A 7-hour layover in New Jersey—this is the anticlimactic final chapter to our week in the Congo. It’s not ideal. We’re watching passengers board a different plane also heading to Nashville but three hours earlier than our flight and we’re feeling a tad bit jealous. Instead of giving them dirty looks, I’ve decided to pull out the laptop and write my thoughts about our trip. Here goes:

The Thursday before we left for Africa, I met Brent for a quick lunch at a Greek restaurant near Walmart so we could get a few more things for our trip. A man with an awesome handlebar moustache walked in just before us. I had noticed his giant tricycle strapped onto the back of his car in the parking lot. This guy was a real character. The cherry on top was his old-fashioned top hat. It was black silk and it had a rumpled bill—a foreign currency, I think—tucked into the band. Barely worth mentioning except that on our flight last Saturday from Brussels to Kinshasa, we saw another man with a black top hat. This wasn’t the same man but it still caught our attention. Who wears top hats, especially on a plane? Where did he keep the hat during the flight? Surely he didn’t wear it. Did he stow it? Do you know what happens to items in the overhead storage compartments? To round out the “Top Hat Phenomenon,” on the flight last night from Kinshasa to Brussels, we saw yet another man with a top hat. In addition to the jaunty hat, this fellow also wore a suit vest covered in an odd assortment of buttons. Three different men with three different but similar hats.

You might ask why I would go to the trouble of describing these men. I’m actually asking myself the same question. I know I learn best from metaphors. And don’t get me started on parables—I love them. Why I can’t learn something straight up in black and white is a mystery but if I can compare one situation to another similar situation, it all seems more profound, more relatable. I’m searching for the meaning in the top hats…

Here’s what I mean by metaphors:
As I mentioned in an earlier post, riding in a car in Kinshasa traffic is an adventure. And by adventure, I mean, really, REALLY scary. There are so many near misses. The driver must be aggressive or he’ll never arrive at his destination. There are public transportation vans crammed to the ceiling with people. Some even stand on the running boards and cling to the inside of the van…with the door opened…in heavy traffic. Pedestrians run across several lanes of traffic with the assumption these drivers will stop for them. Africa has so many Christians and it’s no wonder. These highways would make anyone pray. My takeaway (my metaphor) is that I am used to “driving” or at least thinking I’m in control of what happens. Being a passenger this week, I had to totally rely on the driver of our car. I didn’t know how to get where we were going and I couldn’t drive on these roads anyway. Maybe Africa is gaining Christians faster than in the U.S. because they already have the mindset needed to give your life wholly to Christ: we’re not truly in control. I can start the engine and fill it with gas, but any notion that I am really the one making things happen is delusional.

I dozed off for a while during the flight to Newark. I dreamed we were back in Murfreesboro but the toddler bed Ezra used in our hotel room was in our bedroom at home. In the dream, I woke up and saw the bed. I began to wander around the house, looking for him. I was startled awake and realized I was on a plane, wedged between a stranger and Brent. I started to cry, as silently as possible, as I dabbed my eyes and nose with a tiny beverage napkin. Hopefully, the lady next to me didn’t notice. She had her headphones on and continued to watch the tiny screen in front of her. The dream reminded me of our loss but it also reminded me of how little I can control. We could plan and pay for this trip but only God can set Ezra free and allow him to come home. God alone can change the hearts of the government officials (who, incidentally, aren’t in control, either).

So, now I circle back to the Top Hats: unimportant coincidences as insignificant as a “chasing after the wind.” Because I can’t see the whole picture, I grasp at pieces which don’t make sense. I search for reason in this frustrating predicament we find ourselves and our Congolese son in just like I looked for a significance in the appearance of those top hats. It’s as if I think I’m owed an explanation, as if it’s my right, as if I’m the one who makes things happen so I should be privy to all that’s going on. Without wanting to admit it, I think I can script this better than God. “Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) If I want to stop feeling out of control, I have to voluntarily give up control to the driver who knows where and how this is all supposed end.

The Best Worst Thing

I’ve only seen Brent cry three times. The first was when he was stressed out and overwhelmed in school. The second was when our girls were born. And today was the third time.


As if our morning were scripted for a movie, just before our friend brought the orphanage director to our hotel, it started to rain. This is the rainy season (which lasts about nine months) but we hadn’t seen much rain up until today. The sky was gray and the parking lot was dimpled with muddy puddles. It was the personification of our low spirits.


While Brent went to drop off our luggage at the early check-in, I sat with the orphanage director, trying to communicate and letting her teach me some words in Lingala. I fed Ezra, we colored in a coloring book, and watched an episode of Sesame Street from the 1970’s on the iPad. Soon, they were back and it was time.


I tried so hard not to cry. I told myself this was confusing enough for our little man, so I won’t make it worse by blubbering. We sat down at the table to conduct the formalities of giving Ezra back, even though he’s ours and we’re his. As soon as we sat down, I heard Brent’s choked gasp. It was only a faint sound but I knew what it signified. We looked at each other and lost it. Our friend asked if Brent would pray but he said he couldn’t do it. Instead, our friend prayed for us and for Ezra and for all the children in the orphanage. I’ll remember his beautiful, deep voice petitioning on our behalf in a hotel room in Kinshasa for the rest of my life. Ezra sat in my lap and held hands with both of us. He rested his forehead on the table and remained still throughout the prayer even though he didn’t understand a word of it. After he had made sure Ezra was settled in the backseat and before he entered the car himself, our friend left us with three words, “God is good.”


