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A Boy Like Him

From the moment we met 27 years ago, our son knew exactly what he wanted: a family. He staked his claim on our hearts as only he could. by Deirdre Levinson

He was 15 months old when we adopted him, and even now, I miss those first months of his life. But the agency told us that we’d best put in for a baby who, having survived his first year, wouldn’t be likely to die on us. They said we couldn’t afford to lose another child, could we? They sent a social worker to look at our home, and she urged us to start “Viet Namizing” the household. I had visions of water buffalo and hordes of U.S. conscripts milling around our apartment.

It was just as well that we didn’t work overtime at Viet Namization, because it wasn’t a Viet Namese that we got. We got a Cambodian—one of 60 starvelings airlifted, under heavy fire, from an orphanage in Phnom Penh and flown, one wintry day early in 1975, to Montreal, where we hastened to claim him.

Spectacular Beauty

The airport was crowded with prospective parents. Never, the agency representative said, addressing us all, never in her experience had she encountered a batch so beautiful. Every blessed one of them a dazzler, she said.

I scanned the procession of ill-favored kids as one by one, amid flashing press cameras, they passed down the ramp to their enraptured, evidently purblind new parents. I reminded myself that looks weren’t everything. But when our name was called, I saw at a glance that this one—running sores, running nose, rotting baby teeth regardless—was not only far and away the pick of the bunch, he was a spectacular beauty by any criterion. “Beautiful?” snorted the pediatrician we rushed him to—scrutinizing our scantling couched in the palm of his hand—“Then find me some beautiful flesh on his bottom to give him a shot.”

We named him Malachi, after the last of the Hebrew prophets, and sent out our announcement of his adoption, inscribed with the words of his namesake: “Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us?” As soon as he was strong enough, we had him circumcised, making him officially as Jewish as any Jew on this earth.

Malachi himself was concerned with even more basic matters. Though of walking age when we got him, he was too weak to crawl, let alone walk. But that was all that was weak about him. He knew from scratch what he wanted, which was a family—father, mother, sibling rival and all—and he set out single-mindedly to establish his claim. He sounded the charge against our five-year-old, Miranda, contesting her right to the merest kiss in his presence.

“ I wouldn’t mind so much,” Miranda observed with extravagant candor the day he fell sick, “if this one died.” But this one was not about to die: he had come incubating chicken pox, which he proceeded to share with his sister. They shared that, shared a room, were obliged, willy-nilly, to come to terms with sharing us, too. They developed a working relationship.

Until he could walk, Miranda dragged him around by one leg. She plaited his long, thick hair with ribbons, dressed him in one of her baby frocks and called him Debby. She rolled him up in a shawl, crooning lullabies, called him Toby after her dead little brother, familiarized him with Toby’s framed picture and with the history of her loss. “Take his picture out,” Malachi demanded once he had learned to talk, “and put mine in there.”

He made himself one of us fast enough, and he could occasionally pass as ours by blood. (An interested passenger looking the four of us over on a bus once observed, the girl was her father all over again, the boy the image of me.) My own mother pronounced him conclusively in the matter of character far more my child than Miranda, bless her, with her refined little ways. Malachi contrived at the same time to use his otherness to unfair advantage. “I’ll go back to Cambodia,” he would threaten when crossed, and when we said we’d just follow him there if he did, “You can’t,” he would parry triumphantly, “you don’t know where it is.”

Really Ours

It wasn’t until nursery school that Malachi learned that being what he called “adocted” wasn’t all beer and skittles. One summer afternoon at going-home time, I found him on the steps there, the disconsolate subject of the speculation of three Lilliputian companions. He wasn’t, they asked me, really mine, was he? I wasn’t his real mother, was I? Rising to their challenge, fronting each in turn, I picked them off one by one. “Did your parents search the wide world for you? Did yours for you? And how many steps further than the hospital did yours go to get you? We searched the wide world to get this boy.”

That, he and I agreed as we stalked off together, should settle their hash once and for all. But there was more to it than that. “You wanted to get me?” he took to asking unprefaced, sitting at the kitchen table, staring hard at the wall. Or in the elevator, apparently addressing the push button, “You wanted to get me?” Then at last, point-blank, “You wanted a brown boy, Dad? Ma, you wanted a boy like me?”

A boy like him? Search the corners of this earth for his like, where breathes the half-American, half-English, Jewish, Cambodian boy who can match his speed in the 100-yard dash, who can play the recorder so melodiously, throw a fishing line as dexterously, make friends as firmly, belch as resoundingly as our boy can? Show us the boy with an eye as sharp as his for finding money in the street. We should all have such a son. (Once he found 20 dollars on the sidewalk. He asked me to make special mention of that.)

From time to time he resolves to save up his trouvailles to finance a family trip to Cambodia. There the four of us will gaze at the marvelous temples he knows so well from the picture books. He will acquaint us with his people. We will sit by the Tonle Sap, the Great Lake, watching him land prize after prize catch of fish.

Deirdre Levinson lives in New York. Malachi, now 29, made the long awaited trip to Cambodia last year with his family and fiancée. He will be married this September.

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