I am so unbelievably proud to announce the formal completion of our adoption of Ana Elisa Anita Maria (Vasquez Sarmiento) Lackey. Oh. My. Goodness. What a beautiful thing. You know that feeling, after you finish an event of some great physical endurance – whatever that means to you, surviving a holiday with extended family, racing a 5K, crossing the finish line of a marathon, or crossing the expanse of the Sahara Desert ? and immediately afterwards, you know you?ll be having that whole flood of realization, of accomplishment, of specific, separate feelings. But at that moment, right at the you-are-done finish, you are simply tired … and just a bit overcome? Receiving Ana Elisa?s exit visa, as it was slipped under the bullet-proof window at the U.S. Embassy. Wow. I double-checked the pertinent details, I so did not want a problem getting back home via Miami, and – holding the visa and passport with one hand, holding my officially-new-daughter’s hand with my other – I was flooded with such an immensely powerful rush of emotion. All was correct. All was complete. And, realizing that everything was done, I immediately swooped her up and just held her to me so tight, feeling the sting of my eyes filling up with those sharp tears of relief. We gathered everyone together and walked out past the security checkpoints, past the graffitied walls, past the curious looks, out into the bright sunlight and sticky heat and dirty smog. I didn?t care who thought what, once we got out – I just buried my face into her little neck and squeezed her to me, so tight. We left the consulate and took the kids out to a caf?, telling them to order any treat they wanted. Sophie and Caleb actually jumped up and down, excitedly pointing to each of their little cakes, and Steve ordered yet more coffee. I stood in the same spot, just continuing to rock Ana Elisa back and forth, she who was sweet enough to squeeze me back while simultaneously (and so skillfully) pointing to her preferred sweets selection. So, since it is now the next day – and I have more specific emotions to call up ? I am so proud, so thrilled, so in-love, so relieved, and so all-the-way-to-the-bottom-of-my-heart happy to introduce our new daughter, Ana Elisa:

If she seems to look a little different in every photograph, then you’ve gotten a great look at our daughter. Depending on the angle, her clothing, her mood, her hair, she can look very different. She is a beautiful surprise often. The first day we met her was, simply, surreal. Sitting in the front of the orphanage, waiting for them to bring our little girl out to us, so that we could meet our 3 1/2 year-old daughter for the very first time. Yeah. Surreal. She was so terribly shy at first, kinda petrified. But she opened up relatively quickly and, within the first hour or so, it just felt incredibly natural to be together. I got to see that gorgeous smile of hers, the one she normally flashes so often. Her expressiveness. Her quick understanding, her even quicker hugs. Well, hugs that are offered quickly. They are then held for quite a beautiful while. When Ana Elisa hugs you, she rounds out that loving squeeze with a loving sound, “mmmmmm”, as if she is also saying: isn’t this the most wonderful thing we will do today? Steve grabbed this photograph of she and I together, that very first morning…

We’ve been asked about the orphanage. What strikes me first, more than anything, is that it’s an exceptionally caring place. Not a great deal of luxury, no. Definitely not. But, certainly, a great deal of affection and love. There are so many wonderful people who work at the orphanage: the sweet-smiling nuns who run the place, all the individuals who care for so many children day in and day out – what a huge job – and the volunteers! The volunteers who give their time – and so much of their hearts – staying in Ecuador for short stints or moving there for months, even years. Visiting the orphanage almost every single day, doing what they can to make the lives of the children there better. As better as it can possibly be. Their hugs, their kisses, and their incredible affection undoubtedly prepared our Ana Elisa to love each of us so well. Because of the sheer amount of work of caring for so many children, they are all on a strict schedule. As it was explained to us, they had one hour of free play, and Ana Elisa spent about 13 hours a day in her crib. This one, specifically …

All other times, they were confined to their rooms and these small outside areas, located just off the bedrooms they shared, fenced in to ensure that they would not wander off and get hurt. I asked for more details on schedule – there very well may be more. Because, I think, how can this be? They were educated so well, they were obviously hugged so often, and their muscles seemed strong and well-used. Even if Ana Elisa is quite little for her age, she took off running as soon as we hit the streets of Cuenca. But their schedule seems pretty straightforward. One hour of free play. The rest in pens and cribs and, of course, at meals.

Just a few of the beautiful, beautiful children who live in this one orphanage (one of so many around the world – I mentioned earlier: about 150 million orphans worldwide). Children who are alive, yes. Children who learn and grow and find a way to find their way. But who, mostly, just wait. When Ana Elisa walked past the pens with me, children cried out and she guarded me fiercely, “Mi Mami, Mi Mami!”. I looked at all of them, as we walked past. How these children need homes, families, their very own Mami’s. It is not difficult to feel yourself buckling at that. The need.

It’s nearly unbelievable to me that Ana Elisa lived in that orphanage for 17 months before we could legally get to her. She who has so much to offer: confined to a pen, to a crib. She who wants to see pretty much everything, now that she can. We were lucky enough to take Ana Elisa home the day after we met her, an exceptionally fast release from the orphanage. So they called us a couple of days later, asking us to bring her in to say goodbye to the other children. It was a difficult experience, for everyone. She carried the gift of a baby doll in a case like her own tiny suitcase, the only thing she took from her home of 3 1/2 years, besides the clothes on her back and the shoes on her feet, shoes that she would not let us replace for weeks. It was a gift to her from the mother superior of the orphanage, a woman just oozing with beauty.

