You see her across the parking lot before the parade begins, and she is like you imagined she would be at seven. She is still skinny, and her hair is still so long, and she looks just the way she would have if she’d stayed with you. Her mother is there, and you want that to be a good sign, that she is not visibly drunk, that she is the kind of mother who takes her daughter to community events, to parades, to see people and things.
You feel ashamed and somehow connected when later you see her mother begging for money along the ticket admission line, money to get into the game, for her daughter to be able to see the game. And you wonder now if maybe she is drunk after all.
You think, this isn’t the city. This is a high school game. This is suburbia. And you also think it could have been you, your mother. If your mother had been the type to drink and go out, instead of not drink and watch old movies with the shades drawn, her dark bedroom. It could have been you.
And where is that parallel daughter that could have been yours, could have been you? Her name is Danielle or Dani or Ellie. Playing along the fence line with some other kids, squatting with long legs bent to knees and trying to connect before parents – other mothers, good mothers – pull their kids away. Through the gate. They can watch the game.
You bring a teddy bear because you have read that this is what the police do, for comfort in trauma. You are driving, car seat that hasn’t been used in years strapped in, teddy bear in the seat, first thing you grabbed after they called. You also bring a family photo. You plan to prepare her, teddy bear, photo, so it will not be overwhelming, more trauma.
When you arrive, they are checking her vagina for bruising and tears. They find none, which means her mother is a liar, or was so drunk when they took her that she was confused or looking for someone to blame. Or both. Or all three. Or that he was very good at it, like pennies in a sock.
But nothing can be shown on her body, and you don’t know yet, while wheeling her through the store to pick out clothes beyond what she wore, clothes all pink and hearts because it is close to that holiday, that she fears men already. Will not let your husband, father of your children, birth children, will not let him near. She is a feral little thing who will make you a single parent. And she doesn’t hold the teddy bear, will not transfer all her hurt to that, no matter how much you want it to be so. But you don’t know that yet.
She talks, yes, knows how, but also meows like a cat, hisses too, and at first you think it is a game. Soon you see she does it when she is uncomfortable, afraid. A recognition of fellow feeling she learned where? Did they have one, a cat?
How to protect herself. Learned from a cat. Did it work? It is cute because she is three. But at fifteen? How much hissing then? Or would it stop? And how would that be a good thing, either way, either one? The hissing or the not hissing.
You put it out of your mind that first day, but it is there. Will be there.
You sing her to sleep. The first night, you sing the same three lullabies again and again while she cries. Stroke her hair, sing again. She sleeps, then wakes herself, wills herself awake, cries to find you.
Not her mother. You sing more. When she sleeps, you creep out, sigh. Sleep yourself, and when she cries next, you find her standing in the dark hallway, which way to go? And so you sing some more.
It takes night after night, and it feels good the first time she does not cry. You sing, and she closes her eyes, and it is done, she sleeps. And you wake in the morning, and she has not cried, and you think this could go on forever. But already you wonder if that’s okay.
You bring her to the wrong door. At Social Services, the worker is so kind and eyes alight, but she doesn’t know her job yet, and so you bring her to the wrong door for the visit.
And there is her mother, and the boyfriend too. That is awkward. The mother is crying and checking you out at the same time, and you realize she loves her daughter.
But Danielle or Dani or Ellie clings to you, and you feel a guilty triumph, which mixes with the recognition of mother love and makes you guilty all the more.
You’ve brought her to the wrong door, and while you figure this out at the desk, the mother holds her, and so gets to see her then. Which is bad because she’s not supposed to, you learn. She will not get to see her after all, when they have straightened out the mess you have made bringing her to the wrong door. Will not get to see her because she is drunk. And you are bad at this because you couldn’t tell through her mother tears that this was so.
You are both bad at this.
She is an odd little thing, it is that more than anything that makes your birth children shy away. She is an unknown incursion into a body once healthy and fine, and your birth children do not understand her or you, and this will be so forever.
Your birth children are precocious, well-adjusted, get compliments on their manners when they visit for playdates. They are funny and open-faced. They do not look at people, men especially, with wary eyes.
