Yesterday, Alex’s birth mom sent us an email. She usually checks in around mid-August as Alex’s birthday nears. It always brings back a flood of emotions and memories about how this little — not so little anymore — boy came to part of our family. It was such a surreal and intense time. But even though it was amazing to watch our son being born, it wasn’t a great moment. A moment can’t be great if it’s someone else’s worst moment. Watching a mother make that decision is heartbreaking and beyond sad.
Alex’s birth marked my first day as a parent. My first real practice run at parenting, however, had come a few weeks earlier. And boy did I get a story to tell.
As part of the adoption process, we spent a few weekends in July and August prior to Alex’s birth getting to know his birth mom (I’ll call her Annie) and her family. She had two kids — a four year old girl (let’s call her Lucy) and a two year old boy (let’s call him Peyton). She also had a boyfriend (let’s call him Jose) who was not Alex’s birth father. The days we spent with them mostly consisted of Amy and I taking Annie, Lucy and Peyton to places they wouldn’t normally go. We took them to the mall, ate at Cheesecake Factory and given it was around 115 degrees during the day (it’s August in Arizona after all), we frequented a few of Arizona’s finest Chuck E Cheese-type places so the kids could play all day as I handed over quarter after quarter for various games and rides. I learned quickly that it’s a really bad idea to let a two-year old boy play skee ball. This particular weekend was a special trip. It was the last time we would see Annie before the baby arrived, and she had specifically scheduled her final ultrasound for when we were visiting so we could see the baby. She didn’t need to do that. It was very generous of her. That was Friday.
On Saturday, we took the kids to lunch. We were returning to the Bay Area first thing Sunday morning. We couldn’t wait to get home. You see, you want these trips to go really well, but you also want to get out of there as quickly as possible. Every minute is an audition of sorts – a “tryout” to be the parents of this woman’s unborn child. It’s awkward, it’s intense and it’s exhausting.
After several slices of pizza with ketchup (little Peyton ate everything with ketchup), we were heading out. A quick ride to drop everyone back at Annie’s apartment and we were done. Well…not so fast. As we head out toward the exit, Annie clutches at her chest as if she’s having a heart attack. We quickly sit down. She’s in obvious pain. Oh my god. This is not happening. What about the baby. We go into crisis mode and Amy and I quickly start going through all the variables. We need to get medical attention asap. The two kids are running around. Annie is starting to hyperventilate. We have to change our flights. Where’s the nearest hospital? Do we call 911? Wait it out? We have no idea what to do, but we know this. We need to figure it out, and fast, and take care of Annie no matter what the issue is.
Amy somehow gets Annie’s doctor, who we saw yesterday morning, on the phone. Amy knows how to talk to people she doesn’t know to get what she needs. She does for Annie what Annie couldn’t do for herself. We’re advised to go to the ER immediately. While we Google how to get to the hospital, Amy and I discuss how we’re going to do this. We can’t reach Annie’s boyfriend who is on a job in Phoenix somewhere. We have one car, two toddlers, and the mother of our soon-to-be child crying out in pain. We need to make this all ok. Everything depends on what happens tonight. We decide we will all drive to the hospital. Amy would stay with Annie and be her support and advocate. And I would take the kids. Wait, what?? I have to take the kids? Talk about short straw. Amy quickly reminds me that she’s not exactly enjoying herself either. But at least she can flip through a magazine or something.
Before we go any further with this story, it’s important that you know some very important details. First, the kids don’t speak English, and Peyton doesn’t speak at all. My Spanish doesn’t go beyond a few words that mostly involve going to the bathroom. Second, I don’t know the kids’ last names and they don’t know anything about me. I’m just a guy who gives them quarters for games and buys them food and a guy who just dropped off their mom at a hospital with some blond lady. And Lucy is a nickname; I actually don’t know her real name. Oh, and I’ve never been alone with a toddler or two. I’ve never changed a diaper and I have no clue what to do.
