Epiphany

So we’ve been having the same party every year since 1988. It’s the kind of party where I wear an apron the entire time and have a dish towel slung over my shoulder like I’m busing tables at the Holiday Inn Express. “Are you finished with those waffles? Let me take your plate.”

Our Three Kings celebration started in 1988 when our older son was three years old. His birthday falls on the Epiphany – January 6th. But there’s more to it than that. That son and his brother and later their sister are part of a group of more than thirty children who were adopted from the same orphanage in Nicaragua and grew up in families living in Milwaukee. So every year, we have this party. We have a big potluck, we sing We Three Kings, and we fill the kids’ shoes (whatever ones we have at the moment) with candy and little toys. The party is wild and loud and always ends up with tamale wrappers under the couch.

Last night’s high points included the chilling alert that our that-day-groomed-with-a-bow Bichon, BowWow, had taken it upon himself to pee on the dining room rug in front of a row of spectators, a few of them on their phones but nonetheless, potentially spectating. It was a pee too deep for the rug to absorb, so deep there was a current, waves, perhaps a tide had there been a suitable moon. It was a little sea of pee right below a table overflowing with the signature dishes of a dozen cooks, very near the cheesy rice as I recall.

Anyway, I had to blot it with half a role of paper towels. And then soak a dish towel (not the one on my shoulder, a clean one) in vinegar and warm water and then get down on my hands and knees and scrub the vast spot while, yes, my guests still sat in a row, a few of them on their phones but nonetheless, potentially spectating. It is important to have no pride when a hostess, I told myself. Whatever makes my guests feel more comfortable (and not have the ocean of pee lap up on their shoes), that is what I will do. Then I put a rug on top of the enormous stigmata which BowWow then made his home for the rest of the evening. Did I mention that BowWow was wearing a sweater? A turtleneck.

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But then there was this, the original point of our Three Kings celebration. This boy’s birthday. It used to be that he was little and his cake was big, now it’s the other way around. He is big and his cake is tiny. Bless the passage of time.

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Find Her: A Reflection on Lion

I don’t give advice to adoptive parents. I don’t tell them what I know or even what I suspect. I keep my mouth shut. It used to be that I figured their experiences would be different and, indeed, everyone’s experiences are different. Easy or difficult, traumatic or seamless. All of those adjectives described my experience as an adoptive mother at various times. It was an odyssey, raising my adopted kids. It is not a little thing or an inconsequential detail to have children living in one’s home who started life with other parents. Adoptive parents who wave that away, saying their adopted child is “born of their heart, if not of their womb,” give me a headache.

Go ahead and decide there is no difference, adoptive parents. Fool yourself. Your kids can watch you; that’s how they can learn to keep their grief and yearning to themselves.

The truth is, and it is an ugly, sickening truth, in order for adoptive parents to be overjoyed at their luck and grateful beyond comprehension, a child has to lose his parents. Permanently.

Over the years, and I’ve now been an adoptive parent for thirty years, this fundamental tragic fact has become increasingly clear to me. At first, it was, oh dear, such a sad thing, and then it was, I’m sure there was a good reason, and then it was, I wonder if you think about your mother, and then it was, of course, you think about your mother, and now it’s I see you missing your mother. I see it as a feeling beyond words, beyond explanation, a thin vapor wafting from your pores, the slightest, imperceptible holding back. You are mine except for the part that isn’t.

So when I watched Lion a few days ago, my heart just pretty much stopped. I felt like I was watching my life or, more accurately, the lives of my children.  This is a story of a man named Saroo who becomes lost as a child in India and is then adopted by a couple in Australia where he grows up, loved by them, nurtured into a wonderful man who then becomes obsessed with finding his way home. Saroo is afraid to tell his adoptive mother that he is searching but when he finally tells her, she puts her hands on his face and says, “Find her. I want her to know how beautiful you are.”

It took me a while but I eventually realized that adoption has consequences. Many of the consequences are glorious. Those are the ones everyone sees. The family dinners, the graduation photos, the rallying together in hard times. And then there are the unseen consequences, the aches that have no names. One ache was realizing that while my children loved me, they loved me for what I did, not for who I was. They know they were up the creek without us, orphans living in an orphanage in a very poor country with no options. We were it. We always said they rescued us rather than the other way around so as to conform with the norms of adoption nation but we all knew the truth. They would have perished or lived very difficult lives without us. Still, gratitude is one thing. Cellular memory is another.

