Adoption Stories Softly lit NICU room with semi-deflated balloons. A baby lies on his side in a plastic bed.

Published on September 27th, 2022 | by Cheryl Klein

2

Liminal Village: Adoption, COVID, and Homes in the Air

After four disrupted adoptions in two and a half years, my partner and I had just about given up on having a second baby. I spent the late spring and early summer licking my wounds and leaning in to all the benefits of life with one seven-year-old. Dash had reached the age where he’d happily get up and mess around on his iPad for thirty minutes while his other mom and I slept. He could articulate his feelings and swim the length of the rec center pool. He could sit in a restaurant without throwing food. 

Maybe this was the beginning of an era of low-key luxuries. Hot coffee in the mornings. Writing time. Predictability. 

Then, good friends of ours told us about their nephew: Born prematurely at 32 weeks, Joey was currently in a NICU in Virginia. Joey’s parents—our friend’s brother and his ex-girlfriend—lived in a group home for adults with a variety of diagnoses and couldn’t raise a child there. Our friends considered adopting Joey themselves, but the obligations of adding another kid to their family were more than they could take on.

C.C., my partner, gingerly broached the subject: Would Joey’s parents…maybe…consider us?

Our friends’ response: “That would be an answer to our prayers.”

In all our adoption attempts, we’d never been the answer to anyone’s prayers. Instead, we sometimes felt like desperate baby-grubbers, interlopers with cash. There are savior narratives around adoption, and they are wrong. But it was nice to feel useful. It was nice to feel like part of a community rallying around this baby we’d never met.

*

So we began, again. I emailed attorneys in Virginia. Our friend Daniel* flew out to visit the NICU and talk to Curtis* and Sarah*, Joey’s parents. He texted us pictures of a baby with a serene face and a feeding tube in his nose.

Soon we were FaceTiming with Daniel, Curtis, and Sarah, doing the friendly but awkward get-to-know-you dance we knew all too well from our previous adoption attempts. 

Curtis was tall, with prematurely gray hair. Sarah had a round face and blunt nose that I would eventually see on Joey. Curtis wanted to know if he’d be liable for child support. If gay people could be Christians. What kind of food we liked. Sarah had a deep smoker’s voice and a southern drawl. She said she just wanted a good home for Joey, for him to be happy.

We moved forward toward the semi-arranged marriage that is an open adoption match, but a part of me hung back, struggling to believe that possibility would turn into fact. At night, fear shot through me as I googled various risk factors. 

When I stepped outside my ruminations and looked at the picture of Joey himself, and considered the simple truth of what Daniel said—There’s a baby who needs a home—the light in the room seemed to change. We could do this for Joey, with Joey. Right?

*

In mid-July, I got on an eastbound plane with a stuffed octopus in my backpack. Each tentacle represented someone who was watching out for me, C.C. said when she gifted it to me.

Stuffed blue octopus sits on top a notebook on a black vinyl chair

This was the plan: I would fly from Los Angeles to Virginia and meet Joey and spend a few days with him in the NICU, learning how to care for him before he was discharged. The NICU social worker talked to us like we were already his mothers. 

C.C. and Dash would fly out a week later, when Sarah and Curtis would sign paperwork making the adoption official (though it would require a judge and a court date, months later, to make it final). 

We had to buy plane tickets, pay professionals, make plans and plans and plans. It was a one-way ticket, and that open-endedness thrashed like a live wire inside my body. 

Through the magic of Facebook, I secured discount housing, connecting with a friend of a friend named Casey* who was traveling in Guatemala and Paris through the end of the month and wasn’t using her small, charming house. Treat it as your own, Casey emailed. She sent me a spreadsheet containing the wifi password and instructions for how to use her coffee maker. I said I’d water the orchids lining her kitchen counter.

At the airport, I stepped outside into thick humidity, a tropical hug in the night. My Lyft driver told me all about his girlfriend in Uganda who wanted him to come back, but he had a life here now, he explained. When he dropped me at Casey’s, a yellow wood-frame house with a red door, I tripped over a hidden cement step and toppled over my suitcase. 

