Welcome to the sixth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences.
By LB Johnson
When I was out at Dad's last week, we went through some paperwork in his safety deposit box, as he's readying his affairs, realizing he probably won't be with us much longer. Everything is in a trust, equally divided up among children and grandchildren, not much remaining though but memories, those remembrances for which we are so grateful.
One of the items he gave me was the original of my birth certificate, sent to them a year after I was actually born, the names on it, his and Mom's, as they had just adopted me. Their only child deceased, they adopted my brother and me, giving us their name, the four of us joined together in a bond that obliterated a painful past in which we had only been a small, unwilling participant.
There is much history in that piece of paper. For I was born to an unwed mother in the generation of Roe vs. Wade. I missed the actual date by a few years, however, or I would not be writing these words. For I was born to one who, most assuredly, did not want to be pregnant with me. But I was born, on a warm day in August, in Swedish Hospital in Seattle.
I am the product of adoption, as is my child. This is our story; this may be yours.
You're almost sixteen, soon to have license to freedom in your pocket, the chrome-polished chariot to your future sitting in the driveway in the form of an ancient Volkswagen Beetle. Sixteen, a mile marker for some, for you anyway, old enough to drive, time stolen through pale fences that line the roads as you rush towards your future.
There's a boy in the Cello section of the orchestra that you like, but he's always hovering around the delicate, blonde flowers of the flute section. You are part of the posse of math and science geeks that occupy the wind and brass section that plays with the orchestra one day a week. But there, you are with friends, armed only with overbites, wit and lung capacity, as you sit outside of the strings and the flutes, moving clumsily around like bespectacled bumblebees among the flowers.
There's a dance coming up, a Sadie Hawkins one, in which the girls ask the boys. Your Dad will have to drive you but it's almost like a real date. With hopeful eyes, you bumble over and ask him to go with you. The blond next to him looks at you with a withering giggle. He says "uh... I'll call you later" with an expression that is not so much a smile as a dismissal. But you are too young and naive to see anything but the smile.
You rush home, anticipation lingering around you, waiting to be breathed in and let loose in a sudden exhale as you rush to your room to wait. You will sit there in your room in silence for hours as the family eats without you, as dinner dishes are put away, and the room grows cold, your breath vaporizing in the growing dark.
Waiting for that phone to ring.
You're eighteen, in college, trying to be grown up, as you took your first summer class there at age fourteen, when you were still a child. But you are a child who is now carrying a child.
The older guy who swept you off your feet and took what can't be replaced was gone with that call from the doctor. Everyone says it's your body, your choice. You may have been naive, but you are grown up enough to know that your choice was when you gave yourself to someone outside of marriage. THAT was your choice, not the taking of this innocent life.
You remember the night she was born, ten pounds, six ounces, after thirty-four hours in labor, her head crowning, her body bursting forth onto the sweat and blood soaked sheet.
You remember only getting to hold her once, for just a moment before she is handed over, in your pain, to her adoptive parents, incredulous of her soft hair, perfect fingers, smelling of the womb, of warmth, of love.
She looked at you with a peripheral glance, while you uttered the name you would give her and the words you were not able to say again for years, for in fear of their utterance, the object of those words would be lost to you. I love you, don't forget me.
You bring nothing home from the hospital, even as you left something there, not a baby, but something you could have lived your entire life with, without ever having known it was inside of you.
It's an open adoption, you know where she is, and with whom, but your word is your honor, and you promised not to get close. She has the option to contact you if she wishes when she turns of age, but if she doesn't? That, as they say, is that. You gave your word, you will respect.
There is nothing to do now but back to your life and try not and notice that when you stop to think if she is safe from harm, your breath catches as if there is no air, and you are going to have to learn to either not worry about her every moment or live without breathing.
So it is as if she fixed in that moment, forever an infant, the walls of that hospital, the door to that room, fleeing away, leaving just her image, immobilized within a tear, inviolate in innocence, forever safe from harm and alteration.
