Memory misbehaves. I remember bits, and my husband remembers other pieces. How can it be we have forgotten anything? Time passes. Decades blur. Five miscarriages. After the third one, an infertility guru, cousin to my sister’s husband, sees us. “Good news, you can get pregnant. Bad news: you don’t stay pregnant.”
Progesterone shots in my hip. Sonograms without heart beats. Cycles of sorrow. Then one Halloween, in an apartment building in Manhattan, a small dinosaur got onto the elevator, and I swallow my tears, thinking, “I want a dinosaur, too.”
If we cannot have a baby, perhaps, we could adopt? Our specialist gives us his blessing. We begin the adoption odyssey. A workshop at the 92nd St. Y launches us; investigations of various countries suggest an open adoption here in the U.S. might be best. We are rejected by various agencies because I am Christian and my husband is Jewish, because I work, because our minute NYC apartment does not have a separate room for the baby. I am furious at an extremely well-respected agency in Texas that charges more for a white baby than for an infant of color—my disgust and horror only amplify when my darling parents express their concern that we might end up adopting a baby who isn’t white. I rail against bigotry, against bureaucracy, against my broken body that cannot produce a baby.
We discover of Friends in Adoption in Middletown Springs, VT. They are kind, optimistic, helpful. Forms. Lots of forms. We engage an attorney. We clean our tiny apartment, as it has never been cleaned, hunting down and annihilating dust bunnies in preparation for the social worker’s home visit. The day for fingerprints, taken in a courtroom building in Lower Manhattan, is the day of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles; in our taxi, we find downtown deserted. The courts have closed. We climb the stairs to discover they stayed open for us.
“It takes so long to schedule,” the clerk smiles. “We didn’t want you to have to wait.”
A separate phone line must be installed. Our technician arrives late in the afternoon during an ice storm, concerned about if he’ll be able to run the line in the foul weather. After we explain that we need a phone line so birth mothers can call us, he says, “Well, in that case, we’d best get on with it.” Up he climbs onto the slippery roof of our apartment building, wishing us well on his way out.
Well-meaning people tell us over and over again that they know people who got pregnant once they started adopting. “Getting pregnant isn’t the issue,” I think grimly. “Staying pregnant is the problem.”
We research adoption laws in different states, place personal ads in Penny Saver weeklies, create our adoption resumé, selecting photos that make us look friendly, kind, welcoming, as if we’d be lovely parents. We have it color copied—no in-home printers in those days. No Internet. “Choose us,” we intone, licking envelopes to send our pulsing hopes all over the country
Then, in May, I get pregnant. I pay less attention. After all, why hope. We go to Philadelphia for a vaccine—a last ditch experimental effort. In the lab a new specialist will give me an injection of Seth’s white blood.
I stay pregnant. Eight weeks. Nine. FIA calls. A birth mom has phoned them. Chris. She has chosen us. We enter into an agreement and pay for Chris’ medical care. Chris’ baby is our real baby.
A few weeks later, maybe—we’ve forgotten the exact chronology–FIA phones. Are we a Jewish-Christian couple? My heart beats hard, a screw gun drilling into the center of me.
“Yes,” I answer truthfully.
Phew. That’s what Chris had hoped for; that’s what she and the baby’s father were. She likes that we are both teachers. Her medical care proceeds. So does mine. We write the checks for her care gladly. I stay pregnant.
We tell my school I will need to take a leave in October when Chris’ baby arrives. There is much rejoicing among my colleagues.
We believe in Chris’ baby; we do not believe in the one I am carrying.
Midsummer. 14 weeks. Our infertility wizard says it’s time for us to switch to an obstetrician. I do not want to leave him. Gently, he reassures me, “You’re going to have this baby. I don’t deliver babies. I just help you hold onto them.” Seeing someone else feels terrifying. He is my magic charm.
We drive to meet Chris in New Jersey, blowing out a tire on the way. The town she’s from is Kearney—my mother’s middle name, my great-grandmother’s maiden name. Omens are talismans for the desperate. She is visibly pregnant, gracious, tired. She’s been working in a dry cleaners. I worry about toxic fumes. She has two other sons we do not meet. In the driveway, as we are leaving, we meet the baby’s father, himself also adopted. Perhaps the meeting is by accident. Perhaps not? Is his own adoption a red flag? Friends in Adoption says it could go either way.
In August, we tell FIA that I am pregnant. They connect us with a psychologist in Boston, who listens kindly to our tale. Our babies will have all the disadvantages of being twins and none of the advantages, she explains. We can do it; people manage, but she asks how long we’ve been waiting for a baby to be the center of our world. We say seven years.
“You could give another couple an amazing gift,” she says.
I put my head down on the kitchen table and cry. We tell my school we are adopting a baby and having a baby. My Headmistress remarks, “Well, Ann, you never did do anything by half.” A few days go by.
