Gotcha Day Blues

A woman I barely knew once asked me if I really saw my two children the same way. (I adopted my son, and gave birth to my daughter.) I didn’t answer because what she was really asking was whether it was possible for me to love them equally. But were a friend to ask me this question, I would explain that mothering each of my children is as different a thing as a thing can be. And this doesn’t make me a bad mother because it isn’t at all about how I love them; instead, it is about the way who my children are shapes my respective relationships with them. No, I don’t see my children the same way.

I never saw my daughter being beaten with a bath towel, while tied to a crib by her wrists and ankles. I never had to kidnap her from an orphanage. I never had to fight with my whole being to get her to be mine in the eyes of the law and society. I never had to hold my daughter’s face, look in her eyes and swear that I would never leave her, as she cried, afraid that she would be taken away. I’ve never received so many invitations for play dates for my son as to have the luxury of choice. I never fed my son from my body, never saw him crawl, wasn’t there when he stood up, or when he took his first steps. I don’t know what his first word was, or when he spoke it. I don’t know on what day, or even in what year my son was really born.

On the morning of our sixth Gotcha Day, while Daniel is at camp, my daughter and I buy groceries, cook, bake, and make a trip to the party store. “Why aren’t there Gotcha Day balloons?” I wonder aloud, suddenly realizing that there is no readily available merchandise to celebrate adopted children. I settle on one that says, “It’s your day!” We scurry up and down aisles, making sure we have enough red to satisfy Daniel’s love of the color. As I change my mind for the fourth time about which combination of plates and napkins to buy, my three-year-old asks, “Mommy, why are we doing all these things today?” I’ve told her that we are expecting a few guests for dinner, and have mentioned that it’s Gotcha Day. I must be more meticulous today, more concerned that everything should be perfect. My daughter has sensed that something about this day leaves me breathless.

I take her off to the side and squat, so she can sit in my lap, like she does while we wait for the train. I tell her that we are getting ready to celebrate the day Daniel became my son. For the first time, I narrate the story to her, albeit fragmented for the sake of simplicity, of how I met her brother in Jamaica, and how he became my son. She asks, “But what about daddy?” I explain that I didn’t know her father then, and realize that I should have probably saved this conversation for a better time, so we could have planned what we would say, how we would explain this word adopted that she hears all the time, but couldn’t explain its meaning. It gnaws on me not to have mentioned the setting of the story more precisely than Jamaica, but I forgive myself, thinking this is one of many conversations we have had, and are yet to have, about how we became a family of four because of a chance meeting between a little boy and a lonely woman.

We had visited the orphanage on a family trip to Jamaica two years ago. We had told Imani that this was where Daniel had lived before he had met mommy. But two years ago for a toddler is too far in the past to have ever existed. Throughout her life, Imani has heard many references to her brother’s birth parents, our meeting in Jamaica, our days as a family of two, even to the fact that although I never carried her brother in my womb, I carried him in my heart. But it is in the corner of a party store that she begins to understand her brother’s story—because it affects her now; it is suddenly relevant. She frowns, pouts, and says, “But, mommy, why I only have a birthday party? Why I don’t have Gotcha Day like Daniel?” The Armenian in me wants to cluck my tongue, poke the air with an open palm and say, koranam yes, ay balah jan, heroo mna, may I go blind before such fate befalls you. But I say, “Well, everyone has her own story. We didn’t get you. We had you. So we don’t have Gotcha Day for you. But we have many other ways to celebrate you.” A few minutes later, she has forgotten it all, concerned solely with what exactly she needs to eat before she can have cobbler with ice cream, why it’s peach and berry, instead of apple, and where she should hide so she can scream, “Gotcha, Daniel!”

Of the many things that define her and shape her ways, my daughter’s ease is what has carried her through life so far. This isn’t to say that she can count on it as a given because it is guaranteed to continue to be a thing that defines her. But her journey so far has been paved with a remarkable ease—the way she came into this world, fiercely wanted, welcomed and embraced like she were rainfall in a desert; the way she blends into conversations and circles, but never lets go of who she is; the way she speaks and reads, as if she has been surrounded by words for far more years than she’s lived; the way she loves and allows herself to be loved; the way she accepts that she is beautiful, capable, and good; the way she responds to adversity and change with a woman’s calm and wisdom; the way she expects to be happy and peaceful, and knows that she is wanted everywhere she goes. May she always find this ease within, as the world begins to reveal itself as the unbearably difficult place that it is.

