An Unexpected Family

For eight years, my wife and I watched our chances of having a baby evaporate. Then our eleven-year-old niece came to live with us, bringing with her a bittersweet deliverance.

Relative Adoption Niece

On Mother’s Day, I rose from the dinner table to answer the phone. It was Fran, my wife’s sister, sobbing. Her cancer had spread to her brain, she said. In three months she would be dead.

Six years before, Fran had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and she had fought back valiantly: a radical mastectomy, massive chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and finally a stem cell transplant. The two sisters talked daily on the phone, Fran in San Francisco, Barbara in Tallahassee, trusting each other with their agonies, one fighting to keep life, one fighting to create it.

Concurrent with Fran’s cancer, Barbara and I were on an eight-year quest for parenthood, during which we rode the tempestuous seas of assisted reproductive technology, delved into (and backed away from) adoption, and took another run at egg-donor in vitro fertilization.

Fran’s tribulations became, for my wife, a reality check, and whenever Barbara felt she couldn’t face another day at the clinic—being jabbed with needles, having blood drawn, having hormones injected—she would remind herself of her sister’s dire situation and feel humbled by the contrast.

Frequently during the years of Fran’s illness, my wife would fly to San Francisco to help manage her sister’s increasingly demanding household affairs. Fran’s husband, Sam, a law enforcement officer, worked long and irregular hours, and their child, Samantha, five years old when Fran was first diagnosed, was falling through the cracks of her mother’s disease, her father’s consuming work schedule, and their disintegrating marriage.

In 1996 Barbara returned from one visit with a question that, from my perspective, she didn’t need to ask. “If Fran dies, would you be willing for us to take Samantha?” My answer was, and could only be, “Of course,” although the implications were too enormous to consider. It seemed as if suddenly we were horse-trading with God.

And so we gained a de facto daughter, though not the baby girl we had longed for. And 11-year-old Samantha, having lost her mother, would lose her father, her friends, her school, and her city, and acquire a brand-new set of parents.

Suddenly, I found myself the patriarch of a family that resembled a life raft, its jerry-rigged sails filled with the winds of loss and mourning. Our ability to navigate the domestic shoals was about to be severely tested.

As it happened, the demands of my work schedule meant that I was away from home the first month Samantha lived with us. The day after I returned, my wife, a lawyer and First Amendment expert, left for three weeks to conduct seminars.

Until this point, my relationship with Samantha, unlike Barbara’s well-exercised aunt-niece relationship, had been limited: two two-week summer visits when she was six and eight years old. I had taught her how to swim in the Gulf of Mexico, and I knew that she liked my grilled salmon.

So there we were, the two of us, alone. That first morning, I woke her up for school and discovered that, like me, she was not a morning person but a sluggard who was most alert and animated when the sun went down. Barbara had warned me I would have to nag her about hygiene, or she’d leave for school with her teeth unbrushed and face unwashed.

When I came back from walking the dogs, Samantha was dressed in silver-and-black running shoes and her favorite jeans and top from the Gap. Her brown hair in a pony-tail, an enormous book bag slung over her delicate shoulders and her lunch box in her hand, a resigned look on her pretty face—the quintessential sixth-grader ready for school.

That first afternoon, when I picked her up from her after-school program, I opened the door to her classroom and, with the questioning eyes of the teacher on me, announced, “I’m here to collect my daughter,” because I didn’t quite know what else to say to preempt a discussion of our complicated relationship.

On the ride back home, she asked if we could stop to rent a movie for the evening. After being reassured that her homework was done, I said sure and then made the mistake of letting her select the film. She chose something steamy and violent, and I didn’t bother to check the rating at the time.

When breasts and simulated sex appeared on the screen, I glanced uneasily at Samantha, trying to gauge the look of stern absorption on her face, then hit the stop button on the remote control. “It’s all right,” she said matter-of-factly. “I used to watch this stuff all the time with my mom.”

Which was true, as I learned later that evening on the phone with my wife. Fran, in the despair of her illness, had made Samantha into her sibling. Once her marriage started to come apart, Samantha became her mother’s everything, and they did everything together, as friends and imagined equals.

There were no boundaries, no walls of protection or realms of privacy. Fran had taught her daughter that the rights and opinions and feelings of children were identical in weight to any adult’s.

Three or four R-rated videos later, we finally came to our senses and exiled Samantha back to the world of PG-13, to which she withdrew without complaint. We had each noticed what might have been immediately obvious to anyone else: movies with explicit sexual content seemed to shift her into a zone of troubled introspection. Her mood would turn glum; afterward she would retreat to her room and, leaving the door open, write in her diary.

The moods expanded into chronic insomnia, and she began fantasizing that we were somehow keeping her awake at night. Barbara finally took the initiative and found her a therapist—a decision Samantha did not resist, since she had been seeing a psychologist when she lived in San Francisco to help her deal with her mother’s illness—and she began to sleep through the night.

Were we slow learners, my wife and I? Perhaps. But we had become the parents of a cognizant, articulate being on the verge of puberty, whose array of problems was not of our making yet nonetheless our responsibility. And there was no way to separate her legacy of trauma from the everyday turmoil, social and hormonal, that was customary in the life of a prepubescent girl.

Anyway, during those three weeks I spent alone with her in the fall of 1998, Samantha was charming, obedient, respectful, prompt, composed, and, not least of all, fun. After her nightly bath, I would put her to bed with a book—my wife had introduced her to Nancy Drew mysteries (Nancy, you might recall, had also lost her mother), which Samantha devoured.

Every morning I would find her awake and ready for school, in the living room reading. In the afternoons when I collected her from school, we began a ritual that we continue to follow: a recounting of her day for me, deconstructing each class, followed by a review of the social to and fro of her new tribe—who was nice, who was mean, whom she liked or disliked and why.