I was lucky with our daughter. I got her smiles, her hugs, and her kisses nearly immediately. She did not offer them to her father, to her sister, or to her brother (in that order) until after a long couple of weeks. So, at first, they just had to try a bit harder to get her attention :) :) :)

Now, though, she requests time with her daddy, too. She’s come to realize that he can carry her for longer stretches at a time – and, even better, he can throw her higher!!

Wow. There’s three of them, huh? I was asked about what being a mom of three feels like. These images below – perfect. This is how it feels, to me. We’re laughing. We’re close. I am blessed. And, yes, they are all over me. They are, most certainly, winning.

One of the most beautiful spots in Ecuador is the gorgeous El Cajas, which offers stunning views of cloud forests and the striking Andes Mountains, with waterfalls, little houses dotted throughout, and all kinds of animals – like the kids’ favorite, the ultra-attentive llama. While driving up, we stopped at a a restaurant nestled just in the mountain tops, a very cold restaurant that served the most incredible-tasting hot chocolate. You could see your breath, yes, but man did you appreciate the warm beverage. We all tried to identify the ingredients. Sophie thought she tasted nutnilla, a spice exclusive to Sophie’s specific knowledge data bank. Caleb tasted chocolate. Lots of it. And I am pretty sure I determined the secret ingredient: free-range llama milk. I don’t know, that discovery may or may not be true, but it kinda seemed like the taste of what that would be.

Thanks to Steve for capturing so many of these:

One of the most amazing things about these past 6 ? weeks has not only been the privilege of getting to know our youngest daughter better, but the unexpected gift of getting to see our two older children in such a different light. To see them so patient, so loving, sometimes shy and sometimes confused, but ? consistently ? fully accepting. I?ve never seen Sophie put up with so much, with such a steady and loving smile. Those first few weeks, we had to teach Ana Elisa that swatting people back was not really a wonderfully beautiful behavior trait. And Sophie would get too close at first ? man, would she get swatted with some force, those first few weeks. But she would just freeze and look from Ana Elisa to me, and I would say, in my children’s Spanish, to please not hit, to please say sorry to your sister, who loves you so much. But instead of bursting into tears in response, like I would expect, Sophie would raise her little chin and and wait for her apology, smiling encouragingly at Ana Elisa to, go ahead, apologize. It?s okay. I?m right here. I’ll wait for you to be ready. Eventually, Ana Elisa would say she was sorry. So quietly, a shred of a whisper, you had to lean in close to catch it: “lo siento”. The first time, it took two days. But, eventually improvement. Now we are at a breakneck two-minute turnaround. I remember being particularly floored by Sophie?s enormous patience one night. It was about 2am, and Ana Elisa had been waking again and again with night terrors. It had already been several weeks of this, of fierce middle-of-the-night wakings. I felt for her, I tried as best as I could to calm her, to show all the compassion I could but, also, I was exhausted. So, finally, I enlisted Sophie?s assistance. That specific night was the first night that Sophie slept alongside Ana Elisa. (They haven?t slept apart since.) The familiar waking ? screaming, kicking, clawing at the air, not quite awake and Lord knows what she was seeing in that state. Sophie shot up, took it all in, and immediately started singing. Immediately. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star: over and over and over until Ana Elisa finally came out of it a little bit, focusing on Sophie, then me and then, quietly, in near slow motion, falling back onto her pillow. Once Sophie saw that, she, too, collapsed back to sleep: again, immediately. That, after 25 minutes of singing, all the while shaking her head to stay awake, putting her hand down to prevent herself from falling over, consistently careful not to touch Ana Elisa, not to upset her more. And, as they both finally slept again, soundly, for what would end up being the rest of that night, I just sat there, so wide awake. My heart was flip-flopping, taking them both in – but also thinking, quite specifically, about how God had just filled up my Sophie with such a capacity to love – and how brightly she shared it with those around her. How she had about the best temperment that I could imagine for the job of being big sister to her exceptional younger siblings. I just shook my head in wonder at her. And then, because I was so tired, I went ahead and cried one more time. Just for good measure. And our little Caleb. I?ve never seen Caleb try quite so hard to win anyone over in his whole little life. Never, ever. A familiar pattern: Ana Elisa, do you want this? No. Do you want this? No. Do you want this? No. How ?bout ? maybe this? Ah, this. She will so want this! And he would offer and offer with this confused, half-smile on his face the whole time, looking for any opportunity of acceptance from this fascinating girl. And when she did accept, when she went ahead and took that toy car, or she said yes to the right-sized french fry? Oh my. His entire face would change, his almond-shaped eyes would go wide, and a huge smile would be instantly squeezed into a more contained grin, powered by a burst of joy and a quick reminder of his innate shyness. She accepted! She ate the french fry and, so, she loved him. And the next day it would start again, the constant offering of gifts. The finding of her growing love for him. _____ I don?t know what I expected with the three of them, exactly. I really don’t. But I honestly hadn?t known that they would all try so hard. _____ So, now, the end of a journey. And, of course, a new beginning. I don’t know with any great certainty what, exactly, is next. But how can it not be beautiful? And, lastly, I am in awe of this. I have never had an answer to this oft-asked question. But, finally, I do. Here it is: my absolute favorite photograph of all time…