NEW PORT RICHEY — Michelle Schoeppe's three sons squirm on the couch as she reads through a Bible lesson about Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. Normally her husband would tell the boys their nightly Bible story, but he's not here, and she feels like she's losing them.
She gives up and decides to just show them where Papa is on a map.
She points to China. Papa is picking up Henry right here, she says. None of them has ever met Henry, the little boy who is about to join their family.
"Where am I from?" asks her eldest son, Melvin, 7.
Her finger moves to Guatemala.
She turns to Jason, her 5-year-old, and points to the Philippines. That's where you're from, she tells him. Finally, she moves to St. Petersburg. Her youngest, Dawson, also 5, was born here.
Michelle has always wanted to adopt five boys. It has taken her six years to get these three.
She has combed the world and the Internet to cobble together her family, listening to God's whisper for guidance.
She thinks of all the children they missed out on adopting for one reason or another. Boys from Mexico and Ecuador. Twins from Cameroon. A blind boy from Guatemala. A deaf boy from India with one ear.
She has lost more than $20,000 in scams, and some of the children she has adopted have put her through hell.
Michelle is a woman who likes to be in control. But everything about adoption is beyond her control. Still, she keeps sifting through the faces of disowned children around the world, trying to find the ones meant for her family.
"We're going to pray right now," she says. The boys bow their heads. "For Henry."
Michelle wrote an essay in third grade about wanting to have children. She drew herself holding hands with an imaginary husband and five boys — all of them adopted.
She's not sure how she came to understand, at such a young age, how her family would be put together. Maybe it was that one of her grandmothers was adopted, or that one of her grandfathers spent time in foster care.
Michelle, a former dental assistant, met her husband, Matt, in Bible study at their church. He is an architectural draftsman for a company in Dunedin. In their 13 years of marriage, they have never had their own child; they have also never been to a fertility doctor.
"If it was supposed to happen, it would have happened," Michelle says. "We both truly always wanted to adopt."
For as long as Michelle could remember, she and her family had adopted injured pets. An African gray that had been used to put out cigarettes. A dog that had been rolled like a bowling ball against a wall.
Soon she and her husband were collecting exotic animals. Hedgehogs and pygmy possums. Sugar gliders and capuchin monkeys. Wild goats and feral cats. At one point, they had 200 animals in all.
But that all ended when they started adopting exotic children. They had to give up the animals in order to get Melvin, their eldest son. His adoption cost $28,000.
About six months after that, they learned at their nondenominational Christian church of a woman who was considering an abortion. That's how they got Dawson, who is deaf. His adoption cost $15,000.
A year later, they flew to the Philippines with $17,000 to pick up Jason.
Jason had spent his first 17 months in an orphanage. He looked like one of those starving children from Ethiopia when she first saw him. When they placed him on her lap, he bit and scratched and kicked. He seemed like one of the wild animals she'd given up.
She tried to back out. "I want to reverse the papers," she said.
Michelle and Matt had always believed their family's makeup was ordained by God long before either of them met. God had chosen who would join their family. He would tell them when it was time to stop. But something about Jason made Michelle want to flee.
Matt had stayed behind in Florida with Melvin and Dawson. Michelle would have to decide on her own.
Matt's cousin, who had made the journey with her, said, " 'God must have a purpose for Jason, and I thought you said you believed in God.' "
Michelle pauses as she retells this story, looks up.
"I couldn't have him think I doubted God. I love God."
• • •
Michelle and Matt live in a four-bedroom ranch-style home that backs up to a playground and the Cotee River in New Port Richey. Their walls are covered with Bible verses, crosses, portraits of Jesus.
Their children can recite John 14:6 and Psalms 1 word for word. Every day, Michelle homeschools the boys while her husband is at work.
One day, a woman with a baby named Brooklyn comes over to Michelle's house. Michelle hasn't seen her in a year. Kim Holcombe, 30, is Dawson's biological mother. She is carrying her new baby, wrapped in a pink blanket.
Dawson runs in with a dandelion seed head, hands it to her and then blows, sending the wispy seeds parachuting all over the floor. He wears a big grin and a pair of hearing aids. To him, she is Aunt Kim.
Kim has no regrets, no desire to have Dawson back. She was struggling back then, a single mother who already had a 6-year-old. Dawson is Michelle's son now. "She's a really good mother," she says.
Michelle doesn't raise her children the way most parents do. The boys are on a strict schedule. They don't watch TV; only educational videos. They aren't allowed to eat sugar or junk food. They get organic lollipops and milk directly from a cow. Their birthday cakes are corn bread with a candle stuck in the middle. She tells them the ice cream man is the music man so they won't be tempted.
