On Dec. 7, 1993, Carmen Christina Mirach, age 11, wrote a letter to a well-known children’s benefactor:
My name is Carmen Mirach. My mother has AIDS, and is sometimes very sick. I am very concerned about her. But I am also concerned for myself. I ask myself every day, who will take care of me once she’s gone to heaven? Santa all that I want for Xmas is a caring, loving family. I am 11 years old. I am a girl. I know it’s hard to find a family for a big girl like myself. If I were a baby it might be easier. I’m funny, smart, respectful and somewhat shy. I have blond hair, blue eyes. I have very fair skin. I like math, I’m not too crazy about reading. I want to become a vet when I grow up. Santa can you please help me. Santa can you please, all I want is a family.
When she wrote to Santa, Carmen, or Christy, as she prefers to be called, had known for nearly three years that her mother, Evelyn Torres Mirach, had AIDS. Or maybe subconsciously she had known a little longer. “She came home from school saying: ‘Guess what? I learned how people die from AIDS,’ ” Evelyn said. “Then she drew me a little T cell and told me how the virus goes in and kills the T cells . . . and as she told me the tears just started to run down my face.
“She said, “Why are you crying?’ And I said, ‘I’m crying because you’re so smart.’ And she said, ‘Mom, you’re not crying because I’m smart!’ ” So Evelyn, then 36, shared with her daughter what she had known for eight months, that she was H.I.V.-positive and that the health problems Evelyn had shrugged off as arthritis–muscle aches, nerve spasms, some fevers–were really the early symptoms of AIDS, what was then known as AIDS-Related Complex. Christy, says Evelyn, broke down in tears, cried for days and got angry. But two weeks later, at least on the surface “she was back to herself, playing and everything.” “And she said, ‘Mom, thanks for thinking I was strong enough,’ ” Evelyn says.
Christy was also the one, according to Evelyn, who first faced up to the other problem that lay ahead. “When I started getting ill, one day she looked at me and she said, ‘Mommy, I think we need to start looking for someone to start taking care of me.’ When Christy said that, that was very hard and painful for me. Children know. I knew it was true, I knew that I had to find someone, and I had to find someone right away.”
AIDS HAS ALWAYS MEANT LOSS. But only recently in this country, as the disease has increasingly moved into the heterosexual population, has it become clear that among the losses already suffered–of friends, lovers, siblings, offspring and colleagues–will be the loss to young children of their parents. “Orphan,” a term so redolent of the Victorian era, is about to gain new currency.
A study published in the Dec. 23, 1992, issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association projected that 72,000 to 125,000 children under 18 would be orphaned by AIDS by the end of the decade, 30,000 of them in New York City alone. “Unless increased attention and resources are devoted to this vulnerable population,” wrote David Michaels and Carol Levine, “a social catastrophe is unavoidable.” An accompanying editorial said the sobering numbers “probably underestimate the true extent of the problem.” Ongoing studies indicate that the upper end of the range is the more likely.
And while the number of new AIDS cases among gay white men appears to be leveling off, the incidence of heterosexual infection is climbing. Michaels, an epidemiologist at the City University of New York Medical School, says, “These numbers will just keep growing.”
Society’s solution for the large numbers of orphans in the days of Oliver Twist was the orphanage; in 1869, New York City and its suburbs had 12 orphan asylums, among them the Colored Orphan Asylum and the Hebrew Orphan and Half Orphan Asylum. The rise of welfare and state-sponsored foster care has changed that. Barbara Draimin, director of planning at the Division of AIDS Services in New York City, estimates that 58 percent of children orphaned by AIDS go to live with aunts and grandmothers, 17 percent with the surviving biological parent, 4 percent with an older sibling. Seventeen percent wind up with nonrelatives, and four percent with godparents.
Because the slow onset of the disease allows time to prepare, child welfare agencies have started to promote “permanency planning.” Parents are encouraged to acknowledge their illness to their family and themselves, and to plan for their eventual absence: Who will care for the children? Where will they live? What role will the state play, if any? Medical proxies can be signed, spelling out how much extraordinary care the parent wants if hospitalized. And in states like New York, standby guardianship agreements can be made, allowing a friend or relative to take custody of the children when the parent is temporarily disabled, as happens frequently in AIDS cases. Planning encourages the parent and child to make decisions to avoid falling into a default mode of state custody and emergency arrangements cobbled together by social workers.
Permanency planning sounds like the choice any reasonable parent would make, and yet the barriers to it will be familiar to any adult who has delayed writing his will or making arrangements for her own funeral: planning for one’s own death is hard, and postponable. In the case of AIDS, an illness and death to which considerable stigma is still attached, planning is even harder. Add to the equation poverty–a condition that can make the idea of planning itself seem futile or laughable–and the enormity of the task soon becomes apparent.
Evelyn and Christy took the brave first step. But they soon found that facing the facts was going to be the easiest part of replacing Mommy.
Family is usually where people turn first in crises. But Evelyn’s family was troubled. Christy’s father, to begin with, had never acknowledged paternity. Evelyn said he was Robert (Butch) Potenza, the owner of two Queens topless bars, Gallagher’s and Gallagher’s II. (“That’s G-A-L-L-A-G-H-E-R!” she told me with uncharacteristic ferocity, angry that he’d never been held accountable; Potenza, reached at home, declined to comment.) She met him at Gallagher’s after dropping out of high school. Evelyn said she considered filing a paternity suit after Christy was born but changed her mind when he told her he would call a parade of witnesses to make her “look like the biggest slut that ever lived.”
“And that if I was his daughter she would never see me again,” Christy chimed in. “That he would take me away from her.”
Evelyn said: “He had all the money in the world to do it, and money talks, you know? And I was afraid, that was my baby, and I wasn’t gonna lose my baby for him or anybody else, especially if I can work and I was healthy. So that’s what I did. I went to work, and kept my daughter.”
Evelyn, who went on welfare when Christy was born in 1982, got off it by taking a job as a mental health worker at the Manhattan Psychiatric Center on Wards Island. “My patients were pretty manageable,” she said, even in the criminally insane ward.
During this time, she said, “I went out with a lot of guys, and I wasn’t protected.” She says she believes that’s how she got the AIDS virus.
When Christy was 5, Evelyn Torres met Lenny Mirach, the manager of a car service. She and Christy both took his last name. Those years “were the happiest time of my life”; she married Lenny in 1989. “He brought me flowers every week. I didn’t have a care in the world.”
That changed on March 12, 1990, the day she and Lenny went to a city health station in Queens to learn the results of AIDS and other tests they had taken after Evelyn experienced a series of night sweats and a sudden loss of 30 pounds.
“I’ll never forget it,” Evelyn said. The clinician “didn’t even give me a chance to sit down, she just looked into my face and said, ‘Yeah, baby, you’re positive!’ ” Lenny had been passing by the room on the way to hear his own results. Evelyn sat aghast while Lenny, informed that he was negative, protested to her attendant: “There must be a mistake! There must be a mistake!” Then Evelyn started screaming.
