India: Part 2 {Gotcha Day}

The journey to Hyderabad was long, difficult, and draining. Not only the physical travel from Birmingham to there, but also the 2.5 years of red tape from two countries. We were so tired, so worn down, so emotionally and physically drained that I wasn’t sure if I even had it in me to fully appreciate what was about to go down.

But then there we suddenly were. The moment we had been anticipating, in some ways, for almost a full decade. For a year and a half, we only knew a name, a face, and a medical record. All we had to do was step out of the car, round the corner, and she’d be there.

So we stepped out of the car…Screen Shot 2017-11-20 at 5.54.30 PM.png

…rounded the corner…

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In a little pink dress with 100 layers of tulle. Her pigtails had pink barrettes to match.

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As I was walking up and holding Evie’s hand, I remember looking back at Zack with this big dumb smile on my face as if to say “is this real?” Suddenly, our energy and spirits were renewed.

She was perched against the wall, just outside of her little room, and had her hand resting on a handle attached to piece of pipe. My voice went up about 10 octaves as I tried to find the right first words to say to my daughter. (Fun fact: my first words to Evie were “you’re not going to fit into the clothes we brought for you” because she was a lot bigger than we thought she’d be. I’m really glad that my first words to D weren’t the same, because she was a lot smaller than we thought she’d be!)

She did the cutest little tilt of her head while she looked at me like, “who is this lady with a big dumb smile?” I was so hesitant to pick her up, because I kept thinking about how you’re not supposed to pick up adopted children early on, because they have to bond and attach to their parents. So after a couple minutes, I looked at Merissa, an SCH volunteer, and asked permission to pick her up. Amama had to physically push her towards me because I was so nervous. I guess it was a few seconds later as I was physically, actually, holding Dhanya Sri in my arms that I realized that it was me—ME—who was the parent, and holding her was exactly what I supposed to do.

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I tried to sift through all the things we had been taught to do—how to bond, connect, establish that you are a safe place for them. She spoke about 1 word to me, and 1 word to Zack, and that was the last time we heard her voice for a week. We were escorted into her room she shared with other beautiful little children her age, and then into their play room. We sat there under the watchful eye of Amama, Dhanya’s caregiver whom she loved, and who loved her. That had to have a been a hard moment for her too. We sat on the floor and I started pulling things out of my backpack—snacks, bubbles, little tactile toys. Again, just trying to think back to things we had learned through all of the education we had received through Lifeline.

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I could not have been prouder of our little Evie. Every night for 2.5 years, she prayed for “her little brother or sister in India,” then it was her “little sister in India”, then it was “Dhanya Sri in India”. She loved her sister unrelentingly, trying so hard but so sweetly and genuinely to play with her, talk to her, offer her little things. She played with her sister’s friends and never acted out when Dhanya didn’t return her affections. She still just says, “it’s ok, Dhanya was shy then.” While we were in India and every time since coming home, when we ask Evie was her favorite part of India was, she says, “my sister”.  We prayed huge, massive prayers for Evie’s little heart, and God answered our prayers so big for our oldest girl.

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The next few hours were a blur in a lot of ways. We saw her little bunk bed that she shared with her best little buddy, squeezed and loved on her foster siblings, and hopped in an auto rickshaw and drove from Courage Home to Joy Home, where she had spent most of her life. The older girls of Joy Home couldn’t get enough of her. They fed her biscuits, passed her from one set of arms to another, hugged on all of us, walked en-masse with us up to see her old bedroom where her crib used to be, and jumped on the trampoline with her. It was so wonderful to meet these sweet young women who loved her so much. I think I even remember someone telling me that they called her “Baby Dhanya”.

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By time we got back to Courage Home, it was clear that she needed a break, and we did too. In some ways, leaving her that first—and last—time was hard, but I’m also glad that she got the evening to process the day’s events before we left for Ongole the next morning. I’m also glad that we got a night of rest too. The Lord gave us a peace as we spend the evening at the hotel and wrapped our head around the day. There were so many times that night that our emotions would surge and we’d just break down, then we were ok again. It was a crazy night.

