PUBLISHED Friday, November 20th, 2015

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A Love Like This 0

      Her perfectly round head, matching belly, and stick-like arms and legs didn’t resemble that of a normal 18-month-old. She looked more like an infant—closer to what a six-month-old might look like—and she had already experienced more trauma than an average adult. Juliana arrived at the children’s home in Jinja, Uganda after her mother abandoned her and left her alone in her house for a week. Besides malnourishment, Juliana experienced fear, loneliness, and bone-crushing silence in her empty home before a volunteer found her and brought her to an orphanage.
      When she arrived at the children’s home, Mary McLeod, a volunteer at the home, kept her distance. Out of intimidation. Out of fear. Out of uncertainty. Juliana’s pain was simply too much to fathom, and Mary wasn’t sure she could even love and care for Juliana the way that she needed.
      “[I thought], ‘You’ve been through so much. I don’t know how to take care of you,’” Mary explains. “But that was God calling me to her.”
      Mary stares at the blinking cursor as she types out her blog entry. Do you remember how we used to walk around the property and I would hold your body so high in the sky so you could pick off a delicate flower? Do you remember how soft the petals felt in your weak hands? Mary pauses with each question. The images she transfers from her dog-eared journal to the computer screen are as vivid as ever. We did this on a daily basis. I would walk into the babies’ home and as your body got stronger with each passing day, you eventually would lift your arms for me to hold you. And I did. There was hardly any weight to your body so I did a whole lot of holding.
      It wasn't long before a bond formed between Mary and Juliana. Mary prayed for her often, asking God to strengthen her body and make her healthy again. As she prayed, she often wondered if she was supposed to care for Juliana and become her mom.

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Juliana and become her mom.
      “I ended up just bonding with her, praying over her a lot, and telling God, ‘If she needs a mom, I’ll be her mom,’” Mary says. “He just kept putting on my heart, ‘I need you to take care of her.’”
      Sometimes you would fall asleep, sometimes you would cry because your body was in so much pain but most of the time you just sat there with a solemn look on your face. These flowers though, they eventually made you smile. I remember standing at the fence, and lifting you to pick the highest flower that you could reach and as I brought you down to my hip, a smile was adorned on your face. I had never seen it before. It was angelic. A little toothy for your 18 month old self but I saw something I had never seen in the three weeks of knowing you. Life shined through your eyes.
      Mary readily prepared her heart to adopt Juliana, if that’s what God wanted for her. But every time she prayed about being her mom, all she kept hearing from the Lord was, “Two years.”
      “In my heart I thought, in two years, she’s going to be healthy and come back, and I’ll move here full time, and I’ll be her mom,” Mary explains.
      But that never came to pass. On February 11, 2013, Juliana’s short life came to an end. Mary held her frail body, praying—as she had done many times before—until Juliana took her last breath.
      “It was so beautiful, as hard as it was,” Mary remembers. “It was really neat to be that close to Jesus. I know she went straight from my arms to His.”
      He used you in some really dark situations, Juliana. He used your short, small, fragile life to teach so many people beautiful lessons of strength and resilience. God has shown me that no matter what we are faced with, if we can hold onto the hope of tomorrow, He will grace us with incredible beauty. For you, that beauty might have been found as the door finally opened to the hut where you were abandoned and then rescued.

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you, that beauty might have been found as the door finally opened to the hut where you were abandoned and then rescued. It might have been in those long walks around the compound to pick all of the flowers we could find. Or it might have been found when you gave your last breath in my arms and met Jesus in your forever home.
      A lump rises in Mary’s throat as she finishes typing. A lump of pain but also of promise. She ends the post with a simple statement: Missing you everyday. The words couldn’t ring truer this morning than two years ago.
      Two years.

