No fairy tales

I was adopted as a baby in 1976.  Since we decided to adopt and met other people adopting, many ask me about growing up adopted.  I want to tell them that it is awesome and special, because it is.  But it is unfair for me to just say that because “special” means a lot of things.  I am always afraid that if I tell them everything and how I felt and feel about it all, it may be more than they want to know or it may give them pause, because it’s nuanced and difficult to reconcile my view as an adopted child with the fairy tale which has been the traditional adoption story.  You know the one — a “good couple” is infertile and rescues a beautiful baby who looks a little like them from a poor or unprepared birth mother (forever exit stage left) to raise and live happily ever after.  This isn’t my story and I expect it is almost nobody’s story.  It is a fairy tale and one we don’t need to protect.  The fairy tale pushees adoption to the fringe because so few people fit the available cast of players.  Restricting adoption to the infertile, limiting matches to similar looking children and ignoring the birth mother has left 130 million orphans without a home.  Adoption can be more if we bury the fairy tale.  Adoption is God’s story and God can use us as we are to write stories that are beautiful despite us.  So without further preface…

Mom and dad married young (19 and 20) and lived on an upwardly mobil trajectory from working poor to upper middle class.  They both grew up in and around Waco, and met and married there.  Dad was driven and worked hard, and mom was his copilot for whatever the flight of the moment.  After they got married, they moved to Austin to get some space to grow.  Dad got a good job with the state and mom worked for The University.  Pregnancy and kids were always on the radar, but in never happened accidentally and they kept moving forward in their jobs and other non-kid stuff.  Eventually, they needed kids to complete their picture of the ideal, but mom couldn’t get pregnant.  I think mom was very disappointed and dad played the role of supportive spouse.  Infertility wasn’t an advanced science but adoption was a “good option for those who can’t have kids.”  So my parents got a loan, went to Lutheran Social Services, and cued up for their version of the fairy tale — a healthy, newborn boy who might look a little like them and was available for a closed adoption.  And they waited…and waited… and waited…

Meanwhile across the state near Port Arthur, a young girl (let’s call her “Vera”) from a working class, East Texas family sputtered a little in her late teens.  She had a baby boy two years prior and attempted to care for him as a single, teen mom.  Single, teen mom in 1973 was different than in 2010, but it wasn’t any easier.  Three months showed her that she was neither ready nor ready to get there, and she gave up the baby to Lutheran Social Services.  She was shaken by the experience, and she felt a little empty.  She joined the military, because it was a good opportunity compared to the rest of what she could see on the horizon.  She still looked for love, and like most 20 year old girls who don’t know how to find it, she thought sex could make a relationship more than it really was.  She eventually got pregnant a second time, and she faced the same decision, alone, again.  In mid-1975, the military was starting to look like a career she could run with, so she handed me over to the social worker a couple of moments after I was born in March of 1976.  Maybe she looked back once or twice — I don’t know.

Born out of sin and confusion, I was placed with a foster family from Austin.  All accounts were they were marvelous, and I think foster families are pretty much the coolest.  They got a little more than they wanted with me.  I had a nasty case of staph which kept me in the hospital for a good portion of my first three months.  I don’t know a bunch about what happened in those three months, and I don’t know why it took so long.  I don’t know if there was any contact between the foster family and Vera or the foster family and my parents.  I just know it was three months where I was caught between in a sort of parent purgatory.

My parents eventually picked me up, but not until I was all well and healthy and three months old.  My dad has shown me the picture 6,812 times.  “You fell right asleep on your mother’s shoulder on the way home and you didn’t even know us.”  I wanted a couple times to explain, “Hell Dad, I didn’t know anybody.  I spent the first 90 days with 5 doctors, 11 nurses, the 5 members of my foster family, Vera for five minutes, the social worker for an hour… I was tired, I wanted love, I wanted rest — mom’s shoulder was the shoulder I found.”  But they wanted a kid so bad and that was the mommy moment that gave the whole experience an immediate seal of emotional approval, I never wanted to take that away.  It stands for the ideal they wanted, and they were willing to parent me, so I always wanted them to have the ideal — still do.

From there, my dad continued learning to be successful and eventually got there.  I was afforded most reasonably privileges of upper middle class life.  My parents were B+ engaged in my education and A- engaged in my life.  They shared the faith and the love they knew.  I accepted Christ and was baptized when I was around twelve, and my vantage on adoption slowly started to change — s l o w l y.  Meanwhile, my parents and I found our groove.  I rolled through school with little effort and graduated from UT in 4 1/2 years.  I was a good kid and sought their approval even when they didn’t realize it.

Still, for the first 22 years of my life no matter what else was going on, I was always adopted.  At some points I would wear it as a badge of good uniqueness and sometimes I would blame it for any bad uniqueness, real or perceived.  Health problems in my parents’ families — no worries, adopted.  Emotionally disconnected — adopted.  Not much of a relationship with my grandparents — adopted.  Only child — adopted.  Made a B instead of an A in Geometry — pretty good considering I am adopted.  I thought about it every day; I thought about the loose ends and I speculated about what impact it had on me or my parents.

