cracked

Family at Brown AME church

Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, AL, central to the movement for Voting Rights

During my senior year of college I wrote my honors thesis about my family’s history in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland during the Holocaust. A year later, during a mostly solo seven-month journey through Europe and Israel, I traveled to Lodz, and went on to Warsaw, Krakow and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camps. It was 1994 and I was 23 years old, and I traveled this piece of my trip with my best friend. I wouldn’t meet my husband for another five years, but I remember feeling unexpectedly victorious as I walked the tracks into Birkenau, toward the crumbling brick remains of the crematoria, dreaming of the Jewish man I would one day marry and raise Jewish children with. Another generation. I thought about how happy that would make my grandmother, a survivor of Auschwitz and Theresienstadt concentration camps, who had died when I was 13. (I know she smiled the day my husband was ordained as a rabbi.)

Walking on those tracks that the Jews in cattle cars had ridden toward their imminent deaths felt like the most powerful vindication to the evil forces and hateful humans who had tried to exterminate my family and my people. I found myself laughing because they had failed, because I was alive, two generations later, and my line would continue. I married a man whose family were also survivors, who came from a town just 30 kilometers from Lodz, where my family had lived for generations before the war. I like to think we might have met in a different way, in a different place, regardless of Hitler. Besheret. Meant to be.

Those two experiences – unraveling the untold stories of my family as I researched my thesis, learning about those who were killed by the Nazis and those who survived, and returning to the places where they had lived and where so many had died – were cathartic and healing. They were also infuriating and disheartening, because I knew I could never recover so much of what had been lost, and because I saw the way the Holocaust had inflicted a sharp and jagged crack in my family, one that has become a profound part of its legacy. One that still impacts who we are.

What I didn’t know that day walking down the tracks of Birkenau at age 23 was that I would, almost 20 years later, adopt a black son. And that the sharp and jagged crack of my family story would intersect with the sharp and jagged crack of his own history – one he is still, at age four, too young to comprehend.

Edmund Petus Bridge

Named for a Confederate general, the Edmund Pettus Bridge was the beginning of the march for Voting Rights from Selma to Montgomery, AL, in 1965, and also the site of Bloody Sunday, when nonviolent protestors were violently assaulted by police.

We just returned from a family trip to Alabama to visit the Civil Rights Trail between Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery. We’ve been living in the South, in Atlanta, for four years, touching Civil Rights and the country’s dark history of racial injustice against black people a little more closely than we did during our years growing up in California. But I wanted to know more, to touch more, to face more, to understand more about my son’s story – about my country’s story. So we set off with intention for all four of us – not just our black son, who is just starting to see the difference in the color of our skins, but our biological teenage daughter and ourselves, their white parents.

Foot Soldier

The Foot Soldier statue at Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, AL. There is a fascinating podcast about the statue at http://www.revisionisthistory.com.

I am filled with images from our journey, of the Civil Rights sites we visited and the stories we heard about the Voting Rights March between Selma and Montgomery in 1965. Of the juxtaposition of Civil Rights and Civil War that is ever present in the South – Confederate flags honoring the fallen soldiers buried in the cemetery in Selma, monuments to Confederate heroes celebrated for their valor in the struggle for “states’ rights,” (or the right to own other humans). Heroes who went on to don white hooded robes and lynch those who had recently been “freed.”

Confederate Monument

Monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, Civil War hero and grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Old Live Oak Cemetery, Selma, AL

But this is the image that remains with me: We are in Cahawba, the ghost town that remains of what was the original capital of Alabama in the 1800s. A few fallen down houses remain, surrounded by barbed wire, one inhabited by the descendant of slaves as late as 1995. The slave quarters of a now-erased grand mansion remain, spookily boarded up but recently whitewashed with fresh paint.

Slave Quarters

Slave Quarters, Old Cahawba Ghost Town

We make our way through a field to what was the slave cemetery, and follow the guide on a piece of paper to the ten graves that are marked with numbers. We read that these ten are only the graves whose occupants are known, but that the cemetery has hundreds of other unmarked graves where people whose skin is brown like my son’s rest. You know you are passing one because the earth there is more sunken than its surrounding soil. It’s hot and damp because it is July in the South, and it is incredibly quiet. We are the only ones there.

