From the jacket:
The median age for becoming a parent has climbed, and Tom LaMarr is the reason. The Geezer Dad author was nearly 48 when he met his daughter, which makes him even older now. The story of his transformation from career-minded guy who wasn’t completely sure he wanted children to age-impaired dad pulling out reading glasses in the supermarket’s baby aisle, Geezer Dad will resonate with older first-time parents and parents-to-be, as well as those still contemplating the journey. Whether 36 or 63, late starters will see this book as a welcome source of laughter and reassurance, while finding useful information based on firsthand experience. The book is also recommended for the chronically curious, baffled by questions like, “Where are all these old guys with baby strollers coming from?” and “Are they going to make it up that hill?” Representing societal change at its most sweeping, the graying of parenthood is no short-term trend. These old new dads aren’t going anywhere, at least not quickly, and now we can see exactly what they’re up to, thanks to the sweet, funny memoir that is Geezer Dad.
We had put in our time as a childless couple. When I first met Sam in her home state of Florida, compact discs were a gimmick that would never take hold. In New York City, she accepted my proposal, hours after dining at Windows on the World, atop a 107-story building that no longer exists. The restaurants and museums of Washington, DC, placed the world within walking distance of our first home, a slim, three-story townhouse. I started my own business as a freelance writer, and was encouraged to learn that my neighbor also worked at home — until I looked out one afternoon to see our street turned into a police-station parking lot. His crack house, apparently, had not been properly licensed. The barrels of semi-automatic rifles, dozens of them, gleamed in the sun.
Three years into our marriage, we moved to Colorado to be closer to family (my brother, an uncle, two aunts, and six cousins) as well as the Rockies (the mountains, not the baseball team). Sam went back to school and landed an ideal job in the field of renewable energy. I worked weekends and nights for clients who compensated me well for the inconvenience of being handcuffed to a computer, and as a result, we bought a more desirable house than I ever thought I’d see with an English degree. Although we had lost our proximity to the National Gallery of Art, the incidence of crack-house raids was greatly reduced. For the first time in our lives, Sam and I felt settled.
A modest commute northwest of Denver, our small suburb had not surrendered all of its character when stripped of its identity as a coal-mining town. Main Street still claimed a disproportionate number of authentic Italian restaurants, and a half-century-old fire burns to this day in one of the tunnels beneath Old Town. Our neighbors proved more interesting and diverse than the ones I’d been expecting to meet, and our bedroom windows opened to postcard views of the Continental Divide. It seemed like a good place to raise a kid.
Now in her second month of pregnancy, Sam had never been more radiant — or obsessed. She went cold turkey, bidding farewell to her two twelve-ounce bottles of Flying Dog beer with Friday night pizza. She made lists of baby names that wouldn’t sound silly in five years. Our groceries were chosen with care; she added new colors like yellow and green.
We were being set up.
The miscarriage left us irreparably battered. We worked, read, ate, and slept as before, but we were not the same. “It feels like someone stole our lives and replaced them with habits,” Sam said to me as I pulled out my Rent One Get One Free coupon. We were waiting in line at Videoglut, as we did every Thursday evening.
“You think our lives are a series of habits?” I said. “I don’t know. Say, do you have four pennies? With tax, it always comes out to four dollars and twenty-nine cents.”
Our house seemed bigger, emptier, quieter. Music didn’t help. The walls absorbed all sound. Complicating matters, it soon became clear that the two of us weren’t going through the same crisis. When Sam told me she was “grieving,” I couldn’t simply nod and say, “I know exactly what you’re feeling.” Having seen the fetal tissue — and having carried it in a clear plastic bag to the medical clinic, an experience I could have done without — I had difficulty perceiving it as a human being. What I had seen was a collection of cells, an unformed pink glob that couldn’t have weighed three ounces, and had never been destined to become something greater. This wasn’t the same as losing my dad. I felt pain, but for Sam alone, for the weight I couldn’t help carry. Of course, I was able to understand that her mourning was for the concept, for the promise of a child. But I wasn’t ready to bury that concept. “We know we can get pregnant,” I said. “We weren’t even off the pill that long. It can’t be that hard to have a baby.”
I was wrong — three words that appear frequently in this account.
What I did see clearly was a lover and friend in distress. The radiance had faded, leaving only obsession. Sam no longer felt ambivalent. She wanted a child. Preferably that instant.
“I’ve watched my friends get pregnant,” she said. “Their kids are all they talk about.”
Although I recalled conversations with these same friends about books, music, politics, and weather, I understood why Sam’s memory had become so selective. This was a woman with a profound maternal instinct. In her office and book club, she had always been the leader, the planner. She was the one who collected for birthdays and showers, the one who arrived at potluck dinners with food enough for everyone. Only one technicality prevented her from being Mom of the Year: her not having the child she was meant to nurture and cherish. “I want to hear someone say, ‘Mommy, I love you.’ To me. Is that too much to ask from life?”
Compounding our discomfort, I had prevailed a few weeks earlier in making the case: “What harm could there be in telling our families and a few close friends?” As a result, our misfortune stalked us. Moms and brothers called to offer support and see how we were doing. “You and Sam must really be grieving.” We couldn’t get away from what had gone wrong.
Penny and Carl, two thoughtful friends who happen to be neighbors and successful parents, showed up one evening with flowers, a gesture that brought needed color and cheer into our home. Their act of kindness made me look bad as well, given that they had selfishly written their own names on the card. I was the one who should have ordered flowers, and would have ordered flowers had I not forgotten how, thanks to our two surrogate children. Housecats their entire lives, Bud and Hobbes love nothing more than having nature delivered to them in a vase, meaning a bouquet is generally good for a day after it shows up on our doorstep. The boys are partial to petals, leaves, and stems. The card is usually spared. If a flower arrangement is to have any chance of survival in this less-than-friendly environment, it must seek shelter, fast, on the floor of our shower, its beauty locked behind smoky glass, out of reach to man and cat.
