The Boiler

Heidi Czerwiec

MY SON’S BROTHER

When I was young, I checked out armfuls of Choose Your Own Adventure books from the library, ten or so at a time. Reading them the way I did required athletic, agile hands. I wanted to keep all options, all avenues open. Every time a choice presented itself, I inserted a finger in that page so I could retrace my steps, follow each narrative path the book offered. The stories, with their endless turns, required every digit I could deploy, and often I’d end up forced to flip pages with my nose or chin. In this garden of forking paths, my fingers were threads I followed back to the plot so I could always take the road not taken. I couldn’t stand the idea of a choice, any choice, being closed to me, so I read on with sprained, spraddled fingers.

                                                                                   *

By the time Wyatt has reached six months, I finally lose the feeling that choosing to raise him has been a mistake. I fantasize less about the social worker, at our once-monthly post-placement meetings, snatching Wyatt away from us and declaring me unfit. Less about turning him back in to the agency before the adoption is made formally legal. Less about telling Jodi, who watches Wyatt three afternoons a week, who adores him and is also waiting to adopt, here – take him. He’d be better off with you.

I hate myself for writing those things just now. Of course I would never have done any of them. I love Wyatt. When not in the same room with him, I obsess over him, hunger to hold him again. Plus, surrender was not an option – if I had given him back, I couldn’t have lived without him, couldn’t have lived with myself or the look on my husband’s  face. So my only choice was the weird, twilight half-life I found myself
living.

And it was hard, the kind of hard few want mothers to admit. Months of midnight feedings that bled into the dark days of a North Dakota winter, months of feeling isolated with an infant while my husband got to escape to the adult world of work, months of growing distrust at my nascent mothering skills. Constantly running up-and downstairs and forgetting to eat except in the odd free moment caused me to drop twenty pounds. As a result, on the rare occasion that I was out in public, people would comment that I looked great, that parenting seemed to agree with meI glared back, sure they were fucking with me. My writer-friends with new babies both had recently-accepted book manuscripts – publications that would help them ride out the dry spell of those early mothering months. My manuscript languished in the lists of eternal semifinalistsalways a bridesmaid. And because I wrote no new poems in the meanwhile, I had nothing to send out. Facebook posts of friends’ publishing triumphs seemed to gloat, though I tried to muster enthusiasm. But these feelings, dark as they were, were not unusual among new mothers, especially writer-moms. So why wasspecial?

Because the worst part was all the deliberate choice that went into being Wyatt’s mom. One does not accidentally adopt. There are no surprise adoptions. There is the nearly year-long process of interviews and background checks and psych evals and medical checkups and examinations of finances. Weekends of parenting workshops where we reconditioned ourselves away from fraught phrases: not “give up for adoption” but choose adoption.” Not “your birthmother was bad,” but “your birthmother made bad choices.” Always the emphasis on the choices, made and unmade.

And all that even before we got cleared to appear in The Book: a collection of profiles (both in binders and online) from which birthmothers make their selection. Many of the profiles had a scrapbook-crafty look – fun fonts and pictures with pinked edges mounted on novelty papers – and featured North Dakota couples and their values: mostly sports, hunting, large extended families, pets as surrogate children. Having so many choices can be a burden. How would we stand out? As a couple with five English degrees between us (three in creative writing), we treated the profile like the high-stakes rhetorical assignment it was: we drafted and redrafted, crafting a narrative that emphasized the heroic birthmother (“you”) and her brave choices, inviting her to picture her child in the home and life we described. We were empathetic, fun, educated without sounding elitist, even funny. We hired a photographer friend to shoot  unphotogenic us looking as comfortable and warm as possible. We submitted the profile and we waited.

As it turns out, we didn’t wait long. The average is a year from when a couple enters The Book; we waited three months before a birthmother chose our profile and her social worker contacted us to set up a meeting. The social worker gave us a thumbnail sketch of the birthmother: white, 23 years old, single mother of a 3-year-old daughter, 17 weeks pregnant by an unknown father – she believed she’d been roofied at a party. Had not had a drink since discovering she was pregnant, was still trying to stop smoking. Did we want to meet with her? We did. Now, because the father’s unknown, it could be a mixed-race baby. Did we have a problem with that? We did not. You sure? We’re sure.

