“So what was the day you adopted me,” Helen asked me recently. Not unlike many things children ask their parents, or indeed parents ask their children, it was a trick question. She thought I’d forgotten the day she officially became my daughter. And I sort of had, which sounds terrible. February, 1998, and the 26th—no wait, maybe the 22nd or the 24th? Luckily for me, she asked this over the phone and I happened to have my calendar handy, where I’ve penciled in all important dates. “It’s February 24,” I replied with that tone of why-would-you-ever-doubt-me and I couldn’t tell if she was happy I’d remembered or sorry she hadn’t once again caught me out.
It’s very common for American adoptive parents to have a yearly celebration for their children’s adoption days. It’s certainly a nice tradition and when Helen was young we would go out to dinner, sharing a grownup meal between the two of us, then maybe a trip to the park or to get ice cream. But after Rose came along, four years later, it was harder to manage the birthday parties and holidays and two adoption day celebrations and so this nice tradition somehow got lost along the way.
But there’s something else going on here. I don’t think a lot about the exact date when those papers were signed. It all began so much sooner, as it does with all parents who have gone on this journey to find their sons and daughters. My journey started in the spring of 1996, when I first researched overseas adoption. In the late summer of that year, very soon after Helen was born as it turned out, I knew that China was my destination. And with each passing day, the good ones and those not so good as well, my child’s presence grew stronger.
August 14, 1996
Dear Camille, I’m out weeding and mowing—have a garden group coming over for a potluck tonight. With all the recent rain my flowers look pretty darn good, if I do say so. My best success story is a small bed of wildflowers, grown from seed—I think watering them twice a day at first made the difference. Also my goldfish in the backyard pond had babies and I’ve trained them all to come when I slap the water. Perhaps if teaching ESL at K-State gets too much I’ll get a job at Sea World!
I’ve been trying to sort out adoption papers and what I need to do next in this process….still have doubts and it doesn’t help when I hear negative things about adoption—from people who don’t know I’m thinking of doing it. Makes me want to mention the high rate of divorce and DOES THAT STOP ANYONE FROM GETTING MARRIED? Anyway, sometimes I think maybe these bad stories are a sign that I shouldn’t go ahead….then I think, but maybe by having to climb over obstacles, my resolve is just getting stronger.
Yes, I too wish we could be neighbors. Then we could share plantings—remember the “monster plants” I brought back on the plane from Chicago? They’re about ready to bloom. Hope to see you again soon. Ann
October 12, 1996
This morning I was reading something about a side trip. Side trip made me think of side car and suddenly I had an image. I was on a big motorcycle, buzzing down a country road, and in a little red seat beside me sat Helen. Her black, straight hair was streaming out from behind. And we were both screaming with joy.
January 3, 1997
Seems like I can wake up and breathe easier once it’s the first of the year. I had recorded the documentary “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision” and watched it late into the night. I can’t seem to look at a picture of the Viet Nam War Memorial without getting teary eyed. I didn’t know anyone who died there, and very few men who served, yet it seems so much a part of who I am, that terrible war. I remember, as a teenager, trying to cover my ears, walking past the living room TV, filled with shots of bombings and bodies returning, of demonstrations with the old against the young, like a civil war. But here was a 21 year old Chinese American woman who had a remarkable design for healing. And she stood up in her hat, like a young Eleanor Roosevelt with a round face, and spoke to those who hated her idea, who hated the fact that she was a woman, and Asian descent at that. I believe Helen knows what courage is. And I thought about my little Chinese girl as I watched this other strong young woman.
February 9, 1997
It’s about time to have some lunch. At 2:00 some of the teachers are coming over for a “garden sharing tea” but really I want them to come over here so I can demonstrate my Taiwanese tea and so I can show them Helen’s little Chinese outfit with the red dragon shoes. And the blue, green, and white sweater that I just finished. And the bookshelf filled with things supposedly for her but as much for me—to make it all seem more real. Sometimes there’s the panic. But other times, now, there’s a feeling that’s similar to being in love. It gives me a happy feeling, deep inside, knowing there’s something to look forward to. Something that’s beyond the ordinary kind of thing to look forward to. And, like being in love, I feel open to share others’ happiness. Without so much envy, without wondering what’s wrong with me that I don’t have what they have. But I think now in preparation for the garden get together I’ll lay out the Chinese tea things. And I think I’ll lay out all of Helen’s things on my bed. They’ll be easier to see that way.
