An American Family
By Jon Galluccio, Michael Galluccio, David Groff
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2001 Jon Galluccio, Michael Galluccio, and David Groff
All rights reserved.
It was the second day of winter, 1995, and the city snow had melted and refrozen into a jagged crust, the kind of snow that crunches under your feet. Just after dawn, Jon and I were driving carefully through the streets of a run-down neighborhood in Paterson, New Jersey — only eight miles from our own suburban Maywood, but a different world. We were on our way to meet our son for the first time.
The social worker had given us excellent directions — even in the excitement of the previous afternoon's phone call — and we made our way through Paterson's back streets until we found Hine Street, an offshoot of the main avenue. The neighborhood looked unkempt; the sidewalks had buckled, paint was chipping off the houses, fences were rusted, and the trees seemed to sag beneath the weight of more than the winter ice. Even the few Christmas decorations seemed gray. No one was out this early in the morning, as our Grand Am slid silently down the street on fresh snow that coated the frozen tire ruts.
The O'Neill Center was a typical city row house — three floors, plenty of windows, small front porch. Painted a rusty red, it sat tall and unadorned at the end of the street next to a steel-shuttered pharmacy. Once some family's home, it now housed babies who basically had no families. While they were still in the womb, their mothers had habitually swallowed, injected, snorted, or smoked just about every substance known to damage a developing fetus: alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, crack, cocaine, and heroin. Their children had literally become drug addicts in the womb. They were all also HIV-positive.
Most of the children living at the O'Neill Center had been abandoned to the state at birth, and New Jersey would be the only parent some of these children would ever know. Their fathers and mothers didn't want them, were too ill or drugged to handle them, or were themselves dying or dead. And because these "medically fragile" children were sick, drug addicted, and might die in two months or two years, few families wanted to adopt them. Some of the kids would spend their entire lives being handled by people wearing disposable latex gloves who had already held hundreds of babies just like them. For the somewhat more fortunate children, the O'Neill Center would be the first stop in an odyssey of foster homes, some of them good, some bad, some perniciously indifferent. Every now and then, a healthy and lucky child would be adopted into a permanent family.
"We're way too early," Jon said, cracking his knuckles inside his gloves. He drew his overcoat closer. Having been his partner for thirteen years, I could tell when he was tense, even though he tried to hide it beneath a determined efficiency. He was working to stay calm, but excitement and anxiety showed clearly in his usually impish blue eyes. He looked up at the silent house. "Nobody's awake yet. You can't even hear a baby crying."
"What should we do? Should we go in?" I asked.
"It's not time yet. Jean was very specific." He paused, looked at me, then back at the house. "We've waited this long. I guess we can wait a little longer."
We had been anticipating this day for months, and yesterday the call had finally come. I was at the back of the house working in my office — the paneled, shag-rugged space we planned to remake into a family room. In the midst of a conversation with one of my company's most important clients, I heard the house phone ringing and Jon answering it. After a moment, my office door burst open. Jon was standing there with a look of utter happiness on his face. "It's Jean," he blurted out. "She says she has a Christmas present for us."
Jean was the placement specialist for children with special needs at the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS). "Kim," I said into the phone, "I have to go. I think I just became a father."
I stood up and rushed into the kitchen, where Jon was already back on the phone with Jean. We moved to the living room and sat together on the couch and I watched as Jon took notes:
Boy ... Blond ... Brown eyes ... 3 months old ... Preemie ... Hep C ... Hole in heart ... HIV+ ... TB+ ... RSV ... Severe drug withdrawal/crack ... Apgar 8/9 ... Birth name ...
"Jean." Jon's forehead wrinkled and his eyebrows connected at the center with the look I knew meant confusion. "A black baby with blond hair? What did the drugs do to this kid?"
Jean must have suppressed an urge to laugh. "Oh, no," she told Jon in her usual warm, level, matter-of-fact way, "he's white."
Since there were so many minority children in the system, we had been certain we would become an interracial family. That is what we had prepared for, but this baby was the son of a thin, red-haired, twenty-six-year-old woman in nearby Paterson. She was an intravenous drug user who had already given up four children to institutional care. The father was unknown.
I watched as Jon scrawled FOSTER ONLY. We looked into each other's eyes and I could feel my chest tighten. This child could only be temporary in our lives. Not only would we have a medically fragile baby to care for, but as foster parents we would risk having to return a child we had opened our hearts to and wanted to adopt. I realized we were just starting down a long road.
"When can we see him?" I asked. Jon relayed the question to Jean, and then I saw his face drop. "Not until after Christmas," he told me.
"No, tomorrow," I insisted. "Honey, beg her." He did. Jean said she would need to make a few calls and get back to us. As it turned out, she had to ask some favors, but she had gotten us a visit — and now here we were, just fifteen hours later, still an agonizing sixty minutes from meeting our son.
