Photograph by Molly NicholasI have known of my son for 1,000 days. He is approximately 2,560 days old. I do not say “approximately”because I can’t do the calculations, but because I do not know exactly how many days he has been alive.
I first see his picture when our adoption agency posts a note to prospective parents that he is about to be entered in the database for harder-to-place children — older children or those with significant medical or psychological challenges — and that anyone who is interested in finding out more about him should send a message. I request more information about him, as I have done several times with “waiting children”in the previous couple of years. I look through his narrative, social and medical reports, and additional photographs. I love him as soon as I see him. I forward the documents to my husband, along with an attempted non-prejudicial message,“See if this strikes you in any way.”Within about a minute, my phone rings with my husband saying, “I think we should do this.”
Never mind that this child is in a different country than the one for which we have been approved. Never mind that moving forward with this child will mean redoing much of our paperwork, once again driving around to banks, doctor’s offices, police departments, and myriad government buildings to get new documents printed, notarized, and certified. My friend Jill has a song that sings, “And then out of nothing, it’s telling me something I didn’t know that I knew.” There is a mysterious kind of knowing that can happen to a person, and it seems all the more sweet and supernatural when it comes to your life partner in the same time and space.
The agency requires that we make our case in writing as to why we would be the best parents for this particular child. And so I spend most of a weekend writing the letter that will change the course of our lives forever. A couple years later, one morning before school as he is putting his shoes on by the back door, my son smilingly asks out of the blue, having heard some of this tale before, “Mom, when you first found out about me, were you so happy?”Oh yes, definitely. “Were you so excited, that you wanted to write a note?”Tell me again the story of how you loved me and wanted me as soon as you saw me.
* * *
I have lived with my son for 906 days, the first 40 in his country of origin.
After 24 hours of travel, my husband and I touch down in an East African land I have heretofore only seen in photographs online. A social worker and a driver greet us near the customs area.The smell of smoke fills the air outside, and the roads are full of people out walking. All of my senses are overwhelmed. Cutting through the din of the dance music blaring through our driver’s speakers, the social worker asks, “Which one of you is going to learn Luganda?”Wait, isn’t the child going to learn English? Why are there so many people outside at midnight? What have I done and is it too late to just turn around and go back home?
As we pull up to the guesthouse where we’ll be staying, a man wearing a pink bathrobe and carrying an assault rifle opens the iron gate bordered with barbed wire. The house manager shows us to our room. In twelve hours, our son will arrive here. We wake up from our Ambien-assisted sleep, take in our new surroundings, wonder aloud what our son’s voice will sound like, and try to think of pertinent questions to ask his caregiver.
We’re sitting in the living room of the guesthouse, practicing some Luganda phrases, when the security guard opens the gate for the same car we’d ridden in the night before. The driver, another social worker, a foster mother, and a four-year-old boy walk up the steps and through the sliding glass door. He is even cuter than his pictures, and his voice is amazingly just like I imagined. After an hour-long visit, with the social worker translating as I try to gather as much information as I can from the woman he’s been living with, the other adults leave and the boy stays with us. We try to distract him from the chasm opening up between his old life and his new one by blowing bubbles and playing with a balloon.
Even now it is sometimes too overwhelming to think about what he was required to do.
* * *
I have been my son’s legal guardian for 897 days.
In a crowded courtroom, everyone who can be found who has played a part in our son’s story has gathered to testify. Our son clings to us, the people to whom he had been introduced and instructed to call Mommy and Daddy only 48 hours earlier. A week later the judge signs the guardianship papers, and we wait another five weeks for his passport and visa so we can make the 24-hour trip home.
In our first weeks together, we learn to communicate, attempting to meet in the middle of our two languages. There are a few nights where we fear our son’s guttural wailing will never stop, but there are also joyful discoveries, new rituals created, and exuberant laughter. His bond to his father is immediate. It is a great delight to watch them together. With me he has some more business to work out. There are glimpses of physical aggression toward me and also moments of unbelievable sweetness. In the midst of it all, we begin to move as a unit—three people figuring out new roles and new languages and new relationships—but firmly set on this road together. By the time we board the first of three airplanes for the journey home, our son talks as if he’s never had any other life than ours together.
* * *
I have shared a home with my son for 866 days.
He cries every morning for the first several months when his daddy leaves to go to the office. When his words begin to come more readily, he berates and belittles me and exalts his father. Yet he is desperate for me to be next to him every minute and cries in a panic if I am even twenty feet away, in a room where he can still see me. This is a complicated dance that we are in. He does not acknowledge that he had any life in Africa before we came, though of course we know it is in him. Grief and fear leak out in many ways with a child who has experienced so much loss and change.
I am kicked, punched, scratched, bitten, and have hard objects thrown at me. I cry and curl up in a ball on the floor and lament that my son would do these things to me. I thank God that he does them only to me and no one else. I do not worry that he will lash out or lose control with other people. This Thing is between him and his mothers, of which I am at least the fourth.
My neighbor says that when a child acts out like this, what they are really saying is, “Are you strong? Can you handle what I’m going to do?”I do not feel strong.
I lose my temper, though I had previously considered myself nearly unflappable. I find articles on PTSD in children and read books with titles like Parenting the Hurt Child. I see a counselor and ask friends to pray. I eat too many cookies to make myself feel better about how the days go. I gain too many pounds and feel worse.
* * *
I have been my son’s final legal mother for 708 days.
Other than a change in last name for my son, it does not make any difference in our lives that a judge in the United States has declared it so.
My son is as in love with his daddy as his daddy is with him. His underlying message to his father is, You, I have no problem with. I want to be like you in every way. You are the delight of my heart. To me: You and your kind are another story. I am afraid and I want control and I will push and push and push, but please, please, please don’t leave me.
One day as we’re out running errands, I become exasperated by my son’s constant complaining and tell him to stop being a “Negative Nelly.”He angrily responds, “I don’t want you to call me that name.”I ask what he wants me to call him. Silence for ten minutes and my mind moves on to other things. As we’re pulling in the driveway, a voice from the backseat says, “I like it when you call me Baby Boy.”
Throughout these days of hard things, I remain his mother and he my Baby Boy. We read storybooks, learn the alphabet, ride bikes, cook together, go swimming, hike around the lake, and kick a ball in the driveway. When he is not afraid, his mind and body soar.
* * *
We start to find ourselves going weeks and then months without a traumatic or dramatic incident. And then there are occasional resurgences. My husband and I try to figure out the patterns and guess at the causes. Has there been a break in routine? Is there an impending trip? Are we at an anniversary of a life-changing event? Some things remain mysteries, for my son has been alive for approximately 2,560 days and I was not with him for two-thirds of them.
Our days now are filled with more joys than sorrows. Our family has rhythms of meals and school and imaginative storytelling and inside jokes and friends and outdoor play and indoor art projects. When he wants to, our son tells us about pieces of his life before we came. My husband and I tell him stories about our lives before we met. We all re-tell each other the stories of our family’s life together.
When my son and I go out in public I like to think that the reason people notice us is because he is so beautiful. I forget that we stand out because we do not look alike. He is part of me. We have walked through fire together. We will walk through more. I have only known of him for 1,000 days.
Photograph by Molly Nicholas