The Holes In Us

The Holes In Us


By Reva Blau

My father did not tell anyone completely about his psychic scars. He did, however, let my mom, sister, and I ogle, occasionally, on his physical ones. Taking off his expensive, leather shoes, he would, very rarely, let us peek the roped mass of roiling purple and magenta skin at the knuckle of his big toe, where, crushing grapes at a POW camp shortly after WWII broke out, he had plunged the pitchfork. The toe bent off crookedly to the left and the nail was gone. The joke in the family was not to drink 1939 Bordeaux. He also would hand me the shrapnel shards that would, once in a blue moon, poke out from his thighs, a result of a bomb that he had tripped while he interrogated Nazis as a German-speaking US Army officer.

Three years before returning to Europe as a soldier, my father, the son of Viennese Jews, fled Nazi Vienna, then Nazi Czechoslovakia, then France on the brink of World War II. He was imprisoned three times and got out three times. He was tortured in a Nazi border patrol. The Nazi’s made him do exercises until he passed out. For meals, he only had lard.

A son of secularized Jews, He didn’t mind really that lard was not kosher; although I am sure that was the border patrol officers intention. He minded that the meat was barely edible and, subsequently could not even look at bacon without going quiet looking off into an invisible space.

From the border patrol, he escaped and made it to Prague, where he lived until the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia as well. Making his way to France to await the processing of his visa, he was rounded up by the French Army for having a German passport, even though it was branded with a red “J.” He was sent to Bordeaux to a labor camp on a vineyard. He stuck his foot with a pitchfork to get out of a French labor camp and onto a French navy steamship that would take him to New York, the white lines of blood poisoning creeping up his leg.

He liked to tell these stories. The stories were a series of lucky breaks: the last train from Vienna to Prague before the Austrian border was closed; the last train to France before the war broke out; the last civilian ship from Europe. He presented himself as the luckiest man alive.

My dad lost both his parents in the Holocaust. He saw them for the last time, taking an illegal detour back into Austria on a night train, on his way to Le Havre from Prague. He didn’t talk about his parents often. He never mentioned his mother at all. I remember maybe once or twice and always in an almost whisper.

Throughout both my sister’s and my life, he searched for what happened to his parents once their letters to him, a newly arrived immigrant in America, stopped coming in 1941. I have many of his inquiries with inquiries to Austria, Germany, and Poland as he tried, over the course of decades, to find out what happened to them. They are written in an oily tone in long, German sentences with long nouns. I have the letters back with conflicting information from each of the embassies and the American Red Cross.

This story about how his trauma affected his being my dad starts in the winter of 1976. Mrs. Kritz, my first grade teacher, told me she liked my poems about rain. The poems were stapled together between two pieces of blue construction paper. I spoke English then with a vaguely Dutch accent because we had spent the previous year in Holland. Back in New York, I went to school a few weeks and then got strep throat. I was at home, burning with fever. My parents were at the university teaching. That morning, my mother had called my new babysitter, an Israeli modern dancer, whose bones poked up, fragile like bird wings, through her translucent skin. She had skipped her rigorous training to come in on a weekday last minute because she needed the income. But she had run out of ideas for games we could play and I had spent the afternoon trying to read in English on the sofa under a blanket. At some point, I got up to wander the large apartment, which still felt foreign after the year away.

I crept into my father’s study with its walls of books, a solid inverted sculpture of brown spines. I sat at his walnut desk diagonal to the typewriter. I fingered the leather encased stapler and the clear dome that held in its perfect bubble one refillable green ink pen and one refillable pencil, both silver. Green ink had stained the small hole in the plastic where the pen stuck out. I found a lined notebook and removed the pen. I started to write my new book, the ink silkily spilling over onto the off-white paper. I planned to show Ms. Kritz my writing.

