The Other Mother
“I want to go home,” my daughter whispers, and for a moment I fight the dizzying urge to shout STOP NOW TURN THIS CAR AROUND AND TAKE US BACK QUICKLY TO SOMEPLACE SAFE.
But I take a breath, bite my tongue. Smile. Besides, who here would understand my rantings, let alone act upon them? Surely not our driver, instructed strictly on our itinerary and fluent only in his native tongue. Our facilitator? Her multilingual credentials do not include English. Daunted, I see that my only potential communicants— my husband Michael, youngest daughter Julia, and interpreter Ha— are dozing complicitly. I sigh.
“It’s going to be fine, Ariana,” I tell her, convincing myself.
We huff and grind along a traffic choked road from which there seems no escape. I stare numbly at the local bus, mere inches ahead, whose belching rear we’ve been crowding for miles. A cardboard sign in the back window proclaims its destination. Thai Nguyen, Vietnam. Town of my daughter’s birth.
I startle as we turn without warning onto the deserted lot of some anonymous building long since abandoned by its occupants. From the distance a figure emerges, small and indistinct but growing larger and clearer in the seconds it takes the motorcyclist to arrive to our car. In an instant of recognition and shock, a collage of images is seared: a pink helmet removed; bound silken hair; almond eyes, searching. And then the door is flung open, she enters, and there is nothing between us but sobs.
I suppose I knew this day would come. But I knew it in the way you know the rain will end, or that you will find your children one day grown. A nebulous guarantee for the future. Ninety nine out of one hundred percent for sure.
But then I mistrust odds, sneer at them in fact. I have done so ever since the Thanksgiving eve when I buried my firstborn, Alexandra Grace, two days after her birth. Then forty years old, I had arrived late but strong to the want for motherhood, and for one year after my baby’s death my world became no smaller or larger than the ache of her leaving and the love without reach that strangled my heart. I hurt too much to think, hated too much to cry. Evenings would find me in my straight-backed wing chair, lost and still, exhausted from the day’s earlier efforts at walking, listening, talking, caring. I would remain so until long after nightfall, when Michael would return home from a punishingly long day and we’d claim our solitary, much anticipated joy of searching the day’s mail for the condolences of anyone willing to touch our pain.
Winter passed, and in the desperate Spring I left my bed to tear fistfuls of ivy from the still-cold ground, laying bare the earth for a memorial garden. “Give me a sign,” I had earlier prayed, but when my digging unearthed a weathered stone angel I flipped a finger to the heavens and carried it to my neighbor, asking if it were hers. “Oh no,” she told me with an enigmatic smile, her white hair a pillow atop her gentle face. “That angel is yours.”
Seasons passed and hope crept in, a single bloom. We stood at the back of our small church on the first anniversary of Alexandra’s birth and death, handing delicate pink roses to one hundred loved ones who packed the place in her honor. I did not disclose that I was pregnant again, my obstetrician already noting in his weekly exams of my embryo the signs suggesting either its impending twin-dom or impending doom. Three weeks later, my pregnancy lost, Michael and I joined hands, took a shaky breath, and embarked upon the uncertain road to international adoption.
IN the end my pregnancies had failed me, but for all the while I carried blossoming life inside of me I had felt an easy contentment. Never had I known a morning of sickness or an evening of pain. A slow current of warmth ran through me carrying something like wisdom, and something like peace. Pregnancy had grounded me in a way that decades of vigilant birth control never had.
But not so the arduous road to adoption, paved in equal parts frenzy and tortuous wait. For five months our spare moments, all of them, were devoted to fulfilling a never-ending list of requirements that would eventually constitute our “dossier” — both our official application to adopt and our official approval as acceptable prospective parents. A long parade of inspectors visited our small Maryland home, granting or withholding checkmarks on clipboarded lists specifying the measurements for door clearances, capacity of fire extinguishers and method for trash disposal. Our tables and floors became repositories for notarized evidence of our employment, income, citizenship, marriage, residence, insurance, health. Lunch hours were spent negotiating a labyrinth of government agencies, each somehow independent of the other, in order to be cleared for violations involving motor vehicles, firearms and children. We signed papers in duplicate, photocopied in triplicate.
Friends were enlisted to compose long testimonials we were prohibited from reading, and were then interviewed to ensure their veracity. We laid open our lives in multiple visits from social workers, hoping to strike a positive yet believable tone in discussions of closure and marital stress. We cleared our hurdles one by one by one until at last, our dossier filed, we were left to wait.
