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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The joys of adoption

September was an insane month and our lives have not been our own. Between work commitments, football and Art Prize, we’ve been crazy busy. But last week, something happened that I can honestly say stopped my heart and probably took ten years off my life. I was at home on Wednesday after a great photo shoot for an upcoming show at the Gallery Project, and my cell phone rang. It was Eli’s social worker. Her voice, normally bouncy and light was sullen and decidedly dark. She was very matter of fact as she shared with me that Eli’s birthfather had contacted her to let her know that both he and Eli’s birthmother were HIV positive. They didn’t know when they contracted it, but they were now, at this time, positive. I stood in our kitchen in stunned silence as I let her talk for a bit more (what she said, I don’t know or remember) and the wheels of terror started turning in my head. I know a lot about HIV, how it’s spread, contracted, etc. But most of that is from a gay perspective. I have never had to deal with HIV from a straight perspective.

I thanked Amy for her call and she choked up a bit as she said “Tom, I am so sorry. Please let me know what you find out.” I called our family physician and had a pretty frank conversation with the woman who answered the phone. She was very helpful and gave me a whole host of ideas for what to do. We decided that it would be best for the local hospital to do the lab work, so I had her send over a standing order. In the meantime, I called Tod at work and shared the information. He had a meeting after work so he said that he would come and get Eli to take him to get the blood drawn. I can’t tell you what was going on in his head, but he was very calm and collected. I love him for that trait. He is my rock when shit like this goes down. We had a brief chat, as he was in his classroom with his students, and we both went on with our days.
I never expected this to happen this way. After dodging the HIV bullet for three decades, I thought for sure that it would be me that would be positive and not my adopted son. This past summer, a fellow Family Week dad and I were sitting on Oval Beach watching the multitude of kids frolic in front of us on the shores of Lake Michigan. There were hundreds of them, from all walks of life. There were many that were handicapped, there were a few that had mental/emotional handicaps, there were many from other countries and there were some that honestly defied description. We began a conversation that some will consider insensitive, but bear with me on this. The comment was made that we as LGBT parents are often the ones that come in and pick up the trash left by the heterosexual birthparents. That was tough to hear as I would never consider a child trash. However, many of these kids were tossed aside when life got too tough, or when the kids became an inconvenience, or when the law had to step in and take over. Some were deemed “unadoptable” because of their illnesses/conditions but yet, here they were thriving in their new homes.

Eli was one of those kids. His parents couldn’t stay sober long enough to take care of him, so when he got sick his teenage aunt took him to the hospital and the authorities stepped in and had him placed with his foster parents. It hurts to check out Eli’s birthparent’s Facebook pages, as they both have pictures of him and list them as their child. Yes, you created this child, but you also abused and neglected him. You may have had the plumbing to make this work, but you didn’t have the mindset or the capacity for sobriety to raise a child in a loving home. In the time since Eli’s birth and removal from their custody, his birthparents have had several more children with a variety of other parents. Eli’s family tree is something made for the Maury Show.
Because of the timing of when we had the lab work done, and the time it takes to process, we spent five days in a fugue state of sorts. I went to work on Thursday after a fitful night of sleep and told my Dean the situation. I needed someone besides Tod and the social worker to know our situation. He was very understanding and told me to do what I needed to do. Thursdays are my long day at the college. I am there for about 13 hours. I did what I could to stay focused, but my thoughts continually went to Eli and the news we got from Amy. I spent some time looking up information on HIV and pregnancy, and there was a glimmer of hope as most kids born from women who are HIV positive usually are okay if they are not breastfed and care is taken during the birth to protect them from further infection. I seriously doubt that Eli’s mom breastfed him, as that would have totally interfered with her drinking and drug use. I checked out a recent wall post on her Facebook page, and she alluded to the fact that she couldn’t wait for this (pregnancy) to be over so she could get stoned again and resume her partying ways. Yes, Eli’s brother is in foster care now.

So we spent some time getting the house ready for winter. I always have this day in October or November floating around in my head each spring as I drag out all the stuff for our lives outside during the spring/summer months. I know that we’ll have to get a sitter to watch the kids while we put all that stuff away in the fall, which is what we did this past weekend. Eli napped and Anna played with the sitter while we busied ourselves, barely talking about the situation as we loaded up the cars for recycling and the Goodwill store. I spent the majority of the weekend mentally kicking myself for not being more patient with Eli and replayed scenarios in my head when his toddler behavior got the best of me. I felt like a monster, thinking about this kid and all the times that I have yelled at him or been less than tolerant of his antics as a three year old.
We got through the weekend and had a pretty good time with the two kids. There were moments, as they didn’t get naps on Sunday, none of us did actually. So tempers were short and emotions were running on 11. At one point, Tod and I did talk about the situation and we stepped into the “what if?” zone, a dangerous place to be with something like this. We had not told our parents or Eli’s foster parents, so we made a mental list of who we would tell and discussed the ramifications. It was not a good conversation, but it was one we needed to have just in case. At any public school or childcare institution, all kids are treated like potential bio-hazards. Any parent will agree that they are really a hazard. Between the nose picking, the booger eating, the poor potty hygiene, it’s a wonder any of them live to see five. They are walking petri dishes with grabby hands and runny noses. But this was different, but we knew that he would be treated fairly and with respect when he got to school. The ignorance and fear that permeated the early years of this disease are long gone.

I made the mistake of drinking a glass of iced tea on Sunday afternoon, and my sleep on Sunday night was less than restful. We went about our business Monday morning, and when I got to the college I called the doctor’s office to see if there was any news on the test. The woman who answered the phone told me that the test came back negative and that Eli was okay. I started crying on the phone as I thanked her and asked her what we needed to do next. The doctor was right there and he said we were okay, that after almost four years, Eli was safe. My hands were shaking as I called Tod and shared the good news.
So now what? Eli is fine and healthy, but his birth family is sick. We have no contact with them due to the nature of his placement and we like that arrangement. We have asked Eli’s social worker to keep us posted and to let us know what is up with this situation. I shared this story with our daycare provider and she grabbed me and hugged me and asked me why we didn’t tell her so she could have shared in our stressful weekend as we waited for the results. I told her that sometimes you have to face things alone, deal with them as a family, and then share with the rest of the world. Tod and I shared this horrible weekend together, it’s a weekend I hope we never have to live through again.