As if saying, “I dare you two to mess with me now,” Sam placed the vase on a dresser in our bedroom. But the boys seemed to know that these flowers were special, and left them alone for an extra ten hours. My wife savored the post-impressionistic splashes of pink, red, and blue right up until I heard her shout, “For God’s sake, Bud, get away from the flowers.” The exhibit closed that evening, with the janitor — me — vacuuming up the petals and stems, or what could be loosely identified as such.
Two other good friends, Ellen and Jane, came to our house with news and a book. The news? They had just submitted a sizable first payment to Global Chinese American Adoptions. They were going to be mommies. The book they brought continued the theme. The Lost Daughters of China. A used copy. From the wonderfully funky used bookstore in Old Town, just off of Main Street. Ellen’s the owner. “You should consider it,” Jane said. “Read the book.”
My wife told Jane that we’d do both, and I knew she would read the book. But I also knew Sam wanted two things no international adoption agency could provide: the experience of pregnancy, and holding her own infant in her arms..
(Longer, funnier, more embarrassing excerpts below.)
“An engaging human journey, both heartwarming and hilarious.”
—Karin Evans, author of The Lost Daughters of China
“A great book on adoption … manages to be honest, serious, and funny all at the same time…”
—Dawn Davenport, host of the national radio show, Creating a Family
“This is a very funny book.”
—Ryan Warner, host of Colorado Matters, Colorado Public Radio
“A side-splitting look at adopting as an older parent… LaMarr’s memoir delivers everything it promises…with plenty of humor and raw emotion… All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable, relatable read.”
—Adoptive Families Magazine, reviewing the “Best Adoption Books of 2015”
“Dads, so often missing from adoption stories or portrayed as minor players, have author Tom LaMarr to thank for bringing to light the uniquely male perspective on building a family. Geezer Dad takes its readers on a journey that will delight them with its wit, surprise them with its wisdom, and touch them with its tenderness.”
—Jana Wolff, author of Secret Thoughts of an Adoptive Mother
“Tom LaMarr, the author of two critically praised novels, returns with his first memoir… a story that features both Barry-esque humor and a helpfully pioneering attitude for older parents.”
—Boulder Sunday Camera
“The book is humorous and touching and full of insights into a problem faced by many, though the appeal is to all readers. It’s about hope and love winning out when the odds are tough.”
—Robert Garner McBrearty, author of The Lonesome Western Society
Geezer Dad reached Number Four on Amazon’s Hot New Books on Parenting and Adoption.
Two more excerpts starting with Chapter 5:
The Things We Do for Love.
Yes, I have debased myself in doctor’s offices. But discarding a few moments here and there, it wasn’t much fun and was never destined to become a fetish. I’m saying this upfront because it’s the most embarrassing thing in this chapter and possibly the book. Now, we can all take a deep breath and proceed (though I sincerely request you forget this chapter the moment you finish reading).
For those lacking firsthand knowledge of artificial insemination, it’s survival of the fittest in microcosm. It’s also where the middleman comes into the process. Prospective dads agreeing to this option entrust their semen to licensed healthcare professionals who place it in a variety of Tupperware while washing it off, then toss it in the medical equivalent of a blender until the hardiest little swimmers rise to the top. “Keep paddling, Robert. For God’s sake, keep paddling.” This proud new race of supersperm is then inserted (in lay terms, squirted) deep into the appropriate vagina. The insertion-specialist-nurse employs a long, thin plastic tube to achieve this final goal. She’s aided, too, by metal torture devices that women apparently know from their visits to gynecologists, and that, for reasons unclear to me, have been stored on ice the night before. The nurse feigns ignorance—“I’m sorry. Is that cold?”—but I think she’s enjoying this. “Oh dear, it is uncomfortable, isn’t it?” Forget champagne. Forget flowers. This is romance, the kind one finds only in a doctor’s office with harsh fluorescent lighting—or sleeping on an in-law’s foldout couch.
The first part of this process is tricky, of course, because as any man reading this knows, coming up with the goods is somewhat more complicated than saying, “Sperm? Sure, just happen to have some. And there’s plenty more where that came from.” Frankly, I haven’t been able to say this since I was seventeen and lying awake at night hosting impure thoughts about the airbrushed “supermodel” on the poster on my wall. These days, instant gratification takes forever, though my wife assures me this is a good thing. Not so at the fertility clinic, where no one has ever whispered, “Slow down, babe. Make it last.”
The digital clock-radio might have been placed in the Donor Room to give nervous patients the option of soothing their savage beasts with music—“You’re grooving with Kenny G on E.Z. 105”—but I suspected its main purpose is to remind 7:30 Donor that 7:45 Donor was also paying good money for the privilege of using that room. As I quickly learned, artificial insemination requires a fair amount of manual participation—not to mention a level of concentration I always managed to leave at home—and I felt under the gun to produce. I didn’t need to hear someone pounding on the door. “Hey, pal, there’s a line out here. Give the rest of us a chance.”
The funniest thing about artificial insemination is that sex is prohibited for three days beforehand. It’s important to build that sperm count, and God forbid I impregnate my wife without others looking on. Not so amusing are the cost and humiliation—two factors that helped make our first visit that much more memorable.
