Thursday, February 25, 2010

Right on time

Self-portrait by Natalie

The other night, during the name standoff, Natalie opened her mouth to let out a feeble cry of frustration. And I caught a glimpse of something in her mouth, behind her teeth.

"Hang on, honey. Open your mouth real wide."

She obliged and I could see that what I'd mistook for food was a giant horse tooth pushing its way through the gum behind her lower front teeth.

"You have a grownup tooth coming in! And a loose tooth, too! Give me your finger, so you can feel it."

Her eyes went wide. And then we were back to the matter at hand: her name in exchange for the Tiana dress.

I've been thinking a lot about that tooth. For a few months now, as her classmates show up at school with gaps in their smiles, she asks: "Mama, when my teeth come out?"

I've told her that it's probably soon. That it's different for everyone.

Natalie has always lagged behind in the most obvious of milestones: sitting up, crawling, standing and walking. And there's her speech, which she still works on twice a week with a therapist. But she is clever and inquisitive, intuitive and funny. And she reads and writes as well - if not better than - her peers.

All along, as I fattened her up with Boost, drove her to and attended countless physical, occupational and speech therapy appointments, argued with her school to enroll her in kindergarten rather than repeating preschool, my goal was this: for her to enter first grade with all the trappings of a typical 6-year-old.

Due in large part to her incredible kindergarten teacher, Natalie has become more confident, more comfortable in taking risks. I no longer need to serve as interpreter when she's talking to our friends.

And now, the tooth. A great big ungainly tooth, just like the other kids.

It feels so nice to be right on time.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


It was touch and go there for awhile, folks.

But in the end... she cracked!

As planned, we went to Target last night. The deal: if Natalie would finally say her name for me, I'd buy her a Princess Tiana dress on the spot.

First stop: princess aisle. I took the dress of the rack, held it in front of her, saying nothing.

She stared at it, then looked at me.

It was on.

After much hand-wringing, Natalie decided she'd rather wait until her birthday in May. Even though, I told her, her birthday was awfully far away. But ok, that's fine. And I pushed the cart away, fighting the urge to bargain and plead.

She sat there in the cart, biting her lip and then her fingernail, silent as I shopped. By the time we'd finished with my list, she was asking to go back upstairs.

"Ok, honey, you going to say your name?"

She nodded, her brows furrowed. Back among princesses, I again took the dress off the rack. My heart quickened. This time I put it in her lap, let her little fingers touch the sequins and feed the lust in her heart.

"You can have the dress right now. You can wear it tonight." I could feel her resolve weakening as she imagined coming to the dinner table dressed as Tiana. Is this the thrill interrogators feel when the suspect starts to crumble?

She said she was scared. I told her I believed in her. I knew she could do it. She asked if I'd help her. But she wanted to say her last name first.

So we sounded it out together, whispering: Fitz - si - mons. Over and over until we were saying Fitzsimons together and then she was saying it all by herself. I kissed her forehead, told her what a good job she was doing.

"Ready to say Natalie now?"

And so together we said it softly, our faces just inches apart: Na - ta - lie. Over and over once again.

And then she said the whole darn thing herself. Natalie Fitzsimons. And I was about to do backflips down the aisle. But I remained calm, even managing not to cry so as to not totally freak her out.

I raised my right hand instead.

"Gimme five, baby. You just scored yourself a Tiana dress."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Say your name

I have a very stubborn child.

In May she will turn 6, and I still have not heard her say her own name.

Her kindergarten teacher has. And so has her speech teacher. Her friends, too. But not me, or Daddy, or Tony.

Daddy: When are you going to say your name?

Natalie: When I'm 10.

We have come close. Natalie has a friend at school named Natalia. I often tried to coax her to say Natalia, but she wouldn't fall for it, instead calling the girl "My-friend-who-has-name-same-as-me-but-not-same."

But now she says Natalia because on Christmas morning Natalie opened up a box to find a new baby doll from Tony's parents. What will you name her? we asked.

Tony: How about Baby Natalia?

Natalie: Natalia??? Hahahahaha. Natalia??

We gasped. Then quickly acted as if nothing had happened and when she wasn't looking mouthed HOLY SHIT! to each other.

Natalie with her namesake, Baby Natalia

But she is dug in on Natalie. I've explored different tactics.

Gentle encouragement.


Ignoring the issue.


And now: Bribery.

Tonight Natalie and I will be going to Target for a few things. I made her offer that I thought she couldn't refuse: a Princess Tiana dress. All she has to do is say her name. I made this offer over my shoulder while driving us home last night.

I watched her in the rearview mirror mulling it over. Poker-faced. No telling what tonight will hold.

All I know is she would have made a great POW.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Really old

Merlin, aka Ah-ah-ah, in better days

The family dog Merlin is dying.

Natalie calls him Ah-ah-ah. We haven't told her he's dying. But she can see it. His face is gray and he's limping. He has an aggressive tumor on his front leg that's eating away at the bone.

"Ah-ah-ah is really old," Natalie says. "I not know when he die."

I tell her that yes, Merlin is very old. And I don't know either when he's going to die.

She nods and then shrugs. And moves on to another topic. But I see that she has been thinking about death, as much as she can understand it. I can see her anxiety, her fear of being left.

It's not exactly new, though. This is a child who stood at my parents' window, whimpering for hours while Tony and I were out. A child who runs through the house in an anguished search for me if I'm not in my bed when she wakes. It's getting better, though. She's gaining confidence. Yet there is Merlin now, and he is really old.

This morning she came into bed to cuddle as Tony was shaving.

"Is Mama old?" she asked.

"No, I'm still a young woman. And you're a little girl." She pulled back to look at my head on the pillow we'd been sharing.

"Mama has gray hair."

"Yes, but it was just one strand and I pulled it out."

"Oh." She then asked whether my mother was really old. ("No, just older than Mama.") And what about Tony, because he has gray hair on the side of his head. ("No, he's the same as Mama. Still young.") Daddy? ("Same, honey.")

"I have gray hair when I get old?"

"Yes. When you have gray hair, I'm going to have a lot of gray hair. But I will still be your mama and you will always be my baby, even when you are an old lady. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Mama. Always, always, always," she said.

"Yes, always."

Monday, February 15, 2010

"Best for last"

Nearly three years ago I wrote the story of Natalie's adoption, mainly the day I called the Best and Worst Day of my Life. I'd never been happier, or more heartbroken.

In my arms, at last.

It was May 17, 2005 in Nanchang, China, Natalie's first birthday, the day her adoption was finalized, and the day her father and I were told she'd never walk. The adoption agency made an offer: Did we want to exchange her for a healthy baby?

In May 2007 I sent the story to The New York Times, and it was published in the Modern Love column on Mother's Day.

Afterward I heard from hundreds of people around the world. Mothers, fathers, people who had been adopted and people who had nothing to do with adoption. It was amazing. A really lovely experience.

Yesterday, a Facebook friend posted a link on my page. It was a Valentine's Day Modern Love column, written by Modern Love editor Daniel Jones. In it he answers questions about love, the last one being, "What is love, anyway?"

"Ah, best for last," he writes. And then he tells my story. You can read his piece here.

I normally read Modern Love every Sunday. But yesterday I didn't because I was rollerskating - with the baby who was never going to walk. What a Valentine's Day. What a gift.

Here's the original story.

The morning after an agonizing night. Everything was different, but nothing had changed.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

It hurts to watch

My two Valentines. I love them so.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Not a last resort

At times I have been approached to be a spokeswoman for adoption. Not an official spokeswoman. But a resident expert. A friend of a friend who will answer questions and share advice.

Often, the pitch goes like this:

"My sister-in-law/cousin/coworker/niece's best friend has been trying to get pregnant for 2/3/5 years and has gone through 1/2/3 unsuccessful attempts at IVF and has gotten to the point where she's thinking about just adopting. Can I give her your email address?"

At which point I say sure with an exclamation point and hope the person never writes, while privately making finger-down-the-throat puking gestures.

Or, friends will say they are going to start trying to get pregnant. But, if God forbid - God forbid! - they can't have their own child, they won't have a problem adopting.

Wow, how big of you, I think, while smiling and thinking "God forbid" is for terminal cancer, a car crash, the death of your mate. God forbid you will do the greatest thing I've done with my life. And I'm doing the puking thing again.


1. Adoption is not a last resort.
2. Adoption was not my last resort.
3. No child should ever be a last resort.

Even if it is your last resort, don't say it. Don't tell people you tried everything else first. Don't tell people that the wait time is almost like a pregnancy, which it's clear you would prefer. Did you marry your husband because you couldn't find anyone better? I'm sure not, but if so, you probably don't say it.

Respect the parent you will be, the child you will have, and all the families made possible through adoption. Think about your life with this child, how others may consider your relationship lesser than theirs with their birth child, despite your not being able to imagine a deeper love or stronger bond than yours. Think of your teenager. Will you tell him you couldn't have your "own" child, so you settled for him?

And please don't say or think "just adopt." You are talking about me and Natalie and your child, who, once you hold her in your arms and she one day says Mama, won't ever be "just" anything to you.

My child was born half a world away, and I have God, Fate, or the Red Thread to thank for bringing us together, and for guiding me. I knew she was out there. Our hearts were connected, and always will be so.

She was never a last resort.

So if you want to adopt, commit to it. Forget everything else. Don't settle for this path.

Choose it.