Published on April 3rd, 2020 | by Cheryl Klein1
The Making of a Grownup: Part I
We grow old all at once
And it comes like a punch
In the gut, in the back, in the face
When it seems someone’s lied
And our parents have died
Then we hold onto each other in their place
-The Airborne Toxic Event
On the second-to-last day of February, I sat with my dad, my younger sister, and my dad’s girlfriend in the vast beige of a Kaiser hospital waiting room. Back then, you could sit with your family in a waiting room.
He was headed into spinal surgery—they were still doing elective surgeries—to slow neuropathy in his hands. It had been a steady creep over the course of a few years, and had put a damper on his numerous DIY projects.
To describe my dad as capable would be an understatement. When I was a kid, he built us a playhouse with a linoleum floor and running water. When he decided he wanted to transfer our old family movies from VHS to DVD, he taught himself video editing software. I still regularly called him about my car problems and medical concerns.
My dad referred to this as a “routine surgery,” but he casually mentioned, “As you know, there’s a document on my desktop labeled ‘When I Die.’ Just open it and that will have all the numbers and accounts and files you need.”
He went in and the day stretched out. I did some work on my laptop, Cathy matched bright jewels on her tablet, and his girlfriend, Susan, stared at an old issue of The New Yorker.
There was a steady loop of coronavirus news playing in the waiting room. The numbers were rising, but the disease was still far away.
Back in 2012, my dad had himself sat in a waiting room while I’d undergone a bilateral mastectomy to remove a tumor the size and shape of a small hand weight. Now I got to feel each minute slouch by rather than enjoy the timehop of anesthesia. I felt as if I were wearing one of those lead X-ray aprons. It was routine surgery, but it was his spinal cord—it was life and death, the child standing poised to become the parent, and I hardly felt ready.
I should be part of the sandwich generation, taking care of aging parents and small children at the same time. But my mom died before she had the chance to get old, and despite a number of small aches and ailments, my dad had thus far remained able-bodied and sharp-minded.
He emerged from the surgery with some pain and a fancy neck brace, but otherwise okay. I visited him in the hospital on my lunch breaks over the next few days. He offered me applesauce from his cafeteria tray.
They gave him Percocet and a muscle relaxer and antibiotics and blood pressure medication and stool softeners, a cascade of medications to counter the side effects of other medications. His sodium levels dipped, which his doctor said happened sometimes after surgery, and so they gave him sodium.
I Googled what that meant, and found words like “seizure” and “brain damage.” I had trouble parsing whether low sodium levels were inherently problematic, or only troublesome when left untreated; whether it was just a matter of staying on sodium tablets, or indicative of some underlying condition that would become its own Pandora’s Box.
I ruminated as I circled the manmade lake next to my office, walking beside fat healthy geese and stressed-out people living in tents.
Normally, this was the sort of thing I would consult my dad about, but the Percocet was making him loopy. He initially told me his sodium was at 105 before the tablets; later, a nurse said, “If it was that low, you’d be in the ICU.”
But I called him anyway. His voice was reassuring. If we could replicate the rhythms of everyday, order would be restored to the universe.
I would think about this repeatedly over the increasingly strange weeks, how much my body longed for familiar liturgies: driving in my car listening to podcasts, stopping somewhere for coffee, watching my five-year-old son, Dash, line up with his classmates in matching royal blue polo shirts.
At six in the morning on my Dad’s first full day home, I texted my sister about my goals for the day, another small ritual. As soon as she knew I was up, she called.
“Dad is okay…now,” she said.
Woozy with drugs, he’d shuffled to the bathroom during the night and fallen on his way back to bed. There had been a 911 call and an ambulance ride.
“Fuck,” I said. “Cathy, I’m so glad you got there so quickly. I’m so grateful for you. God, I keep thinking I need to get Dash a sibling for times like this. But then I also think about how I’m already so fucking old, and they’ll be taking care of their elderly moms so soon.”
It all gushed out before I could check myself. Cathy had gotten married over the summer and turned forty the week before. She and her husband were on the fence about having kids, and she did not need my own anxieties harmonizing with her ticking clock.
“I’m sorry,” I said immediately, and again later, but she was too busy worrying about and caring for my dad anyway.