Amelia Headstone

Celie Craig Headstone

Old Cahawba Slave Cemetery

My son runs ahead looking for the next marker, proud to show us he knows his numbers. My black son whose ancestors were abducted from their people and their homes and came to America on slave ships. My black son whose ancestors were sold at auction, enslaved. My black son whose ancestors labored their entire lives and were beaten mercilessly and separated from those they loved. My black son whose ancestors were raped by their white masters. My black son whose ancestors escaped bondage for freedom in the North, and who were recaptured by slave hunters. My black son whose ancestors labored as sharecroppers after they were told they were free. My black son whose ancestors were lynched on the town square surrounded by an audience of white spectators. My black son whose ancestors learned that separate was not equal, and that to stay alive it was best to look down when a white person walked by. My black son whose ancestors fought Jim Crow and marched for justice. My black son whose ancestors followed the Great Migration north into Ohio, seeking a better life, finding a different kind of discrimination and segregation in urban ghettos.

Lynching Jars

Soil collected from the sites of over 4,000 documented lynchings of black people in America, a project of the Equal Justice Initiative, http://www.eji.org

My black son whose history I don’t know and can only imagine; who only knows (for now) that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his sisters and brothers marched for justice because there was a time when things weren’t fair. My black son who grasped for the first time while we were in Alabama that black people – his people – were once slaves like the Jews in Egypt. This is his entry into understanding slavery, because for three years in Jewish preschool he has learned the story of Moses and Pharaoh at Passover.

He runs to the next marker and I walk toward him, wondering about those who came before him. In the same way I did about my own ancestors as I walked into Birkenau. My story and his story – our cracked histories intersecting – different stories with a shared experience of violation, of murder, of genocide, of a history and people exterminated. But our stories are different in one critical way: The violation against his people didn’t stop when slavery ended. It didn’t stop when Jim Crow was outlawed. It didn’t stop with the Voting Rights Act. (Especially as that is being unraveled today.) It didn’t stop when schools were desegregated. (Especially as schools resegregate today.) It didn’t stop when a man with the same color skin as his became President of the United States of America. The violation against his people keeps taking different forms, and racial discrimination is alive and well. That cracks my already cracked heart into a million pieces. Because these are the stories of his heritage and the reality of his present that I have a responsibility to explain to him as he grows older.

And I’m not sure how to tell those stories in a way that instills hope.

Tomb of Unknown Slave w Noose

Civil Rights Memorial Park, Selma, AL

I am the white Jewish mother of a black Jewish son. My ancestral story, my ancestors, will become his only if he chooses them. But even if he does, he has another critical story. His own ancestral story is a different one than mine. His roots originate in a different part of the world, and his path winds through other places in ways I don’t think I can ever claim to completely understand.

I want to give my son heroes; for now he has Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mrs. Rosa Parks. I want to give him ancestors, but I know so little about his roots that I can only put pieces together from a broader, painful story. I want to give him community, a sense of belonging to his own people – both black and Jewish.

I want to give him his own story, but I know it will be his to write, his to tell, and his to claim.

Kids at monument 2

Civil War Memorial, Montgomery, AL

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it’s personal

photo

I have a black son.

I have a black son and I am his white mama.

I have a black son who is too young still to know that society

fears him,

mistrusts him,

doubts him,

considers him a threat.

I have a black son and I am his white mama.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son.

For now my black son is just adorable, charming, beloved, everyone’s friend.

He trusts because he should,

because he is only three years old.

I have a black son and I look at him and wonder,

When will he change in the eyes of those around him?

When will he begin to look scary, criminal, less capable?

When will his teachers begin to overlook his talents?

When will he be punished for misbehaving, considered deviant, while his white friends are dismissed for “just acting like children sometimes do?”

When will I have to tell him that he shouldn’t wear the hood of his sweatshirt on his head?

When will someone cross the street for the first time for fear of him, their heart racing?

What will that do to my son’s heart?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son.

When we filled out the adoption paperwork we were extremely clear that the child who would join our family did not need to be white.

We knew that he probably wouldn’t be.

We imagined a black son.