The morning started with a twenty-minute drive to a doctors’ complex, taking separate cars so that Sam could continue on to work, where she would squirm in the same chair for eight hours straight, ignoring complaints from her stomach and bladder, while pressing her thighs together to ensure that nothing snuck back out. “Hold on, Robert! You’ve traveled too far to give in now. Swim toward the light. Swim toward the light.” Here’s how I recall that inaugural visit, conceding that my memory is helped by the fact we returned many times.
The receptionist seems pleasant enough for 7:30 in the morning. “Cash upfront,” she says calmly, “credit cards welcome.” It hits me that this the closest I’ve ever come to paying for sex, though I’m willing to bet I’d get a lot more service in a Nevada brothel for the amount she’s putting on that card. She wants to see my insurance card too, and while I oblige, I already know our HMO won’t chip in because CIGNA treats this as if it were prostitution. I find this ironic, since they’re the ones who always leave us feeling screwed.
Once my cards are back in my wallet and I’ve signed away the equivalent of a Cambodian teacher’s annual wages, a nurse appears in a doorway. She invites me to “Come this way, Tom,” and leads me to a dimly lit room, small for an office, spacious for a Men’s room. Furnished with couch, cabinet, and yes, sink and toilet, this is the Donor Room. She stops shy of the door … so much for her willingness to help, as well as the shameful state of healthcare in the United States. The door closes and I must try to remember why we’re doing this, I must think of “the baby.” But the idea of new life seems as alien to this place as pro bono clients. The walls are spare, no Sears Family Portraits of wide-eyed, smiling toddlers, no wallpaper-trim depictions of hippos and hamsters and sidewinder snakes queuing to board an ark.
Blinds hide a window on the opposite wall. These probably open to the street; I figure I’ll keep them closed. Next, I’m looking under the couch and prying open cabinet doors until I find a stack of Playboys and something called Perfect 10, cringing at the thought that these magazines have been touched by hundreds of other men wearing their underwear down around their ankles. At least there’s soap and water in a dispenser above the sink, and as I proceed to Step Two—underwear in place—I am further aroused by the sounds of professional healthcare technicians going about their business.
“Oh, please, nursey, please,” I want to shout. “You dirty, dirty girl. Could you repeat those words, Do we have a sperm count for Mr. Smith?” I must concentrate … concentrate … and stop glancing at the stupid digital clock. Go away, Mr. Smith. Get out of my fantasy. Just try to focus on the task at hand. Ah, that’s better … better … better. Oh god, Miss November, will you mother my child?
Finally, the cap goes on the plastic vial, at which time I’m grateful to have already jotted my last name on an adhesive label that will grace the container. With pride and shaky penmanship, I do add one last piece of information, writing 100 on the “Percent of emission” line.
More good news: No one’s pounding on the door. But this doesn’t mean I’m in the clear. I must deposit my deposit in an in-box conveniently located on the middle of a wide, bright counter near the front desk (I’m waiting for a bell or siren to sound) and crawl back into the waiting room, avoiding the eyes of lesbian couples who are clearly thinking, Jeez, I hope they don’t give us his sperm.
Once in the seat Sam’s been saving for me, I try to read the morning paper, hoping I won’t find headlines on the order of, “Childless Colorado Author Masturbates in Doctor’s Office.” Concentrate … concentrate. This is when my wife takes my hand—the other one—and calms me by saying, “Honey, where did you leave your pants?”
I won’t see my sperm for another hour, and some of it, sadly, is lost to me forever. But for my adventurous seed, it’s an eventful sixty minutes, basically the sperm equivalent of those “reality” game shows created by visionaries at Fox and CBS to avoid paying writers and actors (and to convince terrorist organizations that our culture really isn’t worth attacking). “Tonight on Survival Down Under, find out which unlucky spermatozoon gets voted off the tube? The viewer decides the outcome, something you can’t say for The Sopranos or West Wing—or for that matter, books. Eight o’clock. Seven central.”
Sam and I spend most of the hour in relative calm, fidgeting, reading, and trying not to peek at the other infertile couples that enter and exit the clinic. After forty minutes, we’re escorted to a room that looks like a real doctor’s office. It smells like one too, alcohol-clean, gamete-free. The nurse stays with us, no freezing up at the door this time. I ask about the expensive-looking machine that takes up a third of the room. “It’s an ultrasound device,” she explains, leaving off the words, “that you two will be paying for.”
She lifts a phallic cylinder that’s attached to the machine by way of vacuum cleaner hose. But the image the nurse wishes to maintain is the phallic one, so she places something that looks a lot like a prophylactic over the cylinder’s head (Where was this mental image when I was stuck in that other room?) and lubricates it with a Vaseline-like gel. Gleaming in the room’s bright lighting—here the overhead lights burn like the sun, the sun as seen from Mercury—this attachment shows no desire to erase old stereotypes. It behaves as expected, promptly making its way to my wife’s most private parts. But here’s a surprise. This phallus does one thing mine cannot—it takes pictures—and soon, we’re looking at scenes from inside the womb on a twenty-inch screen similar to a computer’s monitor. These images require some imagination on my part; they’re murky and gray and could well be shots of caverns from a PBS nature special. “We are careful not to disturb the nesting vampire bats. Oh darn. We have disturbed the nesting vampire bats.”
The nurse tells us that she’s spotted an egg. “Looking good. Ooh, there’s a second one in the left ovary. Excellent. Excellent.” For my wife, hearing these kind words may be the only pleasure she gets in return for her trio of sex-free days. But I don’t think it does much for her. She’s never been vain about her eggs. Besides, she’s about to learn that our nurse is free and easy with compliments. When the sperm make their entrance, already assembled in their slim plastic tube, the nurse beams. “This is excellent, Mr. LaMarr. The motility is excellent. We’re looking good.”
