A rough day

When I tell people in the US that my mother-in-law was vehemently against us adopting a Romani child, they tend to assume that she is a horrid, racist witch. She isn’t. Not that she doesn’t have her difficult qualities but, as mother-in-laws go, I think I got pretty lucky. She doesn’t harp on my house cleaning (there is much to be criticized) or my cooking (which is distinctly non-traditional), or at least not within my hearing. She is scrupulously fair with her two sons and an incredibly hard worker.

The thing that I think gets lost in translation is social context. I don’t, by any means, want to be an apologist for racism. Less than a year before we brought Shaye home, my mother-in-law said she would under no circumstances accept a Romani child and I was enraged. We had a huge three-hour fight about it and she and I didn’t talk for around six months, although we did try to work it out through letters. So, I’m not saying it is excusable. But I am saying it is understandable that an all-around good person could have such prejudiced views in this society.

There are constant media and social messages about how bad and dangerous the Roma are and there are especially bad stories about adopted Romani children. A couple of years ago, a well-known Czech author wrote a memoir of her experience raising two adopted Romani boys and one biological son. The entire book was basically an argument to show that she was a saint for trying to “save” these children from their degenerate natures and that it is clearly impossible to raise adopted Romani children. She says in the book that these boys are no longer her sons, although one of them was still half-way living with her at the time and neither is incapable of reading the book to see her disown them.

She says, now famously, that a Caucasian person trying to raise a Romani child is like a cat trying to raise a panther kitten. At first it works reasonably well, but then when the kitten gets big, things completely fall apart. The story has it that the two boys she adopted ran away, joined squatters living in the ghetto, became drug addicts and robbed her at every opportunity. This after she had loved them deeply, done everything for them and only occasionally yelled racist slurs at them when they were driving her nuts as small children. It is not a scenario entirely unknown to adoptive parents of previous generations in the US, before some awareness of the psychological havoc that cultural and racial displacement can cause, if it isn’t handled openly and conscientiously and if parents don’t deal with their own internal prejudices.

And that is just one book. Negative messages are pervasive here and there is almost nothing to put up against them. My mother-in-law was very concerned about the message in this book and claimed to know two families who had also ended up in disaster after adopting Romani children. So, given that she had almost no other information to go on, her reaction wasn’t as cruel or inhuman as it might seem at first glance.

Moreover, after we got Shaye, my mother-in-law significantly calmed down. I admit that the fact that Shaye does not look stereotypically Romani and is fairly light-skinned almost certainly had something to do with the sudden resumption of good relations in the family. But anyone who spends time with Shaye and her cousins can not help but notice that she is darker than them. Especially, when we put all the little girls in the bathtub together. Then, she suddenly looks completely Romani and that hasn’t changed the family dynamics. My mother-in-law even opened a savings account for Shaye and started putting money in it to save for her to put toward education or building a home some day. I haven’t seen any signs of favoritism among the cousins that I can tell.

That said, the last time we were in Stribrec, I had one of the roughest days of my entire life and some part of it was due to my mother-in-law and her issues.

Being in a somewhat unfamiliar place, Shaye woke up bright and early on Saturday morning. I hadn’t even had time to make a cup of tea or brush my hair. I wasn’t pleased. I was already feeling emotionally fragile. I could tell that my period was starting, which meant that definitively our “absolutely final” round of fertility treatments had failed. There was no room to talk my disappointment out with Dušan though. My mother-in-law, Marie, had fallen on wet tiles and broken her leg. The break was infected and she had been on major antibiotics for weeks. She couldn’t get around or do most of her farm chores and it was driving her crazy. Dušan got up and immediately left the two Spartan rooms that we use on our visits to go help with the morning routine on the farm.