I heard the measured footsteps of leather sole heavily treading the throw rugs as my father came down the orange hallway. I should have known. It was four o’clock and it was the time for pacing, poring over books with his giant magnifying glass, endless green-inked outlining, peck pecking on the typewriter. The dog had this routine down so well that, lounging in the hallway, she would pull herself even before the elevator doors opened in the outside hallway with its black and white hexagonal tiles. I hadn’t heard the key in the lock. And, suddenly, he was filling the doorway. When he saw me, it took him a moment for him to register a small child was at his desk, that this child was his own, and had broken the biggest rule in the house: Do Not Enter Your Father’s Study. That I had entered the study and used his pen—the only pen he used, ever—and that his green ink was spilling out over the pages, was unthinkable.

It was as if the knob controlling his adrenaline system was on the opposite way as most people’s nervous system. Small things tripped torrents of anxiety, whereas the things that make most people fearful did not seem to phase him at all. When people called the house, for example, he’d thunder into the phone, “ALLO! Who’s there!” like it was on the CB radio in the mud-soaked trenches artillery raining down. Yet, he was immune from fears of his mortality. He drove, for example, fearlessly, without concern for any of our welfare. He would recline in the seat, drive with one hand, gesturing with the other. He would often hold court in the car, lecturing about books or politics, and look over at us, in conversation, for many beats too long.

When I was seven or eight, there was a fire in the building directly opposite our apartment. It happened in the middle of the night. My mother awoke to the smell of smoke then ran through the U-shaped apartment to my room. She shook me awake and I gathered important things as I had read people do in books. It was only minutes later that the super came up and pounded on the door to tell us to evacuate. It took my father an agonizing twenty minutes to dress in his habitual attire of a three-piece suit complete with tie, belt and garter socks. My mother and I stood in the hallway waiting for him, my arms full of thirteen stuffed animals and Noodles, the guinea pig, who dug her claws into my forearm. When the firefighter to come bang on our door to wonder why we hadn’t gotten out yet, my father was looking into the bedroom mirror adjusting his tie.

A year or so later, we were in Athens, Greece at an outdoor table eating salad and whole grilled fish from the center of the table. I was nine, alone with my parents on a trip, and prone to bouts of dizzying boredom if I was not allowed to read my Trixie Belden books, which was another rule: Never Read at a Restaurant Table. We lingered at the table after eating, listening to the old men chattering in Greek around us. I asked my father if I could please borrow his pen to draw. He took it out of his suit pocket and gave it to me. I doodled absent-mindedly on the bill.

Back at the cramped hotel room, my father asked for his silver pen back. He sent me outside to return to the restaurant, but the loud, beefy owner could not find it. “I will run away, I will spend my life hopscotching the archipelago by ferry, perhaps earn my money busking,” I thought to myself imagining my open fiddle case opened out on the hot, white pavement. Instead, I returned to the hotel and my father’s face, a mask of molten rage.

I was not afraid, like most children, of the dark, bugs, ghosts or monsters. I explored the old train tracks under the West Side Highway and peered at the cardboard slum cities in the tunnels. I spoke fearlessly with strangers and felt the safest on an airplane high in the sky above an ocean. Instead I feared bank tellers and police officers, authority figures, the mysterious systems that sent the mail.

After learning that the Noble laureate in Physics, who happened to have emigrated from Maoist China, lived a few a few floors above us, I slept with one eye open. He sometimes left or returned to the building in a motorcade of limousines. This left me deeply suspicious of adults generally. I was concerned to learn that a physicist had been the first to successfully split the uranium atom under the green copper turrets of Pupin Hall at Columbia across the street.

I went to a high school with a dappled quad in which one could sit between classes and read. I adored high school. In European History, Mrs. Bernstein taught us about March 12th, 1938, when Hitler marching into the Heldenplatz to the cheers of hundreds of thousands of cheering Viennese. I loved Ms. Bernstein. She spoke in a measured cadence and always in complete sentences. She allowed us to think deeply about history.

At some point, after reading an essay I had written, she had taken me aside in the hallway and asked me if I was a native English speaker.

“Why, yes!” I answered, surprised. “Why?”

“Well because your sentence structure feels German to me. You put the ideas at the end of the sentences. The syntax is just slightly different from English syntax.” She must have known my dad survived this time. It was her way of telling me that she was sensitive to the impact it had on me. We are still friends to this day.

