There we were, clinging to one another in the Wal-Mart — our own little islands of calm and sanity. Birth mom requested a different cell phone and given that it wasn’t significantly more expensive, Mary Tyler Dad went through the exchange while we shopped for some food.
Think about food without a kitchen to prepare it in. The hotel room had a fridge and microwave, which is a bonus, but both were small. You can’t buy anything frozen, as the freezers are no bigger than a radio. You can’t buy anything that requires more than a heating. At one point, birth mom remarked they had no bowls. Not having a bowl will stick with me a whole long while.
We did the best we could. I watched, hung back, tried to observe her food choices. Again, I felt intrusive, and yet, this information seemed significant to me. I am trained as a social worker. We are observers by nature, then taught to assign meaning to our observations. I remain so very grateful for my training and education that have served me so well with cancer and now adoption.
Birth mom was amenable to being linked to a social service agency — something I had been pushing for with our attorney. She continued to state a wish to extricate herself from her mother, another good sign, I thought. She asked again about open adoption, wondering how often she might see the baby. She hoped for once a month. She hoped we would help the family move closer to Chicago, the land of opportunity. Oy. This worried me. Our friends and family with open adoptions work very carefully to maintain boundaries. It is a tight rope walk, but one we see working for those we love. Except the idea of birth mom and dad living close to us set a panic in my heart. I dodged. I evaded.
As we proceeded to check out, I got a spontaneous hug from birth mom. It was easy to hug her back. She was so very vulnerable in my arms. There was so much this girl did not know, did not understand, was not capable of — I worried how those things might impact an adoption. I felt old knowing as much as I did, carrying the worries for both of us. I hoped she knew nothing of my worries.
We dropped her off at the hotel with a promise to return in 30 minutes for dinner. And in 30 minutes we returned for dinner. She picked the restaurant at the truck stop across the street. Birth grandmother came out to smoke while birth mom was getting her son ready. There had been tears and more concern about stolen meds and the cost of them. There was more than a faint hint of expectation. I could feel in my bones her desire for us to give her money, to fix the situation. I ignored those tears as best I could, anxiously waiting for birth mom.
She came out, decked out in her new clothes, holding her cell phone in her hand, hoping Mary Tyler Dad would help her activate it over dinner. That boy of hers was as bright as ever. Just beautiful. He looked right at you, clear eyes, always a smile on his face, trusting and playful. We got to the restaurant and ordered dinner. We both worried birth mom did not read. Still hard to know. The waitress seemed annoyed with the birth family. Did she know them? What did she know?
While we waited for food, Mary Tyler Dad and I seemed to be the only ones noticing that a toddler in a restaurant requires stimulation. Books, activities, toys — little incentives to sit still and be patient. I never left the house without a bag of tricks for Mary Tyler Son. I still don’t. This little one had to be content eating crayons. Repeatedly. And while I know all toddlers explore with their mouths, it just hurt a little more to see him with his grandmom on his right and his mom on his left and they didn’t seem to know or understand that every time they handed him a crayon he would eat the tip of it.
When our food arrived, a plate of chips was placed in front of the boy. Neither of his caregivers seemed to notice that the pizza they ordered for him was not delivered. When it finally was, they put it in front of him without cutting it. Here was this little guy trying so hard to navigate too big pieces of hot pizza. Eventually, they got it, his mom and grandmom, but why did it take so damn long?
Over dinner, once birth moms new phone had been activated, a series of calls and texts were made to birth dad. Would he be joining us? Where was he? The instinct to reach out to him was almost primal in birth mom. The messaging was almost constant. In between texts, birth grandmom told her daughter that she was moving to the shelter in the town where her other kids lived and that she would be taking the toddler with her. She advised her daughter to leave her wreck of a thieving boyfriend and come with her, but if she didn’t, the boy was still going. She warned her daughter not to get “too spoiled” with all her new things from our shopping trip.
In the middle of this there was a call from birth dad who wanted to talk to me. He needed a cell phone and wanted the same one as birth mom — could we get it tonight? His wasn’t working well. Um. No. No, we can’t get you a cell phone, my friend. The answer is no. He kept asking, I kept saying no, as clearly and firmly as possible. He told me that birth mom’s mother accused him of stealing her pills after we left, but he was innocent, and she had just misplaced them. Uh huh. Got it. No worries. He hung up. He was mad? Angry? He was something.
Turns out, he was high. As a kite. He walked over soon after, all dolled up in his new Chicago Bears shirt. For some reason, that annoyed me. Birth mom was wearing hers, too, and that annoyed me. We offered him food, he declined. He sat, sulking and glaring, at the lot of us, but seemed most focused on birth grandmom. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, Mary Tyler Dad and I almost singularly focused on the sweet boy at the table, birth dad stated clearly and loudly, “I did not steal your pills and I was not cheating. I was sitting at my mother’s grave.” As if that explained everything. As if he wasn’t under the influence. As if his entire life wasn’t a shambles.
