When my nieces ask, they can hear their birth stories. Their parents have them in stunning detail, and both my parents and I can add our versions. The day Claire was born, I carried a cell phone with me everywhere and told everyone I saw that I had a cell phone on because my first niece was being born RIGHT NOW AND ISN’T THAT THE COOLEST THING EVER??? I sat at the college gym with the phone pressed to my ear because it was so loud and I was afraid I’d miss the call. Bethie’s birth took place when I was at camp. I didn’t know that Julie was in labor until I found out Bethie was born. I was standing in my director’s cabin when I got the phone call. It was pouring rain outside, and the barn staff were paging me on the landline, asking for help bringing in the horses, and I had to wait to call them back because I was busy becoming an aunt again.
I love hearing those stories; I love telling those stories. The stories of how we became a family, of how time stopped for an engineering student grinned like an idiot, how a split second made the sweet young woman into a mother. I remember hanging up with my sister after Claire was born and realizing that in an instant I became an aunt.
Selam doesn’t have those stories. Well, she has them but we don’t know them. I can’t tell her over and over the story of the day she was born. I wasn’t there.
Adoptive families celebrate birthdays, of course, but many also celebrate another day. Some call it “gotcha day.” I can’t call it that. Selam was not mine to catch. She wasn’t running anywhere–not to or from anyone or anything. She was just there, making her way in the second of her orphanages, kicking the ball with the security guard, giving hugs to the nannies, eating her injera, taking the stickers and the candy that the touring Americans handed out. And six months ago today, we drove up in the car that she thought wasn’t very big and my life exploded. Her life changed too, and while at one level, I think she thought it was good, I imagine it was also terrifying.
I never thought I’d celebrate or commemorate the day I met her. I decided I’d celebrate the 20th of September instead, which was the day I got custody of her, the day I stopped being an American (without the candy) who came to play with her. I decided that September 20 was our family day.
Today I had to do a new supervisor training. I used my laptop to project some visual stuff. When the powerpoint ended, I kept talking, and my laptop went into screen saver. My screen saver is, of course, a collection of Selam pictures, mostly from before I met her—precious pictures from other parents and wonderful friends who met her first. Anyway, the image splashed on the screen and as I dove to hit the power on the projector, I said, ‘that’s my daughter.’
And my heart suddenly jumped out of my chest. I was a lost cause for the rest of the day. I couldn’t concentrate to save my soul. All I could think of was my daughter, my girl, my Selamiya…my daughter.
Yes, I have had a hundred moments before this that have made me a mother. It didn’t happen when I hung up a phone or at the indignant howl after birth. It didn’t happen when Ethiopia said she was mine, or when the Embassy said I could bring her in the country or when I drove away (in a much bigger car by the way) from the orphanage with this tiny girl in the brown pants and the too big sneakers.
Someday she’ll want the stories. She’ll want to know the history that I can’t give her. And she’ll want to know the history that I can. And when she asks, I will tell her. February 18, referral, June 13 court, September 18 met, September 20 custody, October 1 home to the US. I’ll tell her about the day we met and the day we went home and about Aunt Julie at the airport and Miss Christa with the balloons at the train station. I’ll tell her about going into our apartment together after taking Julie to the airport limo, and her face that said, “now what?” and me saying in the English she didn’t speak, “now it’s just Selam and mommy time,” a phrase I repeat every Saturday.
This idea of family day is too big for the calendar, though. It’s not in days I can log, in cakes and injera to celebrate. It’s in the rest of it. It’s in the quotidian, the daily graces, the sun-splattered smiles and the way she reaches her arms up for me when the monsters loom. It’s in the grass-stained girl that snuggles next to me on the couch right now, engrossed in Tigger, and the game of catch on the courtyard lawn that preceded the movie. It’s in the flashing photo that wrecks my presentation but makes my day, and the way she runs across a field to my arms when I pick her up from school—as thrilled to see me on a Thursday as she was on a Wednesday and a Tuesday.
We became a family on September 20. But I became a mother, and she a daughter a thousand times since then.
I have the best life.