Mrs. P, a real estate mogul who owned impressive property on the affluent outskirts of Montego Bay, had offered to take me in when a woman I had met at the orphanage had informed her I needed a place to stay with the boy whom I was trying to adopt. Mrs. P hadn’t needed to hear anything more. She had herself been adopted, which she shared with me during our first brief meeting, when she welcomed me into the basement of her home late at night. She told me there is no service to God greater than adopting a child, and that I would receive bountiful blessings for this act of unconditional love.

“Look at me, “ she would say, standing on the balcony of her villa, gardens, hills and the sea at her feet. “All of this because a woman opened her heart to a child no one had wanted.”

I loved Mrs. P – for being the first elderly woman in the village I was just beginning to build for my son, for keeping the basket on our dining table full of mangoes freshly picked from the lush garden, for letting us use the swimming pool, the trees, her wisdoms. She told me black hair and skin need a great deal of care, and showed me how to comb my boy’s hair, how much Shea butter to use on his body, and not to forget to rub it thoroughly, especially on the knees. She took me to a place she insisted I would be able to find my son’s birth certificate, which the government claimed couldn’t be found. She wore magnificent African dresses, hair always wrapped in matching cloth. She ruled over her family, rarely saying much, except with her eyes. Her son, daughter-in-law, their children, the gardeners, cooks, and even my son, who at the time defied everything but air, treated Mrs. P with a deference befitting a queen, her every wish an absolute command. She was a queen. There was nothing to do but heed her—until one day, when we sat on the swing drinking plum juice and watching the children playing in the yard, and Mrs. P said:

“You must make him call you Mummy. It’s important for him to know who you are.”

My son had approached me time and time again, for a sip of my juice, for a mango, to ask a question, to tell me he had won a round of whatever they were playing. Each time, he walked up speaking my name, which is the only thing he seemed to say without a stutter.

Royal edict or not, I would do no such thing as make Daniel call me Mummy. He didn’t know the meaning of the word mother anymore than he could conceive of metamorphosis. How would a child know what a mother is if he was separated from her at birth, her arms replaced with the bars of a crib, her whispers with the crying of twenty-five other motherless children, her breasts by an occasional bottle, her presence by a damning void? How could I tell him to call me mother, especially when everyone—from government officials, social workers, orphanage staff, my family, and friends—were ceaselessly reminding me that it wasn’t fair for Daniel to become attached to me until it was confirmed that I would be able to adopt him? But even if the law and process were as certain and reliable as my heart’s insistence that Daniel was my son, and although I demanded that we be accepted as mother and son, I could never make my child call me mother until he knew what the word meant.

And to know the meaning of mother, one must have a mother. So I became one.

Daniel’s vehement rejection of me—while doors were being shut in my face, meetings refused, nothing working in favor of our adoption—rendered me vulnerable in a new, raw way. Here I was—fighting like the rising of the sun depended on us becoming a family, and there he was—pushing, biting, scratching, punching, screaming that he wanted Jada, our hosts’ oldest daughter to be his mummy.

“Mi nah like yuh. Yuh ugly,” he would say, perhaps because I was white; perhaps because I had taken him away from his family of seventy-five children; perhaps because there was no way for him to understand that when the children retreated upstairs for the night, it was his turn to come home to his own family, to me. “But why, Maryam?” he would cry, sometimes too tired to fight me, surrendering into my arms. Why should I be the one he had to call mother?

Three weeks after Daniel came to stay with me, and a week after his stay turned from a government-approved visit into a kidnapping of a ward of state because I refused to return him to the orphanage, I was summoned to the US Embassy in Kingston for fingerprints. I decided not to take Daniel with me—I was afraid that if anything should happen, I would be held responsible for causing harm to a child who wasn’t legally mine and whom I was harboring after the term of our visit had expired. I was also afraid that he might be refused entry and taken away at the Embassy since I had no documents explaining our relationship, or certifying his identity. So, I asked Jada to babysit. Needless to say, Daniel was thrilled.

I returned to Montego Bay after midnight, and although we had agreed that I would pick up Daniel in the morning, I went upstairs hoping they were still awake. I had been away from my son for thirteen hours, after three weeks of being together every moment. Everyone in the house was asleep, except Jada, her cousin, and Daniel, who had declared that he would not go to bed until I was back. When he turned from the screen and saw me enter the room, his face lit up, and he ran into my arms, forgetting to say goodnight to the girls. Back in our humble room, I got him ready for bed and handed him a backpack full of construction toys I had bought at the bus park in Kingston. He examined the tools, shrieking at the discovery of the drill and saw, then dropped them all on the bed, threw his arms around me, laughing, kissing my cheeks, my forehead, my neck.

“Yuh my mummy,” he said, over and over, no stutter, no pauses, no doubt in his voice. “Yuh my mummy. Yuh my mummy.”

Seven years later, while his friends have transitioned from mommy to mom and his much younger sister is already halving the word because doing so makes her feel like a big girl, my son still calls me mommy. Once, I almost suggested that maybe now that he is almost a teenager, he could start calling me mom. But then I thought I should find something better to do.

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