My best friend, Lauren, and I wore black every Valentine’s Day. Hell, yes, we were bitter. Where were our true loves, our roses delivered to the receptionist so that we had to strut down the aisle between cubicles to claim them, our men elbowing their way, last minute, into the card aisle at CVS to pick us out some ridiculous sentimental crap that would have embarrassed us if we were thinking clearly? Valentine’s Day was right up there with New Year’s Dreaded Eve for days we would have stricken from the calendar had someone made us Emperor.
The good news is that, after many years dressed as Ninja warriors on that ominous date, we did score a couple Valentines. Lauren’s husband, John, is a great guy who, I’m sure, understands the blatant commercialism of the holiday but tows the line anyway. My Valentine, Dennis, is an especially thoughtful gift giver. Also, he always writes me a long note in his cards and he NEVER chooses sentimentality over sarcasm (See? Soul mates.).
But even this stroke of luck is not why I have come to love Valentine’s Day.
May, 2000. We had a well then, capped with a cement cover and a rusted pump that hadn’t worked in decades and I sat on it beside Dennis who had just arrived home from work. He set his bookbag down. Where were the girls? Napping, maybe. Maybe with us, Apphia, 5 months old, in the stroller watching Beatrice, almost 2, toddling around the yard pointing out things to us in her fierce voice, her brow furrowed. The adoption agency called, I told Dennis. Beatrice’s birth mother was expecting another child. Would we like to adopt this baby, too?
Absolutely, he said, as if I’d just suggested pizza for dinner. I don’t know why I thought he might hesitate. I hadn’t.
Maybe I thought we’d at least mull it over because we had become a cliche: the family who adopts one child and then instantly gets pregnant with a second. Where there had been a silent house with so many bedrooms it felt like an abandoned bed and breakfast, a little over a year later there was Plastic World, a planet filled with toys, carriers, juice cups, places to stash diaper changing supplies. Beatrice and Apphia slept side by side in their cribs. The new baby, due in September, would be only eight months younger than Apphia.
Well, we reasoned, Beatrice had come home on her eight month birthday. By the time we brought our third child home, it would probably be May again. Beatrice would be two and half and at least Apphia would be walking (I’m sure at this point, we both glanced over at her substantial thighs and commended ourselves for our optimism). And one day, we’d have a 5, 6 and a 7 year old. Perfectly manageable!
What no one told us (even though it wouldn’t have changed our minds) was that an adoption that has been agreed upon before the birth mother’s due date moves much more quickly. Apphia had taken a step or two not long after her first birthday, but she also loved being carried everywhere (and one of my arms was noticeably more muscular than the other as proof) and anytime someone offered to help with Beatrice she glared at them and said, “No. Mommy. Do. It.” If they persuaded her any further, she started screaming and that usually did the trick. So when the agency called us in February and said, “Make your reservations. Justina is ready to come home,” we glanced at each other over a mountain of laundry and did the only thing we knew to do: We put Beatrice in a twin bed and then, like the responsible adults we were, we called our parents.
My father-in-law’s job while we were away: feed the horse and the goat. Let the dogs out. My father-in-law’s interpretation of his job: take care of the animals, clean out the barn, organize the laundry room, fix anything loose, rusted, dirty, etc. so long as it meant staying outside. My mother-in-law’s job: hold Apphia (but sit down). My mother-in-law’s interpretation of her job: hold Apphia, wash every piece of clothing in the house whether it needs it or not. My mother’s job: take care of Beatrice who, in my absence, would temporarily switch her directive to: Nana. Do. It. My mother’s interpretation of her job: make sure everyone eats well.
Meanwhile, Dennis and I kissed our babies good-bye, inhaling their scents, feeling how soft their cheeks were, loving how willing they were to hug us tight, to plant their sloppy kisses, to wave us off while set off, once more, for Guatemala City and the miracle of meeting their baby sister.
“We’ll be home in three days,” we promised.
The story of meeting Justina is a longer one for another day. We had a wonderful visit our second time back to that beautiful country, parents now who, instead of being overwhelmed with the responsibility of caring for a child as we had been with Beatrice, were now relieved to have only one little person to care for between us. As our plane taxied down the runway, the volcanoes at its edges blurring as we gathered speed, I fed Justina her bottle so her ears wouldn’t pop on the ascent. She sucked happily and played with her toes. I began to memorize her face, the shape of her ears, the expressions that crossed her tiny face.
We arrived home to an airport terminal crowded with our siblings and their children holding signs, friends toting balloons, strangers who wanted to be part of our family’s joy as Dennis and I introduced everyone to Justina. Of course, Lauren was there, too, just as she had been for Beatrice’s homecoming and for Apphia’s and for all those other Valentine’s Days that had seemed so incurably lonely. Those days that were inconceivable, really, in the face of all this love.