Nothing signaled distress about the laughing 5-year old Maryam Dilakian met on a trip to Jamaica—except a strange, insistent feeling in her gut.
I was in Jamaica for a wedding, and I felt the pull to volunteer. The resort manager directed me to a few orphanages that might admit visitors, and one reluctantly said that I could come.
The place had three sections, and I ended up spending my time with the infants and toddlers, because I'd heard the bigger kids didn't need help. As I was leaving, I passed three of the older kids running around. One of them was laughing really loudly, and I smiled at him as I walked away.
I've never been able to adequately describe what happened next. Outside, the taxi was waiting, at the top of a hill quite far from town, and when I went out, someone locked the gate behind me. I opened the door of the cab, put my bag on the seat, and all at once I knew I needed to help the little boy I'd smiled at—he was in trouble. It made no sense: He'd been laughing when I saw him; he didn't look like he needed me at all. But my heart started to race and I began to feel physically numb. The thought kept coming again and again—I need to help him
Going back into the orphanage wasn't easy. I had to argue with the driver to wait and then buzz until someone came to unlock the gate. They weren't happy to see me.
The schoolers were outside, and the boy I'd seen—Daniel—was on the ground, looking absolutely pitiful. He was like a different child. I have never in my life fought back tears so hard as at that moment. I fell to my knees and embraced him and I knew instantly, without a doubt: This is my son.
Later I realized that he must have just been punished. On trips that followed, I saw Daniel physically abused when he got in the way. He's a boisterous kid. He runs a lot, he laughs a lot.
I learned that children in Jamaican orphanages normally stay six months, until the court decides they can return to their family or be adopted. But Daniel's file had been lost, so he never had a chance. He lived in that home for three and a half years, standing in a crib, looking at a wall. No music—no nothing. He'd never been out of the orphanage. He didn't even speak.
When I went to the adoption agency, the man said, "You cannot adopt a child that doesn't exist." I showed him Daniel's photo, and said, "Here is this child." It took me six trips to Jamaica to set things right.
Two weeks after Daniel came to live with me in New York City, he started speaking. I tell him this story every day. I don't let myself imagine, What if I'd gotten in the cab
? It felt inevitable—he'd always been my son.
—As told to Kate Rockwood
Next: Recurrent dreams that saved one woman's life