Blunders

We do not like to think about children’s fears…We push them aside to concentrate on their innocence…But children are close to grief, they are closer to grief than we are…In every child’s fear is always the fear of the worst thing, the loss of the person they love most.

Anne Michaels, The Winter Vault.

Leah recoiled and turned over the photo. “I can’t look at that.”

“Why? What’s the matter?” I looked across at my daughter, puzzled at her reaction.

We were sitting on the couch in our living room and looking at a couple of old photos I had found from the time we lived in Singapore. Leah was no more than 14 months old then, ten months into her life with us.

I studied the photo, trying to understand her reaction and remembering the day when I took it. I used to love exploring the city with Leah in a back-pack carrier, delighting in her happy response to the people we met and the places we went. That day we had come upon what I thought was a kid-friendly sculpture in front of the National Museum—a family of giant rag-dolls that looked like Sesame Street muppets, hanging out and having fun. I must have figured Leah would love them and sat her in front of the figures to back off and take a photo, the photo that sparked such a reaction in her. I’m sure I would have come back to scoop her up and head off to seek out another adventure, but obviously had no clue that anything was amiss.

“What is it?” I tried again.        

“All I know is that it unhinges me. I can’t look at it.”

“I’m stunned.” I raced through the complicated mind-map I carried of my daughter’s abandonment fallout, wondering where to alight.

“I think I felt you were going to leave me there. All I know is that it was terrifying.”

Wendy and I had learned much in the years since Leah hit puberty, helping her to work through her personal traumas as an adoptee, but this hit me by surprise. “Maybe it was confusing to you”, I said. “Strange location, a scary sculpture that you didn’t understand, cars honking, strangers everywhere and you somehow not knowing what I was doing. But to think that I would leave you…” I let the thought trail off and shook my head, sensing all too well my daughter’s hair trigger when it came to emotional distress.

Leah paused for a moment, then said, “Maybe you covered your face with the camera and I got disoriented.” She folded her arms on her chest and I saw a slight tremour pass through her.

Was the scene really crowded with people? I couldn’t remember. Was Leah unconsciously carrying such fears that she needed constant reassurance, eye contact, touch? I thought about what I knew of her separation at birth, and her time with a temporary family until we came along.

“I don’t know if abandonment affects all babies the same way”, I said, “but Mom and I think that when you were a baby and so very vulnerable, the separation from your birth-mother affected you deeply. A trauma that permanently altered you in some way. There’s no way you could understand it, but I think the fear cut deep, wired itself into your emotional memory, maybe in every cell.”

Leah stared straight ahead, taking it in.

“Then along comes a new threat,” I said, “like this time when I left you by that sculpture to take a picture, and some deep memory cuts to the surface.” I turned to stare at the back of the overturned photo, trying somehow to drill down into it, to understand more about my daughter’s state of mind at the time. I looked up and found that she was looking back at me so I smiled and said, with what I hoped was irony, “I wonder what else we did that kept your emotional scars fresh?” But, no sooner had I asked the question, than a doozy came to mind and I felt my stomach lurch. God, what else did we do?

 “You know, it was around the same time that I took this picture that Mom and I arranged for our friend Kathy to care for you while we took a week off and went to Thailand.” I said. “In retrospect, it seems insane, but Kathy adored you and had spent quite a bit of time with you when our two families hung out. I remember she was really looking forward to the week ahead.”

I shook my head. “But think of what it must have been like for you, knowing so few words and not being able to understand what we were talking about.” I felt my stomach tighten into a knot. “One moment we were there; in the next we were gone.”

“When I got sick?” Leah knew the story. She had heard it before.

“Right.” I said. “You must have worried that we were not coming back and the fear response would have snapped on. Abandoned. Once again. Kathy said you got extremely sick and clung to her for the whole time. But she wouldn’t have known the extent of what was going on in your head. For all she knew you had just caught a bug.”

In my mind’s eye I pictured the scene of our baby floundering in a sea of terror at our friend Kathy’s house in Singapore. Then I pictured Wendy and I portrayed by actors who had no idea that we had a baby. They were posing as travellers, blithely traipsing about in Thailand, not a care in the world. It was surreal.

“Maybe I did catch a virus or something,” Leah said.

“Possibly, but I believe it could still be related to a subconscious fear that we were gone forever. Your poor little body’s resistance could have collapsed if you were deeply stressed.” I looked around at our pictures and mementoes in the living room, dredging deeper in my mind for memories. “When we made an arranged call to Kathy—no cell phones then—she apparently debated with herself whether or not to tell us how sick you were. Just when she was about to, we lost the connection and were left assuming all was well. I feel dreadful about it now.”

“I don’t remember any of that.” Leah said. She looked down at the overturned photograph on the coffee table, paused for a moment and sighed. “What was I like when you and Mom came home? Happy to see you?”

“No actually,” I chuckled. “You were angry. Very angry and for a long time too. I remember being amused at your spunk but also thinking, ‘Look, we’re your parents and will love and take care of you but we also have a life, so get over it babe, life goes on’.”

I shook my head, flooded with the memory of it all. “What was I thinking, that you should show some independence before the age of two after having been put up for adoption?” I was disquieted over my memories of our parenting in the past, but at the same time felt a surge of gratitude that my daughter and I could sit in the quiet of our living room and feel safe enough to talk like this.

“Well,” Leah said, “somewhere in there I must have been relieved when you came home.”

“Yes. Eventually. I might not have recognized it at the time, but I think it was a good sign that you were angry. You didn’t retreat into utter despair; you fought it and made it through.” I smiled. “I expect anger has helped you at times in your life, but sometimes I get the sense you learned to be angry rather too well.”

Leah chuckled at my jibe and began to tidy up the photos into a pile, being careful to ensure they were upside down when she did it.

“Even though you learned early on to trust us,” I said, “when it comes to your emotional memory, the slate never seems to get wiped clean. Some trigger hits and your primal fears explode. At some point we learned that for all of us, our need for attachment is hard-wired. But at the time we just had no clue how critical that need was for you. We just plowed ahead with blind faith and infinite love.”

Leah looked at me and I sensed her desire to move on from the conversation. I know well how much I tend to blather on about this topic. “Love you Dad,” she said. And, after a pause, turned to push the stack the photos away from us on the coffee table and added, “Have you given any more thought to extending me a loan for that Mini Cooper I saw advertised? I’ll pay you back.”

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