In class, we peered at photos in our dense textbooks. One showed Hitler, a diminutive terror, surrounded by Imperial buildings of the Austro-Hungarian nobility, high above the swarms. Hitler’s lips and mustache were so thin they looked like they could chop you in half. I came home and asked my father if he was still in Vienna when the Nazis marched in and if he went to Hitler’s rally. Did you see him on the streets? I was curious—morbidly—if he had actually seen Hitler himself. He was furious with me.

“What do you think? Do you want me stampeded to death?” Uh, no, dad, I don’t want that.


It was shortly after the Nazi rise to power that my grandparents and their parents lost their bookbinding business and the building they owned where the Blaus and my grandmother’s family, the Selkas, lived. My dad’s father’s doctorate was revoked and he could no longer teach or publish. The University of Vienna, where my dad was going to pre-medical school, expelled its Jewish students. The family had to move to the poorer section of town. My dad was sent to live in Prague, at which point he was captured and hence the lard episode. But weeks later, he was able to get out from the border office, and later, to America. My aunt was sent away with other children on the kindertransport to England. Sometime later my grandparents were rounded up to the ghetto. In one of the first deportations that signaled the Final Solution after the Wannsee Conference, they were sent to their deaths in what turns out to have been the very first extermination camp.

When my father spoke of this time, it was in the present tense or maybe that was still a trace of his German syntax.

When it came time for the Holocaust Remembrance day, students filed in quietly to the auditorium to hear a survivor speak in somber tones about his experiences. I am sure many of my friends wept. I fled to the bathroom and stuffed paper towels in my mouth while my body wracked itself in panic.

The conversation about what happened to his parents took place mostly in my head, although from time to time I would interview him about my grandparents. I interviewed him about why they didn’t leave. He told me that they first refused. He told me that they might have left later but that he didn’t have money for their visas and he couldn’t find anyone who did or who was willing to guarantee them both. He said that he was only offered one affidavit, for one individual, not two, so how do you choose?

In a photo book I found on the highest shelf of one bookcase in our book-lined apartment, I found and then spoke to my grandmother. In the sepia photo she peered out a zaftig woman with sad, almond eyes and tendrils escaping across her temples. She draped one hand on a baby bassinet, with my aunt as a bonneted, moon-faced baby staring out placidly. Another hand rested on the shoulder of my father, a little boy in short woolen trousers, high socks, with a bowl and scarf bowtie. Standing on tiptoe, I put the photo book away before he caught me with them.

My father and I walked downtown to see the movie Sophie’s Choice together after I read all of William Styron’s novels over a summer. At some point, he jumped up and left. It could have been when Sophie, on line in a crowd of deportees, must make the awful choice between her two children. But I think it was much earlier, perhaps when it becomes clear that Nathan is both obsessed with the Holocaust and mentally ill. People in the audience swiveled. More people turned in their seats to look as light from the lobby momentarily flooded the theater. When I came through the theater’s outside doors, I could see the back of his suit, as he race-walked up Broadway, his fists clenched.

The fall after graduating from high school, I lived in a brownstone with three Columbia friends on the first floor of a dilapidated brownstone in Brooklyn. I called him up to see if he wanted to meet and go to the exhibit of Anselm Kieffer at MoMA. Walking the air-conditioned white hallways of the museum, I was awed by the heavily worked massive grey and brown canvases. Their impasto surfaces were scarified with grids and lines in paint that climbed to cathedral ceilings describing warehouses, barracks, and imperial buildings—vast and claustrophobic both. Some paintings showed fields and earth strewn with hay or ashy powder and scarred with metal.

In a packed deli between Fifth and Sixth, he sat sullenly reading the menu. Then, suddenly, he looked up and spat, curtly,”I don’t care that this Kieffer is an artist.” Saliva sprayed my face in the cramped booth. “Why would you take me to see this exhibit?”

I recently found the ship manifest of the DeGrasse, the steampship on which he secured passage, on November 10, 1939, from Le Havre to New York in the digital archives at Ellis Island. Its heading reads “List of Alien Passengers.” The information is recorded in neat rows and columns. The list is one thousand names long and takes up several pages. My father’s name is in the very first row, number one, on the register. I can see him making sure to be first on line. He did the same on lines throughout his life. People often just let him cut the line, as if sensing he could not psychologically wait in line.

