"Jon's (Finally) Fearless Smile"

In this personal essay, one adoptive mom tells the story of her son's slow attachment, and the day she saw his trust.

Read one mother's story of fostering adoption attachment with her son.

I knew I loved you before I met you…

Savage Garden is on the radio. “Mom! It’s your favorite song!” Jon exclaims.

My son Jon — I had prayed for this child, and put in a few special requests. “Let it be a child who really wants a mom. Please send me a child who needs me.” I didn’t want to be greedy, but I put in one more: “It would be nice if he likes music.”

Sometimes, wishing upon stars, late at night, I thought I could feel him — so far away, waiting for me — this boy I had never met. I could feel his loneliness and longing, the tenderness of his heart, and I would dismiss the stars and beg God to bring us together soon.

After three trips to see Jon at the orphanage where he was living, I wondered if God had made a mistake. Whereas my daughter, Dominika, had grown more comfortable with us each time we visited her, my relationship with Jon was strained. Happy and loving at first, he seemed suspicious and manipulative when my husband, Jerry, and I made our second visit. When my mother and I came to take him home a few weeks later, he was interested only in what we had brought for him and seemed leery, at best, about going anywhere with us.

I swore to you my love would remain…

“Mom!” Jon interrupts my thoughts. “It’s Westlife!”

When Jon came to us, he stuck to Jerry, my older son, Jeff, or me on any outing. He bumped into us when we stopped, panicked if he lost eye contact, and refused to enter a restroom without me. After the school bus had initially skipped his stop on the first day he rode it home, I met him at the end of the driveway with a hug. He ducked into my shoulder to hide his tears. But a smile peeked out when I told him how scared I had been when his school bus didn’t come, how I had called transportation and yelled at them, and how worried I was even after they told me the bus was on its way.

At McDonald’s one day, Jon stood outside the car, staring at me, unwilling to close the door so I could lock it before I got out. Eyeing me suspiciously, he was ready to leap back into the car the minute I showed a sign of driving away. I closed and locked my own door. Then I walked to his side as he hastened to close the door I now had to open and lock. I told him America was different. The police would arrest anyone who tried to leave a child. And, I would never leave him. He was my child forever. He watched me, hoping I was telling the truth. He had no trust in me, though. He knew about moms abandoning children.

One summer day, we were at the amusement park. Jerry had gone back to the hotel to rest. Jeff, Jon, Dominika, and I had stayed to go on the water slides. Afterward, towels and wet bathing suits in tow, we stopped for a snack. By the time I had bought the requested snack for each child and settled down to enjoy my own, two of my three children were finished eating. Jon asked, “Mom, can Dominika and I go on that ride?” I explained that, while the ride was next to us, the line for it was on the other side, and I wouldn’t be able to see them from where we were. The thrill of standing in the middle of this so-new-to-him fairyland had him dancing under his skin, though. He begged. Tired, I acquiesced. “Go ahead, Jon, if you want. Stick together, though. I’ll be at the exit gate when you get off.” I watched them go, then turned to my older son, Jeff. “They’ll be back in less than two minutes,” I assured him. “As soon as Jon realizes he can’t see me from there, he’ll be back. I just hope Dominika comes with him.” We waited. We ate. We waited. Jeff ate more. I was too nervous. I rushed around to the front of the ride, terrified that they were lost or kidnapped. There they were, standing in line, oblivious to me. When I finally got their attention, they waved back with fearless smiles. I was filled with wonder and delight. Johnny finally trusted me.

“Mom?” He hesitates, and I do not encourage him.


“Mom, there’s this song I’d really like you to listen to. It’s called ‘Perfect Fan.'”

“Oh, Jon, not now. I’m busy making supper and I can’t stop.”

“It’s okay,” the quickness of his response doesn’t cover up his disappointment as he turns away from me, CD player and headphones in hand.

“I’ll listen to it later, okay?”

“Okay.” He smiles then. It’s a candid smile — one that’s full of acceptance and trust. It’s a boy’s smile — full of adventure, mischief, and happiness. It’s a smile that diffuses anger, suspicion, and reproach. He smiles his love from the pool, the basketball court, the other side of the church, and the top of the Ferris wheel. Can he see my love for him as I smile back?

“Mom?” He hesitates as he approaches.

“What Jon?” I ask, looking over the newspaper.

“Do you think you have time to listen to that song now — you know, ‘Perfect Fan'”

“Oh, Jon, not right now. I want to…”

“I understand.” He withdraws hastily, and I sigh a little relief.

“Mom?” The CD player and headphones are back. I try to think up an excuse, knowing I have none, until I see those eyes. They are a wistful shade of pleading. “Do you think you have time now to listen to that song now — you know the one by the Backstreet Boys, ‘Perfect Fan’?”


Jon’s eyes flicker at my unexpected answer, but he eagerly hands me the headphones and sets the CD to the right track.

“Do you like it, Mom?” he asks anxiously. The music is just starting.

You showed me how to care/You showed me that you would always be there…

“Oh, Johnny…” I slowly grab him into a hug and duck into it to hide my tears. “I love it!”

Pleased, he bobs his head back to see my face. My tears don’t surprise him, but they make him suddenly shy. His smile spreads bashfully, but it’s as wide as usual when he nods his eagerness. His response is almost a whisper, as we grab each other and hug. “Me, too.”

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