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Friday, January 21, 2011

Two Steps Forward

Embrace detours

By all rights Max's little brother Leo should be a year and half old now.  Instead, his ashes are in a box on the top shelf of our closet.  His headstone, which should have been erected in the Pomfret Street Cemetery this past fall, is carved and waits for a spring thaw to be put in place.  Leo was stillborn on July 20th, 2009 - an event that seems as fresh to me as it is distant.  Few days pass when there isn't some reminder that brings his name, memory, and absence to the fore.  Last week, when I dropped Max off at daycare a teacher was holding a young infant in her arms.  That's about the size Leo was - and in my memory - will be forever.  Indeed, I can't look at any newborn without Leo coming instantly and reflexively to mind.
Where Leo's gravestone will be

When we learned that Leo had died in utero, we had the further miserable duty of having to tell people.  The calls to parents and siblings each went similarly.  I'd calm myself before I dialed.  I'd steady my voice as I heard the call connect and the phone ring.  When my mom or dad or sisters answered, I'd say something like, "I have some bad news." (Massive understatement.)  And as soon as I began to say, "We lost the baby" I'd dissolve into choked tears, unable to fully catch my breath, but somehow managing to convey the sad facts.
The Mathewson plot

Tragically, my good friend's sister lost her baby in much the same way some months before we lost Leo.  When I told him our news - I could hear and sense his anguish - anguish for us, but also again for his sister.  (It's the same anguish I feel when I learn of others' similar losses.)  He told me that it might sound weird, but he advised us to take pictures of Leo - as his sister had done of their lost child.  It would be, after all, something to remember him by.  He was right.  From time to time I look at the photos of Leo, but the photos are far from the only remembrance I have.  I can easily recall the weight of his lifeless body in my arms.  I can put myself in that hospital room where Linda and I spent the most bizarre 3 days of our lives.  I remember sitting next to Linda and holding Leo, unable to comprehend that this was our reality.  I can still see our family coming into our room, each as grief stricken as we.  And I remember how outlandish it felt to leave that hospital without our baby.

This post was not intended to be about Leo or about the loss we still feel.  And true as that is, it's almost as if all my writings are filtered through him.  Indeed, for all that Leo's death took from us, he also gave - and continues to give - us much.  I've written in the past how I feel that whereas we might have a lifetime to learn from people who are in our lives for years, I have learned a lifetime's worth in the relative instant that Leo lived in Linda (See Strength).  I know that we are far from alone in having suffered a tragedy.  Leo's death is something that happens to others everyday.  Loved ones are lost every moment the world over in places far less accommodating than a hospital.  I began this blog post as a way to process the unusual and unexpected means by which our family will grow.

Around 4 years ago, after several failed fertility treatments (all of which provided no identifiable reason for why we even needed them), we began to seriously consider adoption.  The doorway for me was a question that a thoughtful doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital posed.  "What does it mean to be a parent?  If it means bearing a child for you, okay.  If not, then adoption is a perfectly viable means."  In hindsight, it's clear to us that being a parent is so much more than giving birth to a child.  I'm quite positive that every moment's blessing and challenge with Max has been mirrored by those that bore their children.  The process to get that child, however, is most assuredly not the same.
Linda and Max (about a week old)

And here is where I meant to start.  Linda and I had always intended to have more than one child.  When we adopted Max we meant for him to have a sibling.  Because our situation was diagnosed as "unexplained infertility" we knew and hoped there was a chance we'd get pregnant.  When we did - on our own with no help from hormones, injections, tubes or turkey basters, we were elated.  And while Max's first sibling will always be Leo, let's face it - it would be a little weird for Max to 'play' with Leo on the jungle gym.  We needed some time to pass.  We needed to get our feet under us again, figure out a way to integrate Leo's loss into our lives, but we both knew that we wanted another child.

Truism:  Having sex is a lot more fun than filling out adoption forms.  And so that's where we started.  There was - and still is - a chance that we could get pregnant (the collective we, but yes, just Linda).  We also knew that based on past experience it's not a given or even especially likely.  That said, it sure is worth trying (awwwww yeaaaaaah).  But just as we learned before, just because we're trying, doesn't mean we have to wait.  And so sometime last fall, we began again to get our heads around another adoption.

