Yesterday’s letter to my sons got me thinking about another letter I wrote many years ago. It was originally published in Esquire and is still my favorite story.
You were born a poet. Let me quote a few of your best lines:
I bet my birth mother is still crying.
I wish God would take the sadness off me.
If she kept me, I never would’ve known you.
I have a space in my heart that never closes.
As I sit here wrestling with words that invariably elude my grasp, I wish I could write like that. But what do I expect? You are seven and I am only forty-two.
Before you read any further, you should know that your mom doesn’t want me to write this. She doesn’t want me to write anything that might one day awaken any doubt in you. So I made a deal with her. I promised that if she feels the same way after I’ve finished, I’ll punt on the whole thing. That’s how intensely she feels about you, how fiercely protective she is of you. She doesn’t want me to write this letter because she loves you so much and I love you so much that I have to write it, even if I don’t show it to you until you have kids of your own.
Here are the words your mom fears: I didn’t want to adopt you.
I know that sounds like powerful stuff, but to me those words are as trifling as the ants that march across our kitchen floor before you put your thumb to them. They mean nothing because I can’t even remember feeling that way. I’ve searched my heart and can’t find any trace of not wanting you. It would be like not wanting air. Still, just as I can’t imagine not wanting you now, there was a time that I couldn’t imagine you. I didn’t know you were going to be you. I only knew you were not going to be me.
Your mom says I was hung up on this crazy little thing called genetics, which should never be mistaken for that crazy little thing called love. It all seems so bizarre, given that my family background includes everything from cancer and heart disease to criminal behavior. Your mom says that I was worried that you wouldn’t be perfect, that we would be inheriting somebody else’s problem, and that nurture would be revealed as nothing more than nature’s cheap consolation prize. Your mom says I can’t recollect any of these gory details because sometimes I can be a stubborn bastard.
That must be where you get it from.
Because, Rob, when all is said and done, you are me — only way better looking. You are me, if I looked like Brad Pitt and your mom looked like Sharon Stone. You’re more like me than Zachary, who inherited torn genes from me and Mom. You and I are both the eldest son, moderately shy and exceedingly anxious. We love Michael Jordan, movies, scallion pancakes, and the occasional doody joke. We’re natural-born outsiders who share the same thin skin.
And there’s something else that you and I have in common: I once had a space in my heart that wouldn’t close. I still remember the cause. When I was four years old, two very large men wearing very large hats came into our house and took my father away. He didn’t come back for eight years, and even when he returned, he couldn’t repair what had been ripped apart. My dad, like yours, was a sad schmuck, sad in that he never tried to change himself into a dad.
For me, everything changed the moment I saw you.
After four years of infertility and a bout with cancer thrown in for good luck (if I hadn’t had it, I never would have known you), I was finally ready to entertain alternatives to producing a mirror image. I tend to arrive at places in my heart long after your mom has moved in and decorated. Your mom always knew that she wanted to be a mom, while I was just beginning to understand what it meant to be a dad. You know the next part from your baby book that you keep under your pillow:
They met a wonderful young lady that was growing a baby boy in her belly. But she wasn’t able to give her baby all the good things the world had to offer, and she wanted that for him very, very much.
Seven months later, I found myself in the hospital scanning the blue “It’s a Boy!” stickers on the bassinets until I saw your birth mother’s last name neatly printed in black ink. And at that moment, the space in my heart was filled. It was either magic or God, I’ve forgotten what I believed in at the time. “You’re my son, you’re my son,” I quietly mouthed to you through the glass again and again, trying to convince myself that you were real. Then I went to your mom and we hugged and cried, while you kept sleeping, our little boy, Robbie James Carlat, unaware of how much joy you could bring to two people.
And the reason I can no longer recall not wanting to adopt you is simple: That feeling completely vanished on the day you were born. “I know, I know. It was love at first sight,” you like to say, sounding like a cartoon version of me anytime I bring up the subject of your birth. But it wasn’t like that between my dad and me. I don’t remember my father ever kissing me or, for that matter, me kissing him. The thought of saying “I love you” to each other, even when he came back from jail or as he lay dying, would have cracked both of us up. In fact, the closest my father ever came to a term of endearment was calling me “Kiddo” (which is the full extent of his paternal legacy and why I usually answer “Ditto, Kiddo” when you say “I love you”).
There’s a black-and-white photograph of my dad holding me up high above his head — I must have been six months old — and it’s the only time I can recall him looking genuinely happy to be with me. I used to think of that picture in the months after you were born when I danced you to sleep. I never dance, not even with your mom (“They’re all going to laugh at you!” from Carrie pretty much sums up why), but I loved dancing with you. While you sucked on your bottle, I savored the feeling of your tiny heartbeat against my own. Joni Mitchell’s Night Ride Home CD was on just loud enough so we wouldn’t wake up your mom, and I’d gently sing to you, “All we ever wanted, was just to come in from the cold, come in, come in, come in from the cold.”
Still, the space you were coming in from was far colder than mine had ever been. It’s the original black hole, and all of our kissing and hugging are not enough. All of your incessant I love yous and I love the familys — words you repeated as if to convince yourself, the same way I did when I first set eyes on you — are not enough. All of the times that you asked me to pick you up, and I happily obliged because I knew a day would come when you would stop asking, are not enough. Every night when we read your baby book, which desperately tries to explain whose belly you grew in and how you got to us, is not enough.
Nothing is enough for there’s nothing that approaches the clear and direct poetry of “I hate myself because I’m adopted” or “I’m only happy when I’m hugging and kissing you. All the other times I just make believe.” If anything, you get the prize for coming closest to the pin with, “Being adopted is hard to understand.” And what do you win for saying the darndest things? A profound sadness. And let’s not forget its little brother, anger, which you direct at your little brother for no apparent reason other than that he serves as a constant reminder that you are the one who is not like the others.
The irony is that Zachy, the prototypical little bro, only wants to be you, while you’d do anything to be him.
I hope that one day God grants your wish and takes the sadness off you, because your mom and I know how truly blessed we are to have two beautiful sons — one chosen by us and one chosen for us. It’s like we wrote at the end of your baby book:
Mommy and Daddy waited a long time for a baby–a baby boy just like you. And though it might have been nice to have you grow in mommy’s belly … always remember that you grew in our hearts!
Perhaps the only thing we neglected to consider at the time was your heart. Which reminds me of sandcastles. A few summers ago, you and I built a beauty on Uncle Stephen’s beach, and you wanted to surround it with a moat, so we started to dig a hole with your big yellow bucket. We kept digging faster and faster until the hole got so deep that you jumped in. “Daddy, get the water,” you said, and I ran into the waves, filled the bucket, dragged it back, and dumped it into the hole. The sand quickly drank it up, so I kept going back and forth, trying to fill the hole with water, but it was like pouring the water down a drain, and after a while we finally said the hell with it and ran into the ocean.
You are the sand, little boy, and I will always be the water.
And that was where I intended to end this letter until you came padding into the room in your G.I. Joe pajamas. “What are you writing about?” you asked. And when I told you it was a story about you, you asked, “Is it going to be in a big magazine?”
And I said, “Yeah, how do you feel about that?”
And you said, “Scared.”
And I said, “How come?”
And you said, “Because I’m going to be in it alone.”
And I said, “No you won’t. I’ll be in it with you.”
And you said, “I love you daddy.”
And that’s when I had to stop writing.