The Complicated Grief of Trying to Adopt a Child

Sarah Sentilles: “I was an animal in my grief. Wild. Ready to protect my young, but I didn’t have any.”

My phone became a loaded object. Like a gun or a bomb. Or maybe I was the loaded object. Group texts, spam calls, reminders from political groups, from stores, from shipping companies, all made me want to go off. Don’t you know people are waiting for urgent news? I wanted to shout. Diagnoses, test results, deaths—life changing information comes by phone. And, for Eric and me, a baby would.

I can’t just ignore my phone’s vibrations and dings and rings because our adoption agency texts us when there is a new birth mother synopsis. First the text, and then the synopsis arrives by email, describing the situation, the birth parents’ medical histories, and their parents’ histories too. The birth mother is assigned a pseudonym to protect her privacy. We are given a deadline for responding. Sometimes we have twenty minutes to say yes or no. Sometimes we have three days.

We’ve said yes to more than a dozen synopses, but no birth mother has chosen us yet. We’ve been in the waiting pool for more than a year, so Eric and I have a routine now. One of us shouts, “Synopsis,” and then we read what it says in different rooms. We let each other finish reading before we say anything. I read more quickly than he does, but I don’t remember what I’ve read. Eric remembers everything.

“I’m a yes,” I say nearly every time.

“What about the buprenorphine? Does it harm the fetus?” he will ask, and I won’t know what he’s talking about.

Sometimes the dings on my phone are from our town’s sheriff: A mountain lion was spotted in your neighborhood. Hold your children close.

We don’t have a child to hold close. We used to. A foster daughter named Coco. We brought her home from the hospital when she was three days old. She lived with us for ten months. But then the state of Idaho decided to reunify her with her mother.

The thing about grief is that for the rest of the world the emergency is over. Grief is the aftermath, a feeling, something to be endured, gotten through. Whatever had been feared to happen—the accident, the death, the leaving—has happened, so the situation is no longer urgent for anyone else.

But for the griever, for the bereaved, a second emergency has begun: How to live in the world without the one you love?

*

The first time I was charged by a moose I was with my friend Alli on paddleboards on Silver Creek, a spring fed waterway in a nature preserve about a half hour from my house. I’d hoped to see moose, but I hadn’t known they had recently calved, hadn’t known early summer was a dangerous time to be on the water.

Alli and I floated the current through a narrow section lined with tall grasses and willows on both sides. We heard her before we saw her, and when I turned to look in the direction of that pounding, a moose was charging us. We flattened our bodies against our paddleboards, as if lying down might placate her, and when she was just a few feet away from us, so close to entering the water, she turned and disappeared into the grass, a mother scaring us to protect her young.

*

I kept in touch with Coco’s mother after Coco was reunified with her. But then her mother cut me off. Then she used drugs again and lost her job. And then she ran from child protective services. No one could find her. No one could find Coco either.

The thing about grief is that for the rest of the world the emergency is over. Grief is the aftermath, a feeling, something to be endured, gotten through.

After a few months, child protective services located them. Coco was taken into foster care in another state and placed in the home of strangers. Eric and I hired lawyers in our state and in that other state. We fought to have Coco placed with us, but we kept losing.

Her putative father, Cody, had been in prison when Coco was born. But he was out now. And he wanted Coco too. Or he said he wanted her. Coco’s mother told us he hates her, told us he just likes to battle the department, likes to battle Eric and me, gets off on the sport of it.

Like the sheriff’s texts about wild animals, Cody’s texts warned. His phone calls threatened. During every conversation, he reminded us he had guns, reminded us he was a marine. “They taught us to do one thing in the marines,” he told me on the phone, and I knew he meant kill.

*

The second time I was charged by a moose, I was on a hike with my friend Erin. We were walking a trail we’d walked a hundred times. Willows lined one side of it, and though there must have been moose there every time we’d hiked, we’d never seen them. It’s a well-traveled trail, close to town, the first to dry out in the spring, walkable in snow.

I saw something. Up ahead, a mama moose with a baby.