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We all went to bed really early that night, after a dinner of really boring American food room service—something that would become almost a daily ritual that we found to be immensely comforting!

We woke up the next morning to meet our caseworker Morgan, her newlywed husband Jeffrey, and our guide Alex, who was already starting to feel like family. (He likes telling corny jokes—we speak that language.)

As we drove back to SCH, stacked like sardines in a little car and zipping through the city center of Hyderabad and over to Jubilee Hills, there was such a different feeling. A night of rest, a day to unpack all those big feeling, having Morgan there, and knowing big prayers were hanging over us from half a world away were really helpful. We walked back into Courage Home feeling no longer like strangers, but rather as the newest family in the Sarah’s Covenant Homes community, and more importantly, like our family was actually complete. For so long Dhanya was there, but not actually THERE…but now she was!

When we arrived, Dhanya was running around with her sweet little friends, but wasn’t so quick to rush to us. That was ok. We were prepared for that. She clearly knew that something was up. The story from here on out, I want to share just bits and pieces of it, because I want her to hear the full experience of the day from us so that she can own her story.

Let me be very clear: no orphanage is “good”, because no child should be raised without a family. But Dhanya lived in a good place. A wonderful place. So good that sometimes I wonder if there will always be a twinge of guilt in my life, because if we had matched with a child in a bad orphanage, maybe we could have brought more hope to that child. In fact, the state-run orphanage in her city has had many terrible, gut-wrenching stories come out of it, and the place she lived for the first 4 months doesn’t even allow the families to go inside of it.

But I can’t live a life of what-ifs. I’m so grateful that my daughter knew love before us, and for all the other beautiful children who live there who will not be adopted, even if they won’t know the love of an earthly mother and father, they will grow up knowing the love of a Heavenly one. They will be held, fed, hugged, played with, loved, and educated. SCH started as a vision of an American who had a dream of taking special needs children in India and loving them forever, rather than letting them age out of the system and into obscurity. We were able to visit both their Hyderabad and Ongole locations, and believe me when I say, the Hand of God is shown everyday through the workers there. There are a lot of ways to support them: you can sponsor a child’s birthday party, you can send Christmas bonuses to the caregivers, sponsor a child in part or entirely, order things off their Amazon wishlist, and more. Learn all you need to know by clicking here.

Anyway, all of that to say, making Dhanya leave her home was going to be hard regardless, but leaving the people who have loved her unconditionally made it harder. The plan for the day was to spend a couple more hours letting her play, letting Morgan make connections with SCH workers, having a goodbye party, and then finally giving out one more set of hugs before getting in the car and driving to Ongole.

The day went exactly as planned. We have so much good video and tons of adorable pics of that day, which I can’t post because we want to protect the identities of the children there. But this one of Jeffrey is too cute! Jeffrey.jpg

I especially loved hugging on Little V, who is Dhanya’s best friend, and will soon be living with her mommy and daddy in Seattle!

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We gave her a little bear that my friend Abby had given us to give to her. It vibrates and makes soothing lullaby sounds, and is still a something she sleeps with almost every night, 5 months later! It was so sweet to see her holding it close and knowing that it belonged just to her!

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The tradition at SCH is to get a cake for the little one who is going home, let them cut it, and then every feeds him/her a piece of cake! Amama made sure Evie got to share in the tradition too, which was so sweet.

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As the kids happily ate their cake, I handed out small gifts to her caregivers. I gave them baskets filled with specialty chai tee, a couple of Moon Pies, and a hand-written note with some rupees clipped inside so they could have a sari made. I gave each of them the most genuine and heartfelt hug I’d ever given anyone. How do you adequately express gratitude to the people who RAISED YOUR CHILD before you physically get there to do it yourself?! Sweet Alekya, Mariya, Amama, and Prashanti: thank you. I don’t even know what to say besides that, because no other combination of words even start to touch how I feel. I also need to take this paragraph to extend my love and gratitude to Nikki and Merissa. Nikki is a long-time SCH volunteer who works tirelessly to advocate for the children and make sure they have mementos of their time at SCH when they leave, and Merissa was there to make sure that everything went smoothly. So grateful for every part of their ministry!

