Behind Blue Eyes

Behind Blue Eyes

From Chicken Soup for Every Mom's Soul

Behind Blue Eyes

Love cures people—both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it.

Dr. Karl Menninger

Samantha stood in the center of the shabby social services office wearing a threadbare pink sweat suit. The flickery fluorescent lighting illuminated shaggy boy-cut blonde hair, dirty fingernails, a runny nose and huge blue eyes ringed with dark, tired circles. Around the thumb jammed between her teeth, she stared up at me and asked, “Are you my new mom?”

My husband, Dan, and I had gone through all the usual contortions to have a second child. His and hers surgeries, artificial insemination. Nothing happened. I had always envisioned adopting, but my husband was unconvinced. Dan’s initial reservation about adoption was understandable given that, at the time, the evening news was filled with terrifying stories of anguished biological and adoptive parents fighting for the rights to be some little one’s “real” mom and dad. Still, we decided to move forward.

Our ten-year-old son, Matthew, was also a little slow to jump on the adoption bandwagon. He had been the center of our universe for a long time, and he liked it that way. He was also a typical kid in that he wanted to fit in and not be “different” in any way. We planned to adopt a baby from China, which especially concerned him; he feared that an Asian baby in our Caucasian midst might invite dreaded attention.

As part of the adoption agency screening process, a social worker came to interview Matthew, and we encouraged him to “just be honest.” So, with prepubescent eloquence, our son explained to the attentive social worker that he loved being an only child, that he didn’t want a sibling from another country, that he didn’t like Chinese rice, that people would stare at us if we had a Chinese baby, and that basically a little brother or sister would pretty much ruin his life. He was evangelistic in his passion, Galilean in his logic. Brilliant. When he was through, my husband and I watched the social worker back out of the driveway, wondering if she would even make it back to the office before setting fire to our application.

Miraculously, when the whole screening process was finished (references, fingerprints, credit and criminal checks, etc.) my husband and I were approved. My son remained skeptical, and my husband was still a bit nervous even as we settled down to wait. Then, on a bitter January morning we got the call.

The social worker told us about a little girl, suddenly available—a four-year-old white girl from New York— who had come into this world with cocaine humming in her veins. “How soon can you be here?” the social worker asked.

Our preliminary visit was to last about an hour or so. Taking Samantha’s hand in mine, I led her down the steps and out the door. We walked though a winter-bare park with Samantha on my shoulders. She got shy around Dan and wouldn’t accept a “pony ride” from him. She had no mittens and her icy little fingers squeezed my hands. Her chatter was nonstop and more than a little desperate. Her blue gaze focused over my shoulder, or off in the distance, but never settled on my face. Her eyes were both blank and wild, like a wary captive.

In the park, we stumbled upon a dry fountain and pitched our pennies in, making silent wishes. I wished for the chance to quell the quiet panic in her eyes.

After the visit, we took Samantha back to the social worker. We were told to think about the adoption and to let them know. There was little discussion in our car on the way home. Our fears were too numerous and too ethereal to put into words, but our commitment was already rock solid. The next morning we brought our daughter home.

From the very first day, Samantha called me “Mom.” I had waited years for this moment, anxious to be privileged again with that most singular title. But there was no epiphany when she said it, no fireworks, no choir of angels. I knew that to Samantha, “Mom” was just the lady who was taking care of her at the moment. No more intimate than “Waiter” or “Stewardess.” All the meaning had been drained from that word the night her “real mom” took the garbage out and never came back.

After her biological mother left, Samantha lived with a steady succession of mothers. Some were just temporary care for a night or two; others were longer “trial visits.” One, Samantha’s mother for five months, told Samantha they were going to adopt her into their family soon, that the other children were her “sister” and her “brother.” When Samantha came to us, one of her few possessions was a little purple sweatshirt, hand decorated with craft paint spelling out the words “Little Sister.” But, one night, when Samantha had said something inappropriate in front of the biological kids, she was abruptly stripped of her title and sent away. A dishonorable discharge for the littlest soldier.

Now at our house, Samantha was somebody else’s daughter, somebody else’s little sister. Matthew’s initial fears about a new sibling thrusting him into the limelight were replaced with relief; his new sister looked remarkably like him and the rest of the family. There would be no undue attention, no compulsory rice.

At first he treated Samantha like a cute new pet. “Want to come in and see my new sister? Look what she can do!” After a few days the novelty wore off, and routine set in.

But Sam remained enthralled with Matthew. She lingered over the many pictures of him that covered the walls of our house: Matthew in a soccer uniform, Matthew at the beach, Matthew with Grandpa. On her third day with us, Samantha found some old catalogues and asked for scissors. Patiently she cut out pictures of two dolls, a boy and a girl. She turned over one of the silver frames and lifted the back. With great care she arranged her boy and girl on the mat and replaced the frame, beaming. “Look, Mom! Look at the picture of me and Matthew!”

For reassurance, or maybe just to remind herself who he was, Samantha had taken to calling our son “Matthewmybrother.” When she had been with us about a week, she called to him at bedtime. With her wide blue eyes shining up at him, she said, “Matthewmybrother, I’m glad your room is next to mine so that you can protect me from the monsters.” For a boy of ten, not that far removed from believing in monsters himself, this was high praise. He swaggered out of her room like he had just been knighted.

My husband, too, had bonded with Sam. The little blondie who wrapped around his legs was just as tightly wrapped around his heart. He did not need to fear a parental tug-of-war over this child. Her biological parents had neglected and abandoned her, having fallen so deep into their dark, destructive world that there was no hope—or risk—of them climbing out.

