“I don’t know if I can marry you,” I tell my boyfriend as we snuggle on the couch in his parents’ living room. “If I do, you have to promise to let me go to Africa, alone if I have to. I don’t know when, and I don’t know why. But I know God has a plan for me in Africa.”

We are college students, dating since our senior year of high school. I am impulsive and idealistic, ready to save the world. Dana is steady and laid back, ready to take things as they come—including me—and responds to my ultimatum with an easy laugh.

“Sure.” He runs a hand through my chin-length hair. “You can go to Africa.”

It is an unlikely leap from the farms and forests of rural Maine, where we grew up. Neither of us has any idea what it means. Two wedding rings, ten years, and three children later, I haven’t forgotten my youthful dreams, but I am far too busy caring for our own family to jet around the globe saving people. Still, I am haunted by newspaper photos of African orphans—their bloated bellies, their sunken eyes. When I tuck my two boys in bed at night, I imagine orphans sleeping on streets. When I cradle my daughter with a book, I wonder what it is like growing up, not just without books, but without a mother to read them to you.

“Let’s adopt,” I urge Dana.

“Isn’t that expensive?” he says.

“Let’s become foster parents.”

“Maybe when our kids are older.”

“Okay.” I back off. “But let’s do something.”

That even Dana can agree to.

“Someday,” he promises, “we will do something.”

Adoption isn’t the sort of thing you push someone into. Even I know that. And, I secretly harbor my own concerns. Could I love someone else’s baby the way I love my own? Eat off the same spoon? Kiss her on the mouth? I’m unlikely to ever find out. Dana and I resolve our differences the best way we know how. Holding hands one night, we pray, “Lord, if you have another child for us, you will have to bring that child to us.”

And then one night, our family visits a friend’s church for the final night of Vacation Bible School. Judah, seven, and Gabriel, four, race to join their friends. Dana, our sixteen-month-old, Lydia, and I slide in a pew beside my friend Theresa.

“Want to meet Ruth?” Theresa asks.

It takes me a minute to remember the baby that her family is hosting from Welcome Home Ministries, Africa, an orphanage in Uganda. A couple of weeks before, my friend had called to tell me how Ruth had been abandoned at birth, how she had cerebral palsy, and how she would be here for six months of physical therapy before returning to her orphanage—unless someone wanted to adopt her. Theresa’s husband, Allen, strides up the aisle with a scrawny baby dangling from his arm.

“Want to hold her?” Allen slides Ruth into Dana’s arms without waiting for a reply.

Ruth is limp, her head fringed with tiny curls. Unable to hold up her head, she flops against Dana’s shoulder, but when she looks at me her deep brown eyes twinkle, and she flashes an irresistible here-I-am smile. Don’t say it. I think. Don’t say a word.

Amazingly, Dana says it for me, “So, do you want to adopt her?”

“Are you joking?” I ask.

For all of Dana’s uncertainty, he meets Ruth and makes up his mind. Three kids today. Four tomorrow. But Ruth can’t walk, can’t crawl, can’t sit up. For all the times I’ve thought about adopting, I’ve never thought of adopting a child like this. And, I fear what adopting Ruth would cost me. Not money, although there is that. But the personal cost—my work, my goals, my freedom.

Cerebral palsy is caused by brain damage and often occurs at birth, disrupting communication between the mind and the muscles. I know little about it, but I know it isn’t curable. I also know that if Ruth returns to Uganda, she will likely grow up in an orphanage without a family or the medical and educational help she needs.

For three months, Dana and I talk and pray, waiting to see if any other families step forward to adopt Ruth. When none do, we get permission to take her on weekends to see what caring for her is like. Ruth is totally helpless, totally dependent, and totally full of love. The smallest deed—a hug, a smile, a push in the backyard swing—makes Ruth shriek with joy. Wherever we go—the boys’ soccer practice, the neighborhood playground, our little church—we are surrounded by people asking where Ruth is from, what is wrong with her, and why she is with us. When we say that we are thinking of adopting, some shake their heads as if we are crazy. Others call us angels. Crazy is a much more likely scenario. Serving others comes hard for me. Yet, Christ asks his followers to love others unconditionally, the way that God loves us. This requires grace beyond my natural abilities. It also requires sacrifice.

Ruth requires constant care, but by the end of our second weekend together, I don’t want to give her back. Then Theresa receives a devastating diagnosis: cervical cancer. When she tells me that she needs immediate surgery and an extended recovery, we offer to take Ruth and go through the steps to become approved as Ruth’s new host family. The third weekend of October, she moves in.