“I was running down Junction Boulevard. I was hysterical. In the train I was screaming, ‘I’m dying of AIDS!’ and he kept covering my mouth.” According to Evelyn, that was typical of Lenny’s ongoing reactions. “My husband was always ashamed–he used to hide my AZT. He used to hide my syringes”–for an experimental treatment involving alpha-interferon. He instructed her to tell friends that she had cancer or diabetes. When she published poetry, he asked her to use her maiden name. Finally, “he abandoned ship–he gave up on his marriage just because of a disease, just because of a stigma!”
Lenny says he still loves his wife but that the relationship fell apart because of the strain of the illness: “It changed her. . . . Everything was fine in the beginning but then she started arguing. She really put me down, right in front of Christy, in the sense that I couldn’t even live there anymore.”
They are still married but seldom see each other, and Christy dislikes Lenny, so he was no solution to the problem of who would care for Christy. That left Evelyn’s side of the family. Her 72-year-old mother, Carmen Louisa–Abuela, to Christy–has Alzheimer’s disease and is cared for at home in Harlem by an attendant. Evelyn’s father was not a possibility. He had neglected his family, Evelyn said. Her three brothers, she decided, were unsuited to caring for Christy. Though two have children, neither lives with a woman who could be a mother to Christy. And Evelyn, who had been disappointed repeatedly by men, firmly believes that “Christy needs a mother.”
So the search began. Evelyn first tracked down a distant relative in New York whom she had always known about but never met, and appealed for her help. The middle-aged single woman visited Evelyn one day, met Christy and began a relationship they all expected would end in adoption. A chapter out of Christy’s school autobiography, “Age 10 and Looking to the Future,” begins with this passage:
“At the age of 10 I met my aunt. I was so happy. It was one of the happiest days of my life. I love my aunt. She is so wonderful to me. She looks like me and we have so much in common. We spend lots of time together.
“She gave me a pretty gold chain with the face of Jesus Christ and told me to keep faith. She is so nice and beautiful. . . . We went out to Patsy’s for pizza and we had so much fun.
“My mom is very ill and I was very worried about my future, now I’m not so worried, because I know that my aunt . . . will protect me and love me.” Christy was also thrilled that her aunt kept several dogs because: “When I grow up I want to become a vet. If I had it my way my house would be a zoo.”
But without warning, the woman changed her mind. Christy, said Evelyn, was “devastated”–”she became physically sick”– and Evelyn was angry. The woman had gone in “with her eyes closed, thinking she was doing some kind of a charitable thing here” and had backed out when it became clear that Christy was a real person, with a strong personality and her own set of issues. “You just can’t do that,” Evelyn said.
It was several months before mother and daughter summoned the nerve to renew their search. They called Christy’s godfather, a bachelor who still lived with his mother. The woman, who had recently seen Evelyn on “Encuentro,” a local Spanish-language talk show, volunteered to take Christy when Evelyn died–and to care for her in the meantime if Evelyn got sick. But their experience during Evelyn’s next hospitalization, for a kidney infection, fell short of their hopes.
“When I called there from the hospital, Christy was dusting tables and wiping down all the knickknacks,” Evelyn said. She harbored a fear that her daughter might become somebody’s cheap labor. “And then she said it didn’t even look like I did it!” added Christy. The next day, said Evelyn, all the woman “talked about was how great and wonderful her grandchildren were–you know? And Christy’s a little girl here, going through a very rough time, and she’s telling her how good they are and how much she loves her grandchildren. And what is Christy, chopped liver?
“Then she told me that it would be really hard for her to raise this kid–she came out with a million and one excuses. And I said, you know what? Frankly, you’re not the person to take care of my kid.”
Months went by while Christy and Evelyn, discouraged, did nothing. But then another hospitalization scared Evelyn again. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis referred her to the New York Council on Adoptable Children, which had just started a program to match the children of people with AIDS with adoptive parents. Evelyn liked this idea because foster care, in which children become wards of the state, often after abuse or neglect by their parents, carries a stigma that adoption does not. Adoptive parents were more like “real” parents. Christy and Evelyn went to the council’s office on lower Broadway to interview the first prospect–an unmarried and childless magazine writer.
“The first question Christy asked her–you know, Christy’s pretty bold–she said to the lady, do you believe in God? And the lady said no. And she sort of didn’t like that answer, because I want Christy to believe in something when I’m gone. . . . If you don’t, I think that makes it ever the more harder. And then Christy asked her, do you like animals? And she said no, not particularly.”
That was the deal-breaker, as Christy’s best friends, after her mother, are probably Mr. Gallagher, a large gray tomcat who slept in her crib when she was an infant, and Bootsie, a younger black-and-white female cat. Mr. Gallagher is named after an early bar of Butch Potenza’s that was destroyed by fire; the cat was discovered in its still-smoldering basement two years before Christy was born. And, given her career hopes, “what would happen if they threw Christy in a home where they didn’t like animals?” Evelyn asked me. “That would discourage her from being who she wants to be.”
I met Evelyn and Christy in December 1993. Evelyn’s T-cell count was 74, down from 400 four years earlier (normal is 800-1,000). We were in their small apartment in a house in Ozone Park, Queens. On the walls were framed photos of Evelyn’s three brothers, and one of Barbra Streisand; on the walls of Christy’s bedroom–painted blue, her favorite color–were photos of a younger Christy and of her sixth-grade class, a “Beverly Hills 90210” poster and a framed sign that read, “A Daughter Is a Lifelong Friend.” There was a small trophy from the Sociedad Puertorriquena de Queens for a dance she had performed in a parade, a Bible and a stereo. Outside the bedroom was a small aquarium, and above it a studio photograph of Christy in her First Communion dress, arms around a statue of Jesus on a pedestal. In the kitchen a young home attendant, paid for by Medicaid, was stirring chicken soup. (She comes five days a week, to help Evelyn out.) In the middle of the living room, Mr. Gallagher, gray and fat, was nibbling on some fresh tulips in a vase.
Evelyn is a small woman with a warm manner who likes to find a reason to laugh. She’s animated and direct. When conversation turns to her daughter or her straits, Evelyn sometimes becomes sentimental. She has a lot of energy to talk, but often looks drawn; when she told me that the two of us were the same age I was surprised, having guessed she was at least five years older. She speaks Spanish with the home attendant, but her English is better; Christy knows only a little Spanish, and when her mother speaks Spanish with another adult, she often demands to know what she is saying.
Like many people with AIDS, Evelyn doesn’t go out much and is reluctant to travel far; many friends have fallen by the wayside. Her world has shrunk to the point where it is actually true and not just a pleasantry to say that her daughter is her closest friend.
