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Love You MoreTHE DIVINE SURPRISE OF ADOPTING MY DAUGHTER
By Jennifer Grant
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Jennifer Grant
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMowing the Lawn in the Dark
My husband and I were in the weeds.
With three children born within three and a half years, we were in constant motion, changing diapers, filling sippy cups, and snapping and unsnapping the shallow little snaps on baby clothes. There was Play-Doh in the cracks between the floorboards, and the sand from the turtle sandbox out back was slowly finding its way into the house, sockful by tiny sockful. We could not remember what it felt like to sleep late or to spend a whole Saturday morning drinking coffee and reading the paper.
Our transition from young marrieds living in New York City to new parents living in a ranch house in the suburbs of Chicago had been abrupt. After graduate school, we had moved to New York so that my husband could pursue a career as a stage actor. His master's degree, from a highly respected program, was in acting performance. In New York, he did occasional voiceovers and performed in plays, staged readings, and backers' auditions.
When David wasn't acting, he worked part-time as a tutor, taking the subway to places as far-flung as Coney Island and the Bronx. His preferred place to meet with students was at the World Trade Center's Winter Garden. A few years later, he could barely make himself look at images of the garden, buried in debris. It had been his escape in a difficult time of life, a period in which he disappointed and second-guessed himself. When he wasn't working, he was sitting on the end of our bed, staring at the wall, waiting for his agent to call. For the first time in his life, he knew what it meant to be depressed.
Meanwhile, I had a job I loved in New York. I worked for a nonprofit organization in Manhattan dedicated to improving the health of people in the world's poorest places. My job provided me with a regular paycheck, an education about global issues, and an opportunity to meet like-minded friends. It also required me to travel. Travel is my secret passion, the only luxury I long for, an itch in my soul that begs to be scratched.
David and I lived on Sterling Place in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. "Off Flatbush, between Vanderbilt and Underhill." I gave those shorthand directions countless times to cab drivers and friends. "Prospect Heights." Even typing the name of the neighborhood makes me smile. As young, married twenty-somethings, fresh out of graduate school and renting an apartment in a grand old brownstone, my husband and I were ready to lay hold of bright futures. There we were in the aptly named neighborhood.
Were we indeed at the height of our prospects?
At the time, I did not attach any special meaning to the name. I only knew that in Brooklyn, Park Slope next door was the trendy neighborhood du jour with its historic homes, natural foods stores, top-rated restaurants, and of course, massive Prospect Park. The park was created by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the men who designed Central Park in Manhattan.
I preferred the less flashy Prospect Heights to Park Slope. I liked that many of the families who lived on our block were rooted; they were there to stay. The neighborhood was diverse, middle class, and real. I felt more at home in New York than anywhere I have lived, before or since. Down the street, a few blocks east of where we lived, is Tom's Restaurant. The first time we were invited to breakfast there with friends, I realized I was about to visit an institution, a real Brooklyn gem. "They give you coffee and cookies and oranges when you're waiting on line," our friend said. "Gus, the owner, he's a mensch."
Tom's opened in 1936, and its décor goes back decades. There are bouquets of plastic flowers in cheap vases and kitschy paintings and strands of white lights on the wall. Signs drawn on neon poster board cutouts advertise specialties like the Cherry-Lime Ricky, egg creams, and pancake specials. "Breakfast Served All Day," they promise. There are framed family photos at the register. The wait-staff is actually friendly. Walking down the street and eating at Tom's gave me a satisfying peek into what living in the 1950s might have been like, at breakfast anyway. Tom's stirred up a longing in me for a simpler time, much the way watching an old musical does. I realize that if you were, say, the Rosenbergs, Arthur Miller, or Rosa Parks you probably would not wax eloquent about what a lovely and simple time it was in America in the 1950s. But Tom's made me feel nostalgic for artifacts of that time. Lime Rickys. A soda fountain. Courteous waiters politely chatting with you.
After a breakfast of scrambled eggs, pancakes, grits, and too much coffee, my husband and I would walk over to the farmers' market at nearby Grand Army Plaza. We lingered over fiddlehead ferns, local honey, and Ginger Gold apples. I bought milk in thick, glass bottles and returned home feeling very pleased with life's simple pleasures. A brown paper sack of mushrooms. A loaf of fresh bread. A bunch of muddy beets.
I remember one day after breakfast at Tom's, my husband and I sat out in the garden behind our apartment on a quilt, reading the newspaper. Our dog sniffed around the edges of the yard. The sky was a clear blue, and I watched butterflies landing on the deep green leaves of the wisteria that braided itself through the old wooden fence. Then, in a sudden, unexpected moment, a thought knocked into me like a blow to the chest.
