The doctor’s office waiting room is filled with the usual mixture of white fluorescent lights humming overhead, the ambient noise of ringing phones, the swoosh of turning magazine pages and the interrupting squeak of plastic chairs as waiting patients shift in their seats. This is my fiftieth doctor’s appointment with the twins, an anniversary of sorts. DFS requires that paperwork be submitted after each visit, and the copies that I keep have begun to bulge in their folder. How many? I had counted and found that there were forty-nine, and after today there will be an even fifty.
A phone rings and rings unanswered. A nurse calls a name that isn’t ours. A rise of laughter emerges from a talk show audience displayed on the TV in a distant corner of the room. Behind me, the entry door to the office opens and closes with a click.
Five times already, with the arrival of five other people, I have turned in my seat to see if it was her, but each time it has been some stranger. Now a clock on the wall behind me shows that it is 9:30 in the morning, half an hour past our appointment time, and surely by now it is safe to assume that today is just another broken promise in a long string of broken promises. Fifty of them, to be exact.
“When they next doctor appointment?” their mother had asked me the day before.
“Tomorrow at nine in the morning.”
“I’ma be there.”
No you won’t.
“Ok. We will see you at nine, then.”
Nine in the morning has come and nine in the morning has gone as expected, and five strangers have walked through the office’s door, and now I deliberately choose to relax in my seat because this day will be just another day in our lives, with a doctor’s appointment and then lunch and then a nap and no surprises.
“There they is.” The familiar voice, husky and out of breath, catches me off guard. “I went to the wrong building at first,” the voice continues and she gestures in some direction that the offending building must be, “but then I found you.”
No. You aren’t here. Go away.
“I’m glad that you found it.” My words come out clear, maybe even cheerful, and I don’t think the murder underneath is showing at all. “Here. Have a seat.” I gesture toward an empty one. “We are still waiting. They are running behind today.”
Across from me, a plastic chair groans as she sinks down in it.
I wonder, why today? Why not appointment number forty? Or twenty? Or better yet, why not appointment number one? Where was she at appointment number one? Where was she while I was drudging through the hardest times, the sleepless nights, the terrifying moments when I didn’t know what was wrong and I feared for their lives? Where was she then? Stoned on a stranger’s couch?
“Yeah, I had the bus drop me at that corner,” and I look in the direction that she is pointing, but I don’t have any idea which corner she means, and I don’t care. “But I should’a had them drop me at this corner…”
She says something about bus stops, but I don’t care. I just don’t care. All I want is for her to go away, because I am nine months older since the day I picked up her children, filthy and starving, from child protective services. I have given her nine months of my waning youth, waiting for her to clean herself up and waiting for her to care, and every single month, she has let me wait.
The first month with two wild eyed and disoriented and terrified babies. The second month trying to figure out what to feed them. They won’t eat. Why won’t they eat? The third month and we are finally having some success, and they don’t tense up when I touch them, and they sometimes fall asleep in my arms. The fourth month and they are finally eating well and they are finally sleeping at night. Then the fifth month arrives and I love them, I love them, and I can’t stop loving them.
The ninth month. This month. Long enough to grow them in my own womb and birth them myself. Three times as long as the three little months that she ever had them in her own custody, the months before the social worker found them unclothed and unfed and catatonic in an empty room.
A phone rings unanswered. A plastic chair squeaks. The TV audience continues to laugh. Finally, a nurse announces our name.
“That us,” the twins’ mother affirms.
“Yes,” I agree. “That’s us.”
The neurologist comes and goes. We exchange films and paperwork. Their mother nods, but she doesn’t really understand.
“So I think we are going to be ok,” says the neurologist.
“That right,” says their mother, self-assured. “I knew everything was gonna be ok.”
No! I want to scream. You knew nothing. You never knew anything. You don’t even know why we are here today. You can’t celebrate with us.
“I’m glad to hear that,” I say it to the doctor, just above a whisper.
The visit ends, and we make our way out the office’s front door. The four of us find the elevator to the parking garage.
