Little girl lost, little girl found

I never thought I'd be able to enjoy Mother's Day again. Then, life brought me Annabelle.

By Ann Hood

Published May 10, 2008 11:09AM (EDT)

My daughter Grace was born in the year of the rat. "Very clever," our Chinese nanny, Ju Hua, told us. "Very special." Those born in the year of the rat are sharp witted and funny. They are charming too, and considered good luck. The Christmas that Ju Hua was with our family, she had her husband in Beijing send Grace a gold charm of a small rat hanging on a chain. "Very special," Ju Hua explained. "Special present for a special girl."

Four months later, Grace died from a virulent form of strep. She was five years old. Ju Hua and her daughter had moved into their own apartment by then. When they heard the news, they came immediately. Ju Hua's face was stricken, her crying uncontrollable. "That girl," she said. "So special."

Grace was studying Chinese at school, and even after Ju Hua left us, Grace would visit her and practice Chinese. "Her pronunciation so good!" Ju Hua would tell me when I picked Grace up. They had cooked together, fried rice and dumplings and the pork dish Grace liked so much. Smelling of garlic and sesame, Grace would wave goodbye to Ju Hua as we drove away. Then she would sing me a Chinese song, or count to twenty in Chinese.

That April day when Grace got sick and I rushed her to the emergency room, as they whisked her to the ICU, the doctor ordered me to help keep the oxygen mask on her face. "Grace," I said, trying to hide the fear that had gripped me, "count to ten and then you'll be in room where the doctor can make you better."

Squirming under the oxygen mask, Grace began to count: "Yee, uhr, sahn," she said in perfect Chinese, "sah, woo, lyo…"

When Ju Hua visited us after Grace died, she told us that her own mother had lost a child, a six year old boy. He got sick very suddenly, like Grace, and he died in her mother's arm as she walked miles to the doctor. "My mother never forget this," Ju Hua said. "But if he didn't die, I would never be born."

There are so many cruel decisions parents have to make when their child dies. The funeral director requested a sheet for the coffin, and I sent the cozy flannel one, pale blue with happy snowmen, that had just been put away with the winter linens. They needed clothes to bury her in, and I carefully removed the tags from the new Capri pants with the ruffled hem and the pink shirt that Grace had picked out but never got a chance to wear. We could, we were told, place anything we wanted in her coffin, so my husband Lorne and I gathered her favorite things, the things that comforted her: Biff, her favorite stuffed animal; Cow, the green blanket decorated with cows; her purple leopard lunch box; her glasses; notes from each of us; crayons and paints; and the gold rat on the chain that Ju Hua had sent for her from China.

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I cannot say for certain when the decision to have another child happened. I do remember sitting alone on a summer afternoon in the room we called the Puzzle Room, a room where Grace and my son Sam and I spent many afternoons listening to Nanci Griffith CDs and working on jigsaw puzzles, sitting there as the hot afternoon stretched endlessly and hopelessly before me, and thinking about how my arms ached to hold Grace and my entire body longed for the buzz of activity that used to surround me just a few short months earlier. It was that same summer that my husband and I camped out together on a beach in Maine and he said, "I have the craziest idea." "So do I," I told him. That was when I put words to it. "Let's have another baby," I said. And he said yes. Then we cried. A light from a lighthouse kept swinging past us, illuminating everything.

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First, my husband had to have his vasectomy reversed. Then, I had to have my hormone levels checked. I was 44 years old, and I did not expect good news. But the doctor who everyone told us could help make it happen said that although I might need a little hormonal help, I could indeed get pregnant.

Once a month, my husband and I drove to New York City to the doctor's Park Avenue office where Lorne masturbated into a cup and I was then inseminated with his sperm. Each time, the doctor was optimistic. Lorne's sperm were great -- good swimmers and plentiful. I ovulated on schedule and had good mucous. We'd had babies before. We could do it again.

But after four months without a pregnancy, the doctor added Clomid to the protocol. Now I went for an intravaginal sonogram, my follicles were counted, and then we went to New York. Four eggs. Six. But no baby.

By March, I was having tests to see if something was going on. In June I had surgery to remove a benign polyp. By fall Lorne was injecting me with Pergonal at almost $2,000 a month, and it was producing less follicles than the Clomid, and I wasn't getting pregnant. Everyone has read about or knows someone who has gone through fertility treatments. It is an emotional nightmare, fueled by false hope and the promise of a treatment that will work. Add grief to that, and the cycle gets even worse.

One day, a friend told me that she knew how to get a baby in Russia, fast. It involved spending time in Finland. It would cost around $40,000, before bribes. The baby was a girl. She had red hair.

Another friend stopped by and told me that she could get children from Hungary. Not babies, but two or three year olds. She could even get twins. Or siblings. It would cost $60,000. Plus donations to various people who would help along the way.

