Monday, March 23, 2009

Aunt Ruthie Passed Away

Maya's great great Aunt Ruthie passed away last night at 11 p.m. after a battle with cancer. Aunt Ruthie was my daughter's great grandmother's sister. She was a thin woman with long black hair.  She was Native American, of the Lenni Lenape tribe that lived along the Delaware River crossing from New Jersey into Pennsylvania.  I only met Aunt Ruthie a year ago. I tried a few times to get a good photo of her alone and one of her with Maya.  But I wasn't able to. I didn't want to be intrusive and force her to pose, as I was only just getting to know Maya's biological family. I assumed I could get another picture of Maya with Aunt Ruthie at a later time. That time never came.

The last time we saw Aunt Ruthie, her long black hair was gone. It had been sheared off after falling out from chemo-therapy. She was more thin than ever, though still looking like royalty with her head held high and her smooth tanned skin. She slowly moved in soft slippers across the sidewalk from the car. She was just coming home from the hospital, presumably to spend her last days at home. But she managed a smile and a hug for me and Maya. Maya kissed and hugged her as only Maya can do. I worried we would hurt her frail body by hugging too hard and told her she looked beautiful. We left her Valentine's Day card and gift in the house. The card had a photo of Maya kissing the mirror. The gift was a small wall hanging that declared Love Endures All Things; Love Never Ends. From Corinthians. I hope that she understood that our love for her will never end.

I owe a lot to Aunt Ruthie. Aunt Ruthie and her sister Virginia, Maya's Nanny, are the matriarchs of Nikki's family. Virginia was always very supportive of my adopting Maya and, I believe, helped Maya's Mama Nikki come to the acceptance that Maya would do well in my family. But still, for me, was the question of whether I would be accepted into Nikki's family. Would the family not resent me? After all, I ended up with the beautiful baby. Their beautiful baby. Would they think I was a snooty lawyer from New York with whom they could have nothing in common? Would they accept my presence coldly, merely to visit with their daughter, granddaughter, great granddaughter and niece?   Or is it possible that they might accept me as the person I am, even under these awkward circumstances?

Aunt Ruthie helped pave the way for my acceptance. I had tried to impress upon her how important family was to Tim and me. I tried to show her that it was important for Tim and me to make our relationship with them a good one. And to let her know that I had no intention of taking their baby from them. I told Aunt Ruthie that I believed we could make our unique family situation work because we all loved Maya. I gave out my cell phone number freely and sent photos and small gifts for holidays and birthdays as often as I could. She must have believed me. I was thrilled to hear from Virginia that Ruthie liked me and said, "She's just like one of us!"

I'll never know what she meant by claiming I was "just like one of" her family. I'll never get the chance to ask. Nor will I ever get the chance to ask her about her history --about my daughter's history -- of being Lenni Lenape. Nor will I ever get to take that photo of her smiling at me and Maya. But I will forever hold Aunt Ruthie dear to my heart. I promise to teach Maya to honor her legacy. And I pray that, in her passing, she has found peace.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Adirondack Camping With Maya

Adirondacks August 2008

This was Maya’s first year camping with us. She seemed not to understand why we loaded up the back of the station wagon with canoe paddles and orange life jackets. Nothing seemed unusual to her about the cooler in the back of the car – we had often filled up the cooler for the two and a half hour drives to our farm house. Perhaps she didn’t see the trailer riding along behind the car either.

Maya is a good traveler in the car. Many times she withstood the more than two hour drive to Allentown, PA (where Catholic Charities and her foster mother are located). She had even made the five hour car ride to Washington D.C. with us recently in her usual go-with-the-flow attitude. So, the six hour drive up to Brown Tract Pond near Raquette Lake in the Adirondacks passed uneventfully for everyone. Certainly Maya had no cause to believe that this trip would end much differently than the others had.

Maybe it was when we parked the car and trailer in a remote wooded location that she began to suspect that this trip was different than the rest. By the time the tent was set up and she wandered inside, she knew something unusual was afoot. She began to exclaim “Wowee!” and “Oh!” as she saw new things – her cot and sleeping bag in the tent, the campfire, the canoe in the water.

It will be several years until Maya understands the Gardner family tradition of tent camping that she has inherited. One day she will come to learn how her grandfather painstakingly built our trailer from the front end of a ’48 Dodge he salvaged from the junk yard. (And how her Ima waited several days past the time they were supposed to depart for him to finish it.) She will learn how the tent is the same one that her Daddy camped in when he was a little boy – with his two brothers and two sisters and parents. (I hope that, like me, she will be delighted that we are not so tight in the tent as to require bunk cots or – heaven forbid – a triple bunk cot!) In fact, Trent has begun to strike out on his own this year now that he is 12. He pitches his own sleek single-man tent he bought for Boy Scouts next to our Victorian canvas family tent. In the large tent, we have the girls – Maya, Michela and myself – and their father and my husband, Tim.

