Following is the introduction too Susan’s upcoming memoir, Casting Lots: How Raising My Children Helped Me Find God.
The door opened before I knocked. Behind me children played in the yard, the tips of their shoes cut off to make room for their growing feet. Although it was a month past the Ethiopian winter, the rains hadn’t stopped. Rivulets flowed through the dirt courtyard, muddying the children’s socks and pant cuffs. Their laughing voices calling Missus, Missus, receded into the background as I peered into the room behind the rusty metal door of the orphanage. In moments, my son – the boy we had stared at in pictures for the past eight months – would be in my arms.
The woman who stood before me deftly held a baby clad in ruffled pink fleece in one arm. “Hallo,” she said, nodding politely.
“Hello,” I said, smiling back. “I’m Daniel’s mother.” I used the name the orphanage director had given him.
“I am Fitzum,” she said. “I take care of the children here.”
I immediately felt at ease in the hands of the friendly caregiver. She would lead me to my son, who we had named Adar.
A couple of beats later, we were still in the doorway, smiling awkwardly. I looked beyond her into the room full of cribs and babies, and a smattering of toddlers playing on the rug in the center of the room. Why was she still standing in the doorway, blocking my entrance? My searching eyes conveyed that I wanted to meet my son now. Finally I lifted my chin toward the room. I’ve been waiting months for this moment and my son is so close the magnetic force that reached across an ocean has a nearly irresistible pull now.I wanted to get by!
Fitsum raised the child in her arms toward me.
“This is Daniel,” she said, looking just this side of bemused.
But he’s wearing pink. And I want to do this over.
I took him into my arms and Fitsum led us into the large, open room. My sister Jody had come with me and the two of us glanced around the room. Other babies around Adar’s age stood at the ends of their cribs, which were arranged perpendicular to the wall, holding the rail and looking in our direction. Some reached out their arms to us. Is that baby looking at me like I’m her mother? Is that other one smiling meaningfully at me? Is that one cuter than Adar? Is that one smarter?
Adar smelled like sour milk. His skin was covered in red bumps. As a child, I would get anxious when I went to play at a friend’s house and it smelled different from mine. The same threatening rush of unfamiliarity came over me. But how could I feel alienated by my own child’s smell? Xenophobes —racists — talk about “others” in olfactory terms, and here I was already looking forward to transforming my own son with a warm, sudsy bath in the refuge of the hotel. There, in the opulence of the Addis Ababa Sheraton, orphans and poverty would, again, be relegated to the more comfortable realm of theory.
Adar or, perhaps, still Daniel, twisted his body away from me and reached for Fitzum. Her eyes, like his, were shiny black and watery.
Pointing at me but looking into his face, she said, “Mama, Mama,” as she slowly backed away. Adar cried. My heart was breaking with his heart. And with hers. “I had a baby boy at the same time Daniel was brought in,” Fitsum would later tell me. “He was my baby at night, but Daniel was my baby in the day.”
I motioned for her to take him back, but she turned away and left the room.
Jody stood beside me, patting Adar’s back. I steadied myself with a hand on hers. Thank God she came to Ethiopia with me.
“What if this isn’t Adar?” I whispered, even though I knew it was. I had carried his photos for eight months, since the day the agency sent them to us when he was a couple of months old. I could have described each picture from memory: the angle of his lips (a range from knowingly crooked smile to pursed to casual parted) the intensity of his eyes (“you may be taking the picture, but I am also looking at you”), the arch of his eyebrows (It’s cute that you’re jiggling those bells, but I’ll smile for you in any case).
“It’s him, Sooz. Don’t worry,” Jody said, amused.
“Make sure he’s a boy,” I demanded. “Because this baby is pretty like a girl.”
“Not,” I added for Jody’s continued amusement, as I looked into my son’s eyes, “That you can’t be pretty in pink, or wear dresses or be LGB or T or all of them if you want. I just want to make sure that right now you have a penis.”
“You’re first words to your son,” Jody said dreamily. “Should I write them in his baby book?”
