Room for One More?
Lee, at ten, was the first in the family to mention adoption. He tore out of a friend's backyard at dusk when I honked from the driveway and clattered in cleats into the backseat, rosy and dirty under his baseball cap. "I have a surprise for you!" I said as he buckled in.
"Are you pregnant?" he happily cried.
"What?!" I stopped and turned around to look at him in amazement. It was 1998. I was forty-five. "Lee, no."
"Oh!" he said with disappointment, but then offered knowingly, "But did you find someone really, really sweet to adopt?"
I pulled into traffic and silently swung my arm over the seat to deliver a paper bag containing a brand-new bike lamp that had suddenly lost most of its sparkle.
It was uncanny that he'd asked this. A few years earlier I had struggled with the question of whether I was too old to give birth to a fifth child, and as it turned out, Donny and I were but a few months away from wondering if we might adopt a fifth child.
I'd been surprised, as I turned forty-one, by a sudden onset of longing and nostalgia. The older children were thirteen, ten, and six. Lily was only two. But she'd moved to her "big girl bed," and the crib stood - now and forever? - empty. Why did I hesitate at this moment to leap across the great divide - from childbearing years to non-childbearing years? Sometimes, standing at the kitchen sink, looking out the window into the front yard and the shade of the massive tulip poplar where the children lay in the deep grass, chewing on weed stalks, I wanted it never to end. If our home were a houseboat, we'd started to throw off the ropes and rumble away from the dock, but what if one last child were racing down to the pier, hoping to leap onto the deck?
On my mother's side, I have one female first cousin, Judy: she gave birth to her fourth child at forty-two. That long-ago baby had been greeted by merriment and snickering among the medium and upper branches of the family tree. As I turned forty-one, I knew that having a last baby at forty-two was within the bounds of physiological possibility and ancestral sanction. At forty-one and a half I pressed myself to make a now-or-never decision.
Donny was surprised.
"I kind of feel we're set up to handle a larger population here," I said. To assist, he wordlessly extracted from a closet shelf an explicit wooden figurine he'd lugged home from a summer trip to Europe twenty-four years earlier. Shops offering African jewelry, sculpture, and dashikis weren't then ubiquitous in American shopping malls, and this item had struck the shaggy backpacking seventeen-year-old as a real find. A foot and a half tall, the rough-hewn fertility man-woman had sharp, pointy breasts, a pregnant belly, and an erect male genital. Young Donny, back at home in suburban White Plains, had glued tangles of black thread to key locales to serve as the statue's pubic hair. Now he brought it down from behind his sweaters (I'd forgotten the thing existed) and stood it up on his night table beside the clock radio.
Having his/her sharp parts all aimed at me felt threatening rather than encouraging. And I felt deeply undecided.
Other than Donny, I could find no one who thought it was a good idea to try for a fifth child at forty-one. The months scrolled by, narrowing my window of opportunity. Then I turned forty-two. Then I was forty-two years and one month old. I made my first-ever appointment with a psychologist. "I need help deciding whether to get pregnant again," I told her. "I have two months left to decide." But she wanted to talk about every sort of unrelated thing! She wanted to hear about my marriage. She said, "You know, I used to be afraid of empty nest, too, but it can be an absolutely wonderful time for you and your husband to find each other again."
"I haven't lost my husband," I said. "We're very close. Can you just tell me yes or no here?"
Excerpted from No Biking in the House Without a Helmet by Melissa Fay Greene. Copyright © 2011 by Melissa Fay Greene. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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