By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser
The morning our family was to appear in court to finalize our daughter’s adoption, it turned strangely warm for December—wet, the air thick enough to be nearly visible and too soft for winter, the ground gone muddy. In the murk, trees appeared fuzzy.
This day was long in coming. Her biological father, whom we’d never met, objected to the notion of adoption, and although he didn’t take it so far as to petition for custody, he’d indicated he might at every deadline. Her biological mother, Caroline, had endured the worry over whether the adoption would materialize, too. We’d grown close over this time, waiting for this day but sunshine and blue sky it wasn’t. Opaque, it was.
Adoption had been my idea. Throughout the months of waiting, I worried about how I had been the one to put our family into such a precarious situation, and even after its resolution, I retained a lingering feeling of guilt.
The fog blurred sharp edges, and I was flooded with gratitude. I’d been waiting—wishing, wanting, praying even—for the adoption to be completed, and what I felt included the viscosity of all those clouds and the rain and the ground’s unexpected sponginess. I didn’t feel sunny.
The County Courthouse, a utilitarian and graceless building, lacked an actual entry hall. “Here for an adoption?” asked the guard, smiling as we handed over our bags before walking through the metal detector, outsized in the tight space just past the glass side entrance door. A sign was posted that warned people not to bring cameras or cell phones, but we could bring ours. The three kids wriggled out of wet jackets.
“Why can’t other people bring cameras?” my fifth grader asked. He, his younger brother and I got drenched when fog ceded to a downpour so heavy our umbrellas proved useless.
“Other kinds of court proceedings in this building might require privacy,” I replied. “Because adoption hearings are happy, people want to take pictures and the court agrees to that.”
On the second floor, a bright quilt hung on one wall, displays of children’s art and photographs of adopted children decorated others. Lawyers and clients conferred with forced civility and terse cheeriness about family dissolutions at small, round tables in the hallway. Our crew—two frazzled parents, three brothers and a baby sister stumbling from the stairwell, a chaotic tangle of coats, cameras, and baby gear—waltzed through with a simple task, to sign adoption papers.
The woman who gave birth to our baby girl wasn’t here. I felt Caroline’s presence—and her absence—keenly. During the seven months we’d been marooned in limbo, she’d had to preserve her legal rights, in case things veered away from adoption and toward a custody issue between the biological parents—and she needed to maintain close enough communication to prove her commitment to her daughter. While she—and we—wanted an open adoption, none of us envisioned those unknown months. Before and during that time, we’d discussed her decision so often, I knew that she believed her baby, our baby, to be in the right place, that difficult as the decision was, it hadn’t been made lightly.
I willed myself to stop thinking about her, and instead stared at my kids. Judge Rainauld walked into the room. A towering man in judge’s robes with thick brown hair, graying temples, a bushy mustache, and a twinkling smile, I could practically measure how far my children’s eyes widened.
“Why, hello!” His voice sounded as confident as he stood tall. “Ezekiel, Lucien, Remy, hello.” To Saskia he spoke more quietly. “You are a peanut!” From the documents in his possession, he knew of our labyrinthine legal journey. Aware that we might not have discussed them with the children, he simply said, “I’m very glad things have worked out.”
“We’re so relieved.” I teared up.
“Yes,” my husband agreed.
“Just last night, I got a call from my son, who is a high school basketball player,” Judge Rainauld bantered with easygoing warmth. “’Dad,’ my boy says, ‘Come pick me up. A really big player fell on me and broke my nose.’ To the ER we went for his broken nose.”
Lucien laughed. “That isn’t how you want to leave a basketball game.”
“No, it is not. Tell me about your baby sister.”
“We love her,” Ezekiel chimed in.
“What do you think of her?” the judge asked Remy.
“We play, and I give her bottles,” he answered, shyly, turning to Saskia, who obliged with a gigantic, gurgling grin that revealed one boxy pearl of a first tooth.
“She clearly loves you all,” Judge Rainauld declared. “You sign here.” Five of us signed, and he placed his signature on the form. “Everything is official now.” When the five of us cheered, Saskia began to clap and laugh, comfortable in the spotlight, comfortable with her family. Us. “Let’s get a picture,” the judge suggested. My husband Hosea held Saskia; Remy held onto one of Hosea’s hands. I wrapped my arms around Lucien and stood beside Ezekiel. Smiling for the camera, I doubted Hosea or myself had ever been more relieved in our entire lives.
Judge Rainauld shook our hands and patted Saskia’s hair. Then, we shuffled, coats and kids and bags and cameras, to drop our papers with a clerk. A few minutes later, we got the paper piles back, and a certificate, complete with the Polaroid of us in a plastic frame.
“Congratulations,” a clerk said. Everyone working at the courthouse seemed pleased for us. “A new birth certificate will be made and mailed to you.” She smiled once more.
Glimpsing the photograph in the clear frame before I put it into one of our many bags, I could almost imagine some superimposed shadowy image around the edges of our smiling faces of Saskia’s biological parents, although we’d never met the dad. We weren’t the whole story. Back down the stairs, we again fell into a jumble of coats and bags—along with new, important papers, framed certificate and photograph. A tiny knot tightened inside me. The part of formalizing the adoption was to reissue the birth certificate with only our names on it felt false. What if birth certificates reflected reality? I imagined three spaces, one for Caroline and two for us. The biological dad hadn’t been on the original.
It was barely past nine. The rain hadn’t slowed a bit. Rushing Saskia from the courthouse building to the dry car, I leaned over to buckle car seat straps and kissed her. She stared at me, her dark eyes seemed to drink me in. The hard rain seemed—cliché, sure—like big, fat, warm tears from above that tumbled down on my behalf while I held mine back. I felt as if I were the melted ice left in large puddles along the road. I’d forgotten the possibility that I might not feel frozen with dread. Her birth seemed like it happened one hundred years earlier. I was so exhausted.
Somewhat later, the rain became a fine mist. Everything remained opaque, though, almost dewy. I navigated huge puddles, heart racing as I nearly gulped the moist air and called Caroline to let her know the legal piece was complete.
“What a relief that’s taken care of and he can’t bother you anymore!” she exclaimed. I could hear the effort those words took.
“Thank you,” I replied.
“The dog’s been going nuts,” she said, and we chatted briefly.
For nine months, Caroline was Saskia’s mother, an irrevocable truth because growing a person can’t be undone. Where were more nuanced descriptions for our mothering, like the Eskimos with fifty words for snow?
No matter whether Saskia ever met Caroline again (she would), no matter that Saskia had as a loving mother to raise her (she did), she’d always have, by some definition, two mothers. This complexity bound me and Caroline together, too, which was why I felt conflicted about the birth certificate being reissued with our names alone. Caroline had put Saskia’s name, including her intended surname, on the original. There should have been a line to record all of this, but of course, that’s not how forms work.
She didn’t make her adoption decision based upon altruism, and yet in my entire life, I never had and never would again receive another gift so beautiful as her trust.
Sarah Buttenwieser is a writer whose work has appeared in Motherwell, Washington Post on Parenting, Paste Magazine and the New York Times, amongst others.
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