WE MADE A SCENE at preschool last week, which is odd for us. But there we were for the whole line of cars to see— hysterical daughter and guilt-ridden mother. Mei’s face was pressed to my chest and her tears soaked my shirt. I felt her breath as she sobbed, “I want to go home with you!” Miss Jane walked quickly toward us, kicking up leaves as she came. Mei tightened her thin legs around my waist and balled the shoulders of my shirt into her firsts, ready for the fight. Miss Jane pulled her by the middle, and I pried off a leg with one hand and with the other hand held my shirt as it threatened to go over my head and into school with Mei and Miss Jane. First one leg, then the other, then one hand, and the other. The toddler extraction complete, I stepped into the car and took a deep breath. She loves school—at least she did love school. She’ll be fine in five minutes. Don’t make this bigger than it is; she’s just being three. As I put the car into drive I could still hear her screaming, “Mom! Come back!”
I never screamed for my mom to come back. My teenage pride wouldn’t allow it. My parents divorced for the second and final time one month before my fifteenth birthday. We moved from Florida to Utah, the minivan packed with four children, two hamsters, and one emotionally unstable mother. My mom knew Brigham Young had said of Utah, “This is the place,” and she finished his thought: This is the place … for single adults. Mom wore a new cream-colored silk dress to the first dance and told us not to wait up, but we heard the hum of the garage door before we’d even finished the second movie. She blew in with the car fumes, threw her keys on the counter, and went to bed without a word. She flew to Illinois that summer to visit her sister, and at the local Pizza Hut, in line at the salad bar, she bumped into her high school prom date. A month later I came home from a week at girls’ camp to find a red pickup truck parked in our driveway and my younger sister crying on the porch. The prom date had driven away from his wife and children and kicked his shoes off in our foyer. Within a year, while we were at school, my mom and her prom date had packed their things and left. After several days we realized they weren’t coming back. I was sixteen and wrote in my lavender-colored journal, “She’ll never know how much she’s hurt me. I’m angry. And I’m even more angry at myself that I still feel like I need a mother.” The next time I saw her I was in my wedding gown, determined that the person who’d missed birthdays and tennis matches and graduation wouldn’t see me cry. And she didn’t.
Mei’s preschool crying began after the questions started. They were questions I didn’t know how to answer and questions I didn’t even think I’d need to answer for several years—at least that’s what I’d read in the adoption books. “Where was my daddy?” She was in bed, pointing to a picture out in the hallway. In the photo she was five months old, propped in a walker, one of many babies in her orphanage. “Daddy was here at home, so excited to fly to China and give you hugs.”
“Where was my mommy?”
“Mommy was looking at your picture and buying baby clothes to pack in our suitcase.”
“Where was brother?” I could hear the panic building in her voice but she continued, including her sisters and even the dogs.
“Was Madeline there? I was with Abby, right? Was Olaf on the floor by my crib? What about my dog Charlie?” And finally with tears brimming at her dark almond eyes, she asked about her ragged flannel blanket, her “bease.”
“Mommy, was bease there?” Her voice was frightened, afraid of the answer.
“No, bease wasn’t there.” And then she sobbed. No Dad, no Mom, no brother, no sisters, no dogs, not even a bease.
Mei turned eleven months old the day our plane touched down in the United States. and we walked through the line marked New Immigrants. She was so young—too young to have memories of China, and yet, even over two years later, there are moments when her body whispers to her spirit of things she once saw and knew. Fellow Chinese want to stroke her black hair and speak to her in Mandarin. As they talk, they nod encouragingly, willing her to remember the life before she’d ever heard the sharp staccato of English, when she was lulled to sleep by the musical tones of the nannies gossiping to each other in Mandarin. But instead of finding comfort in it, she cries and buries her head in my shoulder and tightens her grip around my neck. One day Mei was watching her adoption video and while her sisters on either side of her ate popcorn, silent tears ran down her face. Pictures of the orphanage were on the screen. I asked her why she was crying and she said she didn’t know.
