The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Unpacking the adoption that wasn’t

(E /iStock)

I’m cleaning the basement, dismantling the piles that have been collecting dust since we moved into this house almost three years ago. When I tire of wading through a container of old toys, broken crayons and stray Lego pieces, I wander over to a box of photos.

The basement is full of boxes, filled with detritus, each one demanding that decisions be made. Donate, toss or keep? Does this item “spark joy?” But nearly every object I touch, no matter how dirty or worn, evokes a memory and leaves me wavering. I reach into the stack of photos and catch my breath when I pull out a snapshot of Haseena, taken a decade ago, when I was trying to become her mother.

She stands on the threshold of St. Theresa’s Tender Loving Care Home, a 3-year-old dressed in a donated red turtleneck and matching red-and-white skirt, with the purple sneakers I bought for her at Shoppers Stop in Hyderabad strapped on her feet. It’s a hot day, and she’s clutching a bottle of water. The morning sun is bright, giving the photo an overexposed quality. Some ayah, one of the orphanage caregivers, has rolled her sleeves up above the elbow. Haseena’s dark hair, cut pixie style, appears damp and freshly combed, hinting that I must have just arrived for my daily visit. She looks straight into the camera, her brown eyes wide, a swath of bushes and a line of coconut palms in the background. She’s not smiling. I probably didn’t give her time to pose.

The photograph is unremarkable, really. It’s the 2×2-inch piece of white paper taped over the photo’s right corner that makes me gasp. The image of a bird in flight, holding an envelope in its beak, floats in the center of the vellum square. I spent hours dipping a rubber stamp in ink and pressing the image of that bird over and over again as John and I were making our wedding invitations, long before we dreamed of adopting a child.

I’d forgotten about attaching the bird to Haseena’s picture, a bit of superstition meant to bind the three of us together. Indian activists tried to stop international adoptions from the region, an anti-Western outcry that flared just as our case went to court. At the time, I imagined that bird flying our hoped-for daughter all the way from India to California, much like the robin that carried Thumbelina to safety on his back in a book I’d loved as a child.

In feng shui, birds carry good news. I clipped the image of the bird to Haseena’s picture on the advice of a feng shui master that we’d hired to help us change our luck, a decision that seems silly now but made perfect sense in a season of despair.

The master appeared at the front door of our Silicon Valley house wearing a black shirt, black pants and black shoes. His female apprentice, similarly clad, trailed behind toting his black leather bag of tricks. John and I were so desperate for our luck to change, so eager to bring our daughter home, that we paid the master too much money to tell us where to hang mirrors and crystals. We allowed him to lead us in an orange peel blessing ceremony designed to repel negative chi, and engaged in another ritual, now hazy in my memory, that involved the three of us walking to a park in the neighborhood and smashing some eggs into the bushes. Afterward I felt too embarrassed to ever stroll through that park again, for fear that our desperate attempt at spell-making might have been observed.

Feng shui didn’t change our luck, at least not in the way we’d hoped, although for a few weeks after the master’s visit, my husband and I both had uncanny success finding parking spots.

Everything related to Haseena’s adoption continued to crumble, until finally, until after three years of waiting and longing, three years of paperwork and prayers and feng shui magic, after flights to India and visits to the orphanage, after hugs and kisses and hours of stacking blocks together, we were forced to let her go. International adoptions from Hyderabad were suspended. Authorities placed Haseena, grown from a baby to a preschooler then, with an Indian family.

We told ourselves Haseena would be okay without us. Maybe she’d be even better off, if her new family proved kind and true. Whether we would ever feel okay again remained an open question for a long time.

Eventually, John and I became parents. We moved away from the house with the bad feng shui, the one we’d unwittingly bought with Haseena in mind, and found another large enough for the three children who did become ours through adoption. Time passed. A new job demanded another move 850 miles north, to this house on a hill with the big basement, antique windows and an elegant maple out front. Even though I’ve tried to leave old superstitions behind, I confess that the feng shui feels good here without much effort.

Today, our lives are full with work and school and soccer and cupcakes. Most of the time I’m happy, but when I start unpacking these boxes, some that have remained sealed year after year and move after move, I’m reminded that happiness isn’t always about luck. Sometimes happiness is a choice we make.

Here in these boxes, I find pieces of everything I want to forget and preserve, everything broken and beloved, all of it waiting for me to reconcile and arrange in some kind of order. I take Haseena’s photograph, and the image of the winged bird that once bound me to her, and put it aside for safekeeping, knowing that this bird will never tire of flying, and she will never, ever land.

Sharon Van Epps is a writer and mother of three. She tweets @sharonvanepps.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter. We are on twitter @OnParenting.

You might also be interested in:

Is she happy? Is she loved? Remembering the girl who was almost my daughter.

A baby in Morocco

Finding strength after my daughter’s death, one step at a time