It Flew

It Flew

By Marilyn A. Gelman

WO It Flew ART

We still wonder at the magic that matched Mark and Lisa with Rebecca. And I, in a closer relationship with my granddaughter than I ever thought possible, am very grateful that she flew home to me.

So many years ago that it seems like another lifetime, my older son, Mark, asked his father about the birds and the bees.

They were sitting on my then-husband’s side of our rumpled bed. Daddy was bent over tying a shoe when Mark asked how the part from the man got to the part from the woman so that a baby came.

Daddy paused and looked at me over his shoulder. I shook my head. Luck had sent the question to him, not to me. I was not getting involved.

Daddy ducked.

“It flew,” he said.

Divorce happened; children grew into adults. Mark and I often joked about his sex education at home. At least Daddy had told him something; as far as we knew, his brother married without even the benefit of “It flew” to guide him in wedded bliss.

Mark went to college and graduate school. He married his college sweetheart, Lisa, and they began to build a life together. They bought a house, got a dog, put up a fence and, in 2006, some thirty-five years after he had been told “It flew,” they flew to China to adopt Rebecca. She was thought to be about two years old.

I knew from the get-go that I would not be a daily fixture in Rebecca’s life. Although I live a mere twenty miles away, it might as well be hundreds of miles because I did not have a car. In addition, I live with disabilities that would make it difficult for me to be as involved as Rebecca’s other grandmother, who lived only ten minutes away. Any jealousy you can conjure up would be right on the mark.

As Mark and Lisa prepared for their trip to China, I prepared myself to be cold. I would look upon the child with scientific interest. I would not become emotionally involved. My absence from the minutiae of the child’s life, and from my son’s life as a father, surely would hurt less if I steeled myself to be only the old lady she had to kiss a few times a year.

Mark called me periodically from China to update me on Rebecca. Like the other children in her adoption group on “gotcha-day,” Rebecca was not in great health. She had bronchitis; she was very thin and weak. Neither Mark nor Lisa spoke Chinese and were confused by the doctor’s explanation of her illness and treatment.

I was happy that they called me from their hotel so I could give them advice like “Don’t pass a sick baby around in the hotel dining room; I don’t care how cute she is,” and “Give me the name of your doctor at home, and I’ll call for advice.” It was so exciting to place my cell phone, with Mark on speakerphone from China, next to my landline phone, with the pediatrician on speakerphone from New Jersey, and listen in on an unexpected medical conference at 11 o’clock at night.

I felt like a mama again. My son needed me. I was involved with my granddaughter’s well-being. And his, too.

But of course I would remain stoic and aloof. Once they got home.

Mark is a veteran of family politics, having kept divorced parents separated at most major life events. He’s learned to weigh and balance honors and create complex algorithms to determine which of four single parents will see him and his wife on holidays. Of course I always figure I get the raw deal.

He needed the wisdom of Solomon to decide who would meet the new family at the airport, who would wait at their home and who would visit the next day. Everyone agreed that Rebecca needed to come home to a calm landing, free of the disruption of multiple strangers making bizarre noises and poking at her with unfamiliar fingers.

I was delighted to be the one chosen to meet them at the airport. Mark hired a car service so I would be the first to see the child and to see him in his new role as father.

I only can imagine the force of the new parents’ emotions when they first saw their child. I was overwhelmed with love, pride and a sense of history when I saw my son as a new daddy for the first time.

How quickly he had learned his role in his infant family structure. He appeared in an archway, directly behind Lisa who was carrying a small bundle. He looked exhausted, yet his calm face shone joy. It seemed he did not notice he was managing a mountain of luggage teetering on a cart. He beamed as his wife spotted me and ran, with Rebecca, down the aisle to greet me.

Our driver snapped a photograph of us, just as Rebecca leaned over and kissed me. I tell people that the airport kiss was my first sign that Rebecca was an extremely sensitive and intelligent little girl. I wonder if Rebecca knew then, even before I knew, that there was something special between us.
We loaded up the car on a parking garage roof deck; artificial lights had turned night into day. Then we began the drive home.

This little country girl was strapped in an unfamiliar car seat in an unfamiliar vehicle, with strangers, and immersed in highway traffic at night, white lights coming and red lights going. She began to wail.

“Li! Li! Li!” she cried.

“I think she’s afraid,” I said. “I think she wants a light turned on.”

Lisa shook her head. “She doesn’t like the car seat.”

“She’s tired,” said Mark, between munches of the first bagel he had had in weeks.

“Li! Li! Li!” Rebecca continued.