Some people urged me to give up the idea altogether. I heard stories of women who had a child after losing one and forced that new child into the roles of the dead one. I heard of mothers dressing their new baby in their dead child's clothes, making them swim or dance or whatever the other had done. It isn't fair, I was told. Fairness was not something I believed in very much then. If things were fair, a healthy intelligent five year old girl wouldn't die. If things were fair, a family who helped others, who lived a good life together, who love each other, wouldn't be torn apart like this.

By this time, I knew that bringing a baby into our household would help all of us. It would help ease the burden of our grief on Sam, who was only ten years old and read our emotions each morning like barometers. It would bring back the noise and laughter our house had lost. It would fill my empty hours. Babies make you do things for them. They get you up and they get you moving. A baby's smile, I knew, could change everything.

I had spent almost $25,000, and I was out of expendable income. I realized that in this time that had passed and with the money I had spent, we could already have a red haired baby from Russia, or three year old Hungarian twins. Lorne and I decided to stop the fertility treatments and focus on adoption instead. What I knew as soon as we made that decision was that in a year we would have a baby.

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For the next few months, I had coffee with women who had battled Central American governments, rescued children languishing in Russian and Romanian orphanages, lied, borrowed money, corrected cleft palates and crossed eyes and weak hearts, lost babies they had held, named babies they never got to see, traveled thousands of miles more than once, all in pursuit of a baby.

"I don't know if I have the emotional stamina for this," I told Lorne after hearing my friend's story about three failed adoptions in Guatemala and over a hundred thousand dollars spent. She did, finally, have her daughter. But still.

"China," Lorne said. "Everyone I talk to who adopted from China, it went like clockwork."

One afternoon I watched a mother at Sam's school pick up her daughter who she had adopted from China. I sat in my car and watched that little girl leap into her mother's arms and I drove home and emailed that woman. As it turned out, she lived two blocks away from us. "Come over for coffee," she said, "and I'll tell you all about it."

Walking home from her house, Lorne squeezed my hand. "Let's start," he said.

Within a week we were sitting in a crowded room in an adoption agency office in Boston, signing paper, collecting information, beginning the journey that would lead us to China and a baby girl.

I spent the month of April, 2004, filling out paperwork for the adoption. It was exactly two years since Grace had died. This process -- collecting legal documents and getting fingerprinted and asking friends for recommendations -- was the calmest, and most focused thing I had done in two years. I had a purpose, and I moved toward it with a doggedness I had forgotten I possessed.

What I didn't know was that while I filled out papers in triplicate and made appointments and arranged for a home study, a woman in Hunan, China, was giving birth to a baby girl she could not keep. Over a hundred thousand baby girls are abandoned every year in China. Some place the number at even higher than that. In Hunan, as in other provinces, infanticide is not uncommon. Some women give birth with a bucket of water by their beds, and if the baby is a girl, she is drowned. Other women walk for miles from their village to have their baby somewhere that no one knows them. Baby girls are left on footbridges and in parks, at police station doors and orphanage entrances. They are left where their mothers know they will be found. It is illegal to abandon a baby in China, so they are left with no notes or pertinent information. In Hunan, a family who has a girl is allowed to have a second child. But that second child has to be a boy. Therefore, most of the abandoned baby girls in Hunan are second or even third daughters.

A year almost to the day after we began our adoption process, we were on a plane to China to pick up our daughter. We had filed our documents with the Chinese government and then waited for six months to get the call telling us a baby had been referred to us. Her Chinese name was Lou Fu Jing: Lou was the last name given to all the babies in her orphanage, which was in the city of Loudi; Fu was the name given to all the babies in her orphanage because it meant luck, and it was given to counter their bad luck; Jing was the name the orphanage gave her -- bright. She lights up a room, someone wrote on her referral papers.

The name we gave her was Annabelle, Grace's middle name. We had briefly chosen Mamie, and Daisy, and argued over Talullah. But we loved the name Annabelle, and we had loved it enough to almost give it to Grace as her first name. It honored Grace, we decided, without burdening the new baby.

Annabelle had been found in a box at the orphanage door, early in the morning of September 6, 2004. They estimated her age as five months. Most of the babies found abandoned are under two weeks old. Many of them still have their umbilical cord stump. No one will ever know what led Annabelle's mother to leave her there after five months. Perhaps she had not wanted to give her up at all. Perhaps a male relative waited until the baby was not nursing as much as a newborn does and then took her from her mother. Perhaps they tried to hide her in the system -- a forbidden second or third daughter -- and were caught. The penalties for this are huge, often involving many years' salary or loss of medical care for the entire family. Perhaps her mother died. Perhaps her mother got pregnant again and hoped for a boy.