They are older now, at school all day, but they took naps at age three, were not on high-alert until sleep overtook them in the dark of night. She does not nap – no, how break her wary vigilance? So you cannot write and you wonder if that would have helped. Probably not.
You do not get a break.
Your birth children do not know what to do with her, have forgotten how to play with a little one who is always there, and you are a bad mother, doing this to them, or maybe you should have done it sooner, when they would have remembered how to play. So you play with her and again do not get a break.
Your birth children do not shy away from their father, refuse to go downstairs on weekends when he is making pancakes and it is your turn to sleep in. “He is a good man,” you tell Danielle or Dani or Ellie. You want her to begin to make distinctions. Good and bad. There are both. But she doesn’t yet believe you. Will she ever?
You do not get a break.
They tell you the mother is missing appointments, can’t stay sober to make them, and you think she will not get better. What this means is that you research on the computer about what it will be like, to have her forever.
You have noticed her crooked pinkies. Though her hands are long and slender, delicate, the pinkies are crooked, and you know – no, feel – this is dangerous, life-changing, life-something. You look at her hands and they are not sturdy, solid plump like your birth children’s were at three. Crooked pinkies, upturned nose, pixie face. Fox-like.
You are scared by this, what you read. Little spark of fear in a pit deep inside, where your brain does not see it, confident brain, masterful brain, intellectualizing brain. You do research. Someone can tell you for sure how it will be. What can be done. They’ve done research.
Poor decision-making skills. Difficulty recognizing consequences. Gullibility. Risk-taking, and alcoholism, and drug-addiction, and absent rage control.
And what can be done with that?
She is in the next room, but she will not be there long. She needs to know you are there, and so she will check on you. She will stand in the doorway, no toys. Nothing can hold her attention but you.
Crooked pinkies cannot be straightened.
You give her a bath every evening because it is something to do, and it signals the day is done. It is routine for her, and she likes it. This is a good thing.
After a while she even lets your husband be there, and you hope someday she will not feel the need to watch him when he moves.
She is in the bath and you call her Danielle-Ellie, and because you want her to be Ellie, not Danielle, you say it again. The third time, she says, “I’m Danielle. Mommy calls me Dani.” And it is clear you are not her mother. And she is not Ellie.
But you don’t want a Danielle or a Dani. And you hate yourself for recognizing this, will not let yourself think it.
You call her Danielle, never Ellie, but you are told every time it passes your lips that you are not her mother, and she is not Ellie, and you don’t know who Danielle will become.
All you know is you are not her mother.
Her hair is so long, like your oldest birth child’s, and it ends in ringlets, and so people think she is yours, always will, no matter what she does, and though you cannot say this to yourself until much later, that scares you. That they will think she is yours.
You have no idea what else they will think about her. And so.
You go to church once a month, and you know people think you are good to have so many, and one so young means you are welcoming. They are right, but not right, and they also don’t know you aren’t sleeping.
You stop sleeping, and the day becomes a long torture, and you wonder if it is her, or if this is just what you don’t remember. About how stifling it was to have toddlers. Each day too long, and here you’ve chosen this purgatory again. But before, there were naps. Now none. And no sleep for you, now or night.
You lie on the couch and watch while she plays and if you shut your eyes, she comes and says, “Don’t sleep. You feel good,” and you know you are now her mother, passing out, and she never knows when you will be conscious again.
You remember they said she was in a diaper days-old when they found her, and it was you who teased out the matting in her hair, on its way to dreadlocks with no intention. Her mother so out, so gone, they had to shake her and shake her so she knew they were taking her daughter away.
At night, every sound is a shot, a thin needle to you, no relaxing from this high alert because this is what the future might bring, and this, and this, and this.
And this is what your tomorrow will be, and this, and this.
And this is what it feels like right now, and this.
If you don’t think of it, you might sleep. But if you don’t think of it, it will happen, and you won’t be prepared. And so you think of it, and you don’t sleep.
And it happens anyway.
And you are not prepared.