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The last thing to do was to gather Dhanya and her foster siblings and explain to them that Dhanya is going with her mommy, daddy, and sister to America, and then say a prayer for her. Merissa explained so beautifully that while they’d miss her, it was a reason to be happy. Her nurse Prashanti then prayed in Telugu for her as we all sat in a circle together. I’m not crying, you’re crying.

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Finally, it was time to get in the car and leave. This was so, so, so hard. I’ll never forget Little V and Dhanya hugging each other one last time, or her caregivers lined up and waving goodbye, or the look on her face as she started to cry just a few minutes later.

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The drive to Ongole was so long and so difficult. It never seemed to end. It was about 9 hours total, but it felt even longer. We held her as she slept, cried, and grieved. Several times we got choked up ourselves, as we continued to let it sink in that this day was here, and heaps of compassion for how hard that was for her, even if it was beautiful for us. In the picture below, you can see her tears on Zack’s shoulder. I didn’t even want to take that photo, but I’m glad I did. It’s so sweet to see that tiny little body in the big arms of her daddy who has loved her from afar for so long.

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We stopped for lunch just outside of Hyderabad, and Sudhaker, the SCH caseworker who was sent with us, fed her “Indian style”—she wasn’t really having it, me putting a fork in her face. Sweet, precious Sudhaker, who we just fell in love with—he fed her just a bit too much, and a few hours later, I was wearing that entire dish of yellow fry dahl on my shirt. She puked on me just as Evie stuck a wad of hot pink slime in her hair. We were, um, conveniently (?) passing through a rural Indian village, and when we pulled over for me to change clothes, a crowd of Indians crowded around us and stared at us like we were Martians. (Worse—we were travel-weary Americans!). Walking down the street to a public toilet to change my outfit and wash puke off of my clothes is an experience I will never forget!

I had picked up a set of Sea-Bands before we left, and even though nothing was left in her stomach (or so I though—LOL) and we had given her a dose of Dramamine, I offered them to her to wear. She put them on, and didn’t take them off until we were back in Birmingham. So as you see photos of her from here on out, this is where her cool wrist accessories came from!

Another round of puke later, we finally we arrived in Ongole and settled in at what was probably a good hotel—but a very, VERY far cry from the swank Starwood property in Hyderabad! Nevertheless, we were grateful for the hospitality and to no longer be in a car. I’m also grateful for the pair of scissors they let me borrow, and for not looking at me with too much judgement as I snipped the matted mess of pink goop out of Evie’s hair. Our hotel room had one double-sized bed for all 4 of us, a window AC unit, and that was about it. We had a long night ahead of us, that much was clear.

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That evening, before we crammed sideways into the bed (with Zack propping his feet on stacked suitcases), we tried our best to help her feel at ease. We offered her every bit of food we brought, coloring books, toys, and games, but she just looked at us terrified. Oh gosh, it was so hard. We didn’t know then that it would be days before she’d even talk to us. A week with no communication, except for holding up her pinky to signal that she had to go to the bathroom.

She was also freezing in the cold room (AC was not really part of her life, so far as we could tell), and after I put her in her little Sophie the First nightgown that SCH sent for her, I had to wrap her in a bath towel for an extra bit of warmth. Bless this sweet thing.

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As the girls slept and Zack and I sat in the dark, we whispered about how that was the most traumatic day that our daughter had probably ever experienced–at least that she remembered in a cognizant way. We watched her sleep and what seemed like a never-ending stream of hot tears kept running down my face. I knew with every fiber of my being that this was WORTH IT, but my brain was so fried that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

The next morning, we went to the restaurant next door for breakfast, but no one had an appetite. Dhanya just sat on my lap with her head on my chest, with the most miserable, anguished look. She also started spiking a low grade fever, and gagged several times as we sat there in the oppressing heat and humidity. I sat at the table and tried to get my emotions in check, but wow, it was hard. I remember shutting my eyes and clenching my jaw tight so I didn’t just lose it. Alex, Morgan, and Jeffrey were sitting there with us, and I didn’t want to look like the lunatic with no handle on my emotions. (Luckily, they all have a lot of grace and know that this is just part of it. Bless them. They were so good to us.)

