Wednesday, December 14, 2011

One Suitcase, Sixteen Years

The last time I was packing this suitcase for a trip to China, it was full of diapers and baby formula. Packed between the bulkier items was the unscannable subtext of near-hysteria at that thought that anyone, let alone a four-month-old, was going to be relying on me (me!) for motherly care and maintenance for the foreseeable future.

Emma, in that way she has of speeding through every life event, was ready about six months before it was even reasonable to expect a placement, according to the adoption experts. “Let’s get this show on the road,” I can almost imagine her saying, giving her diaper a hearty hitching up and exerting her considerable influence on life events. I’ve watched her win too many raffles and sweepstakes not to consider the possibility of telekensis exerted on that particular set of paperwork from the confines of a certain crib in the Wuhan Foundling Hospital. Some party hack in Beijing found himself impelled to place her file on top of that one from Minneapolis, and a family was created.

Back in the states, parent preparation was a one-month whirlwind of packing, paperwork, traveling and waiting. On the flight over, I read a bagful of baby and child care books, which only convinced me that she’d choke and suffocate the minute I held her, since that seemed to be the only things the babies in those books ever did. And, after about a thousand years of waiting, someone put her in my arms, and my body began to vibrate with the electrical current of energy that is the essence of Emma Bao Wei.

When that old suitcase was hauled from the attic on Sunday, there was still a faint residue of the sticker that some airport official had placed on it back then. Beijing. Wuhan. Guangzhou. Seattle. Finally, home to Minneapolis. This coming Sunday, the suitcase heads back to Beijing. And I'll be reunited with that girl I carried off the plane and into her new homeland on the sixth of July, 1995. “Well, it’s HER Independence Day, that’s for sure,” the U.S. customs official in Seattle had said.

He had no idea.

My biggest worries then: 1)that I’d drop her, 2)that one of her diapers would be so repulsive that I’d faint dead away and 3)that she’d cry in the night and I’d be sleeping so soundly that I wouldn’t hear her. When I enumerated these fears to my Mom, probably wringing my hands as I did, she took a long drag on her Chesterfield and finally said, “A lot is going to happen, but those aren’t the things.”

I had no idea.

I think back on those fears now. I was worried I’d drop her, that I’d let her out of my control and allow her to get hurt. She is so far from my control now (and maybe always has been), that all I can do is pray. Too bad I don’t smoke, or I’d try some long drags on Chesterfields, too.

I thought her humanness, at least the smellier side of it, would be too much for me.  And now I know that there is nothing she can ever do or say or be that will make me ever look away from her, not if she needs my help in cleaning up the mess she’s made.

I thought I wouldn’t hear her, that I would fail to rally to her side when she needed me most. The jury is still out on that one, I guess, and will be for the rest of my mothering career, no matter how much she tells me that she’s an adult and I’m ready to be retired. On that score, all I can do, once again, is pray:  Dear God, please let me hear when she’s crying in the night, wherever and whenever night comes upon her. Please let me know how to help. She is so far away, and the help these days requires something much more skillful than a bottle or diaper change.

I have a new worry, now that I’m in what she considers to be the sunset of this maternal gig. It's that I’ll allow her to get lost. Not lost at the playground or the zoo, but lost from herself. What I want most for her is to remember to stay on the clear and true path that’s waiting right in front of her. I worry that she’ll stop having faith in her own invincibility, which, however misguided for any other person, is totally logical for her. It’s been powering her up with supercharged strength for lo these many years.

What was packed between the baby clothes back then, in addition to the hysteria, was one thin layer of assurance. I knew, more clearly than I’d ever known anything in my life, that there was a kid on the other side of the world who needed a mother, and that, for whatever crazy reason fate had decided to throw us together, that mother was going to be me. I hope that she can find that level of assurance in her own life someday -- that she can head off on a path and know, always know, that it’s what she needs to be doing.

I knew my path was with her. I never looked back.

And if she ever gets lost, I hope she remembers that, as much as an adult such as herself doesn’t need me, I’ll still be hanging around, ready to help her when she’s crying in the night.  I can pack a suitcase right away and make my way to her side. In fact, I even know which one I'll use.

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