We laid him down on the large braided rug in the center of the room. I tried to look nonchalant, and non-pedophile, as I pulled open the waistband of Adar’s fleecy pink pants and peeked in. I wanted to be overjoyed, full of love, completely surrendered to the covenantal moment when this beautiful child became mine. But instead there I was, 6000 miles from home, nervously checking for a penis.
Penis accounted for, I looked at Adar. His eyebrows arched and a little half smile emerged as we took each other in and I spoke my first baby-book worthy words to him. “You are mine forever.”
“You’re mine forever”, or, in its written form, ym4e, had been repeated often in our family for the past year, since the incident in which our daughter Hallel had balked, as only a three-year-old can, from parting with her best friend after a long day of playing together.
“I’m not leaving!” Clara yelled, matching Hallel’s passion, as her mother held out a small red wool coat with white faux-fur trim. Sitting on the floor, Hallel and Clara clutched each other with their arms and legs.
“Impressive,” my husband, Yosef, said with a smile, recalling his years as an activist resisting arrest. “If they hold their limbs inside the huddle they’ll confuse the police dogs.”
Clara’s mom was smarter than your average police dog. She extracted Clara as Yosef held our tenacious girl around the waist. Hallel’s face was smeared with tears and her feet were ready to sprint. Our daughter Aliza, two years older, was upset by her sister’s despair, and loosened Yosef’s grip one finger at a time, her lips stretched determinedly amidst her wide cheeks. Free, Hallel lunged for the door and yanked it open. In the short distance, beyond a few deep boot prints in the snow, Clara called over her mother’s shoulder, Bring me back! A whoosh of Boston’s December cold stopped Hallel just inside the threshold. Her black velvet dress shimmered in the wind, her thick red tights rippled around her knees, her pink-rimmed glasses were askew, and her blue eyes, the strabismus yet to be surgically adjusted, stared vehemently — at each other. “YOU. MINE. FO-EVA!” she wailed.
The phrase immediately became a talisman in our family, a way to declare our wishes to the universe. Forever was a big deal to me. No divorcing and no dying was my rule to Yosef who, under duress, would promise both. It was then, the winter of the talisman — when my biological daughters were three and five — that we began our, well, my, long-awaited adoption process. I had wanted to adopt since I was nine-years-old, when I first understood there were kids without parents in the world.
By that cold declarative night, I had been browsing literature, checking websites, and looking at photolistings of waiting children. It was like being pregnant while all the babies that could be conceived float around you. Which one will pop out at the end?
Mostly I perused the adoption magazines that I kept on the bedside table. The captions below the photographs read, We Help Make Families. He’s Waiting for You. Does She Have a Place in Your Heart? My usual stack of novels lay because I was taken in by the perversely addictive combination of pain and possibility advertised in orphans’ eyes.
“You mine fo-eva,” I whispered to a photograph of a Guatemalan girl, her hands folded on the school desk in front of her. “You mine fo-eva,” I said, pointing to a Russian toddler holding a ball in his hands.
“Look at these faces,” I said, interrupting Yosef’s bedtime reading. I held a magazine open to a picture of six wide-eyed Chinese toddlers in a row of high chairs. “I want them all to grow up knowing they’re adored.”
“They’re sweet,” Yosef admitted, “but the images stick in my mind. It’s upsetting, and it doesn’t really get us anywhere, Honey.”
I knew the pictures well. The faces appeared to me in the halls at Hallel’s day care and in shopping carts at the supermarket, the way you might think you see someone you know from afar hailing a taxi or in line at Starbucks.
Yosef was right. There were no answers for us in these magazines. They were destined for the recycle bin. I could fantasize about making a home for thousands of children or actually make a home for one.
“Okay, let’s look at the paperwork from the agency,” I said. This was the kind of practical and productive thing he did and it was time to take at least a small step forward.
I picked up the manila envelope we received from an adoption agency and Yosef put down his newspaper. I hadn’t opened it yet, hadn’t yet been willing to leave the fantasy and enter some ass-kicking reality: Once the forms were complete, our file would join hundreds of others on the desk of a bureaucratic matchmaker — a faraway woman at a desk, surrounded by stuffed manila folders or clear plastic sleeves in binders. Half the files would be filled with information on prospective parents like us. The other half with photographs, biographies and medical records of children. For Papa, make him a scholar! For Mama, make him rich as a king!
