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Understanding Love

It was late in the afternoon, we were stuck in traffic, and my new son and I were both wishing I'd taken Amharic in high school instead of Spanish.

Amharic is a language spoken in Ethiopia, the country where my son Nati was born. Because he came here when he was 5 not speaking any English, I'm often asked how Nati, now 6, and I communicate. Usually, I joke that my wife, Mary, and I just speak to him loudly and slowly. When people say they really want to know how we deal with the language barrier, I give the true answer: We just speak to him loudly and slowly.

We'd never given any real thought to adopting until the day we read an article in our Sunday paper about how Ethiopia was facing rapidly increasing numbers of children whose parents had died of AIDS. My wife and I already had two children, Clay, then 6, and Grace, then 4, and our lives were full and seemed complete. But we'd both been moved by the article, and suddenly, unexpectedly, were asking, "Why not?" Within weeks we found ourselves looking at videos of children in an orphanage thousands of miles away.

The videos the adoption agency sent to us were filled with ten-second clips of kids who needed homes. We wondered how anyone could make such a life-changing decision based on nothing more than a mere snippet of videotape. Months passed. We wondered if we'd ever be able to do it. Mary continued to watch the monthly videos, but I asked her to only show me anyone she thought we might really consider.

Mary began speaking to the director of the adoption agency about the possibility of our just donating money, explaining that she didn't think we were going to be able to choose a child. The director told Mary to give it time. A month later, after nearly a year had gone by since we'd started looking, she sent us a passport-size photo of a 5-year-old boy, telling us we should take a special look at him in the next video.

The new video arrived and we all sat down to watch. The first child was the boy whose picture we'd been sent. We looked at the photo and then the TV. "That's him!" we all shouted. A second later, my wife and kids were repeating the phrase, but the tone had shifted. The first "that's him" was the four of us saying, "That's the boy in the picture." The second was different-the sound of our lives changing forever. Somehow in that second, Mary and I had become the parents of three kids. That was him.

I flew to Ethiopia to pick up our son. Nati's father had died of AIDS after receiving a tainted blood transfusion and had passed the illness to Nati's mother. She was still alive but too ill to care for her boy, and had put him in an orphanage six months earlier. I showed her pictures of Nati's new family. Nati, sitting on her lap, pointed to the pictures of Clay and Grace and said, "Brother, sister!" When he saw the picture of Mary, he shouted, "American mom!" I promised Nati's mother, through a translator, that my wife and I would take care of her son. She barely seemed to hear me; she was busy saying goodbye to her boy.

On the way back to our hotel, my guide told me he'd taken five children in the last few months alone to say goodbye to what was left of their families. He said I shouldn't feel sad, that even the families left behind knew the kids were lucky to be going to America. I tried to imagine how many times you'd have to watch a mother kiss her child goodbye forever before you got used to it.

Claude Knobler is a writer who lives in Santa Monica, California, with his wife, three children, two dogs, a bird and a frog.