Published on May 31st, 2022 | by Cheryl Klein2
We Met a Mom in Reno Just to Text and Cry
I hear the train a-comin’
I downloaded the puzzle game Red’s Kingdom on my phone approximately two weeks after Chantal’s* first reported due date, the one she had calculated as nine months from when she hooked up with a guy she knew only as “Billy.” When she got her first ultrasound, though, the OB gave her a due date that was a month later, based on the size of the fetus. When she got a second ultrasound the next week, they guesstimated a midpoint: April 4.
April 4th of course came and went. Our family had been through three disrupted adoptions in two years, and had all but given up on independent adoption as a means of giving our son, Dash, a sibling. We were working toward our foster care license when a semi-retired attorney with a Mayberry demeanor told us about Chantal.
Chantal had placed four children for adoption, three through this attorney. We met her via Zoom—even in Mayberry, there was still a pandemic. She was 31, and had spent most years since she was 16 pregnant. Four children lived with their fathers, four with adoptive families. This baby would be her ninth.
When I think about what it must be like to have your entire adulthood consumed by motherhood and its absence, I see how little I understand her life.
What we knew about her fit in a paragraph. She was half white, half Mexican, raised Mormon. Still Mormon enough, perhaps, that she didn’t believe in abortion, but meth and marijuana were in the picture. She had a throaty voice and dark eyes. The wall behind her on Zoom was Pepto Bismol pink, the window frame cracked. She lived in a small town outside Reno, Nevada.
When she talked about adoption, she said it made her happy to help people become parents when they couldn’t otherwise. She was glad to find those babies a home.
My partner, C.C., said, “You gave them their first home.”
We texted her a few times that first week and heard nothing until she sent us a video she’d taken at her first ultrasound appointment. We turned up the volume and listened to the baby’s whooshing heartbeat. The only visual was a painting of a boat on the wall of the clinic. Shaky camerawork made the boat bounce on the high seas.
Maybe, a few days later, she sensed my anxiety, because she texted late one night, I just want to reassure you that I’m not going to change my mind. I really think this is for the best.
In times of intense anxiety, puzzle games require just enough attention to take my mind off the catastrophic stories my brain invents to pass the time, while not demanding what I can’t deliver: work, art, good parenting.
In Red’s Kingdom, you are a red squirrel in search of acorns. A “mad king” has kidnapped your father and stolen your “golden nut.” You roll through a series of mazes accumulating nuts and gems and clues.
When you first enter a section—with names like “Balgan Forest” and “Aureus Bramble”—there’s a lot to do. Acorns to gobble. Boxes to open. Enemies to defeat. You do those things, and it’s time to move on, to the little glowing green X that marks the passage to the next arena. But just because you can see it doesn’t mean you can get to it. Pretty soon you’re rolling around an empty room, bouncing off obstacles but never quite hitting your mark.
During the first two weeks of our match with Chantal, there was a lot to do. Coordinating the Mayberry attorney (who was actually in LA), our home-study agency, the Nevada agency that would counsel Chantal, and the Nevada attorney who would finalize the adoption, felt like planning a jewel heist.
My stomach hurt every time I signed a new contract with a new professional. But those dizzy, busy weeks had nothing on what followed. Because what followed was…nothing. An empty castle dungeon, with an exit in sight and no way to get there.
Just thinking about you and hoping you’re feeling okay, I texted, careful of every word. One time in five, she’d reply cheerfully. The other times my mind filled in the silence with the worst possibilities I could imagine. So I rolled around, Googling the reliability of due dates (not very), texting friends, sobbing.
Sometimes, in Red’s Kingdom, you’ll happen upon a teleporter. You stand on a blue circle while a bubble of lightning blooms around you, allowing you to zip around the map to other rooms you’ve unlocked.
You return to rooms you thought you were done with, and wander to adjacent rooms. Things start to look the same, but are they the same? Last time you were in Mor Daraich, you couldn’t get past that horrible pit of spikes. But now you have a flight suit that enables you to glide over them, rolling gracefully on the other side. Except sometimes the flight suit doesn’t help you, and you’re just stuck.
I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when
As of April 22, which had been Chantal’s first OB-calculated, farthest-out due date, we hadn’t heard from her directly in ten days. I emailed Enid*—the attorney’s accountant/case manager—and she replied with a screenshot of a text exchange with Chantal from the day before.
Enid: Did you go to the hospital?
Chantal: I’m here now
Enid: Labor pains?