Last night, while I was struggling to fall asleep, I whispered to Brent asking if he regretted coming. He said the good parts outweigh the bad parts. At this moment, I’m not sure that’s true. I’m hoping a little time and perspective will at least help but this is a kind of despair I can’t sort out. We’ve got hours until our flight and now I just want to be home.


My friend has made this trip to visit with her Congolese daughter twice so I asked her for her opinion before we decided to travel. “It’s the best worst thing,” she told me. I completely get it.

Our last morning

He’s spooning up his morning tea with a tiny plastic spoon. Drops cover his lap and the concrete floor of our patio. Every few “bites” he offers one to me. I take it because I have forgotten we don’t have the same germs and the same genes. Yesterday, he mimed breaking his banana in two to Brent so they could share it. He often seems concerned whether we’re getting enough to eat.


This week in Congo has been the strangest lapse of time I’ve ever known. The days move at a pace I can’t quite comprehend. They aren’t slow and monotonous but they also aren’t flying by at break-neck speed. Another adopting mom staying at our hotel mentioned she feels like she’s in a time warp. It’s difficult for her to figure out what time it is at any given moment. I can sympathize. Our flight out of Nashville seems like it happened months ago.


Today is the day we’ve been dreading since we made our plans to travel. Today Ezra returns to the orphanage.


We’ve watched as other families staying here have said their good-byes to their children. It’s so painful. Older children who have had a glimpse of an improved, alternate life, just out of their reach. Babies, some with urgent medical needs, are shuttled back to their foster homes and the parents left in the wake are devastated.


One of the greatest blessings of this week has been the fellowship with these others American mamas and papas. We’ve sat together, comparing stories, news, and tips for getting the best wifi connection. We’ve ooo-ed and awww-ed over each other’s children but from the distance of an arm’s length, respecting the roles we must fill: Only the parents give their child food. Only mama or papa should hold the child. The child should attach to these adults instead of all adults. 


There are only a few of us left this morning, so breakfast is quiet. Ezra has moved on from his tea and now he sits on the ground, pulling the colorful shoestrings through the holes in the lacing cards we brought from home. As far as he knows, this is just another morning like the three before. Oh how my heart hurts.


Since the beginning of this process, we’ve been told to be very careful when posting pictures of our African son. As this week has transpired, we’ve taken LOTS of photos and videos so it pains me not to be able to send them out to all of our friends and families who are praying so fervently for us. (If you run into us when we get back you’ll be lucky to escape a photo book or a slideshow on my phone. Consider yourself warned.) In lieu of a picture (which is worth 1,000 words, apparently), I give you my description of Ezra:


His eyelashes are the Eighth Wonder of the world (the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are nothing in comparison). They are thick and jet-black. They curl almost into a complete circle. I tried to get a good picture of them tonight while he cuddled with Brent and watched videos of himself from earlier today on the video camera. It was like trying to photograph the Grand Canyon—impossible to catch the grandeur on film.


His head is fairly flat on one side, probably a result of lying down too often as an infant. (Brent said this is common in babies everywhere and not to worry. Is there a flat-headed kids support group I can sign him up with when he gets home?) I love to rub his head. His hair is very short, almost like Brent’s whiskers if he skips a day of shaving.


He has beautiful, round ears that stick out just enough and squishy ear lobes.


His eyes are dark and expressive. Paired with his eyebrows, he can tell you he’s mad without saying a word (which is good because he doesn’t speak English).


He has a scar on his right cheek.


He’s missing his pinky-toe toenails.


He’s got a mouth-full of good-looking teeth. A few of them have some suspicious spots but overall they look great. I think he takes great pride in his teeth. He loves to brush them. He did it three times today. He always wants me to brush his tongue at the end. This is oddly comforting for me. It tells me that someone has been helping him with his dental hygiene. Yesterday he wanted to spit in the toilet. Today, after brushing his teeth and getting a big gulp of water in his mouth, he wanted to go outside, gargle, and spit in the parking lot.


Due to his distended belly—a symptom of undernourishment and fluid retention—he walks a little like George Jefferson from The Jeffersons. He has to thrust his elbows back a bit to compensate for the roundness up front and he kind of wobbles from side to side. He has a severe “outtie” belly button. Brent said it’s a hernia (have I mentioned how nice it is to travel with a pediatrician?). It looks like a pop-up thermometer in a well-done Butterball turkey. He has a tiny bottom and spindly arms and legs. At the start of the week, he moved like it was exhausting for him. After three days of proteins and vitamins and good rest, his energy has improved and his belly has already shrunk a bit. It boggles my mind and breaks my heart to think of what a lifetime of better care could do.


I know this isn’t as satisfying as a photograph, especially since it’s only about 500 words (maybe half a picture?), but I hope it fills out a few of the details for one little boy among the millions of children who need a family. He’s a unique, smart, surprising, and beautiful boy. We’re so proud to be his mama and papa.