But when I got inside, I felt like I was at home. Not my home, but someone’s. A home, with colorfully mismatched armchairs and a big bed with clean sheets and posters of the Eiffel Tower.

*

I was scared to go to the NICU. The social worker had been so kind on the phone, but she didn’t work Saturdays. What if some gatekeeping homophobe was on duty? What if Joey seemed fragile and sick? What if I didn’t fall in love with him? What if I did?

I drove across a wide highway bridge in my rental car, the vast July sky strewn with clouds of the storybook variety—fluffy, silver-white, impressively three dimensional.

This moment is sacred. The thought seemed to come from an external place, not my own nervous brain.

Joey had his own room at the NICU. It was quiet and beige and softly lit. Half deflated balloons from our friends hovered in the corner. I held Joey, smaller than a cat, like a cat on my chest. His weight calmed me, for a minute.

White woman in blue dress holds a baby in the NICU

Even though Joey wasn’t on any medical supports—the feeding tube had given way to bottles—there was a bouquet of wires tethering him to machines and monitors. A screen showed a ticker tape of numbers and lines. 

The NICU, which I would visit daily for three more days, was full of kind people who knew CPR and were never more than a button-push away. A safe space of sorts. It was also like being on an airplane—all those color palettes picked for their inoffensiveness, all that beeping, not to mention the feeling I tried not to think about, that we might fall from the sky at any moment.

*

I missed C.C. and Dash. If I was on an airplane, they were the people on the tarmac waving lighted sticks, guiding me to earth. Here, it was as if everyone I knew had been replaced by a nice-enough stranger. All my daily activities—working, writing, parenting—had been replaced by things I found overwhelming or anxiety-producing.

At home in LA, it rarely rained, mostly in the gray days of winter for a day at a time. Here the rain came in short bursts, sometimes with thunder and lightning. After the rain stopped, I walked the neighborhood around Casey’s house, taking in the damp greenness and listening to the cicadas. I didn’t even know how to pronounce the word.

*

Sunday night, I took Curtis and Sarah to Curtis’ favorite restaurant, a buffet called the Golden Corral. Between helpings of ketchup-smothered meatloaf, Curtis chatted with everyone about everything. He said “Assalamu Alaikum” to a Sudanese woman in a headscarf (I know she was Sudanese because he asked her) and spoke Spanish to our Venezualan server (he asked her).

Below the drumbeat of Curtis’ chatter, I tried to get to know Sarah. Her brother had died last year. She’d been diagnosed with postpartum depression. Milk soaked her shirt on long humid days. Later, as we waited for Curtis to pick out clothes at Walmart, I told her about my own miscarriage and depression, years ago. I’d walked this line before: trying to communicate empathy without making it about me. I’d done it so many times with so many mothers that it felt almost rehearsed. But I never didn’t mean it.

*

Tuesday was discharge day. Joey had passed the “car seat test”—90 minutes in a hastily purchased car seat, hooked up to all the monitors, without incident. I watched a terrifying video about infant CPR. I had a piece of paper saying I was allowed to leave with him. 

And then I did. He’d gone from round-the-clock intensive care to…me. 

Heart rate and oxygen monitor shows a variety of numbers and lines

I stopped four times in the parking structure to make sure he was still breathing. 

I wasn’t a seasoned, chill, second-time mom. I was a battle-scarred 45-year-old who was too aware of all that could go wrong.

At Casey’s house, I set up Joey’s bottles next to the stove and put his small stash of blankets and onesies in the wash. 

I’d never spent a night alone with a newborn before. I beamed prayers of appreciation to every single mother who’d started life with her child this way. I texted Shea, my only local friend: Weird favor, but would you mind leaving your ringer on tonight? Just in case something happens that is sub-911 but more than I can handle on my own? 

Of course! she said.

