Throwing Myself into Walls by Jessica Slice

stately government-looking building with columns in front

We almost said no when they asked if we had space for a newborn. We had been foster parents for only a few months, and seizures were a deal-breaker.

When I was 7, my sister Megan died. Her genetic difference — trisomy 10p — caused frequent seizures. On April 26, 1990, she had a grand mal and stopped breathing. I was at school. A few hours later, my bus parked at the end of our suburban street. That afternoon, as soon as my feet hit the ground, I felt a rush of certainty. Megan is dead, I thought. As always, I walked the short block home alone. My aunt’s blue hatchback was in our driveway. She lived less than a mile away and was over often, so her visit shouldn’t have surprised me, but at that moment it was evidence. Megan was gone.

The connection between sisters defies logic. Megan’s health had always been precarious, but no one said she might die soon. My mom met me at the front door and I dropped my backpack. Megan’s dead, isn’t she? I said. She ushered me into the kitchen and put some cherry yogurt in front of me. Have a snack and let’s talk, she replied. I looked around for Megan and said that I already knew and she should just tell me. She finally admitted that, yes, Megan had died a few hours before.

***

Khalil’s social worker mentioned that they were still monitoring him for seizures. He was 8 days old on March 15, and she asked if we could be a short-term option for him. He probably only needed a home for a few weeks.

I told the social worker that I would go in and meet with his doctors but that I didn’t think I was the right choice for navigating newborn seizures, even temporarily. David had a busy day at work and I went to the hospital alone. In the NICU, after scrubbing my hands and arms in an industrial sink and putting on a paper gown and booties, I followed Khalil’s social worker to a back office where a doctor, a physical therapist, a nutritionist, and another social worker told me about his first eight days of life.

I noticed that their eyes sparkled when they talked about him. He’s really special, they kept repeating. There’s something about this baby, they all said. He hadn’t had a seizure since his first day, and they were optimistic. I texted David, I’m going to at least meet him.

Khalil was in a little plastic bed, wires and tubes stretching from his body to blinking machines. He wore a tiny hat and his long feet arched under his blanket. He was bigger than I imagined and so alive.

Hi, my big potato, I whispered, I’m Jessica. His nurse talked me through feeding him and changing his diaper. You’re very funny, she said. You’ll be a great mom.

After about an hour, they said he was ready to go and that I should pull my car up to the front door. Down at the curb, a paramedic ensured that the car seat was installed correctly. I sat on the floor in the elevator back up to the NICU and took a photo of my face, shadowed and lined in the overhead light. My expression is something between holy shit and here goes nothing. They asked for his going home outfit, but I didn’t have one. While they rummaged through their bin of donated clothes, I realized we didn’t have any clothes for him. We weren’t expecting a newborn yet and had only a few baby supplies. I started a list on my phone of supplies that David should buy on his way home from work.

I had no stroller, so they propped his tiny body in what reminded me of a doll stroller. I pushed him out of the NICU bubble and to the elevator. He swam in his white and yellow onesie, two sizes too big. His eyes squinted, and I crouched next to him as we waited for the elevator. Okay, my pumpkin pie. Let’s do this. As we pulled away from the hospital, I looked in the rearview mirror, where I could see his little feet. I’m going to do my very best, Khalil. You are perfect and we love you.

***

I parked and brought him inside, where our dog Batman sniffed him dispassionately and fell back asleep. The crib was in our second bedroom, which also had a dresser and a queen-sized mattress on the floor. I called Kate, a mother of four already, and asked, without providing much background information, Are you allowed to leave a baby in their crib while you bring stuff in from the car? She assured me that it was legal, so I put Khalil in his crib, urging him to stay put, and made another couple of trips to bring in the formula, medicine, and diapers that the hospital had given me. I set a timer on my phone for the next time he would eat and another for his next diaper change. Filling a bowl with kettle chips, I returned to Khalil’s bedroom and rested him on the mattress. I propped myself on pillows, dizzy and fatigued from my morning out. It wasn’t even noon. Khalil lay next to me, asleep.

I called Kate again. So, do I just, like, sit here next to him for the next few weeks? What are you supposed to do with a newborn? She said that my instincts would kick in and that, yes, at the beginning, a lot of parenting is sitting around. We got off the phone, and I Googled: How do you take care of a newborn?

I decided the first priority should be supplies, so I posted on our Oakland neighborhood email list that I was taking care of a baby, unexpectedly, and needed some newborn outfits and other gear. Within minutes, neighbors were at the door with bags of clothes, blankets, diapers, and toys. While I coordinated the collection, another message came in. A night doula, Renee, had seen my message and offered to come and meet with me and give a free consultation. An hour later, she was sitting on the mattress with me, overflowing with comfort and certainty. She looked at Khalil and her eyes filled. He’s perfect, isn’t he? she said.

Renee was still at our house a few hours later. She had set up a bottle sanitizing station in our kitchen, made a few trips from her own house to supplement our collection with her own stockpile of baby goods, and set up his room to facilitate easy feeding, changing, and sleeping. We practiced swaddling and wrote down a sample daily schedule. She warned me that I shouldn’t let his head flop forward or back. I hadn’t texted David for hours when he walked in the front door. He found us in the bedroom and shook Renee’s hand before meeting Khalil for the first time. The three of us talked, and Renee offered to come back a few hours later to help us with our first night with a newborn. She said she could reduce her rate and cover nights for us for a bit while we got our sea legs.

