Blessed be those who with their choice
Have families’ hopes defeated
Blessed be most the Chosen Ones
Through whose presence we find faith
Through whose absence we find strength
Through whose existence we find grace.
I’ve always wanted the kids to be fluent in another language.
Nick, thanks to his grandmother’s fluency, has shown a certain flair for Spanish. Olivia, thanks to my fluency – and perhaps her fashion sense – has shown an interest in French.
Then there’s Gabe, who is fluent in Whinese. In fact, he knows several dialects.
Our middle child has made it abundantly clear that he is not a morning person. While his sister is screaming for oatmeal at 5:30am, Gabe is sleepwalking his way – 2 hours later – thru getting dressed, hitting the toilet, and sliding his way down the stairs for breakfast. Once there, he is all limp bones and floppy muscles, sometimes too weak to even drag himself onto the chair. Instead he’ll lay down on the floor, 2 fingers in his mouth, his other hand clutching a snuggie as he communes with the dog (also, on the floor).
“Gabe, can you come to the table to eat? You’re going to be hungry later.”
It’s 8am and he’s had a full 11 hours of uninterrupted sleep, but somehow, the task of lifting his featherweight body off the floor is simply too much.
“I caaaaaaan’t,” he whimpers, as he “tries” and fails to lift his head from the hardwood floor.
“Here, let me help you,” I chirp, channeling any 50’s era mom I can summon as I unceremoniously plop his sack-of-potatoes body next to his brother.
“Gabe, can you pass the brown sugar?” Nick points to the bag located 2 centimeters in front of Gabe’s plate.
Gabe raises a limp hand to his chest.
“I caaaaaaaan’t,” he mews, and Nick harrumphs impatiently, eschewing the table manners we’re trying to instill and reaches across his brother – barely brushing Gabe’s arm – to get the sugar himself.
“It’s right THERE, Gabe” – to which Gabe responds with his second favorite dialect:
Gabe miraculously finds his voice, and his muscle tone. He wrests 2 fingers from his mouth and stabs the air indignantly.
“Nick PUSHED ME!”
Nick raises his voice to match his brother’s. While it’s not quite a shouting match, we’re clearly on the express train to Yellsville.
“NO, I did NOT.”
“Stop YELLING AT ME!”
“I DID NOT YELL!”
And here we are.
Olivia thinks to whole thing is a hoot and starts chiming in with a mix-list of loud – and random – words. “MORE….YEAH….OWIE….OATMEAL…” which launches Gabe into his 3rd dialect:
“I don’t feel good.”
Gabe’s ability to switch from Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell to Greta Garbo’s Camille is astounding. And my dear, sweet boy will now lay that precious head on his plate, just barely avoiding the food on it in 3…2…OK, his nose is actually touching his eggs.
“I have a tummy ache.”
“Uh huh.” I try very hard to keep the eye-rolling out of my voice.
Nick, however, does not.
“He’s just faking it so he doesn’t have to eat!”
“I’m going to throw up.” Kid, if you can make yourself do that by sheer will alone, I’ve got a Vine with your face on it. But until then, I’ll just acknowledge – but not encourage – your “illness.”
“Why don’t we pack up your breakfast and save it for later.”
“But I need to eat!”
I’m about to point out the error of his thinking, when Lori raises her eyebrows asking if I’m really going to argue logic with a 3-year-old.
“Ok, Gabe. You do what you need to do.”
And that, ladies and gentleman, is how I throw the whining elephant…until he starts up again when we get to the car. (“I caaaaaaan’t buckle my seat belt! Nick is looooking at me! I hurt my fingeeerrrrrr!”)
I feel for Gabe.
I really do.
In fact, I feel for all of our kids. They have to compete with each other, our dog, our business, our aging parents, this 100-year-old house…
It’s no surprise they each have “the thing” they save just for home, just for us.
For Nick, it’s arguing.
In class, he’s the resident diplomat, protector of geeky kids…and ladybugs.
For Olivia, it’s hitting.
