Today is the first day of summer vacation for our family, a misnomer at best since summer solstice is still a month away and the children return to the classroom in the dead heat of August. As we finished off the school year, I reflected on the events of the past 12 months and decided it was time to regroup, beginning with the long-ago promised story of Sissy's adoption. But first, a disclaimer must be supplied. As with any story that involves other people, this account is my point of view, the other individuals living these events with me might have a different tale to tell. I give credence to all sides of the story but having only lived this side of the fence, it is all I feel privileged to recount to you.
I first met her, J, who would become birthmom/firstmom to us later, in the fall of 1996 at her uncle's house. She was living with her aunt and uncle after aging out of the system, leaving of her own recognizance at the age of 19, literally running away from her foster home with nothing but the clothes on her back and a certificate of completion from her high school. Finding that she was ill-prepared to take on adulthood, her family took her in as their charge. They were hosting a new weekly small group bible study and J sat lumped in a corner on the sofa, wearing a red hoodie sweatshirt that was ripe with days of wear without laundering. Her broken glasses rested lopsided upon the tip of her nose and her untamed hair begged to be let loose like Medusa's crown of writhing snakes. Finishing off her ensemble was a crooked smile displaying uncared-for teeth. During prayer request time, she unabashedly spoke with a feigned lisp, a garbled tale of woe and sorrow, never admitting that much of her ill-fated life was owing to her immense needs and poor choices as a result of those unmet needs.
I fell in love with her instantly.
As the study was concluding and the last vestiges of church goers were leaving, J resigning herself to her den of a bedroom, The Dad and I lingered a moment and spoke in hushed tones to her Aunt and Uncle. Little did we know that our conversation would lead us on a life-long journey.
"How can we help J?" we asked.
Her Aunt and Uncle hedged and after a moment or two mentioned some of her material needs, offering a brief history of their view of her sordid tale of woe begotten adventures in life that lead her to their door. Unassuaged, we persisted. "Really. Tell us what we can do for her."
Thus began our journey. Over the course of the next four years, we seamlessly blended in with J's extended family, three generations worth. J's grandmother filling that role for me as well, her Noni becoming mine and before long, helping J as we had hoped. One day on a trip with the church, we were transporting J to the event. She sat in the back chattering away and The Dad and I just nodded our heads and said "mm hmm" every now and then. We came upon the lumber yard that we always pass on the way to the lake and The Dad and I began our silly game.
Whenever we pass a lumber yard The Dad says, "huh. That's strange. I smell ... wood, or something."
And I'll reply, "Yeah, me too."
We'll banter back and forth, grinning impishly at each other and then as the lumber yard zooms past the window, conclude the game with a shrug and a "well, the smell is gone now," remark.
On this occasion, with J in the back seat, we thought it would be fun to play with her. The best part of our game is introducing unaware passengers and laughing at them when they say, "Uh, could it be the LUMBER YARD?!?" But J's response was even better. Looking out the other window, purposely redirecting her attention away from the lumber yard says, "could it be that forest over there?"
Not wanting to be rude, we didn't laugh. I may have bit my lip till it bled though. However, we have laughed about it ever since, 12 years later. That moment, unbeknownst to us, encapsulated our future as Sissy's parents. Raising J's daughter, now our daughter, has been one lumber yard moment after another, every single day. If in that moment someone had told me that I had just glimpsed my future ad nauseum, I likely would have jumped out of the moving vehicle. Isn't God so nice that way, by not providing us with a glimpse of our futures?
After a little while at her Aunt and Uncle's house, J got restless and demanded a place of her own. Her family found her a one room efficiency just a stone's throw distance from their front door. Sadly, J was not ready and she did not succeed. She moved on, mostly to dodge her mounting bills and kept on moving, further and further, nearly falling off the radar all together with the exception of the occasional phone calls to her mom or Uncle because she needed something. There were tales of her dating someone and then, just as easily as she drifted out of our lives, she reappeared.
I was at a ladies luncheon event at church, the reason for which I no longer remember. I was sitting in a circle chatting with some women when J magically reappeared. I was glad to see her but before I could jump up to hug her, she walked directly over to me as though no time had passed at all since our last seeing each other and announced, "I'm pregnant!"
Have you ever had one of those moments when you are damn certain that the earth stopped moving? A moment in which you are sure that Richter scales all over the globe are sounding alarms that the globe's spinning on its axis has ceased? Right at that moment, me seated, J's belly directly in front of my nose as she spoke over me her jubilant declaration of her impending motherhood, I felt the planet stop. I knew, in that moment, that the child she carried would be my daughter. I got goose bumps, I STILL get them even know as I type these words. It was a God moment I will never forget.
How do you say to a woman, "I'm glad to hear you're carrying my child?" Answer. You don't. In fact, you tell no one. You breathe not a word of it. You take that nugget of truth and you bury it in your heart and every time it surfaces in your mind, you pray about it and rebury it. You just keep praying and burying and waiting on God because if it's REALLY God, it will play itself out, WITHOUT your doing. I know. Imagine that. God can do whatever the heck he wants to do, WITHOUT human intervention. Silly, but true nonetheless.
