Friday, May 1, 1982
I was startled by the sound coming from the kitchen. It was recognizable, but louder than usual. Almost deafening. The hair on my arms stood up, like when I instantaneously avoid a wreck in the car.
The second ring came before I could move toward the telephone hanging on the wall in the kitchen. Slowly removing the receiver calmed my brain and allowed me to speak.
“Hello. This is Leatha speaking.”
“Mrs. Ritchie, I am glad I caught you. This is Sue Steven from Wake County Social Services. Do you have a few minutes to talk? Is Mr. Ritchie there?”
The hair on my arms laid down comfortably. I pulled a chair to the phone. “Yes, Sue. I am happy you called. Bob is not home from work. Are there more questions about our goals for adoption?”
Sue hesitated a bit. I could hear her speaking quietly to someone else, but I did not understand what she was saying.
“Mrs. Ritchie, I’d like to speak to both you and your husband about a child available for adoption. When will he be home?”
I was numb. I’d been waiting for this call for three years. Actually, all my life.
We have talked endlessly with family, friends, and social workers about this possibility. I had been unable to conceive because of multiple surgeries to remove benign abdominal tumors and finally had a hysterectomy.
Not all the advice we got was positive. My dad was most hesitant. He said, “You don’t need to take on someone else’s problems”.
Family knew what we learned. Perfect babies are nearly impossible to adopt. Adoption of older children, siblings, or international adoptions held more promise. We tried all options – directly from a family, private agency, and county social services. Nothing had happened.
“Bob usually gets home around 6:00. In a few hours. But if I call, he will stop everything and buzz home. Can you tell me something? Please tell me anything you can.”
“Mrs. Ritchie, as you know we have been searching for the right fit for you and your husband. You have been very open to age, gender, race, and special needs.”
My heart was pounding so hard I could hear it over her voice. She must have heard it too. She paused for what seemed like a long time.
I searched for information. “Sue, is there someone ready for placement?”
Silently my brain was running fast. Could there be more than one? Is it a young child, siblings, older child, someone who needs us as much as we need them? With the phone still at my ear, I stood up took a step from the kitchen and looked down the hallway. I could see through the doorway of the empty room we someday hoped would be a child’s room. Inside was a collection of bedroom furniture, gathered but not arranged. Tonight, we might know more about how to set the room up.
“Mrs. Ritchie, Are you there?”
I pulled myself back to the kitchen and stared at the phone. “Yes. Sorry. I am here. Give me a quick summary and I will call Bob to come home.”
I was feeling excited, anxious, and nervous. I was trying to listen, but I could only hear bits of words.
“a beautiful girl. 8. special needs. not standing. lax lower body muscle. happy child.”
Again, my brain was churning thoughts/ideas. Eight – need to set up the twin beds. Wheelchair – will it fit? A girl. Beautiful girl – won’t need the crib.
I was thinking, not replying. Taking notes on the slip of paper I pulled from the grocery list pad attached to the wall.
Sue paused and I butted in. “Whew. I get why you want us both on the phone. This is a lot for me to absorb. Let me call Bob and tell him to come home.”
“That will work for me. I will be in the office until 6:00, but I will also give you my home number so you can call me there later. Leatha, this is indeed a lot of information. We will have several conversations about this over the next weeks. We will not take the next step until you feel comfortable all your questions have been answered.”
“Sue, what is the next step?”
I nearly fainted.
I dialed Bob’s office number hoping he was sitting at his desk next to the phone. He evidently was. He picked up right away. Before he said a word, I blurted out.
“Bob, social services called. They have a child for us to consider. An 8-year-old. We need to talk with them together. Can you come right home?”
“I’ll be right there.”
Miraculous! He usually asks questions to clarify. He is a processor. An engineer brain. Likes to see the plan. Instead, the phone clicked off right away.
In less than 30 minutes Bob was home.
I pulled two sheets of blank paper from a school notebook. One for me and one for Bob. As I started to rewrite my notes, I realized what a jumbled mess they were. I really didn’t understand what I heard or wrote.
We needed something to drink. I poured two glasses of iced tea. As much as I felt a real drink would help, I knew we needed to keep sharp.
I heard Bob’s car turn in the driveway. Emotion overtook me. I ran to the car and almost before he fully stopped, he released the seat belt and I grabbed the door handle. He stood and without a word we hugged. A good tight hug. I was sobbing. He was calm.
The most important thing I wrote down accurately was case worker’s phone number. I dialed the number as soon as Bob had settled down at the kitchen table. When the ringing began, I sat down beside him and put the earpiece between us.
Sue spoke after two rings. “This is Sue Stevens. Mrs. Ritchie, is that you?”
“Yes, it is. And Bob is here too.”
The next thirty minutes I tried to be the listener and let Bob asked questions.
“Mr. and Mrs. Ritchie we have a child for you to consider. It is a baby girl. Eight months old.”
I gulped. “Eight months? I thought you said earlier the child is eight years old.”
I directed my gaze to Bob to take in his reaction. “A baby! Sue, we were told the wait would be years for a baby.”
Bob put his index finger to his mouth and summoned me to be quiet. I could barely control my excitement.
Sue continued. “You both have expressed interest in a baby, even if there are special needs. This child will need medical care, much engagement from you, and the resources available for her development.”
Bob asked to get right to the point. “What is the diagnosis?”
“Mr. Ritchie, we are unsure. What is most prominent at birth was lax muscle tone in the lower half of her body. Many tests have been done to understand the cause and prognosis. According to the physician’s report there was fetal distress, so she was delivered by C-section. A CAT scan revealed a moderate degree of hydrocephalus. There appears to have been a brain injury in labor or at delivery which is likely to be the reason for the lax muscle tone and could contribute to other developmental delays. The doctor’s report says cerebral palsy. I’ll pause and let you ask questions.”
The questions came quickly from me, “Are they seeing significant development delays? Is she getting medical care now? What can you tell us about her foster parents.”
From Bob, the questions were practical and pragmatic. “How will she need to be cared for? What is the prognosis for her future? Why has it taken so long to place her?”
Sue answered each question as if she were reading from a medical report. “She lives with very experienced and loving foster parents who take her to medical appointments, participate in therapies, and is fully engaged in the Early Childhood Intervention program. The baby is making gains in her development and growing fast. She sleeps and eats well, babbles age appropriately, and is a happy child. The doctors and our agency feel we now know enough for placement.”
“Mr. Ritchie, with regards to the future. Doctors are not able to predict. The neurological and motor injuries may mean she may not walk or talk. Cerebral palsy is very different depending on the damage and the on-going care. If you’d like to go further, you will meet the pediatrician and medical care team, they can be more specific. You will also meet the early childhood intervention specialists to tell you more about her development thus far. They will recommend care and explain the resources available to the family.”
The pause was deafening. I turned away