Today was our family’s second adoption day! I thought about calling this blog post “We are complete.” Then I realized that might sound a bit too much like my happiness is defined by having a certain number of children or by achieving an official legal status. That isn’t true. I was content with 3 birth kids; I was content with 4 kids, including one beautiful adopted four-year-old girl; I didn’t need more. But God had more in mind. I am rejoicing, however, in the “official” culmination of much waiting. God led us to our precious Laticia—who we cannot imagine life without—and then he brought Shylee into our lives, an extra blessing! Our littlest one is now a Kepner. We just had our adoption hearing today, and our little (almost two-year-old) is now Shylee Grace Kepner. That is the first name she has had since birth, but a new middle name and last name. She has been with our family for over a year, but now she is truly “adopted.” Her identity has shifted from one family to another. This doesn’t mean her past or her birth family are no longer important—they will always be part of who she is. It just means that her identity, her security, her deepest place of belonging, have shifted. Both Laticia and Shylee joined our family officially in 2017: one in January, one in December. It has been quite a year!
Because Shylee was not legally ours until now, we have not been able to share our story of how she joined our family with many of you. I will not tell all of her life story here. That is her story—it is for her to share as she grows and embraces it, just as Laticia’s story of her past and what it means to have joined a new family is hers to share. I merely want to share how God has indeed shown our family (and me personally) much “grace” in how he brought her into our lives. It is an amazing story: a story of answered prayer and miraculous healing.
We first heard about Shylee (without knowing her name) in June 2016. We just knew that our foster-to-adopt daughter had a baby sister, and she was not in the foster care system. My heart was touched, and even though we were in the throes of helping our new, precious 4-year-old adjust to our home and family, I started praying that we would get to meet the little sister, and that she might even join our family. I felt a little conflicted about wanting that, because, as a foster parent, I had learned to authentically wish the best for birth families. Yet I also believed it would be best for Laticia and for “baby sister” to be together. Although I don’t usually pray for specific dates or numbers, God placed on my heart to pray that she would join us by December.
Then, at the end of July, 2016. I received a text from our state adoptions worker on Laticia’s case (since we had only had her a few months at the time), saying that her baby sister “was declared legally deceased last night…she was then resuscitated and is being kept alive by machines.” My heart sunk. I was driving in the car with Jeremiah at the time, coming back from a CPR recertification class. I immediately wrestled with the idea of disappointed hopes. Why would God allow this precious little baby to die? How could that be the end? I had felt so confident that I was supposed to pray for this little one – this wasn’t how it was supposed to turn out! Then my heart went to how broken the world is—there is so much tragedy and loss everywhere! So many parents experience the pain of loss—this wasn’t even my child, and yet I felt a small piece of that pain. Tears sprung to my eyes. But I just couldn’t believe she was gone. Jeremiah and I prayed for a miracle. We prayed that her brain would be spared, despite the lack of oxygen and the damage to her little body. We prayed that she would be healed and that we would still be able to bring her home if that was God’s plan.
We prayed and we expected to hear more soon… I have to admit, however, that fear also sprang into my heart, even as I prayed. What if she already had brain damage? What if she was permanently disabled? Was I still prepared to open my heart to her if that was the case? When we first pursued adoption, we had said we were open to a lot of risk, but not known severe disabilities. I already felt stretched thin with four kids, homeschooling, and working part time. Would I be able to handle the upheaval of our lives? I felt like I had no way of knowing; no concept of how to prepare… I pushed it aside. I must pray, and trust God to give me the grace I need to face whatever decision might come. Right now, this was a battle for her life—I didn’t want to focus on myself and my fears. “She needs you, God. Please heal her. I need you God—help me to trust and to hope.”