***
      Mary was adopted at birth and raised in Florida with her two adopted siblings. Right after high school, she moved to Massachusetts for photography school. She graduated in 2008 and within three weeks, married her college sweetheart and moved cross-country to Los Angeles to pursue her dream career as a wedding photographer.
      “I grew up so fast,” Mary says. “I was 21. We moved to the valley because that’s where you move when you’re 21 and broke [having just driven] your car across country [with] no idea where to go. And we lived in Van Nuys. That was the beginning of the California adventure, which feels like forever ago because so much has changed.”
      Mary had a plan for how life in L.A. should go as a newlywed and photographer. But reality looked drastically different. After the first year and a half, she and her husband were still broke, lonely, and struggling. Everyone warned the first year of marriage would be the most difficult, but something didn’t feel quite right. Was it supposed to be this hard? Was it normal to feel this distant? Then, the day after Mary booked a portrait session for their two-year anniversary, her husband asked for a divorce.
      Mary didn’t understand. For her, if two people loved each other, then they spent the rest of their lives together. First, get married. Then, build a business. Then, buy a home. Then, have a baby. And then, have another baby.
      “I had this plan and vision, so when he brought [the divorce] up, I didn’t know what to do,” Mary recounts. “[I thought], ‘This isn’t my plan. This goes against my plan. This uproots everything.’”
      For the next month, Mary woke up every day wondering how she could change his mind. She started taking care of herself again. She hiked and walked their dog regularly. She left an orange she had picked on her walks everyday on the counter for him.
      Some days, it seemed as if her efforts worked. He would express how difficult it was for him. She kept waiting for him to say, “Nevermind. I made a mistake. Let’s stay together.” But that never happened.
      In April of 2010, Mary and her husband officially divorced. In retrospect, Mary realizes how forcefully fear grasped her life. Their youth and immaturity worked against them, preventing enough foresight to push through the difficult times.
      “There was a lot of anger going into being single again,” Mary remembers. “There was a lot of grief. And there was a lot of insecurity. The enemy just went full force. I was weak, so he was like, ‘Oh, this is a good playground to play on.’ And everyday, [the enemy] would remind me of my biggest fears of: you’re easy to leave, your biggest desires are to be a wife and a mom and, look, you can’t do that anymore…”

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      The fears that took root during her childhood—of abandonment, of not being good enough, of being dispensable—came thrashing to the surface. But even as these lies blared into her ears, she also heard another voice. A stiller, quieter voice telling her how much she was loved (a lot). How those fears didn’t have to control her (because they were lies). And how the heartbreak and confusion would not be wasted (because she mattered).

***
      In just a year after her divorce, Mary’s faith in God grew insurmountably. In her darkest moments of insecurity, anger and frustration, she also fell in love with Jesus as she experienced His comforting presence in tangible ways.
      “In 2011, it was a season that I knew God was up to something really big,” Mary says.
      Although she didn’t know what that something was, she kept her eyes open in anticipation. She went on a business trip, stopping by Nashville, Tennessee and Tulsa, Oklahoma to visit some friends. During her time in Tulsa, Mary’s friends revealed to her that they would be adopting two children in Uganda. And they wanted Mary to document the adoption process when it came time to finally meet their kids.
      “That was the beginning of it all,” Mary says.
      In February 2012, Mary flew to Jinja, Uganda with her friend for a very short six days. They traveled throughout Uganda, falling in love with the culture that welcomed them so warmly. Three months later, Mary returned to document the adoption.
      “I came home, and I was like, ‘I’m going there for as long as I can,’” Mary recalls.

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recalls.
      Just eight months later, Mary flew back to Jinja for five and a half months. She was in love. With the vibrant country that continued to amaze her with its people and culture. With the tight-knit community that became her family. With the children’s home she worked at. And, of course, with Juliana.
      One thing Mary didn’t anticipate at that time, however, was falling in love with a man named J.P., someone in California whom she had briefly met before jumping on a plane to Uganda for half a year.
      “After our date [in California], I went home and I sat on my friend’s bed with her and her now-husband. I got Rite-Aid ice cream, and I was like, ‘We have to celebrate. I just had my first date with my husband. I’m going to marry him.’ I knew in my heart. That’s scary: knowing in your heart, especially coming from a divorce.”
      Apparently, J.P. reciprocated the feelings because, just four months later in April 2013, he jumped on a plane to Uganda to visit Mary. On his first night, they confessed the mutual affection they shared for each other and dove headfirst into a relationship.
      “In Jinja, Uganda, we had this hammock, and that was our spot where we’d hang out at night and just talk,” Mary explains. “And he said, ‘I have a lot to work on...so much to figure out.’ And I thought, ‘Ok, here it comes. This is what guys say before [breaking up].’ But he [said], ‘I have a lot to work on, but I really want to do it with you.’”
      Mary returned to California the following month in May and by November, she and J.P. were engaged. Pre-J.P., Mary planned to return to California only to photograph the weddings she had booked but then return to Jinja for good. She dreamt of opening a guesthouse and starting an organization.