[A few hours later]
Chantal: They’re sending me home
It was a big acorn. Chantal was in touch! She and the baby were healthy! The adoption was still on! Maybe it wasn’t quite the golden nut yet, but it was enough to sustain us for now.
For Chantal, the hospital visit probably felt like a room she’d visited before. Maybe it literally was.
I don’t know what she told herself between babies. This time, she’ll remember to use birth control? This time, the pregnancy will keep her sober? This time, she and the baby’s father will stay together? Or maybe none of the above—I’m thinking like a person who has always been told my future is worth something. Not that it’s guaranteed—hence all my catastrophic thinking—but that there is a room after this one. Maybe Chantal couldn’t see the map.
In Red’s Kingdom, you can zoom out and see a map of all the rooms you’ve visited so far, but other parts of the map are covered in clouds. You don’t know the size of the map until the game is over.
Later that afternoon, Sandra* from the Nevada agency called.
“The baby was born. It’s a girl, and she’s in the NICU. But we can’t find out any more information, because Chantal told the hospital social worker that she probably doesn’t want to do an adoption anymore.”
In a panic, I called Enid, who said she would try to find out more.
“Maybe she decided she doesn’t want same-sex parents for her baby,” I said, trying not to sound unhinged. We get bad cell reception in our house, so I was walking around the block, barefoot. I probably didn’t seem…hinged.
Enid made some calls and returned with more information: “Chantal tested positive for meth, so whether she knows it or not, she’s not going to be allowed to parent. She’ll have to choose between adoption and foster care, and in this situation, most moms choose adoption. She might just need a little time. The baby is going to be in the NICU for at least ten days.”
I had hoped my fear had more to do with post-traumatic stress—rolling around a room I’d visited before—than with reality, but sometimes the two collide.
Intellectually, we understood that Chantal was in an impossible situation, and we knew her problems trumped ours. Addiction is a brutal disease, and it was unfair that someone who loved her baby wouldn’t be allowed to parent, for reasons she couldn’t now control. Emotionally, we couldn’t help feeling it was unfair that we wouldn’t be allowed to parent either, for reasons we couldn’t control.
My mama told me, son, always be a good boy
The day after we heard second-hand that Chantal might be rescinding her adoption plan, I walked Dash and the girls next door to McDonald’s. My heart was at the bottom of a Red’s Kingdom lava pit, but my feet shuffled the six blocks. While plopping Happy Meal juice boxes into a paper bag, I glanced down at my phone, because I’m always glancing down at my phone. And there was Chantal.
Hey yes sorry my phone has been dead. They have a video camera system at the hospital I can give u the username and password.
As if the last 24 hours had been a minor technological hiccup.
We swung into action. Since the hospital was mandated to report drug involvement, Child Protective Services was already involved. But the fact of the NICU removed a bit of the urgency to place the baby in a foster home immediately.
Still, the professionals advised, it would be a good idea to go to Reno so we could advocate for our involvement in person.
It was a terrifying idea: Hop on a plane, show up at the hospital, assert a role that no one had formally given us? It went against all my good-girl tendencies. But until Chantal told us the adoption was off, it was on.
I texted Chantal that we were headed her way. She said Can’t wait to meet all 3 of you.
C.C. had bookmarked flights and hotels weeks ago, and now she clicked “book.” Sunday afternoon, we boarded a JetBlue plane for Reno.
Between the gate and baggage claim, slot machines flashed. But as we drove in our rental car through “the biggest little city in the world,” I thought that Reno had been given a bad rap. Snow-capped mountains surrounded the city and old wood-sided homes lined the streets.
We texted Chantal to see if she wanted us to bring her dinner. Somewhere in our reams of forms, we had her home address. We could just…go there.
In Red’s Kingdom, regular entrances and exits are marked with green X’s. But you can’t pass a pink or yellow X without a magic power: a winged suit that enables you to glide from ramps to pedestals.
We would not show up at her doorstep without permission. She didn’t reply.
Drinkin’ coffee and smokin’ big cigars
The next morning, while the professionals made hospital calls, I summoned the courage to view the NICU webcam. What is your relationship to the baby? the site prompted.
I typed, Adoptive parent, feeling audacious.
All of a sudden, there she was. Not just a hope or a symbol or a stack of paperwork, but a baby in high definition. She had a chubby face, dark eyes like Chantal’s, puffy lids, and a full head of dark hair. She was utterly, ridiculously, beautiful.