I rolled out of bed with Shaye, went into the bathroom to get another sanitary pad, returned, caught Shaye pulling the cold ashes from the night before out of the woodstove, put Shaye on the potty, got half-way into my pants, chased Shaye around to wipe her bottom, emptied the potty, chased down Shaye again to wrestle her into some clothes because the ancient tile floors of the farmhouse quickly chill bare feet to the bone, put my own by-now numb feet the rest of the way into my pants, caught Shaye as she attempted to pour the only infant formula in 15 miles on the floor, put on an undershirt, took my cell phone away from Shaye, lifted now-screaming Shaye down from the bench to the floor so that she wouldn’t be hurt in her tantrum, put on a warm shirt, discovered that I needed a much thicker sanitary pad, caught Shaye as she attempted to pull the cold-but-still-full tea pot off the counter, went to get the thicker sanitary pad, returned and put the clothes back in my backpack that Shaye had managed to completely empty in my absence, put Shaye on the potty again, poured water from Shaye’s thermos into her bottle, caught Shaye before she could dump the peepee out on the carpet, emptied the potty, wiped the little bottom, started to count dippers of infant formula into the bottle, caught Shaye as she attempted to pull the tablecloth off of the table along with the bottle, infant formula and many other items that didn’t get back into my pack, finished counting dippers, caught wildly running Shaye, sat down and fed her the bottle, discovered that I needed something a lot more than a sanitary pad to deal with the gushing blood problem, started to feel sick and dizzy, carried Shaye out to the kitchen to see if anyone could watch her for a few moments, saw Marie and my father-in-law Josef sitting outside the screen door on the veranda drinking a leisurely cup of morning coffee, put Shaye’s coat on to send her out to them, started looking for Shaye’s shoes, looked on all the shoe selves, on all the floors, under all the couches and chairs, in the toy box… and couldn’t find them.

The worst part was that I knew with certainty that the shoes were sitting somewhere in plain sight. It is only that my eyes are so bad that I easily miss stuff like that. Either they blend in with other things or my eyes simply don’t focus on them. I was desperate by this time, feeling sicker and sicker by the minute. An hour had passed since Shaye and I got up and I still hadn’t even had a chance to get a drink of water, let alone a cup of tea, which I wanted badly. I was getting the idea that this wasn’t a regular old period. This was almost certainly an early miscarriage. That, of course, meant not only that I would feel physically miserable but that I had almost made it. This time I had almost been really pregnant.

I called Dušan’s name, hoping he was outside nearby and might know where Shaye’s shoes were. In fact, I could now remember quite clearly that he had brought her in from the car the day before, so he must have taken them off. He didn’t answer. I kept looking but then called for him again, an edge of urgency creeping into my voice. I went out to look on the veranda and on the outside shelves, no doubt appearing disheveled and frazzled. Marie, who normally would have been glad to help me find the shoes, sat at the table with her leg in a cast and her crutches propped beside her. Irritably, she said, “Baby shoes are nothing to get hysterical over.”

That made me feel somewhat hysterical. The shoes may not be a reason but the need to get Shaye outside and off my hands for a few moments, so I could deal with the gushing blood and dizziness issue was. And the frustration of knowing the shoes were right in plain view and that I couldn’t see them also seemed like a good reason to get hysterical.

Dušan was apparently out back doing chores. Josef was sitting comfortably at the veranda table smoking and drinking coffee. He could in theory – at least theory according to most Americans – have helped me, but that would be unthinkable in this family culture. He is the patriarch. He doesn’t even get his own spoon when he is sitting right by the silverware drawer. There is no way he would look for baby shoes, probably not even if he knew I was bleeding profusely. I wasn’t resentful of this. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me until well after the incident that he could have helped.

In fact, I felt deeply sorry for Josef. He didn’t know that his last chance to have a grandson was draining away at that moment. I know it may seem petty of him, but there is more too this than male pride, a lot more, and Josef has always been gentle with me. After my huge fight with Marie about adopting Shaye, he came out to where I was picking cherries and offered to move my ladder for me. He stood around and helped me and watched the sky for a long time. He never said anything but his manner was comforting and reassuring. He had never said or even let on in the slightest to me or my sister-in-law that he was sad that we had not produced a son to carry the family name, but we knew.

