In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fifth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
By Lynn Sollitto
I glance in my rear-view mirror and watch her walk across the street in the evening light. I begin shaking, an adrenaline surge of nervous and excited energy.
It’s Ruth, my daughters’ other mother.
Stepping out of the car, I think back to late summer 2008, when events sent our lives down a path neither of us anticipated. Paige, my daughter – our daughter – was born by C-section. I cut her umbilical cord and fell in love.
Drug addicts’ lives are isolated, and Ruth’s was no exception. Her husband was in prison and Payton, her other daughter, was in Child Protective Services (CPS). Ruth didn’t have any friends, and I felt compelled to bring her home to recover as she and I created an inexplicable bond through her labor and delivery. During this time, Paige was also taken into CPS custody.
I thought when I said good-bye to Ruth on her apartment doorstep five days later that would be the end of it.
I thought wrong.
In September 2008, Andrew, my husband, and I visited Los Angeles for our sixth wedding anniversary. Among other things, we saw Wicked, the musical about two characters from The Wizard of Oz - Glinda the Good and the Wicked Witch of the West. I had no idea at that time how significant the play’s last song would become.
Over the next year, Ruth’s husband got out of prison and Payton was returned to their custody. They chose not to reunify with Paige, so Andrew and I adopted her. We attended all of Paige’s court hearings and witnessed firsthand the pain Ruth went through because of her drug addiction.
After Ruth and her husband signed away their rights at Paige’s last court hearing, I found her outside the courthouse sitting on the curb. She held a cigarette in one hand and wiped away tears with the other. I sat down next to her and gave her a hug.
I spoke into her thick, coarse hair. “I tell Paige about you all the time.”
“Thank you,” she whispered.
We stood up to meet Andrew and Ruth’s husband for lunch. To this day I’m not sure if we bought them lunch to celebrate the event or compensate them.
In February 2010, CPS removed Payton again, and placed her with us. Payton’s case moved from foster care to adoption after the police found Ruth and her husband in possession of meth. Ruth’s husband was transferred back to prison whereas she was released from jail a week later.
We told Ruth she could be part of the girls’ lives if she sobered up. She began attending a 12-step program. Andrew and I went to her sixty-day birthday meeting and gave her the sobriety chip. Afterwards, I gave her a card with the lyrics from a song I’d come to think of as ours.
It was the song “For Good” from the play Wicked.
I've heard it said,
That people come into our lives
For a reason
Bringing something we must learn.
And we are led to those
Who help us most to grow if we let them.
And we help them in return.
Well, I don't know if I believe that's true
But I know I'm who I am today
Because I knew you.
Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun,
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood.
Who can say if I've been changed for the better
But because I knew you.
I have been changed for good.
It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime.
So, let me say before we part:
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you.
You'll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart.
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have rewritten mine
By being my friend.
In early 2011, Ruth relapsed. I wanted to keep in touch with her, but the emotional rollercoaster of loving an addict was too painful.
Over the next four years, we would get in touch every so often. Sometimes I reached out to check in, and sometimes she sent an email to tell me she wasn’t using. But her sobriety never lasted beyond a few months, and she continued dropping in and out of my life like a Ping-Pong ball.
In August 2015, I hadn’t been in contact with Ruth for two and a half years. Paige turned seven and, like every year, I told Paige her birth story. I thought about the mysterious bond Ruth and I shared and sent her a message on Facebook the following day.
I’ve been thinking about you the last few days and thought I’d say hello. I hope you are doing well.
She didn’t respond. I was sad but not crushed; I’d been through it many times before.
Then, almost a month later, she replied. My message had gone to her “other” folder, so she hadn’t seen it.
I was dumbfounded. When she didn’t respond after a couple weeks, I’d concluded she didn’t want contact. When I saw her response, I wasn’t quite sure how to handle it. In truth, I hadn’t thought about what I’d say if she responded. Addressing that scenario had been put to the back of my mind when the days passed and I figured there was no chance of hearing back.
A few days later, we talked on the phone. She told me she had been sober for a year and a half, had a job, and just got her GED.
I didn’t cry when my son was born but I almost cried when she told me this news.
I shared our challenges with the girls: Paige’s anxiety and Sensory Processing Disorder, and Payton’s ADHD and Reactive Attachment Disorder. I also told her that I had written a memoir about adopting the girls and was trying to get it published.
