My daughter Carolyn doesn’t look at all like me. She doesn’t look like my wife, Jan either. She looks like her parents, I suppose; Carolyn just doesn’t look like Jan and me. Our daughter is adopted, of course, and if you have an adopted child, or are close to someone who does, you understand that that word—adopted—doesn’t mean anything. And it means everything.
After nearly ten years of trying harder to have a child than any two human beings should have to try, Jan and I began, like countless couples before us and since, doing the fertility dance… I’ll cut to the chase here: we eventually discovered that it would be very difficult, if not impossible for us to conceive in the generally accepted manner. Jan, ever the problem-solver, while extremely disappointed with our result, was ready after a few days to move on to the next items on her “We’re Havin’ a Baby” checklist. Me? I was ready to chuck the whole friggin’ thing. I was angry; though I’m still not entirely sure why.
Did I really want kids? While I clearly didn’t want them as much as my wife did (isn’t that true with most couples?), I did want them. At the very least, I had always liked kids and usually pictured myself with children of my own at some point in my adult life. Did I actively, purposefully, no-doubt-about-it, gotta-have-‘em want them? No. It was certainly more than a toss-up with me back then, though; I wanted kids more than I didn’t. But the anger was definitely there, after we got our news from the fertility dance instructors. But then I thought about it a little more…
I remember thinking, after all the years, all the dejection and all the disappointment, perhaps the kid-thing just wasn’t meant to be, for us. Maybe the Big Guy’s plan for Jan and I did not include the patter of little human feet; He sure seemed to be telling us as much, over and over again for an entire decade. Who was I—who were we—not to listen and, if we didn’t fully understand, at least obey? But hadn’t someone who’d obviously been close to the Big Guy once said, “God helps those who help themselves”? I’ve heard that phrase countless times over the years, so someone clearly said it and lots of people repeat it, endlessly. Maybe we hadn’t “helped ourselves” enough, and maybe we had to do a bit more before Divine Intervention kicked in.
So we both went back to the “We’re Havin’ a Baby” checklist, discussed the few remaining items and ruled them out, item by item, for one reason or another. Finally we took a long look at the remaining item on the list: Adoption. Wow. Big move. As I’ve said previously, I “usually pictured myself with children of my own.” But I think that the key phrase there was “of my own.” Adoption? Boy, I really didn’t know about that. Would we really be helping ourselves, vis-a-vis the Big Guy, by going the adoption route? I wasn’t sure. It seemed like we were saying, in effect, “Okay. We give up on this ‘we’re havin’ a baby’ thing.
But even though I had my doubts, Jan didn’t waiver, so I agreed to look into adoption with a more or less open mind. We did lots of research and, remember, this was before Al Gore invented the World Wide Web; so that was when research consisted of much more than a couple key strokes and a few mouse-clicks. Over time, we discovered, like many other families-to-be had, that local adoptions (meaning kids from the U.S.) were almost non-existent back then. So we turned our gaze toward foreign adoptions, specifically in the direction of South Korea. Wow. Big move. You’d be correct if you’re thinking, right about now, “I bet he had some doubts.” I did. But after only a little while I figured—what the hell! If this kid wasn’t going to look like us anyway, what difference would it make if he/she really didn’t look like us?
We discovered two adoption agencies relatively close to us: Holt, in central New Jersey, and Spence-Chapin, in NYC. We went to a meeting at Holt, and both kind of felt like we had stumbled into a Scared Straight meeting at nearby Trenton State Prison instead: lots of stern faces, no rights for the inmates, and absolutely no fun; no way, no how. By this time, Jan had decided that she wanted a girl, if possible, and Holt’s attitude toward that was that we had no right to even have—let alone profess—a preference. Checked them off the new “We’re Adoptin’ a Baby” list that very night.
Spence-Chapin was everything that Holt was not. They were professional, friendly, and compassionate. They smiled genuinely and often because they knew—they knew—everything we had endured that had eventually brought us, cold and hungry, to their doorstep. They understood; and they cared. We were blessed with a caseworker named Flicka (truly blessed, because to this day I actually believe that she was heaven-sent; perhaps literally). Our Friend Flicka held our hands every step of the way and was quick with a smile or an encouraging word whenever she sensed we needed them. And we needed them a lot. It was a lengthy, costly, cumbersome and at times personally invasive process. There was a point at which I remember thinking (perhaps I said it out loud): “Any idiot can have a baby, but to adopt one, you have to be perfect.”