Shell-shocked and dazed by our transformed life, we agreed. And a woman who had been a stranger the day before left to prepare to stay up all night with a baby who, 24 hours earlier, we didn’t know existed.

***

I’ve wondered if I will ever feel as at home as I did at the beginning with Khalil. Our days existed in a vacuum, removed from the future and past. David and I didn’t have time to prepare, which meant I didn’t bring my anxiety and expectations into it. We didn’t know when he would be leaving, and so I let go of long-term worries. I had all the moments, and they were delicious.

Looking back, I can see that Khalil and I loved each other right away. I knew him. Every sound and wiggle and scrunch of his face was a language, and I was fluent. My early ease with Khalil is one of the greatest gifts of my life.

And those same days were his first away from his first mom. Those moments in his story are heartbreak and loss. His body had spent nine months held by a woman who loved him, named him Khalil, and whom he had to leave. For Khalil and his first mama, those early days are when their family shattered.

***

At night, while Khalil slept, my body processed all that had changed. I began to have active and dramatic nightmares. That he was trapped, in danger, suffocating. Hardly a night passed without me flailing and crying, DAVID! Where is he? Can he breathe!? One night, certain he was stuck somewhere up high, I leaped from the bed and woke as my face hit the wall. I was covered in bruises.

When we were apart, my hormones and my thoughts were frantic. But during the day, when my chest touched his, I was in a fog of peace. I was becoming his mama.

A few weeks after he arrived, I drove to the social service office so he could visit with his mom. I was told to leave the building while they spent a couple of hours together, with a social worker monitoring. I believed, deeply, that their time together was important and reasonable. I knew that the most important job of a foster parent is to facilitate reconciliation.

But my body had started to throw itself at walls for him.

I drove a couple of blocks from the office, where I planned to spend the two hours reading in a coffee shop that had a couch where I could recline. But I shouldn’t have been behind the wheel. I had never really left that room with Khalil. My heart and my mind were back there and, distracted, I ran a red light. A woman in a Toyota hit the passenger side of my car. It happened — just like they say — slowly and quickly.

I called 9-1-1 and then David, one, five, ten times. He was in a meeting without his phone. I called my friend Ellie and she walked over, sitting on the side of the road in my car with me. When David saw his missed calls, he called back, frantic. I was in an accident. I need you.

David ran out of his office in San Francisco and to the BART, calculating that it would get him across the bridge faster than a taxi. Within a few minutes, he was sprinting up the street in Oakland’s Chinatown where I sat, weeping. I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.

A minute later, David’s friend Dan pulled up to drive me home. We moved the car seat to Dan’s backseat, they took me home, and then returned to pick up Khalil, right in time for the end of his visit. I spent the evening certain that the police would show up soon, that because the accident was my fault, arrest and jail were the most likely outcome. David did his best to assure me that (white) people rarely spend time behind bars for running red lights and damaging another car’s bumper.

***

It was clear within a month that Khalil could not return to his mom, and his social worker was unable to find extended family members with the capacity to care for him. She said we might want to plan on a year with Khalil. With the new short-term predictability, we planned a June trip to Lummi Island, a tiny, wooded island near Bellingham, Washington. In the Oakland airport, David pushed my manual wheelchair while Khalil curled up, asleep, on my chest. We drove our rental car onto the ferry and across to the tiny island where we had booked a waterfront cottage for ten days. The white clapboard house looked across to Orcas Island and the yard was lush with weeping willows and flowers. Within minutes of arriving at the house, Khalil and I flopped on a navy striped blanket in the grass under a tree.

The week was a dream. For days, Khalil napped on my chest and cooed while awake. He was the happiest baby, as long as we were touching. I read so many books that I finished the stack that took up half of my suitcase. We then joined the tiny island library just so I could pick up a few more. David and I drank coffee on the deck in the mornings and I watched the sunset with an IPA in the evenings. At night, with Khalil asleep in the bedroom, David and I watched old movies while eating sleeves of Oreos.

***

Back in Oakland, our life was full. I was volunteering at a middle school twice a week, spending time with girls who had recently immigrated. Many had, a short time before, been in detention centers. Perla and Ayli met me at my car on Mondays and helped me carry the bags of pillows, art supplies, Khalil’s stroller, and his diaper bag. None of the girls missed a session. They wanted to see baby Khalil. We wore matching shirts and giggled in the gym — perfect, chubby Khalil dozing and smiling on my lap.

***

If I were reading this, I’d assume something bad was about to happen. But that’s not the case here. In real life, sometimes everything just feels right for a bit.

***

Up in our house in the hills, Khalil and I passed our days, moving from bed to couch to deck to bed again. Sleeping and playing and giggling.

***

We visited family court every few months, and each time it was like crashing back to earth. In the hallway at the courthouse, we watched parents forcefully separated from their kids. We witnessed the obvious racial divide between the foster parents and the parents losing custody. The building was stuffed with injustice and pain, and we were sitting squarely on the side of the oppressor.

