When Brent Rosenlof comes home at night, Nathan's face lights up. The toddler greets Papa with a hug and a "bijou," then gets thrown up and down and around until his giggling is the loudest noise in the house.
"Watch his head," Lori Rosenlof tells her husband. "I say that all the time. Watch his head. Watch his head."
Brent did watch Nathan's head. In fact, watching Nathan is fast becoming an Olympic sport at the Rosenlofs' Lehi house, as the couple who have been trying to adopt for nine years finally brought home this Haitian toddler. Getting him here required mountains moving and a pilot refusing to move until his plane was filled with children.
Shortly after the Jan. 12 earthquake, Brent and Lori, along with their friends Tia Simpson and David and Candice Aitken, had not known if their adoptive children were alive and where they were. The good news that all of their children were found safely launched Team Hope, an effort to get 68 children waiting to be adopted out of Haiti and to their families. Lori and Brent paused their normal lives so Brent could go to Haiti and Lori could collect, copy and send hundreds of forms to the U.S. and Haitian governments so dozens of children could leave the country, then take a red-eye flight with other parents from Salt Lake City to Miami.
Tia has gone from bachelorette to mother of 2-year-old Collin, whose French name was Ollie, and Lori and Brent are celebrating Nathan's homecoming while still working and praying for 3-year-old Jessica, whose birth father came to the Haitian orphanage in December and took her away. The Aitkens, who adopted three children, declined to be interviewed for this article.
It has been, for all parties, quite a transition.
"The guys at work are giving me a hard time that I won't think the car seat's so cool in a little while," Lori said.
Surprise! You're a mom
"You fit pretty good right there," Tia tells Collin as he settles into her lap.
He's managed to fit pretty good into every aspect of her life, which, even a year ago, she would never have expected. Tia is 33 and single; she works full time, and she never imagined having a Haitian toddler in her life.
In fact, she had her guard up in June when she went to Haiti with Brent and Lori to meet their children and see the country. Little Collin came to the hotel with the orphanage director, and he was not feeling well. The director asked Tia to watch him for a little while. Collin nestled into her arms, laid his head on her chest and fell asleep.
Tia reckons she was set up; Lori said her friend had checked Collin out online before going and willingly walked into any trap she may have laid.
TIA'S BLOG: "I got to spend the next four days playing Ollie's 'mom.' It's an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life. I had no idea I could fall in love so completely, so quickly. I miss his big brown eyes. They seemed to look right through me. ... I miss you Ollie."
A few weeks later she decided to adopt him. She second-guessed herself, especially since the LDS Church, of which she is an active member, focuses heavily on two-parent households. She visited with a local stake president about her concerns.
He told her it was a great idea, since life with one parent was far better than life with no parents. Still uncertain, she spent time in prayer and at an LDS temple and debated, sure a mother and a father would see just how adorable Collin was and want to adopt him.
That debate lasted a couple of weeks, and she started the paperwork in July. The process normally takes years, but was sped up because of the earthquake.
She was surprisingly grateful to not be married; the paperwork is more complicated when two people have to undergo medical and psychological evaluations, and the Haitian government requires that a couple be married 10 years before adopting.
A monthly parent update banished all doubts. In October, Tia found herself with a picture of a swollen, shaven, miserable little boy; Collin had an allergic reaction to some medicine just before the update. He was fine now, the director assured Tia.
"I'll tell you if he's OK," Collin's mother wanted to say, impatient that she couldn't see him for another two weeks. "He needs his mom, and I'm not there."
There followed two months of frustration with the Haitian government and the long-distance celebration of Collin's official 2-year birthday -- also Christmas Day -- then a terrifying two weeks after the earthquake. First, Tia heard that Collin was safe. Then she heard the orphanage staff weren't sure where he was. Then, he was found again, at an LDS chapel in Petionville, but they were running out of food and water.
TIA'S BLOG: "I don't know if Collin is OK."
Lori's assignment on the ground included getting money and supplies to Haiti. She coordinated through their charity, Hope for the Little Angels of Haiti, to send money through a Utah doctor going to Haiti, as well as raising money for gasoline and being the point of contact for the adoption agency and dozens of equally anxious parents. She alternated between frenetically running around trying to get all the necessary paperwork, which seemed to change by the hour, updating families on what was happening and worrying about her children. Jessica had left the orphanage and could be anywhere. They were too young to understand what was happening, and the aftershocks just kept coming, and they were scared.