“You could give another family a gift,” reverberates in my head. I feel selfish. I do not want to give up Chris’ baby. I do not trust our baby will be born.
We call Friends in Adoption. They explain that we must give Chris the choice to place with us or to make another choice. I am sad, sad. Our amnio results come back. Our baby is chromosomally good to go.This one time, perhaps we do not need to do the very hardest thing.
Chris elects to place her baby with another couple, also two schoolteachers. We mourn the loss of one more baby, Chris’ baby.
I begin to feel the baby I am carrying flutter inside me. Champagne bubbles popping. I feel as if I am made of glass.
At the twenty-week sonogram, I see a dead bird on the sidewalk as I leave the hospital. I am sure it is a bad omen. I weep on York Avenue, the fall sky blue above me. A kind lady stops to ask if I am all right. “Yes,” I snuffle, “It’s just that I’m having a baby. I mean, I am really having a baby. Maybe.” She helps me hail a cab, puzzled.
I buy maternity clothes, afraid that the stretch panel I now require will jinx it all. I love our new doctor, love her calm, her matter-of-fact response to all my worries. High-risk moms are her specialty.
And, in early November, an envelope arrives. In it, snapshots of a blonde newborn—fairy curls, a golden angel baby. Not our daughter. Chris’ baby. Seth and I are both dark; it would have looked as if we’d had a changeling child. I cry at what was supposed to be, fearing all that can still go wrong with the swelling of my middle. I leave the photos on the coffee table. One day they are gone. We visit the hospital and learn to pant at Natural Childbirth classes.
Thanksgiving. I am more and more unwieldy, steering, unperturbed through crowded Balducci’s like a schooner in full sail, selecting chestnuts and fancy cheese calmly, ignoring the irritation of other New Yorkers who cannot navigate around me. I am the votress of Titania’s orders, “big-bellied with the wind.”
36 weeks. If I had the baby now, it could live. I exhale in disbelief, imagine Chris’s baby beginning to smile.
At Christmas, I marvel at what it is to be pregnant, thinking of Mary and how completely unacceptable a stable would be as a birthing room.
New Year’s. And then the countdown. The baby is due on the 15th. On the 17th, I am induced. 24 hours of labor, one epidural, undignified bouts of vomiting, two hours of pushing, and, finally, an emergency C-section. I am delivered. Miranda has been born. In the midst of wonder. Miracle. When I wake from the scary and dramatic surgery, I say to Seth, “Did we have a baby?” It seems possible that the whole thing has been a dream.
“We did. We have a baby girl. Miranda.”
A few days later, we carry her out of the hospital into our lives. She was the baby we did not adopt. Sometimes I forget that fact.
Ann Klotz is a mother, writer, teacher and Head of a girls’ school in Shaker Heights, OH. She writes most often about how those roles intersect. Her work has appeared HERE, in Community Works Institute Journal and Independent School magazine. She blogs semi-regularly for the Huffington Post.
“Mom, Colombia is filled with drugs and violence,” my thirteen-year old son says matter-of-fact, out of the blue. We are crossing a bridge, heading towards the zoo entrance on a summer day as Anna, ten, skips ahead. “And I don’t ever want to contact my birth parents. They probably never think of me anyway.”
This is a new turn in our adoption conversations. It’s the first time Justin has spoken negatively about Colombia or his birth parents.
I am quick to stand up for the nation of Colombia, pointing out that people in other countries have largely negative images of the US though they’ve never been here and don’t know us. I explain how we make judgments based on news coverage and movies that can never truly represent a country and people. I don’t even bring up the good trip we had to Bogotá three years ago and his love for empanadas.
I speak up for his birth parents too, “I bet your birth mom thinks of you.” I say nothing about his birth dad. We know little about him. And I don’t mention our plan, talked about for years, for seeking contact with his birth mother when he turns eighteen. We’ve covered all this ground before.
Justin stays grumpy and stone-faced, and I finally realize that I should back off. Feeling the losses of adoption and expressing them out loud is developmentally appropriate. I need to allow him to express anger and betrayal; I shouldn’t explain away these feelings.
It is only later in the day that I figure out the source of this conversation, this bad-mouthing of his birth country. Justin slept over at a new friend’s house last night. His friend, Keegan, was adopted from China.
A couple days later, Justin pulls out his iPod and plays a song for me. The recording is muffled, and I can’t make out all the words. Justin explains that this is music he and Keegan made together: Keegan singing and playing piano, with Justin on the drums. I love that this is what these teenage boys do together in between shooting baskets, playing video games, and raiding the pantry. I’m proud.
Later, all of us gathered in the kitchen as we clean up after dinner, Justin announces, “We’re starting a band. Our name is Abandoned because, well, we were both abandoned, and it’s cool because it has the word band in it. Get it?”