"I miss our children," I said aloud. "I'm homesick for them. I wish they were here with us, out here today."
I don't remember David's response, but he probably laughed and made a crotchety comment about how having a dog was hassle enough. He wanted children someday, but not yet. He certainly did not miss them in advance of their arrival. I'd ache for my—yet unknown—children again and again over the next few years, the feeling coming over me as unexpectedly and violently as it did the first time.
When I thought about being a mother, I wondered whether we would be able to conceive. Getting pregnant was no longer a given for many couples; infertility seemed to be on the rise. If we did have children, how many would we have? What would they be like? Look like? I looked at my husband's fair hair, his blue eyes and strong features, and wondered if our children would be blond. Or would they have hair as dark and unruly as my own? That day in our backyard, I pictured two small children quietly lying between us on the quilt. Maybe one would be gazing up at the sky while the other raked little fingers through the grass. Whenever the thought of their absence hit me, I felt a gnawing pain in my chest.
I was not, however, eager to leave our life in New York, despite these occasional maternal attacks and my husband's growing dissatisfaction with the city. My life felt like an adventure. I began working on a project in Southeast Asia and flew from New York to Bangkok to work in my organization's Thailand office.
I made trips to Vietnam, first to Hanoi and then to project sites around the country. On one trip, I arrived in the city of Hue (pronounced something like "h'way"), in central Vietnam, without a driver or translator. The challenge of finding transport into the city from the airport thrilled me. I opted for a ride from two young men who, grinning, pointed at their ancient black Soviet Lada and opened the back door for me. The floor of the car had rusted through, so I sat cross-legged on the seat, clutching my briefcase in my lap, and let the lush scenery sweep by on the short ride: The beauty of the rice paddies, dotted with women bent over the fields wearing their conical hats. The water buffalo, somber-faced and massive, standing as though they were waiting to be told what to do next. People, laden with overflowing baskets of rice and sweet potatoes, walking along the side of the road toward the market.
I fell in love with Hue. Wandering around the Forbidden City was like waking up in the film The Last Emperor. It was magical to be in a place where cultures and histories overlapped. Some of the huge urns and statues of dragons had been marred with bullet holes, wounds sustained during the Tet Offensive when Vietnam and the United States were at war. I also couldn't spend enough time at the royal tombs in Hue, their courtyards populated by neat rows of stone elephants, horses, and warriors. My favorite was the tomb of Tu Duc and the stunning gardens that surround it. In some of the bookstalls and souvenir shops, cassette tapes of traditional Vietnamese music played. Buddhist monks, dressed in saffron-colored robes, chanted. Everything was strange and captivating to me, and I had the electrifying insight that I was, truly, on the other side of the world.
I also loved Hanoi—its energy; the narrow, winding side streets; and the vendors on the sidewalks, crouching beside huge stacks of plastic chairs or pyramids constructed of fresh oranges. The streets were jammed with scooters, bikes, and cyclos. On one trip to Vietnam, I wondered whether there was a spiritual reason for these journeys. I felt a connection to the place. Why did it feel so deep? Was I meant to live here someday? Might we adopt a child from Vietnam in the future? I witnessed the poverty, I heard stories about crowded orphanages, and I had grown to love the good humor and gracious spirit of the people.
* * *
Back in New York, there was an on-site day care down the hall from my cubicle. I watched parents stop in multiple times a day to visit their kids. Mothers nursed their infants. Fathers slipped in to hug their children on their way to the conference room. Although I had always imagined I would be an at-home mother, I realized there were more good ways than one to raise kids. I could keep my job and be close to my baby all day when the time came.
Then, as will happen in life, everything changed.
David no longer wanted to wait out the slow momentum his career was gathering. He tired of doing what he darkly called "friends' theater," or collaborating with friends on everything from writing a script to constructing the set to printing the programs and then performing the show for an audience composed of ... friends. Although not many of his jobs fell into the category of "friends' theater," he had tired of living as an actor in New York. Work was coming too slowly and in fragments. David wanted what he called "a real job." He had become uncomfortably aware that he was almost thirty and that he not only wanted to have kids but he wanted to be able to provide a comfortable, stable home for them. He started to have panic attacks.
"It's a man thing," I said when friends expressed bewilderment about his sudden career change.