We knew – abstractly – that we would be taking on a great responsibility as the white parents of a black child.

I’ve been asked by both black and white friends,

“What is your plan for preparing your black son for this world?”

What is my plan?

Nobody asked me what my plan was when my white daughter was born 12 years ago.

I didn’t have to have a plan beyond loving her and giving her the world.

But my black son?

I want nothing more than to love him and give him the world.

And I know how brutally that world can be taken from him – in an instant – because of his gorgeous brown skin.

How do I prepare him for that without taking the world – his promise – from him?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son.

His ancestors came to America on slave ships.

The racism that binds him – something he doesn’t yet know – is systemic and has not ceased for two and a half centuries.

I have a black son and I have a responsibility to teach him that.

How do I give him that knowledge, that understanding which is his right, without the promise that things will get better

for his people who are not “my own,” but to whom I am still accountable?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son and he is a lover.

When he was three days old I held his tiny body inside my shirt, brown skin to pinkish skin, his head against my heart.

I promised my black son that I would care for him and protect him until my final breath.

I promised him that I would teach him how to be a good man.

How to be a black man.

Can I teach him that as his white mama?

What does it mean to be a black man, now, today?

What will it mean for him when he turns 18?

Will he remain safe – will he remain alive – until then?

Will he get the long, full life that is his right,

His promise?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son and he likes to wrestle, to tackle, to do karate chops, to yell, “Hah-YAH!”

How will he be seen for that, how will he be judged, as he grows older and becomes “a threat?”

How will I teach him that, around people in positions of authority, he will need to be submissive, compliant?

And that even then his safety – his life – is still not guaranteed?

Still not protected?

Still considered by some to be less sacred than mine,

or his sister’s,

or his father’s?

Why should I have to teach him that?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

Those men, those boys, those women who have been killed for being black,

Whose names are a list we read and reread and speak and call out

to remember,

Those precious lives that matter,

They could be my son.

They are my son.

My son’s life matters.

 

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

the way we birth

DSC_0986

When I was preparing to give birth for the first time more than 11 years ago, I made a birth plan with my husband and our midwives. I deeply believed in my birth plan. I was going to have my baby naturally and at home. I was going to eat and drink if and when I wanted to. I was going to walk around my apartment freely, unencumbered by an IV. I was going to trust my body and my baby to know how to do this. I was going to breathe, as I’d learned in our homebirth class, for as long as it took. I was going to avoid bright hospital lights and cold floors, doctors I didn’t have a relationship with. I trusted myself, I trusted my baby, I trusted my partner, and I trusted my midwives.

And none of that trust changed. But the plan did.

I did labor at home – for 32 hours. In between contractions, which were all in my lower back, I took occasional bites of bagel with jam and drank juice diluted with water. I sat on the exercise ball in the shower with scalding water aimed at my back for so long that I had scars afterwards. An acupuncturist friend came around hour 28 and put 16 needles into my lower back for the pain. I got to 8 centimeters but no further, for hours.

Then I looked at my husband and our midwives and said with 100% conviction and clarity, “I want to go to the hospital.” It was noon on a Tuesday.

I left the dark cocoon of our bedroom for the first time since the previous day at 5:30am to get into the car. It hurt. And the outside world – going about its business as usual all around me – felt surreal, like it was moving full speed while I was in slow motion. My sister dropped us off, my husband got a wheelchair that I didn’t use because it hurt too much to sit and I’d already been sitting for 20 painful minutes. I walked into the room and lay down on the hospital bed. I got an IV and a monitor was wrapped around my belly.

When the anesthesiologist walked in, it was as if an angel had just entered. “You’ve been laboring for how long?” “32 hours,” I replied. “Let’s get you that epidural. We’ll skip your blood work and get on with it.” All these years later, I can’t begin to describe the sensation when the medicine began to take away the pain I had been in for a day and a half. All I remember is relief, and the colorful woven hat that the anesthesiologist wore on his head.

