Sometimes I am angry with your father.
Not my husband, and not the man that you run to in the evenings as he walks through our front door. “Daddy!” you call out, as you rush toward his legs. Not him.
The other one. The only other man in the world that has a right to the title. Your father. Although that isn’t true, is it? He isn’t. He hasn’t earned it. He doesn’t know what the top of your head smells like, or where your very ticklish spot is in the middle of your back, or how the whole world goes beautiful when you smile. He doesn’t know you.
“Look at what you are missing.”
Sometimes, as I rock you back and forth in the still of the night, I think those words towards him in the cool dark, willing them to seek him out in the world, to travel over miles and whatever other barriers keep him at a willing and anonymous distance, to find him, to make him know the depth of his loss. “Look at what you are missing,” I whisper as your tiny hand reaches up to find my face, feels around the familiar territory, finds comfort resting on the ridge of my nose and the soft tissue of my lips, drops away drowsily.
Not bone of my bone. Not flesh of my flesh. His bone. His flesh. Sprung from his own body, yet he has no claim to you. You belong to the woman and man who run to you when you cry, who scoop you up from the ground, who kiss your scrapes and fret over your falls, who sing over you each night and rescue you from your crib each morning.
It is what we earn here, day by day. You are ours and he is a stranger, an intimate and infinitely important stranger, but a stranger nonetheless.
Sometimes I am angry with your mother.
For a million reasons. For every lie she ever told to me or about me. For the way she maligned me, in my absence, at your permanency hearing. For the way she held me in immobilizing fear for a year, teeth-grinding and bone-aching, while she played at some frenzied on-again-off-again game of motherhood, never caring quite enough, never the way you needed her to.
“Please don’t give him ice cream. He has an allergy. It will make him sick,” I begged. I begged and I begged, but every Thursday that she had you, from nine until three, the longest six hours of my week, she would never fail to feed you ice cream as if it were some secret treat, some special thing from her alone, something she knew I would never give to you. You would return to me nauseated and with whelps forming on the skin of your abdomen, small raised lines swelling underneath your shirt.
I’m angry about all that, for the lies and the ice cream and the way you came back to me spitting and imitating profane words that no one-year-old should ever hear. For the way she smoked cigarettes and much worse around you, made you wheeze and gasp, your asthma reacting in the worst of ways. For the bruises you came home with—a terrifying foretaste of what was waiting for you once you fully reunited and the eyes of people like me were no longer upon you. For the way you crawled up in a chair next to me one morning while we waited for her to pick you up at our caseworker’s office. She was half an hour late as always.
“Mommy, I no wan go,” you said to me with the most serious expression I’d ever seen on your face, and I wanted to scream. I wanted to just scream and scream and scream.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO MY CHILDREN!” Go. Run. Grab the receptionist, shake her by the collar, tell her to find our caseworker. Find him! Hit him, wail ineffective punches against his thrice-my-size-frame and demand, “STOP IT! WHY ARE YOU MAKING MY BABIES GO? THEY DON’T WANT TO GO! THEY SAY THEY DON’T WANT TO GO!”
Instead, I had to send you off with her, off from the safety of my arms towards all things that weren’t good for you. I had to watch you nervously toddle into the morning sunlight that flooded the parking lot beyond us, your biological mother’s own hand tight and irritated around your wrist, your thumb uncertainly in your mouth. In the North office of DFS, in building 13, I sat in a plastic chair and let you go each and every week, the harsh sunlight pouring through the glass planes and washing out my vision to nothing but a white glare. I sat alone without you.
Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I am angry with her for these things. But that is only sometimes, and these things are easily enough forgotten with a modicum of reflection and perhaps a few hours of time, and they are nothing compared to the thing with which I am angry with her the most.
More than anything, I am angry with her for the very thing that I love her for, the thing I spent four hundred and thirty four days praying for. One year, two months, and eight days waiting for.
I am angry with her for letting you go.
Because you are perfect, perfect, and everyone who ever meets you should want to keep you forever and never let you go. They should only keep you and do nothing but keep you. They should climb mountains and slay dragons and conquer the demons in their own hearts to keep you. Always. Because you are worth keeping. You are worth it and more, and more, and so much more. You are worth everything.
This is the truth, and she is the world’s biggest fool for not comprehending it, and your father is the world’s biggest fool for not comprehending it.
“Look at what you are missing,” I whisper, your head asleep on my shoulder in the stillness and the dark, your breath even, your dreams upon you. “You don’t know what you are missing.”
What are the important things you need to know about the days leading up to your birth mother signing over her rights? I feel pressed to write down everything, even the insignificant details. The way the sky was clear and bright blue on the day she called me. The way I stood in our front yard just before the phone rang (you were inside napping), and a pigeon took flight from a tree branch in our front yard. It startled me. Then her name flashing across the screen startled me more.
Someday you will certainly want to know these things. I am sorry that I cannot bottle the moments for you, the words, the tone, the setting, and preserve them until you are ready to know them. I am certain that time will erode my memory, as it does even now. Already, I can’t remember the words that she said, even though my brain was screaming at me while she was speaking, “Remember! Remember because one day they will want to know!”
And already the words are gone, in only three months time.
