by Diana Kupershmit
We were on our way to meet the family that would potentially adopt our infant daughter.
The day was overcast, with ominous, steely low-hanging clouds that promised rain. My mother’s words reverberated in my head, in her distinct Russian accent: “Rain is for goot lock in are femilee,” she would often say.
Then she would rattle off testimonials to her theory: The day she and my father married. The day we arrived in the U.S from Soviet Ukraine. The day I took first place in my piano recital competition when I was twelve.
I used to laugh, thinking how ridiculous meteorological superstitions were. But on this day, I silently hoped my mother was right—that the universe was again confirming its cosmic favor.
Emma was three-months-old—our first child—when we made the drive to Pennsylvania. When she was first placed in my arms at the hospital, in that tingling afterglow of having just created life, I looked down to survey her face—and that’s when I saw it.
“Something’s wrong,” I said, fixing a desperate gaze on the doctor. “She doesn’t look like my husband or me.”
That’s what I said, as I mined my brain for words that sounded “maternally correct.”
What I thought was critical, ugly, and completely unacceptable. As I cradled our daughter Emma, I thought she looked sick. Abnormal. Imperfect.
But what did I know about what a newborn should look like seconds after entering the world? I anticipated seeing a balding, cherubic infant, with features that could evolve into my shapely lips, my husband’s wispy hair, my father’s prominent Jewish nose.
What I saw instead was slightly low set ears, wide-set eyes, a flat almost non-existent nose bridge, thin lips, and a small head.
I had not expected this.
The wait for the genetic testing seemed interminable. But as we sat facing the neurologist—his demeanor dry, but not devastated, we listened to medical terms embedded in sentences we’d never heard before and could never un-hear:
Chromosomal abnormality, profound mental retardation (this was 1996 before “retardation” was replaced by a more politically correct, more palatable term—intellectual disability), physical and developmental delay.
Then procedures to correct what was broken: Gastrostomy tube, for feedings, vesicostomy—a surgery to fix her bladder.
Today’s Sesame Street Program is brought to you by the letter V for vesicostomy.
I couldn’t breathe.
This wasn’t supposed to happen to us. My husband and I were young, healthy.
The hospital social worker met with us to discuss options other than bringing Emma home. I did not storm out of her office outraged or offended. Instead, I stayed and listened as she broached the subject of placing our baby with an adoptive family.
I choked silently on my guilt.
Here I was, a social worker myself having had experience with special needs kids, yet I could not envision raising my own.
As a teacher’s assistant, I worked with a group of profoundly delayed children and teens, and this brought me in contact with their families as well. One day, a mom of one of my students tearfully shared with me her worries. “Who’s going to take care of my daughter when I’m gone?”
Now, I was that mom.
The life with a child with disabilities I imagined, was dark and insular and one in which I would be forced to exist in the periphery alongside her.
I believed I couldn’t love my imperfect child.
“We’ll only do it if we find a good home for her,” I said to my husband, Anatoly, feigning resolve. He nodded in agreement or capitulation. “She deserves better,” I said.
My family and I had abandoned our homeland of Soviet Ukraine in the late 1970s, to join an exodus of countless Jewish refugees, for a better land, a better life.
In those early weeks after Emma’s birth, my father’s words resonated even louder in my head; the iteration that “children must do and be better than their parents.”
This was not better. This was so not better.
The adoption agency called weeks later to say they’d found a prospective family. I held the receiver with too tight a grip, feeling my nerves like taut rubber bands, ready to snap. Words escaped me.
I handed the phone to Anatoly, “It’s for you,” I said, as I lowered myself into a chair in time to relieve my buckling knees.
As we drove toward Pennsylvania, to the home of strangers that could potentially, irrevocably shift the trajectory of our lives, I voiced what I imagined we were both thinking,
“What if we like them?”
“I know what you mean,” he said, “then we’ll have to go through with it.”
But what if we don’t… like them? I thought.
We sat at the table of Moshe and Leah, an Orthodox Jewish couple, and watched them help their three children eat breakfast. All three had been adopted; all three had Down syndrome.
One of the little boys put his fists together after slipping the last piece of his bagel and cream cheese into his mouth.
“David just used sign language to ask for more,” Moshe explained. “The children all understand English, Hebrew, and sign—three languages. Most people barely know one—ha! and they call them retarded.”
Then he let out a hearty laugh that echoed through the space.
This was love—pure, unadulterated love.
“Emma’s gonna do well there,” I said to Anatoly on the drive back. He nodded.
