Monthly Archives: February 2014

“I Was Hers First”

I know adoptive parents with sweet adoption stories—they made cute scrapbooks and were matched with young pregnant couples; at the hospitals to cut the umbilical cords, they were also able to name their babies after family members; their babies bonded with them instantly, and the adoptions took only six weeks; their children look just like them, and everything about their adoptive families has been Parents magazine centerfold quality.

Our adoption, on the other hand, was a haphazard affair—as young twenty-somethings, we checked the box that said “foster to adopt,” as a sort of plan B in case we really liked a kid one day and wanted to be first in line. I can still recall saying innocently to Greg, “What if it turns out we can’t have kids? Wouldn’t that be funny—to have already marked “adopt”?” And then April came to us at a year and a week—her elderly foster mom was having back surgery and wouldn’t be able to lift the stocky toddler for six weeks. We were to be a sort of respite, a pit stop on her way home to New York. Six long months later, she did head there—and Baby Jessica played out in my own driveway, my 18 month-old screaming, “Mommy,” kicking as we buckled her in. We cried for months and sought solace in speaking to her birth relatives on the phone as she hollered, “Me talk!” in the background. Finally, they decided to return her to us. On one of the happiest days of our lives, April tore from the car that brought her home from NY to GA and ran through our door, shrieking her elation. Three long years later, after trials and appeals that seemed never-ending, April was ours. It was over.

But it’s never really over with an adoption. There are days that overcome you—emotions too great, things too unfair, places you know both moms and both dads should be. They include prom, graduation, and, for me at least, emergency rooms.

April’s birthmother, Susan, is never more with me than she is on a drive to the emergency room; in 2010, during April’s appendectomy, Susan’s spirit was beside me in the car, bellowing, “Drive faster!” Again, last night, when I took April’s pulse in the living room—178!—Susan was instantly there with me, a hollering apparition telling me not to mess this up. Her kid was depending on me. On the drive to the hospital, as I questioned and re-questioned April—“Can you breathe? Is your headache better? Is your vision blurred?”—Susan was right there, riding shotgun, telling me to drive quickly, but safely. And in the ER, as I reminded the staff, “She’s got great insurance, run any test you need,” insisting, “Do not release us until you know she is well—we are in no rush,” Susan was there, too. She was depending on me to do and say all the right things for our daughter.

For an adoptive parent, when an ER nurse looks at you like you are just another over-reacting mom, it is hard not to yell things like, “You will never understand who this girl is, what she cost, and what she means.” So you try to rein it in, act normally, even though you are terrified that you will have to call the other woman who loves your child as much as you do and tell her, “Um, I botched this.”

There is so much to botch. So much already botched.

If you know me, you know I have failed my daughter in a thousand different ways, and that the generic absolution “All moms fall short” doesn’t soothe me, doesn’t rectify all of my shortcomings. We adoptive moms carry around ever-present measuring sticks, and we become experts at flogging ourselves with them.

But, thankfully, last night, I measured up. In the car on the way home, we pulled into Krystal’s, and I asked April how I did. “Oh, you were good, Mom—I’d give you a 9 at least. You didn’t yell or anything.”

We got home at 1:15 AM, and I watched her eat, then text all her concerned friends, assuring them she was feeling much better. I followed her to her bedroom, checked, then double-checked to make sure she was okay and needed nothing—“How many times do I have to tell you I’m fine now?” was her final grumble of the night, followed by a murmured, “Love.”

Susan, of course, was gone by then—she’d left in the parking lot, the moment that April said, “Can we go to Krystal’s? I’m starved!” She trusts me with the day-to-day. But, on the important days, she is there—front and center, her New York accent directing most of my steps.

Tomorrow, she will call here, I’m sure. Because on January 28, 1994, she gave birth to our daughter in a hospital in Hudson, New York. And tomorrow, she’ll talk to our girl, and she’ll tell April all the things that I will never know—how she cried, what she wore, who came to see her. She will tell April their hospital story–the most important one of all—and the reason I must get all of mine right.

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You’re a Teacher

I spend 1500 minutes a week standing in a room with kids. That’s 25 solid hours of face-to-face time, just me and teenagers. I have for sixteen years now. About 1,200 kids have heard me talking about what I am supposed to—like Antigone and Shakespearean sonnets—and things I’m not really supposed to, things that aren’t on the lesson plans. So far this year, I’ve dealt with children of alcoholics; children who are coping with serious illnesses—their own, and those of family members; students who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and students who were at the really wrong place at the really wrong time; students who cut because they can’t stand the pain; students who think that their lives are over at sixteen because that last bad decision they made was, after all, a very, very bad decision.

And I make my God-honest best effort every single day to be there, to wholly listen, to hear their stories and to look into their eyes because teachers did that for me. Frances Dillard sat and listened to me, a fourteen year old who was lost and drowning. She sat for days, and then for years. Howard Fore made me laugh; he stood up for me and defended me, and he gave Colin and the rest of the class a lecture entitled “Yes, I CAN Have a Favorite Student and Rachel CAN be it,” a speech that I have also given in my classroom, verbatim, about students who merit extra attention and praise. Edith Johnson, Bill Leiss,  Joe Haluski, Cyndi Dixon, Loutrell Harris, Coach Pike, Coach Ganas, and even Senora del Castillo were all a part of a long list of teachers who fed me as I walked, emotionally starving, through the halls of Waycross High.

