The Making Of A Family Portrait

get the first few phrases out just fine. “Nou pral retounen,” I tell the kids in my broken, neophyte Haitian Creole, “pi vit ke posib.” And if my Motorola smartphone’s Google Translate app is accurate, I’ve just said: “We will return as soon as possible.” To check if I’m making sense, I follow up with, “Ou konprann?” Four-year-old Rey nods. He understands. I’m crouched beside him, left arm around his torso, right hand fiddling with the phone. And while he may understand the words, he can’t possibly appreciate all that’s happening now in the Hotel Kinam’s open-air courtyard. It’s a…

I get the first few phrases out just fine.

“Nou pral retounen,” I tell the kids in my broken, neophyte Haitian Creole, “pi vit ke posib.” And if my Motorola smartphone’s Google Translate app is accurate, I’ve just said: “We will return as soon as possible.”

To check if I’m making sense, I follow up with, “Ou konprann?” Four-year-old Rey nods. He understands. I’m crouched beside him, left arm around his torso, right hand fiddling with the phone. And while he may understand the words, he can’t possibly appreciate all that’s happening now in the Hotel Kinam’s open-air courtyard.

It’s a beautiful place to say goodbye, with its fountain bubbling and plants soaking up sunshine. But it’s a farewell me and my wife, Nicole, want no part of. She holds Dorothy, Rey’s 3-year-old sister, and Rey stands beside them. We’ve waited almost four years to meet these children. Our children. And now, after a day of visiting us in this Pétion-Ville hotel, and after a week of our daytrips to their orphanage, they will return to their Port-au-Prince home, and we to ours in Milwaukee.

We don’t know how long the adoption process will continue, so I have to tell the kids we don’t know when we’ll be back. In fiddling with the phone, my fingers hit a wrong button, so the translated words are cut off in midstream. It’s frustrating. But the trusted Haitian driver who’d navigated us through this country’s chaotic streets, and who is now waiting to drive the children back to the orphanage, picks up what I mean to say. He explains to the children, and Rey nods again.

On I press: “Mwen te pwomet,” I begin, again reading from Google, “nou pa pral bliye ou.” I promise we will not forget you.

And now, I want to finish with, “We love you,” but I cannot. I look down at the phone. There is nothing wrong with it, and Rey continues listening, leaning into my arms. But my voice will not work, not without producing a soft sob, anyway, and I cannot afford to choke up now. Not in front of Rey and Dorothy. Not when this will be the last time they see us for who knows how long, when this will become such a lasting memory.

I keep staring at the phone, hoping they’ll take the ruse and think I’m merely searching for a translation. I take a breath. Relax. Deep breath. OK.

The emotional rush subsides. Composed, I try the final sentence again. “Nou renmen ou.” I hug Rey. He squeezes me. I lift him up, so that he’s now eye to eye with his sister. We huddle into a tangle of arms.

Family pictures are snapped with a Polaroid instant camera provided by another adoptive family staying at the hotel. We make sure Dorothy and Rey each get a square of film. We load them into the back seat of the driver’s white and weathered Toyota Land Cruiser. We step back onto the sidewalk in front of the Hotel Kinam, and the SUV pulls into the rush of traffic.

I see Dorothy and Rey waving their photos at us, and then I see the kids no more.


Back in the mid-1990s, almost a decade before we were married, Nicole had done some humanitarian work in Haiti, and part of that involved working with an orphanage run by the Foundation for the Children of Haiti. She fell in love with the country and its people. The experience stayed with her. So back in January 2010, when I brought Nicole to tears by coming around on her long-held desire to adopt, there was no deliberation on where we’d look for our family’s first children.

We began the arduous process, and the organized half of the couple, Nicole, took point on the mountain of paperwork. She’d soon crafted a filing system that rivaled Dewey’s, and we would need it. Soul-
searching decisions were mandatory. How many children, and what age range? What medical or behavioral issues did we feel we could handle? Every facet of our life was examined – through financial audits and psychological sessions, through detailed family histories and fingerprint-aided background checks. All necessary. All nerve-testing.

Because all the while, we knew nothing was guaranteed. Adoption agencies are clear about this, explaining that while every effort is made to ensure a successful placement, they can promise nothing more than those best efforts. So even though we were confident in our worthiness as would-be parents, every step of progress came with the knowledge and trepidation that no matter how careful you were, no matter how much closer you got, something could still go wrong to dash your family dreams and put you back at square one.

I tried to maintain an emotional balance by keeping the long view in mind, which didn’t keep me from being dumbstruck by some of the milestones…

In September 2011, when we are not yet paired with children and still keeping our adoption efforts quiet, the Resurrection Dance Theatre of Haiti performs in Racine. Nicole and I attend, two anonymous faces among scores of audience members. The troupe, which has built something of an international reputation, counts orphans and former child slaves among its members, which adds a whole other layer to our experience.