We drove to Bismarck, eight hours round-trip across flat, broad swathes of brown farmland stippled green with seedlings under an endless sky of oppressive blue – after Fargo, nothing to punctuate the landscape except the occasional grain elevator, cryptic exit signs with names like “Buffalo/Alice,” and towns a hundred miles apace. In town, we found the building, an odd, squat cylinder that looked like an old paint can, and made our way through the offices, beigely outdated, to a meeting room where we waited, anxious. Then, Kinzey: a sweet and confused girl with huge brown eyes, liquid behind thick glasses, so shy and ashamed she had brought her best friend to do most of the talking. A lapsed Catholic, she couldn’t bring herself to get an abortion, though her friend had offered to help pay and to drive her the two hundred miles to the only clinic serving three states. I didn’t know what to say – as a feminist, I supported any decision she would have made, but I was so glad she had chosen to carry this baby, maybe for us.

We let the friend ask questions, but addressed our answers to Kinzey. I let fly a well-timed f-bomb calculated to put her at ease, to win her over – her brown eyes widened, and she laughed in surprise. By the end of the meeting, she had chosen us to parent her child – a son, we soon found out, when she invited us to her ultrasound appointment a week later. A son whose birth we would miss, six months later when, just after midnight on New Year’s, my phone rang and Kinzey’s friend told us hurry, he’s coming fast and fast we drove but didn’t go as far as Fargo before she texted us pictures of our perfect, angry red boy.

So someone specifically chose me: to mother her child, to give him the life she wanted for herself, wanted to give him before she thought I can’t raise this child, and then gave him by giving him up. I try to live up to the weight of her choice, to deserve her son. Now, after six difficult months of wondering if I could raise him, I begin to believe I can. The warm sun returns to the High Plains, and Wyatt and I spend afternoons on a quilt in the park. I am finally fluent in his cries, his noises, his rudimentary communications. I plan classes for the fall semester, simultaneously ecstatic to be engaging my brain again, and guilt-ridden over Wyatt starting daycare in a month.

When adoption day comes, I can testify, truthfully, in court, that I want to be Wyatt’s mother. We have kept texting with Kinzey both in the months before and after his birth (always texting – she’s too shy to call and talk), and pay for gas and hotel so that she can be part of the big day. We celebrate with pictures outside the courthouse and brunch downtown.

That fall, with its adjustments to our family schedule, especially me returning to work, is difficult, but we start to make sense of it, to make plans for our future – I apply for sabbatical leave to finish a poetry project, my husband for law school. Kinzey, working full-time and working at an associate’s degree, keeps up with us through sporadic texts. One night while clearing up after supper, my phone vibrates with a message from her:

                  So some unexpected news im pregnant its a real shock. 

I respond with alarm and worry, for which she is grateful. More than anything she fears being judged, and I try hard not to do that to her. But I admit it: my first reaction is disappointment. One of the outcomes of us adopting Wyatt is a second chance for her – to stay employed, finish a degree, and get control of her life. Then she texts:

                                     Im choosing adoption again after seeing what a gift
                                     it was to you. You are the best parents i could have
                                     found for my baby. I dont know if i will find anyone

                                     like you.

A few texts later, it creepingly occurs to me that she’s hoping for us to offer to take on this child as well. My gut seizes up. Another baby? We didn’t plan on a second. I’ve almost made it through the first year with the first. I do some quick math and estimate that she’ll be due around March or April – meaning two babies under the age of a year and a half. My insides curl tighter. I text back something like, Wow, this is a lot to deal with. I’m glad adoption was such a good experience for all of us. I hope the right decision will be obvious. Let us know how you are, and what you choose. We love you. Then I call my husband into the kitchen, show him my phone, the exchange of messages.

