Bishop’s Mantle column by Jim Bishop
The past four years, Dave and Sheri Smucker of Harrisonburg have had numerous hands-on lessons in learning to wait … and waiting some more.
Their amazing odyssey includes two adoptions, a near-death experience and several minor miracles – if one believes that certain experiences defy rational explanation.
Dave, 42, co-owns a business, VistaShare, creating computer software for nonprofits. Sheri, 44, works half time as a media specialist at Elkton Elementary School. The couple, married in 1994, had one natural-birth child, Olivia, now 8, but after a long struggle with infertility felt led to explore adoption possibilities.
After several stops and starts in an international adoption program, they received a private referral to receive a child born Aug. 17, 2002. They drove to Iowa, the birth mother changed her mind, and they went home empty-handed. Having applied to an agency in New Mexico, they started receiving photos on the Internet from another organization of children up for adoption. One day, a seven-month old boy in Guatemala named Aaron, caught their attention, and they felt an immediate urge to adopt him. His birthdate – Aug. 17, 2002 – the exact birthdate from their first adoption effort that fell through.
“We did all the necessary paperwork and flew to Guatemala to meet Aaron for the first time,” Dave said. “We spent two weeks getting to know him.”
But, what the couple initially thought would be a relatively smooth process soon became snarled in a shroud of mystery and bureaucratic wrangling.
“We don’t know to this day what all was going on that kept delaying the final approval,” said Dave. “In 2005, we basically had to start the adoption process all over again.”
At a prayer service held for the family in November 2003, a small table with candles and a photo of Aaron, smiling with his coal-black eyes, was set up as a prayer reminder in the front of the sanctuary at Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg where the family attends.
“At one point, feeling quite discouraged, we told Pastor Ray (Hurst) to remove the display, but he encouraged us to keep it there,” Sheri noted. “So, we did.”
With the Guatemalan situation so uncertain, the Smuckers checked adoption possibilities again with the same Albuquerque agency the fall of 2004. Three weeks later, a birth mother there selected Dave and Sheri to receive her child, who was born Dec. 17, 2004. They flew to Albuquerque, a dedication ceremony was held with the biological parents present, and they came home with a Christmas bundle of joy – daughter Natalie, now 2 years old.
“We were so used to bad news from Guatemala that we could hardly believe how smoothly everything went,” said Sheri. “We even went back and visited Natalie’s biological parents on her first birthday.”
Dave or Sheri eventually made six trips to Guatemala over the next three years. Each time, they encountered another obstacle that prevented them from bringing Aaron to the U.S.
“He was our son right from the start,” Dave stated. “Despite this long wait and anguish, we remained committed to him. We tried every possible route, to no avail.”
It was late 2005. While waiting, hoping and praying for a break in Aaron’s adoption impasse, Dave noticed a lump on his neck and couldn’t shake a lingering illness. In December, he was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma and prepared for chemotherapy treatments at Rockingham Memorial Hospital Cancer Center.
But something else seemed wrong. Dave found himself with symptoms that were incongruent with his particular illness. He came home early from work one day in considerable pain. Sheri called Rita Lehman, an RMH oncology nurse and fellow member at Community Mennonite, who said what he described was “definitely not normal.”
Dave was able to schedule an appointment the next day with the oncologist, who tested his bone marrow. One day later, Dr. Robinson called with disturbing news – Dave’s bone marrow was completely covered with lymphoma. He had a rare, aggressive form of cancer.
“Had I not returned to the hospital immediately, I wonder if I would be here today,” Dave said.
Faced with a life-threatening illness and bleak prospects of adopting a Guatemalan boy who was now almost 4 years old, the Smuckers looked around cautiously and asked, where to from here?
(To be concluded next week)
Jim Bishop is the public-information officer at Eastern Mennonite University.