He lay on a stretcher, parked in the hallway of the ER, for twelve hours. He was fortieth in line for an X-ray, but when he finally got one, it confirmed no broken bones.
Susan was loyal and kind and willing, but she didn’t know what to do with the medication spreadsheet my dad had devised in a partial stupor. He might have had two Gabapentins the night of the fall, she said.
My sister took vacation day after vacation day from her job as a high school teacher. She called Kaiser and ordered depressing medical supplies. We felt crushed by the weight of our dad’s sudden elderly status, even as I repeated anti-ableist mantras to myself: We are all more than what we do. There is nobility in accepting help, in finding a way to exist outside the world of accomplishments.
I promised I’d drive down on Friday to give Cathy a break, and help out as much as I could over the weekend. I made that promise on a Wednesday, and that night, as I left work, I flicked open Facebook on my phone. In an adoption group, a fellow adoptive mom had posted: “My daughter’s birthmom, Phoebe,* has friends who have a two-week-old. They’re really struggling and are considering adoption. I don’t know where this will go, but are there any California families whose profile I can show them?”
It had taken us four and a half years to become parents the first time around. When we finally adopted Dash, we took a few years to catch our breath and enjoy parenting rather than the pursuit of it. A little over a year ago, we’d signed with an agency and started the intensive home study process once more.
I messaged the poster a link to our profile page, knowing this situation was a long shot. It seemed pretty obvious they were new parents trapped in a postpartum haze with a baby who didn’t sleep. In another couple of weeks, they would be fine.
But one phone conversation and one FaceTime chat later, C.C., Dash, and I were on our way to Fresno to meet Wolf* and his parents, leaving mine behind.
There is no such thing as a typical adoption situation. People decide they can’t be parents for as many reasons as they decide they can. But Ellen* and Max’s* situation was unusual even in a world where there was no “usual.” They’d been together seven years, married for five, trying for a baby for six. Ellen had polycystic ovarian syndrome, which led them to IUI’s, the last of which had resulted in Wolf. For months, she’d knit him blankets and hats and tiny jumpsuits, and decorated his room with dinosaurs. And then he was born and…she just couldn’t do it.
C.C. and I took that first FaceTime call outside Dash’s school after dropping him off one bright morning in early March. Back then, we thought washing our hands to the tune of “Happy Birthday” would be enough to keep schools open.
Ellen and Max’s friend Phoebe*, who’d placed the third of her own six children for adoption and who had been caring for Wolf these past weeks, facilitated the call. Max had blue eyes and a beard. Ellen had hair which, she said, was usually green, but was now an indecisive mix of blonde and brown. She had lower lip piercings and looked like she’d been crying a lot.
She didn’t say much at first, but when she started talking, she was smart and chatty. She struggled with anxiety and OCD, she said. She used to be a cutter. She’d never been much of a student, but she loved going to museums. She wanted to make sure we believed in vaccines. She’d been pregnant once before, and lost the baby at 16 weeks. She wanted Wolf to have both the freedom and security that she hadn’t, growing up with a bipolar addict mom and a Gulf War vet dad who had PTSD. As a teenager, she’d spent time in foster care.
Anxiety and OCD were all too familiar to me. I’d had a miscarriage of my own back in 2011 that had shattered me into twitchy pieces. What if I hadn’t had a family as solid as a mountain, to tell me the sky was cloudy but not falling, to lend me money when my nonprofit salary didn’t quite cover expenses? I saw Ellen as a parallel-universe version of myself.
How did she see C.C. and me? As people who could do for Wolf what she and Max couldn’t, I supposed, but also as instant friends, a kind of summer-camp romance. And something more that I wouldn’t see until we were all in too deep, lost in the woods beyond the safety of the mess hall and bunk beds.
They have a lot of stuff, Phoebe texted. You might need a U-Haul.
On Saturday morning, I left my dad’s house and rented a Dodge Ram pickup. C.C. would attend a work event and drive up with Dash later. The drive from Los Angeles to Fresno took me through California’s vertical agricultural belt. Orange groves, strawberries, pink-blossomed trees beneath a silver marbled sky. I washed my hands thoroughly at grimy gas station bathrooms along the 99 freeway.