But the aches that count are theirs. One of my three adopted children remembers her first family and she has found them, with our blessing. So her aches are confused and we wait for them to play out. My sons have no memory that they can describe. They just have a nameless thing that they probably wouldn’t even label an ache. Just a thing. A space. A “hunger of memory” said in the beautiful words of Richard Rodriguez. My sons, they have a hunger of memory.

I have no cure for that. No food to assuage their hunger. I just know their hunger exists. I see it. I feel it. And, if I could, I would take their faces in my hands and say this, “Find her. I want her to know how beautiful you are.”

That’s what I would tell adoptive parents if I was the type to give advice. That if they’re smart, they’ll realize sooner rather than later that adoption comes out of a tragedy. And the tragedy isn’t history; it doesn’t get smaller as time passes. Maybe it even grows as the child grows.

That’s all, that’s all the advice. Just know that one thing. And learn to be okay with it. Really okay. In your heart. Tell your child to “find her” and mean it.

 

 

 

 

 

Chosen

Either there is a plan or there is chance. There can’t be both.

When my daughter and her husband adopted a little girl from China, the Chinese adoption officials told them they had selected a baby for them who looked like them. I envisioned a big wide table with photos of all the adoptive couples arranged, pair by pair, and a matching specialist putting one baby’s photo next to one couple, then another, until something clicked.

It seemed so odd an approach. These were Caucasian adoptive parents and Chinese babies after all. What was the likelihood that anyone could discern a new family resemblance and then decide a child’s fate on that glimmer? It was a method, though. If I had to make that choice, I would want to have a method, too. Any method.

It’s a powerful thing deciding who goes where.

Many adoptive parents will tell you that their match was made in Heaven. I used to believe that. Now I think the people who were matching children with new parents just tried to do what they thought was best at the time. It didn’t always turn out to be best, but those were the intentions.

This afternoon my younger daughter, now an adult, who herself was adopted from Nicaragua (she is the little girl in the back row wearing a red shirt), messaged me that she had found another friend from the orphanage, a girl she had last seen when she was six years old and the found girl a bit younger.

She had already found two other girls, now women, two other orphans who were adopted and grew up in families, not in the U.S., but in Belgium and Spain, and now have children of their own. And the obvious question to me is how did they end up there? Why aren’t their pictures hanging in our hallway? How come we’re not their parents? Why did we get the child we got?

It’s weird to think this way, especially after having spent so long in the land of God determining all of these things, making those matches in Heaven. It probably isn’t entirely random, certainly there were issues of timing and resources, but, really, many people could have been our daughter’s adoptive parents. And any one of the children in the picture could have ended up sitting at our dining room table eating pizza with her brothers last week on Mother’s Day.

The people choosing had their reasons. That’s what it comes down to. The Chinese officials looked for a physical resemblance. The Nicaraguans focused on which orphan needed to leave the country first. It was a time, in the 80’s and 90’s, of terrible scarcity in Nicaragua and great peril for ill children. Their priority was on which adoptive parents could handle the medical emergency or disability at hand. And which were willing.

That last question shortened the list.

Yesterday, I posted a story about a woman who was asked to adopt a different child from the one she had expected to adopt. It was fiction but based on reality, a situation where the chooser decided, on the spot, that a different child needed that mother more. So what should the new mother do? Decide that she will only take the child who was promised or accept the chooser’s view that a different child needs her more?

The new mother might think: How does the chooser know that I am who this other child needs? Maybe I am who the first child needs. Maybe I am not up to either task. Maybe it’s unfair that I’m here and subject to this random assignment. Maybe the chooser is no more capable than I am of choosing one child over another. Maybe the chooser is being guided by something I don’t understand.

We have no way of knowing.

We can only look at 25-year old pictures and wonder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poison

We decided that Uncle Harry’s would be a great place to celebrate our daughter Rosa’s 27th birthday.  It’s a hideaway bar on the Milwaukee River with a big rustic patio. On summer nights, large, gleaming white yachts are tied up alongside Harry’s and smaller power boats sit in slips waiting for their owners to finish their beers. Now and then, a barge will come floating past. Sometimes, sailboats motor by on their way to the Milwaukee Harbor and then on to Lake Michigan.

We like Uncle Harry’s picnic tables, the napkins and menus stuffed in little metal pails, the burgers and fries in baskets. It suits our frequent mood of being homesick for the low-rent part of the Florida Keys where our family vacationed for years. It reminds us of being carefree and loose and so it seemed a sweet place to be with our girl on her birthday.