In daycare, she’s the free hugs gal, greeting everyone – including other parents at drop-off – with a squeeze.
And for Gabe, it’s whining.
In preschool, he’s the teacher’s right-hand man, setting the table, cleaning up spills, consoling other kids…with nary a complaint.
But it’s different at home. And there are times when I question our desire to add more to the mix, when our dispersed attention seems to bring out the worst – not the best – in our children. As a former adoption counselor put it, perhaps we were being “too greedy” in our quest for expansion.
But then I see our 3 musketeers…
Nick, laying out coats and backpacks for his siblings.
Gabe placing pairs of shoes for each of us by the door.
Olivia, carrying cups from the table to the sink.
And I think Yes! Yes! A 100 times Yes!
Let our presence fill every inch of this forever fixing-up home.
Let our lives overflow with our children’s highs and lows.
Let our hearts be humbled by the privilege of raising these complex individuals.
Because our table will always have room for one more.
Happy Mother’s Day to all of the families out there!
There are so many ways to make a family. Whether you’re a mom, a grandma, a step-mom or Mr. Mom, this is a day to celebrate all of the things you for the children who have chosen to be a part of your life.
I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post to celebrate our family. Read the entire article here.
My kids – even my daughter – barely know what a dress is, let alone what I look like in one. So when I descended the stairs last Sunday hours before my Listen to Your Mother performance, the reactions were decidedly mixed:
Nick: Inspired. “Oooh, that’s a dress for twirling! Twirl, Nana! Twirl!”
Gabe: Indignant. “Why do you have that dress on?!”
Olivia: Intense: “Yeah! Yeah….Nana…Yeah!”
Lori was in the final stages of clearing breakfast when Olivia, with her enthusiastic clapping at my outfit, knocked over a ceramic cup which shattered in that way that happens when you absolutely, positively have to be out the door – like 5 minutes ago. Calculating the pros and cons of leaving Lori to do clean up (definitely con…like, stony-silence-sleep-on-the-couch con) versus driving like a maniac to avoid being late for rehearsal (still a con…but Melissa and Tracey seemed reasonable enough), I opted for the she-devil I knew and squatted on the floor – in my pretty Spring dress – to pick up the shards that eluded the broom.
“Where are you going, Nana,” Nick asked as I brushed the last bits into the garbage.
“I’m going to tell stories about our family.”
“Can I come?”
I had thought about taking the kids – making this family story a family affair – for about 5 seconds. Then I remembered every disastrous outing we’d ever taken. Why, just the day before we had fished Nick out of Lake Michigan when he chased after a Frisbee and then just disappeared below the waves behind the Planetarium. All we could see was his Diego rescue pack floating towards the sand.
“When you are older, kiddo.” And less accident-prone.
“Will you tell us a story when you come home?”
“Of course, I will, sweetheart. I will always have stories to share with you.”
The story I shared on Sunday was one I have told before – how we started our family and the many ups and downs that define the adoption process. But what amazes and humbles me each time is what happens after the story, when what begins as one-to-many becomes one-to-one:
“I really enjoyed your story. I was adopted…”
“My brother and sister-in-law and going through the process. I had no idea…”
“I placed a baby for adoption 30 years ago. I never heard the other side…”
Every time we say, “let me tell you what happened to me” we invite others to do the same, whether it is on a stage before an audience of strangers or in a coffee shop with a close friend. We create a common place – a sacred space – to connect and share the experiences that make us all so very human.
There is always love.
Listen to Your Mother was a labor of love, and most fitting for Mother’s Day. Thank you to Ann Imig, Melisa Wells, Tracey Becker, and the talented women I shared the stage with on Sunday. And of course, to my family, without whom I would have no stories to tell…well, not interesting ones anyway.
We created something magical last weekend, and I most grateful to have been a part of it.
Photo credit: Sabrina Luster Persico
* An interview with Ann Imig, the founder of Listen to Your Mother, along with interviews with the Chicago cast – including myself – will be on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Friday 5/10 (Yes, that’s today) at 5:30 CDT/6:30 EDT.