We saw glimpses of their lives through Samantha. One day, she deftly took a rubber plastic blood-pressure hose out of a play doctor’s set and tied it around her forearm, pulling it tight with her teeth. Then she tapped on her veins as though feeling for “a good one.” The father who had shot up in front of Samantha never once came looking for her.

As the weeks passed, Samantha worked hard to learn the names of all of her new relatives. “Is it Uncle Dale and Aunt Kelly, or Uncle Kale and Aunt Delly?” She knew Grandma and Poppa and numerous cousins. And I was Mom.

She called me “Mommy,” “Mama,” and sometimes, “Mumsy,” because Matthewmybrother did too. I knew that if Samantha were to draw a picture of her mom it would be my face she would draw, my stick hand holding her stick hand. But I had been a mother for ten years. I knew the difference between the word and the relationship it represented. Once, when I left Samantha with my parents for an evening, she asked my mother, “If she doesn’t come back, are you my new mom?”

Weeks turned into months. We were progressing as quickly as legally possible from foster parents to adoptive parents. Samantha nestled down into family life preferring hand-me-downs from her new cousins to store-bought clothes, getting crushes on the same Montessori teachers as her brother had a few years before. She danced around the living room with my old rhinestone earrings clipped to her ears. She smiled at herself smiling back at herself from the silver frames on the piano . . . and the desk . . . and the walls.

And we were friends, she and I. We baked cookies. We shopped together—a lot, once I discovered the “pink aisle” at the toy store. She put on my lipstick and gave me elaborate, fanciful hairstyles. And during all this time, she called me “Mom.” But it still felt more like “Aunt,” or “teacher” or “pal.” During all of our mother-daughter moments, Samantha’s big blue eyes checked me out, looked me up and down, kept me at a distance.

Once, in the middle of the night, I went into Samantha’s room to check on her. She was sitting up in bed. She hadn’t called out to us, and she wasn’t crying, but when I came close to the bed her eyes registered fear. “I dreamed you were a witch, and you were going to kill me.” I held her, whispering that I would never hurt her. She was safe now. That night she told me about violence she had witnessed, about playing with rats, about being locked in the trunk of a car. Other times, only late at night, only in the dark, and only when I wasn’t looking at her, she told me of many horrible experiences she had lived through in her four short years.

Therapists had warned me that of all the hurts that Sam had endured in her short little life, the cruelest blow was from her biological mom. I should be patient, they said. She needs to learn to trust again.

When a tiny brain is growing, a circuitry network of neurotransmitters and jumpy dendrites branch out, creating a blueprint for the future. Through experience, children lay down patterns in their brain, designed to keep them safe and help them thrive. Children learn to recoil from big dogs, or scary clowns, or weird Uncle Max with fermenting breath, but they don’t usually recoil from mom.

Moms are supposed to be the soft lap, the gentle hands that soothe away the nightmares. They are supposed to be the big warm blanket you wrap up in when the world is too cold and too rainy. But what happens when Mom is the stinging rain? When it is Mom who is the monster under the bed?

Samantha did not trust me. Nothing I said was accepted as truth. She had to see things with her own eyes. “Don’t touch that knife; it’s sharp,” led to bloody fingers. “Wait on the curb; a car is coming” sent her running into the street to see for herself.

Samantha had come into our home with a “colorful” vocabulary. Once I overheard Barbie and Ken arguing in language that could make a hard-core rapper blush. I explained to my angel-faced daughter that those were not nice words; they make people uncomfortable. That night, at a restaurant with friends, she spewed profanity throughout the dinner, all the while gauging their reaction. Our son was highly entertained. Our friends were not.

Samantha challenged me in a thousand different ways, calculating the results, evaluating the extent of my affection. How far could she go before I’d be gone? She broke treasured heirlooms, defied rules, lied, hoarded, stole. She did not scare us off, but still she refused to depend on me, to believe in me. When I tucked her in at night, and whispered, “I love you,” she squirmed. When her runaway mind kept her up at night, restless and anxious, I massaged her hands and feet, but her muscles stayed taut and tense beneath my fingers. I ached to relieve her from her post of hypervigilance, to loosen her grip on her emotions, to hear her genuine laugh, to help her just let go and resume her rightful role as innocent child.

Intellectually, I knew her therapists were right. I would nod my head. Yes, yes, I know. But secretly my gut clenched. I wavered between self-disgust and self-pity. What arrogance had me thinking that my house, my family, my love, could reach this broken little girl? If, in the end, she could not love me back, but she was safe and content, surrounded by health and hope, shouldn’t that be enough? Perhaps there would be no sacred bond or whispered trust between us. But if she could live without pain and in relative peace, shouldn’t I just be thankful, and let the rest go?

One night, about a year after Samantha arrived, I was awakened by a choked cry. I hurried in and found Samantha sitting up in bed, her white nightgown a mess. She had gotten sick all over herself and her bed linens. Cleaning up throw-up was my domain, so my husband helped Samantha to the bathroom as I began to strip her sheets. I could hear Dan speaking quietly to Sam as he knelt with her in front of the toilet bowl. I was filling up a bucket when suddenly she let out an anguished cry. Her words were loud and distinct, “I WANT MY MOMMY!”

She was hurting and needing help, scared and needing comfort. She was a child who needed her mom. And not her biological mom, or her foster moms, or the social workers. She wanted me! What kind of a mother rejoices when her daughter is sick and in distress? I couldn’t help it—my heart sang.

I cradled my daughter’s head while her little body heaved. It wasn’t pretty, but it was real. I knew then that although I wouldn’t be Samantha’s first mom . . . or her second or third, nothing could keep me from being her last. And that was more than enough.

Jenny Graham

[EDITORS’ NOTE: Today, Sam is a healthy, happy teenager who loves music, horseback riding and her family. ]

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