Reading across the columns, there are boxes where the immigration official marked each person’s reading and writing ability, profession, nationality, religion, marital status, amount of currency held and many other qualifying remarks, such as if the person is an anarchist, cripple, or a polygamist. For him, his nationality was marked German, the place of visa, Prague, his profession, electrician, his destination, the address of the unknown sponsor whose name and contact his high school history teacher had given him. My dad had told us that he had twenty dollars when he left Le Havre. I had somehow assumed that it was a small exaggeration. How could someone have so little money? I routinely spent his twenty-dollar bills going downtown to buy candy at the Citicorp with my friends. But it turns out that was exactly what he had in his pocket.

He was never an electrician, of course. I laughed at that one. He would have made a very bad electrician. There are three columns for which the answers are almost every one of the thousand on the list. Nationality is marked German, religion Hebrew, and, for the “amount of time the alien intends to remain in the country:” all the last answers for this column are marked “permanently.”

When I first saw the towers come down on the news on the morning of September 11, I was, like most people seized with a cold panic, and, immediately, I thought of the many people I knew who very well might have been on one of the planes or in one of the buildings that morning. Then, suddenly, I was awash with a dark, gruesome sense of doom when I realized the impact on my father’s psyche. I felt across the hundreds of miles and decades of time the sting of the humiliation he felt as a young man. For the first time, I saw my dad as terribly alone in his experience at the hands of the Nazis and facing genocide so intimately. An act of war in New York, his island of safety, all those years ago, was too difficult to even imagine him processing at his age. At first the phone lines were down, and I kept trying until I got through. When I had my father on the phone, he didn’t speak about the events in New York. I brought it up carefully and he went quiet and changed the subject.

It was after that, his heart and lungs weakened. The cardiologist said that his lungs had expanded and, actually, pushed up against the wall of the rib cage. Shortly after that, he went into the hospital. I booked the earliest flight I could. My sister, who was in Amsterdam, had taken the overnight flight. Each of us took a cab to hospital. And, within an hour, my sister, my mother, and I were all there. It was rare for us three to be together. But there we were, his existential people, gathered around him, or was it still him, in his ICU room, the screens bleeping, a machine sending rumbling and artificial inhales and exhales of oxygen through his body? And then we said goodbye to him and we were the ones left with this hole in our lives.

Reva Blau-Parlante juggles teaching middle-school, raising two kids, and writing non-fiction with the support of her partner in life Joe and perhaps too much espresso with lemon.







The Zoo

The Zoo

Hispanic girl sleeping in bed surrounded by stuffed animals

By Reva Blau

Siena, our three-year daughter, adopted the year before, had been asking about the zoo. I assumed that she knew about the zoo from books like some of our favorites: Sammy the Seal, Goodnight Gorilla, and the comic book styled Psst in which the animals plot their erstwhile escapes. In November, Joe, my husband and, Dashiell, our ten-year-old son, had been invited along to an early-season Bruins day game at the Garden. So I decided to take Siena to the Franklin Park Zoo, famous for its Western lowland gorillas, on a dusky day. The sky looked like it had lowered over New England but we set forth cheerfully in our Pilot. Little did we know that it would be the end of what the adoption world calls “the honeymoon phase” and we would be entering into murkier territory.

A year and a half earlier, I had first met our daughter in a small, sanguine DCF office set up with sagging sofas and plastic play houses and toys. Her child’s social worker, Muriel introduced her as the “the famous Siena!” as she toddled into the red brick building clutching a puppy purse. I was introduced simply as “Miss Reva.” Siena looked up at me passingly. I was just another adult of a long string that she would have met over the last year in foster care — social workers, advocates, and lawyers. She wasn’t told that I might be her mommy one day. The introduction was honest. I was Reva to her. Today, I am fully Siena’s mom and she is our daughter as our son Dashiell is our son. Yet, every day Siena reminds me that it isn’t only me who remembers the time before we were her parents. Siena remembers not being my daughter. If I say no to her 3 year old wishes, say, wanting to eat candy for breakfast, she’ll retort, “You Reva!” in a rugged punch and I’ll be brought back to the first day we met.

