October 2, 2010

The Last Word I Wanted to Hear.

Photo: flickr.com | JeremyHall

“Blessed.”  That was the last word I wanted to hear the day the baby was born.

A word uttered by the proud father who, along with his girlfriend, held the fate of this precious newborn we hoped to adopt.

Blessed. That one word began to unravel whatever hope we clung to for bringing the baby home from the hospital.

“We named him Ryan,” Pete said. “After Christie’s brother.”

Gripping the phone, I searched for the right words. The wrong words could push him that small distance away from the original decision.

“I’m so happy for you two,” I said, summoning the courage to continue. “Are you still—”

“Yes. We haven’t changed our minds.”

One month earlier, my husband Craig and I received “The Call”. Christie and Pete were college students who feared that the responsibility of a newborn would set impossible hurdles on the path to their futures. Of all the families waiting to adopt, they chose us. They trusted the stability of our ten-year marriage, made stronger by the trials of infertility, my plan to be a full-time stay-at-home mom. We reminded them of an older version of themselves.

We arranged to meet Christie and Pete at the adoption agency with our social worker, Margo, as our guide. At almost six feet tall, Christie hardly looked seven and a half months pregnant. She dotted her enormous eyes with a tissue before shaking our hands. A tentative smile appeared above the deep clef that interrupted her strong chin. Calmer and taller, Pete gripped our hands; an easy smile floated on his boyish face. Emotions high, neither Christie nor I could utter more than a few words. Pete and Craig talked as though old friends.

Pete told the story of how Christie’s mother read through prospective adoption family profiles at the agency, then called to announce, “I’ve found the perfect couple.”

“No, I think I found them,” Christie had insisted, having reviewed profiles featured on the agency’s website, only to discover they’d found the very same “perfect” couple: us.

Voice shaky, I asked, “Do you know what you’re having?”

Christie nodded. “A boy.” The possibility of parenthood became all the more real. A baby boy.

“Are you willing to take him home when Christie’s discharged?” Pete’s question hung precariously over us before dropping forcefully, sinking in. By law, birth parents had to wait seventy-two hours after the baby’s birth before relinquishing their parental rights. Even knowing that they could change their minds days—possibly weeks—later, regardless of all the hours we would hold the baby in our arms, care for him, kiss him, we still said, “Yes.” If the baby went home with them, it would be harder—perhaps impossible—for them to say good-bye.

We left the meeting wondering whether they liked us.

Then we scrambled, decorating the nursery vibrant green and yellow with a circus elephant border (unisex, in case this adoption fell through), buying the basic baby necessities. Only to wait, which was more difficult than all the agonized waiting we endured through years of infertility treatment.

Yet we were closer to having a baby than ever before.

A few days before the due date, Margo called.

Ryan was born—seven pounds.

One hundred percent healthy. She put Pete on the phone. Christie and baby were doing well.

“And how do you feel?” I asked.


Two days later, we headed for the hospital. Barely out of the driveway, Margo phoned.

“They’re extremely emotional. This could go either way. Be prepared…we may call and tell you to go back home.”

Tears sprung from my eyes. I had played mind games, pretending this would be just a baby-sitting job. That way, if we took Ryan home and they decided not to sign the papers, I could deal with it. I tried to reason with myself that if we had to give up the dream of bringing Ryan home, our loss would be a fraction of what Christie and Pete would feel if they did sign. But the thought of walking into our home without Ryan in our arms was unbearable.

We made it to the hospital without a phone call and, hearts in our mouths, entered the lobby to a grim-faced Margo. Tina, another social worker, was counseling Christie and Pete in the hospital room.

Under the heavy weight of uncertainty, we signed the necessary paperwork. Seeing the intended name for our possible son—Ethan Louis Hasselberger—for the first time set off a fit of sobs. (Louis for Craig’s late grandfather, born the same day… years before, of course).

We waited. And we waited.

Tina finally appeared, looking drained. “They’re ready.”

As they led us to the room, I was sure my trembling knees would give out and that the world could hear my pounding heart.  Just inside the door, Pete sat on the edge of the bed. He flashed us a reassuring smile that contradicted his wet, red eyes.

Beyond him, Christie sat in a rocking chair looking down on her baby.

Clinging to each other, Craig and I made our way around the bed to stand before Christie and Ryan. I held my breath, clutched Craig’s arm. Enormous eyes behind closed lids, clef chin. Ryan was beautiful, serene.

Christie rocked a little longer before standing. Shifting her gaze from Ryan to me, she took a step forward, placed him in my arms. Without a word, I took her place in the rocking chair. It was as if we were following a script, yet it couldn’t have felt more natural.
Craig knelt beside me, caressed Ryan’s cheek. We felt a combination of guarded happiness for ourselves and unexpected grief for Christie and Pete.

I’m not sure how long I rocked Ryan, amazed and somewhat afraid of the instantaneous love I felt for the tiny warm bundle in my arms.

The time came for Christie and Pete to say good-bye.

Christie and I hugged. “You’ll make a great mom,” she said. I thanked her, knowing she could still change her mind.

She leaned over Ryan, kissed his cheek, and whispered,

“You’ll be in very good hands. They will love you so much. I love you.”

After hugging me, Pete kissed Ryan’s forehead. “I love you,” he told him.

We brought Ryan home. My parents stayed with us—what we hoped was our new family. Christie and Pete were scheduled to sign the papers at ten the next morning at the adoption agency.

Morning arrived along with more feedings and diaper changes.

Ten o’clock came and went.

Eleven o’clock came and went.

Eleven-thirty, the phone rang. Margo. “Christie isn’t feeling well. But she said they’ll come in later.”

And we waited.

Ryan never fussed, ate like a champ, and slept like an angel. It was impossible not to love him.

Dusk found us all sitting in the family room, Ryan in my arms, watching the sun sink beneath the tree line until we sat in dark silence. Waiting.

At six o’clock, unable to bear growing more attached to Ryan, I handed him to my dad.

My heart was breaking.

Finally, the phone rang. It was Margo.

“They signed the papers.”

We cheered then began calling every person we knew. But sadness lingered in my heart for Christie and Pete.

Five Years Later…

We waved at Ethan with his gelled hair and contagious grin; huge eyes peering at us through the bus window. His first day of kindergarten. I was transported back in time, when his tiny fingers gripped my thumb. Now his hand was more than half the size of my own. Our Lego-obsessed son who constantly tells us, “I love you further than space, a hundred and sixty-four times around the Earth, and a billion times around the moon.” Our son.

As the bus drove away, I could hardly catch my breath. I buried my face in Craig’s chest, and we both cried. It was hard to believe how quickly the time had gone, what a funny, thoughtful, bright little boy Ethan had become—Christie and Pete’s blessed gift.

1st Day of Kindergarten Photo: Carolina Van Leeuwen | E just turned 5 Ethan with his best bud, Dutch


Ethan started 4th grade a little over a month ago. He’s getting so tall. Still Lego obsessed with a very, very messy room. Loves to cook and will actually force Craig and I to sit by candlelight (tea lights he’s arranged himself) to relax, serving up “courses” of food, not allowing us to help while he eats his own food in the kitchen. No electronics allowed. He dreams of one day opening a restaurant/spa/yoga place, able to describe each level in detail. Doesn’t allow me to be present when the school bus arrives. I take snapshots in my mind of moments. His laughter. His mock Lego gun maneuvers  indoors and out. He and Craig playing football, hockey, basketball; tossing the baseball around. I reach for his hand, now almost the size of my own.

Me + E 2010

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