*All of the stories will be available on YouTube this summer.
Today is a very good day.
Today a newborn and a new mom are basking in the glow of patience, faith and destiny.
When my friend Justine first approached us about our experiences with adoption, we were encouraging, but realistic. And while we couched our words with “but this is just what happened to us; it might be different for you,” we didn’t pull any punches.
“Yes, as a single woman you will have a harder time adopting.”
“No, there is no “best case” scenario, only “meh, that’s not that bad” ones.”
“Yes, it’s good to be open, but if something doesn’t feel right, there’s probably ‘crazy’ in the air.”
Throughout her 2-year journey, she would check in with different questions, concerns, and of course, situations:
Like the woman who called her daily “just to chat” but refused a referral to a birth parent counselor to discuss her options, including placement. (Surprise, she didn’t.)
Or the birthmother who begged Justine to be present at the birth – a four-hour drive – then changed her mind at the last minute. (Been there, done that. It sucks.)
Or the birth family who read her profile, saw dollar signs, then, a couple grand later, decided to parent. (Again, been there, done that…and done with that.)
Through it all, we told her, as we had told ourselves, that the right baby will find her.
It just takes time.
And the first time that you hold that child, you will wonder how this moment came to be…how you ever lived before this child came into being.
But, every now and then, you will wonder…about the others…
When Gabe was six months old, we attended an open house at the adoption agency. We wandered through the halls, reconnecting with families we hadn’t seen since the required adoption classes, and connecting with newly-expanded families like our own. Nick enjoyed himself immensely, even though we lost him a few times since he seemed to think that the entire building was his personal playground. And Gabe, while not as mobile, made up for it with his non-stop baby babble, apparently seeing the entire event as his personal soapbox.
Just before we left, we struck up a conversation with a family who had a son, about the same age as Nick, and a daughter, about the same age as Gabe.
“She is too precious,” I cooed, marveling at her color-coordinated and heavily accessorized ensemble. She was a vision of frills and lace – two items that have never seen the inside of our house. So quiet, so demure this child. And they all seemed such a lovely family, if a bit reserved. So while we traded stories about the difference between one child and two – “it’s not just double the work…it’s exponential!” – it was clear that we had very different children and very different approaches to parenting.
As we talked, more details emerged about their little girl, her birth family, and her placement story.
That’s when I put two and two together.
This was the one we didn’t get.
We had been one of 3 families being considered by a young woman and her boyfriend. On paper, it had seemed like a perfect fit. They had loved our profile, our creative bent, and, of course, the future big brother, Nick. But after a week of deliberations, they had chosen another family with closer geographical ties.
We were devastated, ready to resign ourselves to life with one child.
But then we got a call…and the rest is Gabe’s history.
In the car ride home – after we tracked Nick down – I shared my discovery with Lori.
“Oh my God. How weird is that? Wait, why didn’t you tell me inside?”
“What was I going to say? And how? It’s not like you speak Spanish.”
“Yeah, and you don’t speak pig latin.”
“You mean, ouchetay.”
“Please stop, or so help me God I will jump out of the car.”
“Sooooo not our kid.”
“Not even close.”
Our kids, god love ’em, are quirky, boisterous, compassionate, obstreperous, independent, fun-loving, carefree spirits.
In other words, they are perfect…and perfect for us. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
To those who are seeking those seeking to be sought, know that it will happen. Know that when it does, it will all be worth it…just to hold and behold perfection in your arms.
As a child of the 80’s, I have to close this out with the song that has found me shortly after each one of our children has found their way home.
We met in Hyde Park, not only because it was equidistant for all of us, but also because it was where we first met back in May 2011 – in a popular Greek diner hangout for UC-ers. Squeezed into a booth had sat a reticent Mama J and her mother, a gregarious Mama T. After seeing our online profile, they had sent an email, seeking a “loving home for a beautiful baby.” A few tentative emails and nervous phone calls later, here we were – still tentative, still nervous.