I think the family Maya was born into would be proud of Maya’s camping activities with us. Her great grandmother is a native American from the Delaware or Lenni Lenape tribe (later subsumed into the Cherokee Nation). In fact, Maya’s biological mother Nikki chose a natural outdoor park setting along a canal for one of our early visits together. She told us it was one of her favorite places that her parents used to take her when she was little.

If Maya has the great outdoors in her blood, she didn’t let on that first night in the tent. She cried much of the night, frightened by the loons calling out on the lake and the sound of her sleeping bag rustling in the quiet night air.

Having tended to Maya all night, I slept through her first canoe trip in the morning. Tim, Trent and Michela all reported that she didn’t fight having to wear the life jacket – not too much anyway. Michela paddled in the front of our Grumman Aircraft aluminum canoe. Tim steered and paddled from the back while Trent held one of the straps on Maya’s life vest, keeping her from diving over the edge of the canoe while allowing her to walk around a bit. Maya thoroughly enjoyed dragging her hands through the water and splashing as my family made its way around Brown Tract Pond.

Since that first trip, Tim has taken Maya out paddling alone early in the morning or at sunset. She has enjoyed these trips with her Daddy. She even convinced him to let her paddle – showing her resolve about having had enough by throwing the paddle overboard. Tim describes watching the paddle drift first five, ten and fifteen feet away in the current before deciding to lay his body over the front of the canoe and doggy paddling with his hands to chase after the floating canoe paddle. Truly experiencing the adage “up a creek without a paddle,” he managed to reach out and grasp the paddle, pulling it back into the boat. I noted without saying a word that he took two paddles with him on each of his subsequent canoe trips with Maya.

As active as she was in those trips with her Daddy, we were all thankful that it was Maya’s naptime when we decided on a whim to paddle the “Crick” between Brown Tract Pond and Raquette Lake just as the storm hit. Our neighbor at the camp, an avid camper whose license plates on his truck declared ADK CMPR, had told us that the small “crick” near where we were camped would take us to the larger Raquette Lake. On a morning when the clouds threatened, we decided to venture up the creek. We figured that we would turn around if it began to rain. Trent took the front seat, paddling, while Tim steered and paddled from the back. Michela sat second position and I sat third, with Maya on my lap. I decided to leave my running shoes on the bank of the pond near the camp to keep them dry in case we tipped. Michela had her flip flops on. The boys had on socks and shoes. Only Michela and I had sweatshirts, which we quickly put in the clear “dry bag” when the drizzle started. Because it was only a light drizzle, we decided to keep going and try to make it to Raquette Lake as it seemed we must be surely half way. The drizzle stopped for awhile, but continued to threaten in the distance. Maya fell asleep in my arms just before the downpour. I kept my arms wrapped around her, her soft, curly hair just below my chin. Michela kept my feet warm by sitting on them and tucked her arms in her shirt. We decided that Tim could walk the two miles back to the campsite for dry clothing and our car while we waited at the General Store on Raquette Lake. When we got there. . . .

We were very discouraged when we saw no sign of the lake around every corner. Two roads required us to portage the canoe and re-launch on the other side. One fallen log forced us to climb out and stand on the log, pulling the canoe over it by hand. Several times we had to duck down or lay very low in the boat in order to pass under fallen trees or branches. As Maya slept, the four of us talked about how families had to pull together to make it through hard times. So, Michela and I encouraged Tim and Trent in their paddling and told them how thankful we were to have such strong men in our family. Though we were shivering, we determined not to complain but to dream about what it would be like to be warm. Neither Tim nor Trent complained about the hard work of paddling fast to get us their, either. We all determined we could withstand another hour if that is what it took. (We had already been out on the creek over an hour and a half.)

Seeing several Great Heron up close in the tall grasses and among the beautiful lillypads made the trip special. Finally, seeing a kayak coming towards us gave us hope. At least we knew there was a way out. The kayakers told us that it would be about another hour until we hit the Lake. We soon saw two more canoes and our spirits were lifted. (We were envious that they had ponchos and we had forgotten to take ours. That is all it would have taken to make the trip so much more enjoyable.) Michela wanted a second opinion. She asked them how much longer until we hit the Lake. They said a half hour to forty five minutes. As the rain lightened up (and Maya remained asleep and warm in my arms), we knew we would make it.