I had never felt so alone and so homesick, and, simultaneously, so loved and supported. It was a running theme of the week, a sort of expansion and contraction; into the world, then away from it, buoyed by it, overwhelmed by it.

Adoption is a village-wide effort, I texted my friend Keely, who lived in Colorado and had navigated life with a 26-weeker.

She replied, Tbh so is the birth part sometimes, and I’d much rather have the village show up to the rest of it than to my vagina, so you’re winning. 

Swaddled in his striped hospital blanket, Joey slept on my chest and my lap and in his bassinet. He fussed a lot that first night. I suspected the house was too cold for him, but I couldn’t find the thermostat.

*

Thursday there was a lightning storm that kept Kamala Harris from going somewhere she was supposed to go. What if it kept C.C. and Dash from arriving in time too? I lay on the white couch in Casey’s back room listening to rain and thunder, and sobbed. We were all so small under the raging sky. 

The flight was delayed but not canceled. They arrived at the little yellow house close to midnight. C.C. had terrible cramps and had been herding a 7-year-old through airports all day. I’d been boiling bottles and doling out formula in two-ounce portions. Neither of us could rescue the other right now, but at least we were together.

Wing of an airplane at sunset

*

On Friday, Sarah sat with an attorney and a social worker and relinquished her rights as a parent. Across town, I held my breath and feared it wouldn’t happen. When it did, I was relieved and giddy—we were actually adopting a baby—but it’s hard to truly celebrate someone losing their baby, even when you’re gaining that baby. 

Curtis’ end of things was much more casual; in this way, adoption law mimics much of life. A mobile notary in a Juneteenth T-shirt met us in the group home parking lot and patiently explained to Curtis what Juneteenth was as he signed away his baby on the concrete steps. Afterward, we went to the Golden Corral again.

*

C.C. and I tried to celebrate, but I could feel a crackle inside me, a thing that wouldn’t calm down; I’d been on overdrive for so many days that my body seemed unsure of what to do with itself. When pleasant surprises happen to people, they often say, “I can’t believe it!” An exclamation of joy. But I was literally having trouble believing it.

Saturday night, C.C. had a sore throat and took a COVID test, which was negative. The next morning, she was sure she had a cold. She sent Dash and me to stock up on cold medicine and Gatorade. We found ourselves in a Mexican grocery store. With the exception of our Venezuelan waitress, we hadn’t seen many Latinx people since arriving, and seeing shelves lined with glass Jarritos bottles and cans of Goya beans, seeing Brown people in the aisles, was comforting. 

C.C. took another COVID test and it was positive. 

I banished her to Casey’s bedroom, trying not to be angry that she’d flown all the way here only to be no help whatsoever. I put my mask back on and asked Dash to do the same, but he refused. At least put a mask on when you’re close to Joey, I said desperately.

I called Keely, the preemie expert, and she talked me through it. Get out the Owlet, she said—the non-FDA-approved device that monitors babies’ heartbeats and oxygen saturation levels in the name of “good sleep.” He probably won’t come down with symptoms until Tuesday at the earliest, she said, so the first couple of nights will establish a baseline. Anything from 95-100 percent saturation is good. Consistent low 90s, take him to the NICU; they admit at 90. If he drops to 89, call 911—not, she assured me, because he was in dire danger, but because an ambulance will arrive quickly and plug him into oxygen in the truck. 

I wrote it all down and posted the chart on the fridge.

Handwritten note outlining what to do if baby's oxygen levels reach certain points

Monday night, Dash said he had a headache. My limbs ached and I felt feverish. I tossed Dash in the bedroom with C.C., glad to have just one child to worry about, distraught about what this whole trip, this whole year, was doing to Dash. 

I told Sarah and Curtis we couldn’t see them until we were all healthy, and I felt like a cheater—someone who’d taken their baby only to get him sick, and keep him from them.

