A little over 8 years ago – March 3rd, 2008 to be exact – I was driving home from work, which at the time was about 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia, not far from where Amber’s father lived.
Things had not been going well. Three-plus years of waiting, pausing, possibly-it’s-never-happening, oh-wait-it’s-happening adoption process had taken its toll. Amber was carrying the weight of this ongoing drama as bravely as possible, but we needed help.
At the time, even though I’d known him for about four years, I had not known too much about what Amber’s father was like throughout her childhood. I had known it wasn’t great, and I had certainly cone to know Drew as someone with some… odd habits. A tendency to perseverate about relatively straight-forward decisions. Dietary choices that were so consistent, one might have presumed they were imposed on him by some unseen overlord: the same two basic meals, to which he referred as “doses”, consumed 20+ times/week. Once or twice a week he went to Bob Evans – where he ordered precisely the same meal each time, noting with glee in his recollections later whether the price had changed since his last visit, or differed slightly from the other Bob Evans he occasionally frequented.
The insistence that he would eventually “get to” the growing pile of issues of the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer that were accumulating in his kitchen. “When I retire.” The last I remembered seeing them, there were three piles of newspapers, each several feet high.
These were tolerable, if progressively somewhat overbearing, character traits. And perhaps, somewhere in the back of my mind, it reminded me of my own grandfather, who’s love of telling stories about his past would eventually wear thin on even the most patient of listeners, as the stories he remembered grew fewer and fewer. It could be tiring, but you could hardly begrudge a man his simple pleasures.
That consistency of behavior and thought was also something on which we could occasionally depend in times of need. Given a task, and fairly unambiguous directions, Drew could perform admirably well in emotionally difficult situations. Two years earlier, when our dog Flannery was nearing the end of her life, I had given Drew a call to let him know that I would probably, in a few days, need his help getting Flannery to the vet to be euthanized. Amber and I had agreed that, when the time came, she would leave the house and meet up with a friend, while I came home with Drew and retrieved Flannery. And when Amber called to let me know it was time, I left work and raced down I-95. I called Drew on the way.
I stammered into the phone: “Flannery… it’s time.. I’m heading home… and I need…. help.”
“I’ll meet you there in an hour.”
And he did, and he helped, and when it was done he went back home and picked up, I presume, precisely where he had left off. But I don’t think I had to explain anything about what the process was going to involve, where the vet was, what was going to happen afterward. I knew I was a wreck inside, and I knew I was worried sick about Amber. But if Drew had any particular reaction, he didn’t reveal it. And that didn’t seem strange. Actually, it was helpful. I didn’t need to be handling anyone else’s emotional turmoil, and he presented none.
And so, racing down that same stretch of I-95 a few years later, I called Drew again. Amber was buckling under the weight of our adoption “journey”, which had by that point transformed from an exciting adventure into a guided tour of hell. Amber had stopped getting out of bed in the mornings. She had been writing and publishing about our experiences in Korean Quarterly, and anyone who’d read those columns would have known that, three years on, we were pretty sure we weren’t going to end up with a baby at all.
Each time Amber had asked Drew whether he’d read her column, he seemed to almost enjoy saying, “No, I didn’t get to it yet.”
Yet. This was becoming a theme. The water-damaged ceiling of his kitchen, at which he’d been chipping away with a spoon for years, had not been repaired “yet.” What was he waiting for?
At least the leak from the bathroom which precipitated the ceiling damage had been fixed, though that took over a year before it was attended to. We had discussed the leak in detail the prior Christmas morning at his home where, for the third year running, he had meticulously laid out precisely one bowl-full of green and red peanut M&Ms. Weeks, if not months, of planning and discussion had preceded the purchase of that bag of candy.
Drew’s behavior had, even in just three years, grown progressively more regimented, to the point of obsession. On the second floor of his home he kept a rowing machine, which he used daily. And with it, a log of his performance – how long it had taken him to row a certain distance, perhaps 10,000 meters.
