Daughters – Excerpt

We settled in the family room and spread out a blanket for Sasha. I stared at her while Ellen rambled on about the logistics of international adoption, the paperwork, and the travel. How waiting for the INS approval was the hardest part. How Danny’s fingerprints got confused with a petty thief’s doing time in Georgia; how once there was an error in the file, it was like moving mountains to fix it.

This is my daughter from China, I had tried saying once, but the words got caught in my throat, like eating too much corn bread with nothing to drink. The daughter that melted in my mouth like a chocolate truffle was the one that I was unable to conceive.

At some point, I stopped listening to Ellen and began to wonder, tried to conjure up an image of a little Chinese baby, rattling around in a crib with others just like her. What would it be like to hold a baby who had never been held by a mother or father who adored her? I thought of my niece Maura, how she had been welcomed into this world in a warm hospital nestled at her mother’s breast, swaddled tightly in soft blankets. How wildly her start differed from the scenario that Tim was proposing: adopting a baby born, where? On the dirt floor of a hut in rural China, her parents disgusted when they saw that she was a girl? An old saying described Chinese females as “grass born to be stepped on.” It wasn’t as if I hadn’t read The Good Earth, and the entire collection of Amy Tan books. I knew how girls were treated there. I knew that it was only the lucky ones who were abandoned in open marketplaces or on the road leading up to the orphanage.

“With children, you write on a blank slate,” my sister Claire always said. But if I acquiesced, if I gave into an adoption, we’d be getting a baby whose slate was anything but blank. A year in an orphanage could certainly mar one’s slate, if not warp, crack, or break it altogether. Not to mention the shoddy, possibly nonexistent prenatal care that the birth mother had likely received. Smoking, drinking, drugs, poor nutrition, disease—who knew what a baby’s nine months in the womb were like, without even considering what the following months brought.

While a baby like Maura was having love lavished upon her by two parents who wanted a child more than anything in the world, I was being asked to consider loving an orphan who might not love me back. And while I was fully cognizant that being a parent meant being selfless, meant giving of myself in exchange for nothing in return, I wasn’t ready to strike that deal in such bleak terms. I needed what Maura gave to Claire: bright smiles, uninhibited displays of devotion, velvety cuddles. I needed the pure adoration, little possum hands hooked onto my shirt, endless strings of kisses. I wasn’t strong like families I’d seen on the news, adopting ten special-needs kids, shaking off praise as if it were nothing. I stood in awe of those parents, but it wasn’t me. I needed to acknowledge my limitations.

I needed my daughter to love me back.

Here’s the thing, peanut, I’d say to my prospective daughter. I’ll love you until you cry uncle. You won’t know what to do with the amount of love that I’ll have for you. But it’s vital, it’s essential, that you love me back. Because you see, we’re the same. I have a hole in my heart, too. I’ll fill yours. But I’m counting on you to fill mine. Do we have a deal? Pinky swear?

But what if the answer was no? What if the answer was maybe? Not now? Perhaps in a few years? What if it was never? What if all the nurturing in the world could not restore what was robbed from the baby I got? What if the separation from her birth mother caused irreparable damage to her ability to trust? Who was I to think that I had the ability, talent, patience, capacity to care for a child like that? What evidence did I have that I was strong enough? I hadn’t exactly healed well after Mom died. I hadn’t exactly fared well during my failures with infertility. I wasn’t Claire.

Having a biological child seemed easier. I would know where she was coming from. There would be no mysteries about scarred hearts or pain or longing. Having a biological child seemed doable, like making pancakes or biscuits. But adopting a child seemed much more difficult, excessively difficult, like layering paper-thin pastry dough in order to make a perfectly flaky phyllo.

I sat down on the floor next to Sasha, held out my finger for her to grab, and made silly, googly faces at her. She smiled and clapped and squeaked the cutest sound. When she looked at me, my heart issued a percussive beat, and I felt compelled to look away, as if I knew that looking at her for too long was as dangerous as staring directly into the sun. She was beautiful and if her start had been a rocky one, I certainly couldn’t tell. Was it possible that she had made it through her beginnings unscathed? Was being adopted a magical tonic that granted these girls a do-over, erasing any trace of hurt?

Sasha looked at me as if to say, “I’m loveable, don’t you think? You can find a space in your heart for a baby like me, couldn’t you?”

Maybe, I thought.

A week later, I finally acquiesced and opened the adoption packet, read it through. Then I went onto the adoption agency Web site, read, and scrolled through the photos. The site described the children: orphaned, abandoned, vulnerable, waiting for a home. There was one photo in particular—a string of glossy-haired toddlers lined up against a cinderblock wall, holding hands and offering pick-me grins. They were so adorable and perfect. I just stared into their eyes, thinking neither she nor she nor she had ever felt the safety of a mother’s arms; had ever nuzzled into a father’s neck; had ever fallen asleep bookended by two people who would move heaven and earth for her.
It hit me hard. At once, I wanted to be someone to one of these girls.

The tears came, tears made of the same sadness that I had cried for the baby I couldn’t have. I cried—no, I blubbered—freely, as one does in the company of only herself. I read, scrolled, and traced the cursor over the photos. I cried, blew my nose, scrolled some more. Before I knew it, an hour had passed. During that span of time, my pile of Kleenex had grown into a mountain, and the strangest thing had happened. My heart was pounding and my hands were shaking and I had cried a year’s worth of tears. It was undeniable: I had been touched, my heart warmed by an entire society of abandoned baby girls from China. I could do this, I thought. Maybe I could do this. Before Tim got home from the restaurant, I had already drafted our essay for the application.

My daughter, the words that used to get caught in my throat as I thought about adoption, were now smooth and welcoming, like a caramel melting in my mouth.