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The Turning Point

How a close call gave my new son the courage to take a chance on love. by Tim Flanagan



His nails dug deeper into my skin as I tightened my grip on his arm and pulled him along. I wondered if he had drawn blood, but I kept my eyes straight ahead, determined to reach the end of the block. I could smell the salt air. Once we got to the beach, the lure of the sand and surf would make everything all right. As I tugged harder on his scrawny bronze arm, I heard him scream: “Polícia! Polícia!”

Every adoptive parent has heard that adoption is like pregnancy. We experience deep joy as we find out we are about to become parents. We spend months waiting and preparing. We worry about how we will handle the responsibility. Yet, as a single man adopting two children in Brazil, I didn’t realize how deeply this simile would reflect my own experience.

I did not expect Edson and Ricardo, then nine and ten years old, to accept me automatically as their father. But I wasn’t ready for Ricardo’s intense resistance as he clawed his way through the process—his delivery into a new family.

It was 28 days into our 30-day cohabitation period in Brazil. I had grown accustomed to Ricardo’s tantrums and moods. After a brief honeymoon, he had begun to test my limits on a daily basis. Depending on his mood, he might refuse to eat, decide not to shower, or insist on doing the opposite of what I asked. During each incident I tried to hold him accountable. If necessary, I would pick him up and carry him, squirming and screaming, through the hotel lobby to breakfast. He could sit at a different table and refuse to eat, but he needed to learn that we traveled as a family. When consequences were necessary, I took away pool time and trips to the arcade.

Yet when Luciana, our social worker, asked if I was sure about going through with the adoption, it was easy for me to say yes. Despite Ricardo’s willfulness, he was a caring, compassionate child. He befriended a homeless man we’d see on our way to the grocery store, always stopping to chat and give him some change. One day as we rounded the corner, the man was gone; only his bed, a flattened cardboard box, remained. Ricardo worried about him incessantly, until he decided that perhaps the man had found a home.

I looked down. The skin was broken but there was no blood. Ricardo’s face showed fatigue, yet he kept on fighting. What I had thought were tears on his face turned out to be drops of sweat. This was as exhausting for him as it was for me. As the adoption date grew nearer, the pain intensified for both of us. Could this be any harder?

Out of sheer exhaustion, I let go of Ricardo’s arm, hoping he would walk on his own. He stopped. Edson and I kept walking. We had played this game many times before. Despite Ricardo’s frequent threats to run away, he never did. I knew that he wanted a family; he just didn’t know how to deal with us yet.

My patience wore thin as I thought of all I’d been through just to get him out of the hotel that morning. The hot sun added to my frustration. How could this 70-pound boy push me to the limit time after time? I had dealt with four weeks of tantrums, but I was running out of ideas. Maybe this time Ricardo would win.

As I walked back to where he stood, rooted, I decided to try once more.

“Ricardo, you are part of this family. In a family, we don’t always get what we want. Edson and I have decided to go to the beach. You are coming with us.” He calmly informed me that he did not want to be part of this “stupid family.”

“You don’t have to,” I said, surprised at my own words. “On Tuesday, at the adoption hearing, the judge will ask if you want to be adopted. Tell him what you really want.” Ricardo stood there, his expression blank. Then I added: “I hope you decide to say yes. I want to be your father and Edson wants to be your brother. The rest is up to you.”

Still, Ricardo didn’t budge. Frustrated, I grabbed his arm and started walking, wrapping my free arm around him to keep him from scratching. The screaming began again: “Polícia! Polícia!”

Cars darted along the avenue. Suddenly, unbelievably, a police van approached and slowed to a stop. It was at that moment I realized I’d left my guardianship documents in the hotel room. Surely the police would ask for them. I pictured uniformed men pulling Ricardo away from me. I imagined trying to find out where they had brought him. They would take Edson, too. My heart ached as I pictured him sobbing in the back of the police van, his sweet face awash in tears.

Ricardo was strangely silent, and stiff as a board. His hand clenched my wrist, and when I looked into his eyes I saw how frightened he was. For a moment, his face revealed the pain of the past, as well as the panic of the moment. How many beatings had he endured? How many times had he been rejected? I had never seen such anguish and loneliness.

As the van pulled to the curb, I saw that things were not as I imagined. Painted across the side was the word “Ambulância.” A man leaned out and asked for directions, then darted back into the traffic. I looked down at Ricardo, whose small hand was now hanging limply in mine. His expression was blank—all the hurt buried once more.

We walked to the beach, the three of us, hand in hand. The waves were unusually large that morning, and there was no time to think as we swam furiously to catch each one. Later, Ricardo nestled in my arms as we floated in the salt water----his way of saying the battle was over. Two days later, when the judge asked if he wanted to join our family, Ricardo answered with an emphatic “Sim!” (Yes!)

It has been more than two years since our trip to the beach. That episode was neither the last nor the most difficult we endured. But it was a turning point. Ricardo has grown in many ways since that day, and we have grown as a family. Two weeks ago, as I was saying goodnight, something prompted him to grab my arm and kiss it. He said: “I’m sorry for scratching you there on that day. I love you, Daddy.”


Tim Flanagan, a teacher, lives with his sons in Westerly, R.I.

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