Nissa’s column “Let Us Sow Love” appears monthly in The Catholic Free Press. This column appeared on September 1, 2017.
The first time I saw our son and daughter is something I will never forget. Everyone remembers that day. The look in your child’s eyes, their sweet heavy warmth in your arms, the smell of their newborn head, the soft perfection of tiny fingers and toes. You are instantly, deeply in love.
The first time I saw my son and daughter there was a combination of anticipation and fear in their eyes. They would not be touched nor receive physical affection from me. They stank of a kind of filth I had never experienced with any of my other children in their dirtiest states. They were covered in scars and scabs, one of them had hands resembling someone four times his age. I was instantly, deeply repelled.
Every part of me wanted to turn around and go back to my comfortable life in America. To my ‘own’ beautiful children. I wanted to forget about this place halfway around the world and the extreme poverty – material, spiritual, emotional. I wanted to unsee, unsmell, unfeel. But God had already marked me indelibly. These were the ones he sent us to love. These were the ones he sent us to rescue. There was no escape.
I left Bulgaria numb. I felt nothing. I had no feeling of belonging, no affection. Just nothing. I wanted Him to choose someone else for us. Someone easier to love. I had no desire to go back. I was like Jonah in my desire to just walk away.
But we did go back. And were met with an epic storm for which we were wholly unprepared. One child violently acting out against me any time we were alone in a room, turning on the charm when others returned. I begged to be delivered from it. For ten days my heart pounded and ached, unable to breathe. For ten days I sobbed bitterly that I couldn’t be what she needed me to be. We went back and forth about what we should do and ultimately stayed the course. My husband reminded me that God had brought us this far; and that love wasn’t merely affection. It was doing the right thing, whatever the cost.
When we arrived home, we watched vigilantly throughout the days and nights in case the storm raged against our other children. Then the storm began to collapse inward, to consume her, and she completely shut down. And there she remained, terrified. Only Jesus can calm that sea. But she doesn’t know him. Not yet. Daily we teach her, suffering the emotional buffets alongside her, trying to shield her from further harm. Patiently. Wearily.
While her past with all its conflicts and confusion, all of its pain, assaults her heart and mind, we remain with her. The backlash cutting into us, tearing at us, our strength ebbing, on our knees.
Love doesn’t always look like moony-faced affection. Sometimes love looks tired and broken. Sometimes love looks angry or frustrated. Love is not just how we feel about someone else, it is, in its highest form, willing the good of another without counting the cost. It is dying to oneself, letting go of the need for reciprocity. It sometimes looks – and feels – an awful lot like being stripped naked, arms wide, pierced hand and foot and side, vulnerable, spat on and insulted, thorns pressed deeply into the head, breathless. And when it feels like that, you’re loving as He loved.