Mei wanted to remember something, anything, so she could understand the pain. I wanted to forget everything so I could ignore it. When I was a little girl, my mom made a game out of taking the dirty clothes to the laundry room. It was a conga line of sorts with my mom holding the basket at the front, my older brother behind her holding her waist, me in the third position hanging on to my brother, and my little sister holding onto me. My younger brother wasn’t born yet, or if he was, he was too young for the conga line. Into the laundry room we went, “Da, da, da, da, da, KICK, da, da, da, da, da, KICK.” A few years ago my mom asked me if I remembered it and I said no. It was the easiest answer, safe and emotionless.
Mei shares a room with her seven-year-old sister Abby. At bedtime, in the sleepy coziness of night lights and freshly shampooed heads, the girls have often asked to hear about their beginnings: Abby’s birth and Mei’s adoption. One story shouldn’t be any better, any cheerier than the other, so it was all happiness for Abby, all happiness for Mei. I’d start with us seeing her pictures and how we were so excited to go meet our little girl. I’d tell her about how we got into the big plane and flew through a whole day and landed in the chaos and heat of a China summer. As I snuggled her close she’d hear how happy we were when we met her, and how I whispered, “I love you, Mei” in her ear, but because she was Qiu Ju then and had never been called Mei, I had to say, “Wo ai ni, Qiu Ju,” and she gave me a funny look because I didn’t say it quite right. And then her favorite part of the story would come when her dad took her swimming that first night in the hotel pool and she splashed him.
But Mei stopped liking her story. She didn’t want to hear it. Weeks went by and then she asked once again, “Tell me about China.” I smiled. That’s my girl. I happily told her the story, the one where we saw her and she magically existed. “We couldn’t wait to get on a plane and meet our sweet little girl.” She snuggled deeper into her blankets and hugged bease to her cheek. When I finished she said, “Now tell me about when you met Abby in China.”
I looked away and shook my head. “No, Abby wasn’t in China.” I quickly kissed her goodnight and closed her door behind me. I clenched my fists and went downstairs. I threw toys from the living room floor into a wicker basket. She should be satisfied with her story. I picked up Buzz Lightyear and aimed. Haven’t I given her a great story? Buzz flew into the basket where he crashed onto the roof of the Fisher Price barn. Aren’t I the mother that’s HERE? The one cleaning the living room? I grabbed My Pretty Pony by its rainbowcolored tail and whipped it into the basket. Why should this be her story anyway? It’s unfair. It shouldn’t be anyone’s story. “To infinity and beyond!” yelled Buzz as the pony landed. That mother didn’t need you, Mei. You don’t need her. A stuffed panda, a plastic high-heeled shoe, a naked Barbie, all into the basket. I didn’t need mine.
Toy after toy flew into the heap until I picked up Mei’s doll Yang, the Chinese special-order doll. I took a deep breath. Yang. Last Christmas I felt like Mei needed a Chinese doll, like I would be a bad mother not to get her one. I’d found plenty of decorative China dolls to stand on a shelf, but that’s not what I wanted. I wanted one that Mei could wrap in a blanket and rock to sleep, one that had a soft fabric body that would mold to hers when she held her. But Yang was plopped in amongst the blond-haired dolls and the bald dolls with the big round eyes and given no special place in Mei’s heart. I gently laid Yang on top of the other toys in the basket. Mei, I’m not the mom who left. I’m the mom who’s staying. You’re not alone anymore.
Children who are alone. That was what initially started us on the path to adoption. We didn’t need adoption in the way most people thought. Yes, we already had three biological children and no, there wasn’t a medical reason I couldn’t produce more. It was the children without mothers that kept me awake. That and the extra chair at our table. For over a year my husband and I were stuck in a circular pattern: prayer, followed by Yes!, followed by fear, followed by stalling, followed by guilt, followed by prayer. Round and round we went, going nowhere and getting dizzy.
