But either way he'd been pushed abruptly into the world somewhere between 5 and 6 months of gestation - weighing less than a kilo (about a pound). Because he cried or sneezed or moved, a fragile vein in his not-yet-ready brain burst, causing bleeding that stopped up the natural drainage hole for brain fluid.
"Hydrocephalus," they call it - where the natural brain fluid we all have builds up with no outlet, putting pressure on the tender brain and pushing it against the skull. Without treatment, hydrocephalus means death.
For little Ethan, barely five months old, it meant one other strike against him in the long list of perpective adoptive parents. The whopping majority of those who want to adopt in Brazil prefer white babies - with blue eyes if possible. Racism? Perhaps. Or if we think carefully and a bit more graciously, perhaps they (who are also overwhelingly white) also dream of a child who looks like them somehow - the way all parents-to-be hover over sonogram scans and try to figure out whose nose and whose ears their baby's will remsemble. Perhaps they want to spare the child a stigma from family or friends for "looking different" in a world where differences are pointed out, pounded out, and sometimes ridiculed.
Which left Ethan not only with diminishing chances because of his beautiful color, but also because of the "problemas de saude" (health problems) stamp that must now appear in his profile.
And we knew.
From the moment we saw Ethan we knew two things: first, that he was a healthy and recovering child who had survived much, and two, that he was meant for us.
We had wanted to adopt children even before we were married - regardless of how many biological children God decided to give us - and here was the first, offered to us just as we'd hoped. Beautiful and brown, and small enough to still shape into the Lord's ways.
And so we named him - with what we feel was the Lord's guidance - "Ethan," after the musicians, sons of Asaph, in the temple courts during David's reign. For "Ethan," you see, means "strong, firm, and long-lived." We did not know it was a popular American name at the time.
And Ethan defied every single medical statistic in every way: suriviving an extremely premature birth and low birth weight of 725 grams, hearing and seeing and responding perfectly even after such traumatic bleeding in the brain, surviving hydrocephalus and the surgical procedure to insert a shunt at just three months without any side effects that we or the doctors could notice. He walked at a year and four months, delayed only slightly by his crossed eyes which gave him poor balance, and became bilingual at two years old. At two years and eight months he began to learn and memorize letters and point them out in the shopping mall and on cereal boxes. At two years and ten months he began using words like "beautiful," "especially," and "actually" correctly in sentences.
True to his musician namesake, Ethan dreams of "singing in church" when he grows up and can tell a piano, violin, cello, banjo, and bagpipes apart by sound only.
When this photo ran on the cover of Correio Braziliense on October 24 of this year, we were quoted as saying that his valve had never given us any trouble whatsoever.
On October 25, one short day later, Ethan sat, vomit-covered, in a public hospital emergency room, waiting for the scan that would show us how large his brain ventricles had swelled with backed-up brain fluid - and how close he had come to death yet again.
"You do realize that he may not even make it to the surgery tomorrow morning," the neurologist told us grimly over his desk a few days later. "It's that bad. I can't guarantee you anything."
And there's one other thing.
Even if the surgery is successful, this could happen again.
"As long as he lives, the valve could be come clogged, and the brain fluid can build up again."
"Would there be any sign?" I asked the doctor, trying to hold back my tears. "How can we know?"
"Usually the fluid builds up slowly as the tube becomes blocked little by little," replied the neurologist. "But that's not always the case."
His words hovered there, cold and starched-white. Spoken with kind eyes.
"And just so you know, the biggest, riskiest chance of the valve clogging is in the first year after implanation."
As long as he lives.
The words resonated in my head as we strapped Ethan in the car seat and headed for home. "Home" now meaning a cluster of half-packed boxes at Athos' parents' house on the farm outside of town, for we were halfway through the proces of moving out of our apartment in preparation to relocate to South Dakota.
It struck me, driving through the graffiti-scrawled tunnels of downtown overpasses, that we could literally lose our son before morning. That the child we'd bathed, dressed, loved, kissed, hugged, disciplined, taught, sung to - could be placed in a coffin within twenty-four hours.
And if he survived today, he could fall ill again tomorrow. Or the next day. Ending his life at three years, or four, or ten.
I knew all of this when we brought him home from the hospital at five months, but I didn't "know" it with the reek of Ethan's vomit on Athos' shirt or the stench of antiseptic clinging to my dirty clothes. His screams when they held him down to take blood didn't ring through my ears, and I'd never rushed him to the emergency room, limp and warm in my arms.
The thought of loss became startlingly real, the way a ray of sunlight sifts down upon shapeless, misty land, outlining all the trees and rocks and pine needles in sharp, unflinching gold.
And something in my heart cried out, "I cannot do this!"
I cannot spend another night on the cold hospital floor. I cannot hold him down while they prick his vein with another needle as he screams my name. I cannot rock him back and forth and weep, not having a single word of comfort to offer.
Why adopt a child with health needs, then, if it will only come to this?
Were we foolish? Were we rash?
