Adoption Stories Top of a cake with dollops of whip cream and bright red cherries

Published on February 5th, 2024 | by Elizabeth di Grazia

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She Wasn’t Ever Ours to Keep

Sitting across from our daughter who was with her “squad,” as she would come to call her eleven nieces and nephews, my partner Jody and I watched Crystel draw the children to her. She was a magician. Instead of pulling scarves one by one out of a hat, she charmed each of the children who enveloped her. They were mesmerized by this aunt from the United States, whom they were meeting for the first time

Where was our son Juan? Alarmed, I stood and quickly scanned the dining room. Eight tables had been strung together to accommodate Crystel’s 25 Guatemalan relatives. The smell of fried chicken, burgers, and pizza permeated the air. Chatter of families, scraping chairs, little kids running.

Of course. He was sitting directly across from Crystel. Silent, strong, and loyal, he was smiling broadly at her playfulness. That morning Crystel insisted that Juan sit next to her in the van on the way to meet her birth family. Since both are adopted, only he could understand the anxiety of meeting strangers connected by blood and the intense three-hour reunion that would occur.

Adopted together at seven and eight months old, they were only six weeks apart in age. Now, both 21, they had known each other for a lifetime. Juan would remain nearby, available. Crystel would do the same for him one week later when it was his birth family reunion.

Mayra, Crystel’s birth mom, was sitting quietly next to Juan. I asked if she wanted to move closer to Crystel, but Mayra shook her head, no. She made a circle with her arm in front of her. 

“This,” she said, her eyes brimming. “I love watching all this.”

A young Guatemalan woman with eight children, who are her nieces and nephews. All have their arms crossed and are smiling.

I understood. I, too, have given up an infant in adoption. I imagine meeting my birth son. Sitting across from him, looking closely for resemblance in the eyes, face, and mannerisms. I’d want to intimate who this child is. Ask, Did you have a good life?

I’ve made it easy for my birth son to find me by registering with Ancestry.com and 23andMe. I won’t search for him, though. I strongly believe it is his choice, as it was for Crystel and Juan to meet their birth mother. 

*

Mayra had met Crystel twice before. When she was nine years old and again at eleven. Jody and I had initiated the birth family search and made the reunions possible. After the second visit, Mayra notified us that Crystel’s birth father had threatened to kidnap her and return her to Guatemala. Crystel was the eighth child in a family of nine children from the same biological father. She was the only child placed for adoption. 

Every time Mayra was pregnant, the father said the child was not his. After learning about Crystel from our visit, he threatened he would take her back because he didn’t want any of his children to grow up apart. He was going to claim her as his own. 

Her estranged birth father was living illegally in Chicago. A drive of six hours and three minutes separated us from him. Or was he right down the street already, waiting to grab our daughter?

*

Boxes of Pollo Campero and cheese pizza materialized on the tables. A whirl of activity, Crystel’s brothers and sisters, ranging in ages from 18 to 34, sprang into action, doling out plates of fried chicken and small bags of fries. Hands reached for slices of pizza. Bottles of soda were poured into smaller cups. Our voices filled the space as we sang “Feliz Cumpleños” to Juan’s girlfriend, Aryanna. Celebrating her 19th birthday, she blushed, and accepted a piece of tres leches, a sponge cake soaked in a sweet milk mixture and topped with fresh whip cream and a cherry.

Mayra approached Jody and me. Standing next to her, waiting to interpret, was Freddy, Crystel’s 18-year-old brother’s boyfriend. He was the only person in their party that was bilingual. Mayra reached down for our hands, brought them together and cupped them in her palms. 

“I can see that my daughter is happy. That you took great care of her,” she said in a burst of Spanish. Tears fell onto her cheeks. “I’m glad that you … you … were the ones that adopted her.” 

Jody and I teared up. Our eyes were steady on Mayra’s soft round face. Mayra made no attempt to stop crying or to wipe her tears away. Her hands tightened around ours. “You … you …  brought her back.” She placed her hands to her heart.

Smiling mother and daughter in Guatemala. The mother has long hair and a sweatshirt with a dream catcher on it. The daughter, who is 21, holds bright yellow flowers.

I regret giving her up in adoption. I recalled these words that Mayra had spoken to Jody and me in past reunions. Her tone today was of appreciation and thankfulness. I wondered if her son who had a same-sex partner also had softened her view of Jody and me. Today she was talking with us as if we were a couple. This had not been the case before. Then, her conversation had been directed to Jody, the initial adopting mother. Because of Guatemalan law, we had only been able to readopt them as a couple when Juan and Crystel came to the United States.

