“What are you doing right now? Are you sitting down? You should sit down.”
On Sept. 24, 2013, on the way into what turned out to be a spectacularly unsuccessful Weight Watchers meeting, I got a call from one of my favorite relatives. I answered it right away, hoping that she’d provide me an excuse to cut out before I had to get on the scale.
“What’s up?” I asked, and I heard her take a deep breath, hesitating slightly, like she was balancing an avalanche on the tip of her tongue. And then it tumbled out.
Unto my family, a child had been born. And he needed me to be his mother.
“So what do you want to do?” she asked.
What did I want to do? My husband and I had been hoping for a phone call like this for the past year, but really our whole marriage. Maybe our whole lives. What did I want to do? I wanted to faint, scream, clap like a seal, then drive straight through the day and night until I reached that Baltimore hospital — the same one I’d been born in, which seemed like a sign. I wanted to gather that baby into my arms and scram before anyone changed their minds.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Nothing ever is.
What went down over the next two and a half years, on the way to finalizing the adoption of my son Brooks, felt like a lifetime, or at least the plot of a Lifetime movie. It was an exhausting, exhilarating blur — 18,000 miles worth of air travel, several hearings, pillars of paperwork, countless visits from social workers, approximately eleventy-three hours of Elmo, and many tiny Baltimore Ravens jerseys.
My previous life, which was about covering cocktail parties and interviewing celebrities, was now about interviewing babysitters and being covered in … Oh, Lord, what is that? Out with the early morning workouts, and in with trying to snag a half-hour of quiet time between feedings, diaper changes, and whatever the hell I had to do to get the baby to stop crying. Oh please stop crying. Why is he crying?
Between the moment that I answered that phone call, and the one 34 months later when a nice judge told me that what had been in my heart all this time was now a legal fact, I would move twice. I would lose, gain back and then lose the same 15 pounds. I started this journey as half of a dizzily happy married couple and end it as a widowed single mother. I sobbed, and laughed, and hugged and soothed. Lessons were learned. Things were eaten.
In all, those were the most momentous 34 months of my 45 years on this earth, some ecstatic, others as painful as a knee-capping. But I would live every second, bitter or sweet, over again, 34 times, if at the end I still got to be Brooks’ mommy.
I am not often given the occasion to quote Tom Cruise, but he said something wise when he and then-wife Nicole Kidman adopted a biracial baby they named Connor, in Palm Beach County, just like their daughter. People were curious about the baby’s background, but Cruise simply said that was Connor’s story to tell, not his.
I feel that same way about the specifics of Brooks’ story, at least the early parts around his birth, before Scott and I brought him home to Florida when he was 6 months old. That’s his business, and if he wants to share it one day, it’s up to him. I will just say that his birth parents could not care for him, so my family asked me to. And I did.
I can, however, tell you, in great detail, another story, one that began way before that Weight Watchers meeting. For the record, I think I’d gained two pounds, but for once I didn’t care. My winding road to motherhood started about four years before that, when Scott and I were seriously dating and negotiating a life together. After years of kissing frogs, I’d finally found my wise-cracking, football-crazy prince, and we were all in. When you’re pushing 40, like we were at the time, there are some subjects you can’t dance around, like whether we wanted kids. We did, even though we knew that might not be easy.
Adoption was always part of that discussion — there were adopted kids in both of our families, and building our own that way seemed normal. Having grown up around adoption, we never said “We’ll just adopt,” like we were changing cell phone providers.
That process can be grueling, invasive, emotionally battering and long. So we decided we’d start trying to get pregnant more or less the minute we got married, but would always consider adoption, too. Maybe we’d have kids both ways!
Or … maybe not. We tried. Didn’t happen. We kept trying. No dice. We wanted to believe we had all the time in the world. We did not.
So we made arrangements to start testing to figure out what was going on — I remember … umm … donating a sample, only to be told that it couldn’t be read and could I come back. I cursed into the air and then made another appointment. But before I could go back, my dad got sick. I mean, he was already sick — he’d been diagnosed with cancer two years before Scott and I got married, but then suddenly, all of the remissions and the reprieves were over and the slow slide had sped up.
We put the subject of babies on the back burner, with all the worrying and the stress, and the eventual flying back and forth to see Daddy. No worries, we thought. We were going to be parents, at some point, we kept saying, trying to wish loud enough to drown out that ticking clock.
