By Natalie

Zoe. Our dear sweet Zoe. Confident, intelligent, thoughtful, driven, funny, honest, Zoe-oh. I miss you sitting on the floor. I miss you bringing me my refilled water bottle. I miss your laugh, our late night card games, the coffee you made me every morning. You standing in the early  morning glow of the kitchen, your German cooking, your truth, your hugs, everything about you I miss with an intense ache.

As much as I want to share an incredibly long story about our time with Zoe I have come to realize that most of this exchange year experience is Zoe’s story to share. I’ll simply share with you what an impact she made on our hearts, our worldview and our lives.

So it goes…

Brandon and I decided to host an exchange student last year because we had an interest in fostering children, because we love learning about different cultures and because we generally love hosting. We figured we would see how we felt with an independent teenage student before we took on a young child. Enter Zoe. We poured over summary after summary of girls across the globe looking to come to the US. We loved Zoe’s story, we felt she was the right fit for our family and before we knew it we were connecting on our first video call. She sat across the screen in her overalls, all of us beaming with excitement for this new adventure. I ‘nested’ as Brandon put it, rearranging our home and her room to ensure she would be comfortable. We put our arms around her in the airport to welcome her to her new home. International flights, I look up at this sign fondly whenever I am in our airport.

Zoe was a stellar student. She adapted so well to a new school and new friends, she fit right in with us and our community. We found that she was surprisingly similar in personality to Brandon and they bonded quickly. Zoe became a part of our family, which would make her departure after 10 months that much more difficult.

One morning I came downstairs when Zoe was feeling unwell. She laid on the couch curled up with her favorite blanket. She often curled up in this way. Knees to her chest, arms tucked under her chin. Though she was 17, this position she took curled up, always reminded us that she was indeed still a girl in need of care. We were tasked to guide Zoe, support her, to help her grow, to take her in as one of our own. You cannot do that without bonding. Our caterpillar we called her. Partly because she crunched loudly. Partly because she came to us as this young caterpillar and we truly saw her grow and flourish into a beautiful butterfly during her time here. 

I knelt down on the floor beside her. I stroked her hair softly. “Hey Zo. You ok?” I asked.

She nodded. I made eye contact with Brandon, so as to say, “She’ll need some nurturing today.” I sat there for a while longer with my hand on her head wishing I could take any and all hurt on for her. I wanted desperately for her to feel no pain, know no heartbreak, be protected always. Feelings that a mother feels for a child. Felicity’s cartoon blared in the background. I felt I was right where I needed to be. This bond that grew and bound us to each other, I have no idea how to explain how it happened, when it happened or what it feels like. It just happened. I think back on this moment often. Moments when I held her, moments when we were working through life things, moments when we laughed so hard we couldn’t catch our breath. Moments when her tears soaked into my sleeve. Moments when I felt I was standing in for something I didn’t have. Dress shopping, telling her she looked beautiful. Seeing myself as a teenager uncomfortable in my skin and parenting what I wish I’d had. Other mothers basked in their daughter’s beauty. They told them how wonderfully the homecoming dresses fit them. I hadn’t gone dress shopping until that moment. It wasn’t until then that I understood that modestly was achievable while also feeling comfortable with your body. I had more shame in my body as a woman than I knew. “You look great Zoe.” I said. “That dress looks so good on you.”

I had so many moments when I felt that God had placed me specifically in her life and her in mine. Both of us needed healing, both of us needed someone to care for us unlike any other and I can’t believe God gave us that wonderful blessing. Like He had orchestrated everything in my life for those very moments to be there for Zoe. I have never in all my life had more faith in God’s beautiful picture. He clearly had a plan for my life, her life and for them to intersect at just the right moment. I thought I’d be cradling a second biological child last year, yet God brought me Zoe instead and I’m beyond grateful. 

Zoe taught us what it means to be uniquely you. She taught us that we have a deeper capacity to love than we knew. She opened our eyes to the world in a way we would have never discovered otherwise.

Brandon and I attended Zoe’s high school graduation days before her departure back to Germany. We squeezed eachother’s hands and knew it was ok to feel proud of what we had done here. Though she was only with us for a short time we took her under our wing. We treated her as our own, we loved her with everything in us. We treated her to her newfound favorite. Waffle house. Yes, waffle house. Ana and Felicity met us there and we had one last meal together with the 3 girls. A quiet moment I wish I could have frozen in time to hold onto forever. I felt so proud of Brandon, my love for him grew more than I thought it could as I saw him care for all of the girls. His generosity is such an invaluable part of his character. 

Zoe’s last day with us was surreal. We went out for donuts and then the park, watched Dick Van Dyke one last time. We made sure to share our  affirmations with her. You’re beautiful. You’re loved. You’re never alone. 

Once her bag was checked none of us could figure out how to say goodbye. A bubble of tears erupted between us. Sadness, joy, grief, uncertainty, pain. There was no other way to express all the emotion we felt. How could I let this piece of my heart go? 

My heart broke that day. I felt ripped in two. My friends had their children at home, their babies, their toddlers and I was here crying over our girl flying all the way back to Germany. It felt unfair, cruel even. In time I saw that though our time together felt too short, I knew that we had taught her all we could about life, self worth, community, healing and affirmed her that she was a unique gift to this world that had so much light to give. Our caterpillar turned into a butterfly and she was ready to soar whether we were ready for it or not.

Our Zoe… always a part of us. You’re one of the best things that has ever happened to us and we love you immensely. 

3 Comments on Tschüssi

  1. Nesi
    August 23, 2023 at 8:26 pm (6 months ago)

    So many tears reading this 😭 Your capacity for love and gratitude is immeasurable and so inspiring! Zoe is a beautiful part of your life story. Thank you for sharing your heart in this way 🩷

  2. Kathie Munro
    August 24, 2023 at 1:27 am (6 months ago)

    What a beautiful experience for all of you! She will never forget the love you shared with her ❤️

  3. Nadir
    August 24, 2023 at 12:36 pm (6 months ago)

    Love the impact that Zoe had on your whole family & how much it helped you both to grow. You’re all forever changed because of it with such a beautiful story unfolding.💗


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