For several weeks, I kept my phone on me, expecting to hear a call one way or the other. All we heard was she was surviving so far. My thoughts constantly went to her – the little baby I had never met or seen. Maybe she would be close to being released, and they would need a foster family? I knew our name had been shared. No more news. We had no way of getting more info; we just waited and prayed. We didn’t tell the kids anything…
Months slipped by. Could she still be in the hospital? Did the county really have our name? Then we heard “not looking good. She probably won’t make it.” Yet we didn’t believe it. We kept praying. We heard rumors of other results of the infection that had taken over her little body. I kept fighting in prayer, but my thoughts went to “can she have quality of life? If it has been this long, how could it be possible that there isn’t severe damage?” As we confided with a few people the situation, they counseled caution. “You don’t know what you might be getting into. You have to think of your other kids too… Don’t say yes before you know more.” In fact, a doctor we mentioned what we knew about the situation to said “that does not sound good.”
I wouldn’t give up; I continued to plead with God to protect her, to heal her. Although it was a bit of an emotional roller coaster, and we couldn’t really let many people into knowing what we were dealing with (due to confidentiality), over time God gave me peace. He seemed to be saying to my heart—“I will give you strength for one day at a time. Trust me.” There was no promise of healing, no rose-colored glasses, just an expectation of future grace, one day at a time.
Towards the end of October, we finally got a call from the county. We finally knew her name – Shylee. They said she was likely to be released in the coming weeks, and asked if we were interested. The woman on the phone didn’t have much medical info for me… But I said “yes, we are interested.” How could I say anything else? I was invested – God was going to provide and guide us each step. We immediately went into a crazy re-licensing process—ultimately unnecessary confusion since we had not yet finalized Laticia’s adoption and were still with our agency. But hey, it got us to fix up a few more things in the house, and gave me something to focus on that I could move forward in, since I felt so helpless to move anything forward otherwise. We also told the kids about her, and they started to pray that she could join our family and that she would be OK. It was so sweet to see the faith and passion of little Laticia as she prayed each night for the sister she had never met.
We finally got permission to go see her in the hospital Nov 8. She was 10 and a half months old. We met some of the nurses that had been caring for her, heard more about her medicines, feeding tube, physical therapy. Trying not to feel overwhelmed, we went to her room. She was sleeping, but woke up, and we got to hold her. I had been expecting a tiny baby—she was not tiny. But it was an amazing feeling to put a face to the “baby sister” I had prayed for for 4 months already. She was visibly wary and uncomfortable. There was one main nurse she really relaxed with and smiled for; the whole nursing staff said she sure had a strong will… I resolved to earn her trust. We were invited to a medical meeting the next week, and then began to really visit in earnest. At least one of us visited almost every day for about 2 weeks. We took the kids to meet her at the hospital. It was the first time Laticia had ever met her sister; I watched her face closely as we walked into the playroom, wanting to read her face and remember the moment.
Amazingly, some of the students from UC Davis involved in our Cru movement volunteered weekly at the Children’s Hospital, and knew Shylee before we did. I even had started to mentor one of them as a new follower of Jesus who was so excited to grow in her faith. When I mentioned the situation to her when we were sharing prayer requests, we realized that she already knew Shylee. She had taken her to the playroom at the hospital and sat with her. She loved her! In fact, she had made a beautiful drawing and sign with Shylee’s name on it that was on her hospital room door when we first visited. I still have that sign. Another student we knew was also there and knew Shylee—what a blessing! God was caring for her in so many ways.
We thought Shylee would be released one weekend, so Jeremiah rushed home from a conference he was attending. But then it was another week before she was actually released due to medicines and adjusting to the new G-tube they had just surgically put in. We knew there was potentially a long road ahead—she refused to eat or drink much, wouldn’t lay on her tummy, or crawl at all, and seemed to either be pretty quiet or screaming.
This little one had been through a lot. Yet it was a miracle she was alive and moving at all! God had been gracious indeed. We brought her home on Nov 25, 2016, the day after Thanksgiving. As I was thanking God for Shylee, I also had to marvel at the fact that he had truly answered my prayers from back in June that we would have her by December, with amazing specificity. It was as if he was confirming once again to my heart what the Bible indicates: “I am in this with you.” “I will never leave you or forsake you.” “My power is made perfect in weakness.”
