Every morning, before dawn, we’re awake and writing. My eleven-year-old son usually gets up first. I’ll enter the kitchen, intent on coffee, and find him perched on a stool over the family laptop – the ancient iBook where he types his stories.
Sometimes, he’ll tell me what they’re about: a funny, complicated anecdote involving a school friend or a chapter in one of his fantasy worlds: the Tolkienesque realm with “dark elves,” the city with zombie-battling teen warriors.
But most mornings, I just get a glimpse of a Word page on the screen, black letters marching along in paragraph blocks as he types. I see the curved back of my son’s slender body, his black bangs tumbling toward the keyboard. I note other open pages, obscured by the one he’s working on.
He’s a tween. There’s so much he now keeps to himself, as do most kids approaching the watershed age of twelve. But for an adoptee like my son, there’s more at stake in describing life on his own terms and nobody else’s.
Today is National Adoption Day – November is National Adoption Month – and it’s a time to celebrate what adoption means to families like our own. It’s a time to raise awareness about the hundreds of thousands of children around the world waiting to find permanent homes, especially those in foster care in the United States.
It’s a time when I love to tell the story of how we became a family. Yet, on this National Adoption Day, I’m struck by my son’s compulsion to write without my help or vigilance. I want to honor the many-layered stories that adoptees tell themselves, in secret and in public, and the way those stories enrich us all.
An adoptive family crafts one version of reality together. An adoptee, however, has at least one other version. For my son, it’s mostly imagined at the moment, pieced together from our recent visits back to Vietnam, his birth country. But it’s his, not ours, and I sense that he holds it close, like all those hidden pages behind pages on the family laptop.
He’s an unusual boy, one who thinks in terms of dialogue and scenes. He’s already a writer, and the world still seems infinitely malleable to him. But I believe all adoptees want to tell it their way, to find some control over what happens next.
That desire shines forth in Jill Krementz’s 1996 classic, “How It Feels to Be Adopted.” She interviewed 19 young adoptees, many close to my son’s age, and the book presents their first-person stories. Krementz refers to the big questions adoptees have – for instance, “Do I have any brothers and sisters I don’t know about?” or “Are my parents happy they adopted me?” – questions that are the stuff of storytelling. More important, though, they’re the questions adoptees contemplate on their own, no matter how supportive their adoptive family is.
Even in 2013, two decades beyond Krementz’s interviews, with more public awareness about adoption and acceptance of birthparent searches, these stories remain as fresh as ever. Take twelve-year old Carla, who was in foster care until about age three, when she was adopted. Carla says she doesn’t think about adoption “all that much.” But then:
“There is one time when I do always think about my biological mother, and that’s on my birthday. I’ve never skipped a year without wondering, How does she feel on this day? Does she think of me, or does she just pretend that I was never born and it’s any other day? Is she sad, or is she happy?”
Such basic questions are like pearls, hidden within the growing self, worthy of polishing over time and preserving. They eventually become the stories that give anyone’s life meaning.
I can hazard guesses about the stories hidden on our family laptop. Once, my son admitted to compiling a page of forbidden curse words. Another time, he joked with both his dad and me about the many-paged “Parent Agreement” he was drafting, following the lead of oddball physicist Sheldon Cooper on “The Big Bang Theory.”
But here’s the only thing I know for sure, as a writer: Reality isn’t simply whatever we wish it to be, yet there’s magic in the connections we create ourselves. As an adoptive mom, I’ve found, to my joyful surprise, that my son and I share a passion for words. It’s not genetic. But it’s a form of kinship, as mysterious in its way as love.
I can’t claim I’ll never peek at those secret files without his permission, because I don’t know what future challenges we’ll face. Still, my son is old enough now to define himself as more than an adoptee or a “lucky boy” or the kid we think he is. As melancholy as this sometimes makes me – who knows what a child born of another woman’s body will discover as he writes his own way into being? – my sadness is mixed with sweet awareness. He’s becoming exactly who he’s meant to be.