The count is something like 87 trillion, give or take a few zeroes, meaning that my wife would have to produce several more eggs to make this a fair contest. “It’s looking great,” the nurse exclaims, her pitch rising. “An excellent sample.” It’s my turn now to feel uneasy. After decades of waiting for someone to tell me I’m good at something, I’m disappointed to learn it’s masturbation.
“Not all sperm are created equal,” the nurse adds. “Our process weeds out the weaker specimens.” She seems proud of her role in this Darwinian death match. “Plus, semen only live three days. Our aim is to achieve a younger, more vital population.”
I am pleased to discover that the final step is not so cold and mechanical. (Well, actually it is cold, thanks to that freeze-dried gadget.) Sam and I hold hands and I press the trigger that completes the ancient insemination ritual. “Slow down, Mr. LaMarr,” the nurse whispers. “Make it last.” Smiling, she turns out the lights and leaves the room. She must also have pressed a button on this room’s clock-radio, because an announcer is saying, “You’re listening to the Big E.Z. and we’re grooving with Kenny G.”
“Thanks for doing this,” Sam says. “You know it’s important to me.”
Heading home, I feel empty and weak, and I’m reminded of driving back to my apartment when I was in my twenties and dates sometimes stretched into wee morning hours. Since I’m reliving those memories, there’s only one thing for me to do: stop and get fast food. A biscuit sounds good.
“It could’ve been worse,” a friend explained a few years later. “It could’ve been much, much worse.” Pete had just become an adoptive dad, and I had just learned that he too was a fertility clinic veteran. During his first visit, he disclosed, he pried open the cabinet doors only to find a selection of medical publications. No doubt humming “The Things We Do for Love” to himself, Pete chose to soldier on. For him, unfortunately, this did turn into a fetish, and to this day his wife is perplexed by his subscription to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Pete works in advertising. Non-medical clients. “Pete, honey, it’s bedtime. You’re straining your eyes with all that reading. It’s been half an hour. There’s a line out here. Give the rest of us a chance.”
Just Add Milk.
After all the warnings that we might be caught off guard, we were caught off guard. Eighteen months into an adoption process predicted to take two years, we were about to meet a new birth mother and, quite possibly, our child. As for having what we needed to bring a baby home—car seats, diapers, formula, and so on—we had the home. And even then, all the rooms were in the wrong places. The guestroom bed still dominated the nursery, while my computer and desk continued their occupation of the guestroom, refusing to yield to the bed.
My office had been promised new digs in the basement. But the basement wasn’t quite ready, and so we spent most of our last childfree weekend painting drywall and trim, lighting the first stick of dynamite to break the furniture logjam. In between coats, we ventured out to Babies “R” Us, where we purchased the top-Consumer Reports-rated car seat, and drove into Boulder to borrow a bassinet. At night, we practiced going without sleep, much as we had been doing since our caseworker Dawn first called. So much to remember, so much to get done. The hailstorm of thought would not let up.
It was five o’clock Sunday when I realized that while the basement looked great, the car seat still sat in its crate. “One more thing I’d better do,” I grumbled while rinsing my paintbrush in the kitchen sink. “A cardboard box with holes in the top is not going to impress Dawn.”
Sam asked if I needed her help.
“I don’t know,” I answered my wife. “I left three messages with the state patrol.”
“They install these things—or claim to.”
“You could ask a neighbor.”
“In a perfect world, I’d do just that. But no one seems to be home this weekend.”
As if on cue, the phone rang and Trooper Steve introduced himself. “Understand you need an assist.”
“Yes,” I said, “but I’ve run out of time. We have to be in south Denver tomorrow.” We were due at our agency at half-past-ten, giving Dawn a scant thirty minutes to prepare us for the second most important meeting of our married lives: birth mother at eleven. It took an hour to get there at speeds not recommended by the state patrol, and I was hoping to shower and dress before leaving, going those extra inches to impress the birth mother and her caseworker, both of whom still had the power to reject us. “Any chance we could stop en route?” I asked Trooper Steve. “Say, in the spare seconds between 8:45 and 8:46?”
He laughed and said, “We deliver. Provided there aren’t any fatals between now and then, I could be there by six.”
It was still light outside when Sam first asked a uniformed state trooper if it was okay to take his photo while he buckled the car-seat base into position.
“No problemo,” he replied, and we learned that Steve was a new dad himself. Eight weeks in. “I like doing this,” he added. “I don’t like working fatals, especially when they involve small children and could have been prevented.”
I was amazed by the amount of force required to make the base an immovable object. Mustering all available body weight, Steve pressed down on the uneven plastic surface with his knee. I could tell this was painful, even if Steve wasn’t the kind of state trooper who cried in front of strangers. He then tugged at the belt with his last reserves of strength, his face turning red, knee still in harm’s way.
“Got it?” he asked before baffling us by releasing the seat belt and backing out of the car, taking the base with him.
Sam fairly shouted, “Isn’t that supposed to hold the seat in place?”
“I want each of you to take a turn at installing the base.”
“It looked painful,” I said.
“You’ll need to know this.”
I went first, and quickly learned that, agreeable as Steve was, having a state trooper watch me perform a task does not bring out my agility and strength. “You should use this as part of your sobriety test,” I suggested as the seat belt twisted in the wrong direction.
“Concentrate,” he said, and I wanted to ask, On what? The prospect of going through life with one good knee? “You’re not pressing down hard enough.”
“Sorry,” I muttered under my breath, “I’m having a problemo.”
