Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Three Women and A Baby

Madeline and me

For a long time, I considered my mother's death after her long battle with cancer to be the line in the sand between my quasi-adulthood and the moment I became a full-fledged grown-up.

The woman who stood at the bus stop waiting for me with an umbrella every time it rained when I was an elementary schooler (she didn't drive at the time), who went back to work when I was 11 so I could have the braces I needed that my father wouldn't pay for and who was left alone to explain why he wouldn't be coming home for dinner on the night that he finally took off, had always been there for me whenever I needed her. She'd hung on as long as she could until, on a stifling hot and humid night in August of 1995, she fell asleep and didn't wake up. It wasn't until the next morning that it hit me: I was on my own.


Then, at 45, I became a mother to another motherless daughter.


In 2005, my husband Jim and I traveled to China to adopt a nine month old baby who had been left on the steps of an orphanage, her umbilical cord still attached. The day before we left, I was gripped with a huge wave of fear and anxiety. Could I really do this? I'd never even changed a diaper -- how could I be a mother? Standing in my dining room strewn with half-packed luggage, I began to cry. I missed my own mother desperately. She would have known exactly what to say to me. In the ten years since she was gone I had needed her many times, but never more than I did at that moment. "That's why you and the baby need each other. You've lost a mother and so has she," Jim said gently while I sobbed. "You're like two peas in a pod. She's waiting for you." I knew he was right.


Throughout the adoption process, I found myself constantly offering silent prayers to my mother asking her for some sign that everything would turn out okay; that baby that was meant to be my daughter would find her way to us. Then, one day the call finally came from our social worker that we had been matched with a child. "We have the pictures," said the social worker. "Her name is Jing-Mei and she was born on February 8." I was stunned by that news. It is extremely rare to have any concrete information about Chinese orphans, but this baby had been left with a note indicating her birth date. But there was something even more surprising about the information that made me ask the caller to repeat what she'd just told me.


When she did, my eyes welled up and I could feel my mother standing beside me. My new daughter had been born on my parents wedding anniversary. During one of the last conversations I had with my mother a few weeks before she died, I asked her to please let me know she was 'there' when she reached heaven. She promised me she would. Ten years later, to learn that my daughter was born on the same day my life first became a possibility was as powerful a sign I could have ever hoped for.


There have been many times since we brought Madeline Jing-Mei home that I find myself wishing that I could call my mother to ask her advice -- the first time Madeline awoke in the middle of the night, what was the recipe she used to use to make the soup I loved when I was an elementary schooler home from school with a bad cold. Often, in those early days, I was overwhelmed with emotion thinking about how much my mother would have loved to have been 'Nana' to my daughter.


It has been ten years since I became a mother and it is the rare day when my thoughts don't wander back to my own childhood and some memory of my mother and my childhood. The way she'd surprise me with a chic tableau stage at the breakfast table with my Barbie dolls wearing hand sewn evening gowns fashioned out of old curtains she's stayed up half the night making. Afternoons spent in our den as she took my Brownie troop through a holiday craft or prepared my religious instruction class for our First Holy Communion. The way we'd pore over the many magazines -- Ladies Home Journal, Women's Day and my favorite, Modern Screen -- in side by side beach chairs while sipping ice tea in our backyard during summer vacations. Even now, I can be unmoored by a wave of emotion while standing in line at the grocery store behind a well-dressed woman of a certain age wearing the same classic turtlenecks and slingbacks my mother wore, walking through a mall and seeing a woman my age with her mother or catching the whiff of a familiar scent -- Arpege. All of those things make me yearn to have her back in my life.


Now I find that my thoughts of my mother are more joyful than wistful (although there are still plenty of them, too) as I see how very present she is in my daughter's life. She is there every time I reassure Madeline after she's done her very best in school but is disappointed she only got a 97 on a test (I'm sorry Mom!), when I return to Madeline's bedroom at night when she calls out "One more kiss, one more hug!" Even when I admonish my daughter to "Pick up your feet!" when she stomps down the hallway after dinner. What I learned about mothering I learned from her.


While we have talked about it from the very start, I know I face more complicated conversation with my daughter as she gets older about her adoption and why her birth mother gave her up. I have no real answers. I know my mother, like me, could not imagine giving up her precious daughter. But a world away in China, there are women, thanks to the country's one-child-per-family law, that are living lives that are unfathomable to us. These are not the women in the telegenic, modern China. These are the women China does not want the world to see who are brave enough to carry their babies to term putting themselves at great personal risk so their daughters can have better lives.


One of these women is responsible for me becoming a mother. I will never get the chance to thank her for the greatest gift I've ever received.


And so it is that there are three women who will make my daughter the woman she will be. I am forever grateful to the two that I carry in my heart and I pray that as she grows, there is room enough in my daughter's heart for all of us.

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