I looked over at Crystel. Sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews gathered around her. Loud animated laughter. She wasn’t ever ours to keep, I thought. She’s so strong. So beautiful.

*

She came home to us at seven months old, underweight, and developmentally delayed. The doctors could treat her feeding issues, scabies, and a viral infection. What she needed most of all was the will to live. Jody and I nurtured and loved her, and she found that will within herself. Speech therapy addressed her inability to correctly produce certain sounds. Until she didn’t need it or wouldn’t allow it, Juan interpreted for her. They both attended Spanish dual language school in elementary, middle, and high school.

A day came when she wouldn’t allow Juan to interpret for her anymore. She insisted on dressing herself, zippering her own jacket, putting on her own shoes. It made for some fanciful ensembles. Beads adorning her hair, mismatched socks. Her crib couldn’t hold her. After putting Juan in his car seat, I’d dash back to get Crystel who was waiting in her crib. Until the day she met me at the screen door. Grinning from ear to ear, clapping her hands. 

Jody and I had opened the doors for Crystel and Juan to reunite with their birth families. They will decide their relationship. 

*

I turned to face Mayra and took a sharp breath. I wasn’t sure if it was the appropriate time to ask but I wanted to know if there were any new developments. 

“What about her birth father?” 

She brandished the air in front of her. “Don’t worry about him. Erase him from your thoughts.”

Crystel was 18 when she asked Jody and I about her birth father. I showed her his Facebook page. “Why does he have pictures of me on there?” she asked. 

“He’s been stalking you,” I said. “When you were in fifth grade, he threatened to kidnap you.” 

She pondered. “I always wondered why my name on class rosters had a note saying that I wasn’t to have any visitors.” 

I explained further. “Schools, law enforcement, friends, neighbors, aunts and uncles all knew. It’s what we did to keep you safe.”

Crystel was amused by this. She likes a good story. 

*

Jody and I have noticed how Crystel has taken responsibility for her own wellbeing. She completed her sophomore year of college in Hawaii as a national exchange student, successfully navigating school, friendships, surfing, and a job. At the end of the school year, she traveled independently to Vietnam and Korea. She and I had just completed a month-long stay in the mountains of Guatemala to take Spanish classes. After school, Crystel climbed volcanoes and managed other excursions without me. She is an accomplished adult. The threat is no longer viable.

*

Voices became spirited, higher pitched around the tables. Talk of rollercoasters. We’d chosen Mundo Petapa Irtra amusement park as the site of ourreunion. Rides, entertainment, playgrounds, restaurants, and a zoo were spread over the grounds. Chairs were pushed back. Cleanup started. A trail of children to the bathroom.

Mayra took this moment to walk around the dining area to sit next to Crystel. Both shifted in their chairs to greet each other. Mayra laid her hand on Crystel’s arm resting on the table. Though Jody and I couldn’t hear the conversation, I imagine Mayra telling Crystel that it had been a difficult time in her life when she surrendered her in adoption. That she missed her every single day. How she carried her in her heart. What a beautiful woman she was. 

A family photo taken at a park in Guatemala. Eighteen people ranging from infancy to early middle age stand with their arms around each other.

I would like to meet my birth son some day and tell him the same words.

Both Mayra and Crystel had a ready smile and bubbly, boisterous laugh. One could easily discern that they were mother and daughter. The same high forehead, cheekbones, distinctive eyebrows, narrow chin, and small lips.

Observing Crystel and Mayra, I swiped at my tears. I wasn’t raised with love or safety. I was sexually abused and neglected. There was violence in my family. What I wanted for myself, Jody, and our children, was to see what continuous love would look like in a child. I saw the answer in Crystel. 

Daughter, did you have a good life? Mayra knew the answer too.

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About the Author

The memoir House of Fire: A Story of Love, Courage, and Transformation was published March 2016 by North Star Press. Elizabeth di Grazia is a recipient of a Jerome Travel and Study Grant, a mentor participant in the Minnesota Loft Mentor Series, and a recipient of a Next Step Grant from the McKnight Foundation. She is a founding member of the blog WordSisters. Her work has been anthologized in Illness & Grace: Terror & Transformation and Families: The Front Line of Pluralism, both published by Wising Up Press. Di Grazia has also widely published prose in a number of journals, including Marrow Magazine, Adoptive Families Magazine, SLAB, Minnesota Literature, The Mom Writer’s Literary Magazine, Minnesota Parent, Adagio Verse Quarterly, Edge Life, and many others.



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