In a moment of decisiveness, we decided to return to Illinois, several years after leaving it. We moved back to the town where we both had grown up, close to where much of our family lives. David got a job in software. We bought a house and outfitted the garage with snow shovels, a lawnmower, and two cars. Within weeks, I learned that I was pregnant. Suddenly, my husband was the one with the full-time job. I spent my days padding around the house in my socks, doing laundry, paging through cookbooks, and reading volume after volume of pregnancy and parenting books. As our baby grew inside me, I pined for New York. I missed my friends. I missed my job. I missed real bagels, restaurants that stayed open past nine, and the noise and color of neighborhood festivals and street fairs. I missed walking to church on Sunday mornings over uneven slate sidewalks and missed our old parish's West Indian congregation. I missed taking a taxi to the airport and making the long journey to the other side of the world to stop in on Emperor Tu Duc or eat soft-shelled crabs in a shack on the South China Sea.
I even missed the car alarms that woke me many times on Sterling Place. Sometimes I would walk around my quiet house, singing out the long symphony of buzzers and tones that used to irritate me.
At night in the new house, listening out my open window, all I could hear were crickets.
The conversations my husband and I had begun to engage in had plummeted from heady discussions about Waiting for Godot ("Why do you think only Vladimir remembers things from one day to the next?") to the banal ("Should we go with the PPO, EPO, or HMO this year?"). I'd gone from a life where I might find myself drinking a bowl of chocolate and nonchalantly glancing at Uma Thurman sitting a few tables over in a Greenwich Village coffee shop to standing in a long line to apply for membership at Costco. As tender as were my feelings toward my babies, I started to feel that I was changing into a lackluster suburban mom with a long to-do list and dark circles under her eyes.
It wasn't that I didn't connect with motherhood. I had always wanted to be a mother. I remembered the yearning I'd had, back in Brooklyn, for those children who were to come. I loved so much about the first years of my children's lives. Reading books. Letting them make detours on our walks so that they could break off a flower from a lilac bush or stop and watch a train go by. "You've got to be a parent someday. If for no other reason, it's worth it for the bugs," I said to a young friend recently. Crouching on the sidewalk with your toddler to watch regiments of ants marching single file, transporting their obscenely outsized cargo. Learning about praying mantises, marveling at the aquarium of walking sticks at a nature center, counting the legs of a spider. I drank it all in.
But I wondered whether I would like the person I was turning out to be. What was happening to my brain?
After watching the movie for about the tenth time with my son, I found myself obsessing over Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (or "Chee Chee Bon Bon," as he called it). What could it mean? I'd wonder as he danced around the room singing about Truly Scrumptious. Truly Scrumptious? Who has a name like that? What would my critical theory professor from graduate school make of it? I mused over the sexual politics of the song "You're My Little Chu-chi Face." I sardonically wondered whether Truly indeed was just a doll on a music box. Why wasn't anyone writing academic papers about this film? I would do it myself, I thought, if I weren't so busy winding up the baby swing and raking through the LEGO bin trying to find Darth Vader's light saber or that red headlight my son was missing.
Who was I becoming? My friend Caryn Rivadeneira has written about the complicated feelings women have about motherhood. Like me, she is in love with her children and is truly grateful to be a mother. Rivadeneira admits, however, to experiencing some quite tangled feelings about the child-rearing years.
"When being a mom looms so large that it obscures everything else God has made me to be, I sort of hate it," she has written. "Other people are not seeing the real me. Instead they see 'career mom' or 'preschool mom' or 'smiling-and-waiting-for-the-bus mom.'"
I felt a growing distance from the "real" me. Now it was the "at-home-mom" me—not my husband—sitting at the end of the bed sometimes, wondering who I was, fearing that all of the layers, all of the complexity, all of the amazing life experiences I'd had in the past decade were being efficiently wiped up and folded into a paper towel, like somebody's spilled milk. Would I find myself, a few years down the line, chattering incessantly about my new granite countertops or griping about the lawn service? Would I be a woman who spends her days fretting over whether her son is popular or her daughter is the captain of the dance team? Was it inevitable?
Bruce Cockburn's song from the early 1980s, "The Trouble with Normal," played in my mind when I found myself regarding the suburban landscape and noticing things such as my neighbor's improved driveway and suddenly wondering whether we should get ours repaved too. What about those sprawling yew bushes out in front of our house? Everyone seemed to be ripping them out and putting in tidy boxwoods. Should we do that too? And was I handicapping my three-year-old son by not finding him a private batting coach or enrolling him in French lessons?
Excerpted from Love You More by Jennifer Grant Copyright © 2011 by Jennifer Grant. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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