by Robin L. Flanigan
Robin is an award-winning freelance journalist. You can find her at her blog, The Kinetic Pen. Her story, which looks at adoption, infertility, and some inherent complexities, was anthologized in 2007.
Annalie is sitting across from me, dipping her fingers in yogurt and stacking sliced grapes on top of her grilled cheese sandwich. It’s Mother’s Day. My second one. Done with my meal, I pick up the newspaper and start scanning.
I drop the paper.
“What did you say, honey?”
She repeated herself. It sounded the same.
“Did you say adoption?”
“Where did you hear that word?”
So the trees told her. The trees tell her a lot of things.
I ask her what the trees said.
“Annalie is adopted.”
“Oh,” I say. I nod slowly. “Do you know what that means?”
She stares at me.
That’s all I can get out. My eyes start to tear up. I don’t want her to notice. Standing up, I tell her I’m going to get her daddy.
“He would love to be here for his, okay? I’ll be right back.”
I turn the corner and blink hard, soaking my cheeks.
Almost two years ago, a friend from college sent me a plastic bottle of holy water from Lourdes for good luck. She’d picked it up from a pilgrimage there, when she traveled with dozens of fiercely Catholic relatives on behalf of her uncle, who was battling lung cancer. After praying for him she prayed for herself, that the Lord would see fit to bless her with twins. She gave birth to two girls nine months later.
My friend told me to bless myself with the water and soon I would be a mother. The bottle, half the size of my palm, looked like a tourist shop trinket. The word “Lourdes” was printed in fancy type above the head of a woman praying to a supersized Virgin Mary. The woman wore a long robe; a cross dangled from a chain encircling her wrist. Short lines representing bursts of light surrounded the Virgin, her hands also folded in prayer.
I spread a towel on the floor and lay down, the square tiles hard against my spine. Feet flat, knees propped together, I twisted off the bottle’s blue cap, hiked up my shirt and watched the cold water drip onto my skin, just below the navel.
Catching my breath, I made a sign of the cross out of the quivering pools on my belly. I’m not Catholic, but it seemed like the right thing to do.
I drag myself down the hallway and find my husband in our bedroom, folding laundry.
“I really need your help with a conversation downstairs.”
Patrick puts his hand on my arm and laughs as he heads for the door. I tell him to wait, that I need to fill him in first.
I’m not finished when he walks out and heads for the bookshelf in Annalie’s room.
“That’s perfect,” I say, realizing what he’s after. “It’s over here.”
Back in the dining room, Patrick tousles Annalie’s hair.
“I hear you have a question,” he says.
I join them at the table after turning the volume all the way down on a Leonard Cohen song. Annalie’s not saying anything. It’s really quiet.
“Maybe we’re making too big a deal out of this,” Patrick whispers in my direction.
A few more seconds pass and he gets right to the point.
“So you want to know about adoption?”
There it is. Right there on the table.
He opens the book and flips through the pages showing Mama Roo leaning up against a tree to rest; the baby bluebird falling down, down, down out of its crowded nest and into Mama Roo’s pouch; the two of them hugging and happy.
I say it’s like the story of the day she was born. How she was with Jessica and Peter in the hospital and then came home to live with us.
Annalie taps her palm with her fingers and rubs circles on her cheeks.
“I’m putting on makeup,” she announces.
“Do you understand what adoption is?” I ask.
She scowls and sticks out her hand, as if telling me to halt. She pumps her hand back and forth. I tell her to stop, that it’s a rude gesture.
“I’m pushing you away,” she says. Then, “Why did you adopt me?”
Three pregnancies in one year, all through in vitro fertilization. The first was ectopic, ending when my right fallopian tube burst late one afternoon while I was watching TV. My husband didn’t answer his phone at work so I crawled to the middle of the driveway and waited. Patrick spent that entire night, before the morning’s surgery, trying to sleep in a plastic chair at the foot of my bed.
Doctors knew fairly early on that the second one wasn’t viable either. With an ultrasound showing the possibility that the embryo was stuck in my left fallopian tube this time, they advised being injected with a cancer drug to abort the pregnancy. I returned to the clinic, pulled down my underwear and leaned over an exam table for the shot. Except that it didn’t work. I went back for another round the next week.