We looked into the foster system in more depth, like we should have done a year prior. We read books about transracial adoption and started to really think about what it would mean to raise a Black son. The foster system removes Black children from their parents far more often than it does white kids. In fact, the racial injustice of the foster system is so entrenched and severe that in 1972, Black social workers explicitly expressed their opposition to white families fostering or adopting Black children.

Around Khalil’s first birthday, we visited the courthouse so that the judge could determine whether Khalil’s mom should continue to receive services to help her reunify with her son or if her rights would be terminated. We sat on a bench outside the courtroom, waiting for his name to be called. Across the narrow hall, a Black woman with a tattered file met her attorney for the first time. She was fighting to reunify with her 13-year-old son and had been attending parenting classes. From what I gathered, he was taken from her care at least partially due to suspicious recurrent medical issues that had since been attributed to a genetic and life-threatening connective tissue disorder, not her parenting. But he still wasn’t back home.

Coincidentally, I was at that moment sitting on a memory foam cushion due to a hip dislocation resulting from my own, related connective tissue disorder. Her attorney said that in the best-case scenario, this mother would be granted the right to six more months, during which she could continue to attend classes and work to reunify with her son. She pulled out a worn certificate of completion from her first round of classes, which included a personal recommendation from the instructor. She asked if that might help her case. I didn’t know the details of their situation and, frankly, it’s appalling that her business was being aired in this crowded hallway just feet away from where I sat. But I didn’t need all the details to know it was sobering that she had just met her attorney for the first time and that her son was being shuffled around the system while sick. The hallway in that courthouse was a heavy place to wait. That family’s story highlighted for me the heartbreak that permeates the foster system.

It was impossible to ignore that the people making decisions in that building were mostly white and the people whose fates were determined in less than 10 minutes were mostly not. How could I not consider my complicity in the racial and economic inequality that played out in front of me? How did I ever believe that we live in a just and fair society where everyone has an equal chance? Centuries of legalized racial oppression through slavery, mass incarceration, and Jim Crow are still affecting families on a massive scale.

Khalil’s first mom loves Khalil. She gave him his name and his joyful, social, resilient, and kind personality. When I watch her son, I can’t help but reflect on how magnetic and brilliant she is.

His social worker said it was the ultimate act of love that she stepped back during those early months. She was giving him the gift of hope.

That is a comforting narrative.

But is it true?

It is hard for me to sit up in the mornings (or anytime really) and I didn’t use my mobility scooter to get to the courtroom for that hearing. I was concerned that my disability would be distracting for the judge or call into question my ability to parent, so I spent that morning masquerading as healthy, which was exhausting. Once inside, the judge called for another hearing in three weeks, during which all parties would testify. The case transitioned from uncontested to contested which, from what we understood, was a formality. The hearing lasted less than five minutes; it was jarring to watch those life-altering decisions be made so quickly without any acknowledgment that we were discussing entire human lives.

The termination of his first mom’s rights was a heavy prospect. I held that reality like a stone in my stomach. People have suffered and continue to suffer as part of any adoption. Khalil’s mom loves him and is also unable to care for him. Adoption will never be simple or easy. Khalil’s mom’s life is part of his story and will continue to be part of ours. I love Khalil all the way through and so I love her, too. She is his first mom, and we wouldn’t have him without her.

***

Six months after the termination of her parental rights, we went back to the courthouse on a sunny November day. I had upgraded to a 400-pound battle-axe of a wheelchair and entered the courtroom in it, carrying Khalil on my lap for his adoption ceremony. He wore a tiny bowtie and suspenders. His biological sister and her family joined us. When we signed the paperwork, Khalil placed his chubby hand over mine.

Months earlier, heavy with the injustice within the child welfare system, we had considered not adopting him. It would have been like tearing off an arm, but we talked in circles for weeks. The truth is that we were benefiting from and perpetuating a racist social structure that manifested directly in the child welfare system. How could we defend that? We couldn’t.

Finally, we accepted that an unwavering commitment to our ideals, in this case, was a matter of ego. My desperation to be a “good person” couldn’t justify separating Khalil from his strongest attachments — us. Family, in its every form, includes mistakes and complications and we had, in the most natural and unnatural eighteen months of our lives, become his parents.

Meet the Contributor
Jessica Slice

Jessica Slice is an MSW and essayist who has been published in Modern Love, Alice Wong’s bestselling Disability Visibility, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and HuffPost. Find her on Longreads and on Judy Heumann’s podcast. Her picture book about families with disabilities, This is How We Play, will be released in 2023 with Dial Press (Penguin Random House). A graduate of Davidson College and Columbia University, she is represented by Jill Marr at Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agents.

  3 comments for “Throwing Myself into Walls by Jessica Slice

  1. This story moved me in how well it detailed the internal and external realities of the experience. I felt so physically similar when I was a new mom and this story showed me that those physical responses can occur without having given birth. Thanks for sharing this story of love, hope, and the desire for justice.

Leave a Reply to Tahnee Kirk Cancel reply