"Do you want Mommy to sing you a song?"
Grace shyly nodded, and Monica began to sing quietly into her daughter's ear. A calm smile spread across Grace's face, and Monica wondered if the song reminded Grace how her birth mother used to soothe her back in Cambodia.
Monica and her husband Kevin wished they knew more about Grace's life before she joined their family in Boston at age 16 months. The adoption agency had provided only a few sketchy details: Late one night, Grace's birth mother had arrived at a Cambodian orphanage just long enough to surrender her baby daughter into the hands of a stranger. Grace's mother said what must have been a tearful good-bye and fled into the darkness.
When Grace arrived in Boston a few months later, Monica and Kevin felt a mixture of joy and heartache. Judging from Grace's obvious malnutrition and dangerously low weight, it seemed likely her birth mother had been poor and perhaps homeless. Grace also had intestinal parasites and rickets, as well as scabs all over her body. Her new parents guessed that the scabs might have come from repeatedly scratching at lice.
Yes, their little girl had arrived. Yet she had already suffered so much for her young age. Monica and Kevin were determined to give her a promising future, but they knew a few hurdles lay ahead of them. They had to give her time to get well and to adjust to her new life in America.
During Grace's first month with her new family, she did not speak a single word. But she quickly developed a strong attachment to her 3-year-old brother, Eli. Shortly after his birth, Eli also had been orphaned in Cambodia-by the same birth mother who had given up Grace. At 4 months of age, he had come to live with Monica and Kevin.
Even though Grace had never known Eli in Cambodia, she must have sensed a kinship with her biological brother that was deeper than sharing the same Boston address. One month after her arrival, when she finally spoke her first word on American soil, she said, "Eli!"
About the same time that Grace began to speak, she decided to give walking a try. One day, at age 18 months, she hoisted herself from the sitting position. Once on her feet, Grace wasted no time standing around; she immediately began to put one foot in front of the other! Monica and Kevin were pleased to see that although her stature was still slight, their little girl's physical development was progressing nicely.
Meanwhile, they enrolled Grace in an intervention program designed to stimulate cognitive and language development. A speech therapist worked with Grace to enhance her language skills, and other professionals provided activities aimed at fostering a wide variety of mental abilities. Monica and Kevin eagerly awaited the results-they had no way of knowing whether the neglect Grace experienced in her early days had caused permanent cognitive damage. They felt blessed when, after only 6 months in the program, Grace's cognitive progress equaled that of her same-age American-born peers.
Grace spoke all English-not a word of Cambodian. Yet Monica and Kevin wanted her to build an identity as a Cambodian-American. Two years after Grace joined their family, they decided to take the children to a local Cambodian fair, where Grace and Eli could learn about their roots. At the fair, they met many other Cambodian children who had been adopted by American parents. Grace seemed intrigued by the children with brown skin, just like her own. She watched them with interest, while shyly clinging to her parents.
Monica wanted Grace to understand why they had come to the fair. "Do you see all these children?"
"They all had mommies in Cambodia, just like you and Eli do. And now they have come to live with new mommies and daddies in America, just like you have."
A hint of confusion crossed Grace's face. Monica decided to make it simpler.
"You see, all these children have two kinds of mommies." Monica pointed toward the horizon and explained, "One kind is their birth mommy, from Cambodia."
Then Monica put her hand over her heart. She looked deep into Grace's dark eyes.
"But, Grace, I'm your 'forever mommy.'"