What I can tell you, though, is that her voice was hoarse and tremulous, and that the first thing she said was, shakily, “Hey Heather.” Immediately my heart melted at the sound, because I could tell that she was hurting and it made me think of the way your lips tremble when you are afraid. I wanted to hold her. It’s a reaction I’ve had many times upon experiencing her in distress, this maternal urge to gather her in my arms and soothe her. Never mind that I’m far too young to ever be her mother. Never mind that I am a third of her size.
In a phone call just moments prior, our caseworker had already informed me that she was considering relinquishment, so I already knew why she was calling. However, she didn’t know that I knew, and she told me like it was new information. I played along. I tried to feign shock and disbelief, and in hindsight, I wish I hadn’t. The lie stiffened my tone, made my voice sound mocking in my own ears. I wish I’d been honest and said, “I already know.” But I didn’t, and the moment is behind me now, never to return.
There is a story behind the story that she told me.
The story that she told me was that she was pregnant and that solely bearing the burden of caring for both you and a newborn and your two older surviving siblings, simultaneously, was an utter impossibility for her. Behind that story lay a more selfish truth, but I’ll keep that story off these pages. I’ll tell you over coffee one day when you are in your teens (or a beer if you are in your twenties.) It’s more complex and it’s a bit darker and more than anything, it’s yours. I’d like to keep it sacred for you.
I listened to her tell her story. I never acknowledged the story behind the story, because that would have been taboo, and I’m not sure if she has ever fully faced up to it herself. I didn’t think it was my place to confront her with it, not on that day anyway.
She was utterly terrified that you would grow up to hate her. Utterly.
“We will not speak ill of you in this house,” I promised. I consoled. “We will celebrate you. We will thank God for you every day.”
I think she was unsure if she could believe me. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I could believe myself. I don’t want you to grow up to hate her, nor do I want you to grow up with a whitewashed image of who she was. How will we strike that balance in our lives? I’m not sure yet, but I have decided that I will try my darnedest.
“I won’t allow them to hate you,” I told her, even though I am not sure I even have that much power.
I truly hope that you won’t, though.
She is your mother. You are a piece of her own body. You proceed forth from her, and one day, long after she is dead, you will go on living and then your own children will go on living and your children’s children will go on living, perpetuating pieces of her in the world. The two of you will forever be linked.
I am ok with this. I want you to be ok with this too.
And more than just being ok with it, I want us to celebrate it. She made you. She gave you life. She gifted you with wonderful uniqueness that only she could give. That is magnificent, and that makes her magnificent and certainly not altogether bad.
Nor is she altogether good.
What a life of tension you will lead, having to balance this all in your heart, having to perch along this scale. I will try to help you manage it, even as I manage it myself.
You are a piece of her, and you barely know her.
I love her for letting you go, and I hate her for letting you go.
Inside this paradox is where we will live. And we will live there together.
January 6th, 2014. Three months after the phone call from your biological mother, everything made it through the courts and the gavel finally came down sometime during midmorning. Parental rights were severed; you became wards of the state; you became true and official orphans. I gathered you in my arms and we cheered together. A dark cloud of uncertainty lifted off of my world, but even as we danced in the kitchen and you laughed at how silly your mommy was being, the only mommy you’ve ever known—I was mourning.
Even as the wrongs in your life are moved along toward right, even as your losses are compensated for, even as we celebrate because there is hope in our bond and more of it here than anywhere else, even then: the world is not as it should be. The world is broken. The world is out of sorts. Parents abandon their children, in part for selfish gain. Loving strangers stand in their place, though imperfectly, like puzzle pieces that fit very well, almost perfectly, but still not quite perfectly.
You are wounded now, even as I bind your wounds.
I am seeking to make all of this as right as it can be for you, but truly, all of my efforts are deficient, I fear, and only a dressing until some future time. Perhaps they are a muddy and ever-imperfect image of what is to come, if I could be so lucky to do my job that well.
What I am trying to say is, I do know that this is ugly, too. But all of this will one day be ultimately put right, I do believe, in Christ. I believe it, and I hope your hearts are one day unmistakably moved to believe it to. (There is this ring of truth in it that is clear like a bell, and how I pray that you will eventually hear it for yourself, with your own ears, apart from anything that I ever say or do.) But until the day that you know it for yourself (please know it), and until the day when all things are ultimately amended, I will do my best to help you heal the damage that marked you on this day, to understand it, to process it, maybe to one day accept it as just another piece of who you are, to navigate through the broken pieces of this world that we live in. Your world. My world. Our world. The broken one.
Soon another gavel will come down and declare you, fully legally and officially, ours. It will declare us, fully legally and officially, yours. In the eyes of the state, we will finally with authorization be what we have already been since the first time your father (the one you run to in the evenings) and I held you in our arms—a family. We will belong to each other, legally inseparably, forever.
What makes you mine? What makes me yours?
We don’t have the common bond of DNA. I didn’t knit you together in my womb. Will the gavel make it real? Isn’t it already real? Obviously, I have known that I loved you from the moment I first saw you on August 9th, 2012. Since before that even, I was loving you far before I met you. I was ever longing to meet you.
What makes a family? Is it biology? Paperwork? Choice? Dogged commitment? Chance? All of these things?
I don’t know. All I know is that I love you and I will go on loving you until I am dead. You are my daughter and you are my son and you always have been and you always will be. Nothing you ever do will change that. Soon the courts will agree.
And I am ready for that—to finally, fully legally and officially, become yours.