We agreed not to wait long before trying for another child. I placed my hand wistfully, on my belly, where new life was already growing.
I wanted a do-over. This baby would be that.
This time, I would get it right.
Until the adoption was finalized, Emma had been residing in the special-needs nursery of The Foundling Hospital, where I spent each day with her.
She was almost six-months-old when we relinquished her to her new family. The day was sunny, the sky a baby blue. The forecast was unlucky, with zero percent chance of showers.
Back home, I sat in my beanbag chair, watched my belly grow and wept.
The prospect of a healthy baby brought with it hope and guilt in equal measure. I felt Emma’s absence in my core.
It had been five months since we gave her up. I knew life with and without her, and I missed the former.
I finally voiced my darkest thoughts to Anatoly, “I think we made a mistake giving her away.”
And that’s when he confessed that he’d been visiting Emma in Pennsylvania behind my back—because he missed her.
On his last visit, he’d found out something shocking; Leah had left Moshe to raise the four children on his own.
Anatoly fell silent, and I, true to my character, unleashed a storm.
I railed in outrage at Leah’s betrayal. We had entrusted her, after all, with the well-being of our child.
I didn’t care to know that perhaps it was too much for her, that she was overwhelmed, and this was not what she expected. That she was well-meaning in her intentions—that she was doing what she thought was best for Emma—for herself.
But when I inhaled, I understood that to judge her, ignorant of her reasons, would be too easy and too harsh, and only a finger point away from myself.
Because my betrayal was less forgivable.
I abandoned my flesh and blood, after all.
And suddenly, my maternal heart, which I believed had withered and flatlined, sprang back to life heartier than ever.
It was akin to feeling famished—a gnawing inner emptiness—and not knowing what would feed your hungry soul; until someone offers you sustenance and you say, yes! – that’s what I hungered for but didn’t know how to ask.
In the same way, I couldn’t know to wish for the universe to smile on me in this way; but when it did—I understood my course.
Leah’s actions, for us, meant that the conditional surrender—to a two-parent household—had changed; now, we had our rights back. She had opened a door, and I was grateful to her.
And just like that, Emma came home.
I don’t recall the weather that day. It didn’t matter.
Our son Joshua was born a month after Emma’s return, and our second daughter, Hanna, ushered in the millennium three years later.
The little girl that I didn’t think I could love enough rearranged my heart.
Emma blossomed into a person with likes, dislikes, and strong opinions. Even in her teens, though not verbal, save for two magical words—mama and Emma—there was no misunderstanding her.
When she wanted praise, she put our hands together, prompting us to clap for her. She showed affirmation by nodding, not just her head, but engaged her whole body. She blew kisses by putting her lips together and effecting a loud popping sound.
But her laugh—her laugh was most wondrous of all. It was silent but tremendous. It was lung emptying and debilitating in its strength.
When Emma laughed, her generous cheeks swallowed her eyes, drool danced on her lips, and she folded in half like a marionette whose strings had been unexpectedly released.
And she was not to be ignored. From the corner of my eyes, I’d watch her make her way down our two sunken living room steps, scooting on her diapered bottom (because she didn’t walk and probably never would), closing her eyes in anticipation of the not so soft landing.
Then she’d pull herself up onto the couch next to me, reach for the remote I’d be hiding behind my back, and hand it to me with adolescent defiance.
“Okay, okay, big girl,” I’d say in acquiescence and change the channel from The Real Housewives to Sesame Street.
And so, our family life of quotidian events ensued. We chauffeured Joshua and Hanna to fencing practice and violin recitals. Emma attended her special school and received therapies to help her reach her potential.
A parade of nurses to care for her after school hours prompted me to joke that we should install a revolving door to our apartment. Anatoly and I both worked two jobs and even found time to train for and run the New York City Marathon.
And when I paused long enough, I realized that we had carved out our own family culture. A new normal, our narrative.
And the life that I had so feared—dark, marginalized, and burdensome—was not that at all.
It was luminescent, inclusive, and imperfectly imperfect.
Someone once said: Life can be fair—it can give you second chances.
With Emma’s return, I realized I had my real do-over.
I spent the next eighteen years falling in love with my daughter, trying to undo an initial wrong—make up the time lost with her.
Then one day, when I believed it was safe to exhale, she got sick, went into the hospital and never came home.
Why she had to leave so soon, I’ll never know. Maybe her lessons were dispensed, and it was time for me to learn them, make sense of them.
If someone had asked me a long time ago what the worst day of my life was, I would have said the day Emma was born.
Today, I would answer, the day she died.
Maybe that was the lesson.