When I wake, I don't know where I am. It takes several minutes before I remember I am on my way to China, I am traveling with my friend Alex, we are going to bring home a baby. The sun is still shining, though according to my watch it is ten o'clock in the evening. We have been following the light since this morning as we have flown over the top of the world, and it has been eerie, a day with no night. We could be anywhere, it could be any time, in this moment, suspended between heaven and earth; I am flying into tomorrow, or is it yesterday?
There are still several hours before we are scheduled to land in Tokyo, and from there, we will take a three-hour flight to Beijing. I have an entire row to myself; this airplane is almost empty. Several books, all of which I am having trouble concentrating on, surround me on the seat, and the remains of a half-eaten lunch still wait to be taken away by the flight attendant. I look across the aisle and see that Alex is stretched out, sleeping. After more than a year of planning for this adoption, it must finally be starting to seem real for her; she seems distracted, withdrawn, and not in the mood to chat about the new baby or anything else.
I have spent the time on the plane trying to read, looking out at the clouds, thinking the things I prefer to do anyway. At some point I began to meditate, but I must have fallen asleep; there was a dream, something intense...what was it? I try hard to bring it back; I recall a structure, bathed in dream-light, and as I concentrate on this image, more details begin to emerge from the shadows of sleep. I take out my notebook and pen to record what I remember:
I am standing near a pagoda, surrounded by water. I am looking at my reflection, when suddenly another reflection merges with mine. I look up to see a young Chinese man, in some type of military or royal dress. He is standing behind me. My heart rises up in joy and yet I am also afraid. I can see that I am dressed in some type of elegant robe, with elaborate embroidery and color. The man does not speak and neither do I, but we seem to understand each other without words. Somehow, I know that he loves me, and I feel my love for him rise in return. We melt together in a swirl of energy that is unlike anything I have felt before. When we finally separate, we walk together to look into the water, and see a lotus flower that is vibrating and throwing off light. In the dream I know that this flower symbolizes pure love.
The dream is a shimmering little jewel, so vivid in color and feeling. I have had so many dreams about China since I agreed to come on this trip with Alex: dreams about babies, dreams that I am Chinese and that Alex is Chinese, and a dream in which Alex's husband is a Chinese soldier trying to warn me of some danger. There have been so many dreams, in fact, that I mentioned them to Alex, in mid-October, six weeks before we were to travel to China. I am thinking of telling her about this one, too, when I hear the captain announce that we are preparing to descend. Alex joins me in my row, and we begin to gather our belongings. She is still quiet and withdrawn, her face white and tired-looking. A tiny twinge of homesickness rises in me, and there are butterflies in my stomach. It already feels as if we've been gone for a lifetime.
This morning when we met at the airport, it was cold and dark, a crystal clear December morning; our husbands and Alex's son were there to see us off. Alex lingered with them while I stood off to the side with my luggage. This was a big moment for their family, a turning point, an ending and a beginning. No longer would it be just the three of them; a new baby would join them and change their lives. I could tell they were unsure about this, hesitant, not smiling, clinging to one another. I thought of the little face in the picture Alex had shown me a few weeks ago, a black-eyed girl with sparse hair and a determined look. The orphanage had sent the picture of the baby assigned to her, and when Alex showed it to me, I asked for a copy of the photo, and then pasted it onto the front cover of the journal I would be keeping for this trip.
Writing during my travels has become a habit for me. Somehow, a trip feels incomplete if I do not end it with a set of pages recorded during the journey. So much is lost, so much not even noticed, unless it is thought about, contemplated, and integrated during the writing process. There is a shelf of travel journals in my bookcase at home, evidence that I have been somewhere, and that I have returned with something that can never be taken away: an experience. This trip is so symbolic, and certain to be fraught with emotion...traveling to get a baby; I am sure there will be much to write about, and bought an extra-large notebook so I will be sure to have enough pages.
I like to look at the picture of the baby. Last night, when I showed it to my husband, he said, "She's the cutest thing I've ever seen! Why don't you bring one back for us, too?" He was obviously joking, but for some reason, I got angry.
"You can't just do that," I said. "You can't just bring back a baby." I wonder now if my anger was a telltale sign of a desire to do just that. I wonder if seeing these orphaned babies will make me want to have one too. Just yesterday, when I was having breakfast with a friend, we were talking about the trip and I said, "I'm really glad it's not me bringing home a baby!" And I am glad, for now, that it is not me.
I am still waiting for a burning desire for a child to come upon me, to feel that almost nonnegotiable need to have a baby that so many women experience. The longing for a child, to give birth, has never manifested for me in any significant way. In my early twenties I married a divorced man with three young children, and the role of stepparent has been difficult for me. And now, for the first time in fourteen years, my husband and I are poised at the beginning of something new: a life and marriage not dominated by children.
And though I have not arrived at any conclusions about having children of my own, I was excited for Alex when she first told me of her intention to adopt. She called me last summer, and after chatting about our lives for a few minutes, she paused and then said she had something to tell me. Her voice was serious, like she had bad news to impart, but instead, she said, "We've decided to adopt. We've already gone through the home study and are completing the paperwork. We'll probably have a child in a year or so, from China."
