Petition

I sat with my wife Wendy in a grimy Manila courtroom, waiting for the hearing to begin for our petition to adopt a baby girl from the Philippines. Wendy looked calm although my nerves were beginning to get jumpy as we watched the judge move slowly to the bench and take his seat. His gaze was stony and he looked contemptuous when he spotted our lawyer, Counsellor Piloy, sitting next to us. My heart accelerated wildly and my jaw dropped. Although taken aback, I had to agree—Piloy was a bit of a sleaze. But the petition is solid isn’t it? That’s what matters. Didn’t Piloy say our home study was excellent?

Paranoid fears banged around in my head for a moment, until I realized that I truly needed to calm down. Look positive. Look competent, compassionate, whatever. Just don’t look like you hold any special privilege, because you don’t. I took a few deep breaths, gave Wendy’s arm an encouraging squeeze, and tried to look out toward the dais with a face that projected absolute respect. This was not my courtroom.

 Less than half a year before, my wife and I took a leap of faith and decided to adopt a baby from the Philippines. We got the name of a lawyer who had secured a Philippine adoption on behalf of a couple Wendy met by shear chance. Again by shear chance, it occurred just after Wendy had miscarried, an event that hit her hard and without doubt kindled her already grieving “mothering” hormones. Not only had we spent years trying to get her pregnant and all but given up hope, but she was greatly missing her 12 year old son from a previous marriage, my step-son. Aaron had gone back to Canada to live with his Dad and Wendy was sorry about the arrangements even though she and her former husband were, and still remain, friends. Her mothering instinct was on high alert.

At the time we lived in Singapore, miles from our Canadian home and, at least in my case, being forty and tied to a work contract, felt that waiting until we got back to Canada to adopt would be futile. The moment to act was now. That meant trying for a foreign adoption while we were in Southeast Asia, although the word “foreign” was never top of mind. It was just the situation at hand and it didn’t occur to us that we couldn’t love an adopted foreign child as much as any other. I guess, stupidly, we didn’t much consider how it would be for our child, but that’s another chapter.

A friend and colleague at the University of Singapore where I taught, as well as Wendy’s brother, had both adopted native infants in Canada, and both adoptions seemed more than fine at the time. Others we consulted were equally supportive of our plan, including our Filipina next-door neighbour. “There’s lots of poverty in the Philippines and lots of babies who need adopting,” she enthused.

So we contacted the lawyer, Piloy, by long-distance telephone and set the wheels in motion. What came as a complete surprise is how quickly he found a baby—a girl who was healthy and had been put in the care of a temporary caregiver. To us it sounded perfect and we agreed to travel to Manila and complete the necessary papers after confirming that everything he promised about the baby was true.

A whirlwind of emotions were set in play as we got our personal documents together and readied ourselves for the trip. Wendy and I both vacillated between great joy over the adoption, and worry that it all seemed too easy. The heady thrills of anticipation were almost overwhelming and we talked about it endlessly with whomever would listen: friends, family back home, neighbours and even hawkers at our local food court. Finally, we headed off to Manila and the promise of the future.

 

Back at the courtroom, Wendy and I waited through several other cases before it was our turn. “The judge seems upset today,” I said to Piloy.

“Don’t worry. I’ve never seen him look differently.”

“Do I take that as a good thing?” I said, grinning as I looked at Piloy, trying to smooth over my own apprehensions. He didn’t reply.

The petition hearing turned out to be largely procedural and strangely absent of any emotion; quite the opposite of how Wendy and I felt at the time. Several times we looked at each other to see if the other had a better sense of how things were proceding. I couldn’t question Piloy, as he had removed himself to the counsel dias at the front of the courtroom.

The judge confirmed that the home study had taken place and was positive, that the adoption papers were in order, that the birth-father was no longer in the picture and that we had the birth-mother’s consent. He confirmed that we had not, in fact, been asked to pay for the baby. Then he ordered that Wendy and I each be available for in-depth interviews with one of his law clerks who would report back to him. That’s when the mincing, obsequious Piloy, our disingenuous lawyer, commited what to us was a huge gaff. He requested that the law clerk interviews proceed in short order since, as he said, “Mr. Bancroft has to return to Singapore for an important meeting.” Wendy and I both blanched. Uncertain about whether or not I could speak out, I just shook my head in the judge’s direction, hoping he would understand I was trying to say “no, I had no such meeting, our lawyer is an idiot.” I suspected it made all of us look like bumbling idiots.

