The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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How do you know when it’s time to take your autistic, bipolar twelve-year-old daughter to the psych ward? (They call them “behavioral units” now.) Is it when you find yourself sitting on her back and holding her arms to the ground while your wife lies on her legs? When she head-butts you the first time? The fifth? When she spits in your face?
My mother has been gone for some years, and though I do miss her and think of her with great fondness, part of me still has trouble forgiving how she would parade me out as a child to play my violin for unfortunate guests.
One December morning in 1967, in the early hours before a dull winter sunrise, I labored alone on the fourth floor of Immanuel Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska. I had expected labor to be work, more or less like it sounded: teeth-gritting effort, sweating, and grunting. Instead furious stallions stampeded across my eighteen-year-old belly, and no amount of shameless screaming in the direction of the fluorescent-lit hallway could quiet them.
The Sumner Press, the weekly paper from my hometown in southeastern Illinois, continues to arrive in my mailbox in Ohio even though I’m not a subscriber. A few years ago, when my wife and I were the grand marshals for the Sumner fall-festival parade, the publisher gave us a complimentary one-year subscription. The subscription has run out, but the paper keeps coming, as if a higher power has decided I need it in my life.
Haiden’s morning sickness was bad, and she told me to get the boy out of the house, take him anywhere. She stood in the doorway of our downstairs bathroom, just off the kitchen, her frizzy black hair bound into a ponytail that pointed toward the ceiling like a squat exclamation point. “Please,” she said.
When my sister Fawn told me she’d decided to adopt a little girl, I was skeptical. The girl’s name was Sam, and she lived in a group home run by — according to Fawn — gang members, illiterates, and pervs. Fawn had a master’s in social work and had been working with lost youth for years.
“Son, will you come downstairs, please.” He has pulled a chair up to the couch in the living room. We never use this room. The Christmas tree is placed in here each year. I would read in here as a child. That’s it. I sit on the couch and sink down. He sits straight up in the chair, his graying black hair combed back. His eyes soften. Like the sails on a boat, they offer a telltale sign of which way the wind is blowing and how strong. This afternoon, in the fading light of day, they tell me he is tired.
Now she’s rocking back and forth, back and forth in her padded rocker, holding a pillow to her stomach with one hand, bringing her drink to her mouth with the other, and moaning every now and then, “How did this happen? How did this happen?” And I don’t know if she means Boo Boo, her three Russian children, her outlaw pedophile husband, or her drinking, but I feel sorry for her. God, just one of those things could sink you for a while.
Most people wonder about their ancestry, scanning family history for glimpses of their destinies, seeking proof that they’re not the accidents they often appear to be. But when you’re adopted, you have no archives to dig through. Like Adam or Eve, you invent your destiny.
When she looked in the mirror, she imagined herself as someone very different from the person she’d become. Not the sort of woman who was about to purchase a child on a home-equity loan from some poor young desperate thing whom fate had tricked and whose womb had performed the labor of incubation for nine months and who — for financial and emotional reasons, most likely — would be unable to keep the part of her that is advertised as every woman’s greatest joy. What would it mean, this exchange, and how would they explain it satisfactorily to the child, who would “want to know,” as all the books and experts repeated like a refrain? Certainly not as tricky to explain as anonymous artificial insemination, or the donor-egg scenario.