This weekend I'm celebrating a secret birthday of sorts, and yeah, those are my kids back in 1996.
In late December in 1995, my mother called me in a panic.
"There's a fire in my building! I opened the front door and a bunch of smoke came in! I shut it! I don't think I can escape!"
"Oh my God Mama!", I cried. "I'll call the Fire Department and let them know and call you right back. Put a wet towel along the crack of your door so the smoke can't get in."
The Fire Department already knew her senior citizens building was on fire. She lived on the 10th floor. I let them know her apartment number. I was dismayed to learn their ladders don't go that high.
I called her back. She was crying.
"I told them where to find you and I'll be right there!"
"It's probably too late," she said sadly. "I love you. All is lost."
And she hung up.
All is lost. The words rang in my ears.
I grabbed Xavier, who was seven years old then, and made a mad rush to her place. Smoke was everywhere, although a pretty serious fire was being contained in several apartments in another part of her building.
Firemen outside didn't know a thing about her dilemma. And told me not to worry about it. And then went back to their conversation.
Stupid me rushed into the building and tried to run up ten flights of stairs. The smoke wasn't that bad in that stairwell, but I wasn't in top shape began gasping for air by the 6th floor. I walked the rest of the way, and she wasn't home. She'd been rescued because at least one fireman had gotten my message when I called.
I took the elevator down.
Nah, just joking. Sorry, I couldn't resist.
I found her outside standing with my child. Soot covered her face. The fireman must have carried her down the other stairwell.
We hugged and cried. People weren't allowed back in the building, so I drove the three of us to the Pancake House. There was a long line, but for some inexplicable reason, the host seated us next. It was the second weird event of the evening.
After we finished our meal, it was still early. I made a suggestion.
"Let's go to that Mormon Temple, the church off the beltway that looks like the Disney castle. I read they have a nice Christmas program."
"Yay!", said little Xavier.
Off we went.
While there, I said a prayer. "Dear Lord, I'll be forty soon. I've wanted a husband for years and at least two children. If you can't send me a good man, please at least send me another child. Let her look like my Mom, to remind me of the best friend I've ever had. Please let her be smart, healthy, and lucky in life. Amen."
I didn't think anymore of this prayer for a long time. Suddenly, in the spring of 1996, I began throwing out stuff I no longer wanted and packing up stuff I sometimes use in boxes. It just felt right but I had no conscious plan to move.
My father had been living in California with his fourth wife but they broke up. That's another story. He came to visit me.
"Are you moving?", he asked as he looked at the stacks of boxes in my dining room.
"I don't know," I answered honestly.
He gave a chuckle that's usually reserved for crazy people.
"I'm sort of cleaning house," I explained lamely.
A month later, I called a realtor. It was May. She took me to the next county over and I put a contract on a really nice three bedroom home with a big back yard. The price was great and the neighborhood was gorgeous.
My two bedroom house got a contract on it quickly. In July, settlement for both occurred on the same day. A week earlier, I called my adoption social worker.
I don't believe in getting babies from private agencies that make you pay through the nose for a kid, when kids are available through free county agencies.
"Nina," I said, "I've been on your wait list for two years, so if you have a healthy baby girl, send her to me. If not, please update my homestudy and transfer it, because I'm moving."
She replied, "we don't have any baby girls, but I'll do that."
I moved on July 10th, never really understanding what compelled me to do this. My mom was staying with us for a few weeks to enjoy me settling into my new home. On July 12, Nina the social worker drives over. She's a classy, middle aged white woman and was the adoption placement worker for my son, and light years better than his dumb-dumb foster care worker had been.
"This is gorgeous," she said, looking around.
Then she began the paperwork and update. That's when I coulda killed my mama.
"If you get a baby before the ink is dry," she said, "don't send my daughter another hell-raiser. And send her a cute kid. You all always save the pretty, healthy ones for white folks adopting black kids. I see it all the time in my neighborhood. Those white women look so happy pushing those cute little babies around. Try to send my daughter one that isn't as ethnic looking as this last one either."
Nina smiled politely. She was cool like that. I was dying inside. My mama is fair-complexioned. She did a great job of getting up to speed in during the Civil Rights in the 60s and the revolution within the black community in the 70s, when we stopped calling ourselves Negroes and being ashamed of our hair. However, every now and then a little racism will leak out. She loved her black folks but was a product of her generation when color was endlessly discussed.
After the social worker left, I fussed with her.
"What the hell is it with you and Daddy?", I demanded.
