This letter will not be one of my usual reports on my adventures and upcoming publications or workshops, or meditations on cooking, writing, parenthood, travel, friendship, love, growing older, or any of the topics I like to explore here.
After a period of long silence, I want to address an experience many of you have written to ask about, that I have not felt able to discuss. Though–as many of you pointed out in your letters to me–it has never been my way to avoid hard truths.
This one required some time–partly for my own healing, and partly because what I am about to tell you here does not concern only myself. It concerns two children.
As many of my friends here know, almost three years ago, at the age of 55–as a single person, with the three children I’d given birth to grown and gone from home–I made the decision to adopt two young girls from Ethiopia, sisters ages 6 and 11, who’d lost their mother to AIDS and were living in an orphanage. This was a decision that many people in my life, and those who heard about it, viewed with a great deal of skepticism. As for me: this was something I’d thought about since I was in my teens. I said at the time that there was no experience in life I’d loved more than raising children. I had love enough for more, and a blind faith that love was sufficient to get us all through the challenges I knew would lie ahead.
I first traveled to Ethiopia in the summer of 2009 to meet the girls I already considered to be my daughters. I knew it would be many months before the paper work would be complete to bring the girls home and I wanted them to have some reassurance in the meantime that I was watching out for them.
I spent five days at the orphanage with the girls. Leaving them as I had to that day was very hard, though as it turned out, not the hardest thing.
Six months later, in January of 2010, I returned to Ethiopia–this time to bring the girls home as my daughters. The adoption was finalized. They were U.S. citizens.
The two children I brought home that day had lived through more hardship and loss than many adults reading this. They were leaving behind every single familiar thing, including a living father unable to care for them and three older brothers. They were healthy, and of strong character, but not physically strong. They spoke almost no English.
I will not speak here of all that transpired between that happy, hopeful day I first brought the girls home to where I sit now, writing this. I will simply say here that though there was no shortage of love or care–and despite some very happy and good times–the adoption failed.
I have never in my life tried harder to make something work than I did, to make a good home for the girls. I was not able to give them what they needed.
It was first suggested to me by a therapist, over a year ago, that sometimes, despite the best efforts of everyone, an adoption fails. When this happens, the best thing to do can be to find a really good home where the children you love can move forward.
When I first heard these words from the therapist, I told her never to speak of this again. It was unacceptable. I mention this now because I know there will be people reading what I say here–including some who have viewed themselves as my friends–who will feel the same way I did, and to those who do I want to say I understand. I would have said once that there would be no circumstance, ever, in which I would tell a child I’d adopted, who had already lost her birth mother, that I could not continue to be her parent.
In the end, what I told the girls–a year ago this past January–was this: I made a promise, when I went to Ethiopia to bring them home, that I would make sure they had a good life in America. I still took my promise as a firm commitment. But part of honoring it meant finding them two parents–a family with other children, and a big, wide net of a support system that I could not give them, myself.
Of the people in our lives who found this news unacceptable–and there were many, and some were good friends–two people who did understand better than you might suppose were the girls who, for fourteen months, I called my daughters.
What happened last year was the hardest thing I ever lived through. But it was not the hardest thing they ever lived through, and I am sad for them that this is so.
I found my girls a family where I believed they could thrive, and last April–a year ago next week, after many days spent with people here who cared about them a lot–we travelled to the city where they were going to live, and I said goodbye to them. My younger son Will came with us on that journey. That was the saddest day of my life, ever, and I think it was the saddest of his.
When I came home, I did something I had never done before in fifty seven years of living–though there were some large and painful losses over the years. I stopped everything. I did not write. For several months, I knew my work was to understand what had happened and make sure I became a better and wiser person. I am certainly a changed and humbled one.
Sometimes people I have run into over the last twelve months–who knew the girls, and cared about them, as so many did at their school, on their soccer teams, and in our lives–ask me if I’ve spoken with them, if they’ve been in touch. There was definitely a time, in the early days after making my decision, in which I believed that we’d be talking on the phone; I’d write letters and send packages and visit. But this is not what has taken place. Of the many things I understand now, that I did not before, one is that the girls needed space and time to become part of their new family, with their two parents and their many brothers and sisters (two from their homeland). I believe we will see each other again, but probably not for a long time yet.
What is most important here is that they are doing well. As much as I struggled with my decision over the many months it took to make it–months when I barely slept–I have not for one moment questioned that I made the right choice for them.
I have been severely judged in some quarters for what happened. I used to be a far more judging person than I am now, myself. Until I walk in someone else’s shoes, I try not to suppose I know her story. Nobody who didn’t live in this house with the three of us over those fourteen months can know ours.
I will say just a few more things about this. One is that while I appreciate the desire many may feel, to tell me what you think–and in the past, I have always encouraged your letters and thoughts–I can’t respond to your letters about this particular experience. There has not been a single day, or a singe hour, even, of the last 365, that I have not thought about the girls, and reflected on what happened, and why, and what is to be taken away from our experience.
In my case, I have tried–and with surprising consistency, succeeded–to become a more compassionate person. I have never felt more filled with appreciation for every single good thing in my life, of which there are so many. My friends and family, and the health that has been restored to me, are high on that list. So are some people I never even knew before–probably some of you, reading this now–who recognized months back what must have happened, and wrote to me privately, and–when I wrote back to you, as I tried to when I could–showed kindness and concern for us all.
Thank you for reading this. The day may come when I say more, and there is much more to be said. But for the moment, I hope you will understand that these are my last words for a while on a story I wish had been different. There is not a single person in this story who is not in a better place now than she was, three years ago.
We move on from here.