Mourning the Unknown by LuLu Grant

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A close-up of a baby's hand clasping adult hand

A bead of sweat rolls down the woman’s flushed cheeks. She gathers her determination, grits her teeth, and bears down with all her might. I watch in awe as her baby crowns, as the shoulders, torso, and legs slip into the world. A hearty song bursts from the little lungs. I check my watch. 11:30 a.m. The doctor snips the umbilical cord and places the baby in an incubator. The head nurse suctions his mouth and nose while I clean the blood and creamy vernix. As we assess, counting his quick breaths and rapid heart rate, the newborn baby stretches and flexes his limbs. He is healthy.

“Congratulations. You have a beautiful boy,” I say as I lay the newborn on the woman’s bare chest. Instinct takes over. He nudges towards the enlarged nipple, latches, and sucks at her colostrum. She cries. Her husband bends to kiss his wife’s forehead.

“He’s perfect,” he says, his voice catching. “Our little Henry.”

As I witness this intimate moment, my own tears trickle. They are full of tender happiness for the new family but also fierce jealousy and sadness. This baby, not yet ten minutes old, already has everything I yearn for. He knows his biological parents, has an undeniable link to them. I have adoption papers with the phrase “unknown natural parents.” He has a confirmed birthdate, time, and location. My birth certificate says I was born April 1, but I can’t trust that because my American parents who adopted me didn’t witness my birth. Neither did the Chinese man who found me on the street as a baby. Most importantly, this baby boy has two parents who will never abandon him. My birth parents did.

I grew up hearing about my adoption, how I had a Chinese mama and papa. How they loved me so much but couldn’t keep me. As a 5-year-old, I cried and climbed into Mom’s soothing arms. I didn’t understand. “If they loved me so much, why didn’t they keep me?” Eventually, I learned about China’s one-child policy, a law invoked to combat China’s overpopulation. It helped, but it also ended in the death and abandonment of millions of babies.

I look at this new mother and think of the last nine months she endured: the morning sickness, the hormonal roller coasters, the aches, the endless peeing. But also the moments that made it all worth it: the thump of her baby’s first kick, the first whoosh whoosh of a steady heartbeat or when she found out she was having a boy. Mom couldn’t experience any of that. If she had, she wouldn’t have adopted me.

I have to step out of the room, clear my head. When I chose labor and delivery for my senior rotation, I had no idea pregnant mothers and newborns would uncover the grief of my own maternal separation. But it does. Each time I witness a birth, see the umbilical connecting mother and baby, I think of her, the woman I was once connected with. A sadness wells inside and I cry. Every single time.

Two hours later, it is time for my favorite part. I don gloves and in my left hand, cradle Henry’s naked body like a football. With my right hand, I adjust the sink water to a perfect warmth, wet a washcloth, and clean between the folds of his pudgy body. Next, I squeeze a blob of Johnson’s baby shampoo on his fine brown hair and use a small plastic comb to work the gunk out. The father comes over to document the first bath.

“He likes the water,” I say as I rinse the fine hair. Unlike other babies who squirm and cry, this one relaxes. The father smiles, already proud of his son. He comes closer, zooms in with his phone.

“He looks just like his mother did when she was a baby.” His comment pierces, reminding me of how Mom and I never match and how I have to defend our relationship with my adoption story. I hate it.

I dry Henry’s body, rub on baby lotion, and dress him in a blue onesie. To finish, I swaddle him tight burrito style and place him in his plastic bassinet. Then, I assess his mother. I check her pad for blood clots, massage her uterus, check her nipples, and ask about her pain. I help her waddle to the bathroom and give her a bottle to squirt away the blood. As I take care of her, I think about my birth mother. I wonder about the length of her labor, if she was alone or with my birth father as she welcomed me into the world. Was I welcomed? I wonder if I slid out easily or put up a fight. Did I cry right away or need encouragement? Did my birth mother hold me, breastfeed me, or was I taken away? My thoughts darken. Maybe she had complications. Maybe she hemorrhaged and no one was there to administer medication. Maybe she died. Maybe she is dead.

I will never know.

When the woman is back in bed, I nestle her baby into her arms. She coos, brushes her lips against his hair fuzz. I turn away.

I always hear people say how lucky I am that I was adopted. I think of this baby and how lucky he is. His parents will tell their son about the day he was born, how he came into the world wailing, how fast he took to breastfeeding. They will give him a baby album that has his recorded birth time, date of birth, weight, length, tiny black fingerprints and footprints, and a hundred photos. They will show him the video of his first bath and say, “See, you always liked the water.”

Meet the Contributor

LuLu GrantLuLu Grant is an ESL teacher and writer based in Mexico. This is a piece from her in-progress memoir that delves into her experience as a transracial Chinese adoptee.

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