We first met Martha at a pizza parlor on the other side of town in early 2006. It was way past the lunch hour, but my husband’s doctor appointment, which had gone long, had kept all of us from eating. Our daughter was only a few months old and went everywhere with me—the grocery store, the post office, even going to my husband’s post-cancer checkups. After all we had gone through in the last few years, I wasn’t about to leave her at home with a babysitter. I had waited a long time to be a mother and leaving her behind felt like leaving a piece of my heart too.
Only a year earlier, we faced some of our darkest days, when my husband, Sam, was diagnosed with cancer at age 30. At the time, we happened to be in the middle of an international adoption from Korea, and were about to receive a referral of a baby at any moment. When we called the adoption agency to tell them the news about Sam’s diagnosis, they told us we could not continue in the Korean adoption program. The country had strict rules about their adoptive parent’s health, and a recent cancer diagnosis would not be allowed. Even if we had already been matched with a baby in Korea, and they received the information a few days later, they would have to decline the match. There was nothing they could do.
In a matter of days, our adoption had fallen through and my husband was fighting for his life. One of those surprises alone would have been hard, but getting both at the same time was devastating. Just a few weeks before, I was imagining us as a family of three, but now I didn’t even know if we would be a family of two.
This was our new reality, one where I had to put on a brave face each day and help my husband with the smallest of tasks because he was too weak to get out of bed. I cried behind closed doors so Sam wouldn’t see and asked, Why us? Why now?
People kept saying how strong I was, but the truth was, I didn’t feel strong at all. I just felt broken.
But somehow in the midst of walking through this valley, I still held on to hope that even though my life might be a mess, God was in control and He still had a plan for our family. We had been told there was a good chance that my husband would beat cancer. Although there were no guarantees, research showed that the chemotherapy regimen worked in many cases. When we told our adoption worker this news, she told us, “Call us as soon as he is cancer-free.” It wasn’t a promise, but it was a sliver of hope that our adoption journey was not over.
After months of rigorous chemotherapy, two surgeries, and endless medical appointments, we finally got good news: Sam’s tests were normal. He was finally cancer-free. We went out for a celebration dinner and ate salmon and oysters and celebrated the fact that we were not at the hospital. We had forgotten how normal people lived.
Then we called our adoption agency. They told us that after doing some research, the best option for us was to switch over to the domestic adoption program. We would have to redo some of our paperwork, but at the time, they needed more families in the program. We jumped at the chance to re-enter the adoption process and submitted our updated paperwork. Little did we know that our adoption would progress quickly, and within a few months, we got a call that a birthmother was in labor.
When we arrived at the hospital, we saw our baby girl for the first time. We watched through the nursery window as the nurse bathed her brown skin. Someone had tied a tiny green yarn bow in her curls. I kept the bow with all her hospital keepsakes: tiny ink-stamped footprints, a vanilla-scented pacifier, and the umbilical cord clamp. The memories were reminders of how we made it through a difficult time, and yet in the midst of it, there was a plan beyond what we could understand.
Now here we were, a year later, sitting down to eat when we met Martha, our waitress. She was an African American woman with wide eyes and a smile to match. When Martha returned with our drinks, she looked at my daughter and then asked, “Are you babysitting or is she your daughter?”
I paused. Our waitress seemed friendly, but I wasn’t sure of her feelings about adoption. I looked at Sam. “This is our daughter,” he said.
When I looked back at Martha, she had tears in her eyes. We talked about our adoption and Martha asked us, “Can I pray for you?”
In the middle of the restaurant, our waitress knelt down at our table, held our hands and prayed a blessing for us as a family. We thanked her, then she went back to the kitchen. My husband and I looked at each other and then looked at our daughter. After all we had been through, this seemed to affirm that every detour in our lives was not an accident, because it led us to this little girl.
Whatever I was expecting from our waitress that day, I wasn’t expecting this. If my husband hadn’t had cancer, we wouldn’t have our daughter. If we hadn’t adopted, we wouldn’t have this moment. The complexity of our journey suddenly seemed to come together, like the pieces of a puzzle snapping into place. Without cancer, we wouldn’t be the family we are today. Our heartbreak had become a story of redemption.
After we finished our lunch, we looked around for Martha. We didn’t want to leave without thanking her, but she had disappeared in the back where the kitchen was located. My husband walked up to the cashier to pay.
“It’s been paid sir,” replied the cashier. “Someone was feeling generous today.”
My husband looked around and finally spotted Martha in the back.“Did you pay for our meal?” he asked.
She just smiled and said, “There are angels all around, all around.”