I’ve had a stack of black book personal journals occupying various spots in back bedrooms for many years now. They are the product of an effort for the first five or so years of my daughter’s life to provide a record, a kind of daily diary, of not only what happened, where we went, what we did and who we saw, but more importantly for two people who came very late to parenthood after long efforts to first prevent pregnancy, then to become pregnant, then to become adoptive parents, to provide a chronicle of the heart, of the vast reservoirs of love and delight and appreciation that suffused our lives when she came into them exactly 18 years ago today.
I wanted to give her a taste, many years down the line when she might take a peek at my scrawlings, of just how much she was cherished, not to mention how much sheer fun we had in profound activities like…watching her sleep…and changing her diapers…and cleaning her up after she’d projectile vomited all over herself. (If you can’t have some fun describing the latter in a journal for your child, you don’t really deserve to be a parent…)
And today, exactly 18 years have come and gone in an utterly time-rushed swoosh, and the other night I found myself digging into a nightstand where I remembered depositing the journals a few years ago. As I opened a few volumes to get myself oriented to the dates covered therein, I felt like the kids in The Chronicles of Narnia, slipping into an alternate universe at the back of a closet.
My Dear Dakota,
I’m going to try to write this very slowly and in bigger script than I’m used to, because unlike my personal journal which I never figure to share with anyone besides myself when I am a crusty old man, this, my child, is just for you. I hope it will mean something to you in 18 or 25 or 45 years, when you look back on your own life and wonder what all happened in the early years. My hope is that these words will help capture not only the events and activities that will fill up your childhood, but also do justice, in some small way, to the intensity of experience and emotion that it will be our privilege as your parents to know as our daily reality.
Like a lot of baby boomers, my (now ex-) wife Robyn and I spent many years taking assiduous precautions to prevent pregnancy. We’d navigated our 20s and for me, early 30s, in career fits and starts, graduate education, a little finding ourselves, some goofing off to delay adulthood. After getting married at 36 and 30 years old, respectively, we spent the next half decade or so re-establishing careers while purposely avoiding the additional weight a child would have placed on them.
The upshot was that by the time we were ready to say yes to family life, it was not hastening to say yes to us.
After many and varied attempts to conceive over a few more years, we threw ourselves into the adoptive world by hooking up with an agency, sitting for interviews, filling out our profiles, providing medical histories, submitting to background checks, and putting together our brochure, our statement about why we would be the perfect choice for a prospective, probably teen parent-to-be who had made the fateful decision to give someone the gift of the life that was growing inside her even then.
And we waited.
Right at the moment, you are lying with your head on my chest, your feet not making it quite down to my waist, wrapped in several blankets and a felt green beanie hat, the crown of your head pushing up against my chin. You’re breathing in rapid little baby bursts, asleep like you’ve been most of the two days since you were born. I’ve been moving you around searching for the best, most comfortable and advantageous spot from which to simply look at and admire you. Of course you know you are the most beautiful creature the earth has ever known. It’s obvious with just one glance at you. But the circumstances of your birth, well, they are almost as beautiful as you are. I want to write a little about that to let you know where you came from, what beauty and love has accomplished not only in your life but in everyone’s who is connected to this adoption. But first, it’s time for your 9:30 feeding!
One day we got a call from the head of the adoption agency who told us there was a young woman several months along who was somewhat committed to placing her baby with another family, but wanted to meet another couple just to make sure. She told us, frankly, that chances weren’t good, but at worst, we’d get the first interview out of the way and get a little practice at the whole, when you think about it, rather surreal situation of putting on your best faces to become the parents of someone else’s baby. (“You want to meet to see if you want to give us your baby? Yeah, O.K., sure! We love babies!”)
Dakota wasn’t born to us, wasn’t ‘ours’ (though oh, was she ever!), but someone else’s, and that person had somehow, via some mysterious grace, managed to set aside her own blind imperatives and instead bestow upon our daughter, upon us, a gift of unfathomable generosity, an altruism with no anchor in pure reason or deep-seated maternal need.
So we made the appointment and the day arrived and my wife, nervous and struggling with the slim chances, suggested that maybe we should cancel. Oh no we’re not, I said, knowing she just needed some bucking up through a few crazy-making moments.
Neither of us was immune to both the enormity of what we were doing and the inherent pathos of a situation where our lives, our identities, our raw open hearts were splayed out in front of an 18-year-old girl with enormous raw emotions of her own to manage.
A charged atmosphere that for some reason had been left out of the course syllabus of the lives we had led to that point?
Uh-huh. So what to do?
What you do is get in the game, which is always what life requires if you’re ever going to get anywhere.