May my son know this ease for a moment in the life that lies ahead, and may his sister learn his compassion. Sometimes, I wonder whether to be as genuinely, deeply compassionate as Daniel, one must have walked in his shoes. In all my travels and encounters, I have never met a person with a more inherent sense of justice and compassion for all, especially weaker, beings. Whether he is helping out of trouble the classmate who had bullied him for months, spending hours reading and watching documentaries about mistreated animals, volunteering to tend to the younger children at camp who are crying for their parents, or telling me to sit down and rest while he makes an omelet and fruit salad for breakfast, my son connects with others most meaningfully when he recognizes that they are struggling. He knows how struggle feels from having suffered the way most people don’t, and so his empathy gushes forth from a copious source. For my daughter, as it has been for me, learning to be compassionate will be a task. Thankfully for us both, we have Daniel who embodies that to which we aspire.

My son’s resilience and ability to rise—despite the sneers, taunting, painful words and glances, the memories that might be hazy, but are always present, the years of deprivation—are heroic. He is a survivor of the truest kind because even as he discovers that challenges don’t dissipate, that they continue to arise at every turn, he takes them on, and keeps on rising. It is too soon to tell what my daughter’s academic journey might entail, but I never imagine it will be as arduous as her brother’s has been since he began to speak at five, and is now a fifth grader who reads and writes like a much younger child. They wonder about each other, each struggling to understand why the other interacts with the world so differently. We try to bridge their worlds in every way we can, at the same time respecting their need that we nurture their unambiguous selves. As mothers do, I serve my children’s needs as they arise, changing and growing with them in ways that had never occurred necessary or even possible to me before I had become a mother. Equally surprising at times are the ways my children and I connect, the emotions, items and words that are present in each relationship.

Two days ago, I return from six hours of traveling to three schools in different parts of the City, begging admissions officers to accept my son. (The maddening process whereby we are trying to procure a seat in an appropriate classroom for our son, who has struggled in three public schools over the last six years, is for another time.) I had been drenched first by a sudden rain, then by the scorching sun, and was so uncomfortable after six train rides that I had run into the first clothing store I’d seen to buy a summer dress and flip-flops. When I get home, it doesn’t matter that I am hungry and have missed my children and husband. I collapse, my body heavy and aching. When I can’t open my eyes long enough to say goodnight to the children, I know it’s coming, and because it is summer and I am alone with them, I know that even if it does come, it can’t take over me. So I wake up before my mother and husband are up to get ready for work and head to the train station. I buy tickets, so that I will have to keep the promise I’ve made to my fighting self that I will not be broken and bed-ridden, not now, not this time.

When only the three of us are left, the children are loud and excited, eager to know what entertainment I will be providing on this summer day. Imani is easily convinced to retreat to her bed with a few books while I concoct a breakfast, but Daniel is jumpy, tickling me, even as I pull away, asking me to please tell him what I have planned. The armor I have on isn’t thick at all, so before I break down into either rage or tears, I ask my son to sit down,  hold his hand, and ask him to look at me. He does for a second, then looks away, albeit still present. I ask him to please try to keep his eyes on me while I am speaking to him; he tries. I remind him of the last few times I was bed-ridden. I tell him that another depression is coming on, and that I want to fight it, that I don’t want it to win. He nods, now looking at me with no effort at all, and says it’s okay if I need to rest; he’ll take care of me. I smile and kiss him, and tell him that being loved helps a great deal, and that even though it is very difficult for me to ask, especially since he is my child, I would appreciate his help. He says, “Okay, mama jan, I’m gonna calm down, okay? You just sit there and relax, okay? I’ll make breakfast for you and Imani. You just relax, okay? Don’t do anything.”

Before we begin to eat, Daniel asks that we say grace, one of very few habits he has retained from his life in the orphanage. He puts his hands together, closes his eyes and says, “Thank you for my mother to be brave enough to talk to me today. Thank you for this beautiful family. Thank you for all the people who support me to get into a good school. Thank you for my funny sister; she’s so adorable, most of the time. Thank you for this yummy food. And God bless America. Okay, Imani, now it’s your turn. Say grace.” Imani closes her eyes, puts her hands together, smiles, says, “Grace,” and begins to eat. “See? I told you!” Daniel laughs. “She’s so funny and adorable.” “Thank you, Daniel,” she says, and tells him that the omelet is fantacular.

All throughout the day, on our first Long Island Railroad train ride for our first day at Long Beach, and again as I tuck him in at night, my son asks if I feel okay. I wonder if he came into my life, so I would know what it is like to be loved just as I am.

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