During our break from baby-making, we found out that my twin sister and her husband, who’d gotten married the same year we did, were pregnant, and I was struck by how not jealous I was. OK, I was a little jealous, but mostly elated, not just for her, but for my whole family, who welcomed nephew Alex two weeks before my father died. Sunrise, sunset.
Scott and I emerged from that period emotionally exhausted, still wanting to be parents, and still not pregnant. We were also no longer pushing 40, but now on the other side of it where it seemed to be pushing back. Before my father’s death, we had decided to return to the testing, to see why we weren’t getting pregnant, after we’d had some time to recover. But suddenly all that seemed daunting, prohibitively overwhelming. That’s when it became apparent to us that as much as we’d have liked to have had a child biologically, that was never the most important thing to us. We didn’t care where the kid came from. We just wanted one.
And it didn’t have to be a baby. In fact, after a talk with an adoption attorney who explained that private infant adoption could cost around $30,000, we decided it probably wouldn’t be. We looked into adopting from the foster care system.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are 108,000 children in the system eligible for adoption on any given day, who could wait an average of four years to be adopted. More than a quarter of them are 9 or older. That broke our hearts. Our kid was out there, we decided. He or she — or maybe he and she, since a lot of the hardest to place kids are in sibling groups — needed us. Hold on, sweethearts. Mommy and Daddy are coming!
But first — the process. Oh, boy, the process. I completely understand setting high standards for adoptive parents, particularly for a population of kids who likely wouldn’t have been in foster care if there weren’t problems in their families of origin. You’ve got to thoroughly check out anyone remotely considering taking in these kids.
And checked out, we were. We got finger-printed and background-checked. Our finances were investigated. We had a home visit where Scott bought really good cookies and cheese for the social workers. They politely declined, so when they left, we nervously ate the cheese and hoped we were impressive. We had to ask our friends, family and colleagues for letters of recommendations. We were the most open of books. And every time we filled out one set of paperwork, there seemed to be another in a pile we’d forgotten about that was due in an hour.
Then there were the classes. Every Tuesday night for about three months, we sat in a room at Children’s Home Society with other prospective parents for training that seemed, at times, like a slightly more gentle version of “Scared Straight.” They wanted there to be no illusions about what we were getting into, and what the kids we were considering bringing into our homes may have been through on their way to us.
We learned statistics about the system from hard-working social workers and professionals, and listened to adoptive parents talk about the challenges of loving kids who may have been made to feel unlovable. We then looked around the room and noticed that every week, there seemed to be less people on our side of the table. But we weren’t going to quit. We were all in.
After we finished the classes and completed our first home study, Scott and I moved from our condo to a house, meaning we had to do the home visit part again. We asked for a month or so to settle in before they came back. The morning that we got the call about the baby who would be Brooks, I’d actually checked in with our social worker to try to get a date for that visit. It wouldn’t be long now, right?
Wrong! You know that thing about God laughing when you make plans? If that’s true, my life must be the highest rated sitcom in Heaven, because my plans always seem to get slapped into a snow globe and shook up real good. Just when we’d decided we were going to be adopting an older child, who we figured would be at least 3 years old, we had the possibility of bringing home an actual baby, with all the colic and teething and potty training on the horizon.
During a very long conversation with officials in Maryland the next day, we found out that the process to bringing said baby to Florida was not going to be easy. In fact, instead of adopting from foster care, we would actually have to become Brooks’ foster parents. Even as relatives, it wasn’t a sure thing, and being in a different state was going to make the process even longer. It meant more paperwork, more background checks, more social workers now from two different states, and about three different agencies.
A lot of people had to sign off on this. It was gonna be hard. It might not even happen.
I remember opening an email attachment and seeing a photo of this very small, helpless person in footie pajamas, smiling in his sleep. I laughed out loud, because I knew instantly that he was a goofball, like Scott and I. I was in love. This was my boy.
About three weeks later, we were sitting, nervously, in hard plastic chairs in a waiting room in a Maryland social services office, when I saw him. Right now I can tell you exactly how it felt the first time I held him — like my heart was swallowing itself, like after 42 years I had finally figured out why I had arms. I needed them to hold my son, to bring him close to my chest and sing silly things to him.
And then I had to give him back.
It would be this way for the next six months, as the process moved slowly along. We’d pack a bag and fly up to Maryland for the weekend, for visits that at first lasted an hour or two, and eventually a couple of days. The first time we had Brooks overnight, in my sister’s guest room for Christmas, I maybe slept a cumulative two hours.