Over the next few days, Evan and I huddle together in bed and over coffee and picked-at meals, our thoughts running back and forth, hard and fast. We can’t take this baby. I barely made it through the last year – I don’t know if I can do it again. What about law school? What about the poetry project? We gave away all the baby stuff Wyatt’s already outgrown. I bet we could get it back. Where would we even put another baby? I guess the baby would be in our room for a while, but then would have to share a room with Wyatt. Now we’re imagining logistics, picturing the new baby already in our home, in our lives. But what about our plans? We’ll have to put them off by at least a couple years. We don’t need to ask how we’ll afford another adoption process – we have enough, a sum we’ve stockpiled in anticipation of losing Evan’s salary when he leaves his job for law school. And because she’s choosing us outside the negotiations of the agency, it will be treated as an “identified adoption,” where the adoptive parents know the birthmother, a process more streamlined, fast-tracked, less expensive. Is being in a position to pay a blessing, or an obligation? But the cost of another child? That’s twice the cost for everything. How would another baby affect the life we want to provide for Wyatt? He wouldn’t have as many comforts, but then again, he would have a sibling, his sibling. We never planned on adopting another child. This isn’t just another child. This is Wyatt’s sibling. If we were the ones who had a surprise pregnancy, a second child we weren’t planning on, we’d find a way to absorb it. Does that mean we should, that we have to, absorb Kinzey’s bad choices? If we don’t, how could we explain to him that we had the chance to adopt his sister or brother, but didn’t? But our plans, our plans! Mornings, I take care of Wyatt, picture trying to keep up with his rapidly expanding repertoire of activities, but once again horribly sleep-deprived, newborn in tow.

I send panicky messages to my guru, another adoptive mother and writer with whom I’d bonded over the previous months. Two kids under a year and a half! I already feel like I’ll never get any writing done ever again. And yet, and yet, and yet. Tell me I’m not a horrible person if I don’t take on this baby.

She quickly responds: Heidi, it sounds like your gut is telling you that you and Evan can’t do this, and feel good about what you can give Wyatt. There’s a happy medium between wresting babies away from teenage girls like in the ‘60s and having a person with lifelong problems fall in your lap as an adult, almost like you adopted Kinzey. You did not adopt Kinzey. You are not responsible for her life and her choices.

The word “choice” has been around since prehistory, but before the Renaissance, it mostly referred to matters of taste, of preference. The sense of weighing alternative courses of action doesn’t really come about until humanity had begun to lose its fatalistic worldview, its sense of predestination.

Over the next week, Evan spends a lot of time pacing the back deck, on the phone with his friends. I sit awake in the dark, feeding Wyatt his midnight bottle, wondering how much longer we will use his bottle-warmer, a hand-me-down on its last legs that burns any stray dribbles of formula to fumes of weird chemical caramel. We worry that we can’t say no. We worry that we can’t say yes. We worry that Kinzey will become too dependent on us, that she’ll rely on us as the answer to all her mistakes. Most people regard choice as a good thing, but the weight of choosing, of the fear of regret, can become paralyzing. Over that week, Kinzey continues to text us, her hints becoming broader, becoming pleas.

And here’s the hard thing: this choice is really mine. Evan has always rolled with changes – absorbed them, planned around them, moved forward. But since I’m the one who’s borne the brunt of childcare, since this will affect me more, Evan defers to me. He’s gracious enough to support me, to call my decision ours, but if we’re honest, this is my call.

So finally, we circle back to our initial reaction: We can’t raise this baby, which is a kinder way of admitting I don’t want to. We slide our fingers from the page, unmark that path, never to follow that narrative. We text Kinzey to say, gently, that we’re sure she’ll make another set of parents as happy as she’s made us. As soon as we send it, we feel relief. As soon as we send it, we feel sad.