Maybe Xue the Matchmaker sits in an old Soviet-style office building in Beijing sipping bubble tea, and Sunita the Matchmaker drinks lassi in a Gothic structure in Mumbai, and Mio the Matchmaker sits in Hong Kong sipping yuanyang, and Yihune the Matchmaker savors muddy coffee in Addis Ababa, and Regina the Matchmaker tosses back a shot of Russian vodka.
And maybe Xue’s bubble tea spills on one of the two piles of forms and in cleaning up the spill she puts the top document on the window sill to dry, and staples the second document to the first document from the other pile, and instead of Mei Ling going to Esther Goldberg on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, she goes to Erin and John O’Malley in Boston.
And maybe that was meant to be.
I rifled through the forms. Three stapled sections were held together by a paperclip. The pages were photocopies, black type on white paper, the text askew. I paused at the page of medical conditions, like the health history form you complete at a first doctor visit. But instead of checking off the ailments you had, you checked off the ones you were willing to have — in a child:
Each mark – whether to indicate a “yes” or a “no” felt significant. Would a certain pattern of yes and no marks somehow lead to our child? How can I divine these markers on our path, like constellations in a desert sky? And who was I to have this kind of power? God lifted the veil of creation — just a little smidge at the corner, for half a second — and showed me a glimpse of its inner workings. “Now,” the still small voice said, “take a step toward your child.”
I reviewed the column of blue Xs I had drawn. I had responded honestly, as honestly as possible. This was a partnership between my Bic pen and the cosmos.
At biblical Mount Sinai, before the Israelites entered into a covenant with God, Moses said, “Oh! Let me behold Your presence!” And God said, “I will make My goodness pass before you … but you cannot see My face, for no one may see My face and live.” The 145 million orphans in the world were a devouring truth – like seeing God. I let their goodness pass before me and away from me.
I checked my last box.
“Is it all just random? Or can we find our child?” I asked Yosef.
“Remember when you were pregnant with Hallel, and Aliza was only a year old and you thought maybe it was too soon to have another child? And you said, ‘What if I’m pregnant with the wrong kid?’”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Well, you probably were,” he said with a smile. Hallel was a challenge. “But we wouldn’t have it any other way, would we?”
Yosef pulled me close and stroked my hair. I stared at our bedroom wallpaper with its dense, Monet-like dots of soft blues, purples and greens. The images shifted in my mind becoming water, sky, grass, treetops, flowers. In the biblical story of creation God separated the lower waters from the upper waters to form the seas below and the sky above. The seas, now earth-bound, reached upward and wept, grieving over the loss of the heavenly realm above. “Woe to us,” they cried, “for we were separated from our Creator!” A reunion would remain forever in the future, a tease in the far horizon. I knew that longing. I saw it in the faces of children separated from the mothers and fathers who created them, with no horizon in sight.
I knew I could not bring a child to that vanishing point he might long for, but I could walk toward it with him.
Parent(s): Susan Silverman and Yosef Abramowitz
Aliza, 21 is a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA; Hallel, 19, is a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces; Adar, 15, is a high school student; Zamir, 12, is in 6th grade and Ashira, 10, is in 5th grade.
Location: Jerusalem, Israel
Susan, a rabbi and activist and Yosef, a solar energy entrepreneur, met in college where they were both involved in the anti-apartheid movement. It took them seven years to finally get married, but once they did, they started their family immediately with the birth of two daughters within three years. As they say, “We produce girls and import boys.” Their sons are both from Ethiopia. Adar was adopted through African Cradle in Mountain View, California, and Zamir was adopted through Adoption Advocates International in Port Angeles, WA. Susan and Yosef highly recommend both.
“Adoption is a microcosm of God’s world,” Susan says. “It holds within it tragedy and joy, hope and futility –and, through it all, possibility.”
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