Her light brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail. That was the first thing I noticed about M.
The differences between us were glaring; we were careworn beings from two alternate worlds, suddenly thrust together in a strange, confusing universe.
If a thousand terrible factors hadn’t come together in each of our lives, we would never have had a reason to meet. But here we were, sitting awkwardly in a booth at a Red Lobster along the highway in rural Missouri.
Her ponytail calmed me. Ponytails – she and I had that much in common. A no-nonsense, practical way of dealing with thick, long hair. A sign of optimism, a ponytail, a willingness to face the day, pulling back the lank shadows that hang in one’s face, baring one’s most vulnerable side to the world. Here I am. Here is my face. Accept me for who I am. I will not hide. I will do what needs to be done to get through each day.
We were mired in grief. She, who had lost her children to foster care. We, who had lost our child to Congenital Finnish Nephrosis. We looked at each other and grasped hands, trying to stay afloat, sweaty on a summer’s day.
* * * *
There was a new baby, a gorgeous baby girl with deep blue eyes, that couldn’t be ensured a safe home, due to complicating circumstances in M’s life. Baby K remained in foster care, a tiny bud, patiently waiting to grow into a flower. M wanted us to be the baby’s parents, she explained.
Every weekend, we traveled by plane and then car, making our way through Missouri. Misery, we called it on our bad days, the days when we didn't know if or when the baby would ever come home to us. We spent our Saturdays visiting with the baby, desperate to make the precious hours go more slowly.
I often removed the onesie the baby was wearing before returning her to the social workers and her foster parents. I tucked the still-warm cotton material into my bag, occasionally pulling it out during the week for equal parts comfort and torture. She was still real. By Wednesday or Thursday, that scrap of material was the only thing anchoring me to the child that would one day call me mama.
We met up with M every Saturday evening after we had visiting hours with the baby. Over dinners, and games of cards, and long talks, we showed glossy photos of the growing infant to her first mother.
* * * *
In a flurry of unexpected joy, the baby came home with us as the fall turned to winter, and our whole lives brightened. We promised M to bring the baby back to Missouri at the end of the coming summer, so M could see her again. By that time, M had regained custody of her other kids. The three siblings met each other for the first time on a hot July weekend.
M called me the night after our visit. She was inconsolable. “When my baby cries, it’s you she reaches for,” she wept to me. It was true. I had seen it and felt the agony of M’s gaze. I could only listen and murmur words of empathy and support. After we hung up, wave after wave of anxiety threatened to drown me. How could we ever be okay, any of us? Is there ever a path to peace? I cried and my salty tears dripped onto the baby’s soft blonde curls. How can we do right by her, by M, by all of us? There must be a way. Show me, Missouri. Aren’t you called the Show-Me State?
* * * *
Three weeks before our third annual visit, M called to say she couldn’t do the reunion. “It’s just too hard,” she whispered into the phone. I was not on social media; I did not have a blog; our contact was limited to the photos I carefully labeled and sent through the mail to Missouri.
The baby was almost three now, a gentle and smiling toddler. Beloved. The only grandchild on both sides, surrounded by a gaggle of doting aunts and uncles. She knew she was adopted, but the concept was very abstract for a child so young. She didn't ever ask questions. She melted contentedly into Mommy and Daddy’s arms, as small children are wont to do.
* * * *
When K was nearly six and our younger daughter was two, the call came from M. “I am ready to see her. Will you bring her for a visit this summer?”
“Of course,” we replied, and we began preparing for the trip. Our older daughter didn't understand what was happening, despite our explanations. Her erratic behaviors served as her only way to communicate the fear, bewilderment, grief and anger pulsing through her young body.
“Maybe an open adoption isn’t a good idea,” people said to us. “Maybe it will just confuse her.”
We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but we firmly believed that it was better for our daughter to have a complete identity, no matter how complex, than to have secrets.
It was surprisingly easy to spend time with M again, as if the four years apart had been a mere month. It was easier for her to see her six-year-old daughter, a tall, strong girl with long blonde hair, no longer resembling the baby she had kissed goodbye. After the visit, my daughter’s intense anxiety dissipated, and she realized that there was more than one kind of family and more than one kind of mother’s love.
* * * *
The years went quickly. We had another baby girl. Each summer, I left the two younger girls home with Daddy, and I took our oldest daughter for a weekend reunion with her birth family. She and her older brother and sister swam in the hotel pool, ate meals together, and played. She didn't like to talk too much about her feelings before or after these trips, but I know she sometimes slept with a framed photo of her birth family in her arms when we returned back home.
There were struggles, painful challenges that gripped our family and left us raw, shaken. But we had each other, and we always found our footing after a storm. We used the supports available to us, and we righted the course.
M, however, could not seem to find her footing. Year after year, she struggled in her personal life. Never having finished school, it was difficult for her to find a job she liked. She bought her first home, only to have the bank foreclose on it. Her health deteriorated.
