This story is by JoAnn McGrath and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Power to Veto
My husband James and I were asked to wait in this room, a small quasi-living room, painted a cool eggshell blue. It is in a converted office, in an outdated building. The radiators make abrupt noises, startling me with every clank and every hiss. I sit uncomfortably on the uneven couch.
But this room holds our best hope.
“What if they take an instant dislike to the way we look?”
“The Italian leather shoes you made me buy were to take care of that,” answers my husband. “Will they be checking our teeth?”
“You know, to determine our ages, like the horses on Uncle Morley’s farm.”
I laugh despite myself as I glance at the huge office clock.
Oh no, they’re late. They’ve changed their minds.
Is it hot in here?”
“Stifling,” answers James, pulling at his starchy shirt collar.
“Can we open a window?” I wipe my forehead with my bunched-up Kleenex, expecting to wipe away my anxiety.
“Let the young couple pick us,” I pray.
“I have to get out,” I say, rising swiftly, eyeing the door. James grips my arm. Susceptible to panic attacks, my heart is racing. This room is sweltering and it reminds me of a time, as a teenager, when I felt trapped in an over-heated bus on my way home from a school outing. Bereft of hope then, this same feeling is overwhelming me now. That day long ago had started out hopeful, as this one had.
But there had been a child…the nuns from our girls-only French high school had organized a trip to an orphanage in Montreal, Canada. The voices of twenty teenage girls hushed as the creaky bus ground to a halt in front of the massive stone building. After two hours on that hot bus, we jumped out quickly, ran up the broad cement stairs and through the double wooden doors.
Our soft soled shoes pattered quietly on the stone floors as we were led down the wide corridors. The nun’s hard-edged heels however, emitted a staccato sound which clacked and hammered in my brain. Although I felt relief from the heat of the bus, a sadness enveloped me like the nun’s billowing black habit enveloped her.
Carrying our carefully selected gifts, she led us next to a stone terrace to be united with the child we had been matched with. Three-year-old Stephen was in my care for that afternoon. I had pretended he was my little brother when I shopped for his gift, a set of toy guns with a red tooled holster, a popular item back then. I’d purchased it at the Zeller’s department store in downtown Cornwall, a paper mill city on the shores of the Canadian Saint Lawrence Seaway where I lived.
Now on the stone terrace, Stephen peeked around the huge dark columns, his matted blonde curls were a dead give-away to his hiding spot. I pretended not to see this cute kid, aiming his new present at me.
“Bang, bang!” he shouted in his biggest little voice, his knees bent wide in his best cowboy stance, gripping his new silver gun. This little guy, lithe and quick on his feet, had struck me down and I “died” dramatically to his uncertain chuckle.
At some point, Stephen took my hand and led me to a large boys’ dormitory.
“Which bed is yours?” I asked.
He hesitated, then pointed to one, lost among a sea of small, white iron beds, lined up military-style. He pulled me to his bed where he gently lifted a small, brown bear with few markings left to identify a face. He offered it up and I nuzzled it lovingly against my cheek. He crumpled against me. My heart grew suddenly warm and full. Although the term bonding was unknown to me then, I had felt it that day. How long had he been at this orphanage and why, I wondered. And where was his poor “maman”?
Time flew by and too soon, I heard, “Dîtes vos bye-bye les filles!”
Five minutes to say goodbye?
My chest constricted at the nun’s authoritative voice. How could the afternoon possibly have passed so quickly? I gripped Stephen’s hand as we obediently made our way to meet the rest of the group. I can’t remember if it was him or me, but we started hugging and neither would let go. Someone separated us. I wept all the way home. A nun tried to soothe me as my small body sweat, shook and heaved with sorrow.
She whispered, “Just be thankful you are not one of those girls who had to leave their baby there.”
“But it feels like I did!” I whimpered.
“Those girls?” I didn’t like how she had said that. She may as well have said “those bad girls.”
I cried with renewed vigor.
When I returned home, I tried in vain to convince both my mother—with eight grown children—and my eldest sister, to adopt Stephen. They declined with seemingly little sympathy.
Here today, in this room, I know Stephen is a grown man but in my heart, he is still the child I met, loved and believe I failed all those years ago. Although it is too late for Stephen and me, I know this little orphaned boy held a stranger’s hand, leaned in and trusted. He held out hope. I have to do the same.
My hysterectomy, a few years ago, had prevented me from conceiving. I remember waking up from surgery, relieved and euphoric, until the morphine ran out. Then, I cried like a baby for hours.
Today, I glance at my husband, waiting patiently. Will the young couple see what I see, know what I know about this gentle man? He is a quiet sort, often with a slight smile, which can burst into unexpected laughter. He has a handsome face, a fine nose, thick and curly ginger hair, and neatly pressed clothing. I doubt I present as charmingly. The radiator spews out a bone-jarring clank and it frightens me. I’m sure I look disheveled when the door opens.
A floral scent tickles my nostrils. I get up and hug the sweet-smelling woman with the high, firm baby bump. The tiny life is sandwiched between us; it feels exquisite. The birth mother is in her eighth month of pregnancy. I am sure I feel movement. My embrace is too long, and before I embarrass myself, I step back and consider her amazing blue eyes and gorgeous face. James rises to greet the handsome birth father.
We all have a lot at stake in this meeting. The younger couple, however, holds the trump card—the power to veto us.
The birth father takes the lead.
“How old are both of you?” he asks.
This question, right out of the gate? Should I cry or open my mouth to have him check my teeth?
“We have both seen our fortieth birthdays.” I had practiced this answer.
The room is now extraordinarily quiet.
Oh no, too old, the young couple thinks we are too old.
My husband reaches into the silence and starts talking enthusiastically about music. When the birth father mentions Credence Clearwater Revival, I jump in animatedly. “We love Credence too.” Will shared music lessen the age gap? I’m hoping. Just before the meeting, we were told that we already met several of the couple’s submitted wishes. We were Catholic, we were neither rich nor poor, one of us was French, their child could be an only child (we only had cats) and now that they know music is in our home, we can check off another box.
The meeting ends. As I share an anxious smile with the birth mother, we get up to go. The social worker mouths the word “Stay,” as she leaves with the young couple.
“Do you think they will like us best, James? We are not the only ones being considered.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“Do you think it was okay that I told them we would understand if they change their minds and keep the little one?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, do you think I made a mistake?” I plead as I search his face for some approbation. I scan the room trying to decide how thick the walls are. I continue, whispering this time, “It is their child and their right, first and foremost. And every child deserves the best of care with their biological family…”
The social worker enters hurriedly. Her cheeks are flushed, her scarf askew. She ran up the stairs? The results are in? I want to know but I don’t.
At least James got a new pair of shoes.
“You are in first place!” she tells us breathlessly.
Delivery is a month away for “our” baby. Time will pass painstakingly slowly. But the room suddenly appears cheerful, the blue paint a lovely shade, the sofa definitely more comfortable and the radiators quiet. With this new hope, the heat is off.