Sam secured it in half the time. “Nice job,” Steve told her. “It’s good to see a responsible parent.”
I was clean and fully dressed the following morning when we met Laura, the strong, selfless woman who wanted her biological child to know things she couldn’t teach her. “I’ve never seen the ocean,” she said as her caseworker motioned for us to take seats in a tight circle of folding chairs. “I’ve got so many dreams that won’t ever happen. I want them to happen for her.”
One thing helped to put me at ease, to the extent this was possible. Laura reminded me of a Denver friend—a feisty Texas transplant who worked in the music business, repping for Warner’s. Laura could have been Jamie’s sister, in fact, united by spunk and some physical similarities, had it not been for that ex-Tex factor. Our birth mother had grown up on Colorado’s eastern plains.
Laura revealed another dream, saying, “I didn’t stick it out in school. I don’t want this to be true for—” She paused before using the name we had chosen. “Evelyn.” I assured her we’d do our best to make Evelyn hunger for knowledge. Sam went one step further, telling Laura, “It’s never too late to go back to school. I’m speaking from experience.”
The office belonged to Laura’s caseworker. We recognized Rachel from our second education class, where she had been one of the speakers. Rachel had looked different then in that she wasn’t pregnant. This was why Dawn had reintroduced her as “the world’s most conscientious caseworker. Rachel stops at nothing to create a bond with her clients.”
The meeting was emotional, for us, for Dawn, for Laura and Rachel. But we also laughed—all five of us—and I took this as a good sign. Rachel asked if we were ready to keep our unwritten agreement with the birth mother to send photos and progress reports at six-month intervals through the agency. “That was always the plan,” I said, and Sam asked if Laura wouldn’t mind providing a photo of herself at some point in the future. “For Evelyn.”
On the drive down, Sam had told me she wanted to ask why we had been selected. “You could be sorry,” I said. “Remember Dawn’s story about the couple that was chosen because a pregnant eighteen-year-old saw a couch in their adoption video that reminded her ‘of the one in Mom’s house’?”
I didn’t bring up the more common response that older couples received, “He reminds me of my dad.”
Sam risked humility. Looking into Laura’s eyes, she asked, “Would you be comfortable sharing why you picked us?”
Laura didn’t hesitate. “He’s funny,” she said.
But as much as I like repeating this exchange, her answer was funny in itself in that I couldn’t remember being anything but nervous when we shot our video. Still, her words offered proof that Evelyn was meant to be with us—and grow up to be a smartass like her old man. They also reinforced my belief that a sense of humor is essential to surviving infertility.
“I liked that he works at home,” she said next. “I liked that he’ll spend time with her.” This surprised me as well in that I’d been expecting my lack of a commute to cost us points. In the sample videos Sam and I had watched, the wives all made the very same promise, as if reading from a standardized script: “I plan to retire and never lift a finger outside of our lovely home unless lifting that finger will affect our child’s development in a positive manner.”
“One more thing,” Laura said. “The cats. That showed you could take care of others.”
I couldn’t have found a better place to insert my joke: That reminds me, will she need her own litter box? But Sam had not laughed when I tested it on friends, and so, with great effort, I held my peace.
Ironically, however, it was Sam who misspoke and got the puzzled looks. Her response to Laura’s perfectly sound reasons for choosing us—“Tom was afraid you’d say it was our couch”—simply baffled the other women. Needless to say, I had no choice but to bail out my wife with the litter-box joke.
Laura talked about her childhood in rural Colorado, explaining how her older brothers trained the family goat to pin her to the barn with its horns. She told us why she chose adoption, then gave us two photos. “Oh, Evelyn,” I whispered, taking in my daughter. Hours old at the time, she was wide-eyed and shaggy on top, with one roller-coaster curl that brought to mind Bob’s Big Boy.
“She’s gorgeous,” Sam said, and it was true.
“She is,” Laura whispered, and while I heard more pride than sadness, the latter was hardly inaudible. Sam and I kept our eyes on the photos.
“Questions?” Rachel stepped in, sensing that the meeting was over. “Anyone?”
We rose from our chairs to exchange friendly hugs, and Sam said, “I hope you realize your dreams.” Her hand rested on Laura’s forearm. “I hope you see the ocean.”
Sam and I were barely inside Dawn’s office when I blurted, “Let’s do it.”
“Agreed,” Sam said. “This is the one.”
“You’ll get no argument from me,” Dawn said, taking her seat and glancing at some papers on the desk, “but we’re still waiting to make sure Laura’s okay with her initial decision.”
She asked Sam to pull the door, but this proved impossible. Rachel was standing in it. “So—” She was smiling as well. “It’s good on our end. All I need are some willing adoptive parents. What have you got for me, Dawn?”
I heard a long “Thank God” while Sam grabbed my hand and attempted to crush it. “I’m already in love with that baby and we haven’t even met her.”
“I take it that’s a yes,” Rachel said.
We told the caseworkers how lucky we felt. We liked the birth mother. She seemed to be an intrinsically decent, intelligent person who had endured bad breaks and, like everyone else negotiating a passage through this life, a few bad decisions. She clearly wanted the best for Evelyn.
“Before today,” Sam said, finally freeing my hand from her trash-compactor grip, “I worried about things we’d have to tell our child. That was the one part of adoption that scared me to death. Those serious talks when she’s a teen.” I knew exactly what Sam was saying. As adoptive parents, it would be our duty to share our child’s birth history, all of it, however dark or potentially damaging. In eighteen years, she would see it on her own—the law made this clear—and the surest way to nurture mistrust was to withhold information.