But mostly, I worried about Joey. The days stretched out, terrifying and boring at the same time. C.C. and Dash tried to play catch in the front yard, but it buzzed with insects and allergens that made Dash sneeze. Mostly, the iPad was his nanny. He hunched over Roblox and Minecraft and Prodigy, and seemed far away.

*

The Owlet was a sort of velcro sandal with a sensor that pressed against the baby’s foot and delivered the data to a glowing white base, which in turn sent it to an app on my phone. Tuesday and Wednesday nights, I watched Joey’s oxygen saturation hover between 97 and 99 percent. Ninety-seven was categorically good, yet each time, I wondered if it was the beginning of a downward trend. 

Each night, I made sure my backpack-turned-diaper bag was prepped for a trip to the NICU, the keys to our rental car on top.

Thursday night, C.C. was past the worst of her symptoms and insisted I needed sleep, so she took the couch and I took the big bed with Dash. But I had my phone with me, and it became a dubious security blanket. I set my alarm to wake me up every hour to check Joey’s oxygen numbers. If there was a slow downward trend, maybe I’d catch it. 

A brown-skinned boy hangs over the side of an unmade bed

On Friday, I watched the Owlet flirt with 96’s and felt my heart rate rise. I texted Keely to see what she thought about…maybe setting it aside for a while? If this current COVID strain, with its short incubation period, was going to elicit symptoms in Joey, they would have already kicked in. Right? Ensuring that Joey could breathe was worth the cost of my sanity, but if it looked like he was for sure going to breathe—in fact, that he would not have so much as a fever or a booger—maybe it was time to reclaim my sanity.

With Keely’s firm blessing, I put the Owlet back in its pale green box. I spent the night close to Joey, listening to his snorty breathing, trying to trust something.

*

On Tuesday, after one more visit to the group home, we flew to our home. I set up Joey’s changing table and bassinet, labeled baskets for onesies and pajamas, and felt settled for a minute.

But over the next months, intrusive thoughts cycled with a frequency and intensity I’d only experienced once before, after miscarrying back in 2011. Both events were a kind of insidious postpartum possession without the partum, at least not on my part.

I worried what kind of predispositions Joey might have. What technicalities might interrupt the adoption process? Why was our A+ pooper suddenly constipated? Was his head a normal size? Why was the world so mysterious and unpredictable? 

I longed for predictability like an addict remembering the buzz of a first hit.

I told our friend Alberto, Dash’s godfather, about my free-ranging fears. 

“You’re on an airplane,” he said, “and this is just turbulence. You have a good copilot. You have a good crew. We’re part of your crew, and you’re part of mine. We’ll all get through it.”

How could you know it was just turbulence when your body kept telling you it was a lightning storm? I didn’t and don’t know. Everything that came before was still with us, like stowaways. But so, too, were C.C. and Dash, Daniel and his wife and Curtis and Sarah and Keely and the friends who put up with my detailed questions about baby poop.

7-year-old looks at infant; a toy plane is next to them

One day on a walk through the late summer streets of Los Angeles, Dash picked a big, lily pad-shaped leaf from a tree. 

“This is to remember all our adoptions,” he said.

Something flickered across my face, a look he’d seen too many times before. 

He half laughed, half yelled, “Stop crying!”

I tried to remember that I was flying this plane, and needed to inspire something adjacent to confidence, at least. I also needed to remember that I was not alone.

“I’m not crying,” I said. “And thank you.”

*Names have been changed

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About the Author

Cheryl Klein’s column, “Hold it Lightly,” appears monthly(ish) in MUTHA. She is the author of Crybaby (out in 2022 from Brown Paper Press), a memoir about wanting a baby and getting cancer instead. She also wrote a story collection, The Commuters (City Works Press) and a novel, Lilac Mines (Manic D Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in Blunderbuss, The Normal School, Razorcake, Literary Mama, and several anthologies. Her MUTHA column “Onesie, Never Worn” was selected as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2022. She blogs about the intersection of art, life and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @cherylekleinla.



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