I found my daughter on my thirtieth birthday.
It was early May and we drove to Albuquerque from our home in the mountains of northern New Mexico to meet Jenny at her foster home in the South Valley.
I had been prepped for the encounter, and had cultivated a degree of reserve so that I would neither overwhelm the child nor give her false hope in case it was not a good fit and we wouldn’t be following through.
Most children in the adoption system have been abused, neglected, abandoned, and have serious trust issues. I envisioned Jenny as a wild bird landing for a moment in my hand. I must not scare her off.
We pulled up to the dilapidated adobe and parked at the curb—my soon-to-be ex-husband, my older daughter, Daniela, whom we had adopted two years earlier on her eleventh birthday, and me.
I stepped out of the car and there she was, a toddler on a tricycle, peddling toward us with a shy smile. Look, Mommy, her face said to me, I can ride my bike.
I flung my purse into the sparse grass, flung my intentions skyward, and ran up the driveway to scoop her into my arms.
“Nice bike, honey,” I murmured into her cascade of black curls. She did not reply, but I could feel her stiff body begin to relax against me.
We took Jenny to the zoo, where she asked to see the “pink swimming goats” (which we finally figured out were flamingoes), then to a family pizza place, stopped by a sporting goods store for a fleece jacket, and dropped her back at her foster home as the sun was setting.
A week later, on Mother’s Day, we brought her home.
Jenny’s social worker met us halfway, at the Dunkin’ Donuts in Santa Fe. Jenny clutched the paper bag containing all of her possessions—a couple of pairs of pants that were too small and a flowered blouse that was too big (the new jacket conspicuously missing).
She had a “memory book” put together by the staff at her foster home. It contained a picture of a little black baby cut from an ad in a magazine because Jenny did not have any real baby pictures and the Gerber child looked a little, but not very much, like her (and not a thing like me).
Jenny became the love of my life—more entwined with my soul than I could imagine if she had been born from my own body.
Right from the beginning, she reinvented our history, drawing stick figures with giant bellies (me) in which little stick figures nestled (herself). She had a frantic fear of my dying, which sometimes sent her into fits of weeping at the mere contemplation of my eventual demise.
Jenny herself dubbed Mother’s Day as our “anniversary.” Every year on that day we celebrated with cake, mostly on our own, as the man who was supposed to be her father never was, and her sister became a teenage mother early on and left home.
The year I turned forty, Jenny turned fourteen. One night in a fit of teenage rebellion, Jenny took my car for a joy ride and never returned. She crashed on the downward slope of a steep mountain pass and died alone under a full moon.
Mother’s Day is a fire in the heart of any woman who has lost a child.
For me, it lines up exactly with the day I said “yes” to the most beautiful, loving, interesting creature I have ever known. “Yes” to being her mommy, “yes” to the mystery of our future.
It never crossed my consciousness that I would outlive my child or that Mother’s Day would become an unbearable reminder that the daughter into whom I poured the full cup of my love would leave this world, and that I would shatter.
Twenty-five years after I picked up my new child at the donut shop and fifteen years after her death, I am beginning to integrate the extraordinary way Jenny shot across the horizon of my life and changed everything.
The late Irish poet, John O’Donohue, describes grief as being a raging fire at first, too hot to get near, but which gradually becomes a warm hearth by which we take shelter.
Mother’s Day is still painful, but little by little, as I harvest the fruits of Jenny’s love and warm myself with memories, it becomes another opportunity to bless her, to honor my own broken-open heart, and to renew my vow to carry her with me wherever I go, weaving her spirit into all I do and am.
Happy anniversary, my love.