It's the only way you can sleep at night, as for the next eighteen years, you wait for that phone to ring.
You get through, as best you can, with family, and a dog. A rescue, a runaway, soon to break your heart, that Husky. He was fiercely independent, living the life that philosophers and knights are known to do. You are pretty certain he was purebred, an incredibly beautiful dog, and one that probably set someone back a few dollars. But all that mattered was he was lost, no tag, and you tried your best to give him a home.
But huskies are born to run, and with them, they will take your heart. But you are determined to ensure he wouldn't be lost again; getting him vaccinated and tagged, with good food to eat, and a warm bed to sleep in. He spent the next month trying to escape the prison that he viewed his home and your ministrations. Even with long bike rides, and a big yard, he was determined to escape. He'd dig under the fence, climb over it. He was good with family, he behaved well inside the house but he was forever a compass between the far horizon and your affection, both implacable.
You try the big pet store dog training; you tried pleading and tears, which works neither on men nor dogs, and for good reason. You tried walking him morning, noon and night. Finally, one day, he got out past your legs at the front door and ran and ran, not looking back. All you could do was put up fliers and worry.
Waiting for that phone to ring
He was found, and returned safely. You would have asked him why if you could, were you not a good "Mom"? Was he searching for the home he was lost from? All you got back was an inarticulate gaze, behind which could be either sadness or yearning, though he never let either show. You'd give him all the exercise you could, so he wouldn't run way. But it wasn't as if he was exhausted. He simply surrendered, as if he'd given over and released completely that grip upon the horizon that called, if only for now. It was a relinquishment that in some souls would mean death, but for this dog, was simply a deep, soft sigh and a longing gaze out of a window as he rests his head on your arm.
You do what you can to keep him happy and safe the rest of his life, but tell yourself you're not going to get another rescue dog after he's gone. Or any dog, you can do all right all by yourself
You're in your late thirties, happily playing kerosene warrior, loading up a transport plane, simply getting ready for your responsibilities that night, the four bars on your shoulders a reminder of your duties.
You don't know if it was pain or illusion that drove you to the skies, leaving broken hearth and home for that greed of adventures that flutters out there somewhere beyond. You don't look inward too closely, being more focused on what is outside, for what is there behind the darkness is more final than simply the loss of one's illusions.
You're all aware of it and one night, while waiting for the fuel guy when we get word a plane is down, Isn't that the one that John? . . .
You pause for the rest of the words, there in that moment before the sun plunges into the edge of the earth, the shapes and forms of aircraft fixed by that already fading explosion. But you can't stop what we're doing, each of you has one ear tuned to the task, men moving and working, shadows on the wall, not of flesh and blood, which is so fragile, but shadows of enduring hope and will, quiet as the murmur of your breath as you work, one ear still listening.
Waiting for that phone to ring.
You're all grown now, still logging those miles on the road, still checking in with your Dad when you arrive at your hotel when you travel, for though you're grown up, he's seen his ninetieth birthday and he worries, especially now that his days grow short. The phone lays silent on the seat of the car as you head out, the thump of the tires on the pavement tapping out a Morse code that is unheard, the wheels pulling you further away from everything you have counted on and closer towards the unknown.
The thump of the tires takes you back to those days on the back of a motorcycle, riding with your brother. You think of him, his arms strong in command of that bike, his hands calloused but delicate as he tended to your father all these years.
You think back to your last night together, sitting out on the deck, birds twittering above as they built nests for their young, their sounds that of the chirp of a clock, counting off each and every second of Spring. You could not imagine him so sick, even as you can't imagine him not being here now, talking to you each night, the cell phone silent in your pocket.
The house is so empty now, with your brother in adoption gone, your furry best friend gone as well, the two of them quitting this earth just a few weeks of each other.
