Once upon a time, in a land far, far away. Well, it’s far from here, anyway. Thirteen and a half years ago, at a McDonald’s in Bellevue, Washington we met a little 4 year old girl. We had come specifically to see her and it changed our lives, and hers, forever.
That little girl had what I called then ‘The Thousand Yard Stare’. She might just be 4, but she’d already lived and seen more things – scary things – than many of us will ever experience in our lives. The details of which I wouldn’t learn for several more years. I will never forget my first impressions of her. Much smaller and thinner than an average 4 year old. But she was tough. I could see it right from that first moment. She gave me the first of the many once-overs she would give me in subsequent years. I guess I passed.
They told us she was behind on her speech development and she was. I asked if she wanted something to eat and she nodded – suspicious. But she followed me to the counter to place our order. We got in line and I looked down into a face with big chocolate brown eyes looking up at me. I was being studied, boldly. Then she said ‘You gone ‘dopt me?’. I said ‘We’d like to. Would that be OK?’. She scrunched up her little face and whispered ‘OK’, and then she reached up and took my hand for the first time.
Every night for months we would read her The Madeline books about the little girls in Paris in two straight lines, but the youngest of them all was Madeline. ‘When you ‘dopt me, you take me to where Madeline lives?’ she’d ask. And I’d always promise we would. We slept on her floor for countless nights and I held her hand through night terrors. In the mornings she would ask ‘Is this the day you ‘dopt me?’ And every day for two years I’d have to say ‘Not today.’ Finally, the day came and it was a done deal. And we got to take her to Paris and London, to where Madeline lives to celebrate. That’s why she’s ‘Emilie Madeline’.
She is the most resilient human being I know. When she turned 5, we enrolled her in Montessori kindergarten. An environment that teaches respect, gentleness and self motivation. I remember going to her first Parent/Teacher conference. They told me she was behind on everything and asked if perhaps their school wasn’t the right fit. It was a dismal report card. I asked the teacher ‘Tell me one good thing about her. Just one thing. You like her hair or she draws pretty unicorns. Something. Anything.’
The teacher looked doubtful ‘Well, she’s got a mean right hook.’ She’d been beating up the boys on the playground. Not the done thing at a Montessori Kindergarten. But I smiled ‘Well, that’s great!’ I told her, optimistically. The woman thought I was crazy, so I enlightened her. ‘Where Emilie comes from you need a mean right hook. Now it’s our job to teach her that she doesn’t need it anymore.’ The teacher just shook her head.
When Em was 8, she played soccer on a team whose players showed up to Saturday games when it was convenient for them. One game, only 3 players turned up and the coach didn’t want to forfeit the game. He put one girl in the goal, one girl as a defender and he put Emilie up front. She was fast and their best scorer every season she played.
‘Emilie. I want you to score 10 goals for me and don’t let them get the ball near our goal.’
Emilie nodded and went to work. We watched from the sidelines as she weaved in and out of the other players and scored goal after goal. She never smiled after scoring, or reacted to our crazy cheers from the sidelines. She just worked. She’d score and immediately march right back to the place where the kick off would be – waiting for another chance to take the ball away from the hapless full team of 8 year olds on the other side. And then she’d do it again.
By the end of the game Emilie had beaten the other team – almost single-handedly – and when we ran to her and lifted her up she barely smiled.
‘Emilie! You did it!’
‘My coach told me to score 10 goals. So I did.’ She was unimpressed with her accomplishment. She expected nothing less from herself. Just doing what was required to win.
I tell you all this story of our Emilie because yesterday she did another extraordinary thing. Emilie got a full scholarship to her university of choice! A top college in her chosen field of study. ‘And they’re paying for my books too, Mom.’ she told me after getting the embossed folder with all the information and the letter inviting her to accept. The books-thing seemed to be the clincher for her.
‘I think they liked my essay. I wrote about what I learned on our walk on the Camino. Those professors from NYU that we met in Santigo told me that would be the best college essay.’
Well, it worked. That little girl at the McDonald’s all those years ago, is going to be a lawyer. And it’s a surprise to none of us who know her and how hard she’s worked. Has it been easy? Not for one day, for any of us. But she’s always bounced back from adversity. Able to see what adjustments need to be made. Learning and growing from stumbles and mistakes.
I sit here today and tear up thinking about how far its been from there to here. The mountains that had to be climbed and the countless sleepless nights. Deep, deep water at times, when we couldn’t touch the bottom and we were tired from trying to stay afloat. The doubts, tears and days of real fear. And today I can let out that breath I’ve been holding for her for longer than I can remember. Today, our girl is on her way!