I decided to throw myself a shower. My baby boy was coming home and it was only right that I should celebrate. My two daughters and I made a chocolate sheet cake with banana cream filling. Shannon, who was six years old, decorated it with multicolored sprinkles while her sister, Katie, who was three years older, had the important job of writing it’s a boy! in large almost-cursive icing across the center.
They were both very excited about meeting their brother, but Katie, being older and wiser, had a suspicion it might mean complications in the life she enjoyed. While we didn’t have much in the way of material things, we were happy as a family. I was divorced, but it was amicable; the girls’ father was still around for them and they were pretty well-adjusted kids. Katie didn’t feel we should press our luck any further than we already had but, having no choice in the matter, she had decided to be a good sport.
For the party, we decided to make a tape of 1980s songs. We danced around to “Billie Jean,” “When Doves Cry,” and “Emotional Rescue.” I prepared a cigar box full of blue bubblegum cigars to hand out when the guests arrived and tied blue and white helium balloons to the railing of my front steps. I made nametags for the guests; each had a place to write the person’s name and their relation to Dillon. My tag read nancy—dillon’s other mother . There was another tag for Kathy—Dillon’s other mother, too.
Dillon was born in 1980, almost exactly eighteen years before the shower. I placed him with an adoption agency, which, in turn, placed him in Kathy’s care. Kathy would be bringing Dillon to the party, along with his adoptive father, Tom, and his adopted sister, Gen. There they would meet Dillon’s sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins for the first time.
My house smelled like a mix of sugar and Lysol. My daughters and I had cleaned for three days straight to prepare for the party, but it hadn’t made my home sparkle like I’d hoped. The furniture was old, having been handed down from others, and nothing matched. I hadn’t yet learned about decorating, and even if I had, I didn’t have any money for it. My walls, with very few exceptions, were bare. I imagined that, compared to the home in which he had grown up, my home would seem shabby.
I imagined that, compared to the life he had lived, my life would seem small.
When we met, Dillon had told me that he lived in one of the finest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. It wasn’t far from where I lived—as is the case in many cities, the well-to-do are not very far from those who are living paycheck to paycheck. When I heard what college he was set to attend, and about his summers in Portugal, I knew he had lived well. It didn’t occur to me to feel self-conscious about my own living conditions because, when we met, we were too distracted by the wonder and awe of it all.
It wasn’t until I started to plan the party that I began to notice the chasm between our worlds. I hadn’t had time to do all the things I thought I would do when I placed him for adoption. I hadn’t graduated from high school. I did get a G.E.D., but I had planned to go to college and I hadn’t gotten around to that yet. My car was a ten-year-old Chevy that I had bought used, and which regularly required expensive maintenance that depleted the funds I might have turned into a savings. I always thought I might have a decent career by the time Dillon came home, but life demanded other things of me, and so I was working as a receptionist at a law firm when I got the call from him.
There wasn’t much I could do in a week, or in a lifetime, to redeem my situation or measure up to the standards I imagined he was used to, but I was determined to put my best foot forward for this most unusual family reunion.
I had met Dillon only a week before, after the agency called me. “We have a young man here,” the social worker said, “who is hoping to meet you before he goes off to college.”
I felt my heart squeeze closed for a moment. I had to remind myself to breathe. I had been waiting for this call for eighteen years—ever since the day, just weeks after my seventeenth birthday, I left the Washington Hospital Center without my child. A flood of insecurities washed over me. What was he hoping to find? Would I meet his expectations? Had I done enough with my life to make him realize that I did the right thing?
I don’t remember making the appointment to meet Dillon at the agency the next evening, but somehow, that arrangement was made. I bought and tried on several dresses before deciding on a simple but elegant sundress. I was in such a flutter of nerves when I got ready to go that I forgot to take the tags off the dress.
I arrived at the agency a few minutes after Dillon did. There were already tears in my eyes as I anticipated seeing the man that had grown from the child I planted in someone else’s arms. The social worker gently cut the tags away from my dress for me and told me I looked fine. She escorted me into the room where my boy was waiting.
He stood when I came in. He was as tall as I was—five feet nine or so. His hair was thick and black. His eyes were as blue as mine. He was holding two dozen salmon-colored roses.
“Oh my god,” he said. “You’re beautiful.”
“Oh my god,” I answered, “you are, too.”
I approached him and noticed that our eyes were on the same level. “You’re a bit taller than you were when I last saw you,” I said, and we both laughed. We grabbed each other’s hands and sat on the sofa to talk.
When Dillon was eight years old, his mother took him to the adoption agency to leave a package for me. In 1980, most adoptions were closed and the birth mother was not allowed any direct contact with the adoptive family. All communication had to be conducted through the agency, and only if the parties came in, of their own volition, to ask or see if anything had been left.
I had sent Dillon one birthday card on his first birthday. This act of reaching out to him, even if it was through the agency, left me waiting for a response. Of course, a one-year-old boy wouldn’t have asked to seek out his mother, so no response came. It opened the wound in my heart that time was supposed to have healed. I didn’t send anything else after that, and I didn’t go to the agency, either. I was trying to let it go. Dillon’s package, left for me when he was eight, sat in the agency office for two years before I finally went there to check in.
In the package I found a picture of a little boy wearing no shirt, with freshly washed hair that stood straight up on his head. He was pointing to a birdhouse that I assumed he made.