So Natasha was somewhat committed to another couple? O.K., then we have nothing to lose. I remember thinking going into it that if there was one thing I wanted from this it was to put ourselves, our capital “S” Selves, way, way out there, so this young woman would at least walk away with a complete and clear picture of what kind of people and family situation her baby would be entering into.
I didn’t want to namby pamby anything; she would get all of us, just as her baby would if she chose us as its parents.
Your mom said you didn’t sleep much during the day when I was at work. We are learning that usually doesn’t bode well for the evening. You tend to get extremely hyper, almost catatonic, crying for the bottle, shoving it away, grabbing for it back, getting all worked up in a dither. We attribute it to extreme tiredness, but can’t overlook the possibility it is gas or other pains that cause the lack of sleep and then the crankiness. Tonight I had to put you to bed four times before it finally stuck; very unusual. You’d be down 10 or 15 minutes, then wake up wailing. Of course, that’s when all the most tender parental protectiveness comes to the fore, an almost delicious sense of closeness and love that sees your distress and wants nothing more in life than to soothe it and bring you calm.
The meeting, which included Natasha’s mother Natalie (younger than both Robyn and me, we couldn’t help noting), went well. We actually, honestly, liked them both; they seemed thoroughly sane and deeply caring for each other, not a neurotic spark or tension point detectable through a long discussion in which we emphasized our complete openness and even desire, if they desired it in turn, for an open adoption with ongoing contact, gatherings, cards and photos, the whole bit.
Our sense was that we were entering into a new family situation that would, or at least could, bound us together forevermore. They would get all of us and we would gladly accept all of them, if they were inclined.
And we very much wanted our child, gender unknown to that point, to grow up with complete knowledge and appreciation for where and from whom it came, for the fateful and sacred gift that had been bestowed on all three of us, and for which we would be forever in the mother’s debt.
Several days later, the agency called and told us Natasha and Natalie wanted to come meet us again and see us in our home. I have no specific memory of the call or its context, but I well remember its emotional heft. Robyn and I were about jumping out of our shoes. We were in the game.
It’s going to be terribly hard not to spoil you. Loving you with the completeness and ferocity that we do, it’s going to take exceptional effort not to give in to you all the time. But we’ll work on that, I assure you. We owe it to you not to indulge you too terribly, even though we’ll be powerfully tempted to do just that. (Editor’s note: They didn’t work hard enough; she got spoiled…) Sometimes it doesn’t seem possible we could love you any more than we do, then you go and grow into such a new way of being, cooing, sighing, seeming to talk to us as you half-whine, half-laugh, that I become concerned I’m going to squeeze the air out of you because I want to kiss and hug you so tightly.
The home meeting went even better. We sat around in the living room gnoshing on something or other, relaxed, personal, even intimate. This was our home, the place where a baby could learn about love by being loved, could learn to hold its head up, look around, crawl, walk, run, ride a bike, get on top of a life.
I don’t remember one thing we talked about, which fits in with my general sense that as many events as we may more or less specifically recall in a life, most of what remains are the emotional colors and resonance of a given time or experience. I remember that evening suffused with warmth and engagement, the beginnings of a picture forming of a lifelong relationship with these two people.
I set my elbow atop the boxes of diapers, leaned my face into my hand, and I cried, there in the dying light of the brightest moment of my life.
We had made clear, I believe in our first office interview, that besides welcoming ongoing contact with Natasha, we were completely open to Natalie being our child’s active grandma. Robyn’s mom had died years before and mine was elderly and 400 miles away. The prospect of a young, involved grandma 15 miles down Highway 101 presented a lovely realm of possibility, an add-on, an additional gift of love for our child in an even more extended family.
It wasn’t hard to discern this would suit Grandma just fine.
When they left, we felt we’d left nothing on any table; we’d showed them our home, our hearts, who we were and what we valued. Now it was up to the gods, and the effect they would have as they danced in the heart of a young woman with an enormous weight of decision ahead of her.
It’s your Grandpa Ed’s 80th birthday today. A somewhat sad day for me; he died in January 1997, a year and a half before you came into our lives. I’m sorry he didn’t live long enough to hold you and love you. He was a deeply joyous man—the best part of him was so full of sunshine it was impossible not to be affected by it. When your mom and I got married he told me, “The only thing that would make me happier is to hold your baby in my arms.” I’m sorry he missed that, and sorry you have, too. But I like to think a lot of his sunshine and approach to loving people rubbed off on me, as I hope it in turn will now rub off on you. I think we have a good start in that direction already. You’re an ongoing delight, my daughter. Every day is ripe with new discoveries.