Oh gosh, sitting here and typing this and remembering back to that morning almost makes me want to break down again. Normally, being at a far-flung corner of the earth in a little open-air restaurant is what I live for, but as I held that tiny body in my arms, I wish I could have been transported to Waffle House with a hot plate of bacon. I’ve never wanted so bad to NOT be in a foreign country.

A few minutes later, we walked down to the DCPU office to complete the final few steps that would make her legally our daughter and Evie’s sister. Part 3 coming soon.

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India: Part I {From Birmingham to Hyderabad}

In February of 2015, we made an announcement on this blog that we were growing our family by adoption. For the next 2.5 years, we posted our progress on our timeline, finally culminating in what happened June 19, 2017. Dhanya Sri Ann Nichols, once a child represented by a vintage globe in our family photos, came into our family.

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I chronicled Evie’s early days home on this blog before moving it over to an Instagram page, and our early days with Dhanya Sri are every bit as important! Before Gotcha Day gets too far away, I’m kicking off this blog series in attempt to both hang on to these sweet memories, and also hope it will encourage others who are considering adoption or going through those early days with an adopted child.

I’ve got to get through some complicated backstory first, so hang with me. Without further ado…

As we approached our 3rd summer of the adoption process, we knew travel time was getting near. We had passed court, and were just waiting for passport to be issued. In India, travel approval is granted when the passport is processed, printed, and in the hands of the SAA (Specialized Adoption Agency). As it turns out, Dhanya, though she lived in a foster home in Hyderabad, Telangana, her legal process was through Ongole, Andhra Pradesh. See, Hyderabad and Ongole used to be in the same state of Andhra Pradesh. When she was transferred from Shishu Gruha in Ongole to Sarah’s Covenant Homes in Hyderabad, they were in the same state. But shortly after she moved, the state split. Hyderabad, once the capital of Andhra Pradesh, became the capital of the new state of Telangana. But, Hyderabad remained the de-facto capital of Andhra Pradesh until March of this year. Do you see how this is getting really complicated?

Let’s add to that complication. We were only the 3rd or 4th international adoption that Ongole had ever processed. I had become good friends with two sweet gals named Alicia and Kelly, whose children, Vignesh and Edi, were like Dhanya—legally processed through Ongole, but lived at SCH Hyderabad. Like us, they spent months waiting for their process to move forward but heard virtually nothing. Finally last fall, we all started to see some movement in our cases. Alicia and her husband traveled as soon as she found out they had a court date, spent one month in India, and came home with Vignesh at Christmas of last year. They had to apply for his passport in person in Hyderabad and wait for it to be processed and printed. Kelly and her husband went in May, and after a drive to Ongole and back to Hyderabad, found out that Edi’s passport had to be processed no, not in Hyderabad….passport operations for Andhra Pradesh had moved to a Vijayawada. Ongole and Hyderabad are 8 hours apart. It’s a hard drive through rural parts of India. If it hadn’t been for them blazing a path for our journey, we would have had no idea what all was in store for us. (More on that later!)

Once we got our written court orders on May 5, 2017 (news that was received in the form of a very tear-filled phone call from our Morgan, our caseworker!), we knew we were getting close, but still had no real clarity on passport. Were we supposed to go over there and apply for it in person? What if we got there and had to go back home and keep waiting? What if we got there and had to stay indefinitely? Traveling before passport is issued is completely against the norm in India, but after my agency got a follow up email from the DCPU (District Child Protection Unit) in Ongole that said, “PAPs [potential adoptive parents] are compulsory to attend passport office in Vijayawada”, and simultaneously getting feedback from Kelly about what they were experiencing with passport, we decided that that was our green light to travel, but knew it was still a risk. May 31, 2017: The day “covfefe” was born into American vernacular, and also the day we finally, finally, finally, got to book our tickets to India. Still seems incovfefeable that after all those years of waiting, this was actually happening.