We drove around the block a few times and finally parked right in front, waiting for the O'Neill Center to stir to life. Jean had told us not to come until 8 A.M. at the earliest. We'd both lain awake most of the night, thinking about what might happen today, how our lives and the life of one baby might start to change. We had no choice but to arrive early; there was no way we could just sit home and wait.
"What do you think he'll look like?" Jon asked me.
"I guess he'll look like a baby, won't he? A sick baby?"
"Yeah ... but what exactly does a sick baby look like?"
I had no real idea. When I thought of babies, I thought of my nieces and nephews, round, little bundles of Italian-American health. This child would not be like that. With all our basic training, did we know enough to care for him? Would this baby even live? Had we let our desire to be parents get us in over our heads? They say God does not give us more than we can handle, but right then I had my doubts.
We sat there looking at each other, then out through the windshield. The car heater droned on. God, we were so early. Finally, as the winter light brightened, I convinced Jon that we could at least go and wait on the front porch. We looked at each other, took deep breaths, and got out of the car.
The cat litter and ice remnants on the old wooden porch cracked so loudly under our feet that I was afraid we would wake everyone up — and I kind of hoped we would. I peered in the window next to the door, but the inside was illuminated only by the early-morning light. To one side was a hallway and a door. Right in front of the door was a steep staircase leading up to another door and what looked like another hallway. The upstairs door caught my eye — light was coming from underneath it. I stepped back and shrugged to Jon. We just stood there staring at each other, our breath smoking in the icy early-morning air.
From behind I heard the crackle of footsteps. We turned to see someone standing with one foot on the bottom step and a hand on the rail. A woman — big, middle-aged, with sharp blue eyes and strawberry-blond hair — looked up at us from under the hood of her tan parka. In the first measured seconds, she looked sturdy and stern. I wondered what she thought as she encountered the two of us, Jon shivering almost motionlessly in his brown overcoat and me pacing about him on the porch, running my hand nervously through my hair. She smiled and her face blossomed. "Oh, I know who you are," she said. "Couldn't wait, could you?"
Her name was Joanne Harraka. She was the head nurse at the O'Neill Center, for all practical purposes the mother the O'Neill children didn't have. Her job was to oversee the love, care, discipline, and comfort given to children she knew she would, in one way or another, lose. She had come to work on her day off, two days before Christmas, to introduce us to our baby.
"You boys must be cold. Come on in."
The hallway we entered was clean but worn, with an infant's car seat and a folded stroller propped in one corner and a stack of boxes filled with used clothing. The air held a combination of several smells — old house, medicine, baby formula, a touch of diaper, and sickness. Joanne indicated we should follow her up the stairs. But she paused at the bottom, and we all looked at each other. "You ready?" She gave us a wry smile.
"Well, here we go," Jon breathed. He put his arm out to let me go first.
"Thanks, Dad," I said. His face lit up.
The steps groaned under our combined weight. I had never been so nervous in my life. During those fifteen seconds, dozens of past scenes flickered through my head: the two of us sitting in parenting classes, taking pages of notes; my last cigarette, on the day we'd decided that the parent of a sick child should not smoke; my mother crying with fear and worry when we'd told her we intended to adopt a baby; my father's look of resignation; the puzzled and aghast looks on the faces of friends; the two of us practicing CPR so we could take on a "special needs" child; and the evening just last week when we'd painted clouds on the sky-blue walls of the room we had just turned into a nursery.
When Joanne opened the door, it was almost like the scene from The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy leaves her house and everything goes from black and white to color. Fluorescent light poured out into the hallway. The door opened into a large "all-purpose" room. I barely noticed the white linoleum floors, the white walls, the mismatched furniture, or the television trumpeting the overture of The Lion King. All I saw was one small baby, directly across the room from me, sitting in a loud, windup baby swing.
I had no doubt he was my son. He was tiny, too tiny for a child three months old. He looked well below the fifteen pounds you would expect for a child his age. He was wearing a red sweatshirt and a blanket over his lap. And he was so bald you could see the veins in his head. The skin of his face was pale and pinkish, shading into gray, which made me wonder if the hole in his heart — common among preemies — was affecting his circulation. His eyes were open almost unnaturally wide and had huge dark circles around them. His lips were pursed into a tight knot. As I walked toward him, his hands clutched frantically in front of him as if he were trying to grasp something only he could discern. He looked like an old man in a nursing home — an old man desperate for his next fix.
The baby was staring right at me. For what seemed like hours all I beheld was the sight of this child and the click-click, click-click, click-click of the baby swing. I stared at the baby and in an instant I fell deeply in love for the second time in my life. There would be nothing I would not do for him. My son. He was sick, and he might be dying, and he was beautiful.
