We left 7 days ago on our road trip. Two days before our departure date, Chicago received seven inches of rain in one night, and we took on water in our basement for the fourth time in three years. We moved the furniture, hooked up the dehumidifier, packed our bags, and departed on schedule. We’ll cut out the drywall when we return.
As always, we are road tripping with our best friends, Steve and Loren. Between our two families, we have six kids, with a seventh on the way (Loren is expecting in September). The trip started with a visit to Springfield, Illinois (we listened to Roald Dahl’s The Witches in the car), where we immersed ourselves in the world of Abraham Lincoln.
First, we spent a day in Lincoln’s New Salem Springfield Historic Site, the reconstructed frontier town where Abraham Lincoln once lived. He came from very humble beginnings, with little education and hard living conditions.
After walking through the tiny rustic log cabins of New Salem in 98 degree heat, we ate a picnic lunch and then piled back into the car to visit the lovely home where the upwardly mobile Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln raised their children until they moved into the White House.
We spent the following day at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Museum, an astonishing place to learn about the life and death of our sixteenth president.
The exhibits captured the anguish of the times– the portrayal of a slave family torn apart on the auction block, the depiction of Abraham and Mary at their young son Tad’s side as he lay dying in his White House bed, Lincoln’s dreadful assassination five days after the Civil War finally ended—and it was impossible not to be moved.
At one point Katie was studying a map that showed slave states and free states. “Daddy,” she whispered anxiously. “Missouri was a slave state. Did M . . .”
“No, that was a very long time ago,” Andrew said.
“Oh, good,” Katie exclaimed, the relief palpable on her face.
That evening when we arrived in St. Louis (listening to E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web in the car), Katie had trouble sleeping. She was haunted by the image of the slave family that had been split up and sold to separate owners. “I can’t get the image out of my mind,” she told Andrew, and fell asleep clutching his arm.
There is no doubt in my mind that Katie was affected by that scene above all others because we were two days out from her birth family reunion, and some part of her subconscious was mulling over the idea of families being split apart. It is more real to her than to anyone else in our group.
We spent the next day at The Magic House, a not-to-be-missed children’s museum that sucked us in for hours, spitting us out exhausted, happy, and overstimulated. We ate our picnic in the 98 degree heat, cooled off with drippy, creamy frozen custard, and headed back to the hotel.
Twelve hours out from the reunion. Katie became increasingly quiet and contemplative. “I’m nervous,” she told us, as we moved through the bedtime routine. I cuddled in bed with her and we read two chapters of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh. I held Katie close, rubbed her arms and her back, murmured reassurances. I was nervous too.
I slept poorly, as did Andrew. My stomach was off, and I kept looking at the clock. Katie awoke very early and crept into our bed, telling me again that she was nervous and excited. M and her kids, D and E, were scheduled to meet us at our hotel for breakfast at 8 am. As we waited for them to arrive, Katie grew silent and increasingly anxious, glued to my side as I moved about our room.
And suddenly they were here. There were hugs, hellos, the expected awkwardness of fumbling around and finding seats at breakfast. It was really nice to have Cleo and Annie Rose there as distractions. M and E took turns holding the baby and playing with Annie Rose. Katie was especially interested in D, her birth brother, because she views him as a playmate, although he is five years older than she.
After breakfast, Andrew took D and Katie to help him fill the coolers with ice and food for our lunch picnic. I had some time to sit and talk with M and E about how things are going for them, and the news isn’t happy. M is barely able to make ends meet. D is having a hard time with his behavior and needs to repeat the 6th grade. “I worry a lot about things at home,” E said, who is fifteen.
Although D struggles with authority, he was very respectful towards Andrew and me. His interest in Katie and the girls was genuine, and I was touched by his earnest desire for interaction with us. He was keen to help push Cleo and Annie Rose in their strollers, and above all, he wanted Andrew’s attention.
We headed to the St. Louis Arch, and made plans to ride in the small windowless tram carts (not an activity for those who are claustrophobic) to the top of the arch, 630 feet above ground. We couldn’t all fit in one tram. D, who is afraid of heights, was very anxious, as was E, and they wanted to ride with M.
But Katie wanted to ride with M, too, so Andrew offered to go with them, and I headed into a tiny car with baby Cleo and Annie Rose. E noticed that I was on my own and said to her mom, “I’ll go with Carrie to help her cause otherwise she’ll be on her own with two babies.” E is a sweetheart, a good girl who put aside her own desire for her mother’s comfort to help me.
