They adore her.
From the moment we walked in the door, they simply wanted to be by her side.
“Can I sit next to her?” “You sat next to her last time!” “It’s my turn to sit next to her.”
I would round the corner into the game room and find them sitting on either side of her as they played video games and waited for turns. In the hotel room after some fun time in the pool, they cuddle against either side of her. As I lifted my camera to capture the moment, their grins simultaneously pierced my heart and overflowed it with love. The joy and happiness oozed out of the pierced heart-holes, filling up the rest of me for the moment, the present time being; I snapped another photo as they sat in the same places with the same smiles. I want to come back, to this place, when I need to remember.
The love that these two brothers have for a sister that lives hundreds of miles away will wreck you, will reaffirm your faith in humanity, will make you question right and wrong, will fill you with a thousand and one emotions. If you look too closely at the way one peeks out from underneath long eyelashes to watch her, as if willing his eyes to memorize the landscape of her face just in case he doesn’t see her for another year — or longer, your soul will slowly clamp down on itself for fear of melting into a puddle of both joy and sadness. When you leave the restaurant and watch the youngest one reach for her hand to walk through the parking lot, you will choke-cough on the feeling that doesn’t lend itself to one word.
And then, finding yourself lost in the silence after climbing in the car after hugs and goodbyes, if you look up into the rearview mirror, you will make eye contact with the two saddest faces in the history of saddest faces. Instead of making cheery small talk, you decide to let the silence play out; they will speak what they need to soon enough.
“When we get home, can I write her a letter?”
Oh sweet boy, yes.
I wish I could share pictures with you of our visit. The pictures themselves will make it into the 2014 volume of our 52 Weeks of Brotherhood books, as will these two photos from our time at the pool before they arrived. For now, read these words and know that two brothers miss their sister very much.
“What time are we leaving tomorrow?”
I pulled a dinosaur pajama shirt over the other boy’s head. “Around two o’clock.” I rounded up the discarded shirts and socks and jeans. I avoided eye contact, keeping busy with the mothering part of being away from home.
“Oh.” He climbed into bed, pulling his blankie in close and his Hobbes in closer. “I’m going to miss her already.”
What do you say to that? What do you say to the twenty other questions asked over the course of the day? What do you say to the hurt and the tears? What do you say to your children when you know that their hurt and their pain and their tears and their grief rest solely in your flawed, failed human hands?
I wrapped my arms around him, folding into the hug, felt his fingers grab onto my skin a little deeper than usual. I smelled the top of his head, knowing his scent deeply and fully. I willed myself to blink back the tear, the one perched precariously in the corner of my since earlier that morning, and forced my voice to remain even, calm. “Well, we have tomorrow together. It makes no sense to go ahead and wish it all away on missing her when she’s right here with us for now.”
I felt his head nod below me. I felt another crack somewhere deep within my soul.
Earlier, after a meal full of sushi and egg rolls and dumplings and noise and laughter, my fortune cookie read what it needed to read for the day at hand.
“It is now, and in this world, that we must live.”
Being present in the thick of a visit pushes me beyond what I feel emotionally capable of handling, and yet, I handle it because no other option remains. More than putting on my brave face, my happy mask, I am forced to answer the hard-hitting questions of children who didn’t ask to be handed this situation, who had no choice in the matter, who will forever live their lives with the loss of a sister they love beyond what words will ever be able to convey. And while it breaks me wide open, I answer their questions as best I can — because they deserve that much. They deserve real answers and real feedback, which means that sometimes my brave face and happy mask have to come off; I have to be present in the moment and simply respond, “I know, buddy. It makes me sad too.”
Because it does.
Every year, I wait for this to get easier.
Every year, my breath catches in my throat and my limbs feel heavy.
Every year, it seemingly gets harder.
Every year, she gets older. I do too. We all do.
A decade flown by and through and under and around; a decade since I pushed her into this world and into the arms of another. A decade since I had a daughter… and then didn’t. The not-an-agency said — no, promised — it would get easier over time. I trusted, as I did then and as I don’t anymore. I’m still waiting.
