Month: December 2010

A Christmas of Merry

In the last weeks leading up to Christmas, I received unexpected gifts under my virtual tree, the only tree I had since I refused to buy a real one. I just couldn’t face decorating it, without the steady eye of Julia watching from her bouncy seat.

I’m finding tho’, much to my stubborn refusal to find the good in this situation the good shows up anyway, poking me in the heart and eye until I blink.

Monday, Beryl one of my oldest and best friends, took me out to dinner for my birthday, a last-minute meal before she departed to Cali for the holidays. So I not only had great conversation with one of best friends, she, with her excellent taste ordered a Chianti that knocked me on my butt.

Tuesday, I made dinner for my friend Penny, (another last-minute catch up before the holidays.) It left me in a good enough mood, and resolve, to open a box from another old friend, Diana. For years she’d fed me a steady stream of lovely hand knit gifts. Inside this box I knew was a gift for Julia, and that made the carton and the act of opening it very heavy. After three of four days of ignoring the parcel, I took a gulp of red wine, grabbed a pair of scissors from the kitchen drawer and cut the thick packing tape from the surface of the carton.

Diana's Hand-Knit Sweater and Matching Cap

The sweater was an expected thrill. I’ve seen the handily work of Ms. Bernardino before, but the cap, snow-white with little turquoise dots, launched a warm glow in my chest, in fact increasing my hope. As a modest knitter, I know, or can at least imagine, the attention one needs to craft such a pattern. Diana had faith that Julia would come and it reminded me to keep doing the same.

Wednesday, a few friends at work gave me gifts for Julia, wrapped and bowed, a mini baby shower, in the last place on the earth I’d expected one, a New York City ad agency. Their kindness, in the midst of crafting ad copy, rippled through me like warm silk strength by the hands of Heather, Rebecca and Kate.

A Lovely Surprise

 

At night another old friend Debbie invited me to hear Handel’s Messiah with her sister and nephew—music made to revive tired souls. I’ve hummed the chorus for days now.

Thursday, I gave up the belief that I would get a last-minute call from the international social worker to run to Ethiopia and bring my daughter home. There would be no Hollywood ending to this story this Christmas. But I remembered not to put a period where God has place a comma, has I heard my minister say once.

Friday, I tried to watch Pirate Radio, and found the storyline too trite, too hackney, too… well too. Movies about lard-assed guys getting laid by beautiful thin women always seem to get green-lighted. (Thank God, the same team made Love Actually so I could still muster respect for them.) But what DVD I actually took to, The Sorrow and the Pity, a documentary on the Nazi occupation of France, all four hours of it, served a spiritual purpose I cannot identify, but was very grateful for. It answered many questions I had about France during the Second World War, the Vichy government, collaborators, resistance makers, and how the shearing of a woman’s head can serve as the ultimate indignity— the mark of a traitor.

But this morning, I found under my virtual tree the best gifts of all this season. New Sight. The gifts arrived in the form of e-mails one from Diana, the knitting wonder.

A good writer knows, when you come across a great thought you just quote it, rather than paraphrase. So here’s the email, in part:

*

I’m so sorry your still waiting for Tayech to come home.

So today (Christmas) is the day that “The Church,” in all of its infinite wisdom, has decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  Historically speaking, it’s more likely that he was born in spring.  The early church, being in minority in those days, wanted to piggyback onto the Winter Solstice celebration.  So they “moved” the birth of the foretold Messiah to a more convenient pagan holiday.  Can you imagine waiting for thousands of years for a savior to be born, and then deciding that the day he enters this universe isn’t conducive to converting the masses?  What the heck, lets move his birthday to December 25, when the masses are already celebrating.  That way they’ll get used to sharing the Winter Solstice with Jesus.  Over time we (the “church”) can take over the celebration altogether.  The masses will forget the winter solstice and December 25 will simply be the birth of Jesus.  This poor man who was whipped to within an inch of his life, forced to carry his own cross through the mob filled streets, and then crucified for our redemption.  And after all that, he still wasn’t allowed to keep his true birthday.  That’s politics for you.

Tayech’s second birth, her homecoming, seems to have also fallen victim to similar politics.  It’s not the first time in human history this has happened.  I’m sure it won’t be the last.   HAVE FAITH!  I’ll keep praying for you.