No regrets for that dog, that time, for you realized how alone you really were and added a purebred lab puppy to your life. You ponder a puppy again, a clean slate start with a new friend, fresh starts, no scars, no history. But you also ponder adoption, a rescue animal, one that needs sheltering as much as your heart does, one that will take more work, more trust.
You said you never would, but hitting five-oh, you realized that life is a risk, never a possession. You fill out all of the paperwork and you wait, there with a picture of a fuzzy older black lab mix saved to your computer, wondering if she was already adopted, praying they would call.
But it was time for other thoughts as you're nearing your destination, the blue and read lights guiding you to where you are called. For now, you can't think of the future, you can only drive through avatars that mark the accumulation of tears.
Waiting for that phone to ring.
You are here, this moment, now, lying in bed. You shut your eyes, laying your hands flat against the cool sheets, trying to will yourself to sleep so early, going on call at midnight. You remember what your martial arts instructor told you about breathing, how you enter the true home of your spirit with each intake of breath, each exhalation, actions as old as time, a rhythm that is both life and death.
On the nightstand, two phones, your personal one and the one that tethers you to duty. You never know when that one will ring, a call signaling the exorbitant burden that is nature, fate or someone's personal stupidity. Tonight, you somehow expect it to go off, thinking of swinging out of bed and grabbing the bag, jumping into the truck. Gear in the back, teetering as if to fall, you accelerate too fast, the high beams blinding more than illuminating as they cut through fog that coils in the lows in the road like a snake.
You do this, as the world sleeps, in that state of blessed forgetfulness in which the most fragile of senses can slumber, free from the godless dark intents of man and nature. You go because it is what you do, as much as who you are.
But tonight, the thought of that drive already exhausts you, even as you can't get to sleep. You look to the clock, wondering what time it is where your husband is at, a mission for him that's as much a part of love of what one does, as duty, something you so understand. You wish he wasn't flying right now, burying the worry under the Kevlar exterior, but it's what he does, as much as who he is.
He'll call when he gets in to his hotel, so you know he's safe. You will smile, and you will both laugh, happy to be connected again. Till then, you lay in the embrace of the sheets, all the thoughts of what is going on in the world tickling your senses like electricity, a flicker of current before darkness.
On a shelf are photos, a boy and little girl in the lap of the man that chose to be their Dad, having a snack of apples as he reads to them. There's another picture of those children, in motorcycle leathers, years later, in front of a couple of Valkyries in his driveway.
There's an old picture of a group of pilots, all friends, all intact, even after a scare or two. There's a photo of someone holding a musical instrument, not the silly high school crush, but a person of substance and honor, who, through time and the tears that come from suspect choices, was always there for you, softly touching your scars while bearing your history.
Among the photos on the nightstand is one of a little girl, with eyes the color of a storm-tossed sea, shaped just like yours and just like her mother’s. There's photo after photo of a young redheaded girl, all of those many years that you missed, a dance outfit, a soccer game, a graduation, there in scraps of memory you can now safely hold and breathe in. All you have are the photos to show for those years you simply waited in silence, in stone.
Below that is a photo of a big furry black dog, taken by her Foster Mom. You glance at all of them and smile, breathe deep and drift off to sleep.
Somewhere out there trouble may stir, shadows may rouse themselves from sleep. But somewhere far above and far away, someone slumbers aloft, their breath, in and out, a rhythm which not the mind, but the heart, marks and calls the measure for.
Somewhere far away, your child, and her child, sleep safe in their beds, as safe as a scared teenager, turned protector of those that have no voice, could make them.
The clock ticks off one more notch of breath as you lay in that big bed in a quiet room, a dog bed empty in the corner, as ready as you will ever be.
LB Johnson is the author of the Amazon #1 Best Sellers Saving Grace – A Story of Adoption and The Book of Barkley – Love and Life Through the Eyes of a Labrador Retriever. An adoptee, teen birth mom, and airline transport pilot, she has had careers in aviation as well as in law enforcement. She and her husband live in Chicago.
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