Of course, J's family was worried. And some of them knowing of The Dad's and my difficulties in conceiving, began suggesting that we tell J we would be willing to adopt. We agreed that the notion should be mentioned to J but she would hear nothing of it. She wanted her baby. So I prayed and buried and prayed and buried some more. J went to Savannah to a home for young unwed mothers to be that had emotional challenges. The program's intent is to counsel the women toward finding an adoptive family. J ran away. She wanted her baby. So I prayed and buried and prayed and buried.
One day, late in J's pregnancy, I was at her Noni's house (my Noni too at that point.) Noni and I talked and prayed and fretted and worried over J and the baby and I finally said, "Noni, if the baby is to be mine, God will work it out. But I know she's mine. He told me so."
After resurfacing from her run away jaunt in Savannah, J came to church, insisting she sit next to me. I was sitting in the middle of the isle so J had to gingerly side step over toes, her swollen belly swinging in everyone's faces. As she stood over me waiting for me to move my legs out of her way, that baby in her womb just inches from my grasp, I whispered, "Hold on baby, I'm coming. Just a little bit longer. Mommy's here, waiting for you." At that moment, J grabbed her belly and said, "Whoa! She just flipped around in there or something!" I took it as Sissy's way of saying, "HI MOM!" and I just smiled at J.
On New Year's Eve, the last day of the millenium, we were at church ringing in the New Year. We were standing next to J's mom getting refreshments when she told us she'd just heard from J. She'd delivered. A girl. 8 pounds even and no complications. J had delivered alone by her choice. I was speechless. Sissy had finally arrived.
I only saw Sissy once when she was about two weeks old. J was bouncing from place to place again and had shown up for church to show off her new baby. Sissy's infant hair was jet black and thick and boy could she wail! But she was far away and J left before I could ask to hold her. I didn't see them again for another 11 months.
Oh, I heard tales of horror. And I prayed and buried a lot in those 11 months. One day that July, when I had just about given up hope that I would ever be Sissy's mom, when the doctors had said there was no chance of conception for us, when my friend had died of cancer followed by my dog two days later, I got a phone call from a friend. "Have you considered adoption?"
"Yes," I told her. "And I already know who it will be. But for now, I must wait." Silently, I counted in my head, my daughter is six months old now. I prayed and buried again. On a side note, we got a new puppy to ease our pain and we named her Hope because gosh, we needed some!
Two months later, J's mom called. J was in trouble, again, admitting she was pregnant with a second child and she wanted to know if The Dad and I would take Sissy. "At last!" we thought. "Sissy will be ours!" We scrambled frantically to get meager provisions together for an infant and then got another call. J had gotten cold feet, owing to Sissy's biodad who was adamant that J not give Sissy up. We prayed and buried some more. But this time we took the leap of faith and more amply prepared the room as we waited.
In November, J's mom called again. Sissy was sick and J, who can't drive, needed transport to the clinic for her and Sissy. Wonder of wonders! You know I jumped out of my skin and drove faster than lightning to be an angel to the rescue. I met J at the door of her home and squeezed my eyes tight before looking in to behold Sissy's face for the first time. And it was a sad, sickly face. And my heart melted. Hurrying, we packed up Sissy, J and her newly swollen belly and dashed off to the clinic.
As with any after hours clinic, the wait was long. J and I talked, let me restate. J talked, I listened and said "mm hmm" a lot while I gazed at Sissy and tried to make her smile. Oh dearI thought. This baby is not well, not right, there's a problem here J chatted and chatted and rubbed her belly and told me she had no one to adopt her unborn child and then she was called back by the nurse and I sat alone to ponder. I've prayed all this time and now face to face with it, can I do this? Sissy's eyes were hollow, she was lifeless and I was hoping that it was owing to the pain she was in from her double ear infection and not a foreshadowing of a life yet to be lived.
Suddenly, J came bursting through the doors in tears, Sissy undressed and wailing, a nurse calling after them, the doctor following suit and barking orders to J and the nurse and I was jolted from my thoughts. At last, I was holding her. Holding a screaming, wailing, naked, diaper-half-off Sissy and J was ushered back in to the office to talk with the medical staff. Shrugging my shoulders, I attempted to dress the writhing, angry infant. As I attempted to fasten her diaper I got a glimpse of her raw bottom, bloody from rash and poor bathing and changing and I hoped not something worse. Again I asked myself, can I do this?
J came out a few minutes later and huffed, "let's go now!" and I followed along like a lost puppy, securing Sissy in her car seat and carrying it and the diaper bag all the way to the car. Once inside, J announced that she had to go directly to the pharmacy to get Sissy's medication. I drove her there and waited as she went in. Sissy was screaming again so I reached into her bag for a bottle and found one and handed it to Sissy who threw it and screamed louder. Inspecting it, I discovered it was rancid. I fished for another bottle and found an empty, dirty one. Digging deeper I realized the diaper bag was no such thing. More like trash bag. There were no adequate provisions for Sissy in it.