The third loss was a blessing. It was over fast.
Soon after the last one I got a call while on vacation from my friend Janet, who had just found out she was pregnant. We’d gone through the same five years of infertility treatments together. That night I had a dream I was at a party. I had finally adopted a little girl. She measured a couple of inches and fit nicely in my hand. At one point in the evening I realized I’d forgotten to change her diaper, which made me feel like an unfit mother. Then a woman appeared and asked if she could hold my daughter. I watched as she took my little one into her hands and promptly dropped her. Suddenly transported outdoors, I searched frantically for my baby among the rocks and weeds. The woman laughed, said she had dropped her own children like that. I wanted to ask everyone at the party to stop their conversations, to help me look. But I kept quiet. My baby was gone and I knew it.
I let her father talk first.
“Jessica knew that we would love you,” he says. “When you were in Jessica’s belly, she searched the whole country for a mommy and daddy who would love you very much. And she chose us.”
“And we waited for you for so long,” I chime in. “We wanted you so much.”
“Why mommy and daddy have no babies?”
Two-year-olds are supposed to ask about the sky and bugs and whether they can jump on the bed just this once.
Images of basal thermometers and needles and pregnancy tests flash through my mind. I have no idea what to say. That miracle cures didn’t work? That medical science couldn’t deliver?
Patrick looks just as stunned. He can’t take his eyes off her.
“That’s deep,” he starts. “Well, there are many answers to that question, and you’ll find new answers every year. But one of them, one that I like, is that sometimes mommies can’t take care of their babies, so somebody else takes care of them. God makes it that way.”
The audience tearfully listened to the photographer explain his images of one dead or dying newborn after another, slowly appearing and fading away in a tangle of breathing tubes and unanswered prayers. In one photograph, a woman cradled her underdeveloped baby in crossed palms. In another, a 10-year-old boy, standing next to his mother, had dumped his head in her lap after being convinced that six hours without a heartbeat is too long to bring back to life the brother he had been holding moments before.
This was bereavement photography. Pictures that document the short time parents have with their doomed children. I was there to watch the pain, to measure it against my own and be reassured that I had not gone through the worst. Not by a long shot. That system of measurement had become an obsession, starting two months earlier when I rented a documentary about a single woman who adopted 13 children with severe disabilities. Weeks later I was at the theater for a double feature: the first film followed a blind Israeli lawn bowler on her trip to the Para-Olympics; the second was about a dwarf, the sole survivor of a family experimented on during the Holocaust by Mengele himself.
At the theater again for this lecture, sniffling with strangers, I tried to persuade myself to be thankful my husband and I lost our babies before they beared any resemblance to the smallest child up on that screen. But our own grainy photographs from the hospital flashed through my mind, images of the embryos before they were implanted, proof that I was a mother three times over if only for a couple of weeks.
I kept expecting all of this other suffering, all of this greater suffering, to ease my own. To make my struggle less valid. I had a good life.
But I needed more than one tissue when the photographs stopped shuffling, when the screen was blank and the theater was black and the audience was given a minute to recover in silence.
I’d thought starting the adoption process meant the healing had officially begun, but no crust was forming on my wounds. Some women, even those who had happily adopted, said that the sense of loss never goes away. Decades later it can smack you upside the head when you least expect it. Like when a baby shower invitation comes in the mail or you hear a co-worker gush over the birth of his first grandchild.
The dull lights overhead had begun to flicker and I couldn’t even deal with that.
Annalie points to a vase of flowers on a Mexican cabinet behind me.
“Are those good flowers or bad flowers?”
I look at the bouquet. We tell her they’re good.
Next, she points to the Christmas cactus in the middle of the table and says she wants to bring it over to the good flowers.
Patrick unbuckles her booster seat. She hops to the floor, rounds the table and asks me to get up so she can use my chair to get the plant. I rise and she kneels on the seat cushion to reach the cactus.
She extends her arms toward me.
“Can you hold this while I get down?”
I set the plant on the cabinet.
“Is this how you want it?” I ask.
Annalie looks at the tall crystal vase and the short terra-cotta pot beside it.
Then, with authority, she makes her pronouncement.
I look at my husband, mouth agape, and silently give thanks that our daughter is making sense of her world.
She feels safe and protected and loved.
And so do we.