Soft white light falls through curved skylights as a young girl floats on her back in a swimming pool below. Her arms spread out into a cross. Her ears sink just beneath the surface. Surrounded by this calm, staring into the light above, an endless smile spreads across her face.
For Elizabeth Dax, 12, this peaceful moment in the blue water inside the Winter Park YMCA is but a brief respite in a long, chaotic journey to become an American.
It’s a moment that, as she splashes in the water, she’s come to cherish. On this sunny Saturday morning before a coming storm closes in, she could very well be a typical American girl. Her “mom,” Nan Parker, ever watchful from a poolside chair, could be her real mother. Tomorrow could be another playful adventure to come.
But ask her what she’s doing Tuesday, and an earnest pair of tiny brown eyes averts your gaze, searching for her foster mother’s face. In less than three days, she’ll be on a 30-hour flight east across the Atlantic, one of many she’ll take before a dream she keeps waking up from becomes the one she wakes up to. One day, Elizabeth will be an American. But today, the gap between dream and reality is still an ocean wide.
She’s already crossed that broad expanse of blue three times, as Parker and “foster grandmother” Cheryl Eller work both ends of a difficult system to legally adopt her from her native Namibia, near Africa’s southern tip. They’ve been trying for more than five years.
“Angelina Jolie can’t even adopt a child from Namibia,” Eller said. “How am I supposed to do it?”
Shunned by her society
For Elizabeth, a literal poster child for an adoption agency in her hometown of Rehoboth, adoption will almost certainly be more difficult than even most Namibians. Elizabeth has spina bifida, an increasingly rare developmental defect of the spine that, in her case, left her unable to walk without specialized crutches.
As a child in a society with a tendency to shun those with Elizabeth’s difficulties, life has been a struggle from the start, Parker said. Abandoned to an orphanage by her parents, she had difficulty finding care for her special needs. She was allowed to go to school, but teachers ignored her. She wore a diaper constantly. Other students only paid attention to her when they were teasing her, she said.
“How did you feel in that orphanage?” Parker asks.
“Lonely,” Elizabeth said. “The kids wouldn’t play with me.”
Left to herself, she had trouble getting around. Even at age 12, she’d be swallowed up by an adult-sized wheelchair like a caricature. At age 4, that’s what she was given. Unable to reach the wheels to propel herself, she chose instead to crawl. As her class’ teacher taught at the front of the room, she would drag herself across the cracked concrete floor at the back of the room.
Eventually, Elizabeth’s left leg became so badly infected from constant cuts and scrapes that it had to be amputated just below the knee.
“Try to imagine crawling across a floor like this,” Parker said, pointing to the rough textured poolside floor. “Nobody paid attention to her until it was too late.”
But in many ways, that was her turning point. That’s when she met Eller and Parker.
A place for Elizabeth
Already visiting Namibia on a mission from Longwood’s Northland Community Church in 2005, Winter Park resident Eller took the chance to visit an orphanage nearby, and couldn’t help but notice the desperation of Elizabeth’s condition.
She was a bright child, eager to learn but shut out of the process. She was already several grades behind. Any more waiting would make things even worse.
“She deserved an education,” Eller said. “I knew it wouldn’t happen there. They just didn’t know how to take care of her.”
When Eller was asked if she wanted to adopt Elizabeth, she was taken aback. She’d never even considered it before. But she knew someone who could.
On Dec. 8, 2008, Elizabeth leapt into Parker’s arms, embracing her new foster mother. She’s since learned to walk with crutches. She’s accelerated in school.
“In the two years Nan has had her, she’s really zoomed ahead,” Eller said.
Battle for adoption
But the process has turned Parker’s life upside down. Parker, who had only intended to do short missionary work in Namibia, has since moved there, living with Elizabeth full time. She has to — in order to adopt a Namibian child, the adoptive parent must have lived in the country for five years, making out-of-country adoptions extremely rare.
The hurdles have been endless. A plethora of agencies all have their hands in the process. Each one produces a uniquely frustrating challenge for Parker.
“Every time we send them forms, we have to send them three times,” Parker said. “Our doctors all had to write them twice.”
A team of American doctors have helped Elizabeth for free. If the work wasn’t pro-bono, she couldn’t leave Namibia.
At one point, Parker had to go through the unsettling process of proving Elizabeth’s birth parents were dead.
And along the way, every agency has to give its OK. If one stalls the process, it can protract for years. It took six months just for Parker to become a foster parent, though she already lived in the country at the time.
But she’s getting closer to the end. The letters gradually trickle in. The hurdles fall one by one, waiting for that final one before the finish line.
Taste of the U.S.
Parker hasn’t been able to wait that long to give Elizabeth a taste of American life. She’s brought her to the United States twice already.
And the shyly precocious girl has found new friends, traveling to elementary schools in Forest City and Sanford to learn and teach about her unique experience.
“Everything she encounters is delightful to her,” Eller said.
Almost all of her favorite experiences have been a new kind of motion. One of her favorite new friends, Reno, is a horse she’s learned how to ride. She’s petted a giraffe and screamed on the roller coasters at Busch Gardens. She took her first cruise to Cozumel in January. She marveled at the high-tech elevators — an odd pick for her favorite part of the trip.
“The elevators talked to me,” Elizabeth said. “They’d tell me what day of the week it was.”
She loves to move, Eller said. It’s just a question of how. Given the chance to learn how to swim, she dove right in.
Swim instructor Alicia Spiker took a special liking to Elizabeth immediately.
“She doesn’t care when or how,” Spiker said. “She just wants to swim.”
In the pool, Elizabeth said, she’s totally free. Her wheelchair and prosthetic leg stay behind. There are no more crutches.
Saturday morning, floating a few feet from the edge, two goggled eyes dart side to side, then Elizabeth drops beneath the surface and into her own world. She spins around, casts a glance upward then, in a quick burst, her legs churn into the distance.
In a few days, she’s bound to her life in Namibia. But today, she’s a typical American girl.
“She’d stay out in that pool forever if she could,” Parker said.
A few seconds later, Elizabeth pops back up, and another smile lights up her face.