GUEST COLUMN

A few words about adoption

My wife had kept a running list of all the letters we’d sent; the letter that brought us this beautiful boy was the first—number 1

BOB LEVIN May 30 1994
GUEST COLUMN

A few words about adoption

My wife had kept a running list of all the letters we’d sent; the letter that brought us this beautiful boy was the first—number 1

BOB LEVIN May 30 1994

A few words about adoption

GUEST COLUMN

My wife had kept a running list of all the letters we’d sent; the letter that brought us this beautiful boy was the first—number 1

BOB LEVIN

I don’t remember if he actually used the word sterility. He probably did, doctors always preferring the formal term, hiding behind it like a white coat and a stethoscope. And leaving the stunned patient to do the plain speaking: You mean I won’t be able to have kids? Ever?

What I do remember is how upset I was, and how surprised at being upset. I had cancer, after all; I could hardly complain if the drugs that were supposed to save my life also had some unfortunate side-effects. And besides, I’d never thought much about haring kids. I was 19 and this was the early Seventies, when American university students like me were still preoccupied with sex, Vietnam, revolution—nothing so adult and mundane as having a family. Yet there it was, no kids—the news was so unsettling that I was barely listening when the doctor mentioned the word adoption.

I am past 40 now, feeling fine, and I’ve been reading a lot lately about infertility, about donated eggs and embryo transfers—about people going to expensive and emotionally draining lengths trying to make their own babies. Good for them. I support reproductive technology, within limits (60-year-old women bearing in vitro kids are pushing those limits). But amid all the sound and fury over high-tech conception, I’d hope that some prospective parents would listen to a few words about adoption.

To be honest, I tried other options first. There was, in those anxious early days of my cancer treatments, a visit to a sperm bank, a hedge against a future time when some babymaking imperative might suddenly seize me. The bank was in a Manhattan basement with bold, manly wallpaper and a solitary room where, for all the sophisticated science, deposits were collected the old-fashioned way. Some 15 years later, married and moved to Canada and certain that we did indeed want a child, my wife and I sent for these frozen

Allan Fotheringham is on assignment.

specimens just as we had transferred money into a Canadian account. I took it as a bad omen that, as they came out of the deep freeze, a few of the specimens self-destructed—their container exploded, is what I was told, exactly why no one seemed to know. True story. And a lesson in coping: black humor is the best defence.

At any rate, the artificial insemination failed. And, deciding against tiying an outside sperm donor, we began the adoption process, which requires all the humor you can muster. First, the home study by a social worker: How would we describe our marriage? Our interests? Our religious beliefs? Why did we want a child anyway? Then—domestic adoption sometimes taking several years—applications to South Korea, Paraguay, Brazil. But the foreign programs kept falling through, so we opened a second front, sending hundreds of sincere, hopeful, computer-printed letters to doctors across Ontario, like throwing seeds to the wind.

Frustration? Yeah, but there was acceptance, too, which must be easier for a man than for an infertile woman—men, after all, did not grow up being told that their whole purpose was to procreate, as generations of women assuredly were. And there was a

growing sense of possibility, of romance. Not of the soft-music-and-satin-sheets variety— when it comes to starting a family, there are more romantic acts than typing up adoption letters. But there was romance in the chase, the mystery, in wondering what unborn baby in what unknown place would one day call me Dad and ask to borrow the car. All right, yes, this may be a man’s response—family-making as game. But my wife felt it, too—I recall her lottery-winning smile when she answered that first phone call from an actual doctor responding to one of our letters.

We hadn’t won the lottery yet. The doctor had a pregnant patient who wanted to give her baby up for adoption, who had anointed her physician to help find a family. The doctor had several candidates; he was asking questions, narrowing the field. There followed weeks of uncertainty, of mind games and missed phone calls and a frenzied search for him at the Toronto airport that ended, miraculously, with a doctor we scarcely knew saying the motherto-be wanted to meet us. We made the trip soon afterward, travelling to her tiny, remote town where this quiet young woman we didn’t know at all smiled shyly, approvingly.

A week later, the doctor called me at work. “You have a son,” he said. Now I was the quiet one, wondering if any of this were real.

It got real fast enough. Another trip and there he was at the hospital, a dark-haired, bright-eyed little boy who, among dozens in the nursery, was ours. You look for signs. You take a leap of faith and want to feel it was meant to be. The first sign: my wife, ever-organized, had kept a running list of all the letters we’d sent; the letter that brought us this beautiful boy was the first—number 1. And now here we were at the hospital, writing out the name we’d agreed upon. The nurse, jaw dropping, said yes, he looked like a Matthew—“and I’ve been calling him that since the day he was bom.”

Maybe all adoptive parents have stories like that. There is an arbitrariness to life, about where you live, whom you meet, that makes people uneasy. I suspect it will make Matt uneasy when he gets a bit older. He is 5 now, healthy and handsome, a smart, sweet, headstrong little boy who can swing a bat like a pro and make us happier or crazier than just about anyone else on earth. We use the word adoption openly. He likes to hear the hospital story, what a joyous day that was. He hasn’t quite figured it out. One night, after seeing a baby rat or gerbil at school, he asked where it came from.

“From its mother’s belly,” I said.

“How did it get out?” he asked.

I explained, and he puzzled over the answer.

“Daddy,” Matt finally said, “did you get me from a rat hospital?”

We’re working on the details. But he’ll understand it all soon enough. I hope by then he’ll also understand what my wife and I knew right away, that first day at the hospital: he is our son, absolutely.

Bob Levin is an Assistant Managing Editor at Maclean’s.