It was 1996 when my friends Barbara and Ed, in their mid-40s and married the previous year, traveled to China to bring home their long-awaited infant daughter, Alex. This path to creating a family touched me to the core. By now the news stories were well-known about China’s one-child policy and all the healthy, relinquished baby girls there who needed homes. I was 41 and newly out of a relationship. Though I had never married, I continued to have, deep in my every cell, the craving to be a parent, to nurture a child from babyhood on. At the time, China was very receptive to older international adoptive parents. I saw China as my hope.
In 2000, I met my husband, Sandy—younger than I am by a few years and also never married—and in those giddy, early months together, once it became clear we wanted to become life partners, I raised the subject of adoption. The odds were not good that I would become a midlife miracle mother; IVF was not an option with my eggs. We could invest in a donor egg—in other words, we could adopt an egg—and thought about this seriously, but there was no guarantee a child would ensue.
In 2004, on a muggy August day in a municipal building in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, China, just three days shy of our third anniversary, Sandy and I first held our 11-month-old, Caroline Xuzhen, in our arms. She was howling, and not just because she was frightened. She had a runny nose, a sore throat, and a rotten cough—plus, we would soon learn, a terrible case of constipation. As novice parents, that initial day with our daughter was kind of harrowing. She wouldn’t take a bottle, though she gobbled down a risotto-like cereal called congee. But the next morning was different. She woke up grinning—her whole face was glowing with glee. We taught her to call us “Mama” and “Dada,” and took it from there.
HOW HAS THE ADOPTION EXPERIENCE AFFECTED YOUR POETRY?
My love for my daughter and my appreciation of parenthood—especially later-life parenthood, because the parenting experience was so hard-won for me—have been recurrent subjects in my work. Gratitude has become an anchoring theme. Also, because I am a cross-cultural, transracial parent, I am well aware of the special responsibilities I owe my daughter. Global and multicultural matters are of particular interest.
PLEASE SHARE A SAMPLE POEM(S) ADDRESSING (IN PART)ADOPTION:
Baby in a Basket
This infant was found at the gate of this institute by Miss Li Feng Er and brought in for foster care on 8/29/2003.…Our doctor decided her date of birth as 8/26/2003, according to her development. She was named Shang Guan Xu.… Shang is the initial of Shanggao [the town]. Guan is the middle name for all kids in this orphanage. Xu means the morning rising sun.
—Shanggao Social Welfare Institute Child Development Status Report
We were ready, with these first photos, for you to be
Cute, but not to be beautiful—which smacked through us
Like a convulsion. We study your startled onyx eyes, alert
As birds at play in a pond, tawny embossed blossom
Of lips, fringe of hair a fluffy nimbus floating above you.
Four months old at the time these were taken, you sit snug
In an oval basket, so overbundled in layers of wool
Sweaters and leggings, you cannot move, your hands
Lost in the soft black tunnels of your vast jacket’s sleeves.
Our agency suggests we tell you a story from long before
You can understand: In China your Birth Mommy—who had
Held you curled inside her for nine months—and Birth Daddy
Loved you very much, but could not keep you, so they made
A plan. They wrapped you in blankets, set you in a basket,
And delivered you someplace safe, where they knew
Kind people would care for you until your
Forever Mommy and Daddy could take you home.
For now you sit, as the hours pass, in a worn metal
Crib, in a room wall-to-wall with cribs, each shared by two
Burbling girls, and here in our hands, propped up
In a basket, waiting for the slow, slumbering
World to turn your way. You are our morning rising sun.
We practice the language, froth of words, that formed
The slosh and current of your life before
You could speak: “Ni hao ma?” we greet our teacher,
Who passes out toys and asks us to repeat as she holds up flash cards:
“Panda”—xiongmao—followed by “baby,” “mother,” “father,” “dog,”
“Cat.” All of the girls in the circle, and the sole boy, are Chinese
Toddlers. Most of the mothers and fathers are middle-aged, white.
At summer’s close, we carried you down the blue-tiled steps
Of the synagogue’s bath—a swirl of piped-in rainwater,
Municipal water, and a bit of chlorine—and swiftly dipped you
Three times, the water snug to all your surfaces. At the top of the steps
A trio of rabbis chanted the blessings, calligraphied midnight
Blue on the pale blue walls. I recited along in a language I had never
Formally learned, some of the words and all the intonations familiar.
Little flame, you will be the birthright of who you are,
Independent of water or vocabulary.
We work on the words. That’s why in the post office, just a few weeks
After we had brought you home, when the Asian American clerk,
In her sixties, spotted you soaking up your new world
From your stroller, puckered up her face, then gazed again at me
And, with accented English, clenching my heart in her hands,
Inquired, “She’s yours?” I managed to answer, “Yes. And I’m hers.”
Why couldn’t she see I had become Chinese?
For my daughter
As I wheel you and our purchases—toothpaste, Similac—toward
A register, our cashier murmurs to a colleague in a language
She thinks I don’t understand: “La abuela,” she says with certainty.
I am certain I will not be alive the day you turn forty.
You have just learned how to walk. Your unscuffed sneakers,
Glossy white with fuchsia stripes, crisp knotted laces flecked
With silver, flash hot-pink lights with each new step, as bright
As the sunshine in your face when you shuffle toward me—arms
Raised, holding your palms forward for balance—still amazed
You can locomote yourself with two extremities only, and alone.
And when I am indeed old, once you have clocked the hurdles
Of thirty and thirty-five, with more years ahead of you
Than behind, please also see me as I was that summer and fall
Once we brought you home, the way I would carry you,
A scrawny toddler who couldn’t toddle, couldn’t crawl,
Couldn’t grasp and deliver to her mouth a morsel of bread,
Ate like a just-hatched wren, from the palm of my hand.
Sitting on the rug, we’d practice a game with the slats
Of your playpen—your laugh a swift clinking of bells—
As I would encourage you “Up, up, up,” demonstrating a way
For you to lift yourself, hand over hand. Soon you were scooting
Along the furniture, then reaching for my index fingers,
Marching ahead with one in each hand, until you discovered,
With me by your side, you could walk on your own.
All three poems are from Immersion, © 2011, Michele Wolf. "Immersion" also was originally published in Crab Orchard Review and "Old Mom" in Poet Lore.
ABOUT THE POET:
Michele Wolf is the author of Immersion (Spring 2011), selected by Denise Duhamel for the Hilary Tham Capital Collection, published by The Word Works. Her previous books are Conversations During Sleep (Anhinga Press, Anhinga Prize for Poetry) and The Keeper of Light (Painted Bride Quarterly Poetry Chapbook Series). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Hudson Review, Boulevard, North American Review, and many other literary journals and anthologies. Since 2002 she has taught at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. She lives with her husband and daughter in Gaithersburg, Maryland, near Washington, D.C. Her website is http://michelewolf.com.