In the room at DCF, Siena sat poised on her foster mother’s lap straight and with head held high as if knowing that confidence, no matter the circumstance, is queen. I had read that L had gone through three foster homes, two of which had been neglectful, even after her removal from her biological mother. At one point, during foster care, a visiting Social worker visited her in her foster mother’s home and was surprised to see a bump on her head. She brought her immediately to the ER. It turned out that Siena had skeletal injuries. She turned one in the hospital. The doctors never determined whether accident or abuse caused these injuries. No one was allowed to visit her except for a newly appointed social worker because she associated the first one not only to the trip to the hospital but with prior visits to federal prison to see her biological mother.

The foster mother I was meeting on this day had ended this murky chain of events. Gabriela, a grandmother of six, is a veteran bilingual foster parent and has fostered over fifty children over the years in her home. She rehabilitates children who have been tossed around the system. Siena, as all Gabriela’s kids do, called her Meeta – diminutive for Grandma in Spanish – and sat on her lap most of the visit.

But Siena ventured over to me on the opposite side of the room when I offered the presents I had brought. She scooted herself into a small seat and uttered words like “baby” and “milk” as she hunched over the doll in the tiny crook of her arm. She answered me in words I could not decipher when I spoke with her. Gabriela translated the syllables for me, “She says she wants you to put the baby in the stroller.” When Siena bumped her head on the play table, she folded right back into Gabriela’s arms for her booboo to be kissed. My heart pounded in my chest as I realized that she might be the child we would adopt.

For the next scheduled visit, in a park, I brought Dashiell along to see how they might relate. We had been discussing adoption for so long, I figured we would continue the conversation if the adoption did not go through. From May to early June, summer had bloomed. Children were playing in the playground. Soon after she arrived, Siena leapt on my lap face front nuzzling her head in my neck. When she turned some minutes later, back to the outside world, Dashiell acted nonchalantly, pretending interest in the square of grass between them. He allowed Siena to initiate contact. Gently, he taught her to twist the blades of grass and pat the grass rather than keep pulling the grass up. She looked up at him like he held the key to the universe.

A week later, I had convinced my husband that he needed to meet Siena. Adoption blogs are filled with complaints from would-be moms that they coaxed or convinced their husbands into having a first or second child with as much wrangling it might take to sign a peace treaty. We had been on a list of waiting families for more than three years and, maybe because we lived on a peninsula sticking out sixty miles into the ocean, we had received only two handfuls of calls followed by emails with confidential files attached for us to consider. In each case, my husband found a reason to not pursue the match. Often it was because the child seemed to have suffered experiences severe enough that he didn’t think we could handle raising him or her. DCF adoption is often called “special needs adoption” if the child has an official diagnosis or not. The Department wants future parents to understand fully that neglect and abuse has serious consequences on development. As they flatly told us: these adoptions are not for the faint of heart. I was quick to fall in love with the children I saw in these grainy pictures sent to us. In truth I was grateful to Joe for being cautious.

But like many women pursuing motherhood, I was persistent. I convinced Joe to take a day off, holding up his favorite lunch spot as bait. We drove back to the South end where we had arranged that Muriel would drop Siena off with us at our favorite gastro pub. It would be the first time Muriel would leave for the visit. I felt a surge of fear. I had forgotten what it was like to care for an almost two year old. How often would she need to use the potty? Would she cry? After Muriel waved goodbye, I wiggled Siena into a high chair and pushed it up to one end of the table so she could sit between the adults and see all of us. Her hair had grown in a bit and Gabriela had woven it into tiny, immaculate braids. We decided to get plates to share. Joe ordered the most toddler-proof thing on the menu — a bowl of gnocchi and when it came it was festooned with bright orange and yellow nasturtiums. Who would know that the next time we came here, Siena would be sampling pig’s tail and oxtail rillette. But over this lunch, the 23 month old admonished her future father not to eat the nasturtiums. “Flowers, no eat,” she warned him waggling her finger. He popped the tiny blooms in his mouth, his eyes sparkling and she squealed. I knew at that moment we would be a family.