Finally able to relax, I dilated to 10 centimeters and the doctor said I could push whenever I felt ready. Then she stepped back and let me do the work, guided still by my midwives. My daughter came out an hour later, pink and beautiful, head covered in black hair, right hand coming out “fight the power” style immediately after her head. She was pregnant herself, the doctor, 32 weeks with her first. She was a third year resident so less experienced than my midwives, who had between them attended so many births. She watched the whole thing, respecting the relationship I had developed with my midwives during my pregnancy, and the work I had done already at home.

My daughter almost did a flip off the little metal table as they checked her Apgar scores. They gave her tens, clearly this one was just fine. Four hours after she was born, the three of us were back home in the bed where I had labored. Parents. A radiantly healthy energetic baby who hated swaddles and slings and anything constricting from the second she was born. We were a family of three.

****

With everything I’ve experience related to birth since then, I can’t help but view my first daughter’s birth through rose colored glasses. It wasn’t what I had planned, but it had turned out so well. Immediately following her birth, however, I gave myself a tremendous amount of grief that I had given up” and stopped laboring at home, that I had chosen to have an epidural and go to the hospital. I told myself that if I had just kept going, I could have had the homebirth I had planned.

I held this disappointment for two and a half years, until I took an 8-week midwifery course with one of the world’s most renowned homebirth midwives. I sat with her during one of our lunch breaks and told her my daughter’s birth story, and I asked her if she could tell me what had happened – why I hadn’t been able to progress past 8 centimeters no matter what I did, no matter how much time went by and how many contractions I endured, no matter what my midwives tried or what position they guided me to labor in. And her eyes got wide and her body got really still and then she popped out, “Deep transverse arrest!” “Deep transverse arrest?” “Deep transverse arrest! Go home and research that this week and you can teach the class about it when we meet again.” And I did.

A deep transverse arrest is when the baby’s head is engaged a little off in the pelvis so that its head doesn’t hit the cervix quite right. This means that the cervix, which relies on the pressure of the baby’s head along with the mother’s contractions to open fully, can’t open fully. My daughter’s head was turned just slightly, and her right hand was next to her left cheek for most of my labor (causing the painful back labor). Her head was engaged enough to get me to 8 centimeters, but no further. And with each contraction, instead of relaxing to open and create space for her to move, I literally contracted and tightened and she got more wedged in.

“You were right to go to the hospital and have an epidural, because then you could relax and make space for her slightly turned head to shift into the right position. Your body knew what it needed and you listened,” she told me, this decades-long experienced homebirth midwife. In that moment, all of my doubts and disappointment in myself dissolved and I felt peace.

****

It amazes me how much we are capable of torturing ourselves as mothers about the ways in which we failed to follow our birth plans, our supposed hopes and dreams for the beginnings of our babies’ lives. It amazes me how deeply my ego was invested in the outcome of my plan – and how much of it all is just that: ego. The idea that we can actually plan how our children’s births will go, that we have any control.

I planned two homebirths and had none. A few years after my daughter was born, I miscarried another pregnancy at 10 weeks. A few years after that, I was pregnant again with Tikva, and again I planned to birth at home. And again the universe laughed. Tikva was diagnosed in utero at 21 weeks with a life threatening birth defect. She would not only be born in the hospital, but she would be born in the operating room, so that a team of neonatologists, obstetricians, anesthesiologists and nurses could be prepared for anything she needed. So that she could be put on a ventilator within minutes of her birth because she wouldn’t be able to breathe on her own.

An hour into my labor, I asked for an epidural. My labor was short – just a few hours long – and for weeks after Tikva was born I second-guessed myself again, thinking I had not needed that epidural, could have birthed her without it. But this is the thing: In that moment, I was terrified. I was about to release from the safety and warmth of my body a baby I knew would not be able to breathe or eat on her own. Inside me, she had been safe – I breathed for her and ate for her and could hold and protect her; outside, she was not. She could live for just a few minutes after her birth, or she could live a whole lifetime – none of us had any idea what was ahead, and I was scared. And I was stressed. And I did not want to be distracted by the pain of labor. And I didn’t think this through in actual thoughts, I just knew. And I fell instantly in love with that anesthesiologist too, an amazing third year resident who was so gentle and precise, and who gave me just enough medicine so that I was still able to feel the moment when Tikva came out.

