Wendy and I sat under fluorescent lighting in a Manila courtroom; the hearing for our petition to adopt a baby girl from the Philippines was about to begin. Wendy looked calm, but my nerves jumped as we watched the judge move slowly to the dais and take his seat. His gaze was stony and he looked contemptuous when he spotted our lawyer sitting next to us. Although taken aback, I had to agree—we also had begun to question the competence of our attorney, Leo Ocampo. But the petition is solid isn’t it? That’s what matters. Didn’t the government home study recommend adoption?
I can be a worrier, but this time paranoid fears left my head spinning, and I realized that I needed to calm down. Look positive. Look competent, whatever. Just don’t look like you think the adoption’s a foregone conclusion. I took a few deep breaths, gave Wendy’s arm what I hoped was an encouraging squeeze, and looked out toward the dais with as much calm as I could muster.
Less than half a year before, Wendy and I had taken a leap of faith and decided to adopt a baby from the Philippines. Why the decision to adopt and why from the Philippines were decisions spun out of a convergence of factors. At the time we lived in Singapore where I had a teaching contract. Singapore was close to the Philippines and had many resident Filipinos, including our friend and next door neighbour, Celia. Before moving there from our home in Canada, we had been trying for years to get Wendy pregnant and pretty much given up hope. But soon after moving to Singapore and when we least expected it and weren’t exactly trying, she conceived. Our hopes for having a baby together were rekindled and we began to share the private moments of tenderness and silly grins that flow between couples when a pregnancy is new and you’re scared to spread the news for fear of jinxing it coming to term.
But it wasn’t to be. Wendy miscarried and grief rained down on her, not only because of the lost promise of the fetus she was carrying, but also because she was missing her 12 year old son from her first marriage, as was I. Aaron had spent a year with us in Singapore but recently returned to Canada to spend some time with his Dad. Coping with the onslaught of mothering hormones racing around inside her left Wendy bereft.
A short time later, purely by chance, two other remarkable coincidences happened. Wendy happened to catch a documentary on TV about a couple pursuing an international adoption from Africa. This peaked her interest and then, days later, she overheard a woman in a local hairdressing salon talking about her private adoption from the Philippines. Still bearing the emotional scars of her miscarriage and missing Aaron, she zoned in on the conversation and found out as much as she could about the woman’s adoption. For Wendy, this felt like fate.
We had come from more or less accepting our inability to have another child to a remarkable about-face—the idea of pursuing a private adoption while we were thousands of miles from home. We did consider waiting until we returned to Canada, but we knew there could be long waits there and didn’t know if we could find a private adoption. And age was another factor. The idea of being relatively older parents bothered us—both of us hovering around forty—and with me locked into a contract to teach at the university for another year and a half, by the time we got to Canada I might be too old to be considered for an infant adoption. At least, that’s what I thought. For me, this was critical. Aaron was seven when Wendy and I got together and I became his step-dad. I loved acting as his second Dad but wanted very much to father a child from baby on up. It all added up to realizing that the moment to act was now.
Armed with the name of the Manila-based lawyer Wendy got from the woman at the hairdresser’s as our starting point, we decided to pursue what the literature refers to as a ‘transracial,’ as well as an international adoption. Not that adopting from a different race or a different culture were ever top of mind, it just didn’t occur to us that we couldn’t love such a 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. What happened next was a whirlwind of activity complete with all of the emotional highs and lows you might expect at having taken such a momentous step. And that’s how we ended up travelling to Manila to adopt a beautiful Philippine baby girl.
Back in the courtroom, I had trouble maintaining my cool as we waited for the hearing to begin. At one point I leaned over to our attorney and said, “The judge seems upset today.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve never seen him act differently,” he replied.
“I hope that’s a good thing.” I grinned as I looked to him for reassurance, 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 proceeding. The judge merely confirmed the facts of the petition and then ordered that Wendy and I, as well as the birth-mother, Gemma, be available for questioning by a representative from the Solicitor General’s ministry, a solicitor who would represent the interests of the child on behalf of the state. The judge explained that a commissioner of the court was to preside and a court reporter would be present to take our testimony for his further deliberation.
At that point our disingenuous lawyer, Ocampo, rose to face the judge, cleared his throat, and said, “Your honour, I wish to request that the examination proceed in short order, since Mr. Bancroft has to return to Singapore for an important meeting.”
Wendy and I blanched. What is he doing? I thought. We never said that. 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, no. I had no such meeting,” but his look turned hostile. Rather than make me look important, which I’m certain our lawyer was trying to do, I suspected it made us look like we felt we were entitled, a sentiment often ascribed to Americans traveling abroad. The fact that we weren’t American, let alone the fact that it would have been an unfair generalization, I assumed would have been lost on the judge.
Whatever happened next is buried in memory, but somehow we got through the hearing and, later that week, our depositions in front of the commissioner. We both felt good about our testimony and what we took to be a positive reaction from the government solicitor who questioned us. Our attorney told us we could now head home with our baby girl. One last hurdle, at least in my mind, was clearing immigration with a not-quite-adopted baby, even though Ocampo told us over and over that it would be fine.
“All you need is Leah’s passport, the birth mother’s consent form, and the court document I gave you,” Leo said, smiling, looking quite certain of himself.
“Really?” I said.
“Let me assure you, Mr. Bancroft; I’ve done this many times before.” I took note of his shift to a more formal language and knew I’d gone too far. He felt he had to save face. “Of course, of course,” I blurted. “I’m just surprised.”