One of the dance numbers features an adult bullying a young Haitian boy named Didi, who runs into the audience seeking someone to protect him. I watch transfixed as he bounds up some stairs, past several rows and several people, then stops at my aisle seat. He scrambles past my legs and hides behind me. I cannot believe what is happening. As the adult actors chasing him approach, I stand up and block their path. With Didi holding my hand, they all escort me down to the stage, where we play the act out to its happy ending. I go back to my seat, eyes locked with Nicole’s, both of us in a surreal fog.

Months later, I get home to find Nicole at the door, anxious to present me with a gift. She produces a tiny box and waits, her patience strained, while I fiddle with the ribbon.

I lift the lid to find four tiny knitted mittens, one pair blue, the other pink, each set connected by a strand of white yarn. Pinned to one blue mitten is a small piece of paper with Rey’s name and birthdate, and one pink mitten holds the same info for Dorothy. Nicole had just gotten word. I don’t know how long I stare into the box, or how long we hug afterward. What had been a nebulous process has, out of the blue, delivered this deep, distinct presence. We are no longer hoping to adopt children. We are adopting these children.

It’s two days before Christmas. We hang the mittens and names at the top of our tree.

Through occasional photos and brief videos, we see the young faces and growing bodies behind those names. But the deliberate adoption process means we won’t meet them until late October 2013.


We are riding through the Port-au-Prince streets, and I am overwhelmed by the mix of bedlam and beauty, the signs of poverty, resilience, rebuilding and pride. Distant hills hold a mosaic of colorful homes, a stark contrast to some crumbling gray ones our driver zooms past. He could put shame to the finest taxi drivers of New York or London. On some streets, be they paved highways or stretches of rocky dirt, there seems nary an inch between all the cars, trucks, motorcycles, construction equipment, pedestrians, roadside stands and even an occasional animal – pigs, goats, scavenging dogs. It all merges into an unchoreographed ballet of chaos.

We arrive at the orphanage less than an hour after our plane lands. We wait a few minutes in its compound, chatting with two other adoptive families while a few dozen children and caregivers play around us. Suddenly, Nicole bolts away.

Dorothy has emerged from inside, and Nicole beelines to her, then crouches down. With no hesitation, Dorothy throws her arms around Nicole’s neck and calls her “Mama.” I join them, and Nicole lifts up Dorothy, who soon starts fiddling with my salt-and-pepper goatee.

Minutes later, Rey comes out. He’s more tentative, but warms up after I lift him to the same height as his sister. The four of us form a semicircle. Nine minutes after our arrival, someone snaps our first family photo. We wander over to a four-seated metal merry-go-round, its age betrayed by faded paint and loud squeaks. Nicole and the kids occupy three of the chairs, while I stand over the fourth and give everyone a spin. Old squeaks are drowned out by delighted squeals.

We spend part of each day at the orphanage, returning to our hotel at night. We play not only with Rey and Dorothy, but some 75 other children, who soak up every ounce of attention and affection they can get. We watch them eat meals of white rice, chicken and sauce, all cooked by devoted housemothers in a single, tiny kitchen. The kids tire me out with games of soccer and basketball and piggyback rides. Then, a week after arriving, we say those goodbyes at the Hotel Kinam.

We return home to more waiting. In Haiti, final checks are done to clear the way for the adoption. In the United States, immigration paperwork is pieced together with some final strips of red tape. We hope to bring the children to Milwaukee by Christmas, but it comes and goes. So does Valentine’s Day.

But at long last, we get word: Be in Haiti the last week of February, and be ready to take the children home. We book the flights – two seats to Haiti, four to Milwaukee. We call Nicole’s parents, who will drive down from the Eau Claire area to take us to the airport and take care of our dog. We arrange lodging at a different hotel, Pétion-Ville’s Suites Horizon, because it has more open spaces where the kids can play.

Photo by Joe Hang.
Photo by Joe Hang.

This time, as we go from the Port-au-Prince airport to the orphanage, I am far more relaxed than overwhelmed, almost introspective. My continued Haitian Creole lessons have made it easier to catch up with our familiar driver, who tells us the children are doing well. He, too, grew up in their orphanage, and now helps it operate.

We arrive at the orphanage and one of the bigger kids, who is perhaps 9 years old, greets me outside. He remembers me from my previous visit, and when I ask where Rey and Dorothy are, he leads me inside and upstairs to where they are playing. I reach the top landing to see Dorothy already in Nicole’s arms, and Rey bum-rushes my legs. As the afternoon passes, they want us to carry them everywhere. We’re told that tomorrow they can join us at our hotel and stay there. This will be their last night in the orphanage.

The next morning, we return and play with the children. After a couple hours, we go into an office with the kids, the foundation’s psychologist and three of the housemothers who have cared so much for them. We all know this is their own emotional farewell to Rey and Dorothy.

They ask us if we will return with the children to Haiti. We say yes and promise to visit. We have absorbed as much as we can about Rey and Dorothy’s lives here – about their birth family and friends, their caregivers and culture. We want to share all of this knowledge with them. It is so much a part of who they are. We want to maintain that connection, whether through photos and stories or the Haitian artwork and paintings that hang in our Milwaukee home. And they’ll be keeping their given names.