August 25, 1997
Tonight I came home and watched Mr. Rogers. I always found him insipid but today I saw Helen watching him and she liked him. I saw her turn to me and laugh, while I read the paper and my mail. I think Mr. Rogers might be O.K. Then I ate my corn on the cob and homegrown tomatoes and tofu pups fried in a little olive oil and salsa sauce (from Costa Rica via Carlo and his wife). And I thought about Helen and how she shouldn’t be a picky eater and I would get her started out right. Then I imagined her plate of food, with the tofu pups cut up small so she wouldn’t choke.
I keep thinking I’m not ready, that I never can be ready. But maybe I’m getting about as ready as I can get.
December 31, 1997
I am looking at a colored printout, downloaded from email, first viewed on a computer screen. She is a child of the 21st century, my little Ying. “Ying” meaning clever or bright, “Helen” meaning the bright one. She is Bright Bright. Did I mention she is beautiful?
I came back from my visit with Marsha and Tony and saw the blinking light on the answering machine. “Maybe this is it,” I thought. But I’ve thought that so many times. But it was, a message from Linda, that congratulations were in order, that she is gorgeous and that she is a little younger than I wanted.
She is 18 months, 30 pounds. I thought I must have heard wrong. That must be big for an American child of that age. 18 months? I listened again. I crouched by the phone and cried, from shock and joy. This was my child. I knew that.
How funny things are. I have spent months worrying that she would be older than I had asked for. And here she is, hardly older than the infants coming out. Her birthday is July 2, 1996. She was abandoned at seven months. She is a little Chinese warrior staring out of the picture, boyish with her short hair. When I first saw her on the screen, I said, “Her hair is black!” and then realized what a silly thing that was to say.
I practice saying her name with a touch of sternness. “Helen Ying, that’s enough.” And what I have of her is a piece of paper from an email:
Date: Mon, 29 Dec 1997
Subject: Ann Carter’s baby.
January 3, 1998
Another quote from Journey of the Heart by Melody Beattie:
Remember the words you were told when this last adventure began, the words
whispered quietly to your heart: Let the journey unfold. Let it be magical.
The way has been prepared. People will be expecting you.
Friends are planning showers. I don’t like showers of any kind but I must admit it’s more exciting and fun to be on the receiving end. Is it possible that I’m almost 46 and this will be my first?
I got a phone message from Linda wanting me to fax my acceptance of Ying (I just wrote her name without thinking.) When I heard the message and couldn’t reach my agent, I thought maybe my fax wouldn’t get there in time, maybe they would give her to someone else. But finally I convinced myself to calm down. Why would they give away my child? She just didn’t belong to anyone else. She never has.
Helen Ying Carter will be expecting me.
February 22, 1998
I’ve thought of some things Helen and I can do. We can walk down to the lobby and look at the whirling ball in the water. And surely we can take a walk outside. And she can look out the window. And play with balloons in the room. I can give her a bath and try on her clothes. Maybe I’m not ready because I see her as some wild angry child, out of my control, kicking the door and maybe me. But when she calms down I wash her little face. I can change her diaper. I can keep her hands away from dangerous things. I can hold her on my lap and comb her hair. And after I comb her hair, she can comb mine. When I looked in the mirror tonight, my hair seemed ugly and thin, but maybe Helen won’t think so. Maybe she will find my hair beautiful. Maybe she will even like me.
February 23, 1998
I sit here in the hotel room waiting, sipping green tea made from a bag I brought, thinking I should stop worrying about how expensive this place is. I went out wandering, looking for a place to buy cheap snacks and juice. I didn’t find a juice place, but instead a department store with wonderful little shoes and so inexpensive—felt like buying five pairs. Maybe I can buy one (or two) for now and several she will grow into.