Now, on this cool autumn evening, I approach her. Both of us smile and tears begin coursing down her cheeks when our eyes meet. We embrace each other.
“I promised myself I wouldn’t cry,” she sniffles when we pull apart. We both laugh, knowing there wasn’t a chance of that happening.
We walk for hours, sipping coffee and catching up. It should feel strange or awkward to be with the biological mother of my daughters, who have challenges because of her addiction.
But it’s not.
She has gained weight and looks healthy. The rotted teeth she had last time I saw her have been replaced by a brilliant, white smile. She is calm when speaking about the good and the challenging things of her past. She is vulnerable in a way I’ve never seen before.
I realize it is because she’s being genuine and honest about things she couldn’t previously.
At the end of our evening, sitting outside the coffee shop resting our legs, she thanks me for adopting the girls. “I know I couldn’t give them the life you guys can, and they seem happy and healthy.”
We meet for coffee about every other month. I’m getting to know her in a way I haven’t in the last seven years. Before, I always wondered if she was acting like her true self or if she was being whoever I needed her to be. A unique friendship is blooming without the shadow of her addiction, and I think of her as a sister.
In January 2016, she celebrates two years’ sober.
Then, in April of 2016, a dream of mine comes true. I’ve had this dream for five years, since giving her the card with the lyrics to “For Good.” I take Ruth to see Wicked.
We drive over an hour to reach BART (Bay Area Regional Transit), which will take us into San Francisco. Then we cram into the train and stand, bumping into each other for a half hour, until the Giants fans get off and we snag a seat. We arrive at the theatre early, stroll to a drug store for drinks and snacks, and then take pictures back at the theatre.
Ruth has never seen a Broadway-type play before, and has never been to a musical. She’s familiar with the last song, “our” song, but the rest of it is a surprise. I steal glances at her out of the corner of my eye during the performance to see if she is enjoying it, but I cannot tell.
“For Good” plays at the end and she reaches into her purse for a tissue, sniffling.
“Did you like it?” I ask afterwards. “Be honest. It’s okay if you didn’t.”
“It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before – I loved it! I’d like to see more musicals.”
“I’ll take you to Phantom of the Opera,” I promise. (It’s coming to Sacramento in May 2017.)
On the car ride home, we talk about the girls.
“I’ve already prepared myself for the ‘You’re not my real mother’ line when they get in high school,” I tell her, laughing.
Ruth is distressed. “Oh, no, no!”
I quickly reassure her. “Kids who aren’t adopted say things like ‘I wish you weren’t my mother!’ all the time. It’s ok.”
“Yeah…” she trails off, but I can tell she’s still upset by the thought.
We don’t see each other again until three months later. This time, Andrew comes along. We meet with her to discuss steps towards opening up the adoption.
This is something we have yet to define.
Ruth offers to purchase and take a drug test, if it will make us feel better.
“This is my drug test,” Andrew says, pointing to his eye and then at her. “You can fake a drug test. You can’t fake this.”
“I’d love to be in the girls’ lives but if you don’t think it’s in their best interest…” Ruth looks down at the table and then meets our eyes. “I only want what’s best for Paige and Payton.”
“Why don’t you write them a letter every once in a while and hold onto them?” Andrew suggests. “Then, you’ll have something to give them when you see them… whenever that happens.”
A couple weeks later she tells me she purchased a notebook for each girl and is writing her a letter every week.
Andrew and I are coordinating a meeting with Payton’s therapist to discuss the next best step.
Ruth said something in an email shortly after we reconnected. It was something that the Ruth I knew years ago would never say, probably couldn’t say:
I know that trust has to be earned… I don’t know if there is anything I can do to make up for any of my past actions and if there please let me know. But I do plan on not repeating the past and that is something that will only be proven one day at a time…
Each day since we have reconnected, Ruth is proving that she is trustworthy. I’m excited to see what the future holds. I know it won’t be easy, for anyone. This whole journey has been anything but easy.
But it’s been worth it.
Lynn Sollitto lives in Sacramento, California, with her husband and three children. She has been featured on Carrie Goldman’s 30 Days of Adoption at Chicago Now and has been a guest contributor for Transfiguring Adoption. Lynn blogs about her foster adoption journey at www.lynnsollitto.wordpress.com and about the writing life at www.bittersweetadventures.com. She can also be found on Twitter or hanging out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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