As hard as this day remains each and every year, I feel so thankful for her. Not only did she change and shape parts of me, but she remains the most amazing girl I have ever known.
Happy birthday, Munchkin. You are forever in my heart.
I huffed and puffed a little more than I wanted to in the middle of slow but long hill. I looked at my mileage: 8.58 miles. I sighed and kept on running. And then Taylor Swift told me that everything would be alright if we just kept dancing like we were 22.
“Shut up, Taylor.”
I said it out loud. Only the horses in the field nearby heard me, but I’m sure they wondered why the sweat-drenched woman in green attempting to run up the hill was talking to herself. Answer: Because who else are you supposed to talk to out on the road and you just want to quit but you promised yourself you would run 9 miles?
“I’d love to feel 22 right now.”
My second run after my back injury flared up and caused me to take a short break, I felt good lung-wise but had a list of pains, aches and general complaints. My back felt tired. My right hip desperately needed to be stacked and cracked. As this was my first trip running out a different road, a misstep caused me to almost twist my ankle and knee, both of which felt faintly like someone had kicked them. Hard. Sweat kept dripping into my eyes which stung. A lot.
“I’m sure running these long distances at 22 would have been much easier.”
My hips weren’t this wide; in fact, I barely had hips and they never cracked when I rolled over in the morning. My back didn’t hurt if I moved or twisted or breathed wrong. I did have a problem with an ankle, but in my younger years, I just put on a wrap and did whatever it was that I wanted to do, pain be damned. I took all of that for granted, of course, because you don’t miss your non-existent hips and aches and pains until they exist.
I continued huffing up the hill. Taylor Swift kept regaling the magic age of 22. A decade out from that age, I snorted.
“But, Taylor, my 22 wasn’t anything like what you sing about with that stupid catchy tune.”
I spent a large part of my 22nd year on Level III bed rest. After spiking a 104 degree fever while 18 weeks pregnant, I went through an emergency surgery on my kidney. I spent the next few months in and out of bed, on and off the couch, in and out of the hospital. Mostly alone, mostly scared. For all of those reasons and more, when I was 22, I placed my baby in the arms of another mother. That Christmas, my hormones still out of whack and scared about what an unreturned phone call might mean, I cut myself — for what I hope remains the last time in my life.
I did no dancing when I was 22.
22 was the year that I grew up in quick order. I aged years during the months in bed. I aged decades during the sleepless, bloody, breast leaking nights after I left the hospital alone. When I think of who I was when I was 22, I see a scared little girl who just wanted someone to tell her that they believed in her. If 32-year-old me could hold the hand of 22-year-old me, I’d tell her that she was stronger than she knew, that I believed in her. 22-year-old me would likely have ignored 32-year-old me, because 22-year-old me knew lots and lots about life and everyone else obviously knew very little.
22 felt like deep, drowning grief. 22 felt like loss, like suffocating. 22 felt like pain, physical and emotional. 22 felt lonely. 22 felt scary and unsure, terrified of making any decision lest it be the wrong one — or the right one. 22 felt like a crisis of faith. 22 felt like the weight of everything I had ever done, everything I had ever chosen. 22 felt almost hopeless.
No, I don’t want to go back to being 22. Or feeling that way — so lost, so alone, so desperately broken.
As I continued running up the hill that would not end, I decided that being 32 — and feeling 32 — sounds much better to me. I like me at 32. I like my body, despite its creaks and groans. I like understanding my emotions and what to do with all those feels. I like knowing more about the world at large, having lived some more and opened my heart and mind to the life experiences of others on their own journeys. I like laughing along with others, and crying with them too.
32 feels like peace. 32 feels like joy and happiness and love. 32 has some hard days, because hard days exist at every age, but I’ve learned how to muddle my way through them and come out on the other side in one piece. 32 feels like I know who I am.
And I love dancing like I’m 32, hips and loose skin, thighs and breasts flapping, holding my back while I laugh so hard because my sons’ dance moves are so killer.
“You can have your 22. I’ll take 32, Taylor,” I huffed as I finally crested the hill. “Thirty-two-oo-oo.”
