Risky Love

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Addisyn & Emma Leigh (Lizzie). Photo by Amy Block.

I want to tell you everything that a nineteen-year-old and a newborn baby taught me about love.

This is not a traditional love story.

I was in the U.S. for a brief visit to my hometown when I first heard. A children’s home we know in our area had been asked to take in a sick baby that was abandoned at the hospital. This is not an uncommon scenario. This home specializes in taking in children who have HIV/AIDS, so when the phone call came that a sick baby had been abandoned at the hospital shortly after birth, they went to the hospital to pick her up.

Sick, they were told. Probably HIV. This children’s home is specifically listed in the social work contact sheet as one that specializes in taking in children with this illness. In Guatemala, a children’s home must stay within their specialization or else risk losing accreditation. So, it must be HIV, they thought. Naturally.

They arrived at the hospital and were brought to the child.

Not HIV.

Hydranencephaly.

This condition gave the newborn an enlarged head due to an abnormal accumulation of fluid in her brain. More than that, they were told that the condition had resulted in the child having only about 10% of her brain.

What could be done?

Well, I will tell you that there is something special about this little one and I’ve seen it for myself, held this gift in my hands. So I imagine that when posed with the question, there was little hesitation. They did what they could, and they took her in.

The baby’s given name was Elizabeth. We started calling her Lizzie.

The Blocks, both the founders and directors of their children’s home, agreed to take in the child. Their eldest daughter Addisyn also helps run the home and often goes to receive children, attend custody hearings, and take children to their doctor’s appointments.

After many long nights in the hospitals from a series of brain surgeries to clear Lizzie’s brain of fluid, it was decided that Addisyn would become her primary caretaker. I saw the way she looked at her, captured so brilliantly in a few iPhone snapshots shared over Facebook despite the bad hospital lighting.

She was fully and wholeheartedly in love, a perfectly human picture of the kind of nonsensical, untainted, holy, risky love that God sings over us.

In the weeks that followed, Addisyn would occasionally pass by our house in the evenings to spend some time with us as well as to share how things were progressing with Lizzie. We would take turns holding her, bouncing ever so slightly to keep a steady rhythm that would settle her little heart.

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Emma Leigh (Lizzie) at one month old. Photo by Addisyn Block.

Marielle gave many forehead kisses. I hummed quiet hymns as I held her. Kacie smiled like a sunrise while she wrapped her in her arms. Kellie cooed with her ever so softly. Noe cradled her as he sang her songs. This sweet little girl, with the impossibly small fingernails and the bright brown eyes of new earth and new life, found her way into many of our hearts and the truth is that from that point, there was no turning back. We were in.

There were more surgeries, court hearings, lost paperwork, and medical appointments than you can imagine. I myself have lost count. But Addisyn was not fazed much by any of those things. They were never a burden. She fought on Lizzie’s behalf in hospital hallways and judicial courtrooms, neurology appointments and phone calls to government offices.

Sitting across the table, pushing around a few old cookies in a Tupperware one evening, she looked at me and explained it quite simply. “I don’t want her to die an orphan. Her life matters.”

And she’s right. She’s nineteen and she’s fiery and she’s loving and she’s right. This girl moves mountains like no other, because she knows deep in her bones that God is telling the truth. His love is real. His heart for redemption is true. And His plan for bringing both mercy and justice to our world is rather simple: It’s us. It’s a nineteen-year-old girl taking in an abandoned newborn with a rare disability and saying with every part of her life that this one is no longer an orphan.

That she is enough because her life is valuable. The fullness of God’s love is for her, too.

We knew that was his heart for this precious girl – the sweet little diamond whom he entrusted to Addisyn and her family, this unbelievable gift that she also shared with us.

Our prayers for this sweet baby were that God would make her whole. We weren’t sure what that might look like, but we prayed anyway. Bring wholeness to her life and body that she might be made new.

And He did.

On Tuesday, little Lizzie was finally provided with an official birth certificate and given a new name. Her name was formally changed to Emma Leigh Elizabeth – Emma, meaning ‘whole and complete’ and Leigh, (Addisyn’s shared middle name with her own mother, Amy) meaning ‘Healer’ and ‘By The Tree.’ Addisyn was also officially given custody of Emma Leigh.

On Wednesday, Emma Leigh’s feet and hands were printed, she got a brand new dress, and because her multiple surgery stitches had finally been removed, she was able to receive her first bath at 30 days old. That evening, many of us spent time together at a mutual friend’s house for a worship gathering, and she was cradled and cherished by many.

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Resting in His arms, whole and complete.

On Thursday in the early morning, Emma Leigh passed away in her sleep while in Addisyn’s arms. She was 31 days old.

We spent it grieving the loss of the priceless gift that Emma Leigh was to each of us, thankful for the perfect surprise that she was over this last month. She brought many people together from all over.

At the funeral, many of us gathered for a quiet ceremony at a local cemetery. There were flowers and somber clothing, tears and soft music. Addisyn wore white, dressed like a Sunday morning.

This time around, wholeness looked different than what my natural eyes expected. Wholeness was giving this child a family – a big family – and loving arms and strong defenders and whispered words of hope and affection.

Wholeness was giving this child a mother’s love through the beautiful lionheart that beats inside of Addisyn’s chest.

Wholeness was giving this child good clothing, good food, floral headbands, and a steady home.

Wholeness was giving this girl a new name.

Wholeness was adopting her into our hearts.

Wholeness was, quite simply and quite strongly, love.

The truth is that I never saw it coming: for a baby girl so small to change the world by teaching us that to love at all is to risk. To invite others into the deep places we carry will always have an element of danger that threatens our self-protective measures. But the secret is this: it’s love that makes us whole. Knowing God loves us, loving Him back, loving each other, even loving ourselves. Love is the big secret. Love is the big risk.

At the beginning of this story, I only saw the risk that was being taken, and I’ll admit that I honestly wondered if that risk was worth it.

Standing on this side of it, I know now that it was.

For Emma Leigh Elizabeth Block.

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