By Susan Miller
Her name is Arabella, but we call her Bell. Sometimes Bell Pepper. That makes me laugh. Her name suits her—this little one, barely more than a year. Bell has two dimples that grow into canyons when she giggles, and big blue eyes command you, “Play with me.”
Bell is a joyful child; music with more than a bit of spice.
Bell is my…no, I can’t say my. She isn’t my anything. But she is something to me. I just haven’t figured out quite what that is. I’ve held Bell on my lap, rocked her, read her books kissed her belly button, made silly faces, groaned at her 4:00am wakeup calls, and sung Itsy-Bitsy Spider until my mouth was dry. I remember Bell’s big, loud crocodile tears when she pushed away both me, and her bottle, telling me in no uncertain terms, “Back off lady. I’m not the least bit hungry.” But then, not moments later, she grabbed that bottle back, and drained it quickly. She sucked away so hard it seemed like her very life depended on it. The entire time she gave me a tiny baby stink eye as if I had been the mean one starving her.
I used to do all these sweet, crazy-making things with my granddaughter, Allison, who is six months older than Bell. But Bell is not my granddaughter.
Bell is a foster child. She was temporarily placed with my daughter and her wife when she was two months old. A phone call came to their home from child services at 2:00pm. They were told only that this placement might last the year. Bell landed on their doorstep at 4:00 pm—clean, cared for, but without so much as a last name or a can of baby formula.
Bell arrived faster than my food order on Instacart—so fast it made my head spin—so fast I can’t even imagine what this loss of everything dear and familiar to this little one did to her tiny nervous system. She arrived on a Friday. It took four days for the office in charge of foster placements to make contact. I have more information about a mattress I am ordering online, than my kids had about this fragile human being.
Bell’s first birthday is coming up. I find the perfect card-a pop-up decorated with unicorns, rainbows, and lots of purple. The card lights up and plays an upbeat Disney tune when you push a button. “So Bell,” I think. She will love it. No toys or books, but I’ll write a check. My kids are starting a fund that will be available to Bell when she turns eighteen.
It’s been ten months since that first phone call. This Bell Pepper is everything anyone would want a one-year-old to be. Her personality hugs my heart. She does the baby bye-bye fingers waving at her own face. Runs full speed ahead without regard for limb, body, anything, or anyone in her path. And says “Hi” with a grin so wide you can see each of her tiny teeth. She and Allison share a bedroom and have become a playgroup of two besties. Bell now visits her mom on the weekend and lives with my kids the rest of the time. She appears to be thriving.
Her birthday card sits unsigned on my desk for days. The purple unicorn stares up at me with accusing eyes. I push it away. My throat tightens when I walk past and read its upbeat Disneyized message, ‘May your birthdays be filled with sparkles rainbows and birthday magic!’ I want to scream at that sappy unicorn, “Magic isn’t real, and neither are you. This little girl will need far more than sparkles and magic to navigate the difficult world where she will soon find herself full time.
I run out of excuses. I run out of time. Bell’s birthday is only a few days away. All I need to do is pick up a pen and sign. I write “Love and Hugs” on the rainbow. What comes after that? Who am I to this little girl, and who is she to me? I think about Bell’s future with a single mom, alone, dealing with debilitating mental illness. Bell will need many things that I will not be able to provide, but I can love her to pieces, and be her grandma at least for now.
I sign the card Mammie…that’s what all my grandkids call me.
Susan Miller is a retired speech pathologist who now joyfully spends her time writing, hiking, traveling and, most delicious of all, with grandkids. She writes personal essays, children’s stories and has recently discovered the beauty of poetry. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, and all the birds who visit her backyard daily.
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