An Adoption Story That Started at Saks

A chance conversation at a lunch counter led me around the world—and to the child who was meant to be mine.

By Diane Clehane
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine February 2014

stranger who changed my lifeAna Juan for Reader’s Digest
When our checks came, she handed me her business card, and I finally learned her name—and in that minute, I saw a happier, more fulfilled version of myself. Jill Totenberg was a public relations consultant and a happy, loving adoptive parent. Could I ever hope to have that kind of life?

That night, I dreamed of my mother, remembering that she once had wanted to adopt a child from Vietnam, but my father hadn’t felt the same way. It was the first time she’d ever appeared in my dreams. I woke up knowing I could be—and would be—a mother. I also knew how that was going to happen.

A few days later, in the car on our way to dinner, I told my husband that I wanted to look into adopting a girl from China. “You’re enough for me,” he said. “But if you want to find out more about that, we can.”

In early 2003, we registered with an adoption agency and began an 18-month “paper pregnancy.” During that time, I kept in touch with Jill, e-mailing her occasionally. I promised to visit so I could meet her daughter, but as often happens, life got in the way. Still, the little girl in the Snow White costume and her mother were never far away in my thoughts.

When my husband and I returned from China with our nine-month-old daughter, Madeline Jing-Mei, in November 2005, Jill was one of the first people I e-mailed. “I did it!” I wrote. “I’m a mother, and she’s beautiful!”

“Congratulations,” she wrote back. “You’re embarking on the greatest adventure of your life.”

We recently reconnected on Facebook, and I reminded her that meeting her was the single most important encounter I’d ever had with a stranger. “I can’t imagine my life without Madeline. She’s the happiest child, and I adore her. I would have never really thought about adopting a baby from China if I hadn’t met you that day,” I told her. “You changed my life.”

“You were just ready to hear what I had to say,” said Jill. “It was meant to be.”

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