“Baby, tell them about yourself…”
Mama J would look up from texting under the table just long enough to give a few words (“I like purple.”) before retreating to her virtual world.
“Oh, that’s cool. I love purple too,” I gushed, trying to draw her back into the conversation. But whatever coping mechanism she needed given the situation, it was stronger than my forced enthusiasm. Mama T would drive the rest of the conversation, reassuring us of Mama J’s pre-natal care and conscientious diet…until Mama J interjected.
“I really like french fries. Eat them all the time.” Ah, so she was the typical teenager, mercurial and mischievous, needing to assert a hint of control in a situation that had spun decidedly out of it. With a whisper of a smile playing on her lips, she knew she was derailing her mother’s non-stop attempt to “sell” us on this baby.
I wanted to tell Mama T that she didn’t have to work so hard – Lori and I were in after the first email. But match meetings are like poker, with significantly higher stakes. The counselors on both sides tell you to play it cool – be interested, but not aggressive. Beneath all of the pregnant (ha!) pauses, both players just want to stop playing the game, lean across the table and reassure one another that everything will work out just fine. That’s all I wanted to do at this first meeting, but we were scared, as were they.
What if they don’t like us? What if they’re crazy? What if they changed their minds? What if…
So many questions racing through our brains and theirs as we plastered smiles on our faces and made small talk. We wrapped with hugs and promises to “keep in touch” as the due date drew closer and watched them get into their car, waving as they headed north on Woodlawn.
“I hope we see them again,” I said, as their tail lights moved farther and farther away from us.
We spent the next hour wandering around campus, dazed yet cautiously optimistic.
“I think we just met our daughter,” Lori said, almost walking into the traffic.
“Yeah,” I agreed, almost walking into the traffic with her.
As we passed Ida Noyes Hall, then Rockerfeller Chapel, my eyes drifted across the Midway to Burton-Judson Hall, the place where, at 16, I thought I was da bomb…until I sat next to a 9 year old in my Soc 101 class. I had been delusional back then, thinking I was mature enough to handle whatever UC threw my way.
Turns out I wasn’t, and I didn’t.
Meeting with Mama J almost 25 years later, I now understood what maturity was. I saw how it was possible to handle life’s curve balls with dignity and grace (Olivia’s middle name). I marveled at how one decision had changed so many lives, had led us to where we were today – seated on a Starbucks patio discussing the many diva tendencies an-almost-one-year-old could have.
“Oh yeah, she’s bitten few teachers on the knee to get their attention.”
“She took some kid’s sippy cup, and when they asked for it back, she shook her head ‘no’ and crawled away with it.”
“She’s gotten really good at throwing herself on the floor in protest. I didn’t think that started till 2.”
“What foods does she like,” Mama J asked as she bounced Olivia on her knee. They made the perfect picture, mother and child.
“Oh, pretty much everything,” I answered. “Carrots, chicken, peas – “
“She likes peas?! Ewww nasty! When my mama put them on my plate, I used to hold them in my mouth, then spit them out when she wasn’t looking.”
Olivia, cover your ears!
We created our own little oasis, amidst the madness of Hyde Park, with its non-stop fire trucks along 55th, overheard debates about the polemics of epistemological realism, and stream-of-consciousness rants from the ubiquitous drifters who frequent any coffee shop with a clean bathroom and free WiFi.
I eyed Mama J’s shoulder-length hair. “So when did your hair start to come in?”
“Hmmmm, I think I was bald until about 2.”
Dang! So this frohawk Olivia has is an improvement? Wow, it’s going to be a while before we’re doing the center-part-with- symmetrical-braids look…
The sudden arrival of a bespangled, blond-highlight sporting, Sandra Denton-twin (“Sal sal Salt and Pepa’s here!”), caught us off-guard, until Mama J clarified that her stepmom was picking her up. I extended my hand to this whirlwind of energy, who then swatted it away before pulling me in a suffocating hug.