The court had not yet terminated parental rights although the social workers believed it would. Social workers must balance many juggling balls at once as they act for the security of the child, honor birth parent’s rights, fulfill the legal obligations to the court, ensure the good will of the foster parent and prepare the child for a permanent family. To give the birth parents – who might need rehabilitation from drugs or the penal system or domestic violence – enough time to prove their ability to parent can be unfair to any child, who should not have to wait for parents to get their acts together. On the other hand, to terminate parental rights after a misstep in a society buckling under massive poverty and the inadequacy of social services for the poor, the addicted, and the abandoned would be unethical. Social workers and the court system are forced to balance these two outcomes to create some kind of compromise. It is a serious thing to remove a child from a mother. Yet it is just as gravely serious that a child be left to live in danger or limbo.

I was in a juggling act on par with that of DCF, albeit on a domestic scale. Dashiell was at camp. Joe was in his busiest season ever at the restaurant. He agreed he wanted to adopt her; but said, “let’s just wait till the summer is behind us and I can focus full-time on our family.” I had read enough about adoption to know how crazy that sounded. We were in no position to stall. This was the first time that a child’s Social worker chose us as the potential adoptive parents for a child. We had already had three visits. Not only would we lose the opportunity to adopt this particular little girl but also our own Social Worker could very well question our commitment. They might stop sending us referrals and remove us from the lists.

Over the next few days, I sensed Joe’s resolve to wait soften. We were already three weeks from my first visit with her. Social Workers employ an equation to estimate the ideal length of time from a first visit to placement: one week plus the age of the child. I knew that any minute we would get the call to finalize when I would pick her up to move into our home. Already, I called Gabriela every evening to wish Siena goodnight. I had graduated from “Miss Reva” to “Mama Reva.”

On Thursday, late morning, the phone rang. The Social worker informed me that she had set a date for transition at the following week. “Are you and Joe ready?” she asked. I looked at him, felt that pull of his equanimity and deep loyalty. When I got off the phone, he asked “so when are we picking her up?”

We picked Siena up at the same DCF office where I had first played with her on the square institutional sofa in June. The transfer took place quickly. Muriel loaded Siena’s trash bags full of clothes and toys from her Prius to mine, while Siena sat expectantly looking around from Muriel’s backs-seat. Muriel took her out, handed her to us. We buckled Siena into the car seat a friend had given me the day before, and off we went. At an intersection, I glanced back, half-expecting it to be empty. There was someone else’s toddler in our backseat!

We first stopped at a Jamaica Plains coffee shop where I had planned we would meet my sister so she could meet her niece. Ruth sat at a small table eagerly looking at the window looking like she would pop out of her skin with excitement. Too excited to be hungry, we ordered only one sandwich, opening the bread so Siena could grab at the turkey and cucumber slices inside. Siena reached for my sister’s face and felt her eyelids while my sister closed her eyes, inhaling her small child scent, and re-lived when her own kids – 12 and 10 — were small.

Time with toddlers is warped. Meet any grandmother on the playground and they will utter wistfully, “It flies by!” and meet any parent on the playground and they will gripe that they just had the most endless afternoon of their life. Both are true. Two and three year olds demand almost as much as a baby to scaffold early skills while allowing them the opportunity to practice. But emotionally, they demand almost as much as a teenager, needing flexibility, empathy, equilibrium, and structure. An afternoon can feel like an eternity for the number of times you have been required to find a potty or fill a sippy cup and also respond cheerfully and wisely to another human endlessly curious about the world around them. Thanks to this full engagement, endless afternoons fly by like a cartoon rendering of a calendar pages flying off it.

With a child who just transitioned into your home this truth becomes truer. Without trying, I made it my job to show up for her, gaze at her, respond to her needs not only every minute but also every second. Especially, in my case, because I worked, I spent every waking second not at work with her, playing baby and dollhouse on the floor of the living room, bundling her into the car seat for early morning trips to the hockey rink to watch her brother play and stomping my feet in cold playgrounds.