A week passed, then two. No news from the agency, other than, “She hasn’t decided yet.” This is when all the Buddhism one has studied, all the calming exercises one has exercised, all the “Que será, será” perspectives one has nodded one’s head over in vigorous approval through a long life, is really put to the test. The days came and went, we tended to work, we came home, we let the “be” be, and we waited some more.
Then came Valentine’s Day, both of us working late enough again to put me home at dusk, Robyn not home yet. I pulled into the driveway with just the dimmest of light still casting itself upon our portion of the earth, and in the slight distance to the porch, I noted there was some kind of big box or contraption there, some shadowy mass I could not at all detect the source of in such weak light.
As I grabbed my briefcase and walked up to the porch, my eyes and mind struggled to process the sight that was revealing itself in front of me. A seeming eternity elapsed in the span of oh, maybe .02 seconds.
There were balloons and ribbon.
A probably 5-foot stack of boxes containing bottles (and bottles and bottles) of baby formula.
Another equally tall stack of baby diapers.
More balloons and ribbon.
Natalie worked in a hospital, and these were samples she’d managed to snag.
I set my elbow atop the boxes of diapers, leaned my face into my hand, and I cried, there in the dying light of the brightest moment of my life.
We were going to be parents.
I left everything intact and came inside, ready for Robyn to come home and discover exactly the same thing, in the exact way that I had.
The month of your birth is ending, my love! I’m on night patrol with you—Mama has gone to Yardbirds for some plants and Macys for a coffee table. We’ve been hanging out listening to jazz on KCSM, and you’ve only uttered a few peeps as you quickly huddled with another bottle that left you droopy-eyed and content. This wonderful drunken super-satiated look that comes on your face after feeding is something to behold. I’ll try to get a picture of it sometime. Tonight, you seemed particularly fascinated by a long saxophone riff on a song called, “How High the Moon?” I mouthed the sounds, oohing and woo-woo-wooing my way through the song with just enough bulging eyes and blown out cheeks to keep you pretty well fascinated, following my every grimace! I’ll cherish these moments, and am just hoping to share enough of them with you here to fill in the holes of what will otherwise be lost to memory. Do you have any idea, in your maturity now as you might be reading this, how much your mom and I love you?
We’d expressed interest in voyaging through Natasha’s pregnancy with her, so it was most always all four of us there in the room through all the prenatals with the pediatrician. And so it was with the birth, all of us there at Petaluma Valley Hospital, one night a false start that felt like our baby was coming into the world, only to have it delayed.
We’d elected not to know the gender till it was born, and the next night it was, our baby girl, finally pushed down that birth canal via Natasha’s protracted exertions, urged on by all of us in the ways that we could.
There are no words, really, for the wonder, the joy, the completely-blown-away sense of life filled with more life that pervades every cell of one’s body, every thought in one’s mind, every outpouring emotion from one’s engorged heart, when a baby gasps for its first breath, utters its first cry, and you are there, bathed and drenched in the transcendent glow of some primitive wisdom of generativity that is both a part of you now and forever beyond your rational understanding.
We were flying that night, unbound, rapturous among the stars.
All of this is explainable as an evolutionary adaptation, a device to ensure all parents will care for their helpless young and thus carry on the species in the blind propagating way that all creatures do.
A little complication with that, however: Dakota wasn’t born to us, wasn’t “ours” (though oh, was she ever!), but someone else’s, and that person had somehow, via some mysterious grace, managed to set aside her own blind imperatives and instead bestow upon our daughter, upon us, a gift of unfathomable generosity, an altruism with no anchor in pure reason or deep-seated maternal need.
The memory and living example of it humbles me still.
I woke this morning feeling awful, but managed to get through a couple of meetings at work before collapsing back here about 4:00, where you greeted me at the door with your customary verve. You’d known I was sick from when we talked at lunch, so you were full of bright inquisitiveness: “Papa, you feel better now?” Sorry to say, I didn’t, so you became heart-touchingly solicitous, leading me by the hand to bed, seeing if I wanted juice, expressing every confidence I would feel better soon. And as an addendum, “Then we go swimming, O.K.?” You have this winning way of emphasizing, “Okeh?” that makes it a confident-sounding statement, like, “Of course you will agree to this most marvelous plan for your and my life, correct?” I had to tell you that swimming probably wasn’t in the cards, but we certainly could consider it tomorrow. Then you continued to ask after my well-being, in one of the most remarkable displays of toddler compassion I have ever experienced. You kept leaving the room as I dozed, only to come back, ask after me, climb up on the bed, say, “I lay down with you,” and settle in to chat. After you left to eat with Mama for a while and came back again, another extraordinary thing happened—you felt hot to the touch as I grazed your cheek. Mama took your temp, and sure enough—102+. And so we both laid here being sick. As I write this, I’m feeling better now myself, so perhaps we are sharing some fast-moving bug. “You feel better tomorrow, and we go swimming, O.K.?”
