Chris and I spent a surreal Saturday with Connor, doing mundane things--park, playground, mini-golf, McDonald's, ice cream--yet it was the most important day of our lives. We took him back to the hotel room and took a nap, arms and legs entwined. We didn't say anything more about becoming Connor's parents, but all three of us seemed to feel the same soul-deep comfort you get only when you're with family. It felt like falling in love.
We went to a barbecue joint for dinner, and the three of us danced to our table, hand in hand, twirling to the country music.
The next day, we went to his family's house to say goodbye and got the first indication of what his life was like. I'd been helping him with his diapers during our day together but let his mom run the show when we were in her home. He told us he had to go to the bathroom, then walked down the hall, opened a closet to pull out a diaper, and disappeared. Five minutes passed. Ten. Twenty.
"Sometimes he falls asleep in there," his mother said. I went to say goodbye to him and found Connor sitting on the toilet, looking at me with terror. The floor, the toilet, his arms and legs were a mess. He'd been too scared to call for help. When I came in, he jumped down and started to rub at the floor with a fistful of toilet paper.
"No, honey, no," I said, "let's clean you up first--you are what's important." When Chris appeared in the doorway, I whispered: "We have to get this boy out of here. Now."
Before we left for home, Evelyn asked us how quickly we could come back. She said, "It seems like you were meant to be his mommy and daddy."
We tackled the home study (paperwork and interviews to evaluate potential parents), this time with ferocity. We had the agency expedite the approval process. Thirty days later, we flew again to Texas. We took Connor to the courthouse and were still worried that something was wrong with our paperwork, that we'd have to bring this three-year-old back to his "real" family and come up with some way to break the news that we couldn't be his family.
To ease our anxiety, we tried to get him to laugh with a silly song I made up: "Judges like bananas--ppffffttthh," with a group raspberry at the end.
But the judge was wonderful, inviting Connor to sit in his lap while he signed the papers. He let Connor swipe the Matchbox car off his desk and had us come up to take a photo. One of the joys of an older-child adoption is that Connor actually remembers the moment he was adopted.
There are a million kids' books about mommies giving birth but few about adoption and nothing about older-child adoption. So we made up our own story:
"We looked all over for you--under the bed, in the closet, in the bathtub--but we couldn't find our son. We looked in the sink, in the back yard, but we still couldn't find you. Then one day your birth mother called us. She said, 'I have a really funny, really sweet little boy who needs a new family. Would you like to meet him?' And we said, 'Heck, yeah.' The second we saw you, we knew you were our son. Then we saw the judge, and he made us a family. And now," we say with a smile, "you're stuck with us."
Connor giggles as he delivers the story's kicker: "You picked me, and I picked you!"
On the flight home, Connor was scared of loud noises and grabbed my hand so hard it ached days later. The plane's bathroom was right over the engines and louder than you'd realize unless you had a sound-spooked kid. It took both Chris and me to get him near it, and when we finally got there he braced his arms against the door to avoid going in. Neither of us could fit in with him, so we kept the door open and stood outside. A flight attendant threatened to call security. "You can't stay in the aisle," she said. "Go into the bathroom and close the door, or go back to your seat." There was no way I could explain our situation. I stalled while Chris tried to clean up our terrified, shrieking child.
Once home in Accokeek, Connor fought everything. If we said walk left, he walked right--and punched us. If we said, "Let's read a book," he threw it at us. (I got more than one black eye and soon stopped buying hardcover books.) Getting his diapers on could be a two-hour battle. He kicked our old dogs rather than walking around them.
He couldn't sleep unless one of us was in bed with him, and he slept violently, throwing his elbows. Other parents told us to let him cry it out and learn to comfort himself. After two months, he was still screaming all night. We went one month, two, then three with no sleep. If he was in his bed, he was screaming. If we caved and let him sleep in ours, he was bashing us with his fists because of bad dreams.
Children adopted as infants typically don't have to think about their adoption until they're old enough to handle it, with their parents gradually helping them make sense of the emotions. For kids like Connor who are aware of what has happened, not a day goes by without some reminder of their old life.
Once, he picked up a wooden hanger in my closet and said, "My birth mom used to hit me with one of these." (I realize kids don't always mean what they say. I have no way of knowing whether he was actually abused and probably never will.) Another time, we were laughing at something together when Connor suddenly yelled, "Quit it, bastard child!"
So I clung to what had worked that very first day: I sang. This is no small thing. As a teen, I was named worst singer at summer camp. Friends never invite me to karaoke. But singing brought Connor and me together.
I made up songs about how much I loved him, about clouds, about spiders. I discovered he adored rock music, the heavier the better. I played him Queen, Led Zeppelin, Guns N' Roses, Pink. He learned the lyrics, and we sang at the top of our lungs on car rides. I threw family dance parties as I made dinner--we shook our butts in a circle in the kitchen, and I flipped the lights for some strobe action.
Gradually, Connor learned that Chris and I weren't about to disappear if he closed his eyes. He stopped calling himself a bastard child. He evolved from pleading "Will you please keep me safe?" to saying "Thank you for keeping me safe." He sings to himself: "I have a new mommmmy. I'm great here with my new mommmmy." In the bath one day, his tyrannosaurus told his shark: "It's okay. You're safe now--you're adopted."
People ask us if Connor misses his birth mom. That's one part of this story I still don't quite understand. How could he not miss her? Yet he's only once said he did.
It was the night our flight landed at BWI airport. He'd been brave all day, but as we drove home around midnight, he curled into a fetal position and started yowling, "I miss my mommy! I want to go home!"
Chris white-knuckled the steering wheel. This tiny stranger's screams made us feel as though we'd abducted him. I crawled into the back and folded Connor in my arms, murmuring how much we loved him, that everything was okay. Later, Chris told me, "I have no idea how you were able to do that. I could never have done it." Connor never again said he misses his birth mother but did, once, say he loves her.
He does miss his older half sister. There's also an infant girl he never mentions. (All three have different fathers.) He and his older sister talk by phone or Skype every few months, but we've found it tough to connect with her on a regular basis.
He has never said he misses Tom, his birth mother's husband. It's clear Connor has a lot of anger toward him. "I'm going to go back and wipe that sneer off his face," he tells us. "I'm just going to punch him and show him what it feels like."
We may never know the full story, but we get clues about Tom in flashes. Recently, Connor was happily splashing in the pool and then dove under water. When he surfaced, he yelled, "F--- you!" When Chris asked about it, our son answered, "Tom used to say that to me."
Next: "I grew a tough skin and learned I could never give this boy too much affection and attention."