It was my pseudo-pregnancy, and though I had no swollen belly to show for it I came to know Ariana well before her arrival into the world and her official designation as mine. Nights I would dream of her, her image sharp and clear. She was three months old in a clean cotton diaper, wriggling and cooing on a yellow blanket. She was six years old and dancing in a field of flowers, the breeze catching her hair and the hem of her white and yellow dress. When at last the phone rang and we were told to come the next day to the adoption agency, that we had been matched to an infant whose photo awaited us, I dared not tell my secret heart. If she’s wearing yellow and white, I whispered to no one, I’ll know she is my daughter.
Sitting early next morning across from our adoption specialist, my heart knew first what my trembling hands still waited to grasp. At last a large white envelope was slid across the desk, and I eschewed its pages of sketchy records and revocations, found what I was looking for, fisted her photograph to my chest. My yellow-and-white girl. We accept her as our daughter, we attested. She had been, all along.
FINALLY again, momentum, and in a few weeks’ time we were boarding the series of planes that would carry us to Vancouver, then Hong Kong, and finally, Hanoi. Two sleepless nights later, settled into one of the area’s few enclosed motor vehicles, we bounced toward an obscure mountain town and the government building where, in a formal “Giving-And-Receiving Ceremony,” we would meet and adopt our daughter.
We arrived at last to a nondescript edifice at the town’s edge. Crossing a wide lot to the building’s entrance, we noticed a woman of about my age clutching a small red bundle tight in her arms. She and our interpreter, Thuy, exchanged words we did not understand, and then in English Thuy told us that the bundle was our daughter; the woman, her grandmother. Beside her a younger woman stood, diminutive and nearly hidden from view. A teenager, I saw, though with eyes sad and sure, young enough herself to be my daughter. “Her mother,” Thuy whispered. But in the space of that revelation, they were gone.
We hurried after them into the building and with an almighty will I fought the urge to just snatch up my infant, snatch her and run. I knew my future daughter had remained till now with her birth family, but I had somehow failed to anticipate that these living, breathing, grieving women would be there with us that day. Will they resent me? I wondered; worse: What if they change their minds? I arranged my face carefully to look at my baby without longing, her mouth a perfect bow, her eyes closed in crescents on a moon shaped face. Inside, I panicked with guilt. How could I have her, when they could not? They must have sensed my confused distress, for in the next instant the bundle that was my daughter was lifted to me, and she was in my arms.
I breathed her in while the gut-wrenched pair who had loved her to me looked on with desperation and hope. And I averted my eyes, remembering. Love is loss.
I returned Ariana to her birth mother, Thi, and accepted a seat at the opposite side of a long, polished table. Rising to a podium, an official beckoned Thi beside him, said words in a comforting tone. More words, and Michael and I were instructed to join them. And then with a nod of assent, the woman who had been my daughter’s only mother once again handed her to me, and she was mine.
Here now in this car, again in this place, I gather my memories like fluttering confetti. I look full on at my eleven-year old child as the intensity grabs her, emerging realizations fanning her face like pages curled and thumbed. And I wish that I could make it all right for her, all purely and uncomplicatedly right, but I am first her mother and so I remain aside, beside, as the sensations that are grief and joy and anger and finding and fear and loss wash over her and she grows up more before my eyes.
But then I see past my half-grown daughter crying in her first mother’s arms. I see her as she was in our first weeks together — she, propped on Michael’s lap in our big leather armchair; I lying beside on the low wide bed. Like clockwork she initiates her nightly game, wriggling and cooing to catch my eye, and when I look at her she twinkles and shouts out a short, gleeful “whoop.” She smiles into my eyes, waiting, knowing what is to come. “WHOOP,” I tell her, and she rewards me right away with a full belly laugh. Soon we forget to take turns and we are laughing in sheer, silly abandon, all of us together, wiping our eyes and panting for breath. It is a nightly ritual of undiluted joy, and in the mornings our little house would awaken fat and full in a happy sweetness that lingers, still.
Wedged into the seat between Ariana and me, still holding her tight, Thi releases an arm, reaches for my hand. And I fancy she does not begrudge all the days without her, even as her joy overflows.
I close my eyes, lift my face to the sun and surrender to what I finally know.
Love is a prayer. It is hope given over to evening’s first star; a name on your lips, released. It is a treasure sprung up from the barren earth, awaiting your finding alone. Love is a cycle of giving and receiving: a fullness emptied, an emptiness filled. It is the grace that holds what the heart can’t bear. It is the blessed breeze that frees it.
Home weeks later, Ariana and I pore over photos of our far flung family, assembling an album for Thi’s thirtieth birthday. I imagine her pleasure on receiving it; I think that it will be a perfect gift.
My gaze drifts to the nearby hearth, settles on something familiar as a friend. I reach for it, knowing at once that I will give it to her one day. It is a worn earthen statue in the image of an angel, its shallow bowl holding the earliest photo of the daughter we share, resplendent in yellow and white.