I’ve been down at the Capitol this past week fighting for a bill that would expedite the adoption of older kids. I’m pretty invested in it because you and I went through this. We had nine months to make your adoption happen, and had I not already had a giant home study to adopt Jax, you’d have aged out of foster care even though I was jumping up and down on the sidelines, begging to bring you into my family. It defied common sense so, cue the patriotic music, we drafted a law that would fix this.
There is opposition (yes, I was naive enough to be surprised by this) and one of the concerned voices said in her testimony, “Not everyone is Rebecca.” That’s me. I found it sort of funny because I am not sure I am the gold standard for older kid adoption. Actually, I am quite sure I am not. Adopting you also defied common sense – I’m a single mom with a full-time job and a high-needs kiddo. The Cleavers we are not. We’re more like a conglomeration of every single storyline on Parenthood. We have it all – Autism! Foster Care! Lawyer life! Single mom! A crotchety but likable Grandpa! Honestly, why isn’t someone filming this?
Anyway, long story longer, I’ve been asked a few times this week why I decided to adopt a seventeen year old kid out of foster care.
Remember about a year and a half ago, when I was just your meddling education lawyer and you were a sixteen year old group home kid, you enrolled in a week-long summer arts program? I showed up with your younger, also adopted, brother, Jax, to the end-of-camp performance. It was a school cafeteria, loud and bright and crowded so Jax, his earphones, sensory fidgets and I, found our way to the perimeter and sat on the floor against the wall. I remember this because I watched your eyes scan the room, looking for us, when you walked in. I saw the resignation on your face when you didn’t see us, and then watched you fight a smile when you did.
The other kids were appropriately goofing and dancing and laughing during the show. Not you. You were visibly uncomfortable and, like us, stayed on the perimeter. Even then, I knew you were a more serious kid. Being foolish involves letting your guard down and that’s not your thing.
You performed a spoken word piece. In those days, you still dressed like it was winter all year round. It was the middle of a Phoenix summer, but you wore an oversized flannel over the camp t-shirt, buttoned only at the top, so it ballooned over the black Dickies pants that were large enough to fit the Hulk. And the baseball cap. Always the baseball cap. Pulled down low so no one met your eyes.
The student emcee called your name, you walked up and she handed you the mic. You looked like a kid who would do a cool, silent head nod in thanks, but I heard you mumble “thank you” to the emcee. Your tough exterior belied your respectful interior.
You were nervous. You held the mic away from you so it didn’t pick up your words, but we heard you. You spoke in quiet rhythm about your years and years in foster care, about the constant moving and the abuse and how you felt blamed for a situation that you didn’t create. It was brave and eloquent and beautifully honest. The word raw is overused, but that’s what it was.
The other kids ended on hopeful messages full of self-empowerment and optimism. Not you. Your last line was “I’ve messed up, but I don’t think I’ve done anything so bad to deserve this.” You had your audience.They were quiet and reverent – and thus, it was quite noticeable when Jax started crying.
Jax was what, eleven at the time? Jax feels the world. I don’t know how much of your words he processed or understood, but he felt them and he broke down. Jax can’t always verbalize his emotions and with tears streaming down his face, he did that thing where he just looks at me with a pained face, waiting for confirmation that yes, this is painful, yes, your tears are appropriate.
Johnny, do you remember this? Your memories, like Jax’s, are spotty. You gave the mic back and when you started to leave the stage, Jax stood up, ran to you, and collided with you into a hug.
The audience was silent. Your words, “I’ve messed up, but I don’t think I’ve done anything so bad to deserve this” hung in the air.
I was already on my feet ready to grab Jax. I knew your file. I knew you didn’t like to be touched by strangers, I knew you didn’t like the unplanned, and I knew your go-to when triggered was very big and very physical. And here you were, center stage in front of hundreds of people being bear-hugged by a crying kid you didn’t really know.
But you hugged Jax back and you hugged him for real. You didn’t look awkward or uncomfortable anymore. You stayed center stage, in front of hundreds of people, and hugged Jax back.
The camp program director’s eyes, brimming with tears, met my eyes, and we nodded to each other. She knew what she was seeing.
That’s when I knew, Johnny. That exact moment. I knew you’d move in, I knew it would be hard AF, and I knew it was pretty damn likely I would adopt you.
You know me, I’ve read all the books, spent hours upon hours with Jax in therapy, googled and researched and scoured online forums for information about attachment. But I can never truly understand what it is like to be abandoned, to experience the loss of the people who are supposed to protect you. When Jax was crying in your arms and you wrapped him up in yours, I knew that you each had something the other needed that I didn’t have to give.
I am your mom, yes, but even more than that, I think, you and Jax are brothers.
Rebecca Masterson is a writer, speaker, and an advocate for children. For more from Rebecca, follow her on Instagram. Or sign up for her newsletter.