"They don't live like we live," Kim says. "To a certain extent, it's okay. But to a certain extent I feel like she's hiding them from the real world. But what is the right way? Is our way best? Or is hers?"
She thinks for a moment, cradling her baby in her arms.
"Michelle, why don't you want any daughters?" she asks over her shoulder.
Michelle is on the phone in the kitchen but she pauses to say: "I don't want girls."
• • •
Michelle pulls out a picture of Henry that she printed off the Internet. In it, he's wearing a purple and yellow sweater and a startled look. "He looks like a very old man," she says. "He's slumped over a little. Doesn't he look like Opie?"
Henry is 5 years old. His parents abandoned him in a park in Beijing. He moved in with a family for a few years but when his new mother got pregnant, they dropped him off at the orphanage.
After Jason, Michelle had always said she wouldn't take another child from an orphanage.
Michelle looks over at the little boy with rosette lips and miniature hands and feet. Jason is using a brown crayon to color in John the Baptist in a coloring book. "Get up and exercise your legs," she tells him.
He seems so innocent sitting there, his tiny brown face earnest as he makes sure to color inside the lines as she has taught him. His body is so small he looks like he's 2. Mentally though, sometimes he seems like he's 12.
He's unusually self-sufficient, Michelle says. "If you put him on an island for a while and left him there, when you came back, he'd be there."
When she first got him home from the Philippines, he yanked his fingernails out with his teeth. He played with his poop. He bashed his head against the side of his crib.
The Schoeppes have studied the attachment disorder that Jason has from being in an orphanage, where he received little human contact as an infant. He has come so far. But he still does odd, awful things when she least expects it. He can muster fury faster than a hurricane. At the same time, he's loyal and devoted. He tries his hardest to please her.
She loves him, yet she struggles to move beyond what he has put her through.
"I wish I could forgive," she says. "Here I am a Christian woman and the hardest thing is to forgive. I will. It will just take time."
Despite all this, for some reason, here she is willing to consider Henry, who lives in a Beijing orphanage.
"He's different," she says.
She pulls up a video of him on YouTube.
It shows a happy little boy, mischievous and outgoing. He tells someone off camera that he likes tanks and airplanes and chocolate eggs. He says he's not afraid of pain.
Still Michelle is worried.
• • •
It's midnight on a Saturday. Michelle paces at Tampa International Airport with Melvin, who's sucking on an organic lollipop. She's wearing a matching turquoise and brown flowered skirt set. First impressions are important, she says.
Matt has told her in phone calls that he doesn't think they're going to have any problems with Henry. He's gregarious, outgoing, happy. If anything, he has told her, Henry is a little spoiled. He sees a kite in the sky and he wants one.
But Michelle can't stop worrying. What will Henry be like? Will he hug her? Will he run from her the way Jason did? Will he fit into the world she has created for her family? The strict rules. The respect for God.
She thinks about her mother, wishes she were there with her. Their relationship is on-again, off-again. Right now it's off and Michelle is not sure why.
Maybe that's why she doesn't want girls. It's too hard.
People emerge from the monorail at the airport. Matt and Henry's plane has arrived. Michelle grabs Melvin's hand, shaking it nervously.
The monorail opens again. More people. She reminds Melvin of a planter nearby where Dawson pulled down his pants and peed when they left Matt here for his flight to China two weeks before. Melvin giggles.
"There he is," Michelle yells. She races toward the monorail.
"Henry, Henry," Melvin calls.
Henry is holding Matt's hand. He's wearing a cream-colored sweater with black and red diamonds on it and black jeans. Michelle bends down to hug him. He accepts but pulls away.
Melvin offers him a toy plane. Henry takes it, yelps something in Mandarin. He bounces up and down, pointing to the bag Matt is holding.
Matt puts it down and Henry digs out a toy top. He pulls out a plastic stick, causing the top to spin with flashing red and blue lights. This gets him more excited. He's talking loudly in Mandarin.
"He talks like you know exactly what he's saying," says Matt. "He talks to everyone."
Michelle stands back looking at him. She has a look of wonder on her face. She smiles.
• • •
A few days later, Matt walks in the door from work. Jason and Henry are putting together a puzzle of a tractor on the dining room table.
Henry has been home a few days. He pitched a tent with Melvin in one of the bedrooms one night. They took him to a Chinese church for services another night.
Michelle says he's everything she's ever wanted in a son.
"I can't thank God enough for him," she says. "Everyone was discouraging us. I'm so glad Matt and I didn't listen. He makes being a mom nice again."
Michelle has been busy. Two days after Henry's plane landed in Tampa, she informed her weary husband that she sent a profile to 13 pregnancy centers in Georgia and Florida, seeking a fifth son.
Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8640.