What I Can Tell You

Dear Ridley,

I read something interesting on the Internet today. It was written by an adoptee, like you. This person is an adult now, and he’s still working through what it means to be raised under the banner—the banner that is both a marker of tragedy and a sign of great provision—under the banner of adoption.

It was devastating.

Not because this man has negative feelings about his family. No. He had overwhelmingly positive things to say about the parents who raised him. What he wrote about his family of origin didn’t make it difficult to read either. His feelings toward those parents are honest and logical and though I couldn’t relate in experience, I could understand and empathize.

None of his feelings bothered me. It was the questions he carries like tender wounds that broke my heart.

I don’t know if you’ll have the same questions. Or any questions. Or, if most terrifying, you’ll question everything. Our love for you, your worth, your identity.

Maybe your questions will have a toxic but understandable domino effect.

Who are my paternal grandparents?

How did they raise my biological dad?

Why did he abandon my birth mom?

Will I be just like him?

When did my mom find out she was pregnant?

Where was she and what made her think to take the test?

Did she love me as soon as she knew?

If she did, wasn’t that love strong enough to conquer the system?

If she didn’t …

I won’t be able to give you all the answers you’ll want. I wish I could fill in every blank space. I wish I could transform every question mark into a period or an exclamation point. Your mom felt sick so she took a test. She was so excited! But I can’t.

I can’t tell you where your birth mom was when she found out she was pregnant. But I can tell you where I was when I found out you were ours. I was adding sugar to my coffee at a hotel in Mission Viejo when I saw I’d missed a call. The number on my screen belonged to our social worker. I knew right then you were coming with a certainty I can’t explain. Getting to call your dad at work and tell him we had a son was one of the best moments of my life.

I can’t tell you what you what words were spoken to you in the first moments you drew breaths after your birth. I can tell you that when your dad and I drove you home for the very first time, you cried the whole way. Nearly an hour of screaming. It was a reasonable reaction to not having the bottle you craved and being stuck in a foreign car with two giddy fools who would later that evening Google “how to make a bottle, 6 month old.” I can tell you what we said to you. We said to you over and over as you wailed, “Hello Ridley. That’s your name. We love you. We promise to take care of you. We have waited so long to see your face.”

I can tell you very little about your biological father. Having myself been raised with my own biological father in my life—in my home—a man I saw as an invincible hero, I can’t grasp what having a mystery for a father is like. But I can tell you this: you adore your dad. The boy I met at 14, the rebel with the rock band patch on his Jansport and the black t-shirt, he grew up to become your invincible hero. You pretend to be your dad. I have pictures of you being dad, as you tell me, reading bible stories to your sister’s creepy eyed baby doll. When you watch Daniel Tiger or Winnie the Pooh you ask “Who is the dad, where is the dad?” I point out Daniel’s dad in the blue sweatshirt and I attempt to explain Pooh’s parentage but you typically interrupt me to point to the family photos on our wall. “Rid-dee’s dad,” you say. You wear your dad’s washed out shirts to bed, making you look like a swift footed ghost. “Special dad shirt,” you call them. And as I tuck you in you ask, “Rid-dee and dad a go to the ocean?” “Soon,” I promise, not the least bit offended you don’t include me. The ocean has long been a love encouraged by your dad. You fall asleep with a smile, repeating the word soon. 

I could tell you more. I could admit that we may never know if you have biological siblings, but then describe your love for your sister. They way you always look out for her when it comes time to divvying up treats: “Ice ceem for Rid-dee, ice ceem for Kajsa.” We could talk about that or the way every night as she is carried off to bed you turn from your toys to shout I love you sister. There’s your deep bond with your grandparents (once a pediatrician with a delightful Nigerian accent called you a grandma’s boy and assured you it was a good thing as he was one too), your obsession with your Uncle Zach. Your two ongoing prayers are these: Thank you Fadder for pools and Unca Zach. What about your love of all things drums? At 3 years old you were the youngest member of the crowd when your dad took you too see your favorite band and the *managers* at the Troubador were so charmed by your presence you got taken inside early and brought to some of the best seats in the house. Is your affinity genetic? I don’t know. But drumming is the great passion of your life, I can tell you that.

I could tell you all of these things, but I know they don’t really matter. Pain can’t always be eased by facts. If you grow up with nagging questions about your history, all my talk may just sound like the words of a sentimental mother, reminiscing about the moments that make up my own history as a parent. Maybe you’ll think, I get it mom, you loved me, I had a happy childhood. But that doesn’t change things.

Have I only succeeded in irritating you with my memory boxes, and keepsakes, and tales of Christmas past?

Then let me just tell you this one last thing. You are a child of God.

Hear me out. I am not looking at your pain and handing you a puppy. I am not pulling out a bag of sunshine and ready-made phrases, like some as seen on TV anecdote sure to make your troubles disappear.

Answers might stop the itch but they can’t bind the wounds and I want to spare you the pain of chasing a cure where there isn’t one. History, even a complete one, it won’t heal you. That might sound convenient coming from a woman who knows her parents and brother and can easily trace her entire life. But believe me. Even for those of us who don’t carry who, or when, or where, questions, I think all humans are plagued by questions like how and why.

I am looking at your need for a foundation and handing you a rock.

I am pointing you back to the song you sang for me yesterday.

You’re a good, good, Father. It’s who You are. It’s who You are. It’s who You are.

And I’m loved by You. It’s who I am. It’s who I am. It’s who I am.

I will always tell you to start there, Ridley. You have a good Father. Loved is who you are. And when waves of question-fueled doubt begin to pummel this rock on which you stand, on which you build your identity, let them come, don’t be afraid. That rock won’t shift and you’ve always loved the ocean.