Shortly after we adopted our youngest child, a friend of ours proffered that she didn't think white people should adopt black kids.
She wasn't being racist, at least not white racist, because she is African-American. She thought that taking him out of Haiti and immersing him in an all-white culture would destroy his identity as a black person and rob him of his culture.
When I went down to pick him up from the orphanage in a dusty quarter of Port-au-Prince, he had a chronic eye infection that caused tears to stream from one eye and his nose ran continuously. His breathing came in raspy, wheezing gulps as if he couldn't get enough air, and he hacked like an old man who had been smoking all his life.
He ate ravenously, picking every kernel of rice from around the plate after he had polished the plate itself clean. At first, we would have to tell him to stop eating. He didn't know how and would continue until his stomach was round and hard. Eventually, after much hands-on practice, he learned to stop on his own, but the impulse remains strong in him, the compulsion to eat as much food as he can before it runs out.
A few weeks after he came home to live with us, my wife pulled a long white tapeworm from his diaper, put it in a jar and triumphantly marched into the doctor's office. "There," she said. "I told you he had parasites." We all had to ingest megadoses of antibiotics in case the parasites had spread to us.
The antibiotics did the trick. From that point on, our son grew stronger and healthier. The wetness in his eye disappeared, perhaps as a side effect of the drugs or perhaps because the air where we lived was cleaner than that surrounding the orphanage.
When he was about 3, I was tucking him into bed and he said, "When I turn white, I'm going to take the school bus with the other kids."
I smiled down at him and said, "When you turn white?" He nodded his head, his eyes bright and hopeful. I let him say that for a while and then one evening, I put my hand softly on his chest and told him what I think he already knew but was hoping, magically, might be otherwise.
"You are a beautiful black boy, and one day you will be a handsome black man."
"I'm not going to turn white?"
He scrunched his face and turned away from me, burying his head in the pillow.
On the bus one Saturday morning, he was perched on the back seat waving at the cars behind us when a young black man came and sat beside him. "Hey there," the young man said, and there was a quiet mirth in his eyes as they roamed from my son to me and then back again.
The look in my son's eyes changed the tenor of our silent conversation. It switched from laughter to glacial in an instant, and it was more than just a child's reticence toward a stranger.
I had seen it before. About a year after his arrival in our home, we took him to a picnic in Trois-Rivières hosted by the adoption agency. The woman who ran the orphanage in Port-au-Prince was there and when my son saw her, he let out an ethereal wail and buried his head in my shoulder, his fingernails cutting deep into my skin.
Other times, he would simply ignore black people when they came up to him on the street, a look of icy determination on his face as if he were steeling himself against something. Normally he is warm and gregarious with a preternatural ability to befriend others.
On a warm summer night when he was about 4, I sat down on the edge of his bed. "You know," I said, "when you were a little boy, you had a very painful experience that hurt you badly right here," and I tapped on his chest over his heart. I told him about his birth mother and how much she loved him, and how much he loved her, and how one day she walked him up the hill to the orphanage and left him there because she didn't have enough money to buy food for him. And she never came back.
This is probably the most excruciating pain you will ever experience in your life, I told him, using words that he would understand. It is a very, very big owie. And it happened in a world where everyone was black. "I wonder if every time you see a black person, it makes you feel that sharp pain deep inside of you, and you turn away." He stared up at me with dark, soulful eyes and I knew he understood. "It is normal," I said. "It hurts so much."
A few weeks later, we were in a lineup at Costco, and my son was in the cart crouched between bulging bags of milk and boxes of cereal. It was a long queue and at the end of it was a young woman whose skin was as dark and rich and brown as that of my son. "You see that cashier," I said. "She's going to be all over you and I want you to be nice to her. You remember what we talked about."
He nodded his head. When it was our turn, he allowed her to coo over him, over his beautiful eyes, over his dimples that flash inward when he smiles, and it was the first time I saw him open the door a crack and allow himself to acknowledge his familiar reflection in the face of a stranger bound to him by nothing more than colour.
Michael Geisterfer lives in Chelsea, Que.