“Holy shit,” I said.

We watched them move into the willows, away from the trail.

“We should probably turn around,” Erin said.

But we didn’t. We kept walking, feeling lucky that Erin, on a fluke, hadn’t brought her three dogs with us.

On the way back, we talked loudly, trying to make sure we wouldn’t surprise the moose.

“Wait,” I said. “I heard something.” The sound of willows being eaten. We were at a bend in the trail. Erin peeked around the corner.

“She’s right there,” she said. “With two babies.”

Erin scrambled up the steep hill on the opposite side of the trail from the willows, but I was wearing old running shoes and kept slipping.

“I can see the three of them,” she said. “I think it’s safe if you stay close to the hillside.”

I started walking. “Hi, Mama.” I said. “I’m not going to hurt your babies.”

Then I heard the same sound I’d heard on my paddleboard on Silver Creek. Hooves pounding earth. My heart pounding in my chest. I ran up the hill, willing my shoes to stick.

“She’s going the other way,” Erin said. From her higher position, she could see them. Though it sounded to me like the moose was running toward me, she was actually running away, herding her babies through the willows, across the creek, away from us.

On the hillside, Erin and I watched the mother moose trailed by her two calves. I filmed them with my phone. On the video you can hear me breathing hard.

I texted the video to Eric, and when I got home there was a can of bear spray on the kitchen table. Later, he showed me how to attach it to my daypack, made me practice drawing it from the water bottle holder, removing the safety cap.

*

Cody called or texted every day for weeks. One day, after we refused to pay to have Coco’s mother’s windshield fixed, he texted and told me to stay the fuck away from him, so I did. I didn’t hear from him for ten weeks. The relief was visceral, my muscles loose.

But then my phone rang, and his name flashed on my screen. I didn’t answer. He left a message. He was tired of fighting the department, he said. He’d done everything they’d asked him to do and more, but they were messing with his visits with Coco. He was done. He wanted to grant custody of her to Eric and me.

Cody’s call left me high, tweaking on the belief that Coco would be our daughter again, that we were close to bringing her home. Any day now, I thought. Any day.

I called our lawyer Ellie to tell her about the message, and while we talked, Cody texted her. I want your clients to adopt my daughter.

Ellie and I screamed. I walked from my office to the kitchen, from the kitchen to the living room, from the living room to my office, the phone against my ear. “I’m pacing,” I shouted. “I’m sweating.”

“I’m pacing too,” she shouted. “Is this what heroin feels like?”

“We’re doing drugs together!” We cackled.

Eric was upstairs working. I texted him. Cody called. He wants us to have Coco.

Eric ran downstairs. He watched me, shouting into my phone, racing from kitchen to living room to office. He shook his head. “We’ve been here before,” he said.

Unlike me, Eric is not pulled into anyone’s orbit. He understood the voicemail messages and text messages promising adoption left by someone who struggles with mental illness and with addiction for what they were: ravings, whims that will change.

I’m an optimist. Eric isn’t. He expects the worst and prepares for it. We once saw a cartoon, three glasses on a countertop. “I’m half-full,” the first glass says. “I’m half-empty,” the second glass says. “I think it’s piss,” the third glass says. I’m the first glass, and Eric is the third, and this is the rift that runs through our marriage. But after sixteen years, we know it’s there. We understand how to navigate that fissure. We rarely fall in.

Months earlier, Cody had granted us guardianship of Coco, and then, in a rage about something we’d done or not done, about something we’d said or not said, he revoked his consent.

“He didn’t say adoption before,” I insisted to Eric, arguing that this time was different. “He didn’t say custody.”

“Stop,” he said. “This is only going to break your heart.”

My hands tingled as if they were asleep. “I can’t help it,” I said. “I hear the words you are saying, but I can’t stop.”

It turns out I’m susceptible to the promises of addicts. I get hooked. I hadn’t been close with anyone who struggled with addiction before, or at least I hadn’t known that they did. But I’m tied tight to two addicts now, like a magic trick that leaves you handcuffed to a stranger, no key in sight.

