Not flesh of my flesh, nor bone of my bone,
But still miraculously my own.
Never forget for a single minute,
You didn't grow under my heart but in it.
— Fleur Conkling Heyliger
By Ess Aubrey Gabrelyn Prakash
Rose looked away from the burns on the little one's thigh. The faded scars had been left by his birth parents. They were never told which one had been the alcoholic smoker. Personal details were not revealed in a closed adoption.
A second later, as she pulled one more baby wipe from the packet in her hand, a corner of the packet grazed Kieran's thigh. Grating screams hit the walls.
"Stop it, stop it!" Rose blurted out, her heart stung by impatience and guilt. Tears continued to stream from Kieran's eyes. After rushing to swab the last splatters of brownish-green poop from deep within the bawling, kicking tangle of limbs, Rose chucked the wet wipe into the bin by the crib. Her son would squirm more if she picked him up. She dabbed each buttock with the powder puff as he continued shrieking his head off.
Desperate to distract him so she could put on his diaper, Rose began calling out the animals decorating the yellow walls of the sun-drenched bedroom. They had sprung from the most vibrant stickers, these oversized fireflies that smiled down from the ceiling and behind their queen-size bed. Just as Rose thought about closing the curtains and revealing the glow-in-the-dark, winged constellations, her husband hurried in.
"The packet scratched him a little, Hon. He isn't hurt," she said, moving away from the crib and nearly knocking into the bed. She dropped the packet beside the five folded onesies on the side table.
Philip slid his arms under Kieran but the six-month-old twisted about and nearly bit his wrist.
"It's worse if you carry him, Phil."
"You scratched his thigh, didn't you? You know he's sensitive there!" Phil waited till Kieran had rolled over before sweeping him up, cupping the boy's bottom in one hand and wrapping his other arm around the tiny chest. The infant's legs dangled free. When Phil turned around and began talking to the child in a deep voice, Rose stiffened. Phil was making it look like Kieran was kicking out at her.
A comeback had been building up in Rose's mind. Something about how the poor child was sensitive to everything. There was a reason they still used the cheap detergent from his birth parents and had not bought him any new clothes. Babies remember smells, surroundings. Abrupt, complete changes were never a good idea. But in Phil's arms, Kieran was pausing between sobs and glancing up at his father's stubble.
Rose felt a twinge within her. "Look – give him to me," she said. Her husband clucked his tongue and strode off to the living room. Left in the bedroom amidst the smells of poop and lavender powder, Rose was imagining, almost hoping, that Kieran would pee all over Phil. Seconds later, a cheek-stretching yawn made several tears seep out of her own eyes. She rubbed the sticky exhaustion away as she got up to open the windows and let in the breeze. Her damp blouse was making her skin itch. Weekends never felt like weekends anymore.
As Rose climbed under the ruffled sheets with Phil later that night, she was careful not to make any noises that would startle the figure in the crib. She felt stabs of pain each time he burst out twitching and crying in his sleep. He must be having nightmares of something searing his flesh. She was almost always the one to try to soothe their child, carrying him out of the bedroom so Phil could sleep. He was the one with the job, and she knew electrical technicians had to stay alert, but that didn't make her duties easier. Whenever she lay Kieran back in the crib, her eardrums throbbed with echoes of his wailing.
"Why'd you take them down?" Phil asked, keeping his voice neutral, the way he did whenever something was wrong. At the start of their adoption journey, Rose picked out photographs of the two of them around their three-room apartment and lay them out on their dining table. She wrote a poem and drew a dimpled child on each one with a scented marker. Hiding under Phil's study table and reaching out to pull his leg hair. Lifting a blanket-draped leg with an impish expression. She drew a fart explosion bubble beside that one. Phil waited with his feet up on a chair while she added a high ponytail onto each child. Then, chuckling, he grabbed the marker. She squealed in mock protest.
Off he went like a yo-yo, bending over to turn ponytails into lopsided baseball caps and springing away with the marker, planting a kiss on her head every chance he got. They ended up stringing the photographs across their bedroom window, half with ponytails and half with baseball caps, and agreeing that they would accept the first baby that needed parents.