And not because I was peacefully staring at this miracle of love. It’s because Brooks, whose name was not officially Brooks yet, was 3 months old, was in a new place with new people, and woke up every hour or so to register his complaints. It was hectic, scary and a sobering reminder that this is what we were signing up for.
“Do you know how crazy you look right now?” my sister said, when I stumbled into the kitchen, hair askew and eyes bleary to scavenge for coffee and get away from the crying. “Like the ghost girl in ‘The Ring.’”
It was the longest night of our lives — at one point, I was tempted to wake Scott up even when the baby fell asleep, because I was mad other people got to sleep when I wasn’t. But I was even more sure about it. On Christmas morning, after introducing Brooks to my grandmother, Scott and I drove him back to the people who had been temporarily caring for him. I spent the rest of the day pretending to be festive, acting like I hadn’t handed just my heart to someone else.
It would be this way for three more months, until we got word that we were finally bringing Brooks home to Florida, hopefully for good. We still had no idea how long it was going to take to finalize the adoption — there was now more paperwork, more visits, and various other things that had to be taken care of. We always believed it was going to work out, but again, even as relatives, being a foster parent is not a sure way to becoming a permanent parent.
And it was always in the back of our heads that we could be falling in love with a baby who might not be ours forever.
Every 25 days, we got a visit from a social worker. We Skyped with the ones in Maryland, as well as with Brooks’ court-appointed attorney. We filled out medication logs, conducted required fire drills. We spent at least $200 on child-proof cabinet locks and approved door knobs. It consumed me, and I was in the unique position of being a columnist who often wrote about her life but couldn’t write about the most important thing in it, because I was understandably not allowed to. I remember pushing Brooks, then less than a year old, through Abacoa’s Feast of Little Italy, and noticing an older lady staring at us, looking from me, to Scott, to the stroller and back again to me.
“Leslie?” asked the lady, who identified herself as a Palm Beach Post reader. “Where did you get a baby?”
I wanted to tell you guys — believe me, it was bursting through my chest — but I didn’t want to do anything to endanger us getting to keep Brooks, so I sometimes referred to him in my columns simply as the child we were caring for. For a year and a half, Scott and I happily crafted our world around this funny boy, who loved balloons and the “Jersey Boys” soundtrack, who we were sure was going to be ours, for good, any day now.
I remember calling one of the social workers from the emergency room, before they had even taken Scott downstairs to the morgue and leaving a message that sounded something like “My husband has died. I need you to tell me that this won’t get in the way of me keeping my kid.” I apologize for how awful that must have sounded, but it was not a moment for tact.
I was now adopting as a single mother, and everyone involved said they would support me in any way they could. I had a social worker visit scheduled for the morning after Scott died, and she was gracious enough to just have me come outside with Brooks in my arms so she could hug me, take a photo, and leave. That’s when I knew that the wheels would keep on turning, despite my grief, despite not having my love there to do this with me.
So I would do it myself. I would take these last steps alone, for both of us. And so it was nearly a year to the day that Scott left us, that Brooks and I, with our family by our side, sat in the office of that nice Maryland judge and she said these words: “The male minor is now the legally adopted child of Leslie Gray Streeter.”
That my name was not followed by “and Scott Zervitz” hurt.
Scott was not here to sign the papers, so he could not officially adopt him. But our son Brooks Robinson Streeter-Zervitz, who he loved, and who still loves him, has the name Scott picked out for him. He is still here. He is still a part of us.
Hold on, let me get a tissue. I always cry at that part.
So now I’m officially someone’s mother, almost three years after my heart told me I was, and I’m into the part of parenthood they don’t give cards and presents for. The messy, permanent part. I’m in it for life. The life I have now is louder, messier, and more full of macaroni and cheese than the one I had before I answered that phone call.
On Christmas morning, our third together but our first as officially legal forever mother and son, I will get up before everyone else in the house and put out the gifts I’ve been hiding in my closet. I don’t want to say what they are, even though Brooks cannot yet read.
But I will arrange them under the tree so that he sees the big ones first, and position myself so that I can get a photograph of his beautiful face as he runs to me. I will look at the football-shaped ornament that Scott had made for his son, the name “Brooks” written into a gold star with a pair of cleats hanging from it, and I will smile and say silent thanks to my husband for helping me on this road. I would not be here without him.
And then I’ll hug this laughing, giggling, living embodiment of love, and know that he will always be the best gift I ever got.
Watch a video of Leslie and Brooks at myPalmBeachPost.com