Chapter 4: You Have to Point it Down
Of course not everything revolved around my cancer. Life has a way of constantly unfolding in and around crises, and one of my dearest friends was on the cusp of a wonderful life transition. I’d known Isabel since my days in graduate school when we acted as course assistants for a beloved professor and mentor. When I received the call to teach at the college, I’d invited Isabel to co-teach with me. Our friendship had grown from there. We’d shared many meals deep in conversation about our lives, sipping sake and sharing our mutual adoration of food. She encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and we’d gone on yearly vacations together, exploring places I had never even thought of visiting. But all throughout those fun times, she had always wanted to be a mother. As an early childhood educator, she visited the homes of families and performed assessments for infants and toddlers with suspected delays. Isabel loved babies more than anyone I knew, but at the age of 46, had yet to find a mate who shared her dreams of family.
The year before I got sick, Isabel made the announcement that she would go it alone and began the laborious process of applying to be an adoptive parent. I drove her to the adoption agency located in Pennsylvania, so that she could make a video to be shown to prospective birth parents. It was a sunny spring day and we enjoyed escaping the city as we headed southwest through New Jersey.
I drove and Isabel sat shotgun, her window rolled down for the breeze and her mass of tightly woven dark curls taking flight about her face. Her sandaled feet propped against the dashboard. We talked about her hopes and expectations for motherhood, but the thought of a baby seemed unreal to me this early in the game.
Isabel turned to me with her intense brown eyes and said, “So, when the baby comes, you’re going to come with me to pick him or her up, right?”
That was any easy yes. We had journeyed to several countries together and this felt like just one more excellent adventure.
I always knew Isabel would be a fabulous parent, but I wondered who might choose a single middle-aged woman over a younger couple. I was truly shocked when Isabel called me to tell me the news the following April.
“I’ve been chosen! Someone picked me,” she said, her voice trilling with excitement.
“Oh my God!” I screeched. “Who? When? Where?”
Isabel filled in the details. A young couple living in poverty in Virginia were struggling to care for their 4 children. They doubted that they could provide for the coming infant, and they wanted him to have a better shot in life. The mother was expecting a boy in early June.
Yes, early June. The baby arrived on June 7th, two weeks to the day after my first surgery. Recovering from four incisions, I could barely lift my arms to dress myself and was forbidden from carrying anything over ten pounds or walking my dog. We’d seen this coming and knew that travel wouldn’t be likely for me. The backup plan was for another friend to drive Isabel down to Virginia, but my heart ached at the thought of missing out on this milestone. When the call came, I fought back tears and tried to match Isabel’s excitement.
“She went into labor,” Isabel said. “Olivia’s picking me up and we are leaving in an hour. Are you sure you can’t come? Oh my God, I can’t believe this is real!” Isabel spoke her customary one hundred miles an hour, her words cascading through the phone.
I felt the urge to leave the faculty meeting I was attending and rush to meet them, but I knew I couldn’t. There was no way I could lift a suitcase, let alone get on a plane. In a week or so, I might be better. We came up with Plan C. The state of Virginia required her to stay within its borders for 12 days following the baby’s birth. Olivia would drive Isabel down, stay a week, and then fly back alone. I would fly into Virginia in a week’s time to pick up the torch and drive back with Isabel and the baby. I figured I’d have more strength and stamina by then.
Showing up for Isabel and the baby was too important for me to let the cancer win out. Sitting in the darkened hotel room, holding Jose and feeding him brought me such peace and happiness.. His tiny cafe latte face and perfect fingers and toes awed me. And he was such a serious baby. His soul seemed to have been here before. I will always remember the disbelief and joy on Isabel’s face when she received the phone call giving her the final all clear to leave the state with Jose. Until that moment, there was always a chance that the birth mother might change her mind. Now we could breathe a collective sigh of relief. Isabel was a mother and Jose was coming home.
The road trip back north was memorable. To show you how little I knew about babies, I had imagined me at the wheel and Isabel in the back with the car seat, feeding him and changing him as I drove. It hadn’t occurred to me that she couldn’t do any of this while the car was in motion, as that would mean taking him out of his protective car seat. Our many stops to attend to Jose’s needs doubled our trip time. On the highway, Jose slept like an angel. But the minute we slowed down, he would caterwaul as if we were killing him.
To add to the stress, it rained buckets the entire way home. I drove hunched over the wheel, my hands clutched in a death grip, with a stuffed donkey puppet between my sore chest and the seat belt.
When I reached for the air conditioning button, Isabel all but busted my eardrums.
“Keep your hands on the wheel!” she screeched.
“If you want us all to arrive alive and kicking,” I retorted, “Stop screaming in my ear. I am driving as safely as is humanly possible.”
At one point, the baby pooped all over the entire car seat, something I didn’t know a two week-old was capable of. Isabel changed his diaper on the grassy edge of a MacDonalds parking lot while I checked in on my email. I somehow managed to avoid cleaning the car seat as well.
Jose’s anatomy had us mystified. It wasn’t just the poop on the car seat. We couldn’t figure out for the life of us how the heck he managed to cover himself with pee from his neck to his toes every time he peed, until a kind saleswoman at a pit stop overheard us pondering this.
“You have to point it down,” she advised.
“What?” said Isabel.
“Down, you have to point it down and hold it in place with his diaper. That will do the trick.”
And it did. We had many lessons to learn about babies, but pee covered onesies and poop covered car seats aside, I wouldn’t have missed this trip for the world. We stopped overnight in Maryland and paid a visit to the home of my honorary aunt and uncle, my parents’ best friends. Jim and Suzanne fed us a hearty meal and marvelled over Jose, as if he were a beloved first grandchild. It wasn’t lost on me that this couple had been loving parental figures throughout my life, without a blood connection. I knew I would love every second of being Auntie Deb to Jose, and it felt great that I could be a part of his life the way Jim and Suzanne had been a part of mine. I reveled in this role, especially throughout that year when I had the time to visit Jose and Isabel anytime I pleased. It took me out of my cancer battle and landed me square in the middle of life.