After 20 years of chronic illness, I returned to the land of the living. I was as euphoric as a castaway in a small boat who finally spots land on the horizon. Ahoy! But, when I got there, things didn’t look the same. People had changed. Coming back was hard. I’d missed out on so many experiences. Disoriented, angry and sad, I set out determined to get back the life that had been stolen from me.
Sam and Theo raced into the living room to play some game on their Xbox. Over dinner, they had enthusiastically tried to explain the rules to me but, “I’ve never played a computer game,” I repeated.
“It’s not a computer,” Jonathan, their dad, said, laughing. He joined the boys on the sofa. “It’s an Xbox.”
“Do you want another glass of wine?” my friend Diane asked. Of course I did. I always wanted another glass of wine. But I had to drive home. “I’m good,” I said.
Diane and I had worked together on daytime television two decades ago and recently reconnected on Facebook. In those days, Jonathan was her cute boyfriend and I’d been able to afford more than a tank of gas and a tube of toothpaste. She had gone on to star on a night-time series, marry Jonathan, buy a house and give birth to two healthy boys. She had blossomed.
“It was so good to see you,” she said, a quick smile spreading across her still-pretty face.
“Thank you for dinner,” I replied, hugging her tight.
I cried the whole drive home. When I walked into my apartment, it was dark and quiet. A half moon hung low over the neighbor’s garage. The feral cat I had been feeding had been gone for over a week and I didn’t know if he would return.
While Diane had been busy creating a full life, I had struggled under the dark shadow of an elusive, undiagnosable, illness – chronic pain, swollen joints, debilitating fatigue and loss of muscular control, insomnia, memory lapses and waves of deep depression. But in the past year, the fog of symptoms had mysteriously started to lift. There were days when my joints didn’t hurt and I slept through the night without panic attacks, instead waking up in the morning with something akin to hope in the center of my chest.
In a few short months, kids would be running around the neighborhood pool getting yelled at by the lifeguard. Lazy days would be followed by children wearing school uniforms walking past my apartment windows. As the leaves turned brown, a parade of princess costumes and cute monsters would come begging for candy at the front door. And then I would cook the single people turkey dinner and find myself flying home alone to my parents at Christmas again.
“Today’s child is Ashley. Ashley is a bright 8-year-old who likes science and animals. She hopes someday to be a veterinarian,” a woman’s voice said from the TV.
My eyes darted up from the laptop. Normally, I didn’t have the TV on during the day because it was a reminder of years spent prone on the couch, but I was avoiding a script deadline.
“We took Ashley to the science museum in Pasadena where she made friends with two white rats.”
A little blonde girl cupped a white rat in her small hands. “He’s so cute,” she said, flashing a toothy grin.
I immediately called the adoption hotline number flashing across the screen and left a message. Then, I went online and registered for foster-to-adopt classes.
It wasn’t really that simple. I mean, I had wanted to be somebody’s mother, a little girl’s mother, since I was 10 and relatives had started adopting babies — adorable, brown-skinned, brown-eyed children so much more beautiful than my white, pink-faced cousins.
When I told my friend Carla, who is Cuban, the exciting news, she said, “Girl. You can’t adopt a dark-skinned child.”
“I said there’s a chance she could be black or Hispanic,” I responded, totally surprised. Usually, Carla believed I could do anything. “What does it matter?”
“It’s hard enough for dark-skinned children to find a place in the world. Everywhere she goes people will know that you aren’t her mother.”
“She will have someone stable to love her. And I will raise her in our Buddhist community which is like a rainbow nation.”
“Staci,” she said, her voice turning hard. “You won’t even know how to do her hair.”
The words stung. She was a mother, but I couldn’t be one? I didn’t talk to Carla about my decision again.
When classes finally started in April, the jacaranda trees with their beautiful purple blossoms, had already peaked with the heat. I hated them. Their sticky flowers glued to the car windshield and their sweet smell made me feel nauseated. I parked my car in the community center parking lot away from the trees and grabbed my notebook. Anxiety is just excitement without breath, a friend once told me. I took a deep breath.
A blast of air conditioning hit my face when I entered the concrete building. I found the door marked 102 and turned the handle. Bobby McFerrin sang, “Don’t worry, be happy” from a boom box in the corner. I went over to the long folding table in the middle of the room and pulled out a metal chair.
