From the time we were old enough to conceptualize a future, my sister and I discussed adopting a child ourselves one day. We referred to it as “giving back to the system.” We weren’t sure which of us would do it, and really, it didn’t matter, as long as one of us did. That’s how we saw it. One of us would give back to the system for both of us. It’s interesting to me that, even as children, we thought of adoption as a system. The word seems so clinical, so unlike, say, birth. But it was a system; it was a complex set of individual components, of laws and social philosophies and personal choices, that launched my sister and me on the journey that became our whole, that became our life. And because that life was good, it was easy to see the system as good, too, as something worth honoring by some day participating in it again, only from another side.
I understand now that the system of adoption, in 1970, had flaws. But because we knew nothing of those flaws as children, nor any story other than our own, because we grew up strong and happy and loved, we saw adoption only for its over-riding good. We were grateful not only for our family, but for the system that made that family possible.
My sister’s journey to adopt her son coincided with my own awakening as a person who was adopted. (Once, after attending a parenting class for adoptive parents, my sister advised me to stop referring to myself as an adopted person. “You are someone who was once adopted,” she told me. “You do not have to carry the label, the action, forward as an essential definition of yourself.”) At the very moment that I was coming to terms with the anguish not only of my own birth mother letting go but of so many others, my sister’s arms were outstretched, waiting to receive her son. While my sister was making final preparations for her son, I was reading stacks of books and memoirs about adoptions and reunions that worked, and didn’t. I began publicly writing my own story, stepping delicately into my own life, an act that required so much sensitivity to avoid wounding. I had to consider every side, not just my own. Here’s what that meant. In the midst of one of the most exciting, hopeful times in my sister’s life, I was being a killjoy.
The minute my nephew began making his way toward my sister, he was moving away from the woman who brought him into the world. I couldn’t stop thinking about the pain that I perceived his birth mother felt when she left him behind at the maternity hospital in Morocco. I couldn’t stop thinking of her journey home with her full breasts and empty belly. As a child, I never thought about my own birth mother as deeply as I thought about my nephew’s, and in my new-found wisdom, I felt obligated not to blink away the components of the system of adoption that, for all its good, are uncomfortable, and sad. I thought that my sister could handle it, that she, of all people, an adoptive mother who also was adopted, could bear the responsibility of the entire story. And she could, and she did, but it was a burden, too.
“You’re starting to make me feel guilty about being happy,” she confessed one day.
And then I felt guilty about feeling sad for the mother I didn’t know, at the expense of the one I did.
One day last month, after visiting the baby in the orphanage in Morocco, we passed a small carnival set up in an open square in the city where my nephew was born and where his birth mother may or may not reside. We were all exhausted from the twice-daily hike in 100-degree heat across town and up the hill to the hospital that housed the orphanage. Even the carnival looked like it was baking in the sun as we shielded our eyes from the white light bouncing off the metal rides. My son’s eyes lingered over the bungee-jumping apparatus on the edge of the square. I understood his longing. After spending hours in the orphanage each day, soaking up sights and sounds that must have aged his soul by decades, he wanted to be nine again. “Go ahead,” we told him, placing a handful of dirhams in his sweaty palm.
The carnival worker hooked him up to a harness, speaking to him in Arabic, and motioned him upward. My son just stood there.
“Jump,” I instructed. “Start bouncing.”
He took a few ginger bounces and began springing into the air.
Soon, he was leaping into the sky.
“He looks afraid,” I told my sister.
“He looks happy,” my sister said.
He was both.
And so we stood there as a beautiful but complicated metaphor danced in front of us, in and out of our vision, blinded by the sun.
Love is simple, but the system of adoption is not. Adoption gives and adoption takes. Adoption stands for unbounded joy, and for deep, wounding sadness. There is my nephew. There is my sister, his mother. There is the woman whose body held him first. It’s dizzying at times, to keep them all in view.
Perhaps my nephew will understand this when he is older, navigating the love he feels for his mother, my twin, and the desires, which he may or may not have, to know another part of himself.
Nobody can write his story for him.
In the mean time, my son wanted off, but the carnival worker could not comprehend my sister’s Arabic or my French. We abandoned language and began using our hands, playing a game of desperate charades, miming STOP. PLEASE. ENOUGH. Finally, the worker understood and lowered my son into view, unbuckling him from the harness.
He stumbled toward us like a drunk, his face red and glistening with sweat.
Back on the ground, we took the whole of him in our arms and steadied him.
“How was it?” my sister asked.
“Good,” he said simply. “Thanks.”
Then he turned to lead us home.