A collection of unopened letters is my Mount Everest. Stacked beneath layers of rarely worn sweaters in my bottom dresser drawer for nearly four years are the proof of the reality I’ve been avoiding. They do not contain memories, but snapshots of a present I am not part of. They are my secret, my denial, my past that will always be a part of my future. Today I will open them. I’ve been dreading and yearning for this moment for months, finally gathering up the courage to come to terms with the choice I now live with. I finally feel as if I have moved on enough to reconnect with the writer of the letters.
Her name is Joanne. I chose her out of a thick stack of case studies. There were so many couples desperate to start a family that I had to the take the files home to study them without the watchful eye of my counselor constantly on me. I read about so many different couples, all sharing the heartache of infertility. I admired the time and hope that must have gone into preparing the folders depicting their lives and reasons for wanting a baby. I imagined what it would be like to want something so bad that you’d risk putting your entire personal life on display in order to entice prospective donors. It was a foreign concept to me. At 19 I wanted nothing more than to keep my personal life to myself.
Joanne’s folder grabbed me from the start. The cover was a picture taken on her wedding day. She was sitting in a tree, her husband standing below posed as if serenading her. I liked the picture and liked what she’d written. It was as easy as that. The social worker called her the next week. What had it been like for Joanne and her husband to suffer years of miscarriages and failed attempts to create the family they both wanted? What was the final straw that forced them to consider adoption as their only option? What did Joanne think when she received that first phone call, from an agency in a city she’d never been to, telling her a pregnant teenager had chosen Joanne’s folder and wanted her to adopt the child. Was she full of apprehension or relief? Did she cry with her husband that night? Did she begin making plans for the baby? Did she want to pinch herself to ensure it wasn’t a dream? Did she begin praying to God that she would not be heartbroken again? Even then, I knew I’d never fully comprehend what it must have been like for Joanne.
Within two weeks of the phone call, she and her husband undertook the long drive and met me and my parents. We were all very considerate of each other, careful to say the right things and not reveal anything that might jeopardize the situation. I had fully made up my mind by that point. The baby had never felt like mine. Joanne and her husband were good people. They were farmers, like my parents. They could give the baby a childhood like mine. By the time the baby was born, a month after my first meeting with Joanne, I was grateful that the entire ordeal was almost over. I could not wait to move on with my life. The secret I’d kept for nine months had distanced me from my friends and prevented me from going to college, effectively postponing my entire life. I honestly believed that when Joanne left the hospital with the baby in her arms, I would be free of the situation. I had arranged an open adoption, thinking that getting yearly updates and photos would be interesting. Something to look at quickly in the context of my new and happy life, but would have no lasting impact.
In the haze of postpartum emotions, I suddenly saw myself as an essential catalyst to Joanne’s happiness. Seeing the love shining from her eyes as she held the brand-new baby girl, I felt that love should be directed at me as well. I reveled in the flowers she and her husband gave me and their stumbled words of thanks that they ensured could never fully explain how much I had done for them. I looked at Joanne as she nervously told me that they planned on naming the baby Cammi. I smiled and agreed that would be perfect, already having agreed that Joanne should be the one to name the baby. I was the sun shining on their new universe. I gave them a family. All the mistakes I’d made and the heartache I’d been through were suddenly distant memories. The world was at peace, and I was an integral part of it all.
The first letter from Joanne came six weeks later and I opened it with gusto. My parents eagerly looked at the enclosed photos and read the letter, their own curiosity and pride evident in their slightly blurred eyes. “What a beautiful baby,” said my father, gazing at the photos of the already unrecognizable six-week-old baby in the photos. “They seem to be adjusting well,” my mother added tentatively. She was careful to see how her words affected me. She had been waiting for some kind of emotional crisis to unfold with me, as the hurricane of my moods had not made an appearance since I told them I was pregnant. My mother was waiting for the inevitable return of foul weather. She’d noticed that I had not cried since the birth. I had mourned my changed body and cringed over the pain of labour and delivery, but no tears had been shed. My mother watched as I signed over the legal documents that left the baby in Joanne’s custody. The ten-day period I had to reconsider the adoption with no questions asked passed without a hitch. When the first letter arrived, my mother wondered if it would be the trigger that unleashed the emotions she knew had to be locked inside me somewhere. Nineteen years of being my mother had given her the ability to predict quite accurately when I was not revealing the entire truth. The first letter did not evoke emotions of any kind. “She looks a lot different,” I said casually, glancing at the photos quickly after my parents had got their fill of them. I saw my mother give me a heavy gaze, searching for hidden meaning.
Two months later, on my twentieth birthday, I received a phone call. A quick check of the Caller ID showed Joanne’s number. Immediately I envisioned Joanne, her light-brown hair disheveled from managing a baby and a house, dialing my number while her daughter slept in a nearby crib. A smile appeared on my face as I picked up the phone, thinking how considerate it was for her to call and wish me a happy birthday.