We picked up her brother, Ted, from his job at the Lake Michigan ferry. He still wore his second steward’s uniform, white shirt and black pants, with epaulets on his shoulders signifying his rank. Sometimes people think he is a captain, his outfit is that impressive.  We tease him about it a lot. He’s used to being teased – about being short, about having hair that looks like Elvis, and about being a Nicaraguan adopted into an Anglo family, a situation he shared with his sister. The two of them could have been twins but they weren’t.

Rosa was waiting for us in the parking lot. She wore a long, sleeveless, flowered dress with a white wrap around her shoulders and she was lovely. She was always lovely, with her black hair and dark eyes, red lipstick, and big silver hoop earrings. She had a way of shining, well, they both did. We had children who were more good looking that we probably deserved.

We all hugged in the parking lot and walked to the outdoor entrance of Uncle Harry’s where we waited in line while people in front of us were being seated. When it was our turn, the hostess pointed us to a picnic table right along the river. It couldn’t have been a better spot. We’d scored the perfect table for Rosa’s birthday. My husband led the way and I followed.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I turned around to see who had asked the question and of whom.

“With them,” Rosa answered, gesturing to her dad and me just a few yards away. In that second, her back stiffened and what was loose and happy became wound tight. She grabbed one end of her wrap, flicked it around her shoulder and walked after us. Her brother, held up by the same question, just quietly shook his head. We all sat down at the picnic table. Not trusting my own hearing, I asked her to tell me what the hostess had said. “She said, Mother, she said, WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING?” People at other tables turned to look.

It wasn’t the first time that someone failed to connect us as a family. It had happened from the beginning. We kept a big file of stories starting with women at a Florida beach loudly worrying that our brown toddlers had been left alone while we were sitting within a few yards of them to teachers at school assuming I was their social worker instead of their mother. We laughed about those things, people making honest mistakes that we felt came from their not seeing very many families like ours. We tried not to take offense or to teach our kids to be offended at every turn. There were a lot of turns in their growing up; they couldn’t all be greeted with outrage.

But this was different. I mulled it over. If she thought Ted and Rosa weren’t with us, why couldn’t the hostess have said, “Can I help you?” Or “I’ll find you a table right away.” Why did she have to spit out, “Where do you think you’re going?” like they were sloppy drunks in bathing suits crashing a black-tie wedding? I looked over at the hostess, sitting on a stool talking to Harry, the owner, the king of laid-back, our town’s Jimmy Buffett.

Looking at them both joking and laughing, I couldn’t imagine walking over to lodge a complaint. They’d stop and stare at me, the hostess would deny it, my daughter would come over to argue, my husband and son would roll their eyes. It would go nowhere good. And it occurred to me, conveniently, that it wasn’t my complaint to make. After all, my kids were adults, I told myself. If they wanted to take it up with management, he was sitting in clear view. “It’s fine, Mom. It happens all the time. I’m used to it,” Rosa said. Ted nodded. “I just let it roll off my back,” he waved his hand. “You can’t get upset about everything that happens like that. Most of the time, I just pretend I don’t hear it.”

“Everything that happens like that?” How many dozens or hundreds of times had this happened to him that he had developed this reaction? It wasn’t the mistaking us as separate, it was the hostility that followed when the hostess thought they were there on their own. Somehow, apparently with a lot practice, my son had learned to shrug off such things, or so he said.

When the waiter came to take our orders, I heard the sharp edge in Rosa’s voice. She questioned him about the menu, what came with what, frowning at each answer. Finally, she settled on her order, her manner like that of royalty forced to dine at a Kansas truck stop. She examined each French fry before breaking it apart and eating it in small pieces, almost as if any bite might poison her. It seemed that years of practice had had a different effect on her.

She didn’t brighten until the end of dinner, after she put on her new earrings and we posed for pictures on the boardwalk next to a sparkling yacht. Looking at the four of us, the sun setting behind us, the light glittering on the water, you’d never know we’d been roiled by this casual insult. Now when I look at the photograph, I don’t remember how warm the night was or how happy we were to be together on Rosa’s birthday. I remember what the hostess said and I wish I had complained. I wish I had let myself be offended, not on her behalf, but on my own.

Where did she think she was going? She was going with us. We were together.

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Photo: Mike Giles

Poachers

Red's Wrap

When I started my blog, I had a list of topics.  Poaching was the number one item.  It irked me the most.  But I never wrote about it.  Why?  Because the weird feeling an adoptive parent gets when another adult presumes an adoptive child needs care and attention he/she isn’t getting is nearly impossible to describe. So I’ve kept putting it off.  But it’s still on the top of the list.

