Saturday, April 28, 2012

Somewhere in Wuhan (And the Part I Left Out)

Emma in Wuhan, 1995

“I wasn’t going to tell you that,” he said, and it seemed he already wished he could take back his words. We were sitting on the lumpy brown chairs in one corner of our Wuhan hotel room, whispering together while Emma napped on the double bed, surrounded by pillows to keep her from going anywhere.

The minute he had said it, I had jumped to my feet and raced over to check on her, my daughter of 24 hours. Her lucky bindi, carefully painted with red nail polish by her foster mother, had been washed away, but her shiny red manicure was still in place. She slept with a frown on her face and her hands up in the air, a posture she would maintain for the next 17 years, each time she lost her nightly battle with sleep. Along with so much else, though, I didn’t know that then.

But there was one thing, the thing he’d just told me, that I wished I could un-know, right away, because now there was an image in my mind that I couldn’t wipe away. He’d just come from a final meeting with the orphanage officials, and I could tell from the moment he stepped into the room that something troubling had happened.

“They found her when she was two days old,” he’d reported, looking away. “At the radio parts factory.”

A two-day-old baby. In February. At the radio parts factory.

But not just any baby.

This baby. This one that I’d already given four bottles to, already changed a few diapers for, already bathed, nervously, in the hotel sink.

My daughter.

When people talk about their children, they use the word “love,” but that’s a concept that, for me, always contained too much an element of choice. We decide whom to love. With Emma, there had been no deciding.

From the moment I had embarked on this adventure, had clipped my hook to the bungee cord of a crazy idea to adopt a child from China, it was as if a magnet had been placed deep within me. The minute she was placed in my arms at the Wuhan Foundling Hospital, our opposite poles had attracted, inevitably. We were attached, and it was just that simple and just that complicated, even after only 24 hours.

So the thought of her ever being alone, being cold or being in danger --  the thought of her anywhere near something that sounded as menacing as a radio parts factory – made me feel rent in two and impelled me to sprint to her bedside, just to make sure she was still safe. She was safe. She was Emma, and nothing as simple as mere abandonment as an infant was going to get in the way of her rocket ride. But of course, that was one of those things I didn’t know yet.

“We don’t need to talk about that part, ever again,” he said.

And, for seventeen years, we didn’t. On her birthday each year, I would brightly bring up reminders of  her birth parents, a topic in which she always seemed disinterested. I had friends with kids from China who demanded daily and detailed recollections of what had happened to them. Emma, the ruling Queen of Emma-land, seemed to be a country of one, content with her own present and unconcerned about the past. Still, I always looked for a way to mention her parents and tell her how proud they would be of her. We would toast them, thank them, say that even halfway around the world, they were thinking about her. Behind my eyes, though, there was always the Dickensian-dark backstory and that looming hulk of the radio parts factory.

I knew from recent studies that most kids adopted from China shared a similar story – a poor family who had one girl already, who had tried for a boy and who, with the birth of this daughter, had failed. Often, I’d read, there was an iron-willed mother-in-law involved, one who commanded what had to be done. Like most things in China, it was all more complex than it seemed. What looked like an abandonment was often an arrangement with a sympathetic friend who agreed to “find” the girl and get her to an orphanage. If she had to be left somewhere, hidden watchers were stationed to ensure her safety. It’s one of the immutable rules of China, I suppose, that someone is always watching. She was loved and she was safe, I tried to tell myself, but, on so many February twenty-seconds, after the frosting had been licked off the candles and the wrapping paper had been burned in the fireplace, that thought did not hold much comfort.

And just at the point of the story where I might be forgiven for this repeated omission, I have another one to confess. Emma has been living in China this academic year. She decided to return to her hometown in the spring, to visit her orphanage. She asked for my help in arranging the journey. I was asked to gather up all the papers we’d been given in Wuhan. I found them in the family safety deposit box. Her Chinese visa. Her medical exam. The first photo I’d ever seen of her, sent via fax machine. Another photo we’d had to take at the American embassy in Guangzhou, when she had turned angrily from the camera and I’d had to turn her face back toward it. My fingers are the only part of me in the photograph, but I swear, I can tell they’re nervous fingers.