The housemothers ask if there is “pure love in our heart” for the children, and we give the most emphatic yes possible. I ask the psychologist to tell the women these children are the most important people in our lives now. The psychologist starts crying. We start crying. The housemothers are wiping away tears. We take group photos and say we will never forget them. The housemothers give the children blankets to take with them. Then it is time to go.

It seems the entire orphanage gathers outside to watch us leave. As the SUV pulls away, four Magners wave to them through the windows, until they can see us no more.


On his first morning in the United States, spent in a Fort Lauderdale hotel, Rey is up before dawn. He stands by the floor-to-ceiling window and watches the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean. I snap several pictures – for me now; for him years from now. Soon, Dorothy and Nicole are also awake, and we all enjoy the sunny beach view. Come that evening, our plane lands in a Milwaukee snowstorm. Five minutes later, the pilot tells us over the loudspeaker that the airport has closed its runways. We just missed being diverted to Chicago.

Nicole’s parents meet us there with our car, along with winter coats for the kids, and we drive on icy streets. From their carseats, the children marvel at their first glimpse of lanej – snow. We pull into our driveway and bundle them into their new home. Our lives have forever changed.

The children are perpetual surprise packages, and every day brings new discoveries, both for them and their parents. On their second full day here, we continue their introduction to snow by bringing a large bowl of it inside. They grab handfuls, not realizing that the longer they hold it, the colder it gets. When this finally dawns on them, they drop it and shake out their tingling hands, but soon dive in for more. This time, they press it into Nicole’s palm and hold her hand closed. When her eyes go wide and she practically yelps, they finally free her of the icy grip.

We keep the TV almost exclusively dark, and when it is on, it’s showing “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” reruns or a language-learning cartoon called “Little Pim.” The kids speak hardly a word of English when we arrive home, but it doesn’t seem to matter when Fred Rogers or his friends are speaking. Dorothy sits on my lap, fascinated by her trolley trips to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. I notice one episode first aired in 1975, when I would’ve been about her age and surely just as fascinated by Fred. And now, this full-circle realization leaves me with a different brand of fascination.

Rey had never played nor seen baseball, but when the weather warms, I put a foam bat in his hands and pitch him a plastic ball. He’s a natural. He hits one over our backyard fence and his face becomes the picture of joy, jaw dropped open, teeth flashing like searchlights. He drops the bat, then runs and leaps into my arms. No pitcher has been so rewarded for allowing a home run.

We are one more American family now, but we also know there are so many facets to international and interracial adoption. We’ll have our own kinds of challenges and celebrations in private. But we also know we’re out there for the world to see, and sometimes people smile back at us, and less often, they simply stare. I see news reports detailing racial issues that are all too commonly brought into sharp relief. I hope I will have some meaningful answers for my kids when they see those issues, too.

Soon after bringing the kids home, we are out on a rare family drive, and I have to take a crying Rey into a mall for an impromptu bathroom break. As I hold my 5-year-old’s hand and walk a step in front of him, I wonder how the scene appears: an unshaven white man in T-shirt and shorts hurriedly pulling a black child toward a bathroom. I stop and pick him up. As he clings to my neck, I check my pocket for the document that shows his last name matches mine.

But time together has eased such bouts of self-consciousness. And for all the complexities inherent in this journey, it melts into simple parenthood when we are pushing our children on swings or they are climbing on our backs, when we are trying to calm a tantrum or soothe the tears from a skinned knee, when their pure laughter can’t help but produce the same thing in us.


One of the most important facets of a new adoption is ensuring a proper bond between parents and children. Part of that process is the tough decision to not inundate the kids with visits from family and friends, but to keep them rather sequestered with mother and father. Those close to us understand.

Come August, however, we feel secure enough to load the kids into the car for an old-fashioned road trip. Nicole’s side of the family lives closer and we’ve had a few get-togethers here, but my family is scattered throughout points east of Milwaukee, and so the path winds through Detroit, then all the way out to Massachusetts and Connecticut. It covers nine days and more than 2,300 miles. The kids speak almost exclusively English now, and the two new grandchildren, or cousins, or nephews are always the stars of each new stop.

On our way home, we spend a night in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and the next morning, we take the kids aboard the venerable Maid of the Mist. It’s as close as you can get to the falls without a tightrope or barrel. The kids revel in donning blue plastic ponchos provided by the boat, and they cling to us for balance as we leave the dock.

We settle first under the American Falls, and are engulfed by spray, then move to the more picturesque Horseshoe Falls. Noise and water make it seem like we’re inside the curl of an ocean wave. When the boat pulls away and motors up the Niagara River, it creates this magnificent vista of both waterfalls, and I can’t help but stare at two of life’s greatest natural wonders.

I am not looking at the waterfalls.

Howie Magner is a senior editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at

‘The Making of a Family Portrait’ appears in the October, 2014, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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Howie Magner is a former managing editor of Milwaukee Magazine who often writes about sports for the magazine.