Back and forth, back and forth.
I cannot decide if I will be attending church on Mother’s Day. I haven’t for the past few years. When I reminded my husband of this, he said, “Did not attending make you feel happy, sad or indifferent?” I didn’t answer, but instead shot him the look that read, “Don’t ask good questions that force me to think.” He just smirked.
Lounging awhile longer in bed makes for a nice morning, yes. Yet doing so doesn’t remove the loss or hurt from the day. The first few Mother’s Days after Munchkin arrived brought tears and heartache in the church pews. One year in our previous church, I actually stood and spoke for the mothers who relinquished babies, in turn making others mothers. The stares and gaping mouths penetrated my being; I never did so again, choosing to stand with the other mothers and silently acknowledge all parts of my motherhood: the two boys next to me, the daughter hundreds of miles away, the baby lost too early but desperately loved.
I stopped going to church on Mother’s Day after one particularly difficult year. Even with a Pastor who knew my story, knew of my feelings and struggles with grief and loss and motherhood as a whole, the individuals participating in special ceremonies on special days can make or break me. I don’t even remember specifically what escaped from the mouth of another congregation member, but it left me feeling less than, as though I didn’t even deserve to be a mother to the children climbing on me during the service. No one should be made to feel that way on Mother’s Day.
And so, for the past few years, I chose to stay home and celebrate in quiet with my husband and sons. I spent time reflecting on my daughter, on her mother, on the baby we lost to miscarriage, on the two little boys who love me to the moon and back. My husband, understanding the mix of emotions brought forth by the day, always treats me as if I am a Queen. One recent year, he made crab legs for dinner and I melted into a puddle of beloved goo. He goes above and beyond — on more than just this one difficult day per year — to remind me of all I am to him, to our sons, and yes, to my daughter.
Sometimes I try to smack a bit of reality into myself with self-talk of how many other mothers have it worse. And they do; I acknowledge my blessings are innumerable. But the Pain Olympics aren’t real. You don’t get a bigger carnation or trophy or cookie for having the saddest story on Mother’s Day. The day comes and the day goes and we still live with our realities — our happiness, our sadness, our everything intertwined. We still have to wake up on Monday morning and go back to work or tend to our families or whatever it is that we do, that we nurture, that we are in charge of making better in this world. Our journeys — our achievements, our losses, our hope, our grief, our faith, our doubt, our souls — may be different, but life continues to pull us all forward whether we’re ready for forward motion or not.
I don’t yet know if I’ll go to church on Mother’s Day. I don’t know how I’ll feel that day. But I do know that I feel eternally grateful for my various roles of motherhood; I don’t take any of them lightly. Perhaps that’s why this holiday remains so difficult to me: I recognize the full importance and overwhelming responsibility of motherhood. As a mother of loss, a birth mother, and an everyday mother to two little boys, I feel a catch in my throat when I think of all that has been placed upon my shoulders when it comes to this quickly growing next generation.
My fervent prayer remains that I can do right by all of my children by being the best mother in my various capacities to each of them.
The woman looks at my two sons as they run up to me where I sit on a bench at the playground. They gulp down some water while trying to talk over one another about the fun they are having. Before I can respond, their feet run in the opposite direction. I smile at the whirlwind of their affection, their joy.
“Two boys?” She doesn’t need to say more. I understand the question being posed.
“Yes. They’re five and seven. They keep us busy.”
Her daughter meanders over, much younger and clad in pink. Their exchange is gentler, a whisper compared to the cacophony of my small but boisterous brood. I return to my book, the happy place where I force myself to go so as not to hover at the playground. I read the same sentence twice as I peek over the top edge, making sure they are safe, secure, not tackling strangers’ children.
She speaks again.
“Are you having any more?”
My vision blurs. I am thankful for the book in front of my face as it blocks my furrowed brow — and my rolling eyes. I think of all the inappropriate questions I could ask this strange woman — a woman I’ve never before laid eyes on — about her fertility, her health, her emotional well-being, her finances, her ability to mother more than one, more than two, more than none. I come up empty handed, because I know how it feels to be asked those questions.