His family had been living on the same piece of land for 600 years. I kid you not. There are ancient village chronicles to prove it. Countless disasters had threatened to ruin them or push them off the land, but they had survived – the plague, droughts, fires, famines, the occupation by Nazi forces during World War Two which forced them to give up their food without payment to feed the army, the totalitarian Communist regime that forced almost all family farmers off their land. That last challenge – the Communists – had almost finished them. Josef’s father was imprisoned five times and the Stalinist authorities sent Josef and his brother to work in a Uranium mine without protective clothing. His brother died of leukemia at the age of 21.

This is a long line of quiet fighters. This farm meant much more than just pride and land. It was the memory of all those brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and grandparents who had fought to preserve the family. And in this generation neither Dušan nor his brother had returned to the farm. Josef and Marie were trying to keep the tradition going alone in their sixties. Their effort is valliant and I knew he hoped, hoped against hope that a grandchild would take up the torch some day, if possible a boy who would also preserve the 600-year-old family name. It was his last hope, the reason he kept on struggling against impossible markets, a grinding workload and increasing health problems to keep the farm going another year and then another.

Marie has little patience for his passion for family tradition. I am a romantic though and I have a lot of respect for his dream. Once Dušan and I even tried to work out a plan for how we could move there and run the farm ourselves, but Marie showed us how we couldn’t make it work financially and talked us out of it. Dušan’s brother and sister-in-law had had two very difficult and high-risk pregnancies and had two lovely girls. They were unwilling to have any more children. There are cousins but all the cousins have had only girls as well. I was the last hope for a grandson. I myself would slightly prefer another girl, but I did hope for Josef’s sake. And for the sake of the child, I now desperately hope our next adopted Romani child will NOT be a boy. There will be enough struggles in the family without adding the stress of the only boy of the family not only being adopted but also being one of the hated and feared Roma.

That was what was going through my head when I glanced at Josef, so having him help me find Shaye’s shoes was far from my mind. After what seemed like an eternity, Dušan returned and within minutes, found the shoes in one of the bedrooms, where I had looked thoroughly, right on the floor, in plain sight for everyone but me. Whew!

Then, Dušan’s brother Martin, sister-in-law Eva and two nieces showed up, much earlier than usual. So much for a bit of peace. I dealt with the gushing blood problem as best I could and came back out to gulp breakfast, while running interference on children. Soon Martin and Dušan had finished the morning chores and the whole family was pleasantly gathered on the veranda. Even I felt better, but I was a bit concerned about Marie’s fragile spirits. I wanted to reassure her that I hadn’t been upset about the shoes, just frustrated with my own eyes.

She and I were sitting together at the far end of the table and neither of us were part of the boisterous conversation, so I leaned close to her and whispered, “Don’t worry. I wasn’t hysterical, I just…”

But before I could finish the sentence she burst out loudly, disrupting the whole table. “Stop! Just stop it! You make a big scene about the stupidest things!”

I should have stopped. I should have salvaged what grace I could and left. I know that quite well, but I am a fighter by nature. Before I could stop myself, I bleated some sort of reply and within seconds the entire family was in an uproar, angrily discussing my propensity to be hysterical and argumentative. With my hormones going berserk and my own inner sadness welling close to the surface, I was in no shape to stand up to it. I was in tears within minutes. Martin and Marie were furious. The children were crying too. Even quiet Josef shouted at me. Dušan left in disgust. I had somehow managed to disrupt the only peaceful part of the whole day.

It took me more than an hour to recover and scrape together the dregs of my emotional stability. I had to tell Dušan that I couldn’t help with the wood cutting and stacking, which would take up most of the day. I felt too dizzy and sick. So, instead Eva, who is quintessentially a city girl, had to put on work clothes and join the men with the wood. For a wonder, she did so without complaint even before I had a chance to quietly explain the reason for my indisposition. I took on childcare.

In between changing my overlarge sanitary pads, I helped Shaye and her cousins to do finger paints, draw pictures and make princess crowns out of colored paper and shiny stickers. They had a wonderful time and, for the first time, Shaye and the younger of the cousins were just barely old enough to participate. I relished the joyous thought that this was only the beginning. Shaye and I would be able to enjoy these girl cousins for many years to come.