It was only logical that I want to become them and to live professionally and emotionally in the best place I knew: school.

But what the legion of educators whom I so loved and admired didn’t warn me about was the heartbreak, hard and absolute, that surrounds teaching.  A student arrives at 8:00 AM whose beloved grandmother died just five hours before. There is a matter-of-fact discussion among kids whose fathers did not want them. A kid writes an essay about the three outfits he owns. Monday mornings, kids come in hungry enough to eat Ritz Carmelized Onion Crackers by the fistfuls, then search my cabinets for more.

There were no warnings about visiting hospitals, standing at the bedside after your first student is in a wreck, then your second . . . writing letters to distant jails when your first student is imprisoned, then your second . . .

Because the thing about teaching is your students are yours forever, for both the good and the bad. Yes, you will get to go to their weddings. You will rub their pregnant bellies at Wal-Mart and exclaim over their bright-eyed children at church. You’ll see pictures of your former students standing with their eyes agleam in places like Russia and New York and Saudi Arabia. You will look into the eyes of students who are firemen, Marines, linemen, video producers, professional athletes, and web designers, and you will feel pride that you didn’t know was possible.

But there will be other times when you will click on a status on Facebook that begins, “Pray for _____________; it’s really bad,” and your heart will leave you. It will just go. You will message the people who know how bad things are. And you will wait for them to tell you about how the telephone pole fell while your student was standing on it, or the car split in half with your student inside, or your student’s baby was born impossibly small.

You will hear how a fire tore through your student’s mobile home, killing her five year old daughter. And there are no words for this. There is nothing to say to this. There is no way to go from the power was out and a candle was in the bathroom to a child is dead. How can those simple facts add up to total and utter destruction?

You will do the only thing you can, hold your twenty year-old daughter in your lap, sob into her hair. You will pray as you drive to pick up your other daughter, and holding her hand at the red light, you’ll look at the moon, the same moon that is shining on your student’s hospital bed, and pray some more. You will think about leaving this heart-breaking job.

Then, you will see two out-of-place teens walking through a bank parking lot. Out of habit, you will pull over, hollering out the window, “Are you mine?” and they will beam. Then one will chuckle, “Not yet!” with a sparkle in his eye.

As you drive off, your daughter will tell you, “They say the tall one is on drugs. He’s young, just really tall.”

And you will find yourself thinking about him, and his future, and the part you can play in it, however mighty or miserable it may be.

After all, you’re a teacher.

Slog On Through Cancer–Not Quite as Catchy, but More True

Lately, I’ve been angry at cancer. It seems weird to be this far out and be suddenly outraged, but that is the place that I find myself. For some reason, I’ve been thinking of how my life would be different in the present if cancer had never become the word around which our life was built.

I heard the voices in my head the instant I typed that sentence; those Christians who instantly say God should be; the optimists who say thinking about words other than cancer would be step one on my road to happiness. The sad fact of the matter is this: the word cancer has been at the center of my family’s life—emotionally, physically, and spiritually—since the day that Greg was diagnosed. Until you have been in this place, sat in this place, for year after year after year, you cannot in fact say what word should be where in a cancer patient or caregiver’s life.

Today, when I got to work, my eyes were screaming, betraying my exhaustion. My new co-teacher, a friend now for only six months, looked at me and said, “You know, you always are going through something big. You don’t have any of those problems that can be fixed by running to Lowe’s and getting a part for the water heater and “Poof!” it’s done.”

And that, I think, is it in a nutshell. There is nothing easy about this life after cancer, although we are so grateful for it.

We became lost briefly in the backroads of Macon on Saturday. It was Greg’s birthday, and we’d had a great day in Atlanta, a day spent touring Rhodes Hall and the Georgian Terrace, then enjoying a lazy lunch at Mary Mac’s. Now, we were looking for a pharmacy that sold dry mouth patches Greg’s oncologist had recommended. We’d been to pharmacy after pharmacy with no luck, and I was becoming frustrated. I looked at him and said, “I know one thing: I’d rather be doing this than bringing flowers to your grave.”

Abby, horrified, immediately said, “Mom! That’s not something you SAY!”

Greg turned to her and said, “I know exactly what she means.” He patted my hand.

That’s what cancer has been for us—a journey where we say things we shouldn’t say and feel things we shouldn’t feel, all while being aware of how close to the grave he came. No, Greg’s never marched in the Survivor Lap at Relay for Life. He’s never worn a ribbon. We don’t celebrate his transplant as a second birthday. We haven’t embraced cancer survivorhood as a lifestyle, but we can’t escape its mindset.

I struggle more with this than Greg does, especially on a day like today, where every other post is about standing up to cancer.  The posts are alternately defiant and optimistic; there are posts from people who have lost their children, their husbands, their first loves. We know so many people who have paid far greater a price than we.

For me at least, cancer is more than a slogan, ribbon, or picture. It’s our friends who are dead and their semi-orphaned children; it’s doctor bills waterfalling around us; it’s prayers in the dark. But most of all, it’s that man beside me, who is missing part of his bottom jaw, who has his donor’s blood running through his body, whose DNA now matches hers. February 4th is, to me, a day like any other: a day when I am awed by his strength, impressed by our daughters’ fortitude, and therefore impelled to continue.

I don’t know if we are still standing up to cancer, but we are slogging on.