|by Steve Charles • May 17, 2005|
Professor Eric Wetzel traveled thousands of miles and across an ocean to bring his youngest daughter home.
She was whisked from the Wanzai orphanage on a warm spring day last April, bundled up in two pairs of pants, three sweaters, an a diaper held in place with a red ribbon around her waist. Eleven-month-old Jin Fa was rushed down the dark corridor of the Nanchang Civil Affairs Building and into the blinding bright chaos of the white-walled conference room. Five other babies wailed there, as expectant parents craned their necks to get a glimpse of their children.
Among the fathers was Wabash biology professor Eric Wetzel. He'd traveled halfway around the world to bring home this baby he'd been thinking about, talking about, and praying about for months.
She was the reason women at Sunrise Christian Reformed Church had cooked and sold all those homemade noodles to help offset adoption costs.
The reason God had "placed a burden" on Eric and Sue Wetzel's hearts, a yearning that arose not long after his first daughter was born, was seared deeper by a miscarriage, and was sustained even after two more daughters were born and Sue was carrying another child.
This was the moment that would make worthwhile the series of home visits, the endless questions from the social workers.
Wetzel shuffled his feet in anticipation as three women and one man, all dressed in formal gray, carried four babies into the adjoining room.
You see it on the videotape that Eric Wetzel's father and mother shot of Wetzel and Jin Fa meeting for the first time:
At 5:34 a young Chinese woman in white pants and a tennis sweater steps forward, holding a pink note bearing a baby's name and picture.
"Fa," she calls out over the cries of the babies and scans the room. "Fa!"
Wetzel peers at the photograph that doesn't seem to match the baby in the arms of the man in gray. But he knows from photos he received earlier that this baby is his daughter; this is the child they'll call Rebekah Jin Fa Wetzel. He knew that the moment she was carried into the room.
The young woman directs the man in gray toward Wetzel like a valet directing a driver to a parking place. Eric crouches down to make eye contact with the baby. The escort in gray looks on with an expectant smile.
Eric grins and greets his new daughter in an animated, cooing voice.
Undaunted, the professsor gathers her up, nuzzles and strokes her head, gently bouncing her in the up-and-down motion that becomes almost habit for veteran parents.
She quiets for a moment, then wails again.
A year later, Wetzel still does a convincing impression of his daughter's cry. "Believe me," he says, "the joy of that first meeting is one-sided!"
Back in the hotel room at 6:07, Rebekah is still crying.
Finally, at 7:03, strapped to Eric's chest in the baby carrier she'll sit in most of her waking hours for the next week, Rebekah tires and stares up serenely at her father as he feeds her Cheerios, one round "O" at a time.
At 8:30, she's sitting up on the bed between his legs and playing with books when she discovers bananas. She leans back on Eric's knee and gnaws away while Grandma talks to her in soothing tones.
At 8:34, Wetzel calls his wife.
"Can you hear me okay?" he asks before he describes the day.
Eleven-year-old Emily wants to talk to her dad.
"I miss you, too," Wetzel says. "I wish you were here. I love you, too."
At 8:43, Rebekah finally smiles, babbling so loudly that Sue Wetzel, on the phone thousands of miles away, can hear her.
Then Rebekah laughs.
"Oh, this is a blessing," Wetzel whispers to his wife.
"That was the moment that I knew everything was going to be okay," Wetzel recalls.
"One of the first things we did was give her a bath and dress her in the new clothes that I had brought with me. I thought about the way God deals with us, how the New Testa-ment says that anyone in Christ is a new creation, the old has gone—it's like God is giving you new clothes, you have become His child."
For Wetzel, part of the "old" is not Rebekah's Chinese heritage. Wetzel spent a week in Jiangxi province visiting cities and villages, getting to better know his daughter's home country.
"I would love to be able to take her back to China with our whole family," the professor says. "We've talked about someday going and living there for awhile."
As for introducing Rebekah to her native culture and the likely questions about her birth mother, Wetzel's strategy is "to play it by ear."