I must get out of here, fast and now. I must get in the elevator and ride it down, fast and now. I must find my car and load up the twins, fast and now. I must get far and farther and even farther away from here, fast and now.
I don’t want to be here anymore.
The ding of the elevator announces its arrival.
“I’m sorry for dragging this out,” says their mother unexpectedly, interrupting the silence that has hung between us like a buffer, dense and rubbery, and the words come out of her at something close to a whisper, softer than I’ve ever heard her speak. Is she really speaking to me?
“Nine months is a long time,” she continues, and yes, she is speaking to me.
“I’m…” I don’t even know what to say. I don’t even know if we are really having this conversation right now.
I didn’t expect to see her today. I didn’t expect to be standing in the middle of this building, knuckles tight on my stroller handle, squinting at her in the sunlight that streaks through the dirty windowpanes which hang above us on the atrium walls. I didn’t expect to be sharing this moment with her, a moment that suddenly feels real and personal and almost intimate. I didn’t expect any of this, and I can’t breathe.
“It’s not too long,” I finally choke out my response, and I don’t know why I’m crying in the middle of the atrium, but I know that I never meant to cry here or anywhere else in her presence. “I don’t mind nine months,” I manage through the tightness of my throat. “I don’t mind…I don’t…double it. You can double it. Give me 18 months. Give me 18…”
“You ok?” she asks.
Two tears spill out before I can stop them.
“Oh damn,” says their mother, shifting one shoulder back and raising a hand. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
“I’m not crying,” I cry, and I do my best to stop. “It’s just that…” I shrug my shoulders, at a loss. “Its just that I love them,” I finally get out.
When I get home, I will need to write an email to let our case manager know that she is now, suddenly after months of absence, in compliance with this part of her case plan. Suddenly, after nine months of nothing, she is following the rules. Is this the beginning of the end, here and now, standing in these streaks of sunlight? Is this the first brush of solvent on the bond that I’ve made with the babies that sit before me in the stroller that I bought? The babies that sleep every night in the beds that I bought? The babies that I gave up my fledgling writing career for? The babies that call me momma?
“I’m sorry,” I say, brushing the tears out of my eyes with vigor. “I didn’t mean to cry.”
“No, I’m sorry,” she answers, gruff, in the same guttural tone that she uses for pretty much everything. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
“You didn’t make me cry,” I protest, wiping at the skin under my eyes, shaking my head. “It isn’t your fault. It’s just an emotionally charged situation,” I manage, sweeping my hands out in front of me like the situation is there to be seen. Like it is hanging in the air between us. “It’s strange, isn’t it? It’s all so strange.”
I’m being too dramatic? I should be less dramatic. I pull my arms back and anchor them at my sides.
“Yeah,” she says. “That right.”
“That’s right,” I mumble in acquiescence, so grave it almost comes out like mockery although I didn’t intend it that way.
The elevator doors part and a woman dressed in scrubs exits. She looks at us curiously as she hurries on by. What must we look like?
There stands the babies’ mother, slouching in black sweatpants and a ratty grey t-shirt, smelling like all things offensive, maintaining some distance from us. And then there is me with my clean hair and my clean coral dress, pushing a thousand dollar stroller that holds a little girl in a coral headband and her own little matching dress, and a little boy in a white collared shirt and blue paisley pants. Clean, the three of us. Scrubbed and radiant and lovely.
But our skin tone doesn’t match.
And they both have her nose.
And I’ve obviously been crying.
The woman in scrubs passes on by, glancing but saying nothing, and the four of us make our way onto the elevator—the babies mother slouching and myself not exactly sure what to do with my arms, so I just keep them extended in front of me, my hands gripping the stroller handle—the twins sitting patiently in their seats.
We situate ourselves inside the box, and the elevator dings and moves slowly towards the ground floor. It arrives at the bottom, and the doors chime as they open.
“Well,” says their mother.
“Well,” I say, and a sudden sympathy comes rushing from me like a wave, flooding the elevator before I know better. “How are you getting home?” I ask.
Suddenly, she looks afraid.
