It’s not the usual version of love at first sight: it’s much better. Elizabeth Fitzsimons was adopting a Chinese baby. The girl was a year old, but she already suffered from a long list of medical ailments. She’d had a tumor removed from her back, and suffered nerve damage during the surgery. She had a terrible rash, was dangerously thin and wouldn’t smile. Elizabeth was now faced with a profound dilemma:
Back at the hotel, we hounded the women from the [adoption] agency: Why wasn’t this in her medical report? How could a scar that size not be noticed? It was two inches long, for God’s sake.
They shook their heads. Shrugged. Apologized.
And then they offered a way to make it better.
“In cases like these, we can make a rematch with another baby,” the one in charge said. The rest of the process would be expedited, and we would go home on schedule. We would simply leave with a different girl.
Months before, we had been presented with forms asking which disabilities would be acceptable in a prospective adoptee — what, in other words, did we think we could handle: H.I.V., hepatitis, blindness? We checked off a few mild problems that we knew could be swiftly corrected with proper medical care. As Matt had written on our application: “This will be our first child, and we feel we would need more experience to handle anything more serious.”
Now we faced surgeries, wheelchairs, colostomy bags. I envisioned our home in San Diego with ramps leading to the doors. I saw our lives as being utterly devoted to her care. How would we ever manage?
Yet how could we leave her? Had I given birth to a child with these conditions, I wouldn’t have left her in the hospital. Though a friend would later say, “Well, that’s different,” it wasn’t to me.
I pictured myself boarding the plane with some faceless replacement child and then explaining to friends and family that she wasn’t Natalie, that we had left Natalie in China because she was too damaged, that the deal had been a healthy baby and she wasn’t.
How would I face myself? How would I ever forget? I would always wonder what happened to Natalie.
I knew this was my test, my life’s worth distilled into a moment. I was shaking my head “No” before they finished explaining. We didn’t want another baby, I told them. We wanted our baby, the one sleeping right over there. “She’s our daughter,” I said. “We love her.”
It’s hard to understand this decision. For starters, it is completely irrational. How can you love something that you don’t even know? Elizabeth had only spent a few days with this child, and most of that time had been in hospitals. And then, of course, there is the complete unselfishness of the decision. Why would you choose to make your life more difficult? Why would you knowingly sacrifice your future for an infant that you just met?
I was recently talking to the adoptive parents of a Guatemalan infant. I asked them (somewhat presumptuously) when they began to love their baby. They looked at me like I was an idiot. “Right away,” they said. “As soon as we saw him.” They went on to say that, while they couldn’t imagine how their love for this baby would grow over time, the bond was instantaneous. It was literally love at first sight.
Such stories give me hope for the human condition. (I’m a sentimental fool, I know.) We can try to come up with scientific explanations for this love. Perhaps adopting just triggers the circuits built into our brain by kin selection, or maybe the flood of oxytocin triggered by the sight of a helpless infant interferes with rational thought. But these explanations are beside the point. This instant love is ultimately inexplicable. It defies every logic, and that’s what makes it so heroic.
What happened to Elizabeth’s baby? The story has a happy ending:
There would be other scares, more seizures and much physical therapy to teach her to sit, crawl and walk. She took her first steps one day on the beach at 21 months, her belly full of fish tacos.
NOW she is nearly 3, with thick brown hair, gleaming teeth and twinkling eyes. She takes swimming lessons, goes to day care and insists on wearing flowered sandals to dance. I say to her, “Ohhhh, Natalie,” and she answers, “Ohhhh, Mama.” And I blink back happy tears.
Sometimes when I’m rocking her to sleep, I lean down and breathe in her breath, which now smells of bubble-gum toothpaste and the dinner I cooked for her while she sat in her highchair singing to the dog. And I am amazed that this little girl is mine.