*

I read those words, as the bus bumped its way across the Tribourgh Bridge (RFK Memorial Bridge to all you forward thinkers, ) I realized that for weeks, I’d searched for something to make me feel better. Now it had found me.

Then I opened a second e-mail from Beryl. Inside was a link to a New York Times Op–Ed piece by Bob Hebert. Again, I’ve enclosed it, rather than trying to write the Cliff Notes for it.

Not only well crafted, it contained an insight that spoke deeply to me. Millions of people love Aretha Franklin music. I attended her father’s church as a child, went to Sunday School with her two sons, saw her sitting in the pews when she wasn’t touring, heard her sing when she was so moved before the congregation of New Bethel Baptist Church. I sat on my front porch of my home, a Band- Aid tattooed little girl and listened as Aretha recorded her gospel album Amazing Grace in the 1970s. Her music has been a salve for unspeakable hurts in the past, now I knew I just need to go through my CD’s and memory bank and find the right song to keep me going until I board the plane to Ethiopia.

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Grab the Remote

To my mind, the things that are most important are invisible, yet not without weight. Or presence. Love. Hope. Fear. Each takes up its own domain in the world, and especially mine with the last two weeks.

When the call came December 3rd to stand down—that my brother and I weren’t taking a flight to Ethiopia pick up my long-awaited daughter—Jeffrey, my travel partner and all around nice guy had already made his way from Michigan to Manhattan. So he stayed. Partially because of the $150 dollar domestic re-booking fee Delta demanded, and mostly, I believe, to keep an eye on me in the emotional crushing, crash.

After a few days of co-habitation, my brother and I  hit our recovering defaulting setting: watching action movies. First up was Cliffhanger with Sly Stallone fighting high-class, mountain fleeing crooks , followed by Independence Day with Will Smith, a military high flier fighting aliens who wanted to take over the Earth, minus its inhabitants, then Roadhouse, Patrick Swayee’s ode to hair mousse and barroom style ass-kickings. Everyone was trying to overcome, overwhelm, or quash a serious threat—just like Jeffrey and me.

By the time Jeffrey introduced me to Spike TV’s 1,000 Ways to Die, a mockamentary type show that recreates the deaths of real folks who died doing real stupid things— an insanely addictive series— I realized that we were now sharing was the longest stretch we’d spent together, uninterrupted, since Jeffrey married seven years ago.

A decade before then, in the mid-nineties, for a year, Jeffrey lived with me in my modest Upper West Side, apartment. He’d graduated in Criminal Justice from the University of Detroit, and accepted a job with the Justice Department working with the Federal Marshall’s in lower Manhattan. Just as we did back then, Jeffrey and I had our television viewing rituals. For us watching TV, wasn’t just watching TV all the time. It was a way to share comfort and aid the wounded. Sharing a sofa, and the remote, is sharing the burden.

I, like my brothers, my brand of comfort, doesn’t come in the form of hand wringing, or tears. I relish watching brawny men, ( or women if we decided to add Sigourney Weaver’s Aliens series, or Gena Davis’s Long Kiss Goodnight, ( I own both shoot ’em ups on DVD) to the mix of folks determined to set the world right while we downed a Sam Addams. Or two.

And we watched a lot of football, too. ( I tend to cheat when I’m alone during grid iron season, clicking back and forth from match ups  to films and back again. ) During Jeffrey’s stay I watched every quarter, getting caught up on all the news: Michael Vick’s big Philly return, the juggernaut that is, and remains  the New England Patriots, and was lucky enough to see first hand, how the Jets trainer, Sal Alosi cheated, and tripped Miami’s  Nolan Carroll.

“Look, at the guy dip his knee out,” I said watching the instant replay. “He didn’t use his foot the way most people would in an act of emotion. He’s made that move before.”

Two days later, after Jeffrey returned home he called my cell. ” Call me when you can,” his voicemail said. After my office meeting I returned his call.

“You were right. The league has put that guy on indefinite leave, ( after being fined $25,000) after finding out that Alosi asked sidelined players to stand at the edge of the field, to keep the other team from running out-of-bounds. They were a human blockade.”