Evelyn dotes on Christy, and the attention is returned, many-fold. Since her mother got AIDS, Christy is wildly possessive toward her and hates to be alone. “I go upstairs for five minutes and she gets hysterical,” Evelyn says. “The child psychologist said it was perfectly normal. Children that are losing their parents usually tend to think that . . . if they don’t lose them to the illness they’ll lose them to someone else. So they feel a threat. . . . Any closeness to anyone threatens her relationship with me.” Christy is civil to me but also suspicious; her answers, when I ask her things, tend to be short.
“She’s so quiet in class she’s hardly noticeable,” says Evelyn. But Christy is liked well enough to be class vice-president, and she is also a member of the sign-language club.
I get Christy to show me the aquarium outside her room and another in the living room; both are full of fancy goldfish. Several of them are named after social workers: there’s the black bug-eyed one named after their Division of AIDS Services caseworker; a thin, golden one named Cathy after Catalina Echevarria, their adoption caseworker, who has bleached blond hair, and another black fish with “a big head and a big butt, which is Hilda,” their home attendant.
Christy’s favorite toys are colored Perler beads, which are placed in patterns on a grid and then heated with an iron to make permanent decorations; and Gak, a disgusting, slimelike substance that Christy had in yellow and green. There is also a small hand pump upon which you can place a lump of Gak to inflate it. Christy, with a devilish look upon her face, prefers to place her hand atop the Gak so that the air is forced to exit with a flatulent sound.
Evelyn shows me her poetry, some of which has appeared in SIDAhora, a publication of the People With AIDS Coalition. One favorite is “I Am Patient”:
“How I got infected is not important/I am still a person/I am scared/I am hurting so badly, so deeply, so much/This is why I am here. . . . / Please don’t hurt me anymore/I am already hurting enough/ Don’t discriminate against me, but/Most of all don’t reject me./Don’t leave me all alone/Help me get well/Motivate me and encourage me/Remember; I am a person.”
Christy had a poem in SIDAhora, too, printed beneath a snapshot of her and a heavier-looking Evelyn.
“God loves you Mom/God won’t do you wrong/He is mighty strong/ He will find a cure/that’s for sure/ He won’t let us down/So Mom, please don’t frown/Wipe your tears/Cause God is near/I love you, Mom.”
“I was a hefty mama–I weighed like 140 pounds,” Evelyn says wistfully. “That was a good weight for me. Nice thick legs, nice butt, practically no stomach at all.” As we pass the afternoon in her living room, I am surprised by how many of the people she knows have AIDS, too, including her neighbor and the woman’s daughter; the husband of her friend Diane Mills, who ran Christy’s preschool, and the deceased husband of her friend Grayce Cumberland.
A glance through a family album further underscores what Barbara Draimin, the Division of AIDS Services planning director, meant when she told me that “our communities with AIDS are multiloss communities.” Pictured with Christy, in yellow dresses identical to hers, are two little girls who, along with their infant brother, were taken in by Evelyn for a year when their mother became addicted to crack. Evelyn and the woman had become friends when each was young and pregnant in Sunnyside, Queens. “We had the same cravings, and we used to walk and get mangoes and frankfurters together, and then sit in the park and knit.” The friend became Christy’s godmother. But then she had an affair with a Dominican drug dealer and became addicted. Evelyn took the children to keep them out of foster care while their mother went through a treatment program–but she never reappeared, and her children finally went to distant relatives.
I leave the city for a few days. Evelyn, that night, is admitted to Beth Israel Hospital with fever, low blood pressure and anemia. Tests reveal that she also has M.A.I., a respiratory disease related to tuberculosis and associated with the latter stages of AIDS, and that her T-cell count has fallen to 36. Soon she also had severe conjunctivitis and a vision-inhibiting spot on her eye called a nevus. From her hospital room, she called the adoption agency and told them they’d better hurry up. Forty-eight hours later, she met Susan Leslie.
Prospective parents come to adoption agencies like the Council on Adoptable Children–which specializes in finding homes for older, harder-to-place kids–for all kinds of reasons. I met a senior vice president of a Manhattan bond insurance company who lost his own mother at age 12 and decided, while still single at age 40, that he would adopt an AIDS orphan. I heard about an older retired couple from Buffalo who had delighted in raising their own kids and figured they still had the time and energy to raise another. Most are middle class; the government offers no financial incentives to adoptive parents unless the child is already in foster care.
Susan Leslie, 33, had felt a deep attachment to the idea of adoption since she was a child in Queens. Her own family situation had been emotionally abusive, she said, and though she’s now on good terms with her mother, Susan identified strongly with the children in a book she read in grade school, “Ready-Made Family,” by Frances Salomon Murphy. The three kids, abandoned by their parents and mistreated by the cousin who was supposed to care for them, arrive with trepidation at the small-town foster home of Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy. Susan loved the shy, conscientious oldest sister, Hedwig, as well as another hero of the book, the children’s caring social worker, Miss Cannon.
Susan graduated from Queens College in 1985 and was employed by adoption agencies while earning a Master of Social Work degree at Hunter College. She also married and had a son, Jeremy, now nearly 4. A split with her husband two years ago seemed to her no reason not to keep adding to her family. Adoption is more than just a personal inclination for Susan; it is a philosophical commitment: “There’s thousands of kids out there needing homes,” she says, “and I feel capable of providing a home for a child.”
The Leslie apartment on Staten Island is scattered with toys and decorated with Guatemalan bark paintings and posters with a communitarian bent. “I believe we’re in this world to help take care of each other,” she says, sipping iced tea on the couch while Jeremy pushes buttons on a noisy electronic toy. “That sounds corny, but we’re one world, one community, and in a certain sense, why bring more children into this world when there are children here who need parents? That’s what this is about, finding a home for every single one of these kids. I’m so sick and tired of everyone running to Romania–let’s start here! We’re having in a sense a holocaust in this country, and a whole generation of kids are being left behind.”
Susan decided she wanted a daughter, preferably under 10, and in February 1993, she began her search, through the Council on Adoptable Children and Family Focus Adoption Services in Little Neck, Queens. There were two disappointing near-matches, and then one AIDS mother who couldn’t make up her mind what to do. In December, hoping for action, Susan called the council and spoke to a former colleague who worked there. “If she’s still fence-sitting, I’m souring on it,” Susan told him. “If you’ve got another person who’s got a child, I don’t want to be put on hold.”
“He said, ‘Would you be willing to go as high as 11?’ I said, ‘Boy or girl?’ because I had a son and really wanted a girl. He said, ‘I’ll call you back in 10 minutes.’ ” A caseworker called back and told her about Evelyn and Christy. The day was Dec. 16. On Dec. 19, Susan’s boyfriend, Steve, accompanied her to Beth Israel Hospital to meet them.
Susan knocked on the door to Evelyn’s room. Heeding a suggestion she herself often made to prospective parents in the same position, she carried a photograph album–because “from the album you can really see the kind of person I am and who I have in my life. . . . She could ask me questions.” Susan had been told by the council that Evelyn was highly motivated, fearful of dying soon and eager to find somebody. Susan, too, was eager, but determined to avoid mistakes she felt she’d made in previous meetings with sick mothers. On those occasions, “I had laid out all the possibilities that I saw with the whole process,” a sweeping vision of her future life with the child that may have scared the women. “With Evelyn I didn’t do that. I was trying to show her, ‘I’m not in here to steal your kid.’ ” Instead, they spoke about their families, their marriages and their children, and what had brought them to this point.