The first year from when we brought her home to the trip to the zoo flew off the pages with a memorable pause when we drove to Boston to sign her adoption papers at City Court. I barely remember any of it except in almost slide-show form of her delight and ease. A friend said around the holidays, six months after joining our family, “she slipped into your family like she was sliding on a slide of olive oil.”

Most of Siena’s language developed drawing the lines of the constellation of our family. She learned new words in order to rehearse our relationships. With jubilation, she sang the names mommy, daddy, and brother. At drop-off at her daycare, she would announce, “I have a daddy!” as a morning newsflash to her teachers. Or if a classmate mentioned a sibling, she would gush ‘I have a big, big, BIG brother.” The way she said “Hi Mom,” had the upward tilt of a teenager’s boast. It made sense: she had never spoken the word “mama,” although she had had one.

The milestone of forming sentences is exciting for any new parent. At our house these early sentences were like an incanted blessing. Her most repeated early dialogue were variations on the Dr. Seuss book: “Are you my mommy? You mommy! I Siena!” On my end, I practiced Buddhist detachment. Not that I wasn’t completely attached. But having longed to adopt a child for so long, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t too delighted in the way you would when you win the lottery and you try to not to gloat. I was aware that we had defied the odds. I tried to feel humble in my gratitude.

The first year, she was like a dream child, rarely crying, saying please and thank you and showing us endless amounts of what could only be described as gratitude. At night, I’d give her warm milk; she would sort of brush her teeth, then I’d read two books. I’d say “night night” and she’d jump into her toddler bed, fold over herself into a Paschimottanasana pose, face between feet and go to sleep. Not all children sleep as if they are under the desks in a lockdown drill. Yet, in these few signs of distress, if a shadow crossed my consciousness, it was mostly in noticing how easily she had slipped into our family, on a slide of olive oil, as my friend had said.

I searched the map of the zoo for the animals which had appeared in the books – lions, tigers, giraffes, elephants – the kind that always makes me feel sad seeing them as they pace behind urban walls. We somewhat over-optimistically bought the full family membership at the hut painted a forest green. Putting up an umbrella over the stroller, I tramped through the drizzle to marvel at the glory of Noah’s ark displayed in the faded light. One hundred yards from the gorilla house, I heard a blood-curdling sustained scream. It was no hyena—it was coming from the stroller at my feet. Siena curled into a ball facing backwards in her stroller. I cut away from the path away from the safari animals and headed to the farm animals. I stalwartly lifted our little girl from the stroller, pulling the raincoat hood over her head. Her scream did not subside but only heightened as we approached the petting zoo. In my arms, she was thrashing about. I tried to do what one does in the face of a new experience with a small child, “Oh look at that friendly goat! Is that a mommy goat?” She was screaming, “No! no animals! No animals!” I headed back to the car.

Later I told my friends about the experience. They said, “welcome to the threes. Or, maybe she is scared of gorillas.” I knew differently.

For the next week, she would fall to sleep exhausted at midnight and then fitfully sleep until five until she’d finally sleep fitfully on my chest on the couch downstairs. Of course, days became incredibly difficult. Getting dressed to go to school was like climbing Everest. I learned that to get to work on time, I needed to just stand up from the couch, with her half-asleep in a ball in my arms, and unfold her limbs into clothes. I would carry her to the car, filling a sippy cup with apple juice with my left hand along the way. She’d slowly unfold herself exhaustedly into her car seat, and I’d run into the house and get myself dressed.

Joe and I fretted that the girl we knew was gone, the honeymoon, long and sweet but obviously over (“but it lasted a whole year!”) and I quickly went to work finding a therapist. Remarkably, a group of respected child play therapists had recently started a practice in our small town. I left two messages on each of their five answering machines that day. One called back and said she would be very happy to work with us.

The same day that we were scheduled to meet Tonya at our house, a package arrived at the house. Inside was a photo book, the kind that a photo store might print, with a mysterious note “For Siena’s parents. We were her foster parents.” The return mail indicated a DCF office in Western Massachusetts.