J erupted through the door of the pharmacy, just as flustered as she was in the doctor's office, angry about something to do with her medicaid card and how she had to get medication for Sissy's ear infection and could I please take her to the pharmacy again in the morning and just take her home for now and so I drove. When we got to J's place, she was locked out. So we drove to bio dad's mom's house, she was supposed to have a key. As i waited for J to come out, I turned to look at Sissy and said, "Hold on baby, just a little longer. Mommy's here and soon, soon baby, I'll get to take you home."
J returned without a key. So we drove back to J's house and J found a way to pop out a window to access the handle of the front door and we were in.
I was NOT glad to be "in". When I picked them up, we were in such a hurry to get to the clinic and I was so ecstatic to finally find Sissy that I did not survey the living environment. And to be honest, I still don't want to describe the squalor. I think the statement: too disgusting for rats and roaches, will suffice. And I was returning Sissy to it. I cried all the way home with the small consolation that I would return the next day to make sure Sissy had her medications.
The next day I got to meet biodad and we had a "grand" adventure, the four of us, driving around trying to acquire diapers, medications and groceries. Biodad says to me, "You're not so bad. You're actually kind of nice." A statement that would prove fortuitous for us later when it was HIS bidding to J that we would be adequate parents for their daughter. After all of our travels, I left Sissy again, whispering to her once more, "soon, baby. soon." But oh, her empty, haunting eyes.
For three weeks I paced and prayed and tried not to see Sissy's haunting eyes every time I went to sleep. On December 4, 2000, J's mom dashed into my classroom. "GO! Go now! J called, she's sick and too pregnant to take care of Sissy and biodad agrees to it. They said you can take Sissy. GO!!!!" So I left. I grabbed my mom on the way and we rescued Sissy from filth and squalor and horrors untold.
She was soaked in urine up to her ears. She had only a laundry basket's worth of worldly possessions, all of which I threw away because it was so filthy it was unsalvageable. She still hadn't finished her 10 day round of amoxicillin and it was 21 days later. She had open, bleeding wounds on her bottom, impetigo, and a leather cradle cap that took six months of medicated shampoo to clear up. Her skull was flat on one side from hours on end in an infant carrier without being held. She was malnourished, underweight with failure to thrive and was anemic. She had those lifeless, haunting eyes. She screamed when touched and bit and hit when held. And oh, the night terrors, the horrible, dreadful night terrors. She really required hospitalization but the doctors, nurses and WIC staff felt certain she would recover quickly in my care. Sissy, after all that time, was finally mine. Worse for the wear, never fully recoverable, but mine all the same.
Two days later, J asked us to adopt her unborn son.
I will never be able to prove it and doctors will just nod and smile when I tell them but I know it is the truth. Aspie Boy saved Sissy's life. It was his vivacious nature and tenacity despite his own struggles that Sissy studied like a hawk and patterned herself after. The haunting eyes disappeared when Aspie Boy appeared. I also tell people that the two of them have a shared brain. It's like they have their own unspoken, secret language. They just "know". They drive each other crazy but they act more like twins then most twins I know and that's because Sissy's desire for life started the day he came home from the hospital.
Eight weeks after getting custody of Sissy, the four of us walked into the judge's court room and we were awarded legal guardianship by reason of abuse due to neglect and depravity. J, sadly, did not attend to defend herself. Shortly thereafter, she was sent to assisted living. Equally as sad is that our relationship with J has been challenging ever since.
J did not waive her rights so we could adopt Sissy until two years later. Sissy screamed the entire 25 minute drive to the courthouse and slept the whole way home.
Every day with Sissy has been a different experience. The only expectation is that she would be screaming about something. It has been hard, it has been wonderful, it has made me cry an ocean of tears and laugh a heaven's worth of gaiety. It has never been easy but never dull. I still pray and bury a lot.
The other night at the super table, Sissy's face was literally buried in her slice of watermelon. I have never acquired a taste for it but every year I make an effort to try again, hoping that I'll finally like the beautiful red fruit. With dismay I said, "nope. I still don't like it."
Her face still in watermelon, Sissy mumbled through her dripping mouthful, "wioen smoe awoeiuflin" which translates to "I love watermelon!"
And I said with a silly grin, "I'm glad Sissy. That means you can eat my share of watermelon on the earth that has been grown for me to eat."
And Sissy, juice and seeds dripping from her chin, the slice of watermelon suspended precariously from her hands in mid air, a classic J moment said, "huh? you GREW this watermelon?"
I laughed so hard! I laughed and laughed until I nearly cried. Wonder Girl laughed too shouting, "mom! You have the best laugh! It makes ME laugh!" and The Dad puzzled over what was so funny and Aspie Boy sat clueless to it all and Sissy cried because I was laughing which made me laugh harder, not because she was crying, mind you but because she thought I was laughing at her when really I was laughing at life. When I could compose myself I said to The Dad, "Lumber yard! LUMBER YARD! If you had told me in that moment in the car with J that I would be reliving that moment right now with SISSY, I would have jumped from the moving vehicle!" I laughed for the hilarity of it all. We wanted to help J all those years ago. We did. We helped ourselves to a great big heaping dose of J reincarnated. Life is a funny thing indeed. Live it, live it well or not at all but please, whatever you do, laugh and laugh loud. If you don't, you'll cry.