“One second faster, each week,” he announced. To the extent that I could detect it, there was a note of pride in his voice.
“Until what?” I had asked. Not to be dismissive, mind you: I wondered whether or not he had a specific goal in mind.
But I had also begun to wonder how a person could possibly survive the boredom of eating the same meals, visiting the same bookstore, driving to the same restaurant, doing the same exercise, month after month, year after year. And though I assumed that Drew felt some reassurance in these habits, I wondered what would become of this rut, which seemed to grow deeper and deeper each time we spoke. Amber and I had begun to talk of how the sclerosis of Drew’s habits were disabling him, his ability to cope with his environment seemed to be on a downslope, however slight. The backlog of his work – which he did from home – seemed to pile up higher each visit, along with the Sunday papers.
We could see, even then, where this was leading, even if it seemed to elude Drew. He would comment on the increasing frequency with which he would “lose a word”, and struggle for hours to remember it. In isolation, this didn’t seem too terribly troubling. “Do more crossword puzzles” seemed, as much as anything, a viable prescription.
As helpful as that might actually have been, I can imagine clearly his response: “When am I going to find the time to do that?” Drew was increasingly consumed with the endlessness of his responsibilities. But they, and his habits, seemed to be getting the better of him. They were snowballing, and would eventually consume him.
I had promised Amber that, when the time came, Drew would have the care he needed. Maybe that time would ultimately come sooner than we would have expected or wanted. But at that point, it still seemed comfortably far off.
“Amber is just so overwhelmed. This has been so hard, it has taken so long, things keep changing, and she needs help. I’m heading home now, and I need you to help too.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Drew asked, sounding rather irritated. This was new to me.
Assuming I’d interrupted him during something, I struggled to explain, and to avoid as many of the other vehicles on the highway as possible. “I don’t really know, but she needs your help. Talk to her, maybe. Help her through this.”
“Amber doesn’t need a cheerleader.”
In fact, that was precisely what she might have needed, and appreciated: someone to offer some reassurance, some optimism, some understanding or acceptance that though things were hard now they would likely turn around sometime soon. It didn’t need to be true, it just needed to be said. And by someone other than me, because I was fairly sure that after three years of making those reassurances, I was losing credibility.
“I don’t know that that’s really true, but she does need to hear from you, and needs your support right now,” was all I could offer.
“I’ve done enough.”
Somewhere between Woodhaven Rd. and Girard Ave., something dropped out of the bottom of the car. It might have been my jaw. I was not yet a father… evidence seemed to be piling up that I was moving further and further away from it… but I could not conceive of a situation where I would throw in the towel like that on my own child.
But this had quickly gone from “I don’t know what you want me to do,” to “I don’t want to do anything.”
I think the conversation circled around those points a few more times. At some point I said, “You really need to decide if this is something you can do, because if you’re not, there’s a fairly good chance that Amber isn’t going to speak to you again. And I’m certainly not going to have someone with that attitude be a grandparent to my child.”
“You probably don’t know this, but there was a point where Amber didn’t talk to me for three years. And then she came crawling back.”
“Actually,” I replied, “I do know about that.”
By which point I’d managed to navigate the exit from the highway and two dozen intersections before arriving on our block and parking. I hadn’t yet hung up the phone, but I was about to go into our house.
But the last thing I heard Drew say was, “I’m really sorry you have to be the one to deal with her.”
“Yeah,” I trailed off. And hung up.
When I went inside, Amber was waiting. I’m not sure if I punched the wall first, or told her that I’d just gotten off the phone with her father, who was being so fucking unbelievably stubborn.
And I looked in her eyes, and I told her the conversation we’d had.
And Amber smiled, and shook her head, and I didn’t have to tell her anything at all about what he’d said, but I did anyway. And she was completely unsurprised.
The next day, I was back at work. And when my phone rang, and it was Amber, I was panicked and worried and went into my office and closed the door.
“OK,” she said, “I am calling you with something that is for once not bad news.”
“Would you like to go get your daughter tomorrow?”