Friday, January 22, 2010
Talking About Her
I feel a deep connection to my son’s birth mother. I met her. Looked her in the eye as she told me of her dreams for our son. I find her face, her voice, her story working itself regularly into my thoughts and writing. There is a beautiful photo of us together in my son’s adoption book. But I only, just yesterday, told him her name.
While we were waiting for Mister, I read books about attachment, international adoption, transracial families. I intended to be prepared. I understood the importance of telling my son his story without shame or censorship. Of engendering respect for his first family as well as the place of his birth. I was committed. Then I got lost for a year and a half in the endless moments of meeting his physical needs and the momentum of his love and familiarity with us.
I had intended to talk of his two families from the first day and model pride and ease in communicating about the fabric of our family. Then he was thrust upon my chest at our first meeting, scared and tearful and all the words I had for him were pressed into one simple Amharic assurance of our love, whispered repeatedly in his ear as he relaxed into the sleep brought on by panic and fear. English was his third language. He had experienced so much loss. I couldn’t find the words to communicate about two mommies in a way that felt safe and wouldn’t add to his confusion. So we talked about Ethiopia, and Sister Tirhas and the special blanket we brought him when we picked him up.
I knew I had lost my way the other day when Mister sat contentedly sharing his special book with a guest. Looking at the pictures, he told her, “I was so scared. I was so sad. Then my mom and dad came to pick me up.” That is the first layer of the story, clearly recorded in pictures. But underneath is the beautiful story of his mother. The one that changed my life forever. She was heart-broken and brave. She had loved him completely and loved him well until she was no longer able, forced by factors outside her control to choose for her child what she thought was best. The adoption book I have been reading lately talks about explaining that the birth parents weren’t ready to be mommies and daddies. They didn’t have the tools to parent. And although I respect the bravery and love in each birth mother’s decision the language didn’t work. This was not a teenage pregnancy or a delivery room handoff. She loved him and fed him and sang to him for years. I can see in his very being the roots of her strong love. And so I am a speechless. I cannot find the words to explain how these things happened. And I am frustrated that what I feel in my heart for this woman isn’t finding its way into preschool vocabulary.
I knew I had waited too long already when an opportunity presented itself yesterday. I was in his room after nap and we were looking at the colors on the Ethiopian flag that hangs in his room. Really the conversation was about cupcakes that we had recently frosted to look like the flag for Ethiopian Christmas. “Can you find Ethiopia on the map? I asked. He did.
“I was born there. In a tokule!” He announced, eyebrows raised and properly proud of this fact I had taught him.
I folded him in my arms in the dusky afternoon shadows; his cheeks toasty from napping, took a breath and made a lame attempt.
“That’s true. Do you remember that you didn’t grow in my tummy?”
“Yes I did.”
“No . . . you didn’t, but you did grow in a tummy. Do you want to know the name of the special person whose tummy you grew in?”
He just looked at me. I told him her name. He repeated it.
“She’s bad.” He said. My heart broke.
“No, Mister,” I said, my chest tight, the few words I had tangled in my mouth. “She is not bad. She is very special to our family. Do you want to see her picture?” I asked.
He shook his head no. Then yes. We got out his special book and snuggled on the couch. The big kids and I each took turns kissing her picture then headed downstairs where Sis and Mister had earlier begun an elaborate imaginary camping trip, which of course involved every toy we own. He played and I observed from the sidelines, replaying the scene upstairs, and asked God to help me get this right. So that our son can grow to “be strong in the broken places,” as Hemingway said. And also to honor a brave and beautiful woman, who is, whether we speak of her or not, silently present with us at the table.