“Now,” Sam continued, “I don’t think it will be that hard. Laura’s a good person, and she told us more about the birth father than we ever thought we’d know. It just wasn’t the right time for either of them to raise a child.”
“That’s been our opinion,” said Rachel.
“Speaking of Laura—” Dawn interrupted.
“Yeah, I know. She must be wondering what happened to me.”
“We’re going to meet with her one more time,” Dawn explained. “Are we ready? Mom? Dad?”
Sam grabbed a fresh tissue from the box on Dawn’s desk.
“Almost forgot,” Rachel said, stopping just outside the door. “You need to know she won’t be at the Placement Ceremony tomorrow, when this all becomes official. She said her goodbyes at the hospital—that’s how she feels. I think she knows just what she can bear.”
This made even more sense when we returned to Rachel’s office. Laura had changed, though the word I really wanted was, diminished. Like the moon at that instant the fog first rolls in, she seemed distant and pale. One look at my wife explained this phenomenon, for she had changed too. Sam was aglow, no fog factor here. The aura of motherhood, so tangible at that moment, had clearly been passed from one woman to another.
Despite my concern for Laura, I couldn’t help but wonder if I, too, looked different. Did dads metamorphose? It only seemed fair. Certainly, I was hosting emotions that were new to me, or new in this concentration. I doubted I was radiating, however.
Rachel broke the silence that had gone unnoticed by the rest of us. “This child is going to have an extraordinary life. I know it.” She faced Laura as she spoke. “And she’ll have you to thank. For what you’re doing today.”
Dawn waited a few seconds before asking, “Anything else? This is the time to speak up.”
“There is one thing,” Sam said, reaching into a small shopping bag for the silver pendant heart purchased that morning at Tiffany’s. This was among the least expensive items in their Denver store, but still outside of our budget. It had also been out of our way, adding twenty minutes to the morning’s drive.
After watching what came next, I was glad Sam had suggested the detour. “This is nothing compared to what you’re giving us,” my beautiful wife said quietly as she handed the gift box to Laura. “We want this to remind you that we’ll always hold you in our hearts.”
Laura opened her present and beamed, tearfully. Her “Thanks” came out as a sigh, and it was clear that we were facing a woman who had never been in Tiffany’s, though in truth, this was one thing she held in common with me right up until ten o’clock that morning. Later, we learned that Laura showed her small treasure to nearly everyone at our agency. “I’m so glad I chose them,” she told the director. “They were just like in their video.”
Heading back north on I-25, Sam revealed she had something special planned for that evening. “I picked up champagne. If you wouldn’t mind grilling some Portobello mushrooms, I’ll prepare everything else. It could be our last romantic meal for a while.”
This sounded good, now that we understood Evelyn wouldn’t be going home with us until after Tuesday’s Placement Ceremony. Though I had not thought to ask, I wondered why this was. Were they giving us a chance to back out if we weren’t sure?
Our destination was an address in Longmont, about thirty minutes on the far side of our suburb. A cradle-care family had been watching over Evelyn. They had three kids of their own, all adopted from our agency. Dawn was meeting us there.
“We could make one stop,” Sam suggested as we passed the Denver skyline. “We’ve got plenty of time, and we’re going to need a changing table.”
“Let me guess. Babies ‘R’ Bucks.”
“It should only take a minute. Remember the one we looked at?”
“Not really. What happened to lunch?”
“Table’s more important,” Sam said. “Besides, I don’t think I can eat right now.”
“I have to admit I enjoyed our first side trip today.”
“To Tiffany’s? You did?”
“Did you notice how the gold sales staff worked on a higher plane than the silver people?” The store had been divided into two large showrooms, and we had to walk past the much more expensive gold and diamond items to reach our counter. “That first guy might as well have said, ‘Silver? Next room. But hurry. I can’t be seen talking with you.’”
“Did anyone ever tell you you’re goofy?” Sam said with a laugh.
“I seem to recall ‘funny,’” I said. “But goofy … no, it’s not ringing a bell.”
“The Tiffany’s people seemed fine to me.”
“Tell you what,” I said. “We can do the baby store if I’m allowed to make one more stop. Ellen’s bookstore. She’s got something else we’ll need tomorrow.”
The floor-model changing table failed to stir any memories, but standing before it, one thing became clear. This was no table. This was a split-level dresser the size of a Honda. “She really needs this for changing diapers?” I asked.
Assembly required, warned the wide box that followed us into the parking lot. And even then, it failed to mention, All parts made of Superheavytonium. Do not lift. Do not even try. While a store employee watched in amusement, the baby seat came out of the car, base and all, to make room for our new purchase.
“Good thing Trooper Steve had us install it on our own,” Sam said.
“And tonight,” I told her, “it’s your turn again. I hope you’ve been keeping your knee in shape.”
“You really are goofy,” she said. “So what’s at Ellen’s bookstore?”
One hour, two stops, and thirty miles later, everything changed forever. Sam and I met Evelyn.
The cutest baby we’d ever seen, she was tiny and trusting, hairy too, exactly as captured in Laura’s photos. We had just been welcomed into the home of strangers, though these were not strangers to Evelyn. Karyn and Chuck, the cradle-care parents, had fed and bathed her for most of her short life. To this fragile being, Sam and I were the strangers.
Karyn held the baby.
“So what do you think?” asked Dawn from an armchair in the corner, a toy carousel-horse at her feet.
“You do good work,” I said.
Taking my first real look around the living room, I noted that Karyn and Chuck were minimalists when it came to home décor. Essential furniture only, a few family photos in simple frames. I saw no museum prints, no exotic souvenirs from Bali or Spain or even the Ozarks. I knew the reason: adoption times three.