“I looked a mess,” said Evelyn. “I couldn’t hardly see her, my eyes were so swollen,” from conjunctivitis. But she was impressed that Susan, who is now a pediatric social worker at St. Vincent’s Medical Center on Staten Island, was not afraid to venture into the room of an AIDS patient. After some tentative overtures, “you know, we just, there was a bonding right away between me and her.” “We were talking and then she hugged me and kissed me and I hugged her and we cried together,” Evelyn says. “And I asked her what color were her eyes? And she told me they were blue. And I started crying. I said, my daughter has blue eyes, too. And then she said to me, I want to meet your daughter.”
Evelyn’s brother Reggie had gone to pick up Christy, and soon she walked in, dressed up, as Evelyn described, in “a cute little navy blue skirt and a white blouse.” Evelyn said to the woman who might replace her, “This is my daughter, Christy.”
“And Susan said, ‘Oh Christy, you’re beautiful!’ and she hugged her and everything. And they talked for a little while. And Christy said, ‘I have two cats.’ And she said, ‘I have one.’
“Christy said, ‘I have two fish tanks,’ and she said, ‘I have one.’ And then she said, ‘If my mommy dies can I take my cats to live with you?’ And she said, ‘You can take anything you want that belongs to you.’
“And Christy said to her, ‘Could you step out of the room for a minute, please?’ She stepped out of the room and Christy said, ‘Mommy, I think she might be the one.’ And I hugged my daughter and I started crying. I said, ‘I think you’re right.’ And we went back to the lobby and were sitting down and this lady turned around, a visitor, and said to Christy, and to, and to, um, Susan, ‘You guys look alike, are you related?’ ”
It was an auspicious sign for a relationship which very quickly built up a head of steam. Evelyn left the hospital two days later. On Dec. 23, Susan and 3-year-old Jeremy visited Evelyn and Christy at home in Ozone Park. Susan found, to her relief, that with her mother at home, “Christy was like a different kid”–not the “emotional wreck” she had been in the hospital. The two of them talked alone together for a while, after which Christy took her mother aside and said, “She’s really nice.”
This elated Susan. “In neither of my other situations had I gotten to the second meeting,” she told me after that visit. But was it too good to be true? “I felt, this is only the second time we’re seeing each other, how can they know?”
On Christmas Day, Jeremy, excited by the idea that he was getting a new sister, called Christy and had a long chat. Two days later, Susan and Jeremy picked up Evelyn and Christy and drove them to Susan’s apartment on Staten Island. They were greeted by the smell of fresh paint: the walls of Jeremy’s room were now yellow, and sported blue doors and woodwork, thanks to Steve. Christy and Jeremy would share this room, and now it was both their favorite colors.
By then, Susan said, “I knew that I was ready to commit to this.” Evelyn, she said, evidently was, too. “She started saying to me that she really would want to get all this in writing by January–that she would feel at ease or whatever if we got the papers signed right away. I wasn’t believing this was actually happening!”
The glue set a little firmer on New Year’s Eve, when Susan again drove to Queens and took Christy and Jeremy to see the movie “Sister Act 2.” Later, Steve and their friends Beth and James came over, as did Evelyn’s brother Edwin, the adoption caseworker, Catalina, and her husband. Together they toasted the New Year with nonalcoholic champagne. Susan stayed the night, in Christy’s bed; Christy, as was usual, slept with her mother.
By New Year’s Day, thinking back on how the night before, she and Evelyn “holed up in her bedroom and spent a lot of time talking,” Susan could say, “I feel like we’ve become sisters.” And Evelyn, a few days later, placing a framed portrait of Susan and Jeremy in her living room, professed, “Susan and I–we hug each other, it’s like she’s family; it’s like I’ve known her all my life.”
Alongside their mutual enthusiasm, Christy appeared to be, if nothing else, going along with the arrangement. She had been the instigator, so it was not being forced on her. But soon it would become clear that she was in turmoil, and a plan that Susan and Evelyn had come up with for the transition would not help matters: Christy would spend every weekend at Susan’s place and Evelyn and Susan would be “co-parents.”
For the next month, Susan and Evelyn talked on the phone up to a half-dozen times a day, determined to find a way to make the process work. Evelyn even spoke of going to bed with a sense of excitement about talking again with Susan the next day. “I’m a major support person for her now,” Susan said of Evelyn. Having so deep a connection with the birth mother had not occurred to Susan before. But the sudden intimacy, and the glimpses it afforded of the future, created new problems. Soon, for example, Christy came home with a question for Evelyn about whether she would take Susan’s surname after Evelyn died.
“She said to me, ‘Mommy, isn’t Leslie a very pretty last name?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, honey, Leslie is a very pretty last name.’ And she said, ‘Well, is it O.K. with you if I use the last name Leslie?’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s O.K., but why do you want to use the last name Leslie?’ And she said to me: ‘Because I will be the only Mirach. And that would make me, like, not really part of the family.’ And I said, ‘Well, I guess that makes a lot of sense.’ And she said, ‘If I was a Leslie, too, then I’m also really her daughter.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I guess you’re right.’
“And I thought about that all night long. While my daughter slept, I stayed awake, and I thought about it. . . . I guess I could’ve been pretty selfish and said, no, you’re not gonna use the last name Leslie. . . . But I’m not gonna be here anymore. She’s gonna need a mommy. So if the Leslie family’s gonna be there for her like a real family should be, then by all means she should use their name. It’s hard, yes, it’s very hard.”
But then Christy asked an even harder question. “One day she said, ‘Mommy, if you die, can I call Susan Mommy?’ And I said, sure honey, if you feel comfortable calling her Mommy, by all means, please do. And you know, it broke my heart! I would never ever imagine my daughter asking me can she call someone else Mommy! And I was like, oh my God, it was so painful, it was like if I was stabbed, you know what I mean, right in the center of my heart.
“And what can I do? The reaction that I leave my daughter with is the reaction she’s gonna have for the rest of her life. If I would’ve started crying, I think that would’ve stayed with my daughter. And I just looked at her calmly as I could and said, ‘Sure, baby. . . . I’ll be in heaven and I’ll be watching you and this is what we’re looking for, we’re looking for a mommy to take care of you. And we found her. And I think if she’s gonna treat you like a mommy then you should call her Mommy.’ And that was very, very painful for me, yeah it was.”
Evelyn also recounted the time Christy, on her way out the door, said, “I’ll call you when I get home”–meaning Susan’s place. “That made me feel so good–but also it hurt,” Evelyn said. The way to look at it, she added later, was that “it’s like Christy has two homes now.”
“But it’s the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my entire life.”