Under the bridge in just over forty minutes, we paddled into the sun – now shining – triumphantly onto Raquette Lake. Our success was made all the sweeter when the owner of the General Store graciously offered to drive Tim back to the camp to get our car. That meant that Trent, Michela, Maya and I would not have to wait too long until Tim returned with warm, dry clothes and money to buy hot cocoa and treats for having endured the trip. We jokingly decided we would question Mr. Adirondack Camper on his definition of a “crick” upon our return to camp.

That canoe trip baptized Maya into the Gardner camping rituals. Thereafter, she became a veteran camper, crying out “ga-noo!” whenever she wanted her Daddy to take her paddling. She also learned the joys of Graham crackers (“crackey”), marshmallows (“mashalow”), and chocolate (“chockey”). She learned to chew on tooth picks, call to passing ducks, and admire the sunset. Maya delighted in picking raspberries (only the red ones) and blackberries (only the black ones). After a couple of nights, she insisted on sleeping in “Maya’s cot” during the night, scooching far down into her sleeping bag to stay warm. She learned to paddle, well almost. And even attempted to light the Coleman lantern and stove. (We think we will hold off on teaching her that until she is 5.)

Next year we hope that Maya learns to pull her weight hiking. (Daddy wasn’t feeling up to hiking with her in the back pack this year.) We also hope that she’s out of diapers and not as messy when she eats next year. We hope she will abandon her habit of pulling on the tent stakes and tossing the paddles overboard. But this year, despite her novice status – or maybe because of it – we thoroughly enjoyed camping with her. Maya reminded each of us of the first time we watched the pink sunset over a lake. Goodnight Sun!

Monday, March 2, 2009


When I first heard from a friend, who was a diabetes educator, that there was a baby in foster care that had Type 1 diabetes and needed a home, all I could think was that the baby could be mine. My friend merely made the statement in passing: that she had just brought diabetes supplies to a beautiful mixed-race baby in foster care. She wasn’t looking for a response. Just making small talk. She couldn’t have known that my heart raced and that I began plotting at that moment how to approach my husband. She told our group of friends that the baby was diagnosed at one month old and would require insulin injections for the rest of her life. That was fine with me. I knew a lot about Type 1 diabetes. Diabetes had come to live at our home eight years earlier when my then-four-year-old son was diagnosed.

I couldn’t believe that I might be so lucky as to be able to adopt a baby. My husband came from a Midwestern Mennonite family with five children. I came from an Italian Catholic family with six children. We always agreed that having a good number of siblings was a fun way to have been raised. Unfortunately, having married at 30 and having faced some fertility issues, we had a difficult time having biological children. Then, when Trent came, we felt very lucky. We tacitly agreed to accept whatever children God had in store for us. To much joy and surprise, Michela came two and a half years later.

For the following eight years, I wasn’t exactly disappointed every month to find that I wasn’t pregnant. I got used to it. But silently, I did hope. I was not about to complain. We had one boy and one girl. They were healthy, beautiful and intelligent. Life had been good to us. Still, sometimes, I found myself looking on the internet at children waiting to be adopted. But when I broached the subject of adoption with my husband, he was not keen on the idea. He didn’t like the idea of “shopping” for a baby. When pressed, he agreed that if a baby was born that we heard about that needed a home, he would be open to adoption. With that in mind, I kept my ear open.

When I first talked to my husband about the baby with diabetes at Catholic Charities, I was surprised to hear that he was immediately receptive to the idea. He knew that strong families could be formed through adoption. He has three siblings who were adopted. They are half-Jewish and half-black by birth and were adopted during the late 60s and early 70s when placing children of color into white families was unusual. We have a close relationship with all of them, especially his sisters who now live close by in New York. He agreed that we would be good parents to a child with diabetes with our experience. A mixed race child would be especially welcome in our family.

The striking thing was that he confessed that it was difficult to voluntarily bring diabetes into our home. For the first time in eight years, he told me, “I hate diabetes.” I had never heard him say that before. I always thought that he saw diabetes as just another problem to be solved, like a math problem. (He comes from a long line of mathematicians; math and problem solving are hard wired into his brain.) I never knew he had strong emotions about diabetes. Wasn’t it he who taught me not to feel guilty about giving our son shots and to be thankful for every shot we had to give? To be greatful we live in these times because before the discovery of insulin in 1921 our son would be dead? Wasn’t it he who for years meticulously calculated insulin doses and charted carbohydrates? Did he really hate diabetes? Would he choose not to adopt a child who had diabetes because he hated it? He said he hated diabetes for all the times it took our son from us: when he had high blood sugars and couldn’t concentrate or when he had low blood sugars and was too weak to participate in family activities.

Nonetheless, he agreed it would be nice to have another child. He agreed we would make good parents to a child with diabetes since we had become good at managing “the beast” over the years. He thought that it would be nice for our children to have another sibling; for Michela to have a sister to look up to her and with whom she could share secrets. For Trent to have another child with diabetes in the family. This child would be good for our entire family. Even if that meant inviting diabetes into our home once again. My husband told me to follow up and inquire about the baby.

