On an otherwise ordinary shelter in place Friday night, as my daughter and I cuddled on the couch with our two dogs, one giant, hairy heap of furry love and fuzzy blankets, she requested to look at old videos on my phone. I am a relentless sentimentalist, so my device is full of mini vignettes of our life, especially of her since the age of three, when I finally upgraded from a dumb phone to a smart phone for dummies! It is an indulgence and an addiction, I readily admit. My iCloud storage contains my heart and soul!
This is one of Ava’s favorite pastimes, being nostalgic as she is at the ripe old age of thirteen going on fourteen in less than sixty days. Instant access to imagery of oneself at an earlier stage is definitely mesmerizing, and I muse at whether her persistent retrospection is more a product of growing up in the age of the selfie, or of her burgeoning exploration of self and identity as an adopted child. Likely it is a hybrid. I believe that tendency is innate, as we all yearn to know ourselves more deeply, to excavate from our own personal history some magical clues that may help us to evolve, to find meaning as we struggle through our mutual growing pains. Yes, we are all in this together! We are all in need of our origins. Reminders are right at hand, just scroll back when the mood strikes!
It is under this lens that what we stumbled upon next was, for me, made more profound. Amidst the silly bath bomb explosions, hair grooming vlogs she had surreptitiously created, between a series of slow motion dance maneuvers that reveal her ample grace and physical prowess, and many ridiculous doggie antics, we are suddenly transported to a special moment beside the fire on one rainy afternoon several years ago.
This particular impromptu video I had taken when she had brought out her keepsake birth family scrapbook, and had been reading aloud to me from it. Commenting about how cool it is that she resembles her birth brother as a baby (only she’s clearly cuter!) and her surprise at how young Mama Christy looks in her wedding photos, Ava literally connects to herself. This is manna from Heaven!
I so vividly remember when she first received the tome, and how both Christy and I wept as she handed over this work of heart. It had taken her nearly nine years to produce and to release it. Another relinquishment, her letting go of that compilation was an echo of their original parting, and thus, incomprehensibly difficult. As much as anyone can, I know and grieve it with her. Meanwhile, our emergent flamingo-like former ballerina beckons us onward.
The story of baby Ava, born as Laura Michelle L----, is filled with images that bring her very DNA to life. It is more than a relic; it is transcendental currency. This scrapbook is the treasure of all treasures. I am again humbled by the strength and manifest resilience inherent in this painstaking gesture of creation, and realize more than Ava possibly can at her tender age what she possesses. It is transformative. It is pure gold. It is everything. It is her.
The video we are watching together is of Ava reciting the inscription her birth mother, Christy has pasted onto the final page, having saved the best for last. In her letter, Christy declares her endless love, and describes her feelings at Ava’s birth as the singular greatest, most unforgettable combination of joy and pain she has ever experienced. “No one will ever understand or take that away,” she reveals. It is also signed by her birth father, as well as her siblings and young nephews. It is about and from all of them, on behalf of her entire array of biological kin. Cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents are denoted, a lineage adeptly defined.
I recall watching Ava share these words with me that night, after immersing in the details and dates and photos so lovingly assembled for her by her other mother, each annotation written by hand. It is an anchoring gift of ancestry, a kind of mooring between hearts. The pages are wings to her roots, gathered and gilt with lace and love. The conclusive letter is beyond poignant and it’s message brings me to tears every time. I remembered thinking in that moment I recorded Ava how much Christy would appreciate hearing our daughter speak those written words, and feeling compelled to capture the preciousness of Ava absorbing their meaning. In witness, I remain in awe. I don’t mean to rob Ava of her own experience, rather to memorialize and preserve it for her. Like so much in adoption, the duality is, however undeniable. It is tenuous. We are united by this division.
As we listened to the recording of her younger self, Ava mentioned that she didn’t realize at the time I had actually filmed her. I feel a bit sheepish, like an emotional thief, but also like my own inner Robin Hood, drawing from an overflowing fountain of blessings to return this bounty to its source. I wanted Christy to see and to feel the depth of her own brilliant gift of nurture. She was and is always in the room with us, spiritually. The interconnection between the three of us is indescribably powerful. We are Ava’s mothers in succession, and we are both in reverence at who she is becoming. Our dreams and wishes for her are separate, yet inseparable. They intersect in miracles we share and shape. Openness commands inclusiveness. It is metaphorically, a togetherness in separation.
Ava inquired of me why I had taped her. She was curious and also critical of her own imperfect reading abilities, which I assured her was less an absence of aptitude and more an immaturity of skills. I answered that I wanted Mama Christy to know and to see that we treasure and honor her heart and respect her important words. In her letter she says that she never has to wonder if Ava is well cared for, loved and safe, because she knows that she is and always will be. We trust in each other. This message is critical. Reassuring Ava that she is always there for her if she is ever needed, the testimonial from her birth mom is an eloquent reminder of her existential and essential presence. As she did the first time we read that passage together, Ava mocks my rampant weeping. She amusedly observes that both her moms are uncontrollable, “criers.” True! Epitome of adolescence, she rolls her eyes, the veneer of bravado intact, as she scrolls on to the next visual memory while I drift into the salty sea of those hopeful words and pray I am living up to her dreams.The bitter-sweetness of my quarantine is real. In a few days, Ava returns to me from a week with her dad. As I greet her with my morning text, replete with twinkling and pulsating celebration features, a virtual heart balloon inflates onscreen then explodes from excess hollowness. Today, I feel the anguish of temporary isolation, and am deeply inspired by Christy’s capacity to carry on into unending uncertainty.
As a divorced, single mom in these challenging days of physical distancing, I am feeling attuned to that perpetual pain in not being able to connect, to hold my daughter’s hand, to hear her giggles waft down from her empty teenage sanctuary. I miss her nonchalant hugs after just five days away. But I can revisit these videos and share them with my counterpart, and for today, perhaps that will be enough to get us through until the next FaceTime call. We’ve got this!