This seems like a very lonely thing to go through alone—like being in the delivery room without anyone else there. No one to yell at, no one to pat me. No one to say, “You know, it’s normal to feel this way.” But hey, whiners aren’t really very likable people. I’ll have to remember to tell Helen that.
Sitting here reminds me a little of waiting for a blind date or first date to appear—the nervousness about the unknown. It seems strange to compare the two, except when I think that I often held to the idea that “this guy” could be “the one,” therefore changing my life forever. Poor Helen has no choice in this, however, and I guess I don’t either—not at this point. We’re going to have to get along. But God, let this turn out better than those blind dates.
February 23, 1998
Well, Helen isn’t combing my hair—yet. I guess she’s too young for that. When they brought her in (the director and assistant director and driver from the orphanage) I can’t say that I felt an instant bond. She looked so big and so boyish. I continued to think she was indeed very fat until I began to take off layers—four tops and four pants in all, many padded. I haven’t weighed her yet, maybe tomorrow, but I’m betting about 26 pounds. Now she is calmly sitting in her crib, eating a cracker. Before that she fell asleep in my arms, looking out at the lights of Nanjing. But let me say this, no matter how much you can intellectualize about a toddler’s reaction, it just doesn’t bond you to someone when they reject you. You like someone because they like and need you. Well, that doesn’t sound like a good mother’s view. She stayed calm about five minutes after they left (people who obviously loved children) but then there was a look on her face that I will never forget. It was a look of someone happy who suddenly realizes a terrible thing is happening to them. And she cried, her face screwing up and big tears rolling down two of the roundest cheeks I’ve ever seen. She let me wipe her hot face with a cool cloth and almost seemed to welcome it, but then just cried harder. Then she fell asleep, standing up, leaning against the bed, where I lifted her and where she slept an hour. “That wasn’t so bad,” I told myself. But when she woke up she started again, standing by the door, great howling cries, enough to make me wonder if the neighbors would complain. And I did feel helpless, not knowing what she’d eat and one look at me making her cry even harder.
But I must say this, in all her grief and outrage, she never kicked or struck out at me and somehow, through the worst moments, I sensed she knew I had her best interest at heart. There was a sweetness and yes, even appreciation, behind the outrage. Once when she was a little calmer she let me feed her Cheerios, one by one, and the soft feel of her little lips reminded me of how I feel when Turtle, my cat, eats grass out of my hand.
And I just went over and did the mother thing. I checked to see if my baby was breathing. And yes, thank you God, for I believe Helen has what I wanted most in a child, in my daughter. I believe that little Ying Ying has a good heart. And indeed, she has courage. And tonight, as we sat looking out at the lights of Nanjing, I told her that.
February 28, 1998
Was I a little bored at times in the company of a more demanding but happier child today? Sometimes. Do I want to go back home and pretend this was all an interesting trial? That life as a single parent is going to be too much? I can’t imagine thinking that. There is no choice now. Because strange and unknown little lives have joined forces, never to be the same again. Did getting Turtle and adjusting to her help? Very much, for it takes experience to know that only rarely and perhaps never does it not take time to love others and to not be afraid of them, of what they might be. When Helen is restless or loud or gives me a funny look, I catch myself thinking, “What if she really is a monster child in hiding?” I know she is not. But it’s also O.K. to think that sometimes. It is the way I am. Maybe it is some need in me to imagine the worst and get through it in my mind, only to come out on the other side to face the lesser evils of reality. For if orphanages can produce these beautiful children, maybe there is hope for this world. And today, day six of knowing Helen, I had fun dressing her up (she’s very proud of her new shoes). And we went down to the lobby and admired the water fountain. And once, when sitting in my lap, she stroked my hair, and I swear she thought it was beautiful.
You see, Helen, I do remember, but not so much the date I signed the stack of papers. That was just a formality. It all started when I set out to find you. But for the record, it’s February 24th. We should go out to dinner. Maybe get some ice cream later. And not just on adoption day.
Note: Excerpts taken from the book “Spiders from Heaven”. To learn more, visit annlcarter.com and www.facebook.com/AnnLCarterAuthor