*

Moose is an Algonquin term that means twig eater. Moose are herbivores. They eat leaves and twigs and buds of trees and shrubs. Every hair on a moose is hollow. The air trapped inside insulates, keeps them warm. A moose’s front legs are larger than its back legs, making it possible for her to jump over fallen trees in the forest.

Bull moose grow antlers that can stretch five feet across. They begin to grow in early summer and are covered with a soft, fuzzy skin called velvet. The velvet has blood vessels in it that deliver nutrients to help the antlers develop.

The flap of skin under a moose’s chin is called a dewlap. Some reptiles have dewlaps, and some birds too. Dogs, cattle, antelope, deer, and rabbits have dewlaps. When pregnant, female rabbits pluck fur from their dewlaps to line nests for their babies.

Scientists don’t understand dewlaps’ function. They may have something to do with sexual signaling. They may be used to exchange scents during the rut. They may help dissipate excess body heat. They may make animals appear larger than they are to predators. Or, alternatively, because dewlaps make it easier for predators to grab their prey, the extra flesh giving predators something to hold on to, then an animal who has survived long enough to develop a large dewlap sends the message to potential predators that they are hard to kill, deterring attacks.

*

Our lawyer in Idaho had been arguing that according to Idaho law Cody wasn’t Coco’s father. He and Coco’s mother were not married. His name was not on the birth certificate. He had not registered with the Putative Father Registry.

Coco’s mother called me to tell me about his violence. “He gave me a black eye,” she said. “He cut the wires on my truck. He cut the wires to my house. Why would someone be so cruel?”

“Are you sure he’s her father?” I asked.

“I wish he wasn’t,” she said.

I thought Coco looked like him. When she was still in our care, I stared at his mugshot. I could see her chin in his chin, her upper lip in his upper lip.

Cody once told our lawyer, whispered to her, that he didn’t think he was the father, and we’d spent months hoping and arguing that what he’d said was true. But now that he wanted us to adopt her, we hoped he was the father. You can’t relinquish what you don’t have.

Though we’d been asking for a paternity test for sixteen weeks, the department in that other state had ignored our requests. When he said he wanted Coco to be ours, they finally ordered a test. The results would take weeks, maybe longer in a pandemic.

But Coco returning to us felt more possible than it had in months. We researched possible psychotherapists in town, people with specialties in attachment, attachment disorder, trauma, play therapy.

I spent time in the bedroom that used to be hers, the bedroom we still referred to as Coco’s room. I organized toys, put new books on the shelves, rearranged the closet. Every night before I fell asleep, I pictured Eric and me holding Coco’s hands, walking her up the front steps of our house. She was close. I could feel her.

I was about to leave the house to hike with my friend Erin. I filled my water bottle. Collected the cleats that I attach to my boots in the snow. Zipped my black coat.

*

Reading synopsis now, Eric texted.

I thought he was kidding because I hadn’t received a text from the adoption agency, but then my phone vibrated.

I read the synopsis. I ran upstairs. The due date was Eric’s birthday, which is also my brother’s birthday. I believe every synopsis is our child. We’re having a baby is all I feel. I am sure of it. Eric was on a work call – a video call, like every call now—and he couldn’t talk. We had two days to make a decision. We could discuss things when I got back from my hike.

Eric and I talked later that afternoon. “Do you think this would be the best idea for Coco?” Eric asked. “Bringing her home and then introducing an infant right away?”

“Do you think she’s coming back?” I asked. I believed she was, but Eric never let himself get his hopes up.

“No,” he said.

“Then why say no to a synopsis?”

“She might come back,” he said. “I want to prioritize what she needs.”

We have a rule when it comes to synopses. If one of us is a no, we are a no. The deadline to respond was the next day at 1. We had a phone appointment with our lawyers at 1:30.

We said no. I made Eric write the email.

Then I talked to our lawyers—two new lawyers in that other state. Ellie was now in the state government and had handed our case over. I was sure the lawyers would tell me it was just a matter of days and then we would have her back. But they didn’t. They told me it would be a long time before Coco comes back, if she ever does. They told me Eric and I needed to decide how long we would fight for her, when we would know it was time to give up.