While I thought about many different aspects, I didn’t really ever think about Vera.  From a young age, I thought she made her decision for my good or her good.  Who knows, who cares… I was better off.  My parents would try to pry for some emotional attachment or pry to see if I wanted to write a letter or learn more, but I didn’t.  I suspect they did.  My mom lionized Vera as absolutely selfless — (cue the fairy tale) “she gave you up to a better life than she could have provided herself.”  I discounted my mom’s praise for Vera, because it was based upon how I filled the void created in her life by the fact that she couldn’t get pregnant.  I wanted to ask mom how Vera knew I wasn’t with some axe-murdering pedophile, but I never did because my mom loved her own script and I was so grateful for all her love — I didn’t want to introduce any doubt.  Besides, I thought these were my issues; understanding my story was up to me and was reserved for the recess of my mind.

But on the way to my college graduation a funny thing happened.  Marissa and I met when we were 14 and we dated exclusively save a few months.  She is my one and only love.  Anyway, we got pregnant before I graduated and while I was still living every minute focused on myself.  I hadn’t gotten past me to think about marriage and now it was time to think about Baby.  But from day one, I was determined to be what I thought Vera hadn’t been.  Every day when Marissa got home from work, we talked about Baby.  I went to all the doctor’s appointments and we planned their move into my house.  I was already in love with Marissa but I loved her so much more now that we were both absolutely commited.  We didn’t know if Baby was a boy or a girl, but we were excited in a completely freaked out sort of way.  Owen was born in September of 1998.  In the midst of becoming a dad, I couldn’t quit thinking about the contrast  between September 1998 and March 1976.  I was born into nothing to Vera who decided to let me go before there was anyone there to catch me; Owen was born out of love to high school sweethearts who skipped over the last few years of their childhood to absolutely focus on him.  Marissa and I made the decision Vera didn’t, but throughout it, I was there in the role of father, a role nobody was willing to play for Vera when I was born.  Unlike us, she was all alone.

Still, I fathered Owen like there was a panel of celestial parenting judges grading my performance to see if Vera or I made the right decision.  For years, I thought of it as an either/or.  But parenting taught me a lot about myself and about true, undefiled love.  As a result, my view of Vera softened.  Instead of judging her for her sin of lust or her sin of quiting, I began to leave the judging for someone else.  Vera missed out on my love, on learning about herself through me, on learning more about God’s love for his sons and daugthers.  Vera missed out on a lot; she didn’t need judgment.  As my view softened s l o w l y…

Marissa answered the phone and she was nervous.  She was intercepting and diverting the phone call like she does whenever someone who is not on my list of 15 (maybe later) calls for me, but she was having more trouble than normal and moved to leave the room.  She usually shows off to me how she can protect me from hastle, but this time she wanted to leave the room.  I noticed her forehead was squinting a little, her voice rose an octive and her non-phone hand (right) went to the top of her hair.  From the inflection of her voice when she said “this is his wife” I knew immediately it was Vera.  I had never heard from her my entire life, and I certainly didn’t know her name, but that is who it had to be — I just knew.  When Marissa got off the phone, she was shaken and said “that was…” and to save her from having to say it, I said “…my birth mother.”  It was, and it all came at me at once before I could shove it back to where I kept it.  I didn’t want to walk that road.  I had Marissa and three kids.  More knowledge would surely lead to some nuance which might undermine everything.  Better that I just keep it simple — she should have chosen me like we chose Owen.  It felt like my life was built on my settled notions of Vera and her reasons, so nothing good could come of it.  Eventually, I returned her call and eventually we met for lunch.  A year or two later, we met once for dinner.  She lives 2,000 miles away and is a very nice lady.  She looks at me with an emotion that I can’t summon, but who knows what lies behind the eyes.

As for me, the script I assumed was no more complete than my parents’ fairy tale, because I focused on how everyone fell short:  Vera shouldn’t have gotten pregnant that second time; my parents should have been at the hospital; my adoption should have been open so I didn’t live under my own misunderstanding; maybe Vera should have tried to raise me; maybe my parents should have been less focused on their ideal.  But the ways we all fell short are only half the story, because God redeemed the story by working in the murk of human mistakes to write the story he wanted.  The point isn’t the mistakes or the blame — the point is the grace.  Everyone had a role and their sins and mistakes are what I was written upon.  I am not different in this regard; I am just like everyone else — born into the sin of my parents and prior generations.  Yes I am damaged goods, but, just like everyone else, I am just a guy in need of a savior.  God loves me even though my story is filled with so many mistakes.

Adoption is not a fairy tale and there are no human heroes; there is just God.  His adoption of us is a story of redemption; it is the pure and perfect adoption picture against which no earthly adoption compares.  Now Marissa and I are in the process of adopting a child from Ethiopia.  Just as generations before us, we fall short of God’s perfect adoption.  Why can’t we take an older child to save them from prostitution or death?  Why can’t we accept the risk of giving all our love to a sick child?  Why do we spend so much time worrying about the money?  But our imperfection isn’t a reason to not follow the call to adopt.  As long as we are faithful, we have freedom from the errors.  The freedom is there for the asking to us just as it is to Vera and my parents.  We pray every day that it be more about God and less about us, and we pray that he will straighten out our mistakes and make something beautiful in spite of us — just like he did 34 years ago.

When we started down the adoption path two years ago, I didn’t want to be my parents and I didn’t want to adopt Vera’s kid.  Still, the further we journey towards Ethiopia to reach as far as we can to adopt an orphan whose mom may have died of AIDS or starvation in 2010, the more I understand about Austin in 1976.  Neither story is a fairy tale, but it is better that way.  Each is the story God authored; each is more beautiful because there are no human heroes — only God’s perfect love, majesty and grace.

JWM

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