"I'm not racist," she said, with her chin up in the air. "I approved of your adopting Xavier, remember?"
Did you catch that? She approved, as though that made a difference. Not.
"I liked his brown button eyes and said it was time the family had a little color. He just turned out to be a brat and I don't want to see you stuck with another."
"His being brown hasn't a thing to do with it..."
"I know that," she snapped. "He's just from a ghetto family and has some of those ways..."
"That's because of his ADHD and bad foster care placements..."
She waved her hand away. It was a common discussion where we never quite solved why he was the way he was. Sweet, socially sharp, highly verbal, but a lil' bad azz who got into everything and had no problem saying no.
My parents, who had me when they were quite old, were born at the early part of the last century. Dad was sandy reddish brown but my mother was very fair, which had it's upside and downside for her. My brother and I favor our father. She used to tell me she was pleased about this, because being 'too light', like being 'too dark', was hard for anyone. The whole house nigga vs. field nigga value system was in play. I thank God for the black revolution and that most of us have moved away from this mentality. She worked hard at embracing it, but never escaped it entirely.
I said, "I don't care if they send me a blue-black baby girl. I just want a daughter."
She smiled, like she had a secret.
A few days later, I got a call from Nina. She had an infant girl for me.
"Why didn't you mention this when I saw you?", I asked.
"I mentioned it to your mother before I left. She didn't tell you?"
Damn. Is my mama the Mafia Queen or what? No wonder she was smiling.
She continued. "It's a high-risk adoption adoption placement," she said. "The parental rights haven't been terminated. Relatives are fairly certain they won't take her, but they can be fickle, and we don't know if the mother will enter rehab, get cleaned up and want her baby back."
I'd already been through an adoption nightmare with Xavier's birth mother. At least I knew the ropes.
I sighed and agreed to give it a try anyway, thinking that at least I'd have a little girl for a little while. If it was meant to be, it would be.
Usually a social worker will describe a baby's appearance and show you several photos before you meet it. This is an opportunity for you say hell no and run.
Word up, pics are often poor representations of what the kid really looks like, and you may not get a sense of it's personality since a stranger is often the one who took the photo. It's like an online singles site and you meet the guy whose always different than what the photo suggested. Thus, I didn't ask and didn't even care.
Xavier was with me when I drove to the foster mother's house. I was excited but relaxed. She had us have a seat on her sofa, then brought out this six and half month old baby.
She was beautiful. She also looked familiar. I had seen this child, but where? In my dreams? It was eerie.
"I want to hold her first!", Xavier said gleefully.
"Go ahead," I said.
The foster mother gently laid Casie in his lap. He grinned from ear to ear and I studied them, smiling, and at the same time, still wondering why this child felt so familiar to me.
It dawned on me that God had answered my prayers in church the night of the fire - which was the day she was born.
What a mystery and a miracle. He sent me a little angel who would forever remind me of the first person I ever loved and risked my life for: my mother.
And yes, I realized immediately afterwards that I had been an idiot, since I had a little boy who depended on me. I could kick myself for that lapse in judgment. It's just me. I'd have done it for anyone in my family if I thought I had a chance to save them. I know more about fires now. Uncontrolled, they can spread in minutes. I wouldn't advise it.
(Tell my heart this if either of my kids are in danger. I'm still not sure it would listen.)
Anyway, I asked the social worker again why she initially said they didn't have a baby girl and they did.
She said, "Well, your mother was right. Because the baby is so fair-skinned, we were going to place her with a white couple even she's black or mixed, since a couple usually get preference over a single adoptive parent. But I thought about this and realized you'd be the ideal parent. She'd grow up in her culture, and you've been through a disrupted adoption with Xavier, so you know how it is if things get crazy."
She also said I'd have a thin chance of being considered for a second child since I lived in a two bedroom house. They either changed their rules or she forgot to mention this to me. Thus, moving was a key to getting this baby, but I hadn't known it when I did it.
The whole thing was a mystery that began with a fire, then a prayer on one cold December night, followed by the strange urge to pack up a few months later and move even though my small home where I had lived for seven years was comfortable. And finally, my mama being unable to keep her politically incorrect opinions to herself, which gave that social worker food for thought.
Mom passed away peacefully in 2004. My children are blessed because they were old enough to remember her well.
Casie favors my mother in appearance, but we live in our children whether they are born to us or born in our hearts through adoption. This weekend I'm celebrating when she came into my life. In November, I'll celebrate my son's anniversary arrival.
I don't even tell them this.