“So how long have you had the twins?” the investigator asks.
The investigator isn’t what I expected. She’s smaller and plainer and more, what’s the word? Is it sneaky? Stealthy? Deadly? I’m afraid of her more than I was the other investigator. I know immediately that she is taking in everything, my home, my face, the way I move around the children. Yet her face reveals only a pair of thin unmoving lips and beady brown eyes that dart around but never lift up in amusement or narrow down in disparity. They only observe.
I’ve made an abuse report to the hotline before, on a lesser matter. I’ve walked through the steps as they opened up a case, sent an investigator to my home, had her ask me five-zillion questions while she held an objective and emotionless stare, didn’t laugh at my small jokes, didn’t compliment the lovely chandelier in my kitchen.
This investigator is all of those things, to be sure, but she is also more. More closed off. More emotionless—so much that I mistake it for lethargy at first, and maybe it is lethargy in some way. Maybe she is tired. Maybe I would be tired too, if I had her job.
“One year,” I answer. “One year today, actually. This is our one year anniversary.”
“Oh,” she replies, and for the first time I see an expression cross her face: sympathy.
If you are a state employee, you walk through the front door and you see us with no biological children, clutching tightly to the twins, and you think, “They’ve probably had them all of a month and they are hopeful for adoption. They’re too young, too optimistic, too naïve.” But then you hear, “One year,” and you readjust your thoughts. You see a man and woman who have given a significant chunk of their life to the babies in their arms. You see the fierce determination on their faces, the tight cords of the bond between them and the children in their care—and you back off a few steps.
And she does. She backs off a few steps. She assumes a softer expression.
“Do you want to see the bruises?” I ask.
“You can give her a minute, if she needs to finish her snack,” says the investigator, gesturing toward the food on the tray of baby girl’s highchair. The investigator is much shorter than me, I notice, but then most people are—I’m tall—and she isn’t wearing makeup. Is she my age? I can’t tell. She could be older. She could be younger. I don’t know if the lines on her face are from exhaustion or age. I realize, as this all filters through my mind, that she is probably thinking the exact same thing about me. Creased face. No make up. How old am I? Feels like a thousand years.
“No, let’s go ahead,” I reply, as I unclip baby girl from her highchair and carry her toward the bathroom. “I had other, better, plans for today. I’d rather get this over with.”
Back to exactly one year ago, right up to the day, right up to the hour…
“Ok, ma’am. If you could step this way, please? A little further, just up to the line there. Right up to it. Perfect.”
I shuffle my feet forward clumsily.
Don’t drop the baby, I think to myself in earnestness. Don’t trip. Don’t fall. Don’t let her wiggle away.
The man directing my feet is small, dark headed, not much older than I am, wearing thick and darkly rimmed glasses and a warm smile. He has been nothing but encouraging, even enthusiastic, since I walked through the doors. He might actually think I can do this. He might think it, even though that other man, the tall man with the scowl over there, rolled his eyes at me when he handed me the baby, mumbling as he walked away, “Hope we don’t see you back in 24 hours.” Even though that older lady that took my name at the intake desk asked me skeptically, “Have you ever done this before, sweetheart?”
No. The answer is no. I have never done this before and I have no idea what to do with this baby—much less two babies. I don’t know what I’m doing here. You may think that I do, but I don’t. I really don’t.
“Ok. No just keep your feet there. Ok? Yes. That’s fine. Now just lay her there. Ok? Good. Now we will just do the body check and the first diaper change, and then you’ll be on your way.”
The diaper what? The what? What does he want me to do with the diaper?
“You mean,” I gesture towards myself, “me? You want me? Wait, what do I need to do?”
“No worries. Just undress her. I’ll take a quick look at her body and then you can re-diaper her and be on your way.”
“The… Oh… Ok. I’ll just…” I cautiously tug on the arm of her tiny little t-shirt. It’s tight, the armholes cutting into the chubby skin of her upper arms. It’s far too small, all over, and far too dirty. I sniffed at the cloth after they first placed her in my arms, and it smelled like stale potato chips.
“I’ll just…” I tug harder. How exactly am I supposed to get this off? Do I stretch it? Do I bend her arm? Will that break it? Can you bend a baby arm at that angle? Will it hurt her? She is so very small.
And wiggly. My word, this child is wiggly. Why is…wait…no…just keep still for a minute I need to. Her arm. Why does she keep pulling it in the opposite direction? Why can’t she just. Just for a second…
“I’ll give you a moment,” says the little man with the expression that is still kind and still supportive. He moves off and disappears into the sea of children that are spread out beyond me. They climb over the seats of plastic chairs. They jump to the floor from the back edges of sofas, aging upholstered pieces covered in grimy drop cloths. They throw balls and toys upwards towards uncovered tube lights that dangle from the rafters. They stick their heads through the metal slats of bent and broken blinds on the windows. They shriek, with laughter, with angry shouts at offending playmates. Some of them have the fresh tracks of tears on their cheeks. Some of them have tucked themselves away in nooks and in quiet corners where they sit still, noiseless, emotionless.