My brothers are rare men. They’ll call me about a sports update like we’re due to host ESPN but would never ask inquire adoption news. They know if there was something to say I’d call them and tell, rather than ring them up and discuss how Mark Sanchez and the Jets are holding up under the gridiron beat-downs they’ve taken lately.

During the two weeks Jeffrey and I were together,  a few fresh insights came up. I thought I knew him well. But I didn’t know that he blew his nose first thing in the morning, the moment his feet hit the floor,  just as our dad did when we were kids. And his nose sounds just like our dad’s, the same honking. Three short bursts. Then he starts walking through the house, into his new day.

The first few days, it freaked me out as I lay in bed in my room. The lids of my eyes popped open like broken shades as the echos of the past, stretched to the present in the bedroom next door. Our father passed way over fifteen years ago. After three days, Jeffrey’s family tradition of nose hooting became a private comfort, like an ancient baby blanket I still curled up with under the covers, in the night.

I also learned that Jeffrey is a considerate man. He will not only load the dishwasher, he will unload the dishwasher but it doesn’t occur to him to let down the toilet seat. I learned something new about myself as well: any guy who will unload the dishwasher so I don’t have to be bothered with the task, ( I can’t say why I hate it so much, only that I do), I’d give a pass on the toilet seat thing.

I also learned that my brother, the father of four, (two step, two by natural means, all loved) has become Mr. Fix-it. In two weeks time, Jeffrey repaired the door of the cabinet that held my stereo which had a tendency to go independent from the main body of the cabinet by design, but a little too frequently thanks to years of wear. A groove had worn in the wood. Next he renovated one of my dining room chair’s, the right arm that usually falls off at during big moments at dinner parties now solidly attached, followed by the mini-caster attached to the leg of an Art Deco cabinet that I tried to move without emptying out the contents, like a numb skull, cracking the leg and detached the caster. I began to think Liquid Wood in the hands of my brother was the ninth wonder of the world.

My apartment was taking shape, nicely. Two days before his departure, I stepped up my Honey-Do-List maybe because I never had created one before. After one project after another was completed, when Jeffrey headed to the kitchen during the third quarter of the Sunday football game, he discovered a ladder positioned in front of the fridge.

“What’s this here for?” He asked.

“One of the bulbs in the ceiling light blew out.”

“Oh. Where’s the new bulb?”

I held it out like a  little kid ready to help daddy.

” Do you have pliers?” he asked study the light fixture.

I quickly walked over to the utility drawer at the far end of the kitchen counter, and grabbed the silver-colored tool from the clutter of screwdrivers, nails and tape measures inside the drawer.

Jeffrey climbed up, removed the bolt that held the large, whirled glass shade, replaced one bulb, then asked for another.” It’s better to replace both in a job like this, rather than have to remove the shade again. It’s a pain,” he said.
” That other bulb will blow sooner than later.”

I went to the utility closet down the hall, pulled out another bulb and returned to the kitchen studied my little brother as he worked wondering when, just when, he had become a man.

When Jeffrey finished, he handed the pliers down to me, descended the ladder, folded it close, and leaned it up against the swinging door of the kitchen. He moved over to the fridge, extracted a cool beer from the shelf, and popped the metal cap, with the opener, which had laid on the granite counter since the NFL pregame.

” Just so you know, I’m punching out at 9PM. That’s when the Philly game starts,” he said, ” You have 51 more minutes to come up with more projects for me to do.” Then he  strolled out of the kitchen, back to the sofa, and the game.

I laughed so hard I felt the game day chicken wings I’d prepared—Jerk, Buffalo, and BBQ—roll and buckle in my belly. It was the first good laugh, the only laugh, I’d experienced since the wheels came off my adoption a few weeks back. It’s true, laughter was the best medicine. But football, good beer and company rank and rule above all.

That Damn Fat Lady was Only in the Wings

All storms start with a single drop of rain. From there the weather either builds to a ground soaking down pour. Or a cooling shower. Last Tuesday, what started as a sprinkle, a discrepancy between the dates on two different documents in Tayech’s adoption file— one that stated that she entered the orphanage on her second day of life, the other that claimed it was a month later—shifted, within a day, into a ground swell that broke the levy of my three-year-old resolve.

“The Ethiopian Embassy wants to give a DNA test the man who was given Tayech to see if he is the father,” Jan, the social worker’s, e-mail read.