Late in the day, something came out of me, a mass of something more solid and pale amid all the blood. I couldn’t be absolutely sure but it seemed like maybe it was what was left of the four-week-old fetus. I had had two previous miscarriages, one in the ninth week in a hospital, an experience I do not wish to remember, and one early on like this one in a friend’s bathroom. In my confusion and grief I had thrown away the small pale mass in the garbage. And that had haunted me. These tiny fetuses – or were they still technically embrios? – may be nameless and completely unviable, but somehow throwing them in the garbage seems barbaric. So this time, I wrapped the small semi-solid thing in paper. I heard Shaye starting to cry for me as she woke up from her nap, so I put the paper package in my pocket, unsure what I would do with it.

The sun had come out and shown bright and clear, like it does on some beautiful early-fall days. While I was in the bathroom and getting Shaye up from her nap, the other girls had got into trouble already, nagging the by-now exhausted adults, who were trying to finish up the wood stacking. I came out and quickly devised a plan to “go find the flower fairies in the meadow” and soon I had all three little girls traipsing after me and singing.

We walked up a small hill behind the farm, where an old cottage stands, and sat on the grass. I pretended to look for fairies under leaves and in the petals of late flowers. The six-year-old cousin, Evička gently caught grasshoppers in her cupped hands and showed them to the smaller girls, who shrieked and giggled when they bounded away. As I felt around below the hedge on the crest of the hill I felt my hand sink into soft earth hiden under the leaves. I dug a little and took out the little bundle of paper in my pocket, placed it in the hole and covered it. I tried to do all of this without the girls noticing but Evička ran up an piped, “What’s that?”

“It’s a message for the flower fairies,” I told her, “a special message, so we had better let it be.” She looked at me with credulous wonder and we went skipping and spinning off across the meadow. It was a message of sorts for the fairies or the spirits of the old Blažek farm. None of us chose this path, not me, not Josef, not Marie, not Dušan and not Shaye or the child to come. It is my plea to the spirits of this place to be kind to my adopted children, to accept them as their own, as part of that unbroken 600-year-old line.

Evička picked up Shaye and whirled around with her, both laughing, hands intertwined, one pale pink and one a healthy tan color. That gives me as much hope as anything. There is a chance Shaye’s cousins will grow up without so many prejudices, at least a chance. This is what I mean, when I say Marie’s racist prejudices don’t make her evil, just misguided and mentally blind. She never really had a chance to escape those prejudices the way she grew up. I learned later that Marie was in constant pain, despite her medications, and that perhaps gave her a shorter fuse that morning. As far as I know, we were all doing the best we could that day.

I was miserable but not as emotionally devastated as I had been by previous miscarriages. I have come to a kind of peace about my infertility. It is not anything like what I have read about in advice books on the subject. I have not come to “accept it” gladly. I doubt I will ever be entirely free of the little whisper of longing that I could have experienced pregnancy and birth and the early weeks of my children’s lives. I will always wish my children didn’t have to go through the pain of separation from their birthparents in order to become my adopted children. And I vehemently disagree that being “child free” is the great alternative it is made out to be by those who don’t want to acknowledge the lifelong grief of truly involuntarily infertile people. But my grief has become peaceful, quiet and no longer all-consuming. Just as I doubt Shaye’s birth mother will ever entirely forget her. I will carry this sadness in some corner of my heart, but I will also live a joyful life and be ever grateful for my children.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Beverly
    Oct 16, 2010 @ 17:12:55

    Dear Arie, The understatement of your title takes away my breath. No, it was last 6 paragraphs of your post that took away my breath. At the end, as I started breathing again, I felt your quiet grief over your infertility reaching out over the miles to mine, and mine reaching back, and blessing you for your generosity of spirit.

    Reply

  2. Brook
    Oct 23, 2010 @ 06:19:45

    Very, very touching; read it right away but haven’t been able to think of what to say. I wish that I could give you a hug right now, or that I lived close enough to be some sort of support. ♥ You are loved! ♥ I cannot even imagine what you’ve been through. . .you are such a strong woman!

    Reply

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