Susan, meanwhile, was grappling with other issues. Early on, for example, she realized that having got exactly what she wanted, she was now in a position where her life was “on hold.” Co-parenting was a transitional state. When would the next stage begin? Even in the short term, she said, “I have to think about it before I can make vacation plans.” If Evelyn went to the hospital, “on a moment’s notice, I may have to take a day off from work” to care for Christy. Trying to get a better handle on what lay ahead, Susan asked Evelyn some pointed questions about her health.
Perhaps having already taken the issue of surnames as evidence of overzealous planning on Susan’s part, Evelyn reacted poorly. “I got so angry,” she said, taking the question to mean, How long until I can have your daughter? The next time Susan came to visit, “with one hand I wanted to shake her hand, with the other I wanted to strangle her!”
Susan felt guilty sometimes, having Christy on weekends that could be the last ones Christy and Evelyn would share. And then there was integrating Christy into her family, and differing ways of doing things.
A matter that came up right away was diet. After learning of her mother’s diagnosis, Christy had begun to gain weight, a lot of it. Susan felt her diet wasn’t always healthy. The first time they went shopping, she told Christy that she could not buy the gum she’d brought to the cash register. It was a test, and Susan said later it terrified her. But Christy complied.
“Evelyn wants me to parent this child,” Susan told me. “If I’m going to do that, I need to start now. When she comes into this household she needs to understand that there are certain ways of doing things.” Christy went along with it, but Evelyn couldn’t help feeling an implicit criticism of her household practices. “What Susan doesn’t understand,” she told me defensively, “is that I need to keep a lot of food around–mashed potatoes, soda, ice cream–because keeping on weight is my main project.”
Other difficulties arose. But all were solved, subsumed or swept away by the two women’s intense cooperation, and by a mad rush to formalize the relationship in the face of death. Evelyn felt tremendous relief at having found Susan. She admitted to me at one point that she had stopped taking some of her drugs–AZT and the antibiotics meant to control the M.A.I. “I’ve gotten to a point where it doesn’t make a difference anymore. I’m tired; you get tired, you know? And now Christy will be taken care of, so I can rest on that. I’m content, I’m happy, so when God says to me it’s time, that’s all right.”
And one night, as the aquarium gurgled outside her bedroom door, “I had a dream that I was sleeping in this huge big fish tank and there were a lot of big fish in it, and I told her, ‘Susan, do you want to join me?’ And she said sure. She came in with me, and she said, ‘Oh, it’s so soothing, and the water is warm.’ . . . We were on the surface, just lying on our backs talking, with these big ugly fish swimming around and not bothering us. It’s about how natural we fit in, and how beautiful we get along, and how warm we feel toward each other, and how she’s the most important person in my life.”
Saturday, Jan. 22, was a big day, the day the papers were to be signed. And Evelyn had an idea for how she wanted it to be: not a solemn affair in which everyone would feel sorry for her, but a celebration of a new beginning, a new future for Christy. She wanted it to take place not in a lawyer’s office but at home, and not alone but with all her closest friends there. Evelyn’s impulse jibed with Susan’s idea that what they were creating was a new kind of family, an arrangement unique to the time of AIDS. The family was transitional but it was a family just the same.
When they gathered that day, I noticed that the portrait of Jeremy and Susan had been signed on the back, “To our new family Evelyn and Christy, love Susan and Jeremy.” Evelyn, meanwhile, had spent $400 on a necklace Susan now wore. Their four names were joined in a column of gold script. Susan also wore a ring Christy had given her. Next to the food prepared by Evelyn, Susan had placed a cake inscribed: “We Are Family–Somos Una Familia.”
The same people who had been there New Year’s Eve were back this day, and joining them were Evelyn’s mother, Carmen, and Susan’s mother, Joan. Susan’s friend Beth, who had agreed to be Christy’s new godmother, brought two sacks of dresses and blouses for Evelyn, whose old clothes were too big for her. Christy and Evelyn, meanwhile, had been out shopping for Jeremy, and he gleefully unwrapped two little pairs of jeans with matching shirts and a sweater. Pleased as he was, though, he still preferred the Halloween pumpkin outfit that Susan had let him wear.
Jeremy is an imaginative little boy. Like Susan’s, his blond hair is short in front and long in back. In recent weeks he had asked people to call him, at different times, Batman, E. T., Aladdin and, once when I called his house, “the stepmother from Cinderella.” This day he was Natty Gann, after the Disney movie, which he had watched during his weekly night over at his father’s house. Susan’s friend Beth observed that in the movie, a girl named Natty dresses up as a boy to go looking for her father.
Evelyn’s brother Edwin returned from trying to find a battery for Susan’s video camera. Soon after him came Damaris Torrent, the lawyer from the adoption council. She was in a bad mood, partly because Evelyn had not arranged a ride for her as promised (it was now 3 P.M.; “I’ve been waiting since 12!” she said angrily), and partly, as it soon became clear, from her serious discomfort at the social occasion Evelyn had created out of this signing of life-and-death documents.
Evelyn moved everyone into the living room, and sat next to her mother on the couch and held her hand; others pulled up chairs around the coffee table. First up was the petition for standby guardianship, and the lawyer was good about making sure that everyone understood exactly what was being committed to. If Evelyn got sick, went to the hospital and could no longer take care of Christy, Susan would become the standby guardian. Edwin was the alternate. There was discussion of what would happen if Evelyn got better, and what would happen if she didn’t. Edwin, becoming quite emotional, asked what would happen if it turned out that Susan wasn’t doing a good job. Susan stayed calm.
Christy, who had been playing with Jeremy, chose this moment to begin demonstrating the Gak inflator. This was momentarily funny–”Well, I guess it’s better than real farts,” quipped Evelyn–but the laughter ceased when Edwin, tears streaming down his face, suddenly stood and excused himself.
Then it was on to the health-care proxy, and the lawyer again explained the issues–Who was to make medical decisions about Evelyn’s care if she became incapacitated? What should be the limits on that care? Who would inform the doctor that this document existed? Evelyn, trying to keep the mood light, called it “a doctor release form, just what I always wanted!” “It’s in case I go running down the street in only my underwear, they can come and get me!” Susan, again, was the designee.
Edwin said many of his friends had died of AIDS, that he’d seen these forms before, and did this one mention a morphine drip? The lawyer said it did not. He asked if she could write in such a provision; it had allowed a friend to lapse into unconsciousness and pass peacefully. She consented, and Evelyn agreed. But as the discussion moved on to feeding tubes, Christy, without warning, burst into tears and ran sobbing to her room. Evelyn, Susan and Jeremy followed.
Christy regained her composure after about 10 minutes, and as the lawyer moved through the paragraphs of Evelyn’s will, the final document, it was Jeremy in his orange pumpkin suit who subverted her attempts to be lawyerly. Brandishing a huge wand topped with a light-up star, he walked around the room, touching people on the head one by one and granting them each a wish.