As the days went by, she took comfort in knowing her husband was with Nathan and was looking for Jessica. Jessica's mother had taken the girl to the orphanage years before because she knew her daughter could have a better life with someone else. Miss Jess, as Lori calls her, is part of their family. When she asks for Dad, she's thinking of Brent.
LORI'S BLOG: "I wonder, in all this mess, if Jessica's father will find us again. If he'll bring her back and if we'll be able to have her in our family the way it has always felt like we should. ... I wonder where my Nathan is. ... I wish I was there to hold you, Little Man."
Brent got to Haiti about 10 days after the earthquake. They knew when he went down that Nathan was safe, but not much else. Besides driving throughout Port-au-Prince looking for Jessica, he also went in search of Nathan. His son, however, unexpectedly came to him in the back of a pickup truck full of other orphans.
"I get around the back side of the truck and ... " Brent's eyes got big and his jaw dropped, imitating the surprise he felt when he unexpectedly came face to face with his son. "'Hey, that's Nathan!' And once that happened, he kind of got all the attention."
Brent and Nathan stayed close until about a day after Lori showed up in Miami. Then she went back to being the favorite parent.
"I'm a second-class citizen," Brent complained after playing with Nathan almost nonstop for several minutes, plus changing his diaper and changing him into pajamas, then immediately getting dropped in favor of Lori.
"Daddies are for playing, and mamas are for snuggling," the favorite parent said, holding her son close and kissing his head while he willingly settled into her lap.
Life as an only child -- almost
Collin is all boy. He likes loud toys with moving parts, kicking a soccer ball and jumping on the bed. He resisted cleaning up, even though part of his playing involved pouring toys out and then putting them back. Once he did start cleaning, he was easily distracted by the toys he was supposed to be putting away.
He was still warming up to the dog. Tucker followed Tia around, sometimes surprising Collin, who did not like that. He would pet Tucker once, then look around for approval before petting him again, just once and quickly. He did not like Tucker to get too close, which Tucker only did when he tried to get close to Tia.
Lori Rosenlof wishes Nathan liked the dogs a little less than he does. He chases Divot, a Jack Russell terrier and Bobby Jones, a whippet, around the house regularly. They share food and toys. That part is OK.
"Oh, that's so gross," Lori said, cringing as Divot licked Nathan's wide-open mouth.
Nathan has a little too much female influence in his life to make his father happy; Brent is concerned that since so many of Nathan's cousins are female, family reunions are going to include nail polish and Barbies.
He does have a yellow Tonka truck that he loves pushing around the floor; the problem is in the cargo. He latched onto a necklace of Lori's and alternates between wearing it, much to Brent's chagrin, and towing it around in his truck.
"We've gotta get something more manly," Papa said, shaking his head.
He does like playing ball with Mama, Papa, Grandma and Grandpa, and judging by the laughter, his favorite game is getting tossed around and playfully manhandled by his father. He is a bit of a mama's boy, but that doesn't mean he and his dad haven't had their moments. Brent remembers a trip to Haiti when Nathan was about five months old. They spent an afternoon sitting on the bed watching a Seattle Seahawks game. Nathan sat between Brent's legs, leaning back, arms slung over Brent's legs.
A status update from Brent's Facebook page: "How cool is it that I just got to watch the superbowl with my SON!"
There's camping, Boy Scouts, playing football and going to see the Harlem Globetrotters. Brent has plans for father-son outings and sharing his passions with the toddler who's been in his life for two years and in his home for a few weeks.
Not that Lori isn't looking forward to a few perks.
"Just being a family," she said. "Nothing against my dear spouse, but it just gets kind of boring, just the two of us."
The picture-perfect family dinners Lori imagined have yet to materialize; they have to feed Nathan first because he feels like he has to eat food that's in front of him. He can clean his plate twice before he's done, and he won't say no to a package of fruit snacks before going to bed. He is good at sharing the fruit snacks with Mama and Papa, though.
At dinner, though, they leave him alone and he eats.
"I think that's a little bit much right there, baby," Lori said, watching Nathan shove a huge spoonful of food into his mouth.
His favorite food is meat, which so far agrees with him. Lori said his color has gotten better and his hair has grown much more quickly since he's been home getting regular meals. Nathan also is changing. His parents see more of his personality now that they're with him constantly and he's used to their home and the family. He's a funny child who can, his mother said ruefully, throw a temper tantrum in two languages.
"He started making faces at me to try to make me laugh, and then he started laughing at how funny he was, and he's never done that before in the two and a half years we've known him," Lori said.