She is at the side of your bed at dawn and won’t crawl in like hitting the snooze, especially if your husband is still there.
And then it’s “Wake up. You feel good.” She insists this, and you can’t be her mother, and so you get up.
You can’t be her mother. But you can’t be one of those mothers either. The ones who bounce these kids from home to home. And so you get up and do another day. But you wonder how long you can mother her.
She runs to you for her helmet. No training-wheels ride without it. She trips on a root and cracks her head on the edge of concrete. A knot above her eyes to match the gnarled root, and you fill out the form and call the office. You explain to her mother at the visit next day, and she smiles and nods, oh, well.
So the phone call surprises. It is the same CPS worker who removed Danielle or Dani or Ellie from her mother. She is reassuring, knows you, knows the situation. Took down the mother’s slurred words when she called. But still, she has to come out.
It is just a formality, you tell your birth children, just questions. And they look at you as confused as they’ve been all along. They say, but don’t say, Why?
And why? You always wanted to do this. From the very start. Had the training when you only had one, who was just two. Almost got placed with a baby, missed the phone call. Were on vacation and no cell phones then.
Would that have changed everything? Before you had the other two. When all you knew was one toddler. Didn’t know, hadn’t lived the years of how it should be. Wouldn’t have known this didn’t feel right. Would have slept.
You thought it would be best, extending the family, just as if you and your husband had never stopped, hadn’t stopped at three. You came from five. Well, sort of. And he came from five. Well, sort of. You asked everyone. It made sense, adding one right down the line, as if there had been a hiccup and then production resumed.
It would be easier than waiting til the kids were grown, better.
You had all the toys already.
You are turned down in your application to adopt toddler sisters, no mother attached. Another family is chosen. You suspect it is because you have Danielle or Dani or Ellie already, mother attached, not a sure thing, but still, they must have thought.
You wonder if it was the last straw, looking back. CPS and your birth children’s confusion. Lost chance at two sisters, no mother attached.
You are undone, cannot sleep, body knowing what the brain will not hear, but now must.
You are done.
You sing into the microphone all the lullabies, and you try not to care that the new family might hear you, will play it. They may not play it at all. You pack the trunk with a suitcase of her clothes, pink and red, and some toys – the teddy bear – and the bike and helmet to protect her.
You are nervous, but giddy too. Desperation makes this so. Lack of sleep.
The new family is a mother from your training class, one you know. You are relieved. It is a sign that this is right, and it matters less if she hears your voice crack on the CD you made.
Danielle or Dani or Ellie does not cry, is happy to go where there is another child who will play. And it looks like she will go back to her mother soon, this new family just a stop-gap. Her mother has been sober, has a job, will be ready for her soon. This is what they say.
This is what you tell yourself.
After Danielle or Dani or Ellie is gone, you will see her mother at the café, working the register. You will send your husband to pay the bill – she has not seen you, does not know him. You are startled, but when you can bear to look, you see she looks good, and you wonder and feel happy that surely she has her daughter back with her. After the café, you think about hiring a detective. Someone to check on things, know where she is, what her mother does or does not do. You think about what they might find. Mother to AA meeting, to work, to counseling, to meet with her sponsor, to the grocery store for more cashews –her favorite. To teacher conferences. To school functions.
To parades. To football games.
Panhandling at Homecoming.
There is no way to have a child not yours without having her mother too, and so you decide you cannot do this work. It wasn’t meant to be.
You wonder if her mother ever played the CD, heard you sing, heard an echo of how to be, and how not to be, a mother. Because you were not good at this either.
And now it echoes again.
It takes seven years to come back to you: hearing yourself singing lullabies. And maybe this is okay. Maybe this time, okay? Because you think you did it wrong. You have to think that because here it is again.
A calling, they call it. But it could be the same as voices in your head, and that is called crazy.
You are no determinist, but you think about it all the time. Is it a calling?
Now you do different work, and you know this virus well. There are babies with this virus. Who will live, unlike their mothers. Who need mothers.
And there is you. With the calling. There is you. Empty nest now.
There is you. A mother. Good enough.
Are you crazy?