The second she was out and the cord was cut, she was whisked away through a window in the wall into another room where she was put on a ventilator and given paralytic medication so she wouldn’t destabilize herself. I would really see her about an hour or two later for the first time, intubated, feeding tube in her nose, IV in her arm. My beautiful girl.

And then, our real story together began. 58 days long and every day since she breathed her last challenging breath almost 7 years ago. For those few months we were a family of four.

****

Three years later I was pregnant with twins. Twins! Twins that came to us with help and with work. Twins who were all promise, all hope, all healing – for their mother, their father and their sister. Twins who would bring a beautiful whirlwind of baby energy into our home. Twins who would be closely monitored to ensure a safe pregnancy, ultrasounds and amnio and bloodwork and frequent appointments. Ten weeks in, one of them stopped growing. At 18 weeks – on Valentine’s Day – I no longer felt the other one move. A few days later, I went to the hospital to be induced and 24 hours later I delivered my very small babies-to-be. And a few hours later, after holding the one who had grown enough that he was fully formed, only just the size of my hand, we left the hospital without our babies. These beings I had also labored to birth, whose ashes I would sprinkle on the same beach where I had walked during the very beginning of my very first labor so many years before.

****

I birthed my son in my heart, and another woman that I will forever be grateful to conceived and nurtured and birthed him from her body. He came out 6 weeks early by C-section. He was tiny and he was perfect. He always breathed on his own and he learned to take a bottle in a few weeks and we brought him home. He never breastfed, but I nourished him with my love and formula till he was ready for food. Two years later, he eats like a teenager and is so heavy I can barely carry him.

And we have been, once again since his birth two years ago, a family of four, surrounded by the beloved spirits of the babies we lost.

****

This is the thing: You may be able to set an intention for how you’d like things to go, and you may be lucky when it all goes “right,” but it’s all just so random and out of our hands. I thought I was responsible for how healthy and strong my first daughter was, that it was all because of how well I had taken care of myself during pregnancy. But then that means I was also responsible for how fragile and sick my second daughter had been. I have no idea why her diaphragm didn’t form correctly, and neither do the doctors. I have no idea why my twins didn’t make it, or why I miscarried all those years ago and again before we adopted our son. What I know now, though, is that when it does work out well, and that healthy baby is born – it’s an incredible amazing miracle of life. And that miracle is as arbitrary as when things go another way.

I cry tears of joy and relief every time I learn about a baby who has been born healthy. If I know a friend is in labor, I take a deep breath and I exhale when I hear that all went well.

****

There’s a way we talk in our culture about birth after it’s happened, and I think that way is skewed. I’ve heard it from men who have witnessed and supported their partners’ labors, referring to the women as warriors because they labored naturally, at home in a birthing tub, without pain medication or medical intervention, and gave birth to a healthy 9 pound baby that immediately knew how to suckle and nurse. I’ve also heard it from women who have been through labor – talking, like I did, about the ways in which they felt they had failed – because they hadn’t been able to do it naturally, because they had needed help, or because their babies had died. So we are warriors if it goes one way, and we are failures if it goes another. Or we are warriors in the eyes of everyone but our own critical selves.

But this is the thing: We are all warriors. We are warriors when we birth, however we birth. We are warriors when we need help to birth. We are warriors whether or not we nurse. We are warriors whether we wear our babies or sleep with our babies; whether or not they sleep through the night. We are warriors when our babies are conceived with assistance. We are warriors when we are not able to conceive or carry a baby to term. We are warriors when someone else carries our babies for us. We are warriors when we miscarry. We are warriors when our babies are born still. We are warriors when we mother by caring for our babies’ graves. We are warriors when we choose not to have babies and we love in other ways. We are warriors when we are allies for other women. We are warriors in how we nurture the world.

We are warriors because, in some way, we choose to love. Whatever that love looks like. However it is birthed.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of the warriors out there. I hope you know who you are.

the day we met

To My Beautiful Son,

Two years ago today we met for the first time. You were two days old, and we had known about you for just one day, since the adoption agency director had come to find me the day before to tell me that a baby had been born whom she believed was meant to be our son.