I emailed my friend, “I have been speaking with Tim about the baby . . . . We might be interested in adopting her or even taking her for foster care if that were the only option. Is there a way you could put us in touch with her caseworker? We have always wanted more children. . . .” After a week, which seemed like an eternity, I finally connected with the social worker. I was encouraged when she said she didn’t believe the biological mother or any family members would be able to care for the baby. It was bittersweet to hear that families waiting to adopt infants had been approached but didn’t want a baby requiring a lifetime of insulin injections. Bittersweet because I knew that could be my son who was rejected merely for having diabetes. Bittersweet because I knew my son likely had been rejected in his life for having diabetes. Bittersweet because I knew more than ever that this baby was meant to be mine.

After a few phone calls back and forth, the social worker and I agreed that Tim and I would drive out on Friday to meet the baby. And to talk with all involved about how they envisioned the case proceeding. The caseworker told me the baby was gorgeous. She offered to email a picture of her. I was hesitant. I didn’t want to jinx anything. Oddly, she insisted on emailing me a picture. (She later told me that she had not sent pictures to the families who said they couldn’t handle a baby with diabetes because she didn’t want them to take on a baby they didn’t want just because it was good looking. By comparison, she wanted me to fall in love with the baby because I had already agreed to take her, insulin dependent and all, sight unseen.) From the moment I saw Maya's picture, I was in love.

I drove the one-hour trip from my father’s shoe and leather repair business in New Jersey, where I had been helping out, to my New York home. I was a swirl of emotions. I wrote down the following when I got home:

"I noticed it was a full moon this evening on the drive home from New Jersey. I noticed the most minute detail of everything around me as though the details were all so important that I had to commit them to memory. The smallest details kept jumping out at me and making me take notice: the fact that it was 7:26 on the clock on my dashboard when I left work; the spices in the chicken sandwich on my tongue included taragon; the fullness of the moon seemed to swell. I thought the moon was appropriate. My heart swelled like that moon.

All day I have felt like I am an eagle at the edge of a high cliff about to soar out over the horizon and feel the breeze in my face as I stretch my wings.

And yet, I am afraid to move even a muscle or to exhale because I fear losing the perfection of the moment. As though, if I move, I might set events on a course that might take Maya away from me. From the moment I saw her face in the photo on my computer screen today, I have also had a heavy feeling in my stomach. If I hadn’t seen her face, I might have been able to handle it if the adoption doesn’t work out. But now that I have seen her, it seems like it will be a cruel twist of fate if anything goes wrong. She seems so perfect and meant to be mine.

Too bad we just threw out all of those sippy cups."

I called everyone I knew to tell them that Tim and I might adopt a baby girl with diabetes. Tim’s parents were thrilled; they wanted to be kept abreast of every event that occurred. Tim’s siblings were happy; they would have a little one to guide through her adventure of being adopted into a white family. My father said adopting another child was something he had always wanted to do. My niece wanted to be the Godmother when we baptized the baby. My friends thought I was crazy but wished me luck. The daughters of one of my friends, Monica and Sarah, were overjoyed about hearing about the prospect of my raising a baby with diabetes. And, another friend, a devout Muslim, treasured the idea of having a baby around.

My enthusiasm was like the enthusiasm of the children I spoke with: bright and na├»ve. I had worked while Tim raised Trent and Michela and I had no idea of the demands a baby could make on a parent. I was therefore taken aback at the reaction of my own mother. Only she reacted negatively. Her first reaction was that we had financial difficulties raising the two we already had with all the medical bills. I responded that we could work it out. Her next words were that I was no “spring chicken” to be running around after a baby. I was 45 at the time. My eldest sister MaryLynn was with me when I called my mother. She suggested to my mother that I wasn’t calling for advice but for blessings. “In that case,” my mother responded, “God bless you.” The call ended hastily.

My mother had always made it clear how difficult it had been for her to raise 6 kids; how much she sacrificed; and how sometimes she wished she had fewer children. She always emphasized that nonetheless she loved us all deeply. Later that week, she proved her ability to love her 16th grandchild as she loves her own children and all the other grandchildren. Knowing that Tim and I were determined to adopt the baby, she gave me a bit of advice before we went on our first visit that Friday: “Michelle, if that baby is teething, you need to bring those Zweibac teething biscuits with you. That will soothe her gums. Or maybe one of those rattles filled with water that go in the freezer for her to chew on.” My mother had fallen in love too.

[The photo above is the first photo I took of Maya on Tim's lap the following Friday.]