A middle-aged Chinese couple and a pretty Latina looked up from their seats. I smiled. The Latina smiled back. The table was covered in children’s toys, jacks and rubber balls and plastic animals. I grabbed a crayon, scrawled my name with a flower on a placard and placed it in front of me.
“Are you doing this by yourself?” the Latina asked. She wore bright pink lipstick.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Oh, thank God,” she said. “I thought I was too old to be doing this alone.”
Go fuck yourself, I thought. I grabbed a green dinosaur and fiddled with his plastic legs. No one was going to ruin my enthusiasm.
A beautiful black woman strode into the room, high heels clicking to the blackboard. It was Vonda, our social worker. “These aren’t foster children,” she warned. “They are just children. They already have a mother or father.” Imre, a pale volunteer, handed out thick binder notebooks with five weeks of homework intended to help us be successful in partnering with the State. Then, we turned our attention to a video presentation from foster parents, big hair and shoulder pads circa 1992, who shared their hard, heartwarming stories.
That night I crawled under the flowered sheets on the full-size bed in my guest room. As I visualized colorful butterfly stencils floating across the white walls, I felt the heaviness of my tired, old life sinking into the mattress. Life was still pregnant with possibility.
In addition to the weekly classes and homework, program participants were required to bring their homes up to code for State safety inspections. It took me an hour in Home Depot to decide which safety latches looked the safest.
I sat cross-legged on my kitchen floor, opened the bottom drawer and grabbed a screwdriver. I ripped open a packet. I fitted the plastic piece vertically against an open cabinet door and held the other piece up to match. Did it fit horizontally?
I gripped a tiny screw between my forefinger and thumb, took a deep breath and fitted the screwdriver into the tiny head. The screw slipped from my sweaty fingers onto the tile. I wiped the wet from between my breasts with a dish towel. I pulled another small screw out of the package and tried again. When I turned the screwdriver, the wood split.
“Goddammit!” I yelled.
I couldn’t put on safety latches? There was no one in my single bohemian life that could. They were all painters, writers, actors, musicians — my friends were useless! My child would drink bleach because I couldn’t do ordinary things.
What did I know about living everyday life? I could help my daughter navigate heartache, but I couldn’t do her hair. I understood pain and loss, but would I be able to help with a science project? Should I join the PTA?
PTA mothers liked Oprah, didn’t they? I couldn’t stand Oprah — not as a person — just the idea of the Rah! Rah! soothing women with flowery quotes and lofty ideals without giving real tools for change. Life is hard. Change!
Would my daughter and I have to join a playgroup and be forced to discuss parenting trends like the one my friend used where she put her baby on a blanket with some toys and if it cried, it had to soothe itself? What bullshit! Pick up the baby. I hated trends.
Later, I stood in the doorway of the guest room. “Who are you?” I asked. “Do you like purple? How can I make you less sad?” My eyes followed the peaceful slant of moonlight across the wall to a broken window pane. The State wouldn’t certify a home without safety latches, not to mention cracked glass. Who would fix that?
There were so many things I couldn’t do, but I knew how to act as-if, and so I went to class and watched videos. I took notes and completed workbook exercises and figured that at some point it would translate into daily life.
One night in class, I was cast to play the child in a skit. Adelina, a dark-haired woman who cried a lot, and her husband, Antonio, a bald handsome artist, played my troubled parents. Ling, a well-dressed woman whose husband believed in corporal punishment, and Jesus was cast as the social worker. Pablo and Karina, a happy couple with one birth child, played my foster parents.
Imre gave us the back story. “It’s 2 a.m.,” he said. “You are at urgent care.”
I had a broken arm — again. My father had pushed me down the stairs. My mother, a drug-addict, said that I had fallen. The hospital nurse called social services. Ling came to take me into foster care.
“I’m OK,” I lied.
My mother clawed at my father who threatened to beat up the social worker.
After that, Ling and I sat side by side on folding chairs, pretending to be in a car.
“I want to go home,” I said.
“Be quiet,” Ling repeated, while pretending to steer an imaginary wheel.
“I want to see my brother,” I cried.
“Your little brother has been taken to another home.”
“Stop the car,” I screamed.
Ling yelled, “Shut up you terrible girl.”
Vonda stopped the skit. “Why are you yelling at a child?” she asked.
“She is a terrible girl,” Ling replied.
I looked out at the faces of my classmates watching. They wiped tears from their cheeks. My hands were shaking.
“Please take a seat,” Vonda said to her.
Ling set her jaw in defiance but went back to her seat with the class.