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organization. But when J.P. entered the picture, they didn’t know how to merge their two lives together, dreams and all. Regardless, they trusted God anyway and married in August of 2014.
      “I just knew I loved this woman, and I wanted to be with her and pursue her,” J.P. says. “I didn’t really give rational thought to what that might look like. Love just took over, and here we are two years later fulfilling that dream of hers. Dream of ours.”
      Two years.

***
      Pops of color contrast the white kitchen alcove that adorns Mary and J.P.’s Spanish-style L.A. apartment. There’s the summer fruit that rests in the brown wooden basket. The silver and brassy keys. The various gift cards that are entangled with the pile of mail.
      But Mary really only cares about one thing on that counter: a pile of 5x5 photos of a young child.
      A story accompanies each photo, which she tells with a beaming smile. “That photo was taken last summer at the babies’ home...” she begins, as she flips through each photo.
      With a new apartment in L.A. and a new marriage, Mary and J.P. sought to build a home and settle down. They flew to Jinja in January of 2015 for what they thought to be the last time for awhile. A sort of “goodbye” for the time being.
      “Looking back on it, I think it was just fear I was working out of and confusion. [I thought] maybe [we'll] come back in a few years.”
      But almost immediately upon arriving in Jinja, they heard God telling them one thing: this is where you need to be. He highlighted one particular child whom Mary had known for a couple of years and had a special bond with.
      They knew, however, that adoption was not the first choice in Uganda. The priority is to resettle the orphans, where they eventually return to their families. But this particular child had already been resettled and was brought back to the children’s home.
      Mary and J.P. wanted to help. That’s all they knew. How they’d help would require a lot of prayer, some patience, and a whole bunch of faith.
      “It was a big decision to even make the step to move forward. This could look like so many things. It could mean resettlement, which would be awesome to find a good family member. Paying for education for the rest of [the child's] life. We were open to it all. We actually thought it would be one of the two things. It could mean foster care. Or it could mean adoption. So we went into it thinking it’s going to be education and finding a family member, like an aunt. We went through an investigation while we were there, and it went really fast, which never happens in Uganda because things go by so slow. I extended my stay two extra weeks, and during those two weeks, the family turned towards adoption. I left the next day after that decision was made.”
      A couple months later, by March, Mary and J.P. knew they would be moving to Uganda permanently to foster the child with the potential to adopt. As Mary journaled about the transition, processing all that needed to get done, she stumbled upon her old journal entry on Juliana. As she read line by line, the vivid complexity of experiencing heartbreak and hope came flooding back. And then, Mary remembered what God had said as she prayed for Juliana in Uganda. Two years.

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      It nearly took the breath out of Mary’s lungs. She realized that the time between Juliana’s death and the start of the investigation to see what would be best for the child they’re going to foster was exactly that: two years.
      “How amazing is it that God can turn broken relationships into beautiful, amazing relationships and now adopting this beautiful little [child] who needs a home and who is already so loved,” Bethany, Mary’s best friend, says. “I love this [child] so much already, and so does all of Mary’s friends and family.”
      When Mary’s heart felt like it couldn’t break anymore, the Lord promised her that the pain and tears wouldn’t be wasted. Now, she and her husband sell the items in their L.A. apartment, nervously anticipating parenthood in a foreign country that has made itself home in their hearts. Waiting has proven to be a challenge in and of itself, but only in God’s sovereignty does He make it worth it.
      Mary’s own words sum it up best as she shares the unfamiliar territory she ventures into, led by Jesus and hand-in-hand with her husband.
      This waiting period has been one of the most bittersweet blessings. During this walk through the desert, not only has my bond with my husband strengthened, but also my relationship with God. My faith has grown deep and wide. I cling to Him more than I ever have and thank Him for already gifting me grace even though sometimes it feels anywhere but here. I have prayed prayer upon prayer and He has given me answer upon answer. So maybe I know I'm already a mom because of those answered prayers. Maybe it's because my heart does this funny thing where it can break, show empathy and also grow protective all at the same time. Maybe it's because my prayers, thoughts, dreams, desires and goals are consumed with one little being in the center of that.

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center of that. Maybe it's because I have never known a love like this, one that is only familiar because of the parental love God showers me with every single day.
      An orphan. A divorcée. A willing volunteer. A new bride. And soon, a new mother. The seasons of Mary's life could make for quite the page-turner with its unexpected plot of events. But one thing has always remained: Mary has never stopped being a daughter to the ultimate Storyteller. And so, true to form, her narrative continues in Jinja, Uganda...
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