In the 18 years since your birth, we’ve had countless interchanges and celebrations with Natasha, Grandma Natalie has been a constant loving presence in our lives, Great Grandma Ilys (Natalie’s mother) has visited on numerous birthdays and other holidays, and we have cultivated the joys of family life with this part of our clan to lasting benefit for all.
Many times through the pregnancy and the ensuing months, many well-meaning people inquired in hushed tones about the status and mindset of the mother, then saw fit to inform us of one horror story or another that they had read about or heard from an acquaintance who had endured an adoption that didn’t work out, the adoptive parents jilted, as it were, at the altar.
Robyn and I decided, early in the process, against fear. This situation was, had to be, about love, ever and always. Love of our prospective child, love of the mother who planned to gift it to us, love of everyone affected by the events that were unfolding. We would not crouch or cower or brace ourselves. Instead, we would give ourselves completely to love, trust and openness—and yes, to being hurt as well—love being the currency we would spend and spend, given in all the vulnerability that it always requires.
(Memo to those who think they’re being helpful by warning of danger to a loved one’s open heart: You’re not…)
As it turned out, we weren’t able to see our marriage through to Dakota’s maturity. Midway through her junior year, we split up, life presenting the complications it so often does.
If the best day of my life was 18 years ago, the worst was some 20 months ago when we sat Dakota down and told her of our decision. This was not the fairy tale we had so often lived in the years of rapture chronicled in my eight black books.
Even so, ours had never been an unhappy or tense household, no flying plates or gritted teeth or dark clouds hovering over dinner. Our daughter has grown up happy and provided for in a house whose parents always cared for each other and Lord knows, for her.
This was reflected, I think, in the ready adjustment she seemed to make to the new circumstance of living 50-50 in two homes a couple of miles apart. And in the extraordinary, careful solicitousness with which she has divided her time between the two of us ever since.
“She told me yesterday, ‘Dad needs me,’” Robyn related to me some months after our split.
And so I do. Always have.
And though I have felt heart-sick, with a temperature right off the charts, on many occasions in some very dark days since, I think I am feeling better now, and in a few more tomorrows, I hope to feel better still.
Then we go swimming, O.K.?
I wish I’d have put together this video, or written this song, but I didn’t, and am only too happy to share them here. The remarkable thing is that the daughter in this looks remarkably like Dakota did at the same age.
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Deep appreciation to the photographers!
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Very lovely writing – so vulnerable! Thanks for your courage.
Thank you, Francine. Means a lot from an amiga in the long ago…Turns out that a late edit had chewed off a whole paragraph that went from our conception efforts to adoption agency linkup. Fixed now. Thank you for not making fun of that exceedingly rocky transition! :-)
Dakota is so very lucky. Andrew. You’ve put into words what many fathers yearn to say, but may not know exactly how. I hope they can use your essay to explain their feelings to their daughters. It was wonderful to read—speaking for loved daughters everywhere.
Happy Birthday to Dakota! And congratulations for sticking to the father job for 18 years (with more to go)!
Hope your daughter enjoys reading this as much as I did, Andrew.
Thanks Andrew. The gods sure did smile down on Dakota, you, and the entire extended family on that day 18 years ago. To love and be loved. What more can we ask for in this brief life?
Joan, so glad you’re carrying your dad with you still!
Jim, I sure will. And with luck, I’ll look forward to that “more to go.”
Loren: Thank you. That’s all, just thank you.
Linda: Kinda gets right down to that, doesn’t it? As handy of a summation as any, I think. Let’s toast to that soon!
Wonderful … Dakota and her blended family is such an inspired heart tugging story … Denise & I are privileged to have been a small part of it for all 18 yrs – knocked out by your willingness to share such profoundly personal reflections … Thanks my friend.
I am so moved by this brave and intimate story, of hearts so wide open and brave. A beautiful story, beautifully rendered.
I am moved to share two of my favorite quotes about the miracle of new life, its mystery and life-changing power.
“Where did you come from, child so dear? Out of the everywhere, into the here.”
The second, by none other than Charles Dickens:
“It is no small thing when they who are so fresh from God, love us.”
Thank you, Andrew. Your brave and open heart is an inspiration, and a gift to us all.
It is such a blessing to have had the opportunity to observe, and participate, in Dakota’s growth and maturity over these many years; and to experience the great love, guidance, and wisdom that you and Robyn have devoted to her. You are all deeply inspirational and living testimony to the great power of love, courage, and openness. The Helmans love you dearly.
Kevin, Angela, Jay: You humble me, truly you do. Thank you.