But we jumped off the carousel on Mother’s Day in 2005. It had been a typical Mother’s Day with pancakes in bed and coupon books and homemade gifts. In church the speakers tearfully praised their angel mothers and that evening, like I do every Mother’s Day, I called my mom. The prom date had left her many years before and she was on her fifth marriage. She was diabetic, had fainting spells, and was often confused. We exchanged wishes for a happy Mother’s Day. I asked her about the weather in Nevada and she asked me about the rain in Washington. I was halfway through my good-bye when she asked, “Did I ever do anything that hurt you?” It was a confused question, on par with, “Did we own a dog when you were growing up?” or “Did I ever make a casserole with water chestnuts in it?”
“No, Mom, I’m fine.” The mother who’d led the conga line now felt as unreachable as the unknown mother leaning over a rice paddy in China.
Mom was relieved. “Oh, good.” When I hung up the phone I knew that I wanted more than anything to hug and comfort one of China’s abandoned daughters, my daughter. I wanted to tell her that she’s precious and that her life has meaning. I wanted to tell her that it’s all okay and that I will be her mother forever and that the past can be forgotten.
But Mei didn’t want to forget; she wanted to remember and I didn’t have words to make the remembering okay. So I did what mothers do in 2008. I consulted blogs. One blogger told her Chinese daughter, “Your sister was born from my tummy and you were born from my heart,” a sweet sentiment that I knew would be lost on my literal-minded toddler. Mei would say, “What? I was in your heart?” She’d be confused. Just like she was confused when we were watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics and her brother said, “Mei, look. There’s China. That’s where you’re from.” She stared open-mouthed at the TV and said, “I from right dare?” Did she picture herself sprouting out of the Bird’s Nest, maybe from an egg in the nest; all the while wondering why she didn’t remember the fireworks, or at least the drummers?
So I did what mothers do in 2008 if the blogs don’t help. I joined a Yahoo! group. It was nearly midnight when I posted my message: How much do you tell a three-year-old? By the time I woke up the next morning, the Yahoo! mothers had answered. A mom from Spokane said they worked with a therapist who helped their four-year-old act out her abandonment with dollhouse figures. There had been sobbing and anger and then a peace their daughter had never known. “Hunan Mama” said I should tell Mei matter-offactly that, like everyone else, she had a birth mother and father who couldn’t keep her for grown-up reasons, not baby reasons. That I should tell her she was a good baby and that all babies are good. Valerie from Georgia agreed. “Her story starts with birth parents. The thing about AL kids is that in the absence of the whole story they will fill in the blanks. In my experience the truth is less ominous than their own internally generated stories.”
Internally generated stories worse than the truth? The truth was simple: A woman in China had a belly that grew large, she felt the kicks of a baby, and she gritted her teeth through contractions. Someone, maybe the father, maybe a grandparent, cut the umbilical cord and wiped off a 4.9 pound baby girl and handed her to her mother. Maybe the mother kissed her, maybe she cried, and then she said goodbye Zai jian. She passed the baby to someone who carried the newborn through the early-morning darkness down a dirt road toward the orphanage gate. Someone laid her down and that someone walked away.
I sat down at the computer and looked at pictures to start a book, something that I could read to Mei at night when the questions come. Reluctantly I pulled up the picture of the orphanage gate at the end of the dusty road. The beginning. And on the next page, the black and white newspaper finding ad, my baby’s first picture. Jin Qiu Ju, Gold Autumn Chrysanthemum, found September 3, 2005. I turned off the computer and shut my eyes. The dirt in front of the orphanage gate, the empty closets in my mom’s room, they were all I could see. I said a prayer asking for guidance for me and for my daughter. The thought came instantly. “That’s not your beginning. That’s not your daughter’s beginning.”
It was what I’d always been taught, but had somehow forgotten. It was a noble and wonderful beginning. It was a beginning that knew no international borders and needed no translators. It was a beginning that started with heavenly parents who had a plan. This plan included a mother in China who couldn’t care for her baby; it included a recently divorced, depressed mother of four; it included an angry teenager and hurt adult; and it surely included a newborn baby girl crying in the dirt in front of the orphanage. It was a plan that started with joy and happiness but would include mortal suffering. It started with the love of an eternal parent. And that parent’s love was always with me, and it was always with Mei, regardless of the word “orphan” stamped across her paperwork. And that parent’s love can heal the hearts of moms and babies alike.