“Peace for everyone and no wars,” said Susan’s mother, Joan. “A big kiss from Jeremy!” said Beth, whose wish was immediately denied. Evelyn, finally giving in, said, “I wish we didn’t have to go through all this.” Edwin said, “I wish nobody did.”
With the papers all signed, Damaris Torrent left without a goodbye. Finally the group pictures could be taken, finally the cake could be cut. Evelyn and Susan tried to salvage the party. Susan had brought a boom box and turned on a tape of Sister Sledge singing “We Are Family” (“I’ve got all my sisters with me”). There was some mingling. Edwin quietly asked someone whether there was a chance that Susan was just in this for the money. Susan’s mother, Joan, tried out her rudimentary Spanish with Evelyn, and dispensed some advice about children that Evelyn found insightful. “How did you learn that?” Evelyn asked her.
“If you’ve lived as long as I have you just know,” Joan answered.
“I won’t live that long,” said Evelyn, without affect.
Challenges to the arrangement came immediately. Edwin mistrusted Susan and felt that even a distant relative in Puerto Rico would be better than a stranger–though Christy was vehemently opposed. Evelyn was soon visited by her friend Diane Mills, who in addition to having a husband with AIDS, had a daughter with sickle-cell anemia, another fatal disease. Evelyn figured that Diane must have spent a lot of time thinking about death and how to handle it, and she happily filled her in on the arrangements she and Christy had made.
“And she had a really terrible reaction. She told me, ‘How could you take it so lightly?’ Right in front of my daughter, who was sitting right there, she tells me: ‘You know, your daughter’s going to think that you’re trying to give her away or something.’ And I said: ‘Diane, I think my daughter’s smart enough to know better. If I didn’t have this illness, I would have no other reason to be doing this. I think that my daughter would never think that I’m trying to give her away.’
“I’m preparing for my daughter’s future, is what I’m doing. I want to make sure that my daughter doesn’t get lost in the foster care system and go from one home to another. . . . And I know that Susan is the perfect person.” (Diane later explained her objections: “It was too fast, too quick. It was getting too personal. I told her this is something that has to be done as a gradual thing. Evelyn is a fighter, but she was giving up.”)
Diane, Evelyn felt, maybe couldn’t understand her situation after all. She was facing the death of her daughter, not herself, and the death wasn’t even imminent. “The doctor has given her 12 years to live and she’s seven –”
“Eighteen,” Christy interjected.
“She’ll be 18, so God has really blessed her. So don’t tell me what it’s like to have to prepare to have to give my daughter away.”
“You’re not giving me away,” Christy said.
“Well, no, I’m not giving you away, Christy. I’m just preparing you. . . . ”
“It’s not your option. . . . ”
“No, it’s not an option, no. . . . ”
“It’s a must.”
There also were challenges from inside. The first real fight between Evelyn and Susan started with Jeremy. One Sunday evening at Susan’s, just before Christy was to leave, Jeremy returned from a weekend at his father’s. He was in a bad mood and was used to having his mother to himself. When he saw Christy, he said words to the effect of: “Stay away from my mother! I don’t want you in my house anymore! I don’t even want you to be my sister anymore!” Susan told Jeremy to take it easy and assured Christy that he didn’t mean it.
At home, she told her mom she’d had a good weekend, but Evelyn noticed that something was wrong. “She was like dancing, and she was very happy–but it was like overly happy, and she was trying to hide something. And I was washing some dishes and I heard sobbing and I went into the room and I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ ”
Christy told her what Jeremy had said and Evelyn called Susan. “I was very upset. I was furious, and she had never seen that side of me,” Evelyn said. She told her how deeply Christy had been hurt by Jeremy’s remarks, how “she cried and cried and told me, ‘I wish you hadn’t signed the papers, Mommy.’ ”
Susan said she knew it was awful, but that Jeremy was only 3 and he sometimes got jealous.
“And I said: ‘No, you have to understand, I am a dying woman and I’m leaving you my daughter. And it’s your responsibility to explain to your son, who very well knew what he was saying when he said it, that what he said was very wrong, and there was no excuse for what he did, and you need to correct it, and you need to correct it now.’ ”
At this point, Evelyn hung up on Susan. “Once I’m gone, what is she supposed to do? You know, all of a sudden, I don’t want you here? It’s very scary. It scared the [expletive] out of me, put it that way.”
Susan, by both their accounts, then had a long talk with Jeremy, explaining how scary it was for Christy to be in her situation, and how important it was that he not say such things again. The matter appeared to be over.
It was a side of Evelyn that I had not seen before, either. Chastened by her stay in the hospital and eager to forge ties with Susan, she had not seemed to me to be a woman who would react so strongly to the words of a 3-year-old, or speak so angrily to the boy’s mother. Perhaps now she felt secure enough to test those ties. Perhaps, ever mindful of her mortality, she felt that she must negotiate for her daughter the warmest reception she could, while she was still capable. Or perhaps it was a spasm of maternal protectiveness that would have occurred regardless of the circumstances.
IT WAS SATURDAY, FEB. 19, and Susan looked tired. For the past six days, Jeremy had a sinus infection, bronchitis and a fever of up to 103 degrees. In addition, Steve and his children Matt, 9, and Katie, 7, were over, along with Christy. Jeremy was still sick and unhappy. The toilet was stopped up. Beyond all this, Evelyn had been feeling poorly and was thinking of having Hilda take her to the hospital. She had confided this to Susan, but had not told Christy; Evelyn feared that Christy would not go to Susan’s if she knew where her mother was headed. The idea of the hospital always made Christy semihysterical, and she would do anything to keep Evelyn from going–from describing all the things they could do over the next several days to implying that her mother wasn’t as ill as she felt.
Recently, Christy had been very hard on Evelyn. She would pick up the phone and monitor her conversations, interrupting or creating some disturbance if she didn’t like the sound of it or felt it was going on too long. (Once, when she felt Evelyn was telling me too much, she threw a lump of Gak into the soup Hilda was making.) She would tell her mother that she looked bad if Evelyn dressed up to go out. (“That dress is so short!” she said of one knee-length outfit.) She questioned whether Evelyn was taking too much Tylenol 4, which contained codeine to provide relief from severe aches and pains–and once threw a bottle of it at her. She protested when her mother wanted to leave the apartment to talk to one of her friends, “to have some adult conversation,” as Evelyn put it. “Is that asking too much?”
Evelyn attributed this to Christy’s desire to wield some control over a life that seemed precarious and a future that seemed scary. Evelyn’s priest said people often got angry at the dying–when really they were angry at the virus–because they were going to be left alone. Susan said Christy’s behavior was especially marked because “Evelyn has a sense of closure now,” and Christy, who did not want her mother to think it was O.K. to die, was terrified at the prospect. Susan in turn was becoming a bit alarmed because she could see Christy someday acting that way toward her.
“I’m taking a real hard line with Christy now,” Susan told me in her living room that Saturday afternoon as Christy and the kids played in the bedroom. “I’m not going to have her mistreating me the way she mistreats her mom.” Over the past few days, she said, “I realized the three of us are going to be sharing these rooms.”