"We don't have this set plan for what we're going to do on the day she looks in the mirror and has the realization, I don't look just like my sisters-what's up with that?
"I think we'll need to arm her for the prejudice she may face. She will be confronted by kids saying, 'You're adopted. Your parents aren't your real parents.'
"The story we'll be able to tell about her coming into our family is much more dramatic than most kids' stories. Perhaps for her to be able to say, 'My parents had to pay a lot of money, do all this work, travel thousands of miles to come get me, and they picked me special,' perhaps it will be a good thing for her.
"God gives children to parents, and I believe God chose Rebekah for our family, and us for her-it just so happened that she was born on the other side of the world. That doesn't make her any less our daughter, or us less her parents-with God, distance doesn't matter. When you think of it theologically, believers are all God's adopted children."
After their week together in china, Wetzel prepared Rebekah for another long-anticipated meeting. Her new mother and sisters embraced her at the Indianapolis airport.
"My older girls were in her face from the get-go-they were just so excited," Wetzel says. "Rebekah bonded with Sue just as fast as she had bonded with me. Within two days, I'd be holding her and she'd start fussing and reaching out for her mother.
"I was glad for the bond," Wetzel laughs. "But part of me was thinking, Hey, what's going on? You're going to toss aside Daddy like an old shoe?!
Sue Wetzel had three months with Rebekah before the couple's first son, Elijah, was born. Now Elijah and Rebekah are growing up together, and when Wetzel comes home from work these days, Rebekah greets him as "Dada."
"She knows me as her father," he says. "That's a really neat thing to hear."
"But sometimes she'll cry at night, and you just wonder if there isn't something there," Wetzel adds. "Not necessarily a traumatic event-I suspect that she got really good care, because she trusts, and she transferred that trust so fast.
"But there are 11 months in our daughter's life that we don't know. The other day, my wife was playing with Elijah, who is now eight months old, and she remarked how she wished we'd had Rebekah when she was his age."
In December, Eric, Sue, and Rebekah traveled to the Tippecanoe County Courthouse for a "re-adoption" procedure-a finalization of Rebekah's American citizenship. Wetzel tears up when he talks about it, as he does often when talking about his youngest daughter. Especially when he recalls that week in China—those first days he carried her on his chest, gave her Cheerios, a bath, dried her tears and rocked her to sleep.
He remembers how she'd scoot into the corner of her crib and curl one arm around the bars for comfort.
"The other night I was looking at her hands-she's got really neat little hands, such delicate fingers and fingernails," Wetzel says. "I had this flashback to when I got her—her fingernails were pretty long and there was some dirt under them, and she was in rougher shape. There are all these memories from that time we had there together."
Wetzel says Rebekah constantly reminds him of how God makes us his own. Deeper than the theology, she reminds him of God, and of gifts undeserved.
"Even now," he says, "the wonder of it has not diminished."
Photo: second photo, left: The Wetzel kids at Christmas: Emily (holding Rebekah), Carolyn, and Maggie (holding Elijah).
WM asked Professor Wetzel: How do you balance the demands of working at Wabash with the needs of your family?
"I look at it as seasons of life sort of thing. I have a family at home, and I have small kids who need me there, so there's a real necessary balance. I try to connect with students in ways other than fraternity dinners and evening events. It's unfair for me to say to my wife, 'I know you've been watching the kids all day, but I'm going to go hang out with the guys.
"I have my upper level students over to our house once each semester. One of the things freshmen rank highest in terms of future interest on their freshman surveys is 'raising a family.' We don't talk about that much at Wabash, and I think one of the best things I can do is model an appropriate way of balancing work and family. I want to say to them, 'After you graduate and have a family and kids, if you let your work break up your family, you're making the wrong decision.'
"As my kids get older, they'll come to events here-the opportunities for plays, lectures, and sports will be something we can share.
"The seasons change, as will the way I allocate my time as my children grow up."