Two years ago today I met your father in the hospital lobby – I was coming from work and he was coming from school. We walked into the same hospital we had walked out of together just two years before – after I delivered the twins who had stopped growing inside me – heavy with grief in spite of how hollow I felt, into the grey cold snow of Midwestern winter. In the moment we walked back in to meet you – hopeful, excited, curious, nervous – the wound from that day two years before healed more completely. Because of the gift of you.

Two years ago today we got into the elevator, arrived at the third floor and told the special care nursery receptionist that we had come to meet our son. Our beloved adoption agency director met us there too, perhaps as excited as we were after waiting and anticipating with us for a year and a half. There had been other possible babies during that time, all with some real and serious challenges we were not prepared to take on after all we and our older daughter had already been through. We knew that we could have done it, that we would be an amazing family to any child, but we recognized and honored our limitations. We knew that any adoption is complex, and that transracial adoption was something we were prepared to take on with pride, respect and responsibility for our son.

Two years ago today we walked into your warm room in the nursery and saw the tiny swaddled bundle that you were. You were so small, six weeks early and less than four pounds. But healthy and breathing on your own.

Two years ago today the nurse took you out of your warmer and placed you into my arms. You were so beautiful, so darling, so tiny, so light and so present. You looked at me with big dark eyes as if you recognized me already. Your eyes said, Are you my mother? I looked back at you and said, Are you my son?

Two years ago today a thousand thoughts ran through my mind and a thousand emotions swarmed my heart. After all the waiting for you, I asked myself, Am I ready for this? Can I do it? I looked at you thinking, Can I love you as much as you deserve? Will it be harder than if you had come from my own body?

Two years ago today I handed you to your father. Your head fit completely in the palm of his hand. You were so peaceful, already you knew you were safe, held and loved. The adoption agency director noticed your perfect ears.

Two years ago today the nurse asked us your name and when we told her, she wrote it on the white board in your room, along with our names and phone numbers. Already they were caring for us – your adoptive family – showing us that they understood that we were as much your parents as if I had been recovering from delivering you in a maternity room nearby. I think they helped me to believe it, too. To trust.

Two years ago today I looked at the agency director with tears in my eyes and said, Thank you. I told you I would be back every day to hold you and love you until you had learned to take a bottle and were ready to come home.

****

Two years ago tomorrow was the day your birth mother signed the permanent surrender of custody. I was there in the lobby of the building where I worked, the building that also housed the adoption agency. When your birth mother left after signing, I watched her from afar as she walked out the exit into the snowy parking lot. She wanted a closed adoption and didn’t know I was there. I watched her from inside the glass doors as she walked slowly to her car, as if I was looking into a snow globe, wondering about all of the emotions that must have been running through her. This woman who had made probably the hardest decision of her life and had given us the greatest gift. I promise you that I will love him with all my heart, I whispered to her from the other side of the lobby doors.

Two years ago tomorrow we got to tell your sister about you. We got to tell her that she was going to be a big sister, at last, to a healthy living baby who was going to come home. It would be two weeks before she got to meet you – children who hadn’t had a flu shot were not allowed in the special care nursery – but she was so excited she couldn’t stop laughing. She hugged me, hugged your father, hugged the agency director whom she adored, and kept laughing. She drew a picture of herself playing with her little brother; it is still hanging in the agency office. She drew pictures for you, too, and they hung next to your name and ours on the white board.

****

Two years ago our life with you began. You changed everything with your arrival. You brought more love into our family, the love we get to give and the love we get to receive. Because you are a lover of the highest order – as if you came with one mission in this life: TO LOVE AND BE LOVED.

Two years ago you brought healing. While there will always be a space in my heart from which Tikva is missing, and while you didn’t come to replace her or the twins, you bring healing every day to fill some of the empty spaces. You bring laughter and silliness and comedy already at age two. You bring the hope of all that is ahead in your wondrous life. You keep me on my toes and you make me laugh. With you it is impossible to feel heavy because you are pure joy and light.

Two years ago your story began – not just as our son but as YOU. I know that there is so much ahead that I cannot imagine, predict, know for sure. But I know that you will continue to thrive. Because what I have known about you from the moment your eyes met mine is this:

You came into this life knowing that you are held and that all is well.

And you are. And it is. And I love you completely and forever. My sweet, sweet son.

Happy birthday.