As we spoke, the phone rang. It was Evelyn, from the emergency room of Beth Israel. She was being treated for severe anemia and dizziness. “They want to do a spinal tap?” said Susan. “They want to do it tomorrow? You’re not going to let them? You brought the medical proxy?” After a while Susan called Christy to the phone. The apartment fell silent.
“Oh no, Mom! Oh no, Mom! Oh no, Mom! . . .
“I told you I didn’t want to come here, I told you I wanted to stay with you!” Tears were running down Christy’s cheeks. “You better be out in two days. O.K., O.K. Yeah. Call me, call me and give me your number. No, it’s O.K. No, ’cause then you might get sicker.” Christy now was sobbing. “O.K., bye, I love you. Yes, I do.” She kissed into the receiver and hung up. Then she fled the room.
“I don’t want her to be in the hospital!” said Jeremy, concerned. “Why is Christy upset?”
The afternoon didn’t get any better. Jeremy refused to take his medicine, and Steve had to force him. It wasn’t pretty. I left to get a slice of pizza.
THE PHONE CALL
While I was gone, something surprising happened. Susan called Evelyn back at the hospital and told her that she was upset because all day, Christy had been ignoring Jeremy. As Evelyn told it later, “She suggested that I have a talk with my daughter right away. And I said: ‘Well I’m in the hospital, um, Susan. When I come out I’ll be sure to have a talk with her and explain to her that this is gonna be her little brother and she should play with him and stuff like that.’ ”
As it turned out, Evelyn did not stay at the hospital–she refused to be admitted–and that night Susan called her at home to talk again about Christy’s behavior. Evelyn afterward said she started to wonder whether it was really so strange that Christy hadn’t wanted to play with Jeremy. “There were times when I was growing up when my brothers didn’t want to play with me; they were busy playing with their own friends–you know what I mean? Children will play with other children their own age.” Christy and Katie, Steve’s daughter, had hit it off famously, and had spent most of their time playing with each other.
Christy later told me that Susan had scolded her, too. “She tells me, ‘You know, you’re his big sister, you have to play with him; you usually play with him, now you’re not playing with him.’ ” The reason, Christy responded, was that Jeremy was throwing around the Perler beads they were trying to form into patterns, and rolling his basketball onto them. “Jeremy was being a brat!” Christy said. “I mean, he was screaming, he was hitting people on the head with the basketball, he was throwing the beads, he was calling us, ‘booger juice,’ names like that.”
Susan called again the next night, Sunday, to see if Evelyn had spoken yet to Christy. “And I said I did have a talk with Christy and I think you’re making it a lot more than what it is. You know sometimes we love our children so much, especially when they’re at that age that they’re so cute and so adorable, and we want so much attention for them.”
This answer didn’t satisfy Susan, who called Monday night to press her point again. By that time, she had explained to me, “Jeremy had a terrible weekend. . . . He was very hurt and very angry because Christy, and Matt and Katie, too, totally ignored him. And when she did have contact with him it was just, ‘Leave me alone, you’re bothering me.’ He was angry and upset and he was bothering her because he was being ignored; and it was the only way for him to get attention, which is what kids do.
“I said: ‘Why don’t you sit with him for 10 minutes and read him a book, there’s nothing that would make him happier. And then he wouldn’t be such a pain.’ And, nothing. She gave him no time, no attention, no nothing. . . . ”
“So I told Evelyn that. Of course an 11-year-old doesn’t want to play with a 3-year-old all the time. That makes perfect sense. But there’s a difference between all the time and none at all. I talked to her about it. And I was hoping–and it’s certainly not her problem–but I was hoping that she would respond in kind and take my concerns seriously.”
This last sentence seemed to provide the key to what Susan was upset about. She had taken Evelyn’s concerns seriously when Jeremy had blurted that he didn’t want Christy there–perhaps too seriously. At the time, she said, “I realized that . . . chalking it up to him being 3 years old was not going to cut it with them, and–I think it was a very normal 3-year-old reaction to circumstances. But I knew that that wouldn’t satisfy them, and I took their concerns very seriously and I didn’t brush them off.” The fact that the papers had not yet been signed perhaps made her oversolicitous, she later admitted.
The issue, in other words, was not reasonableness so much as parity. Susan had begun to realize that there would be costs to her in this adoption, that it would require real sacrifice. “I’m asking my 3-year-old to accept a lot of changes in his family, and a lot of things that are very difficult for a 3-year-old to have to deal with. I’m asking him to cope with them. I said: ‘My son lay on the bed screaming your name when I told him that you were admitted to the hospital. How many 3-year-olds have to deal with getting a sibling because of the death of a parent?’ What I didn’t like was that there was no acknowledgment that my son is having a difficult time.”
Instead, as she saw it, “There was no give. . . . I feel like I bent over backwards and I tried so hard, you know, to do the right thing in the situation and accommodate their needs. And like I said, nobody asked me to do this, this is all voluntary on my part, but at least, you know, give me some consideration here.”
On that Monday night, however, Susan, now very angry, got even less satisfaction than before. Evelyn was still insisting that Susan was overreacting to Christy’s behavior.
According to Evelyn, Susan kept saying, “Did you talk to her, did you talk to her?” “It was like she wanted me to beat the [expletive] out of her or something! And she hung up the phone in my face!” Evelyn seemed astonished, though I recalled that in the earlier dispute with Susan, Evelyn had done exactly the same thing. Evelyn said, “I called Susan back and said”–into Susan’s machine–” ‘Listen, you’re really hurting my feelings.’ And I said: ‘I don’t think this is very nice, you can’t compare the two, you can’t compare a little boy saying such nasty things to a little girl whose mother is dying as to a little girl not wanting to play with him. There’s no comparison, Susan!’ I said: ‘You’re hurting my feelings, you know. Why won’t you pick up the phone?’ And she wouldn’t.”
Each woman, as I talked to her, asked me who I thought was right. Evelyn especially. I was flabbergasted at the speed with which things were disintegrating, and felt it would be harmful to take sides. Instead, I tried to rephrase what I thought each of them was really saying behind the angry words. Susan, it seemed to me, was saying, “This has got to be an equal relationship, in which you and I equally consider and respect the needs of each other and our children.” That was the therapeutic model of a healthy relationship. The problem, however, was that the special claims of a terminally ill person made the relationship inherently unequal.
Evelyn, as an example, had frequently mentioned to Susan that Christy was going to need special attention when her mother died. That Christy, in other words, might have to come first for a while. Susan responded, “Christy’s going to get a lot from me, but if you’re asking me to put her needs above Jeremy’s, or before Jeremy’s, that’s not going to happen. I said I will meet both of their needs to the best of my ability, but I’m not putting her needs ahead of Jeremy’s. I was making it clear that I wasn’t putting Christy behind Jeremy, either.”