I looked at that picture every day for the next eight years. Each time I looked, I noticed a new detail: the sparkle in his playful eyes; his bony shoulders; the way he wore his shorts low on his waist. I also noticed other things—namely, the Washington Post newspaper on the chair. That was when I realized he lived somewhere near me. I looked for that face everywhere. As the years passed, and he was surely growing bigger and taller, I still looked for that little boy in every boy I passed.
I told Dillon that as we sat together. “It was frustrating for me to have the photograph,” I said, “because I couldn’t smell you.”
I explained how I was overcome with the primal urge to smell the shampoo his hair had been washed with, to smell his skin, his breath.
“It’s unnatural for a mother not to know what her child smells like,” I said.
He stood up from the sofa and spread his arms out wide as if to say, “Here I am,” and after only a moment’s hesitation, I was on my feet, smelling my son. It might have looked strange, but it wasn’t awkward for either of us. It felt right.
We decided to go to dinner at a Chinese restaurant nearby. We sat at a tiny table against the wood-paneled wall by the exit and asked each other questions. Where do you live? What do you do for fun? Who are your friends? What’s your favorite movie/song/game? We learned that we had the same sense of humor, the same taste in films. I was having a magical evening, better than all of my past imaginings about what this moment might be like.
As we finished our meal, the thought occurred to me that the check would soon be here and I wanted to be sure he didn’t get it. I secretly reached into my purse for my credit card so that I would be ready, but I couldn’t feel the card anywhere. My fingers fumbled around in the purse, hidden under the table on my lap, while I tried to carry on the conversation. I could feel the heat rising in my face as the thought occurred to me that I might have forgotten to bring my card. I knew I didn’t have any cash, or any means to get some. I knew there was no one for me to call for rescue.
When this boy was born, I didn’t have anything to offer him. I learned to accept that in time, but now that he was here, after so many years of waiting, I wanted to at least offer him dinner. I excused myself, saying I needed to use the ladies’ room, and then I dumped the contents of my purse onto the floor. I was frantic and cursing under my breath as the tears started to spring from my eyes. Just as I was reaching a near-hysterical state, another woman came into the restroom and saw me there.
“Can I help you find something?”
If it’s possible to spew out a lifetime of feeling inadequate in one or two sniveling sentences, that must have been how I answered her.
“Oh shit,” she said, with a good humor I didn’t feel, “maybe you’re too upset to see it. Let me look.”
I let her rummage through my purse and in under a minute she opened the zippered pocket in my purse and pulled out my credit card. I thanked her profusely, and she laughed and said she had known it was probably in there somewhere. I collected myself and returned to my son, who was oblivious to the drama that had just taken place.
We paid the check and got in our cars—his a Mercedes that belonged to his parents, and mine that beat-up Chevy that leaked when it rained. We had already left the parking lot when I realized what we’d forgotten. I put my pedal down until I was speeding up beside him, gesturing wildly for him to roll the window down.
“We need a picture!” I shouted.
We raced to the nearest 7-Eleven, bought a disposable camera at the counter, and had the wrinkled old man at the register take a picture as we posed in front of the cigarettes. We walked out into the parking lot, where a group of young men with long hair, tattoos, and goatees were hanging out and smoking pot.
“Hey,” Dillon yelled, “this is my mother! I just met her.”
The guys gave us shrugging nods of approval.
“Will you take our picture?” I asked.
We stood there for a while with the whole gang, posing and laughing and telling stories. They shook our hands and hugged us as we went on our way. Before I said good night to Dillon, I suggested throwing a party to bring the families together. Dillon loved the idea and we set a date for a week from that night, at my house.
That’s when my feelings of insecurity really kicked in. I asked my girls to help me plan the party, and together we got the house in as good a shape as we could. I went to a furniture store to purchase a sofa better than the used, metal-framed futon that had been good enough for me. I found one I thought would elevate the stature of my living room and bought it with the very last of my available credit.
It was delivered the next day. As I had never purchased new furniture before, I didn’t know it should be measured and checked to ensure it would fit through the door and in the room where it would be placed. Three men tried to help me get that behemoth through the door, but it was never going to happen. Even though the sofa was new and beautiful, it was placed in the worst place possible, on the porch—confirming, to my self-denigrating mind, that I was not good enough—and I sat on it and had a good cry before instructing the men to take it away.
Before the party I cleaned and rearranged in what can only be described as a frantic manner. It felt as if the moment of my judgment was here. The boy who I loved but could not care for back then was now a man, coming to see who I was.
I didn’t even know who I was. I knew I was proud to be the mother of my daughters, but outside of that, I still had no clue. I felt ashamed as I looked around, seeing the evidence of my poverty. I felt afraid of the judgment of his other mother, who had it all together so many years ago and, I was certain, was only more together now.
For the sake of my daughters, I kept my fears and insecurities under wraps and played up the excitement of the festivities, the thrill of meeting their brother for the first time. We made the cake. We put out the balloons. We waited for them to arrive.
When they came, one by one and two by two, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, they brought with them so much warmth, excitement, and appreciation that my fears lost some of their power over me. I watched Dillon glow in the light of my daughters’ admiration. I saw him thrill at my brothers’ jokes and laugh out loud at my sister’s storytelling. I watched Katie’s relief turn into love and Shannon’s enthusiasm turn into joy. I saw how much Dillon’s parents adored him, how happy they were as a family, and how much they appreciated the gift I had given them so many years ago.
I realized there are many ways to measure worth. The one that really mattered was how much love we had to give, and how willingly we could give it to one another. In that moment it occurred to me how rich I was, and I have reminded myself of that wealth every time I watch my three grown children get together—like siblings do.