She blinked and yawned a pink toothless yawn. She balled and un-balled her hands and sucked on a pacifier.
The NICU equivalent of Zoom chat showed me that someone named Mom was also here, along with me, Adoptive parent. I hadn’t realized I was making a screen name for myself, and I was thankful I hadn’t typed Mom.
We’re so honored to be part of this moment, I texted Chantal.
She replied, I’ve been viewing her off and and on. Couldn’t sleep but I’m so happy u guys r here. [The social worker with the Nevada agency] is suppose to get ahold of me sometime this morning so I can sign paperwork so u guys can get info and go see her.
C.C. and Dash watched the baby over my shoulder.
“I want to give her a little hairdo,” said Dash. “A little mohawk.”
We exchanged more warm texts with Chantal, and I let myself feel something more than hope. Something like what people talk about when they talk about open adoption. This baby with complicated beginnings was surrounded by people who loved her and who would eventually love each other.
People keep a-movin’
Later that morning, C.C. took Dash for a swim at the hotel pool. I took a call from Sandra at the Nevada agency.
“It’s a mess,” Sandra said. “The birth father isn’t Billy, the person she told us about. It’s the father from one of her previous adoptions, and he’s Native American.”
Prior to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare act in 1978, as many as 35% of Native children were removed from their homes, and of those, 85% were placed with non-Native families. It was cultural genocide disguised as adoption.
ICWA attempted to remedy this. Now, the tribe has to be notified of and approve every adoption of a child who is eligible for membership. That would create more legal hoops, but with Chantal’s previous adoption—same tribe, same dad—no one had stood in the way.
Okay, I thought, there was a new maze on our map, but we could do this.
Simultaneously, my guilty awareness of white privilege dovetailed with my feelings of maternal unworthiness. A voice said, It’s because of 500 years of genocide that you’re a middle-class lady trying to take a baby, and he’s…whoever he is. It would be a small but nice bit of payback for you to go home without a baby.
“Oh,” said Sandra, “and she named the baby Mia.”
We’d been thinking Dahlia, but we pivoted.
She looked like a Mia.
C.C. and Dash came back from the pool.
“I swam in the four-feet part!” Dash exclaimed, dripping onto the hotel carpet. He was a decent swimmer, but he liked knowing he could touch the bottom. I didn’t blame him.
I tried to update C.C. on all that had happened in the 45 minutes they’d been gone.
We ate breakfast and walked around a manmade lake. I stepped in duck poop, which made Dash cackle. We raced between trees and fence posts, and I was aware how out of shape I was, but also of how good it felt to do something fast and intense and physical.
We’d packed in such a hurry that we’d forgotten a bunch of things, so we went to Target.
In the hair product aisle, I got another call from Sandra.
“Chantal didn’t show up for her meeting with our agency’s social worker,” she said. “I just got a call from the hospital social worker that she and the dad are both down there, saying they want to parent.”
All of a sudden we were in yet another room, one full of lava and spikes.
“What, Mommy! What is it?” Dash looked up from the red Target cart, seeing my face. C.C. tried to soothe him.
“I want to go to Starbucks,” Dash demanded. “I want Pizza Hut.”
I hung up with Sandra, feeling upside down beneath the fluorescent lights of the store. The minutes that followed had the blur that always accompanies bad news: C.C. absorbing this new reality beside me. C.C. comforting Dash. C.C. disappearing to the bathroom.
Standing in line at the Target Starbucks, asking for a cake pop, getting it for free because their register wasn’t working. Feeling unworthy of a free cake pop.
Time keeps draggin’ on
That afternoon, it was my turn to go to the pool with Dash. For the first time in days, I put my phone down.
We were the only ones in the overheated, sulfur-smelling pool. I watched the clock tick, minute by minute.
“No lifeguard on duty,” Dash read. “Where’s the lifeguard?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know if there’s ever a lifeguard on duty here.”
“I wish we could just order a baby,” Dash said. He was no stranger to the pandemic wonders of things that showed up at your door, their mechanisms a tangle of supply chains and oppression.
“We can’t do that,” I said. “That would be kidnapping.”
Somehow the subject switched to kidnapping and stranger danger. I’d talked to Dash about not getting into cars with someone he doesn’t know, but I didn’t spend a lot of time on it, because most kids are abused by people they do know.
He stood on the middle step of the pool, making us the same height. I looked into his brown eyes, half covered with wet floppy hair. I thought about fight and flight.