I spoke a voice memo into my phone: “I feel like I just went on Love is Blind and coupled up, and now we’re waiting to see if the wedding happens.”
“Come on over, meet Wolf, hang out,” Phoebe had instructed. “Dash can play with my kids, and my husbands will make dinner. I have two husbands. It’s different, but it works for us.”
Phoebe’s husbands were, like Max, blue collar men of few words. At Phoebe’s suburban ranch house, they made tri-tip, a Central California specialty. They loaded my rental truck and talked about trucks and not much else. They wrangled toddlers while the women talked.
I held three-week-old Wolf, a soupy bundle with baby acne and spiky damp hair and a red splotch where the vacuum device had pulled him from Ellen. He slept and slept, and assured me that this possible adoption was not about colic.
Ellen pulled out her phone and showed me her maternity pictures and Wolf’s newborn pictures, slightly cross-eyed in the arms of a JC Penney teddy bear. They had prepared in all the ways they knew how. But then…a break. Like a fault line or a deep-sea trench, it contained things I couldn’t know. I just had to believe that it was real, and I did.
“I know I have some postpartum stuff going on,” Ellen said. “But I know it’s not just that. There are all these things I thought I’d worked through in my life, and they came rushing back.”
We sat on Phoebe’s couch as her children orbited us, napping in piles of blankets, handing us snacks to open. Her nine-year-old was devastated that she couldn’t keep Wolf and raise him herself.
On my first date with my ex, we shut down a coffee shop after trading stories for hours, time held off by a forcefield around our little island of infatuation. This was like that: floaty and magical, unreal and the only real thing.
C.C. and Dash arrived around the time that the husbands served up the tri-tip on paper plates. Dash instantly hit it off with Phoebe’s four-year-old, and we folded C.C. into our forcefield.
If Ellen and C.C. and I were unsure how to move from one step to the next without breaking the spell, we needn’t have worried. Phoebe had thought of everything. Our adoption-agency counselor had given Ellen and Max a stack of papers and a temporary guardianship agreement that they’d already filled out. Phoebe had made copies for everyone.
“You guys should take Wolf tonight,” she said to C.C. and me, “and Ellen and Max, you should meet them there tomorrow morning to say your goodbyes.”
We all agreed gratefully. Phoebe was doing all of this because she couldn’t foster Wolf for one more day without getting as irrevocably attached as her nine-year-old. But she spoke and acted with authority, and the rest of us wanted an authority.
C.C. had found us a hotel with a kitchenette. Hotels were still open back then. We washed our hands and plucked bagels from the breakfast buffet with our fingers.
Ellen and Max arrived with bags of gifts for Wolf and Dash. A red Build-A-Bear dragon for Wolf: Press one paw and Ellen’s voice said, “You are kind and brave and you can be anything you want to be.” Press the other paw and Max’s voice said, “I love you, Wolf. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”
We talked more, midmorning stretching into afternoon. C.C. and I took turns roaming the hotel with Dash. He played mini golf at the six-hole course next to the pool, and waded into the pool up to his chest. The day was crisp and sunny and endless.
There were moments when Ellen was tearful, but she also wanted to talk about her years in foster care, her piercings, her dogs. She showed us pictures of herself and Max as little kids. She wasn’t just handing over her baby, she was handing us herself. At the time, I thought it was because she wanted us to tell Wolf her stories.
The next morning, I handed Wolf to C.C. and set about trying to move a small apartment’s worth of baby gear into our house. It was nice to have a new bassinet and stroller, and I imagined showing Wolf all the blankets and sleep sacks his Ellen had made: See how much she loves you.
But there were a dozen giant bins of baby clothes. There was a swing with a footprint the size of Dash’s mini trampoline. There were fourteen dinosaur-themed wall hangings from Hobby Lobby. A zoo’s worth of stuffed animals.
I hung a few of the dinosaurs, because I’d promised. Because when you bring someone into your life, you bring their baggage, even when it’s literal.
There were all the daunting things that come with a quick-turnaround adoption: health insurance, day care wait lists, coworkers who pretended not to be annoyed by my sudden leave. I made lists. I remembered how much newborns slept, and I fantasized about all the writing and household projects I’d get done.
I said their names together. Dash and Wolf, like two superheroes.
Part II of this piece appears here.
*Names have been changed.