And I look at the little girl in front of me and think, “If I can’t get you out of your shirt, then I can’t get you out of here.”
And so, hands trembling, I set myself to tugging on her sleeve again.
“You can put the diaper back on now,” says the investigator as she frowns at her camera. “I’m not going to be able to do anything with this.”
“Seriously? It isn’t showing up in the photo?”
She hands the camera over, a cheap red box that probably cost a mere $30 at Wal-Mart, and I squint at the screen on the back.
“But you see the bruises, right?” I gesture at the flesh on baby girl’s backside. In one fell swoop, I lift her underneath from her stomach and thrust her body up towards the light above the bathroom mirror. “I mean, here,” I gesture with more purpose, “right here? You see it with your eyes?”
She frowns again. “I mean, you know her body better than I do. I do see something, but what I see isn’t nearly as important as what my camera sees. And my camera doesn’t see anything.”
“But it’s green. I mean, I know her skin is dark, but can’t you see the green?”
“I see something, but it’s in the crease of her skin there. It’s hard to tell.”
“But our caseworker told me to call it in. He told me you’d do something about it.”
“Look, I’m sorry honey. If I don’t have a photo that I can show a judge, I can’t do anything. My hands are tied. I’ll give biological mom a visit and interview her, but without a photo…”
No. No wait. Not that.
“Is there any way I can rescind my tip then? And have you close the investigation?”
“Oh no. No honey. It’s open now. I have to fully investigate it and close it out.”
“But you already know you won’t be able to substantiate it?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry, honey. But yeah.”
“So I’ve just accused their mother of child abuse, but you won’t be able to prove it, and you’re about to leave my house and go tell her that I’ve accused her of child abuse even though it can’t be proven?”
“Yeah. Like I said, I’m sorry.”
“This is going to start a war.”
“Yeah. Sorry. Look, she’s getting antsy there, you probably want to put that diaper back on.”
“Hey darling. What’s up?”
“I’m sorry to call again.”
“No it’s ok. Call all you need. I wish I could fly out there to help in person.”
“Me too. So I have another question. Do diapers snap in the front or the back?”
“The front or the back?”
“Yeah, the little sticky tabs, the Velcro thingies—do those wrap around to the front or to the back?”
“I mean, I don’t know what brand of diaper you are using, but I would think it would snap in the front. Does it not look right when it’s snapped in the front?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“I don’t know what looks right. I’ve never seen a diaper on a baby before.”
“Well does it fit when it’s snapped in the front?”
“Fit? I don’t know what that means. What does ‘fit’ mean? As far as I can tell, it would fit whether I snapped it in the front or the back. Both directions fit. I just don’t know which is correct.”
“I think it’s probably the front.”
“You think? The front? Really? Well crap… Shoot. Shit.”
“What is it?”
“It’s just that I snapped it in the back at Child Haven, when all the exit workers were watching me. I put it on backwards. The first diaper. I put the first diaper on backwards. In front of everyone.”
“Did they say anything?”
“No. They didn’t say anything, but I’m sure they noticed and thought I was stupid.”
“Honey, you don’t know that.”
“Yes I do. The guy that brought the babies out of the nursery told me hoped he didn’t see me again tomorrow. The lady that checked me in, she rolled her eyes when I asked what I should feed the babies. Then some random child from the children’s queuing area grabbed some papers out of my hand, and the lady scolded me and said I shouldn’t have let him do that. What was I supposed to say to that kid, mom? I didn’t know what to say. They all thought I was going to fail. Am I going to fail? I feel like I’m failing.”
“No. You aren’t failing. That’s what every mother thinks in the beginning. And the middle. And the end, too. Motherhood is one long lesson in feeling like a failure, like you’re always screwing up. That’s just what it is.”
“It isn’t easy.”
“I’m sorry, mom. I’m sorry for every time I ever criticized you. Why did I do that? I didn’t know that this was the hardest thing in the world—the hardest. And you were so good at it. How will I ever be good at it? I’ll never… I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how to snap a diaper. I’m failing.”
“You aren’t failing.”
“I don’t know how to snap a diaper.”
“Yes you do. In the front.”
“But I didn’t know that at Child Haven.”
“But you know it now. So…snap it in the front from now on. You’ve learned. You have to learn somehow. This is how you learn.”
Exhale. “So I? Snap it in the front?”
“Sure. Snap it in the front, baby. And just keep on moving.”
“I love you, mom.”
“I love you, baby.”
“Are you going to come back to me?” James asks.
We are sitting in the middle of a deserted lawn in a deserted park. It’s 3pm on a Friday. No one is here yet, or they’ve already gone. There is no one but us.
