Saturday, March 24, 2007

Your Soul to Keep

I’ve been hearing my biological clock tick since I was a small child. Not so much the negative pressure to have children before it’s too late that most associate with the clock, but more the positive yearning to have a baby in my life, a little wriggly thing for which I could care and watch grow into a little being.

I am an only child and this explains some of the yearning. I was an intensely lonely child and it seemed to me that only a baby brother or sister could pierce that loneliness. It was not that I was unloved by my parents, it’s just that I was alternately bathed in 125 percent of their gaze, concern, and attention and then lost them completely to the social-cultural work that they did nearly every weekend for a good part of my childhood. In my grand plan, I would win an ally, someone to divert parental attention while I did what I did on my own – read, listen to songs on the radio, watch TV – and who would give me someone to play with and talk to on the afternoons after school when my mom was not at home or at the church halls where my parents organized meetings and events for the Indian community. I think in my early vision of this eventuality, I pictured a boy who was like me in physical description and mental disposition but different too, perhaps a little more mischievous and garrulous.

At a young age (I seem to tie all significant occurrences in my childhood to when my dad was 42 and I was 8, for no apparent reason other than the understanding of age that I gained at that point in time) I used to ask my parents why I could not have a little brother. My mother – starting a mode of relation that would repeat itself over and over until the time that coincided with the start of my first adult relationship in college – revealed too much in response. In 1972 there had been another baby, a little boy, he had died in a miscarriage, caused by the stress on my mom imposed by her sister-in-law in New Jersey, and while my mom was in the hospital my father had gone to a family gathering celebrating his brother’s birthday (items 1 and 2 on my mother’s bill of particulars against my father). The lost fetus had no sex but I pictured a miniaturized boy like myself, lost in a puddle of human matter and blood. We had been so close and then things had gone terribly awry. I came to understand that my parents had been unable to conceive since then (again, too much goddamned information).

When we went to India in 1980, we decided to adopt a child. My mother’s sister in Bombay had adopted a little boy whom we all loved and she connected us with an agency. We met a social worker at her office in the central city and she interviewed each of us in succession. She was beautiful, modern, English-speaking, and she seemed to care and want the best for us and the little children that were in her charge. She asked me why I wanted a sibling, and I said I wanted a little brother, “someone to play with and stuff.” She gently explained to me that when a family already had a boy it was their policy to make a girl available for adoption. That was a new thought for me. I thought: What do girls do? Would she play with me? Yes, she too would relieve me of my loneliness. I would be a big brother and protect her and she would think I was the greatest big brother in the whole world. That would be pretty cool. (I would have read The Bridge to Terabithia by this point and may have thought of the sweet relationship that developed between the boy and his little sister in the novel.) I was on-board with having a sister and let the beautiful social worker know it.

The social worker came to visit my grandfather’s flat – where we stayed on visits with another of my dad’s brothers and his big, bossy wife – as a proxy for the home visit that she was required to make prior to adoption. My kaka and kaki had no children and had cared for my father’s mother while she was bedridden with arthritis for nine years until she died in 1976. Now they took care of my grandfather, who was quiet, authoritative, and quick to anger. But he was sweet to me and we had become very close when he had visited the U.S. for most of 1977. I remember leaning into the folds of his soft dhoti cloth, listening to his stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and taking in the not-unpleasant smell of snuff, which he carried in a little tin box with a flip-top. The flat was a somewhat dingy three rooms and a great blue veranda, sink in the entrance hallway, the toilet a hole in the floor with a wooden chair placed on top. My grandfather would bathe me every day using buckets of hot water that my uncle collected in the morning. The putative purpose of the social worker’s visit was that she was a college friend of my mom and wanted to spend some time with her. (My parents had decided not to reveal their plan to anyone until things were closer to final.) She sat in our living room and was friendly and observant. Then she left and we hopefully anticipated her approval of our application.

The little baby was tiny and my mother held her in the backseat with the social worker and my masi while I sat in the front and strained to look at her. She was wearing an old-fashioned pink bonnet and was swathed in a blanket. I think she was born small and fragile. We took her to a doctor for a check-up and then returned her to the social worker until all was final and we could take her back with us to the U.S. Later, my parents would discuss whether she was especially pretty or not: my mom would say yes, my dad would say no, not especially.

She never made the trip and we came back to our house in suburban New York sadder and a little more broken then before we had left. My grandfather had said that he would fast to death if we brought the child to his home and the immigration rules dictated that my mom would have to remain in India with the child for up to six months, which of course was long enough for my grandfather to bring his threat and curse to pass. My grandfather said that he was opposed because the child’s status was unknown and it was likely that she was born of a prostitute, thus lowering our family’s status in society (as if our extended family did not have enough degrading scandals under his leadership) and that he feared that the girl and I would have illegitimate relations at some point (again, highly ironic and ugly in light of certain family history in the generation before my father’s). My parents gave in then. It’s only recently that I have understood how they betrayed themselves and their marriage in that moment. You face a situation and make a decision, and it permanently alters and colors your life, until the moment you die. (When my grandfather died in 1994 when I was in law school, I chose to interview with corporate firms for a summer job rather than make the trip to India for the funeral.)

As I have aged into my thirties, a few of my girlfriends have questioned my desire, burning just under the surface, to have children. In my two most recent serious relationships, that desire has been perceived as undermining my feelings for them. Am I with them so that I could have children? Did I really love them? My unrequited yearning has collided with their feelings of anxiety about childbirth and their contemplated loss of self. It doesn’t help that I used a picture of myself with the infant daughter of a friend for my internet dating profile or that my gaze is drawn to every baby and child that we cross on sidewalks and in restaurants.

Many of my friends have had children (most are on their second now) but only one has given me an official role in his daughter’s life, as a godfather. Unfortunately, now three years old, she is across the country but I keep up with her (with a tender heart) through my friend’s blog. (Most recently, she got up from her big girl bed in the middle of the night and fell asleep on a pile of laundry in the hallway.) The couple above me just had a little girl and I hear her plaintive little cries when I am putting myself down at 3 in the morning, after a night of internet surfing or work or drinking with friends. It makes me happy to know that she’s there, above me.


lostandfound said...

hey, that is really moving and interesting. i applaud you for writing about it, particularly, if this is the first place where you are disclosing the info.

Ganesh said...

a great post, buddy! definitely moving and interesting, introspective and somewhat sad. thanks for sharing.

lbc said...

thanks. i've told that story many times but never written it.

lostandfound said...

after getting frustrated in writing a simple piece, i have to say i admire your sitting down to write this personal, long piece, and that much more so to ganesh for his doing this so many times. it requires real commitment and work to put it out there notwithstanding that it may be flowing from you.