We paid the bill, birth mom with a new spring to her step. She had gotten a paper over dinner and was looking at apartments. She was happier than I had seen her. I was sadder.
When we got to our car, I offered birth dad the front seat. I had heard somewhere that it was good to defer to the birth father, pay him the respect he so craves. As I was getting in the back seat, birth grandmom was looking for her cigarettes. She asked birth mom if she could bum one off of her. She knew precisely what she was doing, in asking birth mom, who simply ignored her. She asked her daughter and birth dad to borrow some money to buy a new pack. Neither had any. Our wallets were closed for the night.
As we made our way across the street, I saw birth dad leaning over talking to Mary Tyler Dad. I was curious, resolved to ask later. We got to the hotel, everyone hopped out, we made tentative plans to meet for 9 AM breakfast. I suggested a movie to clear our heads. Mary Tyler Dad just needed to drive, so we did. We drove and breathed and shook in disbelief.
I asked after what words were said with birth dad. Mary Tyler Dad told me that birth dad asked if he could contact us directly. The consummate gentleman, Mary Tyler Dad said, “Sure, but it’s really up to birth mom, isn’t it?” BUZZ! Wrong answer. What I had seen was birth dad leaning forward, giving Mary Tyler Dad the “jailhouse stare,” and asserting his dominance as decision maker, “It’s up to me, too.” That alone, his attempt to intimidate us, scare us, threaten us with his power over birth mom, probably sealed the deal for us to walk away. Before the day started, we had created a “safe word,” that was to be enacted if we needed to bail. Just short of either of us wanting to be the first to exercise the safe word, we called our attorney to report on the day’s events.
I lead with the clear substance abuse that seemed rampant. That was followed with the dicey family dynamics — a father and grandmother who seemed jealous of the attention we paid to a baby and the gifts we had bestowed on birth mom. Gifts like paper plates and plastic forks and underpants and a cell phone and a package of turkey. Our heads were spinning. I was angry, so angry at their attorney, who didn’t provide a whisper of a clue as to what we would find. We hung up, dazed and exhausted. I noticed there were two voicemail. “Here we go,” I said, as I listened to them.
What I heard was horrifying. A baby screaming, a mother pleading, shouts of “GET OFF ME, GET OFF ME, PLEASE GET OFF ME!” The sound of slapping, hitting, skin on skin contact. And that sweet boys piercing screams. Not fifteen minutes had passed since we left the family.
I broke out in sobs, Mary Tyler Dad just kept driving. I quickly called the attorney, telling him I needed to call 911 — was there 911 in this town? I was frantic and wrecked. I called immediately, got it together to keep my voice intact. Before I got to the issue, I explained who I was, where I was from, why I was visiting — trying to establish credibility? Who knows. I was shaken and as I got to the messages and the location of where they came from, describing a mom, dad and grandmother, the 911 dispatcher said their names. Each of their names was said to me before I said them. He encouraged me to stay on the line until police arrived at the hotel, just to keep me calm. He was older and had a kind voice. I cried, I wept for that boy and for that mother.
We drove past the hotel and saw the police presence. Mary Tyler Dad wanted to leave town. Was that alright? Yes, knowing full well that this baby was not our baby. You can’t call 911 on a family and move on from that. Done is done. Over is over. Enough is enough.
We drove and I wept. My tears were not for us, my tears were for that boy. What will happen to that boy? What will happen to the unborn baby? What will happen to this mother? Nothing good. We felt it, both of us, and yet drove to protect ourselves, drove fast away to feel better, drove to get the hell out of Dodge.
Last weekend was a nightmare for us, but we got to drive away. It was a visit, a blog post, a bad memory. For that family — everyone in that family — it is their life. Their nightmare that they do not wake up from. I can’t feel angry at them, or upset over a lost dream of a child that was never ours. All I feel is sad. Big, giant mountains of sad.
Truth is, we can’t fix people. We can’t help someone that can’t receive help, or doesn’t want it. We can’t grab their baby, hoping to reverse whatever physical and emotional and substance induced violence he has witnessed. We can’t do any of that. All we can do is drive away. Drive far away to catch a plane that will take us home where we are safe and loved and supported.
And when we get home, we will realize that we didn’t help at all, but more likely worsened an already untenable situation. By swooping in from Chicago with our suitcase of good intentions and our pound of Frango Mints, we upset the birth family balance. We showered praise, attention, and things on the three least powerful members of the family — mom and toddler and baby-to-be. Without knowing it or meaning to, we made it worse. We did that. And we are sorry.