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Here are some videos of me sharing the big news! No one was at home, so I had to FaceTime Zack and my parents!

By the end of the day, we had 4 round-trip tickets to India booked, plus a 5th one-way ticket from New Delhi to Birmingham. Shout out to Matt at Adoption Airfare who secured a great deal for us, and was an absolute delight to work with. I highly encouraged them if you are planning any type of mission or adoption travel!

We spent the next three weeks getting as prepared as we could.

We got vaccinations and started a malaria preventative…

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Ev and I had our last mommy-daughter breakfast date with it just being “us”, and we celebrated my parent’s anniversary with them…3

I plowed through all the paperwork and appointments that we needed to get in order before we arrived, like calling MaxMed at 2:00 am and making an appointment, getting our big accordion file filled up with the right paperwork, emailing the US Embassy in New Delhi, sorting through our visa applications, and all kinds of fun stuff like that. This is basically the adoption equivalent of nesting! It was tedious, but it gave me a great sense of accomplishment!IMG_1387

Evie looked forward to updating our countdown each morning…IMG_1471

And Zack had his own way of getting ready to go…by printing t-shirts with his favorite Bollywood stars on them. He thought they’d be good conversation starters in India. He wasn’t wrong! Hahaha. I love this guy. IMG_1460.JPG

And I started putting together all of the little activities and supplies together for the girls’ travel packs. In the months leading up to travel, every time I went to Target, I picked up a couple more things for their packs. They were a Godsend at all of our appointments, waiting at the airports, the long stretches of air and car travel, and the time we spent in our hotel room. 4IMG_1497

The white packages in the photo below were given to the girls by my dear friend Jennifer Scott. She got Shopkins and other blind bag-type toys and wrapped them up for the girls to open on the trip. These were huge for Dhanya, because they helped us convey that we cared for her, even in those early days when communication was very difficult. So grateful for you, Jennifer! 5

Finally, it was June 17th. I woke up early, went downstairs and made my coffee, and had the realization that this would be my last quiet morning to myself for quite some time. I couldn’t believe this day was actually here. After getting a surprise visit from our friend Ian, eating some McDonalds (a slightly shameful “last meal” before a long trip away from the familiar!), we did a quick video tour of our house on the iPad for Dhanya to watch, loaded up the car, and drove to my parent’s house. They rented a big van and we—me, Zack, Evie, Zack’s mom, my mom and dad, plus my nephew and niece—headed to the Atlanta airport. IMG_1522

Let me break for a second to talk about my mom and Zack’s mom. My mom had been planning to go to India with us for a long time. It was a big step outside of anything she was really comfortable with, but she was there for us because she knew that we’d need help with Evie. It was very important that Evie go with us, because we wanted our family to all be together from the get-go, instead of waiting to come back home and then introducing E and D to each other.

Mom was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer last December, shattering any chance of her going to India with us. This past Spring was the hardest season of my life to date. The uncertainty of India, Mom’s health, church planting, being a first year teacher….it all took a pretty hard toll on me. I’m really close to my mom, she is literally my best friend, and to not have her with me on this journey was like being stabbed and having someone twist the knife. Our goodbye at the airport was pretty weepy! IMG_1532

Enter my mother-in-law. Pam is as intrepid and level-headed as any person you’d hope to meet, and she bravely stepped in when we realized that taking Evie without a support person would be very unwise. She had all of 5 weeks to make this decision, get her shots, prepare, and go. And she did. And we love her for it. 7

We went through security with ease (thanks to Pam), popped our malaria meds for the evening, grabbed a bite to eat, and settled in at the gate. It was about 10:00 pm when they called for early boarding—families with young children. Boom, that was us. We were the first ones in line ready to get on that plane. Then out of the corner of my eye, I see Evie and Pam fall to the ground. Pam was holding Evie’s hand so she wouldn’t run around like a maniac, when Evie decided she was going to start swinging around like she was a monkey and her grandmother’s arm was a vine. Down they went. Pam immediately grabbed her wrist and we knew something was wrong. 30 minutes later, boarding was complete with everyone but us. Paramedics were surrounding Pam trying to determine what had happened.

