I remember that cherry red dress she wore, bright against the deep green of trees well watered in a West African rainy season. Her smooth, ebony skin richly contrasted behind the deep swoop of the neckline, and her strong lean shoulders held in perfect posture. Her crooked smile gave way to the innocence of her character, and her bright eyes offered a glimmer of hope that, despite circumstances, joy was always within her reach.
It was just a few months ago, the day I stepped foot into an orphanage to meet my third daughter for the very first time. She was stunning and brave, cautious yet assertive. The moment I laid eyes on her it was as if two worlds collided into one, almost as if she’d always been one of my daughters. She was energetic and engaged, playful even as I initiated connection. It wasn’t anything like I had imagined all those many months of waiting; I never dared to hope it could be so smooth. She wasn’t performing and she wasn’t anxious. She wasn’t laying her best cards out in order to gain love. Somehow, she instinctively knew she already had it.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of her that first day, her little persona too much for me to break my gaze. I studied her- breathing her in almost, longing to know her like I know my other two. She was everything Jesus had spoken, and more, and I was overjoyed in the hope that one day, hopefully soon, she would officially join the fold of our family and belong forever.
The next morning passed slowly, as we weren’t allowed to visit her until after she got back from school. When the afternoon came, we headed to the orphanage and as we walked I felt in my spirit something would be different about today’s visit. As we arrived, she ran to the gate and embraced us tightly. I kissed her and cradled her close, and before long she had taken my other daughter’s hand and led her to the slide. They giggled and played- both of them frequently looking back at me to gain my attention and approval, all the while thinking in my spirit, “those two were made to be sisters.”
I didn’t have words at the time, but the confidence exuding from my newest daughter was as if she knew in the depths of her that it would only be just a little while longer before she would forever come home. It was as if she could feel the door to permanency that Jesus himself was opening, convinced that no one could shut it and it was hers and only hers to walk through. A transaction had taken place in her spirit: She knew she wasn’t an orphan anymore– her mom and sister were here to prove it. And it was in that moment, that something holy and unexpected happened in me that changed me, again, forever.
All of the sudden, I had space to see one more.
There she was, standing there in a cherry red dress.
She looked at me with hopeful eyes, a sweet gentle smile painted across her face. I lifted my hand and beckoned her to me, hoping she’d come and rest in my embrace. Her demeanor communicated that she understood that I wasn’t actually there for her, but that didn’t stop her from coming. She walked slowly, humbly looking at the ground as she walked, and her eleven-year-old frame melted quickly into my embrace.
I fumbled slightly within my spirit, as if to question what must be wrong with me that I wasn’t solely focusing on the little girl that would soon share my last name. But there was something unavoidable about this one, this striking eleven year old whose functional age was probably closer to five or six.
She ran her fingers up and down my arm, stopping just shy of the cuff of my sleeve, letting her hardened fingertips press into the material. Two of her fingers made their way around where my shirt had been sewn- back and forth they went, melodically. She stood up to the sound of a tearful toddler who had gotten stuck, and she lifted the little girl into a joyful spin. The little one’s tears turned to laughter, and I watched this eleven year old absolutely delight in her. As I watched this scene unfold, it was then that I realized– even if I looked away, I couldn’t stop seeing her. And to this day, I still haven’t lost sight of her. I hope I never do.
That lean frame of hers behind that cherry red dress.
That wisdom she’d found, worth more than gold.
You see, at eleven years old she had come to understand that there was joy to be known in being seen.
That was all she wanted.
Someone to see.
I don’t often rush to trust the Lord with the life of an orphan who I can’t do anything for. I grieve the thought of walking out of the orphanage with my third daughter, and not with the one in the cherry red dress also. It’s not so much a savior complex as it is a burden- deep, deep within- that so longs to give myself to carry the very burden of the Father’s heart. The hardest place for me in this very season- is grappling with the question, “Was seeing her, enough?”
And to be honest, I don’t know.
I’ve come up close enough to Jesus to know that seeing is sacred. Seeing precious children without families has exposed me to a world of injustices that my flesh alone can’t possibly bear. Seeing has invited me into a place where all I can do is engage with the kindness of Jesus that so juxtaposes what stands before my earthly eyes. Seeing pries open the cracked brittle ground of my heart that hoovers over a topic that feels impossible to safely expose- the plight of the orphan. The more I have seen, the messier I have become- and only slowly am I learning to love this crooked, sometimes sideways, intimate dance with Jesus, the one who sees it all.
I ask him in a whisper that often feels hard to muster up, “Is it enough, to know that she is seen by you, her perfect Father. Is that enough?”
As I left the orphanage that day I realized that on this side of Heaven, I may never escape this question. There will always be one child, or many- who I’ve seen, but whose life I cannot really step into, and honestly, whose life I struggle to trust Jesus with.
But I want to be a woman who chooses to continue to see, and continue to do the awkward dance of trust for the sake of the fatherless. I want to be a woman who so chooses to look upon the suffering of the orphan, while simultaneously looking up at Jesus declaring that His keen eyesight over these precious ones is enough. I want to look and remember that in the mess of my faith, He’s the one who sees me too.
Sometimes seeing looks like walking out of an orphanage with another daughter, while an eleven-year-old girl in a cherry red dress stands in the background.
And slowly still, will I learn to love this crooked, sometimes excruciating, intimate dance with Jesus, the one who sees it all.
(*All photos compliments of Cherish Andrea.)