Head planted firmly in her voluminous bosom, I caught the muffled explanation of “Girl, we family now!” before she released me – oh thank god! I can breathe again! – then swooped Olivia into her arms and showered her with kisses.
“Mmmm, mmmm, mmm, your Granny loves you!”
How blessed this child is, surrounded by so much love.
We ended with Mama J’s plans for the afternoon (shopping), senior year (finishing), and college (applying). And with a final kiss to Olivia (“I love you, baby girl.”) and hugs for me and Lori (“Thank you…just thank you.”), Mama J and her stepmom stepped into their car and drove away, north on Woodlawn.
I watched their tail lights receding in the distance and repeated the words I had said over a year ago –
“I hope we see them again.”
Story time is sacrosanct in our house. No matter how crazy, crappy or convoluted the day has been, we will gather, as a family, in the boys’ bedroom and read.
There are books that are in regular rotation – 10 Apples Up on Top (Gabe), This is the Way to the Moon (Nick), and Mary Had a Little Lamb (Olivia). But the ones that the kids request the most are the stories of how our family came to be.
“Mommy and Nana were in a meeting,” starts Nick’s story. And he listens with rapt attention as we describe the daisy chain calls to our work, then cell phones, to ask if we wanted to pick up baby boy…right now.
How we were so excited to meet this baby that we forgot our car seat when we drove to the doctor’s house.
How we bounded up the stairs of his Victorian and he met us at the door.
How the moment our social worker placed this tiny baby in our arms we knew he was our Nicholas.
How we realized we didn’t have any baby items at home so we drove to Target and walked the aisles while Auntie Caroline told us over the phone what we needed to buy.
How when we got home we stared at him as he slept, whispering over and over, “thank you for finding us.”
“And what about Gabe,” Nick prompts. “He came from Obama’s house.” We smile, as we always do, because no matter how many times we have explained that “the white house” that Gabe came from is different from the one where Obama lives, Nick still thinks his brother has a presidential connection.
“Mommy and Nana were working on the computer,” starts Gabe’s story, “and we got an email.” There was a baby boy, about a month old, in the nursery of “the white house.” His birthmom had picked our family – had picked Nick specifically to be this baby’s big brother.
How we went to visit the baby – just Mommy and Nana – while Nick was in school.
How alert he was, with his toothless baby smile, and he snuggled into our arms, as if he was always meant to be there.
How we went as a family to bring him home and Nick told everybody in the elevator that he was going to get his baby brother.
How we sat on the big couch and big brother did such a good job holding his brother’s head up as he fed him a bottle.
How we showed Gabe the giant “READY” sign we had painted, now hanging in our kitchen, to let him and the Universe know that we were here and waiting.
How Gabe smiled at Nick as he drifted to sleep and Nick’s smile filled his face, then the room, then our hearts.
“And Olivia?” Nick says of his sister who has fallen asleep in Lori’s arms. He is stretched on the floor next to his brother, who is fighting to stay awake.
“Nana was ‘making a movie’” – we describe our work in ways that they can understand – “and I got a message on my phone that Olivia was being born.”
How Olivia had to stay in the hospital because she was so excited to meet us that she came a little early.
How Nick picked the clothes for the new baby and we cautioned him that maybe we would just have the baby for a little while since we had to wait for her birthmom to tell a judge she wanted us to take care of Olivia forever, and remember how the other babies’ mommies had changed their minds…
How Nick studied the yellow duckling onesie he held in his hands then said quietly but firmly, “No. I want to keep this one.”
How Nick and Gabe waited with our village of friends and family while we visited Olivia, taking pictures to show them when we came home.
How Nick started his first day of kindergarten; Gabe went to daycare. Both came home, went to bed, and awoke a few hours late to meet their little sister.
How we sat together in Olivia’s room, marveling at our expanded family.
The children are asleep now, and as we tuck each one in, we know we will share these words again.
These are the stories we tell our children, for them to tell themselves.