“If someone ever tries to take you, you can do whatever you need to to get away. Run and scream and bite.”
He was amazed. “Can I call them stupid? Can I kick them in the penis?” The idea delighted him.
“Yes,” I said very seriously. “Poke them in the eye. Yell, ‘Help! I don’t know you!’”
“Can I say, ‘Look at my butthole’?”
“That…probably wouldn’t be very effective. Your goal is to get away.”
That night, while C.C. and Dash slept in the double bed, I lay on the rust-colored couch and watched Real Housewives of New York with the sound turned down, eating stale tortilla chips purchased the night before. RHoNY was a show with infinite episodes, about privileged, unhappy, middle-aged women who’d ruined their lives in various ways. There was a whole arc about Luann getting mad because, whenever they went on vacation together, she got the “worst” room.
I played more Red’s Kingdom on my phone, getting the dopamine pings I wasn’t getting from life. I’d unlocked all the jewels and one of the golden nuts.
If that railroad train was mine
Tuesday morning, Chantal and the professionals started texting us and each other again. The latest narrative was that Chantal wanted this adoption, but the dad didn’t. She thought she could convince him, as long as he got pictures and visits. We would love that, we said, and we meant it. Enid said she’d draw up a contact agreement, if that would make him feel more comfortable.
We can meet with you today, I said.
Maybe when he was back from work, Chantal said, and then disappeared for the rest of the day.
We drove to Virginia City, an old mining town in the mountains between Reno and Carson City. It was one of many “Wild West” towns I’d visited growing up, my dad navigating twisting mountain roads in our old RV.
A man with a blond ponytail took us on a $6 trolley tour through the switchback streets. We took in stately old churches, rusty mining equipment, and Trump signs.
“The Chinese built the railroads that took the gold and silver down the hill,” our tour guide said. “But when they were done, they weren’t allowed to get jobs in the mines. They weren’t even allowed to walk on the boardwalks. They had to travel in tunnels underneath the streets. Twenty-three miles of tunnels. Eventually, they dug up their dead from the cemeteries and left town.”
C.C. and I repeated these things to each other. There was something deliciously final in the Chinese workers’ response. You’re not even good enough for our dead.
At the shooting gallery, Dash pointed a fake gun at fake rabbits and real tin cans. Flash and ping. The store was decorated with a wooden Uncle Sam and a cigar-store Indian, and sold T-shirts that said, Reasons why guns are better than women.
We wanted to pack up and leave Reno. On Wednesday morning, we finally did, sending Chantal a final “the door’s open…” text. She didn’t reply.
Blow my blues away
I think about my own addictions: take-out, Housewives, Red’s Kingdom, updates updates updates.
Eventually, we got a few. Chantal and Mia’s dad had broken up. She said he was violent and unstable, and probably wouldn’t get to keep the baby either.
Maybe Chantal had tried to map two futures at once: one in which Mia lived with us, one in which she and her now-ex lived together as a family. Neither was going to happen, but I couldn’t blame her for trying.
Back at home in LA, I rescued the squirrel’s father in Red’s Kingdom. A text bubble popped on screen. You’ve finished the game.
Eventually, you reach the edge of the map.
But, the next banner scrolled, there are still two more golden acorns to find! Go back and search for them.
I tentatively broached the topic of returning to our foster care licensing process, and C.C. snapped that it was too soon. Then she told me she loved me. We had a few variations on the conversation over the days that followed.
Finally, in early May, Chantal texted that she had bad news and “kinda good news.” Mia had been discharged into foster care. The good news was that Chantal was going to rehab. Chantal would stay in touch with Mia’s foster family, and she would share updates with us, if we wanted.
For the first time, it seemed like something positive might come out of this debacle. It wasn’t the thing that had brought us here, but Chantal investing in herself, seeing her own life as worth saving—that was more than kinda good news.
We’d like to stay in touch, we told Chantal. We were surprised how much we meant it. This was a hidden room that had opened to all of us: a pen pal relationship of sorts with a woman whose profound loss we shared a small piece of.
It’s a small piece that still feels huge and heavy.
We don’t know, yet, whether we’ll ever summon the fortitude to foster-to-adopt. The foster care system would require us to support family reunification, which we believe in…and which would also break our hearts all over again. But our correspondence with Chantal gave us a taste of what it’s like to root for a whole family, to intersect with someone’s story in ways that are equal parts painful and rewarding. I’m willing to keep exploring. There are rooms we haven’t unlocked yet.
*Names have been changed