PHILADELPHIA — JuJu and PeiPei were more than best friends. From early infancy, the girls lived together at the Lily Orphan Care Center in Henan Province, China. They slept in adjacent cribs. They shared a nanny.
As soon as they learned to talk, JuJu and PeiPei called each other "meimei," Mandarin for "sister." They weren't biological sisters. But they were just as close.
Meimei was one of three words that JuJu, then 3 years old, knew when, in July of last year, she met Amanda and Alex Frangoulis, of Phoenixville, who had traveled to China to adopt her. (The two other words were baba, which means daddy, and xiexie, which is thank you.)
So, it was entirely understandable that when JuJu came home with her parents, she missed her meimei, 7,000 miles away.
"Every morning, she would ask for PeiPei," said her mom. "We would have to look at PeiPei's photo every day, and she would just sit there and sob, because she knew that her best friend was still in China."
But JuJu's parents knew something JuJu could not yet understand. They knew PeiPei's parents, Joe and Sarah (who have asked to withhold their last name, for privacy), who lived in Indianapolis, were waiting for the moment when they, too, could fly to China to bring their daughter home.
Amanda and Alex tried to reassure JuJu, but there was no consoling her. Thankfully, the little girl, who by then answered to a new name (which, also for privacy reasons, her parents do not want to share) had enough to keep her busy.
First, JuJu had to grow strong. "When we adopted her, she had just turned 3 and was wearing 9-month clothing. She was a very tiny child," said Amanda. Luckily, she ate — and liked — just about everything. (Sole dislike: salad.) JuJu has grown eight inches since July of last year.
JuJu also had to go to the doctor. Like most of the children at Lily, she has a disability. Arthrogryposis multiplex congenita has caused damage to her joints. She had no use of her left arm and hand, and the doctors who evaluated her before she came to the United States warned her parents she may never walk. But walk she did, in a "determined wobble," her parents said. She also fell down frequently enough that her doctors prescribed a helmet.
JuJu's parents enrolled her in day care, where she found a love for the playground slide and where the other kids have been supportive and inclusive.
"That was something we were really nervous about," Amanda said. "You would hear these stories of kids not being very nice — bullying someone for being different. When we brought JuJu in, she had splints on both arms. She had a helmet. And she's Asian and has a white mom and a Latino dad. So, you could tell some kids were just like, looking back and forth, staring like, 'They don't match.' But then, immediately, they were like, 'She's cool. I want to play with her.' "
In April, JuJu had corrective surgery on her left arm. Her doctors at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont in Wilmington, "basically rebuilt her elbow with donor tissues, rebuilt the webbing in between her thumb and pointer finger, and took a slice out of her wrist so that her wrist would go straight," Amanda said. JuJu recently demonstrated how she can use her arm and hand to pick up a jelly bean.
So much had changed for JuJu. But the best change happened in January, when her mom was finally able to show her pictures of PeiPei with Joe and Sarah on her phone. "I was like, 'PeiPei is with her mama and baba,' " Amanda said. "And you could just see the weight of the world lifted off my daughter's shoulders, because that was her sister." JuJu stopped crying over PeiPei each morning.
A few months later, Amanda posted to Facebook that she was planning her daughter's fourth birthday. Sarah commented, "We're coming." The distance: 622 miles.
On June 29, "the girls reunited on our front lawn," said Amanda. "They ran up to each other and just kind of stared at each other like, 'Oh, my God, you're here. But what do I do?' And then JuJu got so excited and nervous that she ran back to me like, 'Mom ... What? She's here! She's here!' " The girls played together, painted together, celebrated JuJu's birthday together, and walked through the Chinese Lantern Festival together, pointing to the colorful sculptures and saying "China! China!"
When the weekend was over, PeiPei and her family got back in the car for the nine-hour drive home.
Today, JuJu and PeiPei keep photos of their meimei in their bedrooms. They love to FaceTime, and to talk about their next family reunion.