I took the papers home and begin to scan each page. It occurred to me, somewhere during this task, that I should send these documents to Emma, too. I thought she’d be delighted to discover that she didn’t need the English translation sheet, but could read the original Chinese. Then I came across a document that mentioned where she was found. I suddenly felt like a character in a James Bond movie: “So, radio parts factory, we meet again.”

Emma on the flight out of Wuhan, 1995

I sent all the documents to the agency. I sat for a long time in front of the computer, deciding which ones to send to Emma. I imagined her, alone, in her bedroom, in Beijing, reading all of this. I pictured her quick eyes scanning the sheets, taking it all in. I imagined how she would feel when she got to that one, how her eyebrows would crumple together, and how she would reach to chew on the shreds of the baby blanket she brought with her from home (it's visible, whole, peeking out of the red bag in the picture above).

I sent her every document but that one.

Sometimes it takes years for us to realize the mistakes we’ve made as parents -- the things we should have done, the things we shouldn’t have said. As I sat at the computer that day, I knew it was wrong to withhold this document, but I couldn't bring myself to unleash the truth upon her while she was all alone in that complicated and chaotic place.

The truth comes out though, sooner or later, every time. The arrangements were made, the permissions were received, and Emma and her father spent yesterday at the Wuhan Foundling Hospital. The guide we’d hired, armed with the information I had sent, included a visit to the radio parts factory in the itinerary.

Somewhere in Wuhan, Emma has relatives. Somewhere in Wuhan, I know she wishes, she has a mother and a father and a brother and sister. But somewhere in Wuhan, she was released from their family circle, and that somewhere was the radio parts factory. She was with someone who loved her when the truth she was seeking came crashing in on her. I can only hope that helped.

As I’m writing this, I haven’t yet heard a report from the travelers, haven’t pieced together what sense Emma is making of this journey. But that’s beside the point for this record of my omissions and my failures. We can each of us only tell our own stories, so I am telling mine. It’s not a very proud one, but, finally, it’s honest.

At some point in everyone’s life, adopted or not, there is a time to reflect on family. How on earth, we think, did I end up with these people? While some may point to destiny, biology or just random chance, I do admit that I believe in a higher power. My version may be a little bit offbeat (I’ve written in another blog about how I’m convinced that God will resemble Cole Porter, and that heaven will include nightly showings of all my favorite plays), but I’ve also discovered that I believe in a corollary Cocktail Party theory of families. God, the great jester, throws us together in these lifelong cocktail parties with people he thinks will make amusing or instructive company for us. While I realize that the guest list can seem sometimes to be vengeful, or obtuse, or just plain wrong-headed, I have great hopes that, someday, it will all be clear why we ended up in the same unending party with those particular family members.

So, the way my theory  goes, my girls are stuck at the same cocktail party as I am, and while I’ve spent a great deal of time these past seventeen years getting them carrot sticks and offering them coloring books and trying to keep them amused, I have some hopes that in the years to come they might occasionally offer to freshen my drink, or bring me a rumaki, or, if I ever make good on my continued threat to take up smoking, light my cigarette for me.

For whatever reason, Emma is at this party with me as her mother, and that’s going to be something she has to make her own sort of sense of, along with everything else the poor kid is trying to figure out these days. She has been the great adventure of my life, but I understand that the relationship holds something different for each of us. She is in my bloodstream, something so elemental to my existence that I can’t imagine living without her. I am her launching pad, nothing more and nothing less, the thing she pushes against to help her slip into orbit. And even as she's flashing against the sky, I still feel the pull of her and know that, somehow, we'll always be connected.

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