She didn't tell Phil about the doubt that had always festered within her, the worry that her physical defects might somehow screw up her maternal instincts and unravel all that made a woman a mother. She'd already inherited Polycystic Ovary Syndrome from her mother. Two sad oval shipwrecks with their liquid-filled cysts that meant she was unable to ovulate. At least through adoption, the cursed ovaries would not pass on again to a biological daughter.
During that first meeting at the agency, the small boy with thin lips had fit her arms to a T. Though he started crying before long, a warmth emerged in Rose's heart. They could still adopt a daughter in future. She and Phil had finally crouched over a sleeping Kieran in their cosy yellow burrow, gazing upon him in his crib for so long that they forgot about having dinner. Rose had given up her job as a customer service officer, but four months on, Kieran's extreme outbursts on top of the endless chores were making even her fingertips heavy with fatigue. At night, when she lay listening to the sounds of her husband letting out a low, rhythmic whistling from his lips, her old anxiety grated away at her mind. Why was it so difficult for her, Kieran's mother, to calm him down?
The rare times that Kieran suckled were the times she almost thought it could work. Rose had used the breast pump every day for weeks, every two to three hours, before a few yellowish drops had squeezed through. The times her ducts were sucked dry and she had to resort to formula, she was flooded with shame. The three of them were meant to be a forever family. The problem was that while she was doing all that she could for her son, she never felt like a mother.
When Phil shifted his feet, placing one foot over the other, Rose was reminded of his question.
"Those photos?" she asked. She had taken them down one day and pushed them under the printer. "Thought we'd take new ones."
"I was on the computer the other day," Rose said, using her fingers to reshape the nook of the pillow behind her. She was sitting up against the headboard. Phil was lying with his hands under his head, staring at the figures glinting from the ceiling in the semi-darkness. "Two adoptive parents put their child back up for adoption." She saw him raise an eyebrow for a second. Then he rubbed his nostril and sniffed, as if to dislodge dust.
"What's the problem?" he asked. Tone still neutral. "We waited so long for him." Words judgmental.
"It doesn't feel right. Kieran . . . doesn't seem to like me." She did not know how to explain it further. "Do you feel like it's right?"
"Hon, there's no right or wrong. Stop overthinking things. Feelings come, feelings grow." Everything was so automatic with him.
"But do you really feel it?"
"Some kind of connection."
"Of course I do. I love the little bum. Just wait. It'll get easier."
Rose's eyes had fallen upon a long neck slumped over the edge of the side table. Kieran's spotted soft toy. A giraffe can survive on one and a half hours of sleep a day.
"I'm not a giraffe," she wanted to say. Phil would not get it.
"You don't like Kieran?" he asked a moment later. Tiptoeing around the word love.
Rose still didn't know how to make him understand. Each of the two times Kieran had smiled to himself, she had felt a wonderful uprush of glee. The other day, he had been on his stomach and lifted his arms and legs from his striped mattress. A delighted gurgle from the world's smallest airplane. She had nearly dropped her broom. Their eyes locked for a second through the bars of the crib. She hadn't been able to stop smiling. Yet most of the time, if he was not crying, Kieran was on his back and raising his feet towards him with a blank expression. They were like strangers keeping an empty seat between them on the train. Perhaps an exchange of amiable nods, but no need for small talk. Despite Kieran's early captivity under inattentive, abusive birth parents and the visceral shock of finding himself with new parents, he seemed to be getting comfortable with Phil. Why not her?
"I do like him," she said.
Silence. Phil had been hoping for more. But saying she loved Kieran wouldn't feel right yet. As tantrums blasted from the crib each day, she wondered whether she would be happier without her son. And when his onesie ended up tear-soaked to his armpits, she questioned whether she could give him all he needed.
"You'll feel better in time," Phil said.
Rose groaned. Let him try staying home every day for Kieran to kick his palms away. If she were less tired, she might be able to give Kieran more. A memory flitted by. Her mother's powder-marked fingers buttoning Minnie Mouse pyjamas for her. It was easy for Rose to picture her parents smiling down upon them all. They would have insisted on carrying Kieran no matter how many white hairs he yanked out. Phil's father had passed away as well. His mother, too feeble to stay on her own, lived with his brother.
"Phil, let's consider getting a helper," Rose said. She noted that a crinkle had appeared between her husband's eyes. But what did he know of frustration?