“OK,” I said. I feared I was being an interfering grandmother. Mark and Lisa had been with Rebecca for almost two weeks. They had taken care of her in a strange land where they did not speak the language. They had managed her diet, her bronchitis and her diapers. How could I insist to this brave couple that they were wrong, that their daughter—my granddaughter—was expressing her needs to them in English?

“Are you sure she never heard you say to one another, ‘Turn on the light’?” In unison, Mark and Lisa said, “No.”

Just then, the driver switched on the interior car lights, and Rebecca stopped crying and went to sleep. We have understood one another ever since.

I do not speak Chinese, and we don’t know if my darling was verbal before she came to us. Yet, from our first meeting, Rebecca and I could communicate with a glance, touch each other’s sense of humor, and speak to and understand one another. People around us could not figure out how.

By the time the new family had returned from China, Rebecca was an old hand at eating in good hotel restaurants. The Jewish delicatessen, Chinese restaurant and American grill soon became pieces of cake for her.

It was in the deli, during her first week home, that this child, with a lumberjack’s appetite, broke a French fry in half and gave me a piece. She understood there would be more food if she was hungry.

And it was here that I asked Mark not to wipe Rebecca’s face because she could wipe her own, and his, when I asked her to. She touched us all when she removed imaginary crumbs from his chin.

It was in the grill during her second month home that I realized she was calling Mark “Da Da” before he did. And, during a threesome for dinner, the first time mommy stayed home for a long shower and a nap, Mark realized that he couldn’t use the men’s room without my babysitting cooperation.

We were all still unsure how much English Rebecca understood.

A few years earlier, I had attended doggie school with my dog, Buffy. There I was trained to set up the dog for success and to reward desired conduct. Soon after Rebecca’s arrival, I used the same method with her that I had used with Buffy.  I didn’t see anything wrong with it.

“Sit,” I taught the child, using Cheerios as reinforcement. I kept Buffy’s Cheerios in my right pocket and Rebecca’s in my left. Doggie and granddaughter would sit, stay, run, come. The three of us—Buffy, Rebecca and I—had a wonderful time. Lisa was concerned that I was treating Rebecca like a dog, but Mark was tickled that doggie school training worked on his child.

When Rebecca was three, she wanted to be just like me—to wear a coat or not, like me. If you saw us settling down in a Chinese restaurant, it might have looked like a choreographed routine to you. Without words, I would hand her the folded napkins and she would distribute the utensils that were wrapped inside. Then I would pass her the noodles and sauce. We worked as a team: two bodies, one brain.

According to people, in addition to me, Rebecca is beautiful, brilliant, multi-talented, generous and fun. She can own the world. But family and strangers alike are mystified that we appear to have a physical resemblance. Despite small differences in skin tone and around the eyes, Rebecca looked like a photograph of me taken at the same age. People still tell me they see a resemblance between us, although they know it is impossible.

Now 10 years old, Rebecca’s busy schedule—dance class, baseball, Girl Scouts, music lessons—makes it difficult for me to see her as often as I once did. She tells her dad that she wants to visit me every weekend. Clearly, that is impossible. She said she wants a two-week sleepover. That would be exhausting. She wants me at family holidays and vacations. How lovely. I keep asking her if she has her driver’s license yet so she can come visit whenever she wants. I’m still waiting.

Mark regrets that Rebecca and I cannot be together more often. When he sees her kiss my hand and say, “I love you Grandma, I miss you so much,” I know his heart breaks. He says that sometimes it seems criminal that we are kept apart so much. She cups my face in her hands and I cup hers.

Rebecca is extremely smart, sensitive, considerate, capable and kind, always beyond her years. Her joy in life is infectious. If she tells me she is going somewhere and I say, “Have a good time,” she responds that she always does. She moves through life with grace.

If I could, I would put all the health, wealth, happiness and fun that exists in the world on a silver platter for her. I know she would love it and then share it.

So the question remains. How is it that Rebecca and I seem to be from the same gene pool, the one for grandmas and granddaughters, that excludes the man in the middle?

Was my son’s father right, those many years ago, when he described how a baby comes?

We still wonder at the magic that matched Mark and Lisa with Rebecca. And I, in a closer relationship with my granddaughter than I ever thought possible, am very grateful that she flew home to me.

Author’s Note: Rebecca’s life is filled with friends and activities; she is healthy and strong, the best any grandmother could wish for her grandchild. On her Valentine’s Day card to me this year, she wrote, “I will have fun with you every day in my heart when you aren’t around and when you are. Love, your one and only granddaughter.” I expect her to have her driver’s license in about seven years.

Marilyn A. Gelman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, True Stories, Well Told: From the First 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction Magazine, A Cup of Comfort, and The Paterson Literary Review, among other publications.