We will never know what led to Annabelle being dressed in blue pants, white socks with blue flowers, a thin coat, and put into a cardboard box in a city that was most likely not her own. Around Loudi, there are dusty roads and fields of kale and sweet potatoes. Women walk with a bamboo pole across their backs, and one head of kale or a sweet potato in a basket at the ends. They take this meager yield to a market miles away to sell. It is not green or beautiful there. No mountains or sea, no glittering architecture. It is not the China in glossy magazines. It is poor and rural and the women there sometimes abandon their baby girls rather than drown them.

We will never know Annabelle's story. We only know this: the date they gave her as her birthday -- determined by the age they guessed her to be on September 6, 2004; chosen as an even number because even numbers are lucky -- that birthday, is April 18, the same day that Grace died. Annabelle, like me, was born in the year of the monkey. Monkeys are intelligent and are known to have a great sense of humor. Monkeys and rats are said to be the best of friends.

Annabelle arrived home on April 6, 2005. It was the year of the rooster. In Chinese astrology, there is an improvement of difficult situations during rooster years. They are a time to seek emotional solace. One of the hexagrams of the I Ching that symbolizes the middle third of a rooster year -- the time when Mother's Day falls -- is the image of a small trickle of water flowing from a rock as a container below it slowly begins to fill. It is called, "The humble power of the smallest."

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"They mark them, you know," someone told us before we left for China. "The mothers brand the babies they abandon. It's a sign of love."

We had heard stories about babies being found with a yam, a sign of how valuable the baby was. We had heard of a note left that simply said: This is my baby. Take care of her. We had heard of one baby found with a bracelet around her wrist, and another with a river rock to indicate she was from a town near water. But this branding was something new.

The group of ten families with which we traveled to China, all got our babies at the same time, in a nondescript city building in Changsha. Changsha is the capital of Hunan Province, and it is four hours from Loudi and the orphanage. Soon, people were lifting pant legs or the cuffs of sleeves to show the small scars on their babies. "They mark them," one mother said, spreading her new daughter's fingers to reveal a scar in between the index and pointer.

On Annabelle's neck I found a thick rope of scar tissue, round and small. The pediatrician examined it and frowned. "Don't get upset," he said, "but this almost looks like a burn that has healed."

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A month after Grace died, I had my first Mother's Day without my daughter. Sam and Lorne carved a heart out of wood, sanded it smooth as if they could ease the pain in my own heart this way. They threaded the wooden heart on a dark red ribbon, and it still hangs from the rear view mirror of my car. But Lorne also gave me a book he made, with pictures of Grace and descriptions beneath them of what Grace and I did together: cooking, reading, laughing, walking hand in hand. It was the worst Mother's Day I could imagine. Here was Sam, my son, offering me a heart. And here was the empty chair, the silence, my own heart, broken.

Each subsequent Mother's Day brought a new pain -- the passing of time without watching Grace growing up, the burst of spring blossoms in our garden mocking my loss. I was a daughterless mother. I had nowhere to put the things a mother places on her daughter. The nail polish I used to paint our toenails hardened. Our favorite videos gathered dust. Her small apron was in a box in the attic. Her shoes -- the sparkly ones, the leopard rainboots, the ballet slippers -- stood in a corner. I kept her hairbrush on a shelf in my closet, and the fine strands of her pale blonde hair were still tangled in it. As I walked out the door, I still sometimes paused to bury my nose in her powder blue jacket, as if I might find something of her there.

Three Mother's Days later, I am sitting in my kitchen singing to Annabelle. It is raining, and I am singing an old Lovin' Spoonful song. We can sit and dry just as long as it can pour, cause the way it makes you look makes me hope it rains some more… I am singing to Annabelle, and she is grinning at me, a big toothless grin. When Annabelle laughs, my heart soars. When she presses her hand into mine, or rests her head against my chest, or falls asleep in my arms, I feel myself slowly, slowly coming back to life.

Sometimes I touch that small round scar on her neck and I wonder about the woman who might have put it there. I wonder if she walked down those dusty roads I saw in China, past the endless fields of kale, cradling her daughter in her arms. I wonder if she cried when she placed her in that small box. I wonder what words she might have whispered to her.

On Mother's Day now, each year, I think about Grace. And I think about this woman I will never know. I, of course, thank her, and I praise her strength in doing this seemingly impossible thing: giving her daughter to me. She will never know that I have her daughter because I lost Grace. She will never know the road I traveled to get her.

Annabelle lifts her arms to me, and I pick her up.

"Mama," she whispers.

"Daughter," I whisper back.

Ann Hood

Ann Hood is the author of the novel "The Book that Matters Most," published this month with W.W. Norton & Co.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Adoption Children China Mother's Day Mother's Day 2012