“I got,” she raises her mobile phone in the air, but then she lowers it. “I got to call the…” And she gestures towards the corner of the world that she gestured towards when she first arrived in the office waiting room. “I got… I’ma catch the bus.”
I could say ok, and I could let her go now. I could let her catch her bus, and I could go home, fast and now.
Fast and now.
“No you aren’t,” I breathe, gesturing toward the parking lot. “You’ll walk this way to my car and I’ll drive you home.”
“You?” she displays, maybe feigns, a confused look. “I mean you ain’t got to.”
“I don’t have to do anything,” I mumble, and I feel steadier than I have in hours. “But if you need a ride home, I’m happy to give you one.”
“I live way up North,” she gestures again in some off map direction.
“I know that,” I say. “But I don’t have anywhere else to be today. I have time.”
“Well alright,” she concedes, squaring her shoulders.
“Well,” I say, squaring mine. “Alright.”
I’m a good listener.
My parents were in the ministry, and when I was young it wasn’t unusual for me to hear the phone ring late at night and the voice of my mother or father filtering in from somewhere near the kitchen.
“How are you?”
“What do you need right now?”
“Are you going to be ok?”
“What do you need from me right now?”
So as I drive and she begins to speak, and as her story spills out in drops at first and then a rapid torrent, I am not unprepared.
I already know that loved ones die. I already know that trust is broken. I already know that innocence is robbed and murdered and something cold and hard and hollow takes up residence in its grave.
I already know that life hurts. I already know this.
“Have you ever sought counseling?”
“Yes. But on your terms.”
“And that must have hurt.”
And I really am sorry. In more ways than you are, I really am. Because when I look at her I don’t see a stranger with a stranger’s problems. I don’t see a woman and her own heartbreak and her own failures. What I see instead is my daughter.
It is my daughter in the passenger seat of my car, with her jaw squared and her mouth moving constantly, nervously, spilling everything without even knowing why. It is my daughter that was abandoned. It is my daughter that was abused. It is my daughter that has buried the pain so deep inside herself that she can barely remember where she dug the hole. It is my daughter that is trying to do better for her own children, but she doesn’t know how.
“But I’ma make it right for her,” their mother says, nodding her head backwards toward the back seat of my car, where her baby girl sits in the car seat that I strapped her safely into only a handful of minutes ago.
“I won’t let a man hurt her,” she shakes her head with sincerity. “A man hurt her, and I be up on him. A man hurt her, and I be in jail. A man hurt her, and I be telling them, ‘Well you best call Miss Heather, because I need someone bail my ass out of here.’”
I laugh because it’s funny. She has a sense of humor, and her daughter does too. I know this already.
“No, honey,” I retort, shaking my head in the negative. “You won’t be calling me for bail if someone hurts her,” and I turn my head to look at her square on—I want her to know that I mean it, “because if someone hurts her, I will be sitting there in the jail cell beside you.”
She cocks her head to the left and looks up at me under furrowed brows with an assessing expression that I’ve seen many times from the highchair in my own kitchen.
“You alright, Miss Heather,” she says.
“Thank you,” I say to her. “I try.”
It takes forty-five minutes to drive her home, and on the way we talk about everything I thought we would never get the chance to discuss.
She wants to know why I have no children of my own. I tell her I have always dreamed of adopting first. Then she asks me if I want to have my own children.
“My adopted children will be my own children,” I reply. “And the ones that I birth, they will be my own as well.”
“I respect that,” she answers solemnly.
“Thank you,” I say. “I think we will make sure that our next placement is already eligible for adoption.” I glance behind me toward the car seats. “I mean, after these two go back to you…”
I wait a beat.
“Well hold on now!” she replies quicker than I expected, looking startled like she just lost something that she didn’t mean to lose. For the first time, I realize that she knows what she has in me. Perhaps I’m a card that you don’t draw on every hand. And for the next half hour, we discuss it.
Her history. And adoption. Her dreams. And adoption. Her hope for the babies’ future. And adoption. How we could keep the twins connected to their older siblings. And adoption. How we could keep the twins connected to her, too. How we could make this work.
