One moment we are in the comfortable lobby of an adoption agency, the smells of coffee and smoothies drifting in from the café run by single mothers next door. A woman in her 60s is holding a curly haired boy. His hand grips her shoulder as she gently places him on the ground and holds each of his tiny hands while encouraging him to take a few drunken sailor steps. He giggles as this intimate group of caregivers and strangers cheer him on.
The boy is transferred from the comfort of his foster mother to the arms of his forever father. We move quickly now, up the stairs to a private office where prayers are spoken in a language we can’t understand but will always feel and carry with us.
Back down to the lobby we go. I grab the diaper bag and a backpack of the boy’s most cherished belongings.
Faster now, like a blurred photo, time stops while we are still pushing our bodies into a van with our new son. There are no tears. No time to process the enormity of what is happening. The van door closes and two women wave before our driver worldessly navigates the side streets back to our hotel.
And there we are. Josh and Whitney and Sam Sewell. A family.
The driver’s phone rings, a physical jolt in the midst of emotional whiplash. The car turns around and before he can even explain, I realize we left important paperwork behind during our quick exit.
A social worker runs the package to the van door. And off we go again.
I make a comment to Josh about how we are clearly killing it as adoptive parents so far.
Sam is snuggled close against Josh’s chest. He’s wearing three layers of warm clothes inside a van that could double as a sauna, but he doesn’t move from his safe space under Josh’s coat. Minutes later, I realize he is asleep.
We get to the hotel, and he wakes up. Josh carries him quickly and quietly through the lobby. Sam’s eyes take it all in, cautious, curious.
When we get to our room, Josh gently places Sam on the bed. And then our curious brave boy lets loose the tears he has been holding in.
I pick him up and carry him to a full length mirror. He quiets at the sight of his own sweet face. I smile and speak softly at first, but then I lean him to the mirror and back again, our first game as mother and son. And he giggles over and over again.
Sam’s foster mom packed him dinner, so we feed him and play some more. When his bedtime rolls around, he has only been in our care for about 5 short hours. He takes a bottle from us, and we aren’t sure what to do next. Josh places him in a pack and play next to our crib, fully intending to pick him right back up. But to our surprise, he sleeps.
He sleeps 13 hours, our first sign that sleep may be a part of his grieving process. In the morning, we get him dressed and take him upstairs to the hotel lounge for breakfast. He doesn’t eat much, but takes another full bottle.
It’s Visa day, so we get dressed and make sure the diaper bag is well-stocked before walking to the US Embassy in Seoul. We arrive a little early, so we take a moment to grab a picture near the gates of Gyeongbokgung nearby.
When the rest of our Visa day group arrives with our translator from the agency, we check electronics at the embassy entrance and head upstairs for our appointment. The waiting room is quiet. Our group has all of the first appointments after the embassy’s lunch break.
There’s a small table and television with cartoons, but Sam isn’t interested in any of that. He wants to be held and eat snacks from a little pink munchkin snack cup.
He’s quiet most of the time, and the Visa appointment is quick and simple. We stop for one more picture with the King Sejong Statue across the street.
At the hotel, we think Sam may take a nap, but he is still overwhelmed and curious about us. We take him to the hotel lounge again so we can get coffee, and he naps in my lap on the couch.
That night we head out to look at Seoul’s Christmas lights! Sam stays tucked against me, partially zipped in my coat as I carry him in the Ergo. He looks at the lights, but mostly he just looks at me.
At bedtime, we repeat the bottle/pack-n-play routine from the previous night, but this time Sam cries immediately. Josh brings him to our bed, and he sleeps all night curled on top of me or up against my side.
On our last morning in Korea, we try to keep Sam’s world small. We go back to the lounge for breakfast. Josh goes to Lotte Mart for formula. I repack all of our belongings and Sam’s. Sam naps on our bed, oblivious to the hustle going on around him.
He’s quiet and reserved on the way to the airport. We check in, offload our bags, and find the nearest lounge for food and quiet. I am drenched in sweat from wearing a pullover in the hottest taxi on earth with a toddler clinging to my chest, so I get a Seoul t-shirt as an unexpected souvenir.
Traveling with points over the holidays left us with a couple of interesting options: three seats in economy or two seats in business class (where Sam could lap sit as a child under 2). We decided on business class, and it was absolutely the right decision. Sam stayed with me most of the long flight to Dallas. We were partially sheltered in our little cabin cubby. I reclined the seat all the way back so it was flat, and Sam slept on me for the vast majority of the flight. He cried once for a few minutes, but Josh walked him up and down the aisle briefly until he calmed down.
American Airlines sent us home with a little keepsake flight book and well wishes. Our flight attendants were exceptionally kind! I honestly think it helped that we were flying so close to the holidays. Sam wasn’t the only child in business class. It’s a very popular time of year for family travel!
When we got to Dallas, we went straight to the line for foreign visas and new immigrants. It wasn’t a short process, but it wasn’t excruciatingly long either. And when we were done, we had America’s newest little citizen in our arms!
After we re-checked our bags, it was Josh’s turn to get an unexpected souvenir Texas t-shirt after sweating his way through the airport with Sam. My advice other adoptive parents: Even in the dead of winter, wear layers! Ha! Thankfully Dallas has a phenomenal American Express lounge. It was super crowded with holiday travelers, but we both showered, drank coffee, ate a bit, and stretched our legs with Sam. At this point, I hadn’t slept at all during the flight and the exhaustion was settling in as the adrenaline wore off.
The second flight brought a few more tears at take-off, but less than 15 minutes of crying total. Landing in Nashville let us breathe again. We were home. Our other two children were in the same building, and we were only minutes away from uniting as a family of 5. But first, Sam needed a diaper change and his own fresh outfit.
We heard our welcome wagon before we saw them! I am so grateful to each and every person who met us at BNA. I will cherish those moments and photos forever, and I will show Sam every face who greeted him and who prayed for him from the very first day they heard about the adoption process.
I skipped a bit over prepping for this trip. Long story short, we found out we had final approval on a Tuesday on the court site, got notified on Wednesday, and flew out on Thursday. We stayed in San Francisco overnight before flying to Seoul on Friday and arriving on Saturday. We spent Sunday trying to rest and prep for such a big life change! We also went to the National Museum of Seoul and shopped for a couple things to bring back to the big kids as well as stocked up on snacks at Lotte Mart in case Sam hated leaving the room.
We had no idea what time we would get custody or our visa time when we arrived in Seoul. We called our agency Monday morning and found out we needed to be there in the afternoon to gain custody of Sam. It was a little bit chaotic, but it all worked out!
It’s taken me a long time to write this post. I always want to find the right balance between sharing our story honestly and openly but also respecting that this is still primarily Sam’s story and guarding anything that he may not want as public knowledge.
I hope to write more about home life in the next week or two. It’s… a whole new world in our house. That’s another story for another time and also requires a lot of thought to tell.