OMETIMES IT SEEMS AS IF THE significant moments of my life are forever etched in the plastic chairs and bustling crowds of airports. Eighteen years after we collected our infant son in an oversized blue snowsuit among the departing passengers of United Airlines flight 451 at Newark International, Jeffrey’s birth mother contacted the adoption agency. She wanted to know whether her son would be willing to join the Voluntary Registry. She wanted to look on his face again.
For 18 years this woman from somewhere far away had called the adoption agency on Jeff’s birthday and requested pictures and updated information. Every year for 18 years I had responded, not knowing her name, her station in life, where she lived, or what she was like. Selecting pictures
that showed my son happy and healthy, I slipped them into envelopes, imagining her anguished joy as she watched his life unfold: Jeffrey pushing a lion on wheels as he learned to walk. Jeffrey surrounded by Labrador puppies. Jeffrey winning the science fair prize, snowboarding down a hill, riding his BMX bike, Jeffrey as a young man.
Now I stand waiting with my son and his father at Orlando International Airport, the three of us scanning the faces of arriving passengers as they hurry down the ramp, looking for one who resembles the picture we received only last week. It is not until later that we learn the details of her story.
Tortured by Indecision
When Michelle was 22 years old she gave birth to a dark-haired, gray-eyed son who stole her heart the moment he gave his first plaintive cry. While in the hospital she insisted he not be sent to the nursery, but placed in bed beside her where he could receive nourishment, comfort, and 24 hours of a mother’s love. Gazing at her son during the day, late into the evening, and throughout the night she knew that no mother could love a child more. She named him Andrew, taking pride in the strength of the name, its suitability for her handsome son.
Michelle brought Andrew home when he was 3 days old, and faced the most difficult decision of her life. She was not married, had limited means, and faced emotional struggles. Each night, with Andrew nestled safely beside her, Michelle wrestled with conflicting thoughts. Should I find a way to give this son, whom I love, a life beyond this small apartment? Is it possible to give him up? Do I love him enough to let him go?
When Andrew was 3 weeks old, Michelle bundled him into an oversized blue snowsuit, drove two hours, and tearfully turned him over to a local branch of Adventist Adoption, where she was reassured she had made the right decision and that her son would have a good life.
She awoke the next morning with a hollow pit in her stomach, an aching void in her arms. Throwing on her coat, she once again drove two hours, resolving to hold her dark-haired child in her arms once again. Back at the agency, she sobbed out her story, retrieved Andrew, and headed for home, her arms gripping his tiny frame buried deep within the blue snowsuit.
For the next three weeks, Michelle again battled with unrelenting thoughts. She had little to provide for her child. Both she and Andrew’s father were prone to depression and faced uncertain futures. She wanted more for Andrew. If I am ever to give up this child, it will have to be somewhere far away, where I cannot easily collect him up, she finally concluded. “God, give me the strength to do what I have to do,” she prayed.
Within a few days, Michelle and Andrew’s dad boarded a plane with their 6-week-old son and traveled 2,000 miles to the Adventist Adoption’s headquarters in Portland, Oregon. There Michelle took one long, last, endearing look at the face she had grown to love, pulled herself away, and headed for the cold, empty apartment that awaited, and a long, dark tunnel of loneliness, stress, and despair.
Now Michelle is latching on to a small cloth carry-on, waiting for the aisle to clear, walking past the cockpit, leaving the plane, boarding the shuttle, heading for the terminal, heart thudding, scanning the crowd for a young man no longer known as Andrew.
We examine every woman’s face anxiously, engulfed among the rushing passengers, searching for some similarity to the small, dated photo that is our only clue to her features.
Two Families, One Heart
On December 28, 1987, Eric and I were packing our car in Connecticut, preparing to return home after spending the Christmas holidays at my parents’ home, when my mother appeared at the door and announced that a person-to-person call had come for Eric. My sisters and I exchanged worried glances, knowing that my father-in-law’s illness was becoming steadily worse.
My husband took the phone and then, to everyone’s surprise, turned to me and said, “Sandy, it’s Fern.”
An audible gasp sounded among the group that had gathered in the kitchen. Quickly, sisters and husbands, cousins and grandparents scrambled for seats in the living room as I rushed to grab a phone. Everyone knew that “Fern” could mean only one thing—the Seventh-day Adventist Adoption Agency that had presented us with
our oldest son was calling to make another delivery.