Then with Barbara back home, the duet became what it was meant to be, a trio—or, more precisely, a triangle—and the dynamics changed, imperceptibly at first, then jarringly. Although Fran had lavished attention on her daughter, especially on holidays, Samantha’s life in San Francisco had been without routine, reliable schedules, or solid, consistent planning.

Often Samantha was the last child picked up after school; sometimes, without warning, she wasn’t picked up at all. Much of her time was spent alone, in her room, watching TV. When her mother died, she learned to repress her affection and her trust, often redirecting the iceberg of her anger toward my wife.

Most of all, it seemed, when Barbara became her surrogate mother, Samantha learned how to compete, especially for my attention. Suddenly my wife felt she was deliberately excluded, even to the extent of feeling physically deprived when I tickled the child. “She gets your playfulness now, instead of me,” Barbara lamented one day, and it shocked me to realize she was right.

Our parental roles and identities seemed to curdle into stereotypes. I was the good-time Charlie, the frivolous male, the bystander who could be co-opted as a witness for the defense; Barbara was the disciplinarian, the overextended female, trapped by solemn duty and betrayed in ways both subtle and overt by her partner.

“Yes, you can stay up a half hour more.”

“No, you can’t.”

Offstage, the two of them would quarrel, and tension would swell through the house. They were both angry with Fran for dying, and angry with each other for not being someone else. Not infrequently, I would find my wife upstairs in our bedroom, red-eyed and crying, terribly unhappy and inconsolable in her grief.

She could not stop mourning her sister. Samantha’s blameless presence was a cruel reminder, both of Fran’s absence and that Barbara would never have her own biological child.

We were new parents, but Samantha was a veteran child; we hadn’t been given 11 years to discern how she ticked, to figure out how to deal with her, how to love her no matter what. My wife resented the loss of her free time and her privacy, and in her unhappiness she condemned herself for failing as a mother.

I resented her inability to climb out of the dark, dark place she had fallen into, her quickness to take Samantha’s transgressions, innocent or calculated, personally. She was seemingly incapable of recovering her former lightness of being; her suffering now seemed hammered like a stake into the core of her personality. We had wanted a child, we had gotten a child, and it was a royal mess, a choking irony, an accidental sabotage.

For the first time in more than two decades of marriage, I threatened to leave my wife. Yet I couldn’t imagine actually doing it, any more than either of us could ever again imagine Samantha as not being an integral part of our lives, of us, of our mutual journey.

“I didn’t hesitate for a second in saying we’d take Samantha,” Barbara reminded me recently, at the end of another turbulent day. “I think I was prepared for the problems she and I would have. What I wasn’t prepared for was the problems you and I would have. We have had more serious fights in the last year and a half than in the last 24 years. But even if I had known that was going to happen, I wouldn’t have said no.”

“Why not?” I had to ask, exhausted from our battles.

How did we, as a family, pull ourselves out of the hole? I’m not sure that we have, though we have certainly settled into the drama and wild novelty and evolving fascination of it all. My wife assured me that focusing on what we’re doing right keeps her from imploding.

“I think you and I are capable of working out whatever parenting differences we have. And the fact that she needs us is more important than the fact of any domestic disturbance her presence might cause. This kid has never been free of profound worry—never in her memory, anyway. She can’t remember a time in her life when her mother wasn’t sick and dying, and that makes me incredibly sad.”

Barbara insisted she wasn’t unhappy, just “stressed to the max, with no time to relax; plus I’m going through menopause.”

“Is that all?” I joked. “What a cry-baby!” A laugh and a hug, small triumphs of grace.

“What’s so funny?” Samantha demanded to know; and we had to tell her because she can’t bear secrets, hates feeling left out, and because she is, sweet girl, no stranger to compassion.

As I write these words, a year and a half after Fran’s death, Samantha’s thirty-year-old half-sister, Ali, has taken Fran’s place in my wife’s universe of love and comfort, and vice versa. The two are the most cherished of confidantes, and Ali comes home, to us, to spend her holidays. We adore her and feel as much responsible for her as we do for Samantha.

Our attempt to adopt a baby, sidelined for more than a year by Samantha’s needs, is back in motion, and there’s no telling what further mishmash of postmodern family-building will come of it-though Samantha is beside herself with excitement at the prospect of having another sister (and another turtle and another dog).

My wife has received her first Mother’s Day tribute, an essay that made Samantha’s classmates and teachers teary-eyed the day she read it aloud at school. And I have opened my first Father’s Day card-to discover I’ve been promoted to Dad No. 1. Our hearts are broken anew, in a manner long anticipated.

Tonight the air outside my study resonates with shrieks of laughter and loud hip-hop music, sounds that usually drive parents up the wall but that for me are simply heavenly. Moments ago I lined up Samantha and her best friends from school, snapped pictures for their scrapbooks, and quietly withdrew from the melee, because when seventh-graders party, parents should be heard but not seen. It is Samantha’s thirteenth birthday; she has survived the collapse of her former life, as have we, and she is happy and lovely and, in her own heart, ours.

I think the epiphany of my life came long ago in college, when it struck me that sadness was a recognition and affirmation of the sweep of beauty in the world, the promiscuous swirl of it through our lives, and the scars it leaves behind.

One year ago today, on Samantha’s twelfth birthday, I sat on the bathroom floor cradling her, waiting for her tears to dry, waiting for her to unburden herself, telling her she was safe—in our house, in my arms—which, as you might expect, she could not easily believe. Against her own fierce will, Samantha was crying, and I knelt down, took hold of her trembling knees, and asked what was wrong.

“This isn’t supposed to be my life,” she finally blurted out.

No, honey, I had to tell her. This is supposed to be your life. And our life, too.


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