Last month I joined a group of writers and adoptive parents to hear a reading by New York Times bestselling author Jillian Lauren. She was in Chicago as part of the book tour for her stunning new memoir, Everything You Ever Wanted. I was keenly interested in meeting Jillian, because she has experienced adoption from two angles of the triad: she is both an adoptee and an adoptive mother.
If you hang out in adoption circles online, you might get the impression that adoptees and adoptive parents cannot possibly understand each other, that the gaping needs of parent and child can never be matched and balanced.
Meeting Jillian and talking with her was an affirming experience in every way. She spoke about the pain she felt as an adoptee whose parents had envisioned raising a different type of child. Her words — “I was offered conditional love, and I felt the weight of my parents’ disappointment” — was a reminder to me, to us all, that our children need complete unconditional love in order to be whole.
Guided by her own wild journey — “from a member of a harem to a member of the PTA” — Jillian found a way to embrace her identity and become whole. Her new memoir shares the story of how she and her husband traveled to Africa to adopt a beautiful baby boy with special needs.
What struck me about reading Everything You Ever Wanted was the part of the story that came after Jillian and her husband brought their new son home. The hours and weeks and months of never-ending devoted care that Jillian poured into mothering her little boy, even when it was hard and confusing and seemingly one-sided. The ability she had to reach into the heart of a broken little boy and nurture an attachment, fragile as a thread at first. The gift of unconditional love, given from an adoptee to an adoptee. And the joy of seeing it returned. I finished the book and thought, they understand each other. It can happen.
THERE are three kinds of daylight in Los Angeles.
There is the midday light—flat and relentless. Usually partnered with heat, it catches and suspends you, like a formaldehyde solution. It has weight, singes your lungs, would poison the rain if the rain ever fell. Makes you wish the bloody red sunset would hurry up and come already.
There is the light after a rare rainsorm—the cerulean blue sky that frames the Hollywood sign and breathes new life into a thousand impossible dreams. Shatters your heart into glistening David Hockney swimming-pool pieces. You feel rich. You want to be driving down Sunset Boulevard through Beverly Hills in a convertible. Forget that. You want to be driven down Sunset in a Bentley with tinted windows. Only tourists admit they want to be seen.
Finally there is the dawn—cool, pale, and still smudged with shadows from the night before. In Hollywood, for many people it still is the night before. But for those of us who wake with the dawn instinctively, it is forgiving. It is forgiveness. It is soft, from the humbler east, more understated than the garish twilight displays over the ocean. It yearns for something clean that never comes. No matter—it is the yearning that counts.
The dawn is my time. I always rise before everyone. More often than not, I dress quickly, have a few sips of tea, and walk out the door to exercise.
On the morning of my eighteen-month-old son Tariku’s final adoption hearing at the Children’s Court in Monterey Park, I wake at five. The hearing is a formality, but a significant one. After this, he will be irrevocably ours. My husband, Scott, and T are sleeping next to me. The pale predawn light seeps around the edges of the curtains. We don’t have to be there until ten. I slip out of bed and lace up my sneakers.
There is a hill on the southern border of our neighborhood in northeast L.A. A road cuts over it, but the backside is undeveloped, with trails I’ve yet to explore. The road is steep and winding. A good hike, I think, and doable in time. If I walk at a brisk clip, I don’t even need the car.
I feel strong as I push toward the top. When I reach the crest, the trail looks clearly marked. I figure fifteen minutes to the bottom. Perfect. When I arrive home, Scott will have just woken up with T, the morning chores will be underway, and I will plunge in.
But now I’m headed down and something is wrong I hike enough to be able to feel when a trail is going wrong—probably heading to a dead end. I go back to the last fork and take another trail, which also ends abruptly. Through the branches, I can see the back of what looks like a high school down below. I figure I can bushwhack my way through the brush, then walk through the cam- pus and back out to the street. It won’t be far. After that my home is just over the next familiar hill.
It’s harder than I thought. Burrs invade my shoes; an errant twig scratches my face; another tears my favorite leggings. At the bottom, I remember that this isn’t the era I grew up in, of smoking pot and getting felt up in the woods behind the library. This is the era of high-security schools. A tall chain-link fence blocks my passage.
My chest seizes and I recoil. When I was a kid, the jagged end of chain link ripped my hand open. I still remember the pale blue T-shirt I was wearing, the smell of damp earth after I hit the ground. It always takes me a minute to remember . . . this injury never actually happened to me. It happened to my father.
When I was little, I used to ask my dad over and over again to tell me how he got the thin white scar that bisected his palm and ran down his forearm nearly to his elbow. I heard the story so many times it became almost as much a part of my own body as it was his. In my dreams, it’s always me: stumbling, light-headed, nearly bleeding to death, trying to hold my torn skin together with my blood-soaked T-shirt.
I’m not delusional. If I think about it, I realize that of course that scar is my father’s scar. Still, the memory comes to me in a momentary stab of fear.
I’m chilly in the shady grove, my sweaty shirt cooling in the morning breeze.
It’s one of my greatest fears that my hurt will become Tariku’s, in spite of my best efforts to give him a whole new world. Maybe the legacy of our parents’ pain is unavoidable. Maybe these scars are not just psychological but somehow cellular. Maybe the darkest moments of my story are so deeply inscribed in my body, my voice, my very soul that I won’t be able to help transmitting them.
I steel myself, wedge my toe into the diamond of chain link, and pull myself over the top.
Maybe so, I think. But I can also transmit this: Even shaking with fear, you can still scale the fence.
Jillian Lauren is the author of the new memoir, EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED, the New York Times bestselling memoir, SOME GIRLS: My Life in a Harem, and the novel PRETTY. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Elle, among others. She is a regular storyteller on The Moth and blogs at jillianlauren.com. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son.
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