Unfortunately, Susan’s aggressiveness in asserting Jeremy’s “needs” soon degraded the dialogue to a level where, instead of using names, everything was “my son” and “my daughter.” By Tuesday, after Susan’s third call, Evelyn was believing the worst: “It’s going to come to a point where, I mean, Christy’s going to be yelled at constantly, and be put down because of her precious little son. . . . I don’t want Christy living in an environment where she’s going to be kissing somebody’s [expletive] just to make sure she doesn’t get thrown out. . . . Christy would be miserable. . . . My little girl is looking for a permanent home. She’s scared, she’s scared. . . . I’m so confused.”
Susan, soon after this, calmed down and called Evelyn back. On Tuesday night, she left an encouraging message on my machine: “I just wanted to let you know that miracles do happen and the situation actually may be salvaged. I spoke to Catalina today and then I got up my nerve to call Evelyn, and it looks like there may be detente on the horizon.”
Though ending the arrangement hadn’t been discussed, Susan, reading Evelyn’s mind, said, “I don’t think this means scrapping everything.” Evelyn said she would have to think about it. In fact, she had already decided. Unbeknownst to Susan, Catalina Echevarria, the caseworker–who had known Evelyn for a year and considered her a personal friend–had already taken Evelyn’s side and had discouraged a reconciliation. “There’s no excuse to be bothering Evelyn right now,” she told me, and later added, “This woman was killing her.” Evelyn agreed. Timely intervention by an impartial social worker, it seemed to me, might have salvaged the situation, but there was no such person in sight.
It was all over.
GIVING EVELYN A REASON TO LIVE
There were no legal issues. The papers were signed, but never filed. Agencies that work in permanency planning say arrangements are often difficult to make, and commonly don’t work out. They have learned not to submit petitions for adoption or standby guardianship to the courts until the last minute, because of the great likelihood of a change in plans.
A few days later, I asked Susan to help me make sense of what had happened. “Quite frankly, yeah, I did blow it up out of proportion, I did make too big a deal out of it. No, I was not lying. Christy had nothing for Jeremy at all this weekend, not even five minutes. And you know what? Everybody that I talked to said, yeah, that’s normal for kids. And so I overreacted because I’m overprotective and I don’t want my kid to be left out. But to disrupt a placement because I got upset because the kids didn’t play together? I mean, that’s somebody who’s looking for a reason to disrupt a placement.”
Experience with adoption had led Susan to think that at some point, Christy would reject her–most kids did that sooner or later, to test the love of the new parent. So Susan had been expecting something, and in fact had “had this gut feeling all weekend that Christy is going to find something.”
As Susan saw it, Christy’s need to reject her was threefold: First, she herself had been rejected twice already by prospective parents, and her self-esteem would be bolstered if this time she did the rejecting. Second, Christy felt guilty and disloyal–especially after Evelyn’s call from the hospital–about abandoning her real mother for an adoptive one. And third, and most insightful to me, Christy would reject Susan because it would give her mother a reason to live. As Evelyn had already expressed and Christy could easily see, with her daughter’s future prepared for, Evelyn could stop taking her drugs and die in peace. Christy had reasons to sabotage the arrangement.
But it had been Susan who launched the pre-emptive strike–perhaps to avoid rejection herself, perhaps to see just how strong Evelyn and Christy’s commitment to her was. If the issue had not come up, Susan explained, “I would just be waiting for this to come around the next corner. And I don’t want to live my life on tiptoes.”
“I told Christy I didn’t think there was any home that was going to satisfy her. I said: ‘If you find a woman who’s a veterinarian and owns a craft store, there’s going to be something wrong with her. Somebody who is your ideal is not going to do it.’ She can’t let anybody be the person, because then she’s accepting it”–that is, her mother’s death.
Oddly, as the rift receded in time, Susan got less and less upset, and Evelyn more and more so. Dealing with other families’ crises at work demanded all of Susan’s attention, while Evelyn was obsessed for weeks by the memory of Susan’s harsh words.
Christy, on the other hand–everyone noticed it–had never looked happier. She positively glowed.
IN THE WEEKS THAT FOLLOWED THE COLLAPSE of their arrangements, Evelyn and Christy tried to recoup. Evelyn was hospitalized again for anemia, but after her release they cooked their annual dinner celebrating another successful year in the battle against AIDS–the fourth time they had done so. The menu was pork chops, rice and beans and diced potatoes seasoned with Sazon Goya. They baked a pound cake with vanilla frosting. “Congratulations,” it was supposed to say, in red icing, but Christy’s advance “testing” of the icing meant they had to be satisfied with “Congrats.”
“Thank you, Lord Jesus, for allowing me to spend these four years fighting AIDS with my daughter,” Evelyn prayed before they ate. “Let us have four more years together as happy as the four we’ve just had.”
They toasted each other with juice, and Christy commented of the pork chop, “Somebody didn’t put enough sauce on this.”
“Somebody didn’t turn it off when I was in the shower!” Evelyn snapped back.
Mr. Gallagher put his front paws on Christy’s thigh and was soon partaking of the feast as well.
A week later, the two of them joined Evelyn’s friend Grayce Cumberland for an Act Up march from Brooklyn to Manhattan’s City Hall. The march of about 1,000 demonstrators, protesting cuts that the Giuliani administration seems poised to make in AIDS services, was stopped by scores of helmeted policemen on the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge. Evelyn was willing to be arrested, but Grayce and Christy were less enthusiastic; they retreated and then joined the mass of demonstrators, who surged and successfully crossed police lines on the pedestrian walkway over the bridge. “Gay, straight, black, white–same struggle, same fight,” they chanted. And, “They say, cut back. We say, fight back!” Evelyn, carrying her own sign protesting budget cuts that would affect AIDS orphans, seemed angry and happy at the same time. In front of City Hall, with television cameras rolling, she sacrificed her clean white jeans by lying down so that Grayce could trace her outline on the pavement with chalk.
Evelyn had to decide that adoption was not for her. Rather, she would look for a legal guardian for Christy. The legal procedures were simpler, and she preferred the symbolism of a guardian–not a replacement for herself, just a good caretaker. And if Evelyn was successful in her paternity suit against Butch Potenza, Christy could still qualify for support. Evelyn knew it would be hard to find a guardian, but was seriously thinking of asking Grayce.
“I really did try–it wasn’t like I didn’t try,” Evelyn told me as we discussed the collapse of the arrangement with Susan. “In my situation, honestly, would you put your child in that situation? Catalina’s gonna keep looking. She’s gonna look for maybe an elderly couple with no children –”
“Elderly?” said Christy.
“Honey, not elderly, but like maybe in their 50’s.”
“All right, in their 40’s.”
“Or in their 30’s.”
“Or in their 30’s.”
“Someone who has no children, who’s probably been married.”
“The latest is 40. I don’t want no old person like 50!”
“Christy, some people sound old but could be very young at heart. We’re gonna look, we’re gonna find that person. We’re gonna find that person. Someone that’ll be there. . . . ”