"The Whole Journey"

I knew it was monumentally important for my son and I to make it to his birth mother's graduation. But when our plans went awry, my resolve started to waver.

A young toddler at his birth mother's graduation

Our car moved forward by centimeters as my two-year-old son Andrew* fussed in the back seat. For two hours now, we’d been trying to get to a high school graduation. Plan A had been to meet Serena and her family at their house ahead of time, take some leisurely pictures, then move on to the evening ceremony for as long as Andrew could reasonably hold it together. But after hitting molasses-speed gridlock, we’d moved on to Plan B, heading straight to the arena for the ceremony. We merged onto an entirely different highway — and found another unmoving mess. Andrew set up a new round of complaining-edging-into-crying, and I wanted very badly to bail, just pull off at the next exit and take him home.

Except the graduate we were going to see was Andrew’s birth mother.

“I’d love it if you could be there,” Serena had emailed. “I totally understand if you can’t, but it would mean so much to know that you all would be there.” My husband was heartbroken, but he couldn’t get out of a business trip, and so Andrew and I were here on our own, miserably stuck on what was beginning to feel like an impossible journey. In the rearview I saw Andrew tug harder on the strap of his car seat. I reached over my shoulder to hand him another cracker and sang another loudly cheerful round of Old MacDonald.

Building the Story

We have an open adoption with our son’s birth mother. In the years since he was born, we’ve had about half a dozen visits: his birthdays, the holidays, all of them important and positive. He’s still too young to grasp the relationships of the people gathered around him — his birth mother, her parents, her younger brother — but we are building the story of his birth family for him with each visit, and when we first got Serena’s invitation, I thought of course we’ll go. We were the family she had chosen when she was making that painful decision — raise a child or finish high school — and the importance of our being there was monumental.

But in that car, toddler meltdown on the way, I was seriously rethinking that optimistic response. Andrew is too young to understand, I thought. He won’t even know why we’re there, and he won’t know he’s missing something if we don’t go. Looking back at those thoughts, I’m ashamed that I had them.

If I’d been within sight of an exit, I would have taken it. In desperation I called one of my best friends, a fellow adoptive parent. (I know it’s not safe to talk on the phone while driving, but, truly, we were stationary.) “We are totally late,” I explained, “we missed meeting them at their house and Andrew is fussing. We’re never going to make it.” I think I was looking for permission to give up and turn around, but, instead, my friend said exactly what I needed to hear: “You’re giving him that photo for the rest of his life.”

I glanced at the camera tucked in the diaper bag next to me and thought again about Serena’s email: “…it would mean so much to know that you all would be there.” I found my better resolve and stayed on the road, another hour ticking by before we made it.

They Will Always Know

As Andrew and I walked up the steps to the arena, I texted Serena to let her know we were in the building. “Cool!” she replied. I somehow found her parents and settled in to manage a tired and hungry toddler during a two-hour evening graduation ceremony.

Truthfully, I spent most of the evening following Andrew as he ran around the hallways surrounding the arena, burning off the energy of a two-year-old who was up too late. He didn’t see much of the ceremony, and he was so wound up he didn’t even fall asleep on the car ride home. The next day he was raggedy-tired.

Yet, at the most important, magical moment, he was in the room. Serena’s parents and Andrew and I all clapped very, very hard as she walked across the stage and received her high school diploma.

As my friend had been wise enough to remind me, Andrew now has the photos. They are, I have to admit, far from perfect. Badly framed and hastily shot, they are not the lovely photographs I imagined taking in her yard before the ceremony, and they don’t in any way match the magnitude of the event itself. When you get to the picture of the graduate walking across the stage, hard-earned diploma in hand, it’s taken from so far away that you can’t possibly tell it’s Serena. There are two of Andrew and Serena after the ceremony. We finally found her outside the building, and she cuddled up next to Andrew as they posed for the pictures. His eyes were solemn, as if he knew this was something important, even if he wasn’t sure why.

But I can tell Andrew the story. His story. He saw his birth mother’s graduation, saw the moment she finished high school. Our inconvenient journey was nothing compared to having the story that makes his life whole, complete with all the important people in it. She invited him, and he was there. He will always know this. She will always know that we were there, cheering for her. And I will always know — I knew it again as I stood there clapping, flooded with a mix of love and pride and gratitude for this young woman who has given me and my husband everything — that the journey is for all of us.


*Names have been changed to preserve privacy.


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