Then the world came back in a huge rush. The noise in the room was deafening. Five children, infants and toddlers, were cooing and crying from their cribs and baby chairs. The TV was blaring Disney tunes, and I realized that other adults were at work here — caregivers finishing up their night duty, holding two of the babies and deftly forcing medicine down their throats. I saw another child arching painfully in his rocker as he tried to watch the television. He was two, maybe three years old. One of his arms was constricted. The circles around his eyes showed clearly even through his dark brown skin. HIV had done a job on him.
He looked at me and gave me the easy smile that comes with the innocence of childhood. Then he rolled his eyes in pain and struggled to focus again on the television. He did not look as if he would last too much longer. My eyes returned to my baby and I prayed silently: Please don't let that be you.
Finally Joanne asked, "Would you like to meet the baby?" We immediately went to the swing and bent down. The baby looked back and forth between us, curious, vague.
"Go ahead — you go first," Jon said to me. I had not even taken off my coat yet but I unstrapped the baby and carefully lifted him into my arms. I had never held an infant this small. I could feel the heat from his body in my hands, smell baby lotion on his skin. His breathing was ragged. I cradled him and looked into his face. His little eyes trembled and darted from place to place. They actually shook. This was the pain and panic of drug withdrawal. One arm shot out from his side and he grabbed for one hand with the other. He clumsily guided the thumb of his left hand into his mouth. His breathing sounded almost like grunting while he feverishly sucked his thumb, as if it held a drug he needed more than breathing.
"Look at him," Jon said as I put the baby in his arms. I watched the same feelings of magic and terror wash over Jon.
"Would you like to give him his bottle?" Joanne asked.
"We'd like that very much," Jon said.
Joanne led us into a small room that housed three cribs. It wasn't a nursery with puffy clouds painted on the walls, but more like a hospital room from the fifties, which is probably when its furnishings had begun their institutional life. The cribs were lined up along the white walls, next to a rocking chair, and between them stood a menacing-looking examining table made of white-enameled metal, chipped in places. On the table sat a black metal baby scale. The only splash of color was a single black, white, and red mobile dangling over one infant's crib.
Joanne handed me the bottle, and sitting in the rocking chair, I fed the baby. Jon was getting over a cold and we had decided it was safer for the baby if Jon kept a little distance. I could feel the baby's throat working against my wrist as he furiously swallowed the formula. It seemed as if he'd never encountered food before. Joanne said he weighed only eleven pounds, and he had to use huge amounts of fuel to support his precarious lungs and his liver. Three months after his birth, his organs had to work overtime to filter out the deadly toxins that still raged in his system.
"So, you boys are adopting him, right?"
Our eyes shot up to meet Joanne's gaze. Was this a trick question? Yesterday on the phone, and all the while we'd been seeking to take a baby into our home, Jean, the DYFS placement specialist, had drummed into our heads that at best we'd be getting a foster child. Adoption was such a distant possibility that we barely allowed ourselves to think about it. Like many couples before us, we had decided to take the risk of being foster parents first, even if we didn't get to have that child permanently as our own. Now Joanne was making it sound as though our parenting this baby for good was a given.
"Yes," Jon said sharply, "we intend to adopt him."
"Are you going to keep his name, or are you going to change it?" Joanne asked.
Here was another question that we thought spoke more to our dreams than reality. Before surrendering him to the state, this infant's mother had given the baby a name. Jon and I had discussed for a long time what name we would like our son to have. I looked at Jon, who nodded slightly, and I spoke up. "We have a name for him. Adam."
"Adam stands for Adolph, Dorothy, Donato, and An nMary," Jon added. "Michael's father and mother, my late father, and my mother."
Joanne gave us a big smile. "Adam is a beautiful name. You know, we'd better get the staff to start using it." Before we could react, she stuck her head into the other room called out to the other nurses in a loud voice. "Ladies, from now on, this boy's name is Adam. Got it?"
I looked down, stunned, at the child who lay against my chest. Had we actually just been able to name this baby? That was a breathtaking notion.
"When can we take him home?" Jon asked.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa." Joanne held up her hand and let out a belly laugh. "You have no idea how long a road you've got ahead of you. First we have to teach you everything you need to know about Adam — food stuff, how to bathe him, how to change an infectious diaper, all that. Then you have to get past Dr. Hutcheons — she's the medical director for all these kids — and convince her that you can care for Adam on your own, even for a single day visit. You've never had a baby of your own before, either of you?"
We shook our heads no. (Continues...)
Excerpted from An American Family by Jon Galluccio, Michael Galluccio, David Groff. Copyright © 2001 Jon Galluccio, Michael Galluccio, and David Groff. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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