Choice can be an illusion: choosing a course does not mean control over that course. And you never choose only your own adventure. Kinzey, who had never been particularly regular in her correspondence, becomes nonresponsive. We guess that she’s sad too, probably hurt – we are the latest in a lifetime of rejections. Feeling guilty, not sure how to feel or what right we have to feel it, we don’t do as much as we might to keep up communications. We justify the lapse as giving her space to process this new pregnancy and adoption, to allow her time to be wooed by a new adoptive family. Growing up, no one ever praised her or told her she was special – she had positively glowed under the attention we gave her. We hope she’s getting that from someone else.

About a week before she gives birth, she surfaces, and starts responding to texts again, dropping what seem like careless little bombs as though she’s corresponded with us all along – it’s a boy, she’s told us that, right? and oh, hasn’t she told us the adoptive parents live in the same town as us? And then after the birth, she fades in and out, surfacing at times to request a visit, then canceling as the trip approaches. We feel sadness, relief.

Guilt, curiosity, self-torture – we are dying to know more about this boy, our son’s half-brother. We contact our adoption social worker, the woman who checked on us after Wyatt’s placement, who handles all placements for our area. We tell her we want to be in communication with his half-brother’s family, offer our contact info, request that they keep in touch. She passes along our info, and reports that while the family is willing, they’re a bit overwhelmed with a newborn at the moment, and with establishing a relationship with Kinzey, who apparently had waited until late in the pregnancy to choose a family (hoping we would change our minds?). They ask for space.

But over the next few months, every time we’re out in public, I look for new babies who resemble Kinzey and Wyatt – in North Dakota, towheads are the norm, so I study the dark-haired infants, search for the characteristic dimples, the softly cleft chin. Around their own adoption day at six months, we send congratulations, with pictures of Wyatt at that age and a description of his personality – his love of books, pickles, tacos, singing surprisingly in tune at the top of his lungs – hoping the comparison will intrigue them. We have yet to hear from them.

We – I – had a choice, and I said no. And my no continues to disturb me. Whom might I have harmed by my choice? Not us. My drought ends: my book is published and I write a new poetry manuscript that excites me. Evan ends his first year of law school at the top of his class and secures a lucrative clerkship. Not the new baby who, no doubt, is happily exploring solid foods and solid footing somewhere in my town.

Wyatt? What would Wyatt’s life have been like with a brother I wonder, when he tugs on my hand while I’m cooking, desperate for a playmate. When my sister-in-law drops the news that next year, their daughter is going to have a new little sister. When Jodi brings her own adopted son Eli over to play and the boys clamber on the furniture, the stairs, laughing and shoving, ignoring boundaries the way brothers do.

It’s said you can’t choose your family, but that’s not true – ours involved more choice than most. Our son had little say in any of it, but I don’t know if or how much this will hurt him. As an adoptive parent, I’m preparing – as much as one can through workshops and roleplaying and readings – for the inevitable questions he will ask us: Why didn’t my mom keep me? How do I know you’ll keep me? Who was my father? And I’ve tried to collect information for when he asks about other family, for if he chooses to get in touch, to ask them for answers I can’t give him. I’m preparing to deal with his hurt.

But Kinzey’s hurt is plain. What does it mean that I said no to her, a girl who said yes to us in the biggest, most unimaginably beautiful way possible?

I’m grateful for today’s model of open adoption, for humane communication to replace the wrenching away of babies from anonymous mothers. But it visits its own hurts. At some point, our love and nurturing of the birthmother is revealed as a sort of performance to gain the agency’s approval, to elicit her yes. An illusion exposed by its eventual limits. Open adoptions prolong the contact until new and different disappointments are probable, inevitable. Even under this new system, where it seems the birthmother makes all the choices, pain is still the price she pays for her mistakes – some in the old expected ways, some entirely unanticipated. Some in which I’ve participated.

Kinzey had choices; Kinzey had babies. She chose us and we said yes. Then, we – I – said no. I owe it to her to own it.

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Heidi Czerwiec is Associate Professor of English at the University of North Dakota, where we just celebrated Spring Break with our sixth blizzard of the year. She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page (Barefoot Muse Press, 2013) and has work appearing or forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review and storySouth.