I cried. I couldn’t speak.

“Are you there?” one of the lawyers asked.

“But we said no to a baby,” I said. We hadn’t told them we were trying to adopt. I knew they didn’t understand what I was saying.

“I wouldn’t put your life on hold,” the second lawyer said.

*

A mother moose and a baby moose spotted in your neighborhood, the sheriff texted. Keep your dogs on a leash.

I like sharing our town with wild animals who could kill me.

*

The night after we talked to our lawyers, Eric and I sat on the couch and watched television. Nearly every commercial showed an infant. Hearing baby sounds on TV made our bodies ache, expanded the hollowness at the center of our chests. Whenever we heard a baby cry, Eric held my hand.

*

We were fighting for Coco in two states—Idaho and the other state where her mother had fled. The week the department administered the paternity test, we had two court dates, one in Idaho on Tuesday and one in the other state on Thursday.

“Do you still believe in God?” Eric asked me the night before our court date in Idaho. We met in divinity school twenty years ago. I was studying to become an Episcopal priest, but I couldn’t make my mind do what churches were asking my mind to do. God felt bigger to me than the way Christianity talked about God.

The version of God peddled by so many churches sounds like Cody. Capricious. Frightening. Self-centered. Desperate for our belief. Volatile. Charming one minute, smiting the next. We have to keep him happy to get what we want, to keep ourselves safe, and somehow, keeping him happy is always impossible.

If God is, by definition, beyond anything we can say or think about God, then why do we imagine God as a person in the sky? Why not a moose? Why not a star? Why not everything, all of us?

“I don’t want to talk about this now,” I said to Eric.

“Why?” he asked.

“We’ve had this conversation a million times,” I said.

“But do you?”

“I believe in energy,” I said. “And I know you think that’s weird.”

I’d been meditating to the judge every day for weeks. In my office, behind my writing desk, is a bookshelf, and on the top shelf I keep a lantern, a piece of rose quartz in the shape of a heart, a dish in the shape of a moose antler, a letter to the birthmother of our future child, and the first book we ever read to Coco. This is my altar.

I was an animal in my grief. Wild. Ready to protect my young, but I didn’t have any. My young were nowhere to be seen. I was alone. I was below ground.

Eric doesn’t understand this part of me—the altar building, the meditation, the energy work. This is the place I feel loneliest in our marriage. Do I believe in God? I don’t know. How can I look at the state of the world and think God is able to affect the outcome of things? Then why does God choose not to? I don’t believe in God, but I also don’t not believe in God. I’m agnostic. I don’t think God’s existence is a question human beings can answer—and I don’t think it’s the right question, anyway. Can we make the world better?

Will Coco come home? This is what I want to know.

I miss my old faith. I miss the security of it, the belief things happen for a reason.

The next morning, right before court was about to begin, I texted one of my friends. I wish I still prayed, I wrote.

Better than prayer is reverence for your own heart’s vastness, she texted back. Revere your enormity of love.

*

In Zoom court, everyone appeared in a square, boxed in. One square had the name Evelyn on it—Coco’s mother’s name—no video feed. “Will the person labeled Evelyn please identify themself?” the judge asked.

“It’s Cody,” he said. “I fucking got kicked off when I used my own name.”

“Thank you, sir,” the judge said.

Before we joined the court’s Zoom, there was a list of rules to read: Don’t use a fake name; don’t walk around; don’t drink; don’t eat; don’t smoke.

“Who needs those reminders?” Eric asked.

Cody needed those reminders, if only to ignore them. When he turned on his video feed, we watched him suck on an e-cigarette, blow smoke through his nostrils like a dragon. He paced.

“Do you know where Evelyn is?” the judge asked.

“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” Cody said. “I’m here because Sarah and Eric have become a real problem for me. They have a private investigator following me around.”

Lies, I texted our lawyer.

I know, she texted back.

