About 20 years ago, after several failed pregnancies, one of my friends was able to adopt a baby. I took my son-- who was maybe in kindergarten-- to visit. The baby cried the entire afternoon, as babies often do; my friend kept looking at me quizzically; she was still learning the skills of parenting, and held her tiny new daughter with a bit of anxious awkwardness. But my son blurted out, after a couple of hours-- 'She's crying for her real mother'. Out of the mouths of babes….
Of course, science and psychology tell us there is no valid basis for designating a biological parent preferable to a loving, doting caretaker; but most new mothers will tell you they can pick their baby out of an incubator line-up-- even when they are meeting for the first time over a hospital bassinet. There is some indescribable empathic biology that connects us-- helps us distinguish one cry from another, identify their little discomforts; or maybe it is our physiology or scent they recognize from their time inside us-- they sense we have maybe just that much more capacity to comfort them.
I've been taking care of a friend who has a truly heinous strain of cancer that seems to resist all treatment and is subjecting her to inhuman episodes of pain, discomfort and physical challenge. She has no living family; in fact, she was adopted, and I can't help visualizing somewhere a mother walking into her treatment room and, like an angel, bringing relief and comfort. But she has no inclination to search, and even less inclination to just let out the kind of emotional wail I imagine building up like a crescendo of despair. Me, I have that gene; she does not.
What makes us who we are? What makes that woman in my Latin dance class bare her midriff like a 16-year-old even though she is 50-something and no one wants to see this kind of thing? Or that lovely girl in the front row who has tattooed herself so extensively she looks positively reptilian? Or the man on the uptown 3 last night, with the wifebeater and the white shorts and flip-flops in the fall chill with his gut hanging out and his legs spread like he was home alone on his sofa on a hot night having a beer before bed? Last Monday, waiting for the crosstown bus, a man with a deformed hand beside me was scrolling through violent pornographic images on his phone. Who did this to him and why does this disturb me?
That 6-year-old who was beaten to death by his Mom's boyfriend-- there was a gruesome description of him being hung by his shirt over the door-- like laundry, like a garbage bag. This child who was so neglected by a broken system that favors abused dogs over children; and like the poor angels they are, when they are removed from terrible homes, these children weep for their mothers; it's natural. I was homesick for my Mom and my home when sent away, even though my father was only nice to me when we had company, and ignored the highly inappropriate behavior of some of his friends. Like most children, I wouldn't dare tell on these people; no one would have believed me had it even occurred to us to do so. I could hear the Catholic boys down the block being beaten by their father at night. They'd come out and sneak a cigarette while I held icepacks on their swollen face; sometimes they snitched a little whiskey. They sniffed back tears and acted tough while we sat on rocks and smoked and it made me feel better. Most of them grew up and became fireman and cops; they had nice wives and loved their kids.
In the city there are people who are hard to read-- men who live alone and are strange and maybe hurt and toughened-- children who grew up missing parts-- disappointed adults with bitter hearts and secret habits. People who fantasize about things. And people who are rough and not kind who seem to have regular lives and market themselves as something else. Pretenders.
I missed most of the debate Monday night; I was working. It was difficult to imagine a contest between two people who seem like candidates for entirely different jobs. Despite her flaws, Hillary is a fairly typical high-achieving woman; her daughter grew up in the public eye with her awkwardness and her teenage issues. She even called Bernie Sanders 'President Sanders' in a recent national faux pas which gave her a certain charming disingenuousness. Donald Trump's daughter is a professional. She's a manufactured princess. I'm sure all her lumps and bumps and flaws were long ago repaired and she is his best PR. She seems self-assured and skilled; one can only imagine what her Dad might have done to a black-sheep child-- a child with issues. But who is he? There should be some kind of tool or device so that we can decipher people the way tax returns or birth certificates give us a paper trail of evidence. But there isn't. We can't always tell Hitler from Nixon. Still, there are signs here-- clues. What is wrong with people? Are they going to hand their babies over to someone who has no clue about handling children-- about values and comfort and love?
My friend's adopted daughter has every advantage-- she sings and dances and has beautiful clothes. Who knows if one day while she is rocking her own baby she will feel some hole inside of her and begin to disintegrate with sadness. Or manifest some genetic inclination to addiction or madness or early dementia.
A gypsy once told me I inherited the curse of my Grandmother. She died young and tragically and I used to look at her beautiful wedding dress with the tiny satin waist in a box in my attic which I imagined came alive and rustled through the dark hallways of my old creaking childhood house while we slept. I read somewhere she had a poet's soul and wept for some young lover during the war and died of grief. At night I took her old rag doll to bed and imagined her watching over me with love and wisdom. Her legacy is unspeakably mine. We have many things in common-- including single motherhood and her dark hair. Her goodness and understanding informs my life and heart in a way that has sustained me like a kind of personal goddess.
We grow up and parent ourselves, they say. The genuine of us try to 'feel' who we are, to know our own heart and follow our own dream. Navigating the staggering choices of life today is difficult. Our culture pressures us to subscribe to things that have no essential importance to our core and yet have eclipsed most of our humanity. The truth is so dressed up and cosmetically altered and perverted… there is no bible or manual to help us, no religion or even a parent or lover to answer our needs. But we can try, like Kachina dolls of complexity, to remove the shells and see ourselves as we are, and see others as they are, and reach out and maybe save someone from a terrible catastrophe or even just a lonely night, or a bad decision. A shared moment-- a compassionate 'ear'-- a mirror. And the map of this world is so huge and complicated-- but right through our wall, next door-- there may be something we can change, and we must try to take the tiny but crucial initiative toward some version of human goodness. Amen.