I didn’t really think it would go like that. I had read things, envisioned things. I thought I would feel relieved, or at least find some sort of comfort in knowing that a decision had been made.
Certainly I had known in the moment. Those were such joyful days; those were days full of the mystery of unknown destiny, where you are sure that your dreams will one day be fulfilled, and that the things you hope for and imagine will actually be part of a far-off reality.
In many ways, those wishes and dreams have come true.
There was never a day that I looked to the future and did not see myself as a mom. Perhaps that is why I embraced her so fully, and why she became part of my every breath. She was my little girl, and she was perfect from head to toe. She often wore a little Brownie uniform; there could have been no better suited outfit for this precious sprite. We had been matched by a service agency; I, as a college student, was to be her “big sister,” to spend some time with her on a weekly basis. Our hours together would have been constant if schedules had permitted; I filled my soul with the levity of her laughter amid my anatomy and physiology textbooks and late night beer nugget deliveries. I took her to class with me, read books to her on the stones behind the back entrance to my apartment, took her thrift shopping at every chance, trimmed her soft brown hair, and even took her with me to the 10,000 Maniacs concert in the city. I knew that I had been matched with the ultimate gift in this little person. During those years of finding my way to adulthood, this perpetually smiling child was my grounding force. I loved her thirty-some years ago, as still I do today.
I remember telling her that if anything ever happened to her mom, she could stay with me. She didn’t have much of a reaction to my statement. We had been driving in the car, and we probably just turned the music louder and went on to talk about chocolate chip cookies or dandelions or something.
Now, I understand why she couldn’t begin to process my offer. She already had a mom, and it wasn’t me.
I had known, but I had forgotten. All those years ago. I didn’t remember. We had a birthday party for my little sister. The guests, a mix of student friends of mine, a few family members, and several of her friends, climbed the stairs and walked through the musty hallway to apartment # 2, to be greeted by what must have seemed a pink and white wonderland: a cake with kitten decorations, streamers, party hats, a sparkly piniata, and a pile of neatly wrapped presents, all in celebration of this tiny girl, my girl.
But she really wasn’t my girl.
It would be easy to take the elevator. I always think this to myself as I begin to climb the marble-looking steps at the county court house. I do like the scenic route, though, wherever I go. I am also afraid of whom I may meet in the elevator. That could be a very long ten seconds. My heart is always racing by the time I reach the benches outside the juvenile court room. Perhaps I am winded from climbing the stairs, but my nerves have certainly come to the surface, raw and vulnerable in anticipation of what is to come. Sometimes, it’s a continuance. Other times, it’s merely to set a date. On occasion, it is a status change. Rarely, it seems, is it a major decision in the case.
She wouldn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, look at me. Though I had found myself in this very spot many times before, this time everything was different. My seasoned veteran of a caseworker stood at my side, close enough that I could feel the energy that she had poured into this situation and some of which had been stolen from her very soul. Often, you see, and in this case above others, it is far more than a job, and a thankless one, at that. She is so very good at her life’s calling.
I had envisioned, if this moment ever was to come, approaching the judge side-by-side with the woman that had birthed my child, holding her hand for support as she stepped up in her bravest of moments. I had imagined us being strong together, but instead, I wasn’t even there.
She didn’t want the photos. I debated about bringing them, wondering if it would stir something that was not ready to be exposed. No regrets, just a gift that could not be given. At least, not now.
I didn’t know it was her that had been there, at that birthday party, all those long years ago. I didn’t remember that my little girl had invited her to play at my college apartment. And I was looking for something else in my photo boxes when I was reminded of the birthday party. My smiling, elfish girl, surrounded on her happy day by a mixture of good-sport college kids in birthday hats and third grade classmates, eagerly anticipating a turn to swing at the piniata, stood alongside a young friend who bears, in this photo, an amazing resemblance to my young son. It took my breath away, because I knew. I knew we had been connected at a deeper level, at a simpler time, and I was keenly aware that through the pain and grief, this was a sort of destiny.
This girl, this friend to my little sister so many years ago, stood strong, if not disconnected, through the confusion, indecision, and evasion of the present moment. She was clear in her intentions, though, as she faced the judge that day, as she surrendered her rights to this child’s first birthday party, to his kindergarten send off, to his Mother’s Day gifts, to his little league games…to his entire childhood. Perhaps in many ways, she is still her eight-year-old self. Though she could not let me show her on that day in the courtroom, I am so grateful to her, for the gift that I never expected to get. And it wasn’t my birthday. My girl, my little sister, had a hand in this gift, too, in the form of certainty, in the form of punctuating my need to know that this is how the stars were supposed to align.
She will be at each and every birthday party. We will not see her, except through the eyes and smile of a small boy, but we will remember this time. We will remember that she is his first mother, and that she will always be important to him, and to us; she will always be the reason for his existence. For that, and for everything, I am grateful.
I know we are the lucky ones on this journey, to have the privilege to care for and nurture these children who indeed remind us to cherish what we have, and to live each day in reverence to something much greater than we ever will be.