I noticed one more detail. The owners of this house appeared to be happy. Same explanation. They joked about keeping Evelyn, “making it an even four.” Sam didn’t laugh.
“I know they say all babies are beautiful,” Dawn said, “but in my professional capacity, I can assure you it’s not true. This baby … is beautiful.”
“Evelyn’s been a delight,” said Karyn, while handing Sam her infant daughter for the first time.
“Except at night,” a boy’s voice interjected from the kitchen. “She’s got the room right next to mine.”
The baby looked up at my wife with innocent eyes that said, “He must be mistaking me for someone else.”
Sam cried, and I realized I was viewing this scene through my own tears. “Baby girl,” I whispered, leaning forward. Our daughter smelled like lilacs. “Meet Mommy and Daddy.”
I spent that evening eating slices of leftover pizza, stuck behind prescription reading glasses that limit my field of vision to a ten-inch radius, straining to master the Gray’s Anatomy of instruction booklets. Dozens of parts, some dinky, some huge, concealed the guestroom carpet. These in turn were encircled by hundreds of screws and bolts.
“Have some more champagne,” Sam said.
“Right. Our last romantic dinner.”
The following morning, we were back at the cradle-care house for the Placement Ceremony, which, impossibly, proved more emotional than anything before. As Dawn showed up with Margaret, the agency’s founder, I was trying to balance a camcorder on its tripod, which now blocked the doorway that led to the dining room. Sam had borrowed this camera the night before—dashing over to our neighbors while I stared down my furniture parts—and playing with it now, I couldn’t tell which switch was which. But before I could dig out my glasses and remind everyone how old I really was, Chuck the cradle-care dad came to my rescue, saying, “We’ve got one of those.” He promptly bolted the camera into place and aimed it at the couch where Sam and I would be sitting. He also killed the Auto-Focus—something I wouldn’t discover until I copied the recording—ensuring that the entire ceremony would be preserved in a washed-out blur. This was appropriate, I would later concede, since that watery distortion added realism to our record of a tear-filled affair.
Then we were ready, everyone in place. Sam and I were joined at the hip as we shared the joy of holding our baby. Evelyn seemed to stare at our faces, though I knew she relied more on hearing and smell to establish who we were.
Margaret explained how the ceremony would proceed. “As you know, each of us will have the opportunity to speak.” The founder, it was clear, preferred keeping her rituals organized. “On the first go round, you may say whatever you want, provided it relates to the proceedings. Chuck, let’s start with you.”
“It’s a privilege to watch this.” The cradle-care dad had temporarily abandoned his place behind the camera–and stood now on our blurry side. This was how we’d remember Chuck: backside only, out of focus. “We’re honored to play a role in this life-changing event.”
Keeping her eyes on baby Evelyn, Karyn smiled broadly and said, “Really, it was our pleasure to help her through her first days on Earth. This child is a joy. You three will have so much fun.”
When it was Sam’s turn to speak, she read a short poem of a prayer that Jane had left for us at the bookstore, taken from some goddess-heavy pre-Christian European religion. “Divine Mother, Giver of Life, we thank you for this precious life that has been given to us to tend and nourish.” The cradle-care parents and agency professionals listened respectfully. No Stop, stop, adoption over! This baby will not be raised by pagans. “May your blessings follow this young one throughout her life, may she grow in beauty and wisdom, may she learn your ways and know the wonder of your creation, O Great Pre-Christian Goddess.”
“Tom,” said Margaret, “do you have something you wish to contribute?”
I returned Evelyn to my wife’s ready arms and, along with my glasses, pulled out the used paperback we had picked up at Ellen’s store. Roots by Alex Haley. Opening it to the page I had earmarked, I haltingly read the famous passage that brought to life a centuries-old naming ritual. I paraphrased extensively—the reason for my stop-and-start delivery—amending the gender to suit little Evelyn. While the others watched from a distance, I stood at the outermost edge of my village. It was long past nightfall and the sky was silky and cloudless as I lifted my baby to face the infinite expanse of stars. A cricket chirped, I adjusted my glasses, and speaking softly in deference to any noble ancestors who might be present, I instructed my daughter to “behold the only thing greater than yourself.”
“All right,” Margaret said. “We complete the Placement Ceremony by going around the circle one last time. Everyone is to make a wish for young Evelyn’s future. Mine is that each day deliver some new joy, knowledge, and surprise.”
“Am I next?” Karyn asked. “My wish for Evelyn is for her to bring as much joy to others as she’s brought to us.”
Our baby cried for the first time in our presence, but it lasted only seconds. For the rest of the ceremony, Sam held Evelyn close to her chest, bobbing her gently.
“You’re a natural,” said Chuck at the start of his turn, this time off-camera. “I wish for the three of you to have a wonderful life together.”
“I wish,” Dawn said with a sniffle, “for Evelyn to fulfill her potential. That she’ll be as smart and happy and talented as she is capable of being.”
Margaret looked at me and smiled. “Tom?”
“My biggest wish is for Evelyn to become a good person, decent and thoughtful and caring. But I also want her to find the rewards she seeks. And I want her to sleep straight through the night by the time she’s three months old.”
“That’s aiming high,” Margaret said. “Sam, do you have anything realistic to add?”
Using her free hand to wipe away tears, Sam replied, “I just want to say one thing. This was meant to be. I know it sounds strange, but I’m glad everything else went wrong.”
“Your wish?” Margaret said.
“I hope we can make her as happy as she’s made us today.”
That first evening in our house, I watched Sam jump each time her baby breathed. I watched our cats dart away to seek safe haven in the basement. I watched powder and water merge to become formula in a half-gallon pitcher, watched diapers go from white to green. And I stared blankly at the bolts and screws and pressboard panels that seemed to have proliferated since the night before, where the guestroom carpet used to be.
