“She won’t know the difference.” The neurologist shook his head.

In my lap I held Ruth, a 2-year-old abandoned baby with cerebral palsy that my family and I hoped to adopt from an orphanage in Uganda. Ruth had arrived in Maine one year before on a medical visa to receive therapy for cerebral palsy, a brain injury that left her unable to walk or talk.

Months before, while serving as her host family, we’d discovered that Ruth was also profoundly deaf – a devastating diagnosis since she was unable to use her hands to communicate. Now, one week before taking Ruth back to East Africa on a month-long trip to collect paperwork for her adoption, I was being told not to bother.

Ruth’s disabilities meant that she would never advance beyond the physical abilities of a 6-month-old, the neurologist said. In his words, she was also likely profoundly mentally retarded. “In my opinion, it won’t matter whether you adopt Ruth or leave her in Uganda,” he said. “She won’t know the difference.”

My husband, Dana, and I – along with our three young children – adopted Ruth anyway. In our early 30s, we were young and naive enough not to realize how hard the road with Ruth would be. All we knew was that we loved her – despite what loving her would cost us. But, with all of his education and experience, the neurologist failed to realize what a lasting transformation such love can make in the life of a child and family.

No, Ruth didn’t pull her crooked legs out of her stroller and walk the triumphant August day we returned from Uganda with papers declaring her a permanent American resident. She didn’t open her mouth and speak at the little courthouse, just up the road from our home, the following February when we celebrated her adoption. But slowly, beautifully – as Ruth became rooted in the love of our family and church, and our schools and community – she blossomed into a radiantly happy little girl who defied the doctor’s dire predictions.


Despite being told that she’d never understand spoken language, Ruth learned to hear with the help of a cochlear implant. She loved books and school and by first grade could spell the names of all the kids in her class by sticking out her tongue when someone pointed to the correct letter on an alphabet board. And she loved to play, squealing with delight when her same-age sister dressed her as a queen and pulled her around the house in her wheelchair while pretending to be a horse.

But what neither the neurologist – nor we – expected was how little time Ruth had. Two months before her eighth birthday, the rare condition responsible for her cerebral palsy and deafness caused Ruth to die in her sleep. The shock and grief of losing our daughter was excruciating. Equally unendurable was the devastating suspicion that, in the end, our decision to adopt Ruth hadn’t mattered, after all.

“It didn’t make a difference,” I sobbed to Dana one night during that long, dark winter.

“How can you say that?” he challenged me. “We gave Ruth everything we had. That’s all God was asking. And you know what? She knew the difference. That girl knew we loved her.”

This April, Ruth would have turned 13. In the five years she’s been gone, we still ache from the loss of her. But in that time, we’ve also come to know that every sorrow and sacrifice was worth it. Instead of dying forsaken and unclaimed – as many people with disabilities do in the developing world – Ruth knew that she was beloved upon this earth.

“All the special gifts and powers from God will someday come to an end,” the apostle Paul wrote in I Cor. 13:8, “but love goes on forever.”

Nine months after our daughter’s death, that love changed the life of another little girl with cerebral palsy when Dana brought Ruth’s wheelchair to Uganda through a Christian outreach, Wheels for the World. So even if you love and lose, keep sharing God’s love anyway. Love in the face of suffering and grief and heartache and loss. Love beyond racial and religious and physical borders and barriers.

Love like a fool, without considering what such love will cost. Because, no matter how and when life ends, only love is guaranteed to last.

Meadow Rue Merrill writes and reflects on God’s presence in her ordinary life from her little cottage in the woods in the midcoast. Find her at meadowrue.com

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