We did follow him once, by accident, or really it’s more accurate to say he followed us. When Coco came back into foster care in that other state, Eric and I drove there, rented a house, waited for weeks for her to be placed with us. One afternoon, we decided to drive past Evelyn’s house. We wanted to see where Coco had been living. I’d looked up the address on Google maps; I’d used street view, moving my mouse around, looking up and down the street. Eric and I drove slowly, looking for her house, but we were looking on the wrong side of the street, so we missed it and had to make a u-turn. When we drove by her house again, a man ran into the middle of the street. He was shouting, waving his arms in the air. He chased our car. I looked in the rearview mirror. He gave us the finger with both hands.

“I think that was Cody,” I said to Eric. He looked different than every photograph I’d seen, but I knew it was him.

After that, we joked about what we’d say when Coco asked us if we’d ever met her father, the funny story we would tell, though nothing about it was funny. My heart raced the first time I saw him, and it never really slowed.

The judge ruled against us. “I’m incredibly moved by your situation,” he told Eric and me. “I’m moved by all the people who love this little girl, who are ready to help you care for her. But your motion is denied. You’ll have to figure this out in the other state where there is an open child protection case.”

*

That afternoon, my phone rang. “A moose walked down your driveway a few minutes ago,” one of my neighbors said.

I ran outside. A family had just moved into the house diagonally across from us, a moving truck parked in front all morning. A man came out of that house holding a camera.

“Does this happen all the time?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“The moose is down there,” he said and pointed.

The moose had moved too far away for me to see. I drove my car through the neighborhood, looking for the moose, and there she was. There they were—a mother and her baby, crossing the highway. I used my car to block traffic. Cars stopped, hazards flashing. The mama crossed the street, and her calf followed, coming so close to my car it beeped a warning. The pair walked through the grocery store parking lot. I followed them, made sure they crossed the next street safely, watched them walk toward the river.

My office window looks out on our driveway. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that the moose had walked right by my window while I was sitting at my computer, writing.

How did I miss her?

What else do I not see?

*

The night before court in the other state, Eric and I walked to a friend’s house in the snow to leave our Secret Santa presents on her front porch. We heard the call of a great horned owl. We looked up and at the top of a tree, we saw the owl. Another owl answered. We walked up the hill, turned onto the bike path. We heard another owl and could see that owl at the top of a telephone pole. Two poles down, we heard and saw a fourth owl. Then a fifth. We stood and listened to them calling to one another.

“Five owls,” I said. “What does it mean?”

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Eric said.

*

Signs at trailheads near my town warn hikers about moose. Moose can kill your dog. They can kill a mountain lion. They can kill you. Moose will not appear to be afraid of you, the signs read, because they aren’t.

*

The court date in the other state went worse that the court date in Idaho. It seemed we would never get Coco back. We’d been trying for sixteen weeks. After court, I listened to my lawyer talk about rules and procedures. NO POINT, I wrote, filling a page of my notebook.

When Eric saw what I wrote he said, “I don’t think there ever was a point.”

“I fucking hate everyone,” I said.

I threw my notebook across the room. I threw my pen. I ran down to the basement. I wanted out of my skin, my rage, my grief, my helplessness overwhelmed me. I screamed. I hit the walls with my hands. I threw couch pillows. I beat the couch with my fists. I kicked holes in boxes. I cried so hard I vomited, kneeling on the bathroom floor with my head in the toilet. I was an animal in my grief. Wild. Ready to protect my young, but I didn’t have any. My young were nowhere to be seen. I was alone. I was below ground.

*

A few hours later, my phone vibrated.

A new synopsis. Extremely time sensitive.

A baby girl. Just a few hours to decide.

Yes, I texted Eric.

Yes, he texted back. Then, Don’t get your hopes up.

Too late.

_______________________________________________________

Sarah Sentilles’ Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours is available now via Random House.

Sarah Sentilles
Sarah Sentilles
Sarah Sentilles is a writer, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Breaking Up with God: A Love Story. Her book, Draw Your Weapons,is out now from Random House. She earned a bachelor's degree at Yale and master's and doctoral degrees at Harvard.





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