“She’s going to kill me,” I whisper.
“She isn’t going to kill you. She can’t kill you. That…if she killed you, that would be really great evidence for the judge.”
I should laugh, but I don’t. I can’t. I just stare in front of me at the air and at nothing.
My husband sighs. “I took off work today. I thought we could spend a little time together, you know, celebrate? The babies?”
The babies are tugging at the grass beneath them with rapt fascination.
“Yeah, but that was before I had to call a four-inch bruise into the child abuse hotline.”
Just silence from him.
“Crap… Shoot. Shit,” I breathe.
“What? What happened?” he asks.
“The doctor’s office. They were going to call me today. They were escalating my request for a letter for our file. Somebody important was supposed to call me, I… shoot. Seriously? What if I missed the call?”
“They don’t have your cell number?”
“No. Just the house phone. We have to go now. If I miss that call…”
My husband sighs.
Two tears squeeze out of the corners of my eyes. “I’m sorry,” I choke out. “I hate this.”
“I know,” he says, putting an arm around my shoulders.
“I hate it,” I choke, “but I love them.”
And we both look at the twins as they each stick a handful of grass in their respective mouths and then spend the next few seconds negotiating the passing of a twig back and forth.
“I love them too,” he says.
“Do you?” I ask. “Do you promise?”
“What?” asks James. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s just, you’re irritated. You’re mad at something. At me? I’m not being any fun today, am I?”
He exhales. “We just went through a CPS investigation,” he says. “I don’t think those are fun for anybody.”
“I want it to be easier,” I whisper.
“I do too,” he says. “I want to… I want to be able to sit in the grass with you at 3pm on a Friday and just enjoy the grass and the sunshine and the babies. The babies. I want to just enjoy the way they eat the grass even though I’ve told them ten times not to eat the grass. You know?”
“I want to not fear that someone is going to rip them away at any moment and send them back to…what? What is it, even? The gulag? I want to make plans for a year from now. Five years from now. Twenty years from now.”
“I know. Me too.”
“But we don’t get to have that.”
“Not yet. But that’s why we’re going home to wait for that phone call. Right?”
“Ok. Let’s go then.”
He stands. He extends his hands towards my own, but I don’t grasp them.
“What if they tell us they’re going back, James? What if I’ve spent a year of my life giving their mom a free vacation?”
He frowns, returning his hands straight down to his sides.
“I worry about that, too,” he says. “You have no idea how much that makes me…angry. I’m angry, Heather. I’m angry about what she’s taken from you. From us. From everyone that has tried to help her. I don’t think it’s fair.”
“Seriously it hurts,” I squeeze the words out and I don’t cry. I won’t cry. “I hate it. I love them. I want them to be ok. I need them to be ok.”
“I know, baby.”
“Are they going to be ok?”
“They’re going to be ok,” he says. “They are ok as long as they are sleeping under our roof, and that isn’t over yet.”
“No,” I sigh. “Not yet.”
“And you know,” says my husband, “if that day finally comes…if they tell us they are really actually physically going back…”
“Yeah?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Amber alert? We’ll run to Mexico? We aren’t that far from the border.”
I breathe out a quick laugh.
“I love you,” I say.
He smiles wryly. “I love you, too.”
And I reach for him.
“I wanted to do better than this,” I whisper to the little baby boy as I dump him in a pack-n-play. Immediately he tucks his arms up under himself and begins to snore.
“I was going to rock you,” I whisper, hoarse, exhausted, and in response he snores.
“I was going to sing to you,” I just barely breathe.
I’m so tired. So tired. So tired. I can’t feel my feet. I can’t feel my hands; they’re tingling a little though. I can’t feel my brain; it’s gone. Off. Extinguished.
“I’m going to buy another crib tomorrow,” I tell him. “I only have one because I was only expecting one of you. I didn’t expect two.”
He snores in response. What a day it must have been for him. What a long and eventful day.
“I hope you’re ok with me giving your sister the crib tonight.”
“Tomorrow I’m chucking the guest bed out to the garage.”
“And then you can have this room and she can have the other room, with the other crib that we’ll buy, ok?”
“And then I’m going to rock you every night for the rest of forever, until the state rescinds that right or you’re tired of it. Ok? Does that sound like a plan?”
“I know I don’t know you yet,” I whisper to him, leaning over the pack-n-play, watching the way the moonlight falls over the curve of his back and the way the shadow shifts in the rise and fall of his breath, “but I really want to get to know you. I hope you and I get to know each other, little buddy. I hope we get to love each other some day.”
And we do. The next day. And the next day. And the next day.
And one year later I sing him a lullaby and I lay him in his crib and he whispers, “Night night, mama.”
And I whisper to him, “Happy anniversary, baby.”
And he says, “Mama.”
And that is enough for me.
It isn’t enough. But it is.