The root of poaching is the presumption that an adopted child is still an orphan. Related to this presumption is the thought that the bond between the adopted child and his/her adoptive parent is casual or, if not casual, less significant than would be a biological bond.  It is this perception of casualness – that the child is only very loosely connected to the adoptive parent – that seems to invite a peculiar kind of interloping.

Sometimes, it’s a small…

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Orphan Baby

Orphan babies don’t cry. No one told me that so I thought he was happy.

It unnerved me. I was used to babies squirming, wanting things, crying. I had taken pictures of my daughter’s full-throated infant cries so I’d never forget how her tiny beautiful mouth bloomed into red anger. Her crying drove me out of the house to sit on the front porch more than once. Oh, I knew about crying babies. I’d suffered with a crying baby for months and months. But this new baby, this baby coming into our family from faraway Nicaragua, this baby didn’t cry. He didn’t make a sound.

His name was Nelson Bravo. It was the name his mother gave him so we kept it, tacking our last name on the end. He was 21 months old, weighed 17 pounds, leggy and thin like a stork, with an enormous belly like he’d swallowed a balloon that wouldn’t burst. He couldn’t stand or speak. He could hold on, though. He knew how to hold on.

Getting him had been both swift and difficult. In three months, we went from mourning infertility to completing an adoption home study to making travel arrangements to a country that was in the middle of a proxy war with the United States. The Sandinista government of Nicaragua had banned foreign adoptions except for children who would die without First World medical care. The weak, gray-faced baby Nelson fell in that category.

His mother had left him in a hospital in Managua. She had come every day to see him and then she stopped. One day, she didn’t return. The theory was she had decided that she couldn’t take care of him and that the best thing to do was to leave him in the care of the hospital. She might have known they’d take him to an orphanage, maybe not. The authorities put Nelson’s picture in the local newspaper. The notice asked any relatives to step forward to claim him.  We were told this although we never saw the picture. All we knew was that no one ever came to claim him. He was unclaimed. He became a 12-month old orphan.

I thought a lot about his mother leaving him, what he thought about that, how he felt. Did he remember her face, dream about her? He had to have been frantic with wanting her when she didn’t come back. He must have cried and cried, become red and sweaty, exhausted himself. Such a little boy losing his mother, he had to have been so afraid. I could see him in my mind’s eye, crying, his tiny, thin arms outstretched, the nurses stopping at his crib now and then to soothe him but hurrying off to care for the other babies. He was one of so many.

I wondered how many days it took for him to stop crying.

It didn’t bother me right away that our new son never cried. I thought it was because he felt safe with us and our lavishing him with food and songs. On our stroller walks around the neighborhood, I fed him a constant stream of graham crackers. When he was done with one, he would reach out his hand for another. He never fussed and he never said “cracker.” He never said anything.

The silence was sweet for a while but then I started to worry about it. Was he mute? Was he grieving? Did he miss his mother? How big a hole had her departure left? Was he so damaged I couldn’t repair him? Would he let me be his mother? I thought about these things on my own, only now and then wondering out loud if Nelson’s not talking was a problem. My husband wasn’t worried about any of it. “He’ll talk when he has something to say,” he joked, adding that he was probably pretty happy with the service he was getting. “He’s got no complaints.”

Surgery to repair his heart defect happened a few months after he came, after he’d gained enough weight and gotten his heart pumping better with medication. He could stand and walk on his own and no longer looked like a child on a refugee poster. He was a little, healthy boy when they wheeled him into the operating room, still and sleeping with a white sheet tucked under his chin. His heart defect would be easily fixed, the surgeon said, and he could go on and live his life. “Grow up like every other kid” is what he said though it seemed a stretch to think that Nelson could be like any other kid given his hard start. Can a person ever get over being abandoned, no matter how good the reason?

We were ushered into the recovery room after his operation. Now his little body seemed frail. He was gray again, a sliver of a boy, so flimsy that one might wonder how his papery skin could hold the stitches.  We sat on either side of him, stroking his arms, worried about him even though the nurse told us how well he was doing. “He did a great job,” she said, as if he’d straightened his room or mowed the lawn. It was a call to be proud of him and we were.

After many minutes, Nelson Bravo opened his eyes and turned his head to me. Through the pale green oxygen mask, his face crumpled in fear. He broke his silence with the faintest cry, no louder than the mewling of a newborn kitten. He was an infant again in that moment, defenseless and alone until he looked at me with such incredible wanting and said, “Ma.” It was our start.

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Photo: Janko Ferlic

The Daily Post: Baby