Anna thinks its cool. Scott and I look at one another, then one of us points out that Justin’s birth mother did not abandon him but made an adoption plan. I say gently, but emphatically, that he was not abandoned.
“Why not call yourselves Abandon?” I suggest. There’s still the play on words, but without the abandonment, without the pain. I don’t want my son, tan and lean and strong in the kitchen, proud of his new endeavor, to think he was ever abandoned.
As Scott and I finish up the dishes and send the kids off to do homework, we think we’ve made headway. I figure that Justin will talk to his friend about other options, and they will find another name. Because they were not abandoned.
Though we have always talked about our children’s adoption stories with them, we never say given up for adoption. We say placed. We say, “Your birth mother made an adoption plan.” And it’s true.
Anna was just three when she first truly understood that she grew in the womb of another, and she cried loud and hard. Justin always took his story in stride, matter of fact, even as we added details over the years. I thought Anna’s reaction was a girl thing, that Justin might never mourn what was lost, but now I wonder if he needs to rewind his story. I wonder if his teenage anger and judgment comes from the same place as Anna’s three-year old cries. Because the result is the same whether placed on a step, handed over in a hospital, or placed with a family in a country far away.
I try not to sugar coat. I try to tell the truth and let the emotions be.
I think our suggestion of Abandon is a good compromise. Maybe they’ll go with that. But as the months pass, the name, Abandoned, sticks, even as the boys add band members and paying gigs.
We’re in the car on the way to soccer practice when Justin asks, “Would you have ever given up me or Anna if we were your birth kids?”
I bite my lip, hesitate.
I know the right answer here, which lies in the shades of grey of difficult situations and decisions, and I feel loyalty to his birth mother. I don’t want to betray her, put myself above her. And there are other birth mothers too, and the whole adoption community, for goodness’ sake. I feel like they’re listening in. “Will she get this right?”
But I know, too, that in these past weeks, my son has stepped into the dark undercurrents of his adoption story. He is adrift and feels abandoned, whether I like it or not.
So I say words for him, words that I still struggle to write.
“No, I wouldn’t give you or Anna up.”
Justin nods, seemingly satisfied. In the silent minutes that follow, I am a jumble of second-guesses and worry at my betrayal.
But I let the words stand even as we pull up to the school soccer field, even as he gathers his soccer ball and water bottle, says, “Bye, Mom,” and jogs off to join his team.
Looking back, I’m pretty sure Justin soon forgot about the conversation in the car. There were no more thorny adoption comments or questions in the following weeks though there probably will be in the future. For now he’s busy with school and band and soccer, plans to try to contact his birthmother when he’s older because right now, “I have a lot going on.”
But I believe that on that summer day, as I gripped my steering wheel, unsure and hesitant, in my small panic of how to answer, he simply needed to know that I would not let him go.
And that was enough.
Michelle Shappell Harris writes from Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she coordinates translation for a nonprofit while pursuing an MFA at Ashland University. Her family lived overseas for nineteen years in the France and Africa, and they are still adjusting, together, to life in the Midwest.
The knife’s staccato snaps
echo off the cutting board.
I rake romaine
into a cracked bowl,
salad by numbers,
the usual ingredients
sure to keep them
from complaining about dinner.
They still tell the story
about the year I challenged
tradition and added garlic salt
to the mashed potatoes
their somber expressions
reminding me of the faces
on Mt. Rushmore,
cautioning me each time
I pull out the masher.
My phone chimes, daughter
adding to the group text
that she’s making cake pops,
just before my son adds
that he’ll pick up ice cream.
He’s forgotten about
the last time he picked up
ice cream, then left it in his trunk
until it was time for dessert,
the ice cream melted
to a foamy puddle.
I text as fast as I can,
trying to beat my daughter
to the punchline, growling
when my phone chimes
before I’ve finished,
imaging the popcorn-burst
of her victory giggle.
Sharyl Collin started writing poetry about four years ago. Her poems have appeared in various publications, including Mason’s Road Literary Journal, Wild Goose Poetry Review, *82 Review, The Intentional and Lummox.
I keep working my bare feet
up this cliff of purple light,
crimping fingers on gestating
stars, topping roofs, crossing
slabs bigger than our solar system.
I have light-years below me.
I barely remember Earth. Certainly
not the townhouse on Connie Ave.,
my two soft-skinned daughters
who howl in their beds, unable
to sleep despite blue nightlight
clambering up their white dresser,
spilling onto the singing dog,
brightening the car-and-wooden-
cookie constellation on their floor.
The Pillars beg for a drop-knee,
a heel-hook. I turn my hip and reach
for something small.
Kelly Dolejsi is a stay-at-home mother, climbing instructor, and occasional English professor. She earned an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College in 2003. Her work has been published in Bitter Oleander, Phantasmagoria, Trickster, and the Santa Fe Literary Review. She also has poems forthcoming in the Denver Quarterly.