler) was not only still alive – he was thriving.  His therapists estimated that he was just 3-4 months behind developmentally due to his slow start at birth, but was progressing normally.  It was recommended to the adoption center that a family be found for him that could give him the same devoted care that Baba had tirelessly given him all those long, patient months.  Many foster children came and went through Baba and Jaja’s home in the time this first baby had been with them, and it was time for him to move on to a family that could give him their sole attention.  Baba had accomplished what she had set out to do.  She had saved the baby’s life.

Little did she know, just weeks after the baby’s first birthday, days after he was deemed ready to be adopted, a couple was grieving a world away in Iowa.  The child they had been matched with to adopt was no longer available, and their home and heart felt empty without a little boy to fill them.

The very week that this couple was told they definitely would not be adopting the little boy they were waiting on, Baba’s baby was placed on a list of waiting children.  The List is updated and given to adoption representatives only once a month.  No local family was found for this sweet baby boy, as it is difficult for a culture that is skeptical of those with special needs to see the potential in a baby such as this, who had such a poor start in life.  Baba and Jaja wondered if anyone else would see their precious first foster child the way they did, or if he would be doomed to a life “in the system”, deprived of the love and life they breathed into him.

But not far away, an adoption attorney was sent The List that day.  And that attorney was representing the grieving couple, who’s arms ached for a little boy to hold.  A frantic, international call was placed to the United States.  Pictures were emailed.  Tears were shed.

And just like that, only hours after being placed on The List, the thriving boy who was once sentenced to a brief, lonely life as an orphaned vegetable had a family.

The the rest, as they say, is history.


And now, sitting on the hardwood floors of our Poland apartment almost seven months exactly from that day we got the phone call, I felt the familiar joy and ache of watching this boy – my son – reach another milestone that he was never supposed to reach.  Without a doubt, I know that with every milestone he reaches in his lifetime, I will send up a silent pray of thanks for God placing Elliott in Baba’s arms before he was placed in mine.


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  • Keenan Gehman

    I really enjoyed reading this. One thing I’ve learned from Kyla’s death is that life is so unbelievably fragile; it should be cherished and celebrated and defended – no matter what. Clearly Baba and Jaja and the two of you already know this, and it’s beautiful to see it in action. I’m happy to hear that things are going well so far – hopefully we can meet the little guy someday.

  • Teresa G.

    Beautiful. Elliott is blessed not only by having had Baba and Jaja in his life but for now having you and Alex.

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