For a long time I’ve known that international adoption is not for the faint of heart. It takes the kind of will that Edward Pena, the rescued Chilean miner #12 had to survive, even thrive, while entombed 2,000 feet below the ground for 69 days.

Pena jogged. Three to six miles a day.

“I was challenging the mine,” Peña said, “I was determined to outwit, and win over the mine, so the mine would birth me out into the earth again.”

Adoptive parents-to-be face the same head game that Peña tackled for more than two months. International adoption isn’t for the faint of heart. The game can change overnight because of a war, an earthquake, Hollywood or even paperwork.

When I began my adoption process back in 2007, the wait for a bouncing baby from Ethiopia was six to nine months. The high-profile adoptions of Madonna and Angelina Jolie of recent years had just begun to land on the radar of the average American.

Then wait rose to 12 months.

The following year, the summer of 2008, news broke that a Guatemalan woman, Ana Escobar, reported to police back in 2007 that armed men had robbed her at gunpoint in her family’s shoe store. They didn’t take money. The men stole her six-month-old baby. After a 14-month search, in July 2008, Escobar saw a child she believed was her daughter on the streets of Guatemala. The toddler, who was two days away from heading to Indiana with her adoptive parents, had the same, peculiar, curved little finger as the woman throwing a fit in the street. The police were called. DNA tests were taken, which confirmed Escobar was the biological mother of the toddler.

In January 2008 Guatemala adoptions were shut down so the government could repair its broken system. Some of the Guatemalan adoptive parents-to-be, in their ongoing quest for a child, migrated over to the Ethiopian program.

The wait extended to around 18 months.

Sometime after that, somewhere along my journey, while attending a monthly waiting parent meeting at my adoption agency on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I learned that the waiting time for Ethiopia had stretched to a jaw-dropping 24 months. Tears pressed against my eyes, as depression tamped down my heart.

“I bet Madonna and Angelina Joie didn’t have to wait that long,” Arlene said from across the table. Out aloud. Sure, we all thinking it. Arlene said it. The thirty-something, African-American, New York City Public School teacher didn’t take any guff at work, from students, or social workers.

Another waiting parent to be on the left of the raging Arlene a white middle-aged woman wearing black from head to toe, sighed. Hard.

“Sometimes, I think I could just steal a baby,” she said without any irony or bitterness. Just stating a fact.

The woman’s husband squirmed in his chair beside her, delivering an angled, anger-soaked, glare at his wife. My eyes lowered to the blond wood of the conference room table, afraid to connect to the others the room. I’d experienced those feelings, especially during the times when I listened to mothers on buses, subways, airplanes, trains, at the mall, and in supermarkets as they used their kids as verbal punching bags. But I knew enough to keep it to myself.

From the opposite end of the able, I heard the scratch of a ballpoint pen against paper. I glanced up and saw a social worker writing a note, recording the moment, I believed, when we witnessed a waiting parent showing signs of stress. The moment when a crack in her foundation opened up, and the darkness of waiting, broke her.

Now, a year later, I was cracking. When I received the final e-mail from Jan—the day before departure— saying I should cancel my airline tickets that the adoption was delayed, I broke.

“Please tell me you have good news,” Elsa the travel agent said on the other end of the phone

“Afraid not,” I said trying to blinking back tears and failing miserably.”We’re not going.”

“Hopefully soon, you will, soon you will go to bring your baby home.”

I hung up and wept at my desk. I don’t believe crying at the office is good move for any woman. Ever. But that day I was a mother crying at the office. With the cave door closed.

After sending out an e-mail to friends and family, many sent back the same wishes and prayers as Elsa the travel agent. I could read them but I could not take them in. Some called. Voice mail became my ally and portal of support. I could only talk to my mothers.

I spent Saturday—the day my brother and I were scheduled to leave to bring my daughter home—in Tayech’s room surrounded by her massive wee wardrobe, her shower gifts, her empty crib, her empty changing table encircled by a herd of stuffed animals: an English sheep dog, a penguin, even a pink, woolly sheep that giggles when its cord was pulled. Tayech is not here to pull its string so I can not bear to hear its laugh.

I’ve always been a glass is half full and rising sort of gal. Until last Friday. My friend Holly, another single baby mama, put it best.

