Several years ago, my wife and I were contacted by our county’s Family Services Agency and asked to bring a little girl, born three days earlier, home from the hospital. Her birth mother wished to make an adoption plan, we were told.
Our joy over a lifetime of possibilities was short-lived, however. A week later the birth mother had a change of heart and decided to parent. But since the public agency had already filed for permanent custody, the change of status back to temporary custody had to be done through the courts while birth mom completed an agency- and court-mandated case plan.
Eight months after we took “Tess” home as a newborn, she was reunited with her birth mother. The following is a letter I hope “Tess” may one day read.
My Dearest Tess,
You don’t know me. By the time you read this, you won’t remember the few months you spent changing my life. I understand you’re doing well. It warms my heart to watch you from afar and see how you’ve grown and changed. I know your name is Ashley now, but, please forgive me, you’ll always be my Tess.
Who am I? And why am I writing to you? My mind tells me I write to document the facts. That maybe someday — if you ever read this letter — these words might help you understand the time when your life was just beginning. And yet, truth be told, my heart says I also write for selfish reasons. I’m haunted by what was and by what might have been between us — by the memory of your brilliant smile, your innocent touch, and the sweet sounds we used to make together.
I write because each word tapped out on my keyboard brands these memories in my heart despite the distance between us. I write because, no matter what anyone says, you will always be the first and only daughter this father ever had.
How did we come to know each other, you’re asking? Well, reflecting now, I think maybe your guardian angel was feeling sorry for me and felt compelled to play match-maker. Maybe he or she figured I needed you more at that time than you needed me. Regardless of whatever cosmic force was involved, only three days after you were born, you entered my life. And I have never been the same.
Now I realize you’re probably wondering, “What about my mom?” Well, I can tell you firsthand your mom loved you very much, as she does now. Her love was never in question. But at the time you were born, she was a confused young girl. At first, she decided to make an adoption plan because she was scared. She wasn’t sure she could take care of a baby as a single mother, and she wanted to find parents who could. This is why the agency called my family.
But that all changed when your mom realized she couldn’t live without you. But she had to follow the agency’s case plan before you two could be together. This took time. So for your first eight months on earth, you graced my home and touched my heart. And oh, what an eight months they were.
As you can imagine, your change of status came as a shock to my wife and me. In the blink of an eye, I went from thinking that we would share a lifetime together, to being a foster parent who knew that the time would come when we would have to say goodbye, to becoming a humble man with a hole in his heart, trying to find the meaning of it all.
It was a tough challenge for me, but I was determined to make the most of our time together. I tilted at this windmill with the passion I’ve tilted at all the others in my effort to build a family. I tried to store up a lifetime of memories as quickly as I could.
Christmas is the hardest of all for me to endure now that you’re gone. You’ll know why when I tell you the story of your first Christmas on this earth and of how you came to be my Christmas angel. How, before a crowded church, a priest on the altar, and God himself, you and I shared a walk down the aisle together.
Indeed, this was one of my wife’s more creative holiday ideas. Because she was convinced you were the cutest baby on the planet (which, of course, was true), she volunteered us both to be in the children’s Christmas mass. We made our public debut together as “Baby Jesus” and “God the Father.”
Now for you, it was brilliant casting. For me, well, let’s just say it was casting against type. And despite the fact that neither you nor I was Roman Catholic and I was only your surrogate father, those earthly details mattered not. In fact, on this Christmas Eve night it seemed our roles were somehow appropriate.
I will never forget that service. Dressed in our son Shawn’s long, flowing baptismal gown, you looked every bit your part. As you did so often at church, you brought many smiles to those in the congregation with your sweet and gentle disposition. Indeed, your smile was your own special gift. I hope it still is.
After we waited in the back of the church for a couple of wayward shepherds to find their place in the procession, our cue was finally given and we started down the aisle. I will always remember how you looked in my eyes as we walked, and, content in my arms, you drifted off to sleep. I remember how wonderfully peaceful it made me feel.
It’s funny how the mind and soul work. Suddenly, everything seemed to slow down, to crystallize a moment. As I looked around our church, packed with people and lit by soft candlelight, I realized this was the place where I had been married.
The bittersweet revelation hit me. Our walk that night, I realized sadly, would be our only walk down the aisle together. There would be no wedding march for us. Unlike the fathers who would give away their daughters in marriage, I was entrusting you instead to God and to whatever plan he had for you.
There must have been many in the congregation who thought the big lug carrying Baby Jesus was taking his part just a little too seriously, with all the tears. But how could they know the symbolism of this simple act of giving you away? How could they know my bittersweet realization that your coming to me — and ultimately leaving — was not about losing but about gaining something from our time together. In that moment I knew you were there to teach me to be a better father and a better man. To let me feel what it really means to walk in someone else’s shoes.
Five years ago, when my wife and I adopted our son, Shawn, we were on the receiving end of the precious gift of life. Our son was literally handed to us by his birth mom at the hospital. I was eternally grateful for her ultimate loving sacrifice, but how could I really know what she was going through?
Well, it was you who gave me the insight. I learned that the ultimate gift of love comes not from the receiver but from the giver. I also learned that the right thing to do is not always easy or what “everyone else” might do. Finally, as the song says, I learned that when all’s said and done you have to give faith a fighting chance. Every time I hear the song, “I Hope You Dance” by LeeAnn Womack, I will always remember the Christmas Eve walk we took together.
Someday, maybe we’ll share that dance. Until then, I will always be guarding my Tess.
With love, Timothy S. McCarty
Postscript: After baby “Tess,” was reunited with her birth mom, my wife Teresa was invited to her first birthday party. Birth mother, foster parents and baby are all doing fine.