The child was a healthy baby boy, Fern reported, 6 weeks old; birth weight 6 pounds, 21⁄2 ounces; length, 19 inches. Born to a young couple who could not care for him, they wanted him to have a stable, loving home.
We hung up the phone, stunned. The call we had expected to be a call of death had turned out to be a call of life. A small child awaited our decision in Portland, Oregon. We drove home, almost unable to speak, wrapped in the deep silence of our amazement.
By the time we arrived in Bridgeport we had sealed our decision. We would open our arms to this new little boy. The next morning we called the agency, settled on the name of Jeffrey, and confirmed a January eighth flight.
Our son’s arrival date blew into Connecticut with all the intensity of a swirling, white nor’easter. We called Hartford’s Bradley airport throughout the day, anxiously requesting updated flight information. By 3:00 p.m. the airlines reported the news we had feared. “I’m sorry, that flight’s been cancelled. Your party is en route from Oregon to Chicago, but there will be no connecting flight from that point.”
For two hours we waited, heard nothing, ate pistachios and almonds, and drank large glasses of water. Finally, at 5:00 p.m., the phone rang. “I can try for a different flight,” Fern stated. “Can you make it to Newark, New Jersey?”
Within 15 minutes the flight was confirmed, and we found ourselves sliding down a very unplowed Interstate 95 in our Chevy Chevette, our 3-year-old son strapped in his car seat in the back. We arrived at the airport just as flight 451 landed, anxiously noting the passengers as they streamed into the airport: businessmen, families, flight attendants, pilots, and finally, at the very end of the bustling crowd, Fern wheeling a stroller containing a very small child in a very large blue snowsuit.
Instantly we gathered along a bank of chairs, admiring his grey eyes, long eyelashes, dark hair. Our pictures show a proud older brother, the first to hold the new member of the family.
And now, 18 years later, we again gather as a family in an airport, flight board blinking the arrival of flight 322 from Grand Rapids, businessmen scurrying by in suits, children rushing for grandparents, security guards holding back the waiting crowd, dozens of indistinguishable faces passing in a sea of color.
Then Jeff, my quiet, reserved, always-in-the-background son, lets out three words. I will never know whether it is the old picture she sent, the intensity with which she approaches, or something deep within his heart, hidden there for 18 years.
Questions for Reflection
1. If you were to assign a Scripture or a Biblical principle to this story, what would it be?
2. Throughout our lifetimes we're faced with a myriad of significant, life-changing decisions. How can we know we're making the right ones?
3. Far more significant than the decisions themselves are teh consequences of living with those decisions. From where do you draw strength to meet the challenges of daily life? Be specific.
4. What blessings would you now be missing if you hadn't made the life decisions you've made?
“There she is,” he says and begins to move forward, his arms outstretched.
Eric and I stand rooted to the spot, privileged to be part of the moment. Through my own tears, I manage three pictures that capture the story: the embrace—tight, wrapped, and strong. Then, one step back, the two faces examining each other—same nose, chin, mouth. And finally, holding each other at arm’s length, the final examination—the closed-mouth smiles, the pride of knowing at last.
Sometimes it seems as if the significant moments of my life are forever etched in the plastic chairs and bustling crowds of airports. In 1984, while departing passengers streamed all around me in Albany, New York, I gathered a 5-day-old infant into my arms, forever changing my name to Mom. In 1987 I collected a tiny child in a large blue snowsuit amid the snow-flecked coats and red-cheeked passengers who had traversed an outdoor ramp to enter the terminal of Newark International. And today, at Orlando International, I stand privileged to a drama that has been in the making for 18 years.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. In the case of my second son, it takes two mothers. At a time when Jeff is entangled in the turbulence of late adolescent trauma, Michelle comes with a tiny hospital bracelet that reads Andrew Sheneman, a photo of a small infant in a large blue snowsuit, a wood carving of mother and child. As I stand within the midst of a swirling, rushing airport and face the woman who gave life to the son I have been privileged to raise, the circle of love within my heart expands and lets one more in.
Sandra Doran, a former columnist for the
Adventist Review, is an associate superintendent of education in the Florida Conference.