Unlike the vast majority of people who thoughtfully plan a family and copulate with that in mind - or even those who just get drunk and screw without birth control - our process is considerably less romantic.  Instead of a lobster dinner, our efforts begin with humble pie.  As most will surmise you can probably have at least 300 lobster dinners for what adoption costs.  For us that means relying on the kindness and generosity of family.  No one relishes having to ask family for money, especially large sums of it.  While I know well that it brings our family some joy to be able to help us have another child, I can't help wishing I didn't have to ask.  However, the fact is, unless I depleted long term savings earmarked for future education and retirement expenses, we don't have the money.  I looked in the mattress and in the pockets of pants long not worn.  It's not there.  After we solicit and confirm that we have the funds to finance an adoption, comes the effort to find an agency.

Though we very much liked Adoption Resources in Waltham, Massachusetts, we don't live in Massachusetts anymore.  This means a new agency in Connecticut.  Having done this once before, we already eliminated some options.  We knew, for instance, that we preferred an newborn/infant - which basically means we were going the domestic adoption route.  We knew we didn't care about the ethnicity of the baby, but were primarily concerned with the baby's health.  After web research, phone calls and an in person meeting we settled on an agency with offices in Norwalk (far away) and Hartford (closer), Family and Children's Agency.  We left the office with our materials and once again set forth in laying our lives out in blue or black ink for review.  It's when I'm filling out forms with our assets and liabilities, addresses and employment history for the past 10 years and writing a multipage biography that I can't help but think of the ironies of all the babies born to wholly unsuitable parents.  It's the old 'you need a license to fish, but not to have a baby' line.
Max's adoption finalization hearing

In addition to our finances and employment, we have to get our doctor to fill out health forms for us and Max.  (After I finish writing this, I have to get my tuberculosis test read.) We have to get federal background checks, provide references, provide copies of birth and marriage certificates, income taxes, documentation that our well yields potable water, verify that our pets have been vaccinated, provide criminal history releases and child abuse clearance forms.  Then there's the fun part of assembling your profile packet.  This is the book that is provided to birth moms/parents to consider adoptive parents.  Here's where you get to 'compete' with other hopeful adopters.  Our book has  a letter to the birth parents, pictures of us, Max, our family, our pets, where we live. It's twenty plus pages of everything that's great about us.  I suspect even a narcissist might blanch at this kind of self promotion.

After filling out all these forms and having to reveal to our employer, landlord, doctor, and veterinarian that we're in the process of adopting, we get to have a home-study done.  A home-study is when a social worker comes to your house, usually multiple times, to interview you and see where and how you live.  Their write up becomes a part of the adoption application which is later court approved before adoption finalization.  All these efforts result in us waiting an indeterminate amount of time until a birth parent selects us. Then we have to keep our fingers crossed that she/they follows through and signs the surrender papers.  (I wrote about how we had one adoption fall through in A Gift Named Max).

You get the gist.  Making a baby is easier, just not for us.  But for all the trouble, all the expense, all the mental energy (some invested, some wasted), the prize is worth it.  I can't imagine a life without Max.  Every struggle and hassle en route to his arrival was worth it.  And as excited as we were to conceive Leo, and as much as I wish he were alive today, his loss is also a part of the path toward this next baby, this next baby who I won't be able to imagine life without, Max's younger sibling.
Max and his friend, Oren (who just had a little brother)

Max isn't yet fully aware of all the circumstances of how he became our child. He knows the words "birth mom."  He's met her a couple of times and we show him pictures.  With this adoption, we'll have something concrete to show him how he, too, became our son.  Max also doesn't yet comprehend what happened to Leo, though he knows the name (and surely will know of him in the months and years to come).  These are pretty big concepts for a three year-old.  (For instance, when I tell him we're going to see a friend tomorrow, he might ask, "Is today tomorrow?")  Last weekend, we went to visit some friends who just had their second baby - a baby brother.  Before we went I asked Max if he'd like a baby brother or sister someday.  He said, "Yes I would.  Can you go to the store and buy one?"  Kind of, Max, kind of.

If you want to see pictures of Leo, click here.  The username is:  leo; the password is:  mathewson