Haitian or American, some parts of being 2 just don't change. Collin played happily and quietly for hours until Tia brought him inside so he could eat and take a nap. He then sat down, leaned against the wall and wailed while Tia took off his coat and heated up spaghetti for lunch. The crying continued unabated until his mother reappeared in his line of vision. His arms reached entreatingly toward her, silent tears still running down his face.
"Are you all done now?" she asked, collecting him in her arms. The two cuddled for a moment, she said, "I'm sorry, Mommy," and prompted him to repeat it. All was forgiven.
Until naptime, that is, when the tears come back at full volume. Collin didn't try to climb out of his bed, but he didn't succumb to sleep without a fight. At first Tia sat across the room where he can see her, but then she moved over to the bed. Tucker was asleep in the corner of the room.
The sobs slowly quieted into whimpering, and Collin's breathing became slower as Tia kneeled next to his bed, holding his hand, looking down at him.
"It's OK. Mommy's right here," she whispered.
Becoming mom and dad
It's been quite the journey for Tia. Her shopping now revolves around Collin's needs, her house is filled with toys, and her schedule rests entirely on his. Gone is the lead foot. In the place of her simpler life is a toddler who giggles frequently and loves to play.
"I love it when he smiles and when he reaches for me and I know that he's looking for Mom," she said.
She still, though, describes herself as terrified. She's worried that she lets him cry for too long or should be feeding him more fruits and vegetables. She's afraid that she won't be able to teach him what he needs to know, or that he'll have a hard time growing up as the only black child on the street. Simply put, she believes taking Collin out of Haiti will give him the chance to make something of his life. Tia wants him to use his life to help other people, his people.
"Haiti needs a lot of rebuilding, and I'd like for him to be a part of it, for us to be a part of it," she said.
TIA'S BLOG: "I used to secretly giggle when people would say that they love to watch their children sleep. Now I completely get it. Laundry can wait, and the bathrooms? Well, I wasn't really cleaning those before ... :)"
Meanwhile, she is taking notes, keeping journals, blogging and saving newspaper clippings so one day, when Collin is old enough, she can tell him about his journey.
"I just think I'll tell him that he was part of a miracle -- several miracles," Tia said.
Lori and Brent had been looking forward to having children in their house for years. The Rosenlofs have known Nathan and Jessica for more than two years and have made half a dozen visits in that time. Before Nathan arrived, his room was decorated, and toys filled the bins in the play room. He is named after Brent's best friend. He's called them Mama and Papa for months.
That doesn't change how those words sound in their own home as Mama and Papa change diapers, make dinner, play peek-a-boo and actually get to be full-time parents.
"It probably actually means something now," Lori's father, Art Olson, said.
LORI'S BLOG: "When they make a movie about this, Brent will be played by Angelina Jolie who will adopt all the children herself. Lori will be played by Will Smith, complete with the catchphrase he uses in every movie: 'Aw HELL no!'"
Jessica is a daddy's girl. They have video of Brent and Jessica playing and singing together, and her picture is the wallpaper on his cell phone. They do not know yet if Jessica will ever make it to Utah; right now they're praying that her father is taking care of her, that she knows they love her and that her life is good. They have to have faith that this will work out right, Lori said.
"I don't think the story's over yet," Brent said. "I hope the story's not over yet."
It is what it is
Tia's house is filled with sayings about family, faith and life. Her kitchen has a sign that reads, "A happy home is but an early heaven." The entertainment center has plaques that say, "It will be OK in the end. If it's not OK, it's not the end," and "Family, our most precious gift from God."
The living room walls proclaim, "Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away," and "Blessed is the life that enjoys the journey."
Two Haitian masks decorate the living room, as do family pictures, including one of Tia and Tucker, a few of Tia's parents and siblings and many, many pictures of a smiling Collin, some with his proud mother, some playing in Haiti, one with his birth mother, who two years ago left him at the orphanage.
One picture is new.
Tia's mother gave it to her when she found out Collin and the rest of the children had gotten humanitarian parole. The artwork, titled "Worth of a Soul" by Liz Lemon Swindle, is of Jesus Christ holding a little black boy. As the bracelet that Tia wears on her right wrist says, "It is what it is."
The adoptive journey is far from over; technically the parents are their children's sponsors, and they have no idea how to get the needed paperwork to legally adopt him. And there's Jessica.
"Brent's waited a lot of time to throw around his own kid instead of somebody else's," Lori said.
"The best non-soap opera-y part of my life?" Lori wrote on her blog on Feb. 5, about a week after Nathan came home. "That every day now, when I wake up ... I'm still a mom. And he's still snuggled in right beside me in bed. And if I roll too far away, even in his sleep he'll reach out his hand to make sure he can find me."