We took in the view from the top and spent another hour in the museum below the arch before setting out for our daily picnic, this time in 101 degree heat. D was excited to try raspberries for the first time, and Cleo gummed her way through a juicy peach.
Katie’s body language was relaxed and happy. “How are you doing with everything?” I asked her quietly. “Good,” she replied. “D and E are older than I expected. They’re, like, teenagers. But M is the same.”
We headed to the St. Louis Science Center. The heat had increased to over 100 degrees, and E became overheated after the long walk from the car to the museum. We stepped into the blissful air conditioning and began to explore. Annie Rose and I found a dinosaur exhibit, and a friendly volunteer named Lucy made herself available to us.
“Tell me everything about these dinosaurs,” Annie Rose requested, and proceeded to listen intently as Lucy described dozens of dinosaurs from the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. “Any questions?” Lucy asked her when she was done.
“Yes,” Annie Rose replied. “How did Mary Todd Lincoln die?”
We went to see the exhibit on Body Worlds and the Brain, where I was impressed by M’s enthusiasm and interest in the way things work. I recognized the expression on her face. It is the same one I see on Katie’s face when she learns something new that fascinates her. I told this to Katie, and her face flushed with pleasure.
We went out to dinner, and I offered to let Katie sit at a table with M, E and D. Andrew and I sat nearby with Annie Rose and Cleo. Andrew wandered over to check on things and learned that Katie had ordered a strawberry lemonade. Nice try, Katie. He switched the sugary drink order to water. M observed the exchange but said nothing.
Katie’s sweet tooth was satisfied an hour later when she and D split a chocolate cake and ice cream for dessert. Annie Rose and I split a chocolate ganache-covered brownie with ice cream and hot fudge. She crammed in as much as she could.
We were on the thirteenth hour of our marathon day when we took everyone back to our hotel to swim, where we reconnected with Steve and Loren and their kids. The kids swam for an hour, and then it was time to say goodbye.
There were hugs, kisses, farewells, and Andrew led the girls away. All was calm. Then, in the hall, Katie began to cry, saying she wished she could go with M. M saw and heard Katie crying to Andrew, and M walked out the door, sobbing. She came back in, and I took her to say goodbye to Katie again, because it appeared to me that they both needed another moment together.
M wrapped her arms around Katie, telling her, “I love you more than anything in the whole world. Don’t ever forget that.” And then she was gone.
Katie cried and cried as we coaxed her through the bath and into pajamas. She clung to me, and I told her, “It hurts so much right now. But it gets better—each day will get better, and you will see how resilient you are. Resilient means that you can feel sad and still bounce back and go on. It’s a really important life skill to have. Tomorrow we are going to have a really fun day, but you might also feel sad at points.”
I read to her, and she fell asleep.
Loren asked me if I wanted to meet her in the hotel lobby for tea after the kids were asleep, and I jumped at the opportunity to talk with my dear friend about the emotional end to the visit. In addition to being great road trip planners, Loren and Steve are the first friends of ours to meet Katie’s birth family. It makes me feel less isolated in this experience to have friends who know firsthand about this part of our lives.
The next morning, Katie awoke feeling normal, and we headed to the City Museum of St. Louis with our friends on yet another blazing hot day. At lunch, a cloud came over Katie’s face, and she said her stomach hurt because she was feeling sad about M, D and E. But the moment passed, and she had great fun stomping through the museum with best buddy Claire.
We spent our last evening with our friends enjoying dinner at Fitz’s. Katie finished the day in high spirits and slept like a rock. The previous night, as she wept in grief, I worried that an open adoption is too painful. But I recalled reading a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly that encourages parents to let kids feel painful emotions, the better to teach them how to be resilient and well-adjusted as adults.
Watching Katie recover quickly from her sadness reinforced my belief that Katie is able to manage the grief and loss that accompanies open adoption. If I were to keep her apart from M in order to protect her from feelings of sadness, I would also be preventing her from learning her own strength. It is not a perfect situation, but neither is life.
I sit pondering our trip, computer on my lap and Andrew at the wheel, as we head back to Chicago. The girls are listening to Sydney Taylor’s All-Of-A-Kind Family; the car is stuffed with dirty laundry and half-eaten boxes of cereal. Somewhere in the backseat is the tooth that Katie lost and then lost. Each minute, we speed further away from the birth family and back towards our separate lives.
Katie’s relationship with her birth family helps answer some of the questions she faces about her identity as an adopted child, and it eases the feelings of abandonment she feels. But it comes at a price. Each goodbye is bitter, and we must help her pick up the pieces. My hope is that, in teaching her how to put the pieces of her soul back together, we will help her be truly whole as an adult.