May 10, 2006
From China, With Love: The Greatest Mother's Day Gift Of All
When Southold resident Cathy Reilly lost her adopted baby girl Gracie to sudden onset leukemia in 2004, she faced a heartbreaking reality that no mother should ever have to bear.
One moment, three-year-old Grace Mei Reilly was a raring-to-go toddler who loved Dora the Explorer, knew all her letters and numbers, and begged for visits to the library. Her death changed their lives forever.
Gracie was adopted from China in 2002. On July 29, 2004 Cathy went to wake the baby only to find she had suffered a stroke during the night and died of acute myelogenous leukemia. Reilly, her husband Kevin, and their three children, Matthew, Christopher and Sarah, were ravaged by shock and inconsolable grief.
The Reillys, after a time of healing, decided to reach out once again, to open their hearts and lives to another child.
And for this Mother's Day, the family has received the greatest gift of all: a brand new little boy named Jack, who arrived less than three weeks ago from China at his new home and into his new family's welcoming arms.
Jack, nearly three, has helped to heal hearts broken. "We'll never be the same after Gracie, but we feel like we're whole again," said Kevin.
Cathy and Kevin always planned to adopt again, even before Gracie's death. But the events that led up to Jack's homecoming were nothing short of meant to be.
"I wound up leaving to go and get him on April 13, which was four years to the day that I picked Gracie up from the orphanage," said Cathy.
There were other signs that made Jack's adoption seem preordained: The Reillys received the letter informing them about Jack on the weekend of Gracie's birthday, the first birthday after her death.
Also, the paperwork for Jack's adoption was filed on the day after Christmas, and a letter of pre-approval was dated for July 29, the anniversary of Gracie's death. "It's all a sign," said Cathy, who believes Gracie somehow made a miracle happen.
"When we first got Jack's picture, the kids said Gracie had picked out Jack and sent him to us so we wouldn't be so sad without her."
Jack, who went home with his new mom on Easter Sunday, experienced an Easter miracle of his own. The little boy, who has a cleft lip and palate, had been lifted from extreme poverty and given a brand new chance at life.
Abandoned at birth, Jack was left at a taxation office. The scene, said Cathy, who visited the location, "was like a picture out of a 'Save The Children' commercial. There was raw sewage in the street, no running water, no electricity."
Cathy witnessed children Jack's age that might spend the rest of their lives on streets.
"Jack's cleft lip was his ticket out of there," she said. "It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to him."
Jack's birth mother, said Cathy, left her son in a place where he would be found by someone who could care for him. Jack's lip and part of his palate have since been repaired with the help of a charitable organization while he was in foster care; the Reillys will ensure surgery is completed.
Parents in China are up against seemingly insurmountable obstacles. All too often, destitute mothers have no alternative but to leave their babies in doorways of police stations or orphanages, where they are likely to be found. If caught abandoning babies, parents will be arrested.
"People don't want to abandon their children," said Cathy. "Nobody does."
However, mired in debilitating poverty and despair, there is no alternative.
"The biggest gift you can give a child is to realize that you can't provide what they need."
In China, where a one-child rule has led to forced sterilizations, abortions, and the abandonment of countless infants — because culture dictates that the oldest born son takes care of his elderly parents, female infants are often abandoned — there are millions of children who are without families.
For Cathy, it was an eye-opening experience. Americans living in the land of abundance need "to share the love, and do what we can to make it better in the rest of the world," she said.
Before adopting Jack, Cathy worked with Gracie's orphanage, the Fuling Social Welfare Institute in China, on a Hugging Nannies program designed to provide abandoned babies with individual attention and nurturing. Later, she established Gracie's Room, a space in the orphanage devoted to first hugs for babies and toddlers.
In his new home, Jack is thriving. Already, he's fit right into the Reilly routine of bike rides and baseball games, and developed a love of all things American, including Pringles, French fries, scrambled eggs and bacon, and his new stroller. And he's completely potty trained, an unexpected plus, Cathy added.
Her biological kids, said Cathy, were thrilled to welcome their new brother at the airport. "Halfway home, all the kids are laughing. Later, we got an e-mail from the limo driver saying kids have an unspoken language, and it's amazing what laughter and toys can do."
Many are uncertain about adoption, said Cathy. "A lot of people are fearful that they're going to get more than they anticipated. But you have to go into it prepared for the fact that it might not be as perfect as you want it to be." She added: "Obviously, things happen. But what happened to Gracie could have happened to a biological child."
Cathy stressed that people must understand that "there is just so much they can give these kids. They come from nothing. And it's just amazing how much we take for granted."
One thing the Reillys are most certainly not taking for granted is the joy of having a new little boy in the house.
Losing Gracie was a devastating blow. "But people suffer losses every day. And life is for the living. You've got to keep on going."
Watching her toddler play, Cathy's life is all about new beginnings. "What's so nice about having him is you feel as though you get a little piece of your soul back." Snuggling her new son, she said, "is good for your heart." Jack giggling behind her, Cathy added, "The ability to love again really is the best medicine."