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The first time I spent an entire weekend with my son, he was 17 years old.
My pregnancy had been accidental, the result of too many drinks and not enough condoms. I was fresh out of Bible college and dripping with evangelical guilt. Around me, relatives, pastors and friends urged me to place the baby for adoption, to allow him the kind of wholesome upbringing which would be out of my reach as an unwed mother.
I followed their advice and signed him over to a couple who ticked all the boxes: university degrees, good jobs, a home in the suburbs. They named him Levi. We agreed it would be an open adoption, with regular e-mails, pictures and visits. He was to grow up knowing me.
But my grief was all-consuming and each agonizing visit only added to my self-immolation. When Levi was 3, I took a job on the other side of the country and tried to learn how to live again, without the constant reminder of what I had lost. Of what I had done.
A few years later, once on more stable footing, I asked his parents if I could visit. They said no. Levi was being teased at school for being adopted; a visit from me might cause him more distress.
Years passed. I was afraid to reach out again, lest I cause any more damage. The e-mails and pictures became less frequent and I was occupied with two young children, a career and a failing marriage.
But when my husband and I divorced, the sudden upheaval made anything and everything seem possible. Even a relationship with my son.
I reached out again, and this time his parents agreed to a visit. He was now 15. I flew to Toronto, where I’d left him.
My belly was filled with nerves. I had two little girls at home; what was I supposed to say to a teenage boy? When they arrived, I had no problem recognizing him; he was the spitting image of his birth father. But our hug was stiff and self-conscious; we were strangers to each other.
We made awkward small talk for a few minutes as his parents hovered behind us. I asked Levi what kind of hobbies he was into. When he said he was obsessed with all things Marvel, I gave a silent cheer inside. I’ve written six fantasy and science-fiction novels; here was something I could talk about.
We dove into a spirited discussion of our favourite superheroes before turning to graphic novels, The Lord of the Rings versus Game of Thrones, and the future of the Marvel cinematic universe. We were just building up steam when he was whisked away to a family gathering. But I knew those few precious minutes had been well worth the trip when, a couple of hours later, he sent me a text:
“I’m really glad you came to visit. I had no idea you were that cool. Hope to see you soon!”
I sat in the airport departure lounge and cried. My son didn’t hate me. He thought I was cool. He wanted to see me again.
The next summer, I went back. He’d just passed his driver’s test, so I placed my life into his hands and let him drive me around town. It was the first time we’d been alone together since he was three days old. He told me he was getting into musical theatre and proved it by singing songs from Dear Evan Hansen at the top of his lungs. We stopped at his best friend’s house, where he introduced me as “my mom, Jodi,” and I staggered through the doorway under the weight of his gift.
He waited until we were back in the car to toss me the grenade.
“Did you ever consider aborting me?”
I weighed my answer, then decided on the truth. “Yes. Briefly.”
“Why didn’t you? Would have been easier.”
Would it have? It’s impossible to say. We can only know the final destination of the roads we choose to take.
“You’re right, it hasn’t been easy,” I said. “But I’ve never regretted giving birth to you. Besides, I was very religious back then. Abortion didn’t really seem like an option.”
“Are you still religious?” he asked, his knuckles whitening on the steering wheel.
I’d wondered the same about him. At the time, I’d chosen his parents in part because they were religious. But I had no idea where his own spiritual path had led him.
“No, I’m not,” I said. “I left the church a few years ago. Are you?”
He loosened his death grip on the wheel and let out a sharp, relieved laugh. “Hell, no.”
In the bond of our mutual atheism, our fumbling attempt to discover who we were to each other took another dramatic leap forward. As the sun sank low in the sky and we wandered aimlessly through parks and playgrounds, he asked questions, confessed secrets, told me things no teenager in his right mind would tell his actual parents.
“It helps that you’re leaving,” he admitted. “I don’t think I’d say this stuff if I had to see you all the time.”
It was dark when we finally returned to his house. In the driveway, I hugged him close, trying to wring every last bit of magic out of what had been a truly extraordinary day.
The next year, he came to visit me in Calgary. He met his half-siblings and I took the three kids to the local comic expo, figuring if things got awkward, we could at least see some cosplay and stuff ourselves with mini doughnuts.
Levi wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons, so we made our way to the gaming hall. I told him I’d leave him there while I took the younger kids to play Quidditch.
Without missing a beat, he winked and said, “Leaving me again? Wouldn’t be the first time.” Then he sauntered off while I stood rooted to the spot.
Had he made a joke about the fact that I’d given him away? How could he say such a thing after the connection we’d made over the past couple of years? Didn’t he realize placing him for adoption was the most traumatic thing to ever happen to me?
But no. He didn’t.
Because it wasn’t the most traumatic thing to ever happen to him.
That’s when I realized I’d done no lasting harm. The guilt I’d thought was permafrost began to thaw. Here in front of me was a confident, well-adjusted, well-loved young man. To Levi, being adopted was an interesting part of who he was, as though he’d been born with an extra toe or raised in a foreign country. Hardly traumatic; just interesting.
He could joke about it because he was all right. Which meant, maybe, I could be all right.
Jodi McIsaac lives in Calgary.
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