We picked up the skit in the home of the couple playing the foster parents. Pablo was very kind.
“Would you like some warm milk?” he asked.
Karina gave me clean pajamas. “Would you like me to brush your hair?”
“No,” I said.
“I will get a picture of your brother,” she promised.
Karina and Pablo would be very good foster parents.
After the skit was finished, Vonda singled me out. “You identify too much with the child’s suffering. You have to be the strong one.”“I would think that’s a good thing,” I said, fighting back tears. She had a way of pushing my buttons.
“You should think about a parenting class,” she suggested. “You’re the only one here who hasn’t had the experience.”
It was a reasonable suggestion, but I felt my face turn hot with shame. Why hadn’t she suggested parenting classes to Ling?
A few days later, I was hiking the canyon near my home. The sky was a crisp blue, with wildflowers popping across the hillside. Hiking was my quiet time, good for the lymph system, but when my mom called, I answered. I hadn’t heard from her since delivering my big news.
“Your cousin Jennifer and her husband, Carlos, are fostering to adopt a baby,” Mom announced. “Your aunt is worried. Carlos is having a hard time finding a new job because of, you know,” her voice trailed off.
I hadn’t seen Jennifer in 25 years. I’d met her husband once at an airport layover. He suffered from deep depression. Jennifer had food issues, but I didn’t know which ones exactly.
“They’ll be fine,” I said. “The State gives a monthly stipend, plus childcare and health insurance.” I forced myself to focus on the white yucca blossoms ahead instead of the heavy hand on my heart. “That’s why I can afford to do it.”
“I just hope they don’t want to move in with your aunt,” Mom said. “She’s had enough problems.”
Sometimes, during these stilted conversations in which my mother doesn’t say what she thinks, or says what she thinks without saying it, and I don’t reveal how I’m feeling about what she doesn’t say, I think about what I think a mother should say. “I’m so excited for you!” Or, “I’ll come out to help when the baby arrives.” I waited for some kind of acknowledgement, but instead she handed the phone to my dad.
“What a great day for a hike!” he exclaimed.
“Uh-huh,” I said, forcing myself to focus on the solid earth under each step.
“Don’t you think it’s great about Jennifer and Carlos? What a hoot!”
I wanted to smash the cell on the ground and grind it into bits. I had been gone so long that people had given up on me. I wanted to scream, “I am not a fuck-up! It isn’t too late.” I will do this. I am a survivor, a warrior, a fighter.
“You know, we love you, Staci,” Dad said, his warm voice interrupting my internal tirade.
That’s when I finally understood: They couldn’t bear to hope for this after everything my illness had put them through. “I love you, too,” I said.
Around this time, I started going to the park on Sundays, which was something I’d avoided as a single woman. Like an anthropologist, I observed mothers spreading colorful paper tablecloths and setting out bowls of potato salad while fathers grilled hot dogs. The kids ran in circles, set free. Some had balls, others hula hoops or water guns. It seemed like the mothers weren’t paying attention but when a child fell, they sprang into action. It was as if an invisible thread kept their children tethered to them.
For a while, I walked among these strange creatures and recorded their behavior. I learned their language and tried to imagine myself as one of them. Could I be? Did I want to raise a baby alone? At my age? I wasn’t sure anymore. Had I tried to find someone to attach the safety latches or fix the cracked glass? I was barely back on my own two feet. What was I doing?
What did I really want? I wrote furiously, ferocious, hungry words about dreams and loss, grief, rage, wisdom and death. I wept and screamed until the words turned into a story about battles fought, lost and won, and finally I saw the path opened wide before me — freed from the attachment that had caused me suffering. I didn’t need a baby to be happy.
At the end of six weeks, Vonda handed me a certificate of completion from the State of California. I stepped out of the community center and back into the world, shining with the knowledge that I already had an invisible thread that tethered me to the earth — my story.
Three years later my journey came full circle when I fell in love with a wonderful single father and his two kids.
We live together now in a big, noisy house filled with kids, dogs, a cat and a mouse. And I’m using my hard-earned wisdom from those years at sea with the knowledge I gained in foster-to-adopt classes to help create a deeper happiness in my family.
Nothing had been stolen from me.
Staci Greason is the author of the novel, “The Last Great American Housewife,” and her essays have been published in Brevity, Salon, The Huffington Post and XOJane. In her former life, she played Isabella Toscano-Black on “Days of Our Lives.”