The book was filled with pictures a very chubby baby Siena and two beaming adults. There were pictures of her in a crib, playing with a puppy, playing with blocks, pictures of her in a stroller in a park. In all the pictures the nice-looking man and woman are holding her or playing on the floor with giant grins. The pictures have captions ending in exclamation points, like “At the park! or “In the crib.” We showed some of the pictures to Siena in the living room and then put the book down on the coffee table. An hour later, Tonya knocked at the door. We ushered Dashiell upstairs to do his homework.

Wedged into little seats at Siena’s art table in the playroom, Joe and I described Siena’s recent behavior. Tonya, meanwhile, started engaging Siena by looking at the toys on the shelves. But quite suddenly Siena jumped up and ran through the kitchen into some other part of the house. She came back with her recently photo book and proceeded to show Tonya. She flipped the pages quickly, “there’s me. There’s my doggy.” She didn’t have any words for the adults in the picture. She arrived to pictures at the end of the book that I hadn’t yet seen and I bent forward to get a better look.

A man holds a baby Siena underneath a string of home-made cards that spell Happy Birthday! The photo is of a cake and one candle at the center. And then appears the Franklin Park Zoo—pictures of Siena gazing at the giraffes and the zebras in their muddy field. The next is a picture of the very same goat that we tried to visit that day a fortnight earlier. I don’t think I will never know if the injury that was discovered at the hospital happened from an incident of violence that happened the same day at the zoo after the photos were taken or if she associates the zoo with losing another set of caregivers.

A few months later, Siena has not had another PTSD episode. But she does have one or two days a month when she is anxious and needy. When she plays on any day, her stories are dark and twisty, and veer more towards “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood” plots than the more sanitized endings we have given them. In an afternoon of playing, play-mobile figures sometimes do terrible things to one another. We try to let her play these things out and then react appropriately, like, “Oh no, the prince was hurt? Let’s help him get across the moat.” While three year olds can be bossy, she can be pushy and domineering and sometimes seeks to control tiny details, like which hand I use to eat or when I take my glasses on or off. On those days, it’s hard to remember what one should expect of a typical three year-old. Should I pick her up every time she wants to be carried? Put her in a carrier at the hockey rink since she feels the most secure when she is next to me? These questions are sometimes hard to answer.

People versed in adoption will say, “just go in with your eyes open” and that is wise. Yet, if we all had our eyes open 24/7, we would never conceive a child, let alone adopt one. We often make love (and conceive our children) with our eyes closed literally and it makes sense that we would enter adoption with our eyes closed metaphorically. We close our eyes to quell our minds, so that our other senses can be open. Since our trip to the zoo, I have re-read the assessment I had already read blindly around the time of meeting her. I saw there all the details that I hadn’t seen before. Details that make me understand that she sometimes doesn’t cry like other children but instead bleats raspingly. It makes me understand why she tries to have control over details that other children would not feel the need to control. I have empathy for her and know that I will try to set limits even while holding her in the pain of what happened.

When people from stable families do research into their ancestries, they often find immigration documents, marriage and death certificates, summa cum laude and Kingsmen of the year newspaper clippings. But an adopted child’s assessment pries into the crevices of the failure of the American dream and scrapes the surface of our society’s shallow veneer. In an adoption assessment you will find some of the following: vagrancy, violence, drug abuse, mental illness, assault, murder, and rape. In hers, there were all of these.

For an adopted parent, it little matters whose fault was any of it: it’s that a certain set of tragedies, crimes, or random catastrophes, impacted someone living under your roof. I have friends who marvel at our family and are inspired to adopt because of what they see in us. A happy, balanced quad with smiles plastered on our faces as we go about our lives juggling jobs and raising two kids with an eight-year age gap. They ask me how they should first begin the process of adopting. I tell them to go into it with eyes not shut but not completely open either — maybe squinty-eyed.

People often distinguish between infant and older child adoption. Yet, not enough is said about the particular way a child and parent experiences the adoption at ages two or three, whose birth of Self as separate from their mothers becomes complicated by transitioning from one mother to another. Siena is developing much like other children but in profound ways her early childhood experience leaves a trace, like everybody’s wounds do. We haven’t been back to the zoo but we will go one day soon.