What comfort could I take if we lost him, and what would be the sum of our three glorious years spent together? Why birthday parties and hand-me-downs and squeaky toys and late-night feedings if all to end in death? For what purpose? To what end?
Perhaps we would have been better to leave him there at the hospital as a preemie, where he would never know us one way or the other - and never leave our hearts with a gaping, Ethan-shaped gash that never heals, always bleeds, always aches. A three-year throbbing eternity that began from today.
"There's no one to blame," Athos said as the car came out of the tunnel, his warm, rough fingers laced through mine. "We knew what we were getting into. We signed up for this."
"Oh, no," I said. "I never signed up for this."
And yet somehow I did. In a nightmare, my name is signed on a sheaf of documents at the government adoption agency.
Saying just like I said to Athos more than seven years ago: "I do." "I do." "I do."
For better or for worse, I do.
It was then, as we came out from under the underpass and through the mess of cars on the dirty street, that that same sun-gold clarity came gleaming down from overcast skies: I said yes because I love God, and I love His children. Not because He promised me any special result.
I should have known this, you see, from my years of missionary writing and then full-time missionary work.
I should have known from my litany of sermon notes that some plant and some water, and others harvest. A seed planted is as good as a seed watered, and both are as good as a seed harvested in full-flowering bloom. We can't have one without the other; all will receive the same reward. "Well done, good and faithful servant," the Lord says to them each, one by one. "Enter into joy today."
I should have known this. But "mission work" and "seed planting" are terribly cold and unfeeling shadows compared to the beautiful black eyes of a child begging to "go home," wherever home is. His dark chocolate-colored curls shaved off in patches, and his brown hands clinging tightly to my milk-white ones.
What was it our Lord said again through His servant James? "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress..." - James 1:27
"Feed my lambs..." (John 21:15)
"Let the little ones come to Me..." (Matthew 19:14)
"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat..." (Matthew 25:35)
"...I was a stranger and you invited me in..." (Matthew 25:35)
THIS is what we are called to. THIS is what we will answer for.
God did not ask me to raise Ethan to twenty-five years of age - although I pray He will allow me to do so. He did not ask me to perform miracles or defy doctors' prognoses or do the impossible.
No. He asked me simply to "look after," to "feed," to "invite in," and to draw this little one to Christ.
For however many months or weeks or days He chooses to give us. He promises me nothing except His provision along the way and His certainty to use it for good. For Ethan, and for us.
Is it easy? Hardly. Our Lord never said it would be easy - and indeed it is not. It is some of the hardest work I've ever done in my life - painful and personal and deep. Sleepless nights and medical reports and bracing our tender, thin-skinned souls for the worst.
No parenting is easy, and neither is adoption.
But God has not called us to "easy." He has called to the hard way - to fight and to stand firm, and "when you have done everything, to stand." He has called us to "put on the full armor of God" and serve and forgive and reject self and believe and love against all odds.
Easy? You want easy?
I'll tell you the only thing the Bible calls easy: the burden of Christ.
"For my yoke is easy," He says. "And my burden is light."
In an odd twist of reality, Jesus says to take His burden - and our own burdens become light. On our own even the simple is heavy and difficult, but by adding weight - His heart, His strength - we reverse the earth-bound laws of gravity and density and instead find something supernatural.
When He is with us, we can do anything. We can slay the giant with a stone, scale the wall, face the hard facts in the neurologist's stark white office.
Yes, and even the grave.
Because you see, I COULD adopt a child with health needs again - with His strength.
I WOULD BE HONORED to do it again - with His grace and mercy.
If God gives us the resources and opportunity, I WILL do it again - because He lives.
For we are all needy, really.
We all have special hurts and special cries. Wounds and limitations which all the years of our life will not erase. Our days are already numbered.
We are all born of pain, of sin, of Adam. From dust we come, and to dust we will return. Some earlier than others, but unless Christ comes first, death - the great escape from an eternity of sin - comes for us all.
And yet we have the chance to spend each moment, each day, laying down our own hearts and lives for Him. After all, it is for Him we do all things anyway. It is for Him we adopt. It is for Him we choose children who look nothing like us and instead mirror our glorious heavenly Father. It is for Him we forge ahead in blind faith, "expecting great things from God, and attempting great things for God" - bumbling and clumsy as we may be.
It is all for Him. All of it. For the sake of His name and for His glory to the ends of the earth.
And we are so blessed.
Every day is a miracle.
Every moment precious.
Every day a mystery, every facet of the story more painful and more beautiful.
Why this child?
Why are we so blessed?
"Would you do it again, Jenny?" I can hear Him whisper as we merge into the busy street toward Sobradinho, raindrops scuffing at the windshield. "Would you? Even if you lose him - and lose him now?"
For bringing a child home, for feeding and clothing and loving, is always the right thing to do.
No matter how many weeks or months we're called to do it.
"Would you do it again for Me?"
I would, Jesus. I would.
With all my heart.