Limited in her access to healthy food due to poverty and a rural environment, M steadily gained weight and lost confidence. By the time I took K to visit her in the summer of 2015, M was so overweight and weak that she could barely walk with us to a nearby restaurant for breakfast. She struggling to breathe, bending over and wheezing, and I was worried for her life.
But M remained optimistic; she pulled her hair into a ponytail, and she turned her face to the warm summer sun. She smiled and hugged me. As always, she and I sat and talked easily for hours while the kids played in our hotel pool. She was my friend. I enjoyed being with her. We laughed and lamented the trying behaviors of our collective children.
“We want you to come to K’s Bat Mitzvah. It is in a little less than two years,” I said to M.
“I’ve never been to a Bat Mitzvah,” she responded. K’s older sister was listening, and she asked me, “Would we be welcome there? I mean, since we are the birth family?”
“You will be absolutely welcome there,” I assured them. “We want you there. K wants you there. It means more than anything to her to have both her families together at such a monumental event in her life. And then you can meet all the rest of our families, all the aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents. Please come.”
* * * *
M went back to school at night, and she received her Associate’s Degree. She got a new job and moved to a new apartment.
She began losing weight, and by the time K and I visited her in the summer of 2016, she was down 100 lbs. She ran across the hotel lobby to wrap K into a hug when she saw us. “I feel amazing,” she exclaimed.
K’s sister E had an unplanned pregnancy, and she was quite far along during our visit. “Do you still want me to come to the Bat Mitzvah next year?” she asked.
“With the baby,” I said. “We can’t wait to meet him.”
“I’m going to be an aunt!” K chirped excitedly.
* * * *
It was February 17, 2017, the night before the Bat Mitzvah. M and the rest of K’s family, including the new baby, had arrived at our house. It was the first time in thirteen years that they had been to our home; K and I always traveled to them.
I stood in my kitchen and held my new GTA (“grandson through adoption”, as K loves to say). My six-year-old daughter tickled his tummy. I felt the soft weight of his head against my chest, and I remembered holding K as a new baby, all those years ago, when she was still in foster care. My eyes welled up. Here was K’s own flesh and blood, a baby again in my arms. The promise of a life not yet tattered by storms.
M had lost another fifty pounds since the summer. The ponytail was gone. She cut her hair short. She looked sophisticated, older, poised. My husband, who hadn’t seen M in six years, barely recognized her.
We made small talk; K showed her birth family her bedroom, where framed pictures of them are scattered on the walls amidst Star Wars artwork and paintings of mine.
M moved through the weekend with grace and dignity, seamlessly folded into the fabric of our extended family. A very religious Christian, M broke bread with us at our Friday night Shabbat dinner, surrounded by sixty of K’s relatives.
On Saturday morning, as K became Bat Mitzvah for the first time, I invited M to the bimah to share her own words of love and blessing with our daughter. Among other things, she said the following (quoted with permission):
You were a ray of light to me, and I know your parents feel the same way. You were the answer to all our prayers and I am so honored to be here as we celebrate YOU.
When I chose to place you for adoption, I never imagined it would work out so perfectly. Through our love for you, we are all an extended family. None of this would be possible if not for you, K. You are the reason we are here today.
As you grow older, I’m sure you will question your purpose in this world, as we all do, but I want you to know that I believe your purpose in this world is to be a light to those that need it, because baby, you are definitely a firework and I love to watch your colors burst!
During the Bat Mitzvah celebration that follows the service, it is traditional for guests to do a raucous, festive Jewish dance called the Hava Nagila. In the middle of the dance, a chair is thrust into the center of the crowd, and the Bat Mitzvah child is raised into the air and bounced around on the chair. Usually, the members of her immediate family also take a turn being lifted in the chair.
Several weeks before the Bat Mitzvah, as our younger daughters were arguing over who would go up in the chair first, K interrupted to say, “I want M to be put up in the chair, just like you and Daddy.” She was adamant.
Over the phone, I described the dance to M and asked her if she would be willing to be lifted into the chair. There was a long pause, and when she spoke, her voice sounded troubled. “I’m not sure.” But then her voice cleared and she laughed. “Oh my God, I forgot that I’ve lost 150 pounds!” she said. “Sure, I’ll go up in the chair. It can hold me now!”
Throughout the weekend, M glowed. She positively beamed. Conversations were natural, love abounded. Joy lit our faces.
“My two mommies,” K said to me, grinning. Tall and lovely, she beckoned M to her side. I think back to that first summer visit, when M keened with pain because 11-month-old baby K reached for me instead of her.
I had been terrified, wondering, would we ever be okay? Show me the way to make this work.
I wish I could go back to M and tell her, “I’ve seen how the first thirteen years have gone. We are all doing okay. More than okay, actually. We are finding our own way. And you – well, YOU are so incredible that there aren’t any words adequate to describe your transformation. You are the ray of light. Thank you for making this weekend so special for us all.”
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