By the time I drop her off at her house, she has practically willed the twins over to me. She is practically calling me their mother.
“Thank you for the ride,” she mumbles, as I roll to a stop in front of her house.
“You’re welcome,” I whisper back.
I want to hug her. I want to give her some money and find her a job. I want to buy her a decent pair of shoes and a clean shirt. I want to tell her to go get her other children, cram them into the backseat of my car, and we will all go back to my house and find some way to live happily ever after.
I want a thousand fantasies where the world isn’t a place that children are robbed of their innocence and grow into adults who never learned how to hope for something better.
“Get on back in there!” I hear her scream as the car door slams shut behind her.
Somewhere through the windshield of my car, I see a tiny hand pull open the front door of her house, and then abruptly shut it, to which there are a few explanations. Either the children inside the house are completely alone, or the adult that is watching them isn’t legally allowed to be near them and their mother is afraid I will notice.
I raise my hand and give a small wave towards the door that is now shut tight. I could easily call the child protection hotline and report this, but I won’t. Not today anyway.
Today I will let her have this mistake (because God knows I am reporting with vigilance every other tiny misstep she makes.) Today I will give her this fault, because she has given me something that I didn’t even know I was allowed to have—I didn’t know I was even allowed to think it—her blessing. So I will give her this blunder, this unforgiveable thing, to leave a toddler and a five year old in an empty house or with an abuser. Maybe then we can call it even.
I drive away with the twins safe and sleeping in their car seats behind me, their soft grunts and snores filtering forward to where I sit in the driver’s seat, steering away in the afterglow of their mother’s words, trying to forget the children alone inside that house, trying not to be too optimistic in the process.
“I want them to have something better,” she had said. “I realize you might could give them something better.”
I drive away with the same fear that I carry always, but also with a new thing—some tiny piece of hope.
“What happened?” I ask our caseworker, my face ashen, my shoulders sagging to a depth that I didn’t even know they could reach, my skin so loose and so pale and my bones showing through because I can’t eat—certainly not when I get phone calls like these.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“But what happened?” I ask. “What could have possibly happened?”
It’s complicated. I can’t tell you the details here in my little blog, but if you want to blame someone, blame the babies’ grandmother. Blame her for every bad thing that has ever happened in that family.
“So what you’re saying is…” I manage. “What you are saying is that I have to keep being patient, and then I have to be patient some more, and after I am patient, I have to be patient even more, and even then the stars may not align and some inconsiderate person who is having a bad Monday might overlook something and make it all for naught? Might make this last year, and by then two years, for nothing?”
He only looks at the ground, and not for the first time I realize he is much younger than I am. If one of us in this little five by ten foot room has age upon us, it is not him. It is me.
“Yes,” he answers after a beat.
“Well I’m grateful for your honesty,” I sigh. “Would we have gotten this much information from any other case worker in this building?”
“No,” he replies sincerely. “Not a chance.”
And this is true, I know, in the truest way.
“Thank you,” I breathe, “for telling me this. I’ll keep it off the record.”
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“I did everything I could,” he says.
“I tried every loophole.”
“Do you want a tissue?” he asks.
“I’m not crying,” I cry. “I said I wouldn’t cry.”
He hands me a tissue anyway.
“When will you start the reunification process?” I ask, steeling myself.
“I’ll drag it out into the end of the month,” he says.
My shoulders droop more. How could they droop more? I didn’t think there was any more depth in them.
“And when will they be fully gone?” I ask.
“Not until the fall,” he says. “I’m requiring her to go through training with the medical team, and then we will do a gradual reunification where we phase it in over a few months. They won’t be fully reunified until the end of October maybe? Maybe November?”
“Just before their second birthday?” A tiny sob escapes in spite of myself.
“Heather?” he says, and it sounds like another apology.
“I’m not crying,” I gulp.
He is seated at his desk, with an old desktop monitor half blocking him on the right and mounds of paperwork stacked high between us.
“You are the only mother they know,” he says to me. “You are their mother. I know.”