The kids immediately embraced the goal of teaching her how to crawl and eat. That first night, all four of them crawled in a circle around her on the floor, as she turned her head to stare at them. In addition, each one of them would pray—when it was there turn to pray before dinner or before bed—that she would learn to eat and crawl and walk.
As the weeks went by, the safety and security of our home and our constant affection began to have an effect. She stopped screaming inconsolably at night and started to lean towards us instead of away; she began to reach for toys beyond her immediate reach; she started to lay on her stomach without screaming; she started to pick at food and took some liquids from a spoon.
Then it was like she took off developmentally. It was truly amazing to watch. She started drinking out of a bottle and began to eat finger foods. In a matter of months, she went from sitting to crawling to walking. By the summer, she was experimenting with balance, stepping onto and over little bumps over and over, like it was her favorite thing in the world. Once she mastered that, she tried jumping and climbing. Now she can do a somersault and the splits on command, and tries to imitate anything the other kids do. We are well beyond food worries, now having battles over whether she will eat her veggies before she gets more “cra-cka” or other favored item.
In May, when we had gone several months without using the feeding tube and were past flu season, the doctors removed the tube. At that time, I went back to the hospital to visit the nurses. I walked in and Shylee started walking around the hallways, pushing and climbing into the little toy cars that they use in the walkways. The nurses were amazed and started calling the therapists and others, saying “you have to come see this.” I treasure the memory of their excitement, their laughter, their joy at seeing her doing so well. They had cared for her for months, not knowing what would happen. Then the head nurse asked if she could take me up to “the tenth floor” where she had been barely kept alive with the machines for so long. She said “they have to see this.”
So Shylee pushed the toy car into the elevator as we followed the nurse up to the tenth floor. I hadn’t met any of these doctors before, but they had saved my daughter’s life. We met one, who called another, who called across the street to ask another to come, who called someone else. They all stood there watching her in amazement. They said “thank you” for coming back. “We never see this.” “This is amazing.” I met a male nurse who looked at her and said “I sat by you so many nights,” and a female doctor who said “You gave me so many gray hairs.” So many people knew her—she had been with them, though never really alert, for about 2 months. I don’t even know how to describe how touched I was by the experience. I was amazed, with tears in my eyes. Before I even knew Shylee—when all I was doing was praying for the unknown baby—these doctors were caring for her. God had taken care of her and used so many amazing people in the process. Their reactions also deepened my awareness of just how much of a miracle her recovery is! And that causes me to praise God—some things are just supposed to lift our eyes to heaven.
As time goes on and Shylee’s HUGE personality is a fixture in our home, it is easy to forget where she came from. It is easy to forget that she is a miracle! God brought her from death to life, and then from life to flourishing. We cannot explain it; we did not deserve it—it is just a pure and simple gift of God.
This is particularly profound for us because we believe it is a picture of what God does for us spiritually. God has a beautiful plan for human flourishing, and yet we are so broken from our own failures and the hurts done to us that we can’t see or find it. We look to so many other things to try to fix it—we want to control our lives, we want to dull the pain, we want to overcome. But we can no more fix ourselves than Shylee could decide to heal herself and get off the machine that was both breathing for her and pumping her blood through her little body. She was almost dead physically; we are dead spiritually. God had to heal her physically, and he has to give us new life spiritually.
And what Shylee’s story makes me think of more than anything is the kind of life that God wants for us. He didn’t just heal her. For those of you who know her, you can see already that she doesn’t just live—she lives life to the fullest. If she could step over something, she will balance on it and jump off of it! It reminds me that God doesn’t just want to give me life, but abundant life (John 10:10). God doesn’t just forgive us; he gives us Christ’s perfect record when we believe in him and receive his gift (Rom 3:21-26). He doesn’t just love us; he adopts us as his children. He doesn’t just want us to survive, but to “abound in hope” (Rom 15:13).
By grace we have been saved. Praise God for his abundant grace!