"I can't keep this up, Phil. We might be able to afford –"
"But we can't afford it. You're not working, why can't –"
"I'm not some kind of super-parent!"
Upon hearing a whimper from the crib, Rose paused. She lowered her voice.
"If Kieran and I can't make it work, it's not fair to him. Just consider a helper."
Her husband didn't reply. Perhaps he thought her a monster for thinking of making a second adoption plan for Kieran. Or he was working out how much money they could spare, all the while preparing to give her that patronising squeeze of her hand and tell her they couldn't. Rose sighed and settled under the covers. A while later, Phil's lips brushed the strands of hair that fell about her ear, as if a quick kiss could make everything better. Keeping still, Rose wished that the relentless beam of moonlight from the chink in the curtains would slide further away, towards the bit of floor beyond the bed.
"Remember, we're not here to find the right child for you," the assessor had said during the pre-adoption briefing. "We're here to find the right family for a child." Rose looked towards the crib. Under the green glow of the fireflies, she could make out one side of an upturned mouth. Number Three. There was no doubt that she would miss him if they sent him away. Something had to change.
No longer trailed by the fragrance of jasmine, the citrusy smell of their Dettol multi-surface cleaner rose from the bedroom tiles. After Lwin's first session with them, Rose had requested that she stop wearing her perfume so that Kieran would not feel disoriented. She did not mind that the part-time cleaner who came every Friday had cracked one of their toothbrush holders, or that she sometimes added too much salt when she cooked the meals to be stored in the freezer. Rose handled only the most urgent of chores like the washing of clothes. Early on, Phil had grumbled about the dirty dishes almost touching the spout of the tap in between the cleaning sessions.
"So I told your daddy he could eat with his hands, didn't I?" Rose said to her son, who was in the crib chewing on his knuckles. She noticed that over the weeks, as the saggy crescents beneath her eyes lightened, Phil's grumbling decreased. For her, being able to rest when Kieran napped in the daytime made a world of difference. At times, she kept the bedroom door ajar while she tapped away on her laptop at the dining table. Other adopted children who had been ignored by birth parents had become irritable and resistant to interaction as well. Kieran's volatile personality may have been caused by some kind of attachment disorder brought on by neglect during his first months. Though it was happening less, some nights she still lay with drooping eyelids, fretting over whether the solutions she had found would help Kieran bond with her.
As Rose juggled the flask, milk bottle, and stackable formula dispenser containers, Kieran's eyes followed her movements. At seven months, his body covered several more stripes on the mattress. He had even grown accustomed to the clothes Rose had had to buy him as he grew.
"No more of Mummy's milk for you today. Don't worry, this milk is nice too." Since they had begun transitioning Kieran to solid food and nursing sessions had gone down, she was expressing less milk. But she had mastered the art of hiding remnants of guilt behind a relaxed tone.
Rose placed the bottle on the side table so she could try carrying Kieran once again. Sometimes he only screeched halfway through the feeding. She might have to admit that her singing was not easy on the ears. Yesterday, he had refused to be carried.
"Don't cry, Ki. I'm just going to pick you up. Remember Mummy carrying you to feed you? Come, Ki." She slipped her hands under his shoulders and lifted him.
"There we go, ahhhhh bup-bup-bup-bup-pup-pup-pup!"
The instant his face took up the starting position for a cry, those ridiculous sounds leapt from her lips. She burst into giggles and found herself sitting on the bed within moments, Kieran tucked under her right arm so that his scarred thigh would not press against her belly.
As her son seemed to have forgotten even to whine, Rose channelled Dr Seuss with more nonsensical rhymes and bounced him in her arm.
And then Number Four appeared, and for the first time, Rose realised that a dimple was nestled in Kieran's right cheek. It was the sweetest thing she had ever seen, and she hadn't even been breastfeeding him. As she picked up the bottle and touched the teat to Kieran's lips, Rose imagined Phil's laugh when she told him how she had calmed their son down. New photographs of the three of them could go across the window.
Shortly after, Kieran pushed the bottle away, rubbed his nose against her chest, and then descended into a cry again. Rose didn't snap. For some inexplicable reason, she felt like the first gate between them had swung open, and that one way or another, the locks on the gates to come could be picked or broken through.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 3 Jul 2023