The document he referred to had come from the court clerk’s office and stated that the hearing had taken place and that the social worker who had conducted our home study had recommended adoption. That’s it. I still couldn’t believe it, since it seemed to imply the judge’s decision was a foregone conclusion.
We packed our bags and headed to the airport after two intense weeks in Manila. “I’m still worried about clearing immigration,” I said to Wendy.
“It’ll be fine,” she replied.
My nervousness was no mystery. When I was a teenager I had been unceremoniously escorted to the police station for a harmless prank, resulting in heaps of guilt and humiliation being dumped on me by my parents. It was duly seen to be the prank that it was, and I was never charged with anything, but I’ve carried an irrational fear of anything to do with police ever since. To me, uniformed immigration officers with powers of seizure were no different.
“Here goes nothing,” I said as we approached the gate and handed over our documents, my heart beating wildly and my palms sweating like someone with something to hide. Get a grip, I thought. You’re being absurd.
It stunned me, but we cleared immigration without a hitch. The officer even smiled and kibitzed with us, saying, “She’s so lucky,” echoing the well wishes of many other Filipinos we had met in the last two weeks. Even when walking the streets in Manila with Leah some people echoed that sentiment—pleased at the prospect of a foreign adoption for this little Filipina baby. Not that Canadians are special, but in terms of earnings and job prospects and other quality-of-life indicators, North America was seen to hold an advantage over what millions of citizens experienced in the Philippines’ weaker economy.
Profoundly relieved and giddy with happiness, we boarded our plane and taxied for the flight back to our home in Singapore. The entire process had been unnerving but, thinking our case was pretty solid, we had no hesitation in using the word “daughter,” even though the formal decision wouldn’t be received for at least two weeks.
“Do you feel like it was too easy” I said to Wendy, “that we got through immigration without final adoption papers?” This was one of those times when my beautiful wife, at that moment looking radiant and complete with a baby girl in her arms, exhibited a profound calm and acceptance that things would work out just fine. She smiled, shook her head to wave off my obsessions, and nuzzled her nose into the tummy of our delighted baby girl.
The next weeks were a happy blur as we showed off our new daughter to friends and others who were part of our day-to-day life in Singapore including, of course, our Filipina neighbour, Celia. Our best friends at the time, Garth and Roxana, were the first to come over and celebrate with us, taking scores of pictures to capture the first moments in our home with Leah, pictures that remain among the favourites that grace our walls.
Mostly it was a perfect, unblemished time, although tears of exhaustion followed tears of joy. Leah woke up several times every night crying. “But it’s to be expected,” I said to Wendy one morning when we talked about it. “This is a big shift in her little life.”
While the nights could be rough, by day Leah was a happy child, and we were overjoyed that she seemed to accept us and that everything appeared to be going according to plan. I loved my new role as a father to a baby; it was a gift, and I became more and more besotted. So, when our attorney called from Manila around the time we expected to hear that our adoption had been finalized, I grinned happily as we exchanged greetings.
“Mr. Bancroft. How are you?”
“Fine, Attorney Ocampo, fine,” I replied, using the formal way to address attorneys in the Philippines that we had learned. “You have news?”
The lawyer coughed, but didn’t say anything right away.
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…”
“What?” I screamed. Realization hit like a truck, slicing through my skull. I was confused and it felt like my head was about to burst with fears unhinged and banging around. Ocampo’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 do you mean denied? Why? What happened for God’s sake?”
Wendy gasped behind me.
Ocampo coughed again. “The judge didn’t grant your petition to adopt Leah. He cited some questions in your answers to the government solicitor and—”
“What questions, what are you talking about?”
“Apparently you mentioned in your testimony that it would take longer to adopt a baby back home, but it was easier in the Philippines, so I—”
“What?” I literally shouted. “I meant that we would have to wait until we returned to Canada and that it would take longer, not that I thought the Philippines gave out babies right, left and centre to anyone who asked.” I was crushed at the thought my answers had been taken out of context.
Ocampo, clearly squirming at my anger, managed to stammer out other reasons in the judge’s decision, such as whether or not the natural mother had been long enough separated from her husband to rule out Leah’s legitimacy in the eyes of the court, or that Jose Abao, the alleged natural father, had actually abandoned the child. Whoever the father may be, the judge argued, consent was required. A wave of nausea flowed through me and I fought to stop from fainting.
“But I don’t understand,” I said. “I thought the fact that he had left the country and the birth-mother was all established in your submission to the court. What are we supposed to do now?”
I could feel our dreams unraveling and barely registered his halting reply that he would have to look into our options and get back to us. By the time the conversation came to a close, bile stabbed at my gut and I felt sick all over. I pictured throttling our lawyer and fighting a phalanx of impassive Philippine police as they dragged off our innocent and precious little girl, the baby with whom we had fallen headlong in love. A dark curtain of despair dropped over me, and I collapsed on the couch, shaking with rage until I was spent. “What on earth do we do now?” I said to Wendy. “What on earth do we do?”
She dropped down beside me and wept. “I don’t know.” She was trembling and her body closed into itself. “I just don’t know.”
Later, emotionally drained and tired of it all, we tried to face the reality of the situation and figure out what to do and whom we could talk to for advice. Nothing was clear, although we thought it likely that the decision could be appealed or that we could even re-petition later. We tried but failed miserably to bolster each other’s sinking hopes—what had seemed so promising now seemed to run the real risk of being lost.
For days and days after Ocampo’s bombshell, we continued to parse 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 baby Leah. Nobody, that is, but us, and our world had just been blown apart.