I was surprised, and told her so; she had never mentioned that she was thinking about adopting. "I've been thinking about it for a long time, and I decided if I don't do it soon, we'll be too old. We're already too old to adopt from South Korea, which was my first choice because they bring the babies to the U.S. and you don't have to travel to a foreign country."
She told me she had then selected China, because there were mostly girl babies available, and they were healthy. "I don't know why, but I keep seeing a little girl at the dinner table with us," she said. "A little girl...it has to be a girl."
"It's wonderful," I said then, and I am still happy for her, even though right now she doesn't seem very happy herself.
The day before we left, she called and told me that she had "freaked out" the night before. She had been preparing the nursery and suddenly was overcome with the need to run from the room, from the house, from her life.
"I've never felt that way before," she said. "Never felt that desperate."
"What do you think that was about?" I asked her, concerned. She told me it had taken several hours to calm herself down, and that she was sure it was just exhaustion, concern over the details of the trip and the adoption, and last-minute jitters. She hadn't been sleeping well, she said, and had a lot on her mind. "I'll be okay," she said. "I just need to get this trip behind me."
But the effects seem to be lingering. She is definitely not herself. Several times I have tried to engage her in conversation, to no avail. I brought a book for her called Baby Signs; a colleague of mine at the mental health agency where I used to work as a psychologist gave it to me, enthusiastic about the implications for parent-child interaction. I explained to Alex that experts now believe that babies can be taught to communicate fully using hand signals. The idea is that even infants have a sophisticated understanding of the world, that all that is lacking is the means to communicate.
"This might be good for you and your new baby because she won't understand English at first," I said. "It could help you to bond." She took the book and said, "Yes, that's interesting," and then tucked it away in a bag under her seat, not interested at all.
For a year and a half, Alex and her husband have been going through the arduous process of international adoption a marathon of paperwork, red tape, and delays. She had not spoken much about the adoption since she first told me about it, and when she called six months ago to ask if I would go with her to China, I was more than a little surprised.
"Would you consider going to China with me, to pick up the baby?" she asked. She was not yet matched with a child, she went on before I could answer, but she and her husband were making decisions about the trip and she needed a companion. They had decided that he would stay home to care for their eight-year-old son.
"We don't want to take him out of school for ten days; plus, it's too long of a trip for him," she said.
When she asked again, would I come with her to China, I heard myself saying yes before even thinking. It would be an exciting adventure, another country to add to my list of places in the world that I had seen with my own eyes, and a chance to see how this business of international adoption actually works.
Alex and I have known each other for years, and yet, I would not consider us close. We met as neighbors, and ours was a social friendship; we saw each other a few times a year, at dinner with our husbands or in groups with other friends. We bonded initially because of shared circumstances: when we met, we had both recently become stepparents, and we talked often about the difficulties inherent in that role. Neither one of us had other friends who were stepparents at the time, and we became a sort of touchstone for each other when either of us needed to discuss some aspect of family life. Our families celebrated birthdays and holidays together on occasion; but there is something about Alex, a reserve or detachment, that I have never felt I could breach. In some sense she has remained aloof and unknowable, an enigma, a mystery.
And then to ask me this, to go to China...After my initial positive reaction, I began to have reservations. This trip is so important; I asked Alex if there was a family member or a very close friend who could provide the kind of support necessary. What I meant, but didn't say, was "Why me?" Would our friendship withstand the intimacies of travel, not to mention an adoption? In some ways, I could rationalize this as a continuation of our support of each other around the issues of stepchildren, children, and family life. But in a deeper sense, I felt that this request pushed outside the bounds set for the relationship.
Alex explained that she had asked me to come because she needed an experienced traveler to go with her, someone who would not easily be thrown off stride. She had heard tales of my travels over the years, the places I had visited sometimes on a whim the long trips by myself to Europe and South America. This is what she explained, but I had the sense that, deep down, even she did not know why she had chosen me.
She had settled on my travel history as her reason, but what she did not know was that my trips were not travel for the sake of travel alone, but always a looking, a searching for something, some piece of myself. My life had been made up of attempts to bury an old self, a person who no longer existed, a person who perhaps never existed, a self patched together from borrowed ideas. My trips were a way to tunnel into the dark country inside myself, a place I could visit only when I was outside the geographic bounds of my day-to-day existence.
It dawned on me the day Alex called, a day after I returned from a trip that had exhausted me and left me depressed, that perhaps looking for a piece of myself in some far-off location might not make much sense. Was travel just an escape, a way of fooling myself into believing that my life was moving forward when in fact it was standing still?
A vague sense of emptiness, of something missing, of not being where I should be, had haunted me for a lifetime. I was ready to admit that travel had not cured me, that nothing had cured me. The day before Alex called, I had decided to stay put for a while, to try living inside the life I had created in my suburban house, with my husband, my dogs and my chronic discontent, the source of which I had yet to identify.
"It" eluded me, the "it" that would pull the world together and show that the world made eminent sense. I was looking for an answer, searching for a system, grasping at this and experimenting with that, but nothing coalesced, nothing calmed my spirit for long. As my discontent became more entrenched, as it became like a sort of grief, I began to panic...what was it, what was it, what was it? I did not know, and I began to think there might not be an answer, that maybe there were no answers at all. I had a growing sense that life was moving on and my dreams were dying. My life stretched out before me, a wasteland of time.
Copyright © 2004, 2007 by Beth Nonte Russell