I gave up on the changing table around eleven after waking with a start, a dozen screws embedded sideways in my cheek. Shaking them loose, I stumbled across the hallway to our bedroom, determined to sleep in a hardware-free environment. But once in bed, I stayed up listening to the bubbly sounds that spilled out of the bassinet near Sam’s side of the bed.
This is it. The long-delayed test. After six years of wondering how I would react to having a helpless new being in my life, house, and ears, there she was, theory made flesh. After six years of asking how I’d really do as the father of an infant, there I was, pleasantly surprised by the answer.
Sam took my hand and whispered, “Our instant baby.”
“Only took six years.”
“Six years of waiting,” she said. “And trying. And hoping for this moment.”
“Of battling modest foes like nature, society, and the insurance industry.”
I heard her sigh. “This has been the most wonderful day of my life. Did you get the changing table done?”
Our good friends and neighbors, Carl and Penny, dropped by Wednesday evening, bearing enough food to sustain a pair of grownups for several days. “And you can hold onto the camcorder for as long as you need it,” Carl told us. “Within reason, of course.”
“Thanks,” I said. “If you could just show me the Auto-Focus.”
Then the surprise—from Penny, who apparently didn’t think there had been enough surprises that week. She asked if she could speak with us, “alone,” and Carl went outside, saying he left something back at the house. “Oh, he knows,” Penny said. “I just felt this would be easier if he wasn’t here.”
She took a deep breath, looking down at the floor, then shyly raised her eyes to meet Sam’s. “Our kids don’t even know what I’m about to tell you. When I was in high school—” The portable swamp cooler whirred to life in the next room. “It happened to me. I saw adoption from the other side.” Another pause. “It was the toughest thing I’ve ever been through, but there wasn’t much of a choice. My folks made it clear I wasn’t raising a child under their roof. Looking back now, I don’t know how much of it was my little town in Nebraska and how much of it was the times, but things were so different. Counseling? Openness? I tell you, for those eight months I was a non-entity.
“In the years since, you wouldn’t believe how much time I’ve spent wondering what happened to that baby … a baby I held for all of a minute. Still, strange as it sounds, I’ve always had mixed feelings about her looking for me.”
Sam reached for her box of Kleenex, and handed it to Penny.
“I want to know how her life turned out,” our friend resumed. “Carl would be okay with it, with her calling to say she found me. At the same time, a bigger part of me wants to keep the past where it belongs, in the past.” There was the slightest hint of a smile. “I know, I know, I’m living proof that that’s impossible. Anyway, what I wanted to say was … I think … I think that watching the two of you go through all this was what I always needed, without knowing it of course. Ever since you told us you were adopting, I’ve imagined you as the parents who took that baby home and made her their own. That gave me a picture, a picture I was comfortable with. It’s such a big help to finally see just how much that child was wanted. More than any other child could be. These past few days, everything came full circle for me.”
Sam looked over at me, and I knew what she was asking: Could you get that other box of Kleenex from the kitchen?
“You know, more than anything, I would have liked to meet the couple that ended up with her. Now, in some ways, it feels like I have.”
The swamp cooler reached the end of its cycle, and silence settled everywhere. This was broken by Carl’s light knock. Walking back in, he carried a gift, a handcrafted Kachina doll.
Penny smiled at her husband, but kept hugging Sam. “There’s one thing you two need to understand. I don’t regret helping that child find a better path, and someday soon, Evelyn’s birth mother will feel the same way. I couldn’t have lived that other life. It wouldn’t have been fair. To me or that child. We both deserved better.”
When this new stretch of silence threatened to last forever, Carl said, “Hey, Tom, let me show you that thing on the camera.”
On Thursday afternoon, Dawn called to report that the birth father had stayed true to his word and relinquished his rights. The bottle of champagne came back out, and from a blanket on the floor, Evelyn did her best to watch as I fastened handles to the changing table drawers, which were still arranged in pieces about the room. The main frame now stood as a single solid unit, though five empty tunnels cried out for me to complete those drawers.
That happened on Friday. By the time Evelyn dozed off for her first short nap, only six screws remained of the original 2,796. My wrist ached from Carpal Tunnel–newly acquired, I plan to sue–as I turned a page in the instruction booklet to find there were no more steps, only a dubious 100% Total Satisfaction Guarantee. Simply disassemble the item and return by Priority Mail in its original packaging… I looked to my left and, sure enough, saw a changing table identical to the one in the storeroom display.
Sporting the giddy smile of a new dad who had finished a glass of champagne after barely sleeping for days on end, I pulled myself up from the floor. The last of my joints snapped back into place, and I lumbered across the hall. “What’s going on?” Sam asked as I removed Evelyn from her bassinet. “You know she’s going to cry.”
“Silence. You must follow.”
Then the three of us huddled in the room that had just taken its first real step toward becoming a nursery. “Incredible,” Sam said. “It’s just like the floor model. Except for … the handles, are they right side up?”
Without responding, I held my daughter out before me, my hands on her sides, tucked beneath her armpits. She was facing the changing table. She looked tiny before it.
“Sweet baby Evelyn,” I said, “behold the only thing greater than yourself.”
Reprinted from GEEZER DAD: HOW I SURVIVED INFERTILITY CLINICS, FATHERHOOD JITTERS, ADOPTION WAIT LIMBO & THINGS THAT GO “WAA” IN THE NIGHT by Tom LaMarr with permission from Marcinson Press. Copyright (c) Tom LaMarr 2015.