Should she get on the plane and hope she had merely sustained a sprain? What if the pressure of the cabin made it worse and we had to make an emergency landing? What if it was broken? What if it wasn’t? Could we get medical help during our layover at Heathrow if she needed it?

Finally, we had to make a decision. We had to get on the plane without Pam. She had to go to the ER, and we had to go to India. All of our appointments were lined up, and being delayed by even 24 hours would create a domino effect that would mess up everything. But what about Evie? Could Zack and I really manage BOTH girls, a 4 year old and a 3 year old, by ourselves in an unfamiliar country? What if Evie stayed with Pam? Pam had to get in a taxi and go to the ER and then find a hotel room in the middle of the night in Atlanta. Maybe they’d both be able to get on the flight the next night and meet us in Hyderabad?

We had about 3 minutes to think through this all. Finally, we got on the plane with Evie. I was sobbing. SOBBING. The flight attendants were loading me up with wine and water trying to settle me down! Zack was pulling every encouraging and sweet word out of the dictionary he could think of. I tried to not tell Evie, “this is all your fault!” Wow. What a night.

Once God supernaturally gave me the ability to calm the heck down, it ended up being a lovely flight. Evie slept most of it, and was a rock star when she was awake.

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Here’s Evie and our super cute British Airways flight attendant. I mean, super helpful flight attendant! 9

We landed at Heathrow and prayed that we’d have a message from Pam that it was a small sprain and she’d been on the next flight. Turns out, her wrist was in fact, very broken. Zack and I had to go at this alone. I cried some more. It’s what I do.

The London to Hyderabad flight wasn’t nearly as lovely as the one to London. The crew was cranky, Pam’s seat was given away to someone on standby so we didn’t have room to stretch out, the food was bad, and Zack and I both were so riddled with anxiety that we didn’t even know which way was up. Um, the view of Eastern Europe were pretty though?

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That said, looking at the seat-back monitor and realizing we were able to land in the same city as our daughter…surreal. IMG_1566.JPG

We landed in Hyderabad and things continued to go downhill. Evie was exhausted, and rightfully so, after two back-to-back trans-continental long-haul flights. It had been something like 29 hours since we had left our house after all. When we finally got out of customs and immigration, our suitcases were no where to be found. While Zack elbowed his way to the front of baggage claim just in case, I took Evie to the customer service counter to file a report. The baggage handlers kept telling me that they would watch Evie while I looked for my suitcases. “She is like a baby doll!” they told me. Now I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt that they were NOT child traffickers, but no way am I going to leave me kid alone with you in an airport, dude.

We spent about 2 hours trying to sort out luggage. 2 pieces were found, but the 3rd was not. That suitcase had most of Evie’s clothes, as well as gifts for Dhanya’s caregivers, the SCH staff, and government officials in there. It’d be a week before we saw it again.

We got to the other side of security and met our guide, Alex. (More on Alex later!) It was raining buckets, and we were soaked as we waited for our car to pull around. Yay, monsoon season! I told Zack I was only taking this photo so we could remember this part of the journey. It was a hard part. We hooked up to Alex’s personal hotspot and had a follow up message from Pam that her wrist was broken so bad that she had to have surgery and physical therapy. Jesus, come quickly.

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Our driver got lost, but we made it to the hotel eventually. Alex kept trying to make jokes, but we were zombies. I also was still crying and texting things to my mom like, “please send Dad to pick up Evie and take her home” and “I can’t even remember why I’m here.” I was in a BAD PLACE.

We then had about 3 hours to shower, change into clean clothes, rest, eat, and get ready to meet Dhanya for the first time.

Luckily at this point, Evie was doing ok. Praise the Lord for our sweet little firstborn.

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Our hotel was beautiful, but our nerves were completely shot. Satan was cranked up to 10 as he tried to diminish the beauty of what was about to happen.

But Satan lost.

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Part 2 coming soon.