“There’s just one more thing,” Theresa says, unloading the last of Ruth’s bags. “We’re not sure Ruth can hear.”

Of course Ruth can hear, I think. Doesn’t she look at me when I talk to her? Doesn’t she laugh when we play games?

A test will tell. But first, we have to figure out how to keep Ruth here. Over the following months, we extend her visa, become approved as adoptive parents, and schedule Ruth for an auditory brainstem response test, which will tell us what Ruth hears. The following March, I lay her on a stiff bed in a cold, gleaming hospital room. An anesthesiologist holds a bubble-gum scented mask over her nose and mouth. Ruth squirms, fixing her eyes on me, and flutters to sleep. An audiologist hooks electrodes to Ruth’s head, and I am led from the room while various sound waves are shot into her ear canal to measure how the inner ear responds to sound. An hour later, Ruth’s audiologist calls me into a private conference room and shuts the door. Picking up a dry-erase pen, she draws curving lines, like the undulating waves of an ocean, across a white board.

“We tried this. And this. And this,” she says, writing numerical sound frequencies beside them. “Our equipment didn’t pick up any responses.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“It means,” she pauses. “Ruth is profoundly deaf. She can’t hear a thing.”

I hear Ruth before I see her. She is screaming at the top of her lungs, a raw, choking wail. Her eyes are closed clam tight. A nurse untangles a web of tubes connected to Ruth and places her in my arms. I nuzzle her neck, her hair, her cheek. Ruth keeps screaming.

“It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay,” I whisper as tears stream down my face and into hers. But it doesn’t make one difference. Ruth can’t hear my words.

Far from tempting me to reject her, this new vulnerability—Ruth’s and mine—makes me want to protect her all the more. Having filed papers at our local courthouse declaring our intention to adopt, we work with Ruth’s orphanage to finalize our plans. To legally adopt Ruth, we must take her back to Uganda and go to court. The trip can be short, the director of her orphanage says, a couple of weeks at most. After working with two lawyers—one here and one in Uganda—everything looks good when the director says our trip will take longer than she thought.

“How much longer?” I ask.

“A month. Maybe two.” She explains the complicated process to acquire Ruth’s new American visa.

“That’s impossible,” I protest. “Dana could never take that much time off work. He’ll lose his job.”

“There’s only one other way,” she says. “You could bring Ruth back to Uganda on your own.”

You have to promise to let me go to Africa, alone if I have to. My words from a decade before return with stunning clarity. Only, now I no longer want to go. Leave my family? Travel to a developing country where I know no one?

“It’s too dangerous,” our local attorney says. “If you bring Ruth back to Uganda and her visa is denied, you’ll be forced to leave her.”

Over the following days, Dana and I debate what to do.

“I could go,” our oldest son, Judah, volunteers. “You can take me to Uganda with you. That way if Ruth can’t come home, I could stay at the orphanage with her.”

For a moment, I consider it. Then I realize the sheer lunacy. Leave my eight-year-old son in an orphanage? Yet, I can’t imagine leaving Ruth there either. As surely as I once felt God calling me to Africa, I feel him calling me now. And so, I reserve two round-trip tickets to Uganda, one for me, and one for Ruth. But I can only stay for three weeks. If God wants Ruth to be with us, he will make a way for me to bring her home.

The July night before we are to leave, Dana works late. I tuck the boys in bed, promising to bring back a banana leaf ball for Judah and a cloth doll for Gabriel. Lydia, in the room she shares with Ruth, is already asleep. I rest my cheek on my daughter’s chest to memorize the rhythm of her softly beating heart. Then I walk down the hall to start packing.

My room is a mess. A borrowed suitcase lays on my floor. Clean laundry litters the bed. To quiet my anxious heart, I push aside the clothes and pick up my Bible. It falls open to the second chapter of Ephesians, and I read the first verse I come to, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (2:10 NASB).

Suddenly, it all seems clear—why I have long dreamed of going to Africa, why I’ve yearned to adopt, why God brought Ruth to us.

This is what we were made for.

Now it was time to walk.

Little did I know that we were about to face the most amazing journey I could ever imagine—the most amazing and challenging. I was about to encounter the miraculous hand of God as I had never seen before. And this was just the beginning, all because of a promise, a prayer, and a little girl with an irresistible smile.

To read more about Ruth, order Meadow Rue Merrill’s book Redeeming Ruth: Everything Life Takes, Love Restores.

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