Finally, the second-biggest day of the adoption process arrived; we received our referral, which meant that a specific child in South Korea had been officially assigned to us. So we drove into NYC and met with Our Friend Flicka, all smiles per usual, who handed us a photo of our daughter. To say that the photo was unflattering, would be akin to calling Quasimodo “unattractive.” But on the way back home in the car, Jan said, “We’ll just have to love her all that much more, because she’s not going to be pretty.” I agreed; though I wasn’t absolutely sure that I agreed, I said so anyway. I can be a bit of a jerk sometimes (I know; hard to believe), and I was a bit of a jerk at times throughout the decade of our fertility dance and the 15 months it took for the adoption process to unfold. But I was determined to see this thing through, and to be a-bit-of-a-jerk as little as humanly possible for the rest of my life.
The most important day of the adoption process arrived on August 7, 1987; that was the day our daughter was scheduled to fly into Kennedy Airport to meet us for the very first time. (We still refer to August 7th as “Gotcha Day,” and have celebrated it, birthday-like, every year for the past 26 years.) A caravan made its way to JFK that day, including both sets of grandparents, an aunt and assorted cousins. We arrived at the predetermined area in the International Arrivals terminal and waited for a long time, it seemed. There were six children in all on that flight, who were coming to their new homes and their new families, and we all waited in that same area for our blessed events to transpire. We were eventually informed that the kids had gone through customs and would be coming up shortly, so we all crowded around the single elevator in which they would arrive. The elevator door opened a few minutes later, and a collective gasp went up from the gathered multitude. The clamor frightened the elevator’s lone occupant, a custodian, very nearly to death.
A few very long moments later, the elevator door opened for real and a tandem stroller rolled forth, pushed by none other than Our Wonderful Friend Flicka. We immediately recognized the occupant of the left seat as our daughter. Except that, instead of Quasimodo’s spawn, the passenger sitting there was the most beautiful female child that the Big Guy, in all his infinite power and wisdom, had ever fashioned. I’m not exaggerating here; she was literally the most breathtakingly beautiful child I had ever laid eyes upon! And I fell instantly and hopelessly in love. Because she was ours. And we were hers. At long last. Thanks, Big Guy.
There are two postscripts to this story. The first involves how Jan and I arrived at what was to be our daughter’s name. Throughout the adoption process, try as we might, we could not agree upon a name. Where Jan preferred the exotic-and-unusual, I always countered with the traditional-but-uncommon. We were antiquing in Nyack, NY one Sunday afternoon and Jan discovered a small table in the corner of a tiny shop, which displayed antique-looking birth announcement cards. There was one card—and only one—that was specifically designed to be an adoption announcement. The saying on the card was, “She wasn’t expected; she was selected,” and just below that, written in beautifully intricate calligraphy, was the name Carolyn. We agreed on the spot that that would be our daughter’s name.
The second postscript is one I hesitate to reveal, fearing that because it is so fantastic, and so wonderful, and so unbelievable, you will fail to accept it as true. I can only swear to you that what I am about to relate absolutely happened, exactly as I write it…
After approximately six or eight months of the adoption process had been completed, we paid a visit to the home of our closest and dearest friends, Debbie and Gary, in part to give them our good news. They were thrilled for us, of course, and we celebrated enthusiastically into the wee hours. We left their house and had travelled for perhaps two blocks through the winding roads of their neighborhood, when Jan suddenly grabbed my arm and warned, “Be careful. It looks like there’s an animal in the road up ahead.” Then I saw it too: a small shape that shimmered in the glare of our headlights, right in the center of the road, about fifty yards ahead.
I proceeded slowly, but the “animal” never moved. As we got closer, we both realized that the shape was not an animal at all, but some sort of package. I carefully pulled alongside, opened the car door and lifted the package into the car. The thing that had impeded our progress that evening turned out to be a pink-and-white plastic bucket, wrapped in cellophane and tied at the top with pink and white ribbons. Through the wrappings we could make out a generous collection of lotions, sponges, Q-tips, powders… and diapers. The kinds of things that one might give to someone who was expecting a baby. On one side of the face of the bucket, slightly obscured by the cellophane wrapping, but still visible, was a cartoon of a Teddy bear and the words, “Bear Basket.” On the other side was written, “It’s a Girl!”
If that wasn’t an example of intervention at its most Divine, I don’t know what is.