It’s all I say. No. No, we are not having any more children. On the one hand, the answer is so simple. No. However and but and beyond there are legions of words behind that solitary syllable. Mountains of reasons and hurt and pain and, yes, even happiness and gratefulness and thankfulness for all we have been given, entrusted with, blessed to be consumed by. The single word with which I reply does not even begin to encapsulate the painstaking decision making process that went into being able to say that word — that “no” — without crying on a park bench in front of this stranger.
I do not move the book from in front of my face, hoping that my semi-cold and solitary word response will discourage her from moving forward, from asking more questions, from going where I know in my heart, in my soul, she is already going to go.
“Don’t you need a girl?”
I physically force myself from throwing the book at her. My stomach rolls. My heart drops. My eyes close. My teeth clench. My body recoils and simultaneously pitches forward. I hurt, physically and emotionally. I sigh. “And here we are again,” I think to myself. “Forever here, in this space.”
If I have learned anything by being the everyday mother of two boys, other than a wealth of fart and poop jokes, it is that our culture is beyond obsessed with girls. With having girls. With wanting to have girls. With pink bows and frills and princesses. With women being required to want those things. When women don’t verbalize wanting those things or when they dare to admit that, no, they don’t really want a girl, they are brandished as some oddity, some heartless woman who obviously has no femininity, no real attachment to the womanly ways of the world. A mother of just boys is to be pitied! She never got to do hair in pig tails or buy fancy Easter dresses. She is obviously missing out on the joys of motherhood, of womanhood at its central and epitomized core. She is less than.
And then there’s me — and others like me — everyday mothers of boys who relinquished their only daughter.
I could have been an integral part of the club that I am supposedly missing out on. I had access. I had the key, the invitation, the secret handshake, the password. I was invited. I grew a little girl in my womb. I cared for her even when my own health was put to the test, when my life was on the line. I loved her more than my own life, more than I will ever be able to convey with letters and words and punctuation. And I handed her over — to another woman, another mother — thus transferring the invitation. I didn’t know at the time I would never get another invitation, that it was a one time deal. I didn’t know I would be shut out from all that moms of girls get to do and experience. I didn’t know.
I watch as my daughter’s mom goes through some of the early tween stuff and I am perplexed. It feels odd to know that my daughter is now this old and experiencing things that girls her age experience, and I don’t know the slightest bit about any of it, other than vague memories of what I went through at similar ages and phases. I haven’t read books on how to mother girls, on what to expect as girls age. I don’t shop in stores for girls. I don’t know what girls her age like; though I know she loves music. I suppose that’s one good thing, that while I don’t understand girls as a whole, I know about my daughter; I know what she likes, what she doesn’t like, what she’s going through, what she is doing. I try not to get hung up on what I do not have and try to focus more on what I do know, what I do have with and through her, with and through her mom.
I return to the park bench, lost in thought for what probably equated to a few seconds but felt like a decade of memories and missed milestones. I think of how to answer this intrusive, sexist, ridiculous question. I wonder how my grandmother, a mother of three boys, might have answered it without the additional weight of adoption loss. I begin to smile because I know that my grandmother would have given this nosy woman the what-for; I am thankful for her light in my life.
The woman seemingly assumes the smile is for her.
“It’s just girls are so fun. You can dress them up. And they’re less of a hassle than boys.”
I think of my boys. I think of my daughter. I smile some more.
I do not need more. I do not want for more. I occasionally get a rash of baby fever, overwhelmed by the cute and the soft and the tenderness of newborns. In those moments, I have a flash of irrational anger that my decision making hand was forced by my health, but it passes quickly, and I embrace the present, the reality and beauty of the life we are living — together.
This is my family. Some are here. Some are there. This is who we are; this is what our family looks like. I breathe in before I answer, the cool, not-quite-spring air pushing down any heated bits of anger and frustration. I exhale.
“No. My family is just fine.”
And we are. And we are.
This post originally appeared on my now defunct adoption blog, The Chronicles of Munchkin Land.