“Hello? Is Danielle there?” Joanne’s quiet voice asked.
“Yes, this is she,” I replied brightly, again warmed by my feelings of entitlement that resurfaced when hearing Joanne’s voice.
“Oh, Danielle, I was just wondering if you know if you ever had bladder infections as a child. Poor Cammi has gotten another one and I really need to know if there’s a family history,” Joanne said quickly.
My smile disappeared and an icy feeling began spreading throughout my entire body. This call was not about me. It had never about me. I may have been crucial in bringing Joanne to Cammi, in making Joanne a mother, but I was no longer part of that relationship. I existed, not to be thanked and praised, but to be sought out for pertinent information that might benefit Cammi. Joanne had not called to wish me a happy birthday. It suddenly dawned on me that Joanne most likely did not even know it was my birthday. Her daughter was sick and she had called hoping I had information that would be useful at the doctor’s office.
Nine months of carefully denied emotions hit me with the strength of a gale force wind, like my mother had been anticipating for months. My mouth hardened into a firm line as I spoke, “I have no idea. You’d have to ask my mother.”
“Oh, okay,” answered Joanne, disappointment readily evident in her voice. “Do you think you could have your mother call me when she’s in?”
“Sure,” I lied, a teenage temper fighting to remain in control. “I have to go.”
With all the strength in my body I forced myself not to slam the phone into the cradle. The illusion of martyrdom was gone. The cloud of hormones that had hidden the truth and allowed me to believe a certain entitlement dissipated as I realized the gravity of the situation. Nine months of hiding from the shame of my darkest secret could not simply be swept under the bed along with the journal I’d kept to document my pregnancy. The mistakes I’d made, the cross I bore, could not simply be forgotten with the stroke of a lawyer’s pen. This wouldn’t end. I could never move on. Like the angry red stretch marks that were scrawled across my belly, giving up the baby for adoption would continually haunt me and prevent me from being who I was before.
But the storm my mother feared did not happen.
The second letter came. My father handed it to me, curiosity written all over his face. I was surprised he was able to fight his temptation to rip the envelope open with his truck keys the moment he picked it up at the post office. Not wanting to cause a fight, my father said nothing as I took the letter without a word and retreated to my bedroom. Likely he and my mother thought I wanted to look at the photos and read the news in private.
I didn’t open the letter.
I did not want to see the pictures or read the stories. I did not want to be reminded of the picture-perfect life that I had no part of. The letter was the first of many to find a new home beneath my sweaters in my bottom dresser drawer. The letters stayed there as I left for college. New letters were added when I visited home. My parents eyed me, but did not say anything, as I took the carefully lettered envelopes and disappeared without sharing their contents.
I focused on college; becoming the twenty-year-old I imagined I’d have been if I’d never gotten pregnant. I traveled, I flirted, and I was seen as a normal student. I never spoke of Cammi.
However, my dreams were haunted by images of what might have been. The silence of night did nothing to drown out my doubts and regrets. I’d dream about keeping her and wake up feeling the gut-wrenching pain of loss over and over again. It wasn’t until I finished college, bought a condo, and began a serious relationship that I finally allowed the emotions to surface. With his careful words and unconditional support, I found myself able to tell the entire story, including the regrets and the what-ifs to my boyfriend. His acceptance and understanding allowed me to come to terms with my past. For the first time since losing Cammi, I began to pray instead of blaming God for my regrets.
I open the bottom drawer and slide aside the sweaters. The stack of letters has remained unchanged since I added the last one a year ago. I have the latest update in my hand; my father had left it on the top of my dresser in preparation for my long-weekend visit. I take a deep breath and open the first unopened letter. Dear Danielle, Cammi is a wonderful baby. I cannot thank you enough for choosing us. I wish I could put everything I feel into words. She’s started taking solid foods. She giggles all the time. She’s so happy. Our home is alive with her. I thank God for leading you to us. I can’t imagine how hard it has been on you. I pray you continue to find the strength to remember this gift you gave us without regret or pain. - Joanne
My eyes are blurred as I thumb through the photos depicting a six-month-old baby so obviously loved by everyone around her. Despite the sadness and loss I know will always be part of me, I suddenly am at peace. I spend the next hour opening the letters, watching the baby I never knew grow up into a little girl before my eyes. She’s four now. I read about the activities she’s involved in, her love of animals, and the joy she seems to bring to everyone in her life. I gather up the letters carefully and return upstairs to where my parents are sitting in the living room. I present the stack of letters to my mother. “I thought you might want to look at these,” my voice trembles as I sit down on the couch beside her. My mother wraps her arms around me and says “We’re so proud of everything you’ve done.” I start crying, the tears beginning to wash away the years of pain. I know I did the right thing by choosing adoption. Mentally I begin writing a letter to explain everything to Joanne.