 Whatever happened next is buried in memory, but somehow we got through the hearing and, later that week, the interviews with the judge’s law clerk were duly completed before we left for home. We were ecstatic as we cleared Philippines immigration with Leah, boarded our plane and waited to taxi off for the flight to Singapore. The entire process had been unnerving but, thinking our case was solid, we had no hesitation in using the word ‘daughter’, even though the formal decision would not be received for weeks.

“Do you realize how remarkable it is” I said to Wendy, head shaking, “that we got through immigration without any real adoption papers—just the home study and the birth-mother’s consent?”

“I know, it’s mind boggling,” she replied, “but what they say is what counts, right?” Wendy nuzzled her nose into the tummy of our delighted little girl.

“I can only hope so,” I said, carefully filing away the papers in my briefcase.

I thought again about the immigration officials who were so trusting and began to feel a renewed surge of confidence. The officials were just like the people we met in Manila who were so unreserved about us adopting a Filipino baby. I’m sure they thought all North Americans were wealthy and that wealth meant happiness. “She’s so lucky,” they said, and were always happy for us. I decided to take it as a good sign.

 The next weeks were a happy blur as we showed off our new daughter to friends and neighbours—people who were part of our day to day lives in Singapore. Tears of joy were followed by tears of exhaustion. Mostly it was a perfect, unblemished time, although frequently enough night crying from Leah caused concern.

“But what do you expect,” Wendy said to me, “it has to be all so new to her.” While the nights could be rough, by day Leah seemed a happy child and Wendy and I were overjoyed that she bonded easily and that everything seemed to be going according to plan. So when our lawyer called from Manila after the waiting period had passed, I smiled as I grabbed the phone, quite literally breathless.

“Mr. Bancroft”, Piloy said, “How are you?”

“Fine Counsellor Piloy, fine. You have news?”

A pause. Behind me I could see Wendy mouth “what?” as she sensed my pause. Her brow raised in concern.

“Mr. Bancroft, I have to inform you that the judge did not grant the adoption, he—”

Realization hit like a truck, slicing through my skull. I felt like I was drowning and my head felt ready to burst, my thoughts unhinged. Piloy’s quavering voice became a sickening series of stuttered apologies in the background.

“Jay?” Desperation in Wendy’s voice.

“Jay, what is it?”

I closed my eyes and tried to force my mind back to the reality I had most feared, wanting to shout at our idiot of a lawyer, “What are you saying? Denied! Why? What happened for God’s sake?”

Wendy gasped behind me.

Piloy coughed. “The judge didn’t grant your petition to adopt Leah. He cited some questions in your court interview with his law clerk and—”

“For God’s sake Counsellor, what questions, what are you talking about?”

“Apparently you had mentioned in your interview that at 40 you couldn’t easily adopt a baby back home, but you could in the Philippines, so I—”

“So what” I stammered. “I meant that the Philippines held no prejudice against my age, not that they gave out babies right, left and centre to anyone who asked.”

By the time the conversation came to a close, my stomach had knotted and my mind was reeling. I pictured throttling our incompetent lawyer and fighting off a phalanx of brutal Philippine police as they dragged off our innocent and precious little girl, the baby with whom we had, from the beginning, fallen headlong in love. I collapsed unto the couch and trembled, gloom bearing down on me. “What on earth do we do now?” I asked Wendy. “What on earth do we do?”

Wendy dropped down beside me and sobbed. “I don’t know,” she said. “I just don’t know.”

 

Later, exhausted and emotionally drained, we tried to face the reality of the situation and figure out what to do. Nothing was clear, none of the options of how we might resolve this tragedy gave the slightest ray of hope. What seemed so promising now seemed to run the very real risk of being lost.

For days and days after Piloy’s bombshell, we parsed our legal and not-so-legal options as our lawyer tried to find out what went wrong and what we should do. Nobody, it appeared, was really all that concerned about our baby. Nobody, that is, but us, and our world had just been blown apart.

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