At this point, I can feel my brain working fast like the Terminator when the computer in his eyes scans through all the various options. My problem — I can’t control kids that I can’t communicate with. It’s too hot for the park. I’m afraid to go back to Chuck E Cheese because how am I going to control the kids? How will I know if they need the bathroom or are hungry? What if I lose one? I’m in a strange place, I don’t know anybody – my mom would know what to do, but she’s 3,000 miles away. And let’s be honest, my only job is to not fuck this up. I need to keep these kids alive and I need to come back with the same amount of kids I left with. I make the only decision there is. I’m going to drive. I’m going to drive for as long as I have to. They are safe strapped into their rented car seats. Crying is just noise after all (I told you I wasn’t a parent yet). I got this. I’ll just roll up the windows, blast the A/C, turn on the radio…and drive. And the kids will nap, right? How hard could that be? Well…
Up and down the 101 and the 202. Back and forth for what would end up being hours. I stay on the highway so I don’t get lost and mostly so I don’t have to stop for lights or anything so the kids have a chance at falling asleep. But, these kids really don’t nap. The little guy took a nap for about 30 minutes but then I hit a bump and he woke up wanting his “mama.” And the little girl, well, she cried for her mommy too. A lot. Could you blame her? I finally pulled over into a parking lot, called Amy, and put Annie on the phone with Lucy for a few minutes. Annie told her it was going to be ok. It worked. Until it didn’t…as soon as we hung up the phone.
I tried to sooth them. I sang whatever songs I could remember from my childhood. I played peek-a-book using my mirrors which killed about seven minutes. I drove until I hit the Phoenix airport, then back toward the dessert, a drive by the hospital with the hope I would get the call and just be a few minutes away. Around and around and around it went. Driving. Crying. More driving. I could do this. And then it hits me. What If I get pulled over by the police? I’m in a rented SUV, with two kids who aren’t mine, who don’t speak English, I don’t know where I am or where I am going. Oh lord. What would I even say? No one would believe me. I check the speed limit. I’m not going an MPH over it.
Amy is texting me updates. They haven’t gone in yet. What the hell? In the room with the nurse. Minutes turn to hours. They are getting an x-ray. They wait for the technician. Then back to the room. Waiting…. We’re texting back and forth words of encouragement. We think it will be over soon but soon never materializes. I get gas. That’s the highlight so far, an opportunity to stretch my legs.
I look at my phone again…oh god, my battery is getting low. Panic. I didn’t know I would need a car charger. My phone is my lifeline.to Amy and.to being saved. I text Amy that my phone is now only for emergencies and to tell me when to come pick them up. I go dark. No Google maps. No calls. Nothing.
The kids are crying. It hits me. I bet they’re hungry (genius!). I’m starved. I know they love McDonald’s. I had been searching for a McDonald’s for a while now thinking I trust myself enough to let them play at one of those play structures. I can’t find the one I had seen the day before. It’s my mission to find it. I never do. I find a different McDonald’s and order happy meals for all of us at the drive-thru. I pull into the empty parking lot, keep the engine on for the A/C and we eat. It’s one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. I make it last as long as possible. Anything is better than driving at this point.
More driving. The kids are quieter now. But I can see fear in the Lucy’s eyes. She knows her mom is not ok. I keep telling her that her mama is fine, but I have no idea.
And then a text. “Annie’s boyfriend is home. You can drop the kids off.” My heart beats again. I use the remaining batteries in my phone to GPS how to get back to Annie’s apartment. It’s about 30 minutes away. I tell the kids. I’m speaking English, but I think they understand. Lucy smiles for the first time in hours. Poor kid. I pull up in front of Annie’s apartment and Jose meets us. Annie would later tell me that Jose told her that I looked so relieved when the kids finally got out of the car. She laughed about it. It was hard not to laugh too. I said goodbye to the kids and drove off.
Amy sends a text. “We’re all done. She’s fine. Come get us, we’re starving.” Turns out that it was likely just severe heartburn. Annie is fine. The baby is fine. I can feel all the worry and stress drain from my body. We’re almost home. I pick up Amy and Annie. Annie wants Arby’s. Really. Exactly what I would get if I had severe heartburn.
We’re on our way. I’m driving again. I look up near Arby’s. There it is. The McDonald’s with the play structure thing. Figures.
We all sit in silence as Annie eats her roast beef sandwich and curly fries. Amy and I have a full conversation with just our eyes.
We drop Annie off and Lucy and Peyton run out of their apartment and greet Annie with big hugs. All is well.
Amy and I drive off. I grab her hand; it’s going to be ok.
Photo credit: “Entering Arizona on I-10 Westbound” by Wing-Chi Poon – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Entering_Arizona_on_I-10_Westbound.jpg#/media/File:Entering_Arizona_on_I-10_Westbound.jpg