I know. I’m sorry. And that hurt. Yes. No. Maybe? I’m sorry. All the things you say to a person in grief.
“I feel like their mother,” I manage.
“You’ve raised them,” he tells me.
I bite my tongue and I don’t cry. I won’t cry. I won’t.
“The day will come when they will be back,” he says quietly, glancing at the door like he is afraid someone will hear. “It is an inevitability that we all know. It’s an actual date on the calendar, for crying out loud. It will happen.”
“I know,” I gulp, “but where will I be when that day arrives? And where will you be? And who will be watching the calendar, making sure it doesn’t go unnoticed? And what will these children have suffered in the meantime? How many hungry or cold or miserable nights? Or worse.”
“Heather,” he says. “I’m sorry. You don’t know how hard I tried.”
“No,” I breathe out, not seeing him or his desk or his computer monitor or the stack of paper, not seeing the steel-barred windows of his office or the sunlight beyond it. Not seeing anything but the faces of the babies that I’ve loved for a few weeks shy of a year.
“Do you like your job, Darryl?” I ask him, and I end the sentence with his name, but that isn’t his name because I wouldn’t share his name here.
“I don’t,” he says somberly, without even thinking it over. “I really don’t. I don’t like my job, and I don’t like this city.”
“I know that you don’t,” I choke. “But you are good at your job. And so you will keep your eyes glued to that calendar for as long as you are in this job? And you will call me the minute my babies are back in the system? You will do this for me?”
He nods his head in the affirmative.
“You will do this,” I say it this time with no question mark at the end.
“I will,” he says. “Heather. I promise I will.”
It is just another Wednesday, and the babies have been in daycare so that I can do a little work—finish out a dying writing contract, run the payroll for my husband’s business. But now all that is done for the day, and I’m retrieving them now.
I walk down a tiled and empty hallway; then through the smudged glass of a classroom wall, I see the twins before they see me. Baby boy is playing with a ball and baby girl is pulling on the sleeve of another child, but when they spot me they both start to wail.
“MaMA! MaMA! MaMA!”
They also offer a few high-pitched shrieks that burst the eardrums of everyone in a thirty-foot radius.
“My loves!” I cry as I open the door, and they find and cling to my legs like I’ve just rescued them from drowning.
“It’s ok!” I assure them, diving down to cup them in my arms, lifting them both in a fell swoop that often impresses strangers.
“How do you do that?” random people sometimes ask.
“This?” I say, glancing at the way both 18-month-olds are firmly balanced and, miraculously, happy in my arms. “This is the kind of miracle that you learn to perform when you have twins.”
The twins stop crying and the four of their little hands start feeling at my face. “How was your day?” I ask them.
“Mama,” says one.
“MaMA!” says the other.
“They love you so much,” a daycare employee says as she gathers their sippy-cups from the refrigerator and finds some paperwork for me. “Oh I’m sorry,” she adds. “Do you mind signing this before you leave?”
I have to dump both twins in the floor to do so, and that action causes a protest on the level of a proletarian revolution.
“My babies!” I say to soothe them as my hand finds the pen and blindly signs the document in front of me. Then it reaches to re-gather the twins from the floor. “Just be patient,” I tell them. “It’s only for a moment. I won’t leave you forever. I promise I won’t leave you forever.”
But as the words escape my mouth, I realize how powerless I am to fulfill them—how futile my earnestness is.
I secure them both in my arms again, and I hurry us all three out of the building.
“I’m a liar,” I whisper to them as we approach my car. “I’m a no-good liar, and I can’t promise you anything more than the few hours in front of me. I hate that more than you will ever know.”
I buckle them in their car seats. I drive them home, feed them dinner, bathe them. I lay them down in their beds, and then finally I collapse on my knees in the little hallway outside their rooms.
“God!” I heave, and the words are almost noiseless. “You merciful merciless God. Won’t you do something? Please? Do anything. Do something.”
Just anything something good.
They are my children.
My only children.
And so I cry myself dry, while the babies sleep sound in their beds.