“After going through this ordeal, actually being at home with your child will seem relatively easy, ” her  e-mail read. “And… at least you’ll be able to tell your daughter that every possible lead was followed up to find out her identity, and I think that may someday mean something to her. Meanwhile, it’s just a giant worry and pain in the ass.”

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

“All you have to do is get the baby registry together,” my New York Mom Ronda said over the phone. “We’ll take it from there.”

I gripped the receiver and stared at it like it’d sprouted a head.

For weeks I struggled over the items I need for the baby. I lost sleep over the list. The list ruled me.

“How’s that list coming, Hon?” my friend Maggie, one of the three shower organizers inquired in a morning e-mail. An hour later she sent a text.

The problem wasn’t that I didn’t know the baby needed things. What the baby needed, well that was the problem.

The SAT you can study for. The LSAT you can study for. Selecting things for a baby? You can’t select items that you don’t even know exist. In fact you don’t know what you don’t know until you don’t know it. Diaper Genie? Bompie Pillows? Who knew bottle nipples, like women, came in different sizes?

There were thousands of the little important items. But every one of them bowed to the tyranny of the stroller. I researched strollers in magazines. I watched videos online. Then I decided that I needed to go to the source.

“Excuse me, can I ask you a question?” I asked a twenty-something brown-skinned woman sitting beside me on the downtown B train.

She angled her torso away from me. Her left leg extended in front of the olive-green stroller, and the drowsy blond-haired baby  inside. She was wary. I had to work fast.

“So… ah, do you like that stroller?”

She flashed a row of perfect white teeth. “I LOVE it!” she said, relieved to share her first hand experience. The Maclaren, was a gem she assured me. ” Light-weight, snug fit,” she raved about it for three subway stops.

My friend Teraz had a different take.

“Well, as a new Mom you’ll hear all kinds of things, you really have to make your own decision. But I can tell you from personal experience that Maclaren’s are dangerous. My neighbor’s baby lost a finger in one of those strollers.”

“Hun?”

” The stroller recall was all over the news, about six months ago, maybe a year. A certain model was recalled. The company mailed a piece that parents to fix the problem, but personally, I wouldn’t risk it. Not after my husband had to start the day looking for a baby’s finger in the hallway with the doorman.”

I picked the Bugaboo stroller. Pricey yes, but lightweight, multi functions and no finger amputations.

For all the worry I did over the registry, Maggie, Ronda and Penny should have reminded me that women are independent creatures. When the day for the shower finally arrived, a bright Sunday afternoon on the 21st of November, I discovered that some friends sought the council of the list. Others had beat their own path to the land of gifts.

As I sat surround by friends and family, slurping my favorite champers, Pol Roget, and wrapping paper fell away, the registry wasn’t as important as I had thought. Sure there were things the baby needed. Some I received. Some I didn’t. I received gifts that moms said their kids loved, like the Baby Einstein First Aquarium,  and gifts they loved, like modern portable high chairs. Out of all the wonderful items that spilled out of colorful gift bags and boxes, the biggest surprises  I wouldn’t have found no matter how long Teraz and I searched the Buy-Buy Baby website.

My friend Jenny gave me a smocked yellow and blue striped gown that her mom started, and Jenny completed, after her mother’s  sudden death last spring.

Jenny Kales's Hand-Smocked Gown and Blanket
Close-Up of Smocking Detail

My college roommate, Vickie returned a baby quilt that I made for her twenty years ago. My hands shook when I saw the pink and blue squares and triangles underneath the tissue. ” You didn’t!” I said. Vickie beamed back a knowing smile from across the living room. Six or seven women gathered in close to see the quilt. Then I couldn’t see much after that, a hazy of tears washed over my eyes.

The Quilt That Came Home

“You know,” it great that you have those things” my friend Jill said, as we took a chat break at our Soho advertising agency office, the Monday after the shower. “Now you have things to hand down in your family.”
I nodded. But I knew they were more than items to hand down,or to store in moth balls or between layers of tissue with sprigs of dried lavender or blocks of cedar, they were icons to celebrate now, symbols of friendship and longevity— a knowing that words really can’t describe.

They will deliver a soft comfort to my daughter, in the night, during the days when nothing else can. It’s only when Tayech is older will she know enough to ask her mom why something as simple as a quilt and a gown can , at the oddest times, make her mother cry.