The below is an excerpt from the author’s bestselling book Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World, Da Capo Press; it is written in memory of her mother, Beth Ann O’Hara.
The quiet of nighttime. The girls are asleep and I can sit beside them in silence, feeling in sync with their neshamot, souls. “Elohai neshama she’natata bee, tehora hee.” “My God, the soul you gave me is pure.”
Aliza slept as she had since birth, on her back with her arms straight up at her ears. Her hair was still damp and sweet from grape-scented shampoo.
I kissed her soft, dimpled fingers, recalling a story her teacher had told me that afternoon. Aliza had stood in the middle of a game the kids were playing and held up her hands, like a traffic cop. “Hey, stop!” she said loudly. The other children stared as Aliza turned to Debbie, a severely hearing impaired child who often sat on the sidelines, and reached out her hand.
“Come, it’s your turn now.”
I kissed my girl’s cheek and whispered how much I loved her. Then I perched on the edge of the bed where Hallel was sprawled. She had tossed and turned in her sleep ever since she could move independently – side, back, tummy – mumbling as she moved. What was she dreaming? She was a child of cheeksqueezing love (she squeezed our cheeks) and stubborn rage, who had, in her younger years, shown cannibalistic tendencies.
“I love you like crazy-cakes, my funny, kind-of-scary girl,” I whispered to my now four-year-old, still fierce but no-longer-chomping– on-children child. “May you always be safe, healthy, and well fed. You mine fo-eva.”
My girls were safe and cozy in the soft cotton sheets my mother had bought them.
(“Honey, never buy the girls sheets with fewer than a 250-thread count.”) My mother was always so clear about what we needed. She gave us things I didn’t ever consider until we had them.
Extra-soft sheets for the kids.
Wrinkle-free travel clothes for Yosef. A loofah sponge for me. It really did soften the hard, dry bottoms of my feet.
Our light-brown duvet cover smelled like vanilla because my mother had put a small net bag of scented gels in the wooden trunk at the end of our bed, “to give your sheets a slight scent of vanilla essence, like the scented oil you like.” “How come you’ve never noticed the vanilla?” I asked Yosef as I held the blanket to my face.
It was as if my mother had an Excel spreadsheet of what her children needed and when, from birth to death. “Oh, I guess when you’re thirty-three-and-a-half you’ll have to loofah the bottoms of your feet in the shower.” She kept me apace with what she perceived as the demands of my age. Someday, when I’m old, I’ll get a letter from her executor with a bottle of Nivea hand cream with age-spot remover with a letter telling me how I should dry my hands before applying it. Not wet, so that the cream dissolves, but damp so it traps the moisture. And she will be right. She knew what words I needed, too. As she dried the newly rinsed set of unbreakable wine goblets from Costco, I said, “What if I don’t love an adopted child like I love the girls?” She laid the dishtowel across the glasses that sparkled upside down, and said, “When that child looks up at you and you realize that you’re it for that kid, that the buck stops with you, the love will just be there.”
It’s a practical thing, love. My family appeared shambolic, but love oozed through our many cracks, through our messy attempts to know, to understand, one another.
But what happens to a little boy’s thoughts when he has no one who shares them? What happens to a little girl’s memories when they haunt her? Do these memories get caught in the throat? Burn behind the eyes? The unknown- ness of each child in an orphanage – or on the streets or worse – the memories, passions, joys, fears, struggles, and what makes them laugh, all of it must increase a lonely sense of being indistinguishable from the child in the next bed as they are squeezed into shapes by necessity. We are all broken, we just are. But if we are a little lucky, and very willing to learn how, our shards and pieces can form mosaics of love and relationship – unwieldy, vibrant, and cracked as they must be. If we are not so blessed, we need to fit to whatever form is known or available to us. Kids in institutions or making their way on the streets take on outer shells of conformity and necessity.
A splay of glow stars sparkled above the girls as they slept.
Standing on a ladder with her neck bent back and arms raised, my sister Laura had painstakingly organized the stars by constellation. When she tired of following the chart that came in the box, she scattered the rest of them across the white ceiling. I was happy not to have them ordered just so. I’m not interested in finding these forms in the real sky. A belt? A dog? For me, the stars are questions, not answers. Possibility, not defined figures. The heavens declare the glory of God. The firmament shows God’s handiwork, says the psalmist.
For the sake of our child-to-be, Yosef and I would navigate forms, interviews, regulations, bureaucracy, heartbreak, and hope – swinging from star to star – to the other side, where a child will lovingly be tucked in, sung to, and kissed goodnight, just as every child deserves. And when this child grows up and has children I’ll make sure they sleep in sheets of the softest cotton. Follow Susan Silverman at @rabbasusan, communityadoption.org and rabbisusansilverman.com
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