On Raising An Adopted Daughter With A Rare Genetic Disorder

After 18 surgical procedures in 30 months, we learned the Unknown had delivered to us the rarest of rare birds to raise and love, one who still sings but softer than before.

I handed over my car keys to my daughter the day after she passed her driver’s test with a score of 89. Her result was “decent enough,” according to the DMV clerk, yet her face expressed a trace of the schoolmarm as she reviewed Lydia’s score sheet.

“You’ll need to improve on those turns,” she said.

I nodded, grateful for a voice of admonition beyond mine, grateful for another chisel to nick away at my daughter’s sense of her infallibility.

Lydia, a high school junior, had just been elected to the board of her youth group, and she wanted to drive herself to the “installation” event: a victor arriving to the ceremony in her own chariot. It was a sleepover. Her first solo venture to last all night. With the heaviest of hearts, I eventually relented and let her go.

Relinquishing the car keys was a rite of passage I’d long dreaded, unlike many of my friends, who embraced their kids’ driving as the Era of Emancipation. My view was, my husband and I were free all right—free to pace the house worrying if she’ll come home resembling something out of Picasso’s “Guernica.”

We’re hands-on parents, but we don’t hover or micro-manage. Yet the idea of our daughter, barely 5’2”, powering this box of metal by herself on the streets and highways of Dallas had me fixating on worst-case scenarios. I couldn’t get the myths of Phaeton and Icarus out of my head.

“You’re so freaky-outy!” Lydia said as I recited the stakes of this new responsibility for the umpteenth time. “Can’t you trust me?”

“It’s not about you. It’s the crazies out there I don’t trust,” I said, lying.

This was indeed all about her, about her inexperience, and at bottom, our family’s extensive experience with multiple hospital emergency rooms. Yet I wouldn’t remind her she’d almost died, twice, during her month-long hospital stay three years ago. Paralyzing her with fear wouldn’t help anything. So where was the line that separates common-sense caution from the cautionary lessons of trauma? I was struggling to integrate our recent history with the current—and essential—need to cultivate her confidence.

It is hard.

Just before Lydia was starting the eighth grade, she had a stomach ache so severe she could barely walk. The ER doctors found four kidney stones and an abnormally high calcium level. The stones, though, were red herrings.

The real emergency, discovered after an eternity of four days, was an ulcer in her intestine that had perforated. Bilious fluid had filled her abdominal cavity, poisoning her. An MRI revealed she had a tumor on one of her four parathyroid glands, endocrine organs in the throat that regulate calcium. The tumor had been telling her bones, for years apparently, to release the mineral, which in excess will create ulcers, kidney stones, and those frequent headaches and wild mood swings she had.

Her genetics might account for the rare endocrine tumor (rare for a child), but the problem was, we knew nothing about her genetics. We adopted Lydia, at 14 months, from Moscow.

The medical team was flummoxed.

Choosing adoption over IVF was easy—it felt more “natural” to form a family with a child already here than to re-charge my waning fertility via technology. Still, it took all my courage to embrace the Unknown and jump into the ocean of countless and invisible variables that an adopted child embodies. The workshop we attended counseled: Affinities, not blood, will create your family bond. Strive to find those affinities.

We found them early on. Lydia revealed an ability to sing anything she heard, and as an oboe player with conservatory training, I knew how to nurture this nature of hers. By age 4, she could identify every melodic interval—that, say, a perfect fourth opens “Here Comes the Bride.” We started her on violin, and she joined citywide choirs, performing in Carnegie Hall, at civic ceremonies, for concerts and weddings. Music was her future. Shepherding her to rehearsals, performances, and countless lessons—sometimes three a week—I was a proud Music Mom.

Until suddenly, I wasn’t. The surgery to remove the tumor left her vocal cord paralyzed. She couldn’t talk, let alone sing. When the doctor said her voice might never recover, it was arguably the worst day of my life. Overnight, Music Mom turned into Hospital Mom.

Eventually, five months later, her voice returned, though diminished. But so did another parathyroid tumor. Soon after the surgery to remove this second tumor, our geneticist announced that the test confirmed what she’d always suspected. Lydia was one of maybe 200 people in the world with a mutation on a newly discovered gene. Her condition is a mouthful: Hyperparathyroidism-Jaw Tumor Syndrome. Simply put, she lacks a protein that suppresses tumor formation in those glands, jaw, kidneys, and uterus. We must check her calcium every six months and get periodic ultrasounds of the other vulnerable parts.

After 18 surgical procedures in 30 months, we learned the Unknown had delivered to us the rarest of rare birds to raise and love, one who still sings but softer than before. Moving forward, I am figuring out how to grieve our lost dreams while simultaneously encourage her new interests. And she’s all over the map these days: maybe nursing or leadership studies, maybe world religions.

Yet, how will our children explore the unchartered terrain if we don’t give them the means to do so, starting with the car? In our family’s Era of White Knuckle Vigils, my current maternal project is to see these open vistas—including the road—as opportunities, and tell myself, even as the various perils threaten our daughter’s progress: Let go and, knock on wood, let live.

Eden Elieff is a teacher and writer and has had both fiction and nonfiction published in various literary journals throughout the country. She lives in Dallas with her husband and daughter.

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