“I almost lost my son, once,” she tossed it out, as if she were saying something as casual as how’s the weather out there or socks are buy-one-get-one-free today. But the way she looked at me, darting glances away from her cash register, made me realize that it was meaningful to her. And how could it not be? As a mom who has lost her kids everywhere from the grocery store to the gym (twice) to preschool, I know how utterly terrifying that feeling is.
I opened my mouth to say something but then realized that I had exactly ten minutes to get Jelly Bean to her preschool and if I hurried through buying my few purchases and raced out to the car, we could still make it on time. I could just smile and nod and keep going. But then I remembered my list – the list I made at the beginning of December to help me be less depressed by helping others (hopefully) be less depressed. I’m almost down to the end, just a few left. And thanks to several astute suggestions from you guys, instead of tackling them one a day I’ve just tried to keep the list in my mind and if one of those opportunities arises then I jump on it. (But not literally. I did jump on a stranger once – in a crowded pool because I wasn’t wearing my contacts and he had on the same swim shorts as my brother – but that did not end well. I’ve tried never to do it again.) And one of the last items on my Operation Give a Little list was: Give someone a listen, everyone has a story to tell.
I almost lost my son, once.
The tone alone told me that she wasn’t talking about a rogue toddler ducking under a bathroom stall and beelining it for the candy aisle while I was still hobbled with my pants around my ankles like one of my kids did. Losing a child. If that wasn’t a story waiting to spill forth then I don’t know what is. So instead of hurrying through the line, I looked at the cashier and said, “Tell me about it. What happened?”
“Well we adopted him when he was just six hours old but his birth mom changed her mind three months later and sued to get him back.”
“That sounds horrific,” I said.
“It was.” The woman, her kind brown eyes now filling with tears, went on to give me quite a detailed account about years of legal battles – “we even took it to the Supreme Court” – another failed adoption in the interim and then, finally, a decision.
“And then what?” I was breathless with worry for her, my own eyes suddenly misty. I can’t imagine raising and loving a child for years knowing that someone might yank him out of my arms at any minute.
“We won, we still have our son,” she smiled both triumphantly and a little sadly. “He’s 10 and every Christmas he’s still the best gift I’ve ever gotten.”
“I have a 10-year-old son, too. I’m so so glad you got to keep yours!” As we finished up our conversation and she handed me my receipt, I thought about how a simple everyday conversation at a store had turned into one of the most beautiful stories I’ve heard this season.
Even after dropping Jelly Bean off at preschool – a solid 20 minutes late – I was surprised to see tears still in my eyes*. And then I remembered what they were from – they were from a little girl my husband and I had almost had and then lost. No, not our daughter Faith who was stillborn. There was another little girl, born the same day as our daughter died.
To this day I can’t remember how exactly it happened but while I was in labor, delivering a baby born to die, a woman called my mom. About a baby being born at that same time to a mother who was drug addicted and who would lose her baby at birth too – to Child Protective Services. The woman knew about my dying baby and wondered if my husband and I might be interested in adopting the baby girl. She said she knew we were good people.
Again, much of it is a blur, as all-encompassing was my pain at that moment (it was pain on top of pain on top of pain), but I remember my mom mentioning it to us, almost sheepishly. She’d kept the number, she said. If we wanted it. At that moment I did not want it. I didn’t want another baby. I wanted my baby. I wanted, more than anything, for the doctors to be wrong and for my little girl to come out of my body, beat the million-to-one odds against her, and survive. She didn’t. My baby went to the funeral home and then came back to us in a tiny box of ashes. The other baby went to a foster’s home and didn’t come back.
And for a while I forgot the other baby even existed.
But after the funeral was over and the nursery was packed away and all of our family had left, I remembered the baby who lived. Babies should always come back to a mother who loves them, I whispered to myself, over and over again. Our baby couldn’t. But maybe that other baby could, after all. Perhaps that day in the hospital – one tiny soul going out just as the other came in – was kismet.
We made the call. We met the little girl. She was more beautiful than we ever could have imagined. The grandmother let us walk with her along the beach, seeing how it felt to have the weight of a baby in our arms and on our hearts. Could we do this? my husband and I asked each other. And then, so simply, we realized that we could. Of course she wouldn’t replace our daughter but just realizing that we could love another child, fully and happily, healed so many wounds. We could be parents, yet.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Through twists and turns of a convoluted court system and a mother who even though she had serious life issues still wanted to be a mother (or at least didn’t want anyone else to be a mother) to her child, we finally had to give up our dream of adopting the sweet little girl. I was sad – and more than a little angry at a system that would repeatedly return a baby to a dangerous situation – but recognized this was where it ended for us.
I thought I was giving the cashier a gift by listening to a story that she so clearly needed to tell. But she gave me an even greater gift – the memory of the first living baby I held in my arms and called mine, even if it was only for a day. For years after that experience with the other baby girl, I would occasionally wonder why God would put another baby in my arms only to take it away again but now, after nearly 13 years, I think I can understand why. Each life, no matter how short or how tiny or how slow, is powerful. Every baby is hope.
After I got home, it occurred to me that I could do another item on my Operation Give a Little list: give someone a public accolade. Sure it’s nice to give someone a compliment but sometimes it’s even better if you can call attention to someone who has gone beyond the call of duty. Whether it’s telling the restaurant manager how fantastic the service your waiter provided was or filling out a comment card at your gym telling them how the fitness staff always takes time to answer your questions or help you out, giving someone some public recognition is easy and can have a big impact on their happiness (and job!). So I called up the store where I’d just been and told the manager the cashier’s name and how great she’d been at helping me. It took me five minutes and hopefully the woman will get a little bonus or at least a pat on the back.
So for anyone still looking for a way to make someone else’s day, try giving someone a listening ear when they have a story to tell or give someone public recognition for a job well done.
Have you had anyone tell you a good story recently? Has anyone ever given you a public recognition that totally made your day?
*This experience also made me remember how healing real sadness can be – and how different it is from depression. I often call my depression “a sad” or say that I’m feeling sad but it’s more of a gray ghost that haunts me and squeezes my heart. I think if I were being accurate I’d say I feel compressed or made small. Depression is dark and murky, like drowning. My sadness is sharp and clear, like a breath of snowy air on the top of a mountain.
**Which would mean we would have had daughters named Faith and Hope. Kinda makes me wish we’d named Jelly Bean “Charity”! Kidding. Maybe.