Poems & Essays

19 Jun

The Cactus

General/Column No Response

Annalie sits across from me, dipping her plump two-year-old fingers in yogurt and stacking sliced grapes on top of her grilled cheese sandwich. It’s Mother’s Day.

Done with lunch, I scan the newspaper.


I lower the paper. “What did you say?”

Annalie repeats herself.

“Did you say adoption?”

She nods.

“Where did you hear that word?”

“The treeses.”

So the trees told her. The trees tell her a lot of things.

I ask her what the trees said.

“Annalie is adopted.”

“Oh,” I say with a slow nod. “Do you know what that means?”

She stares at me.

“What’s adoption?” she asks.

“Um…” That’s all I get out before my eyes well up. I don’t want her to notice so I stand. “I’m going to get daddy. He would love to be here for this, okay? I’ll be right back.”

I turn the corner and blink hard, soaking my cheeks.


Three years ago, a friend from college sent me a plastic bottle of holy water from Lourdes for good luck. She’d picked it up while traveling there with dozens of relatives on behalf of her uncle, who was battling lung cancer. After praying for him she prayed for herself, that the Lord would see fit to bless her with twins. She gave birth to two girls nine months later.

My friend told me to bless myself with the water and soon I would be a mother. The bottle, half the size of my palm, looked like a tourist shop trinket. The word “Lourdes” was printed in fancy type above the head of a woman praying to a supersized Virgin Mary. The woman wore a long robe; a cross dangled from a chain encircling her wrist. Short lines representing bursts of light surrounded the Virgin, her hands also folded in prayer.

I spread a towel on the bathroom floor and lay down, the square tiles hard against my spine. Feet flat, knees propped together, I twisted off the bottle’s blue cap, hiked up my shirt and watched the cold water drip onto my skin, just below the navel.

Catching my breath, I made a sign of the cross out of the quivering pools on my belly. I’m not Catholic, but it seemed like the right thing to do.


I drag myself down the hall and find my husband in our bedroom, folding laundry.

“I need your help with a conversation downstairs.”

Patrick puts his hand on my arm and laughs as he heads for the door. I tell him to wait, that I need to fill him in first.

I’m not finished when he walks out and heads for the bookshelf in Annalie’s room.

“That’s perfect,” I say, realizing what he’s after. “It’s over here.”

I reach inside her crib and grab one of her favorite books, A Blessing from Above, an adoption tale about a kangaroo with an empty pouch.

Back in the dining room, Patrick tousles Annalie’s hair.

“I hear you have a question,” he says.

I mute Leonard Cohen on the stereo then join them at the table. Annalie doesn’t say anything. It’s really quiet.

“Maybe we’re making too big a deal out of this,” Patrick whispers in my direction.

A few more seconds pass and he gets right to the point: “So you want to know about adoption.”

He opens the book and flips through the pages showing Mama Roo leaning against a tree to rest; the baby bluebird falling down, down, down out of its crowded nest and into Mama Roo’s pouch; the two of them hugging and happy.

I say it’s like the story of the day she was born. How she was with Jessica and Peter in the hospital and then came home to live with us.

Annalie taps her palm with her fingers and rubs circles on her cheeks.

“I’m putting on makeup,” she announces.

“Do you understand what adoption is?” I ask.

She scowls and sticks out her hand, as if telling me to halt. She pumps her hand back and forth. I tell her to stop, that it’s a rude gesture.

“I’m pushing you away,” she says. Then, “Why did you adopt me?”


Three pregnancies in one year, all through in vitro fertilization. The first one ended when my right fallopian tube burst one late afternoon while I was watching TV. Patrick didn’t answer his phone at work so I crawled to the middle of the driveway and waited for him to arrive, to take me to the hospital.

Doctors knew fairly early on that the second one wasn’t viable either. With ultrasound showing the possibility the embryo was stuck in my left fallopian tube this time, they advised being injected with a cancer drug to abort the pregnancy. I returned to the clinic, pulled down my underwear and leaned over an exam table for the shot — except that it didn’t work. The second shot did.

The third loss was over the fastest.

Soon after that last one, I got a call while on vacation from my friend Janet; she’d just learned she was pregnant. We’d gone through the same five years of infertility treatments together. That night I had a dream I was at a party. I’d finally adopted a little girl. She measured a couple of inches and fit nicely in my hand. At one point I realized I’d forgotten to change her diaper, which made me feel like an unfit mother. Then a woman appeared and asked if she could hold my daughter. I watched as she took my little one into her hands and promptly dropped her. Suddenly transported outdoors, I searched frantically for my baby among the rocks and weeds. The woman laughed, said she’d dropped her own children like that. I wanted to ask everyone at the party to stop their conversations, to help me look. But I kept quiet.

My baby was gone and I knew it.


I let Patrick talk first.

“When you were in Jessica’s belly, she searched the whole country for a mommy and daddy who would love you very much,” he says. “And she chose us.”

“We waited for you for so long,” I add. “We wanted you so much.”

“Why Mommy and Daddy have no babies?”

Two-year-olds are supposed to ask about the sky and bugs and whether they can jump on the bed just this once. Images of basal thermometers and needles and pregnancy tests flash through my mind. I have no idea what to say. That miracle cures didn’t work? That medical science couldn’t deliver?

Patrick looks just as stunned.

“Well, there are many answers to that question,” he starts, “and you’ll find new answers every year. But one of them, one that I like, is that sometimes mommies can’t take care of their babies, so somebody else takes care of them. God makes it that way.”


The audience tearfully listened to the photographer explain his images of one dead or dying newborn after another, the infants appearing and fading away in a tangle of breathing tubes and unanswered prayers. In one photograph, a woman cradled her underdeveloped baby in crossed palms. In another, a ten-year-old boy, standing next to his mother, had dumped his head in her lap after being convinced that six hours without a heartbeat is too long to bring back to life the brother he had been holding moments before.

This was bereavement photography. Pictures that document the short time parents have with their doomed children.

I was there to watch the pain, to measure it against my own and be reassured that I had not gone through the worst. Not by a long shot.

That system of measurement had become an obsession, starting two months earlier when I rented a documentary about a single woman who’d adopted 13 children with severe disabilities. Weeks afterward I went to the theater for a double feature: The first film followed a blind Israeli lawn bowler on her trip to the Para-Olympics; the second was about a dwarf, the sole survivor of a family experimented on during the Holocaust by Mengele himself.

At the theater again for this lecture, sniffling with strangers, I tried to persuade myself to be thankful my husband and I lost our babies before they bore any resemblance to the smallest child up on that screen. But our own grainy photographs from the hospital flashed through my mind, snapshots of the embryos before they were implanted, proof that I was a mother three times over if only for a couple of weeks.

I kept expecting all this other suffering, all this greater suffering, to ease my own. But I needed more than one tissue when the photographs stopped shuffling, when the screen was blank and the theater was black and the audience was given a minute to recover in silence.

I’d thought starting the adoption process meant the healing had officially begun, but there was no crust forming on my wounds. Some women, even those who had happily adopted, said the sense of loss never goes away. Decades later it can smack you upside the head when you least expect it, like when a baby shower invitation comes in the mail or you hear a co-worker gush over the birth of his first grandchild.


The dull lights overhead had begun to flicker and I couldn’t even deal with that.


Annalie points to a vase of flowers on the wood cabinet behind me. “Are those good flowers or bad flowers?”

I look at the bouquet. “They’re good.”

She points to the Christmas cactus in the middle of the table and says she wants to bring it over to the good flowers.

Patrick unbuckles her booster seat. Annalie hops to the floor, rounds the table, and asks me to get up so she can use my chair to get the plant. I rise and she kneels on the seat cushion to reach the cactus.

Once she has it, she extends her arms toward me. “Can you hold this while I get down?”

I take it from her, then follow directions to set the plant on the cabinet.

“Is this how you want it?” I ask.


Annalie looks at the tall crystal vase and the short terra cotta pot beside it.

Then, with authority, she makes her pronouncement: “Adopted.”


Robin L. Flanigan launched a writing career in the early nineties while living in a graveyard. She worked in newsrooms for eleven years, winning several national reporting awards, and now, as a freelance journalist, write for books, magazines, newspapers, websites and marketing collateral. Her essays have been published in The Sun, Talking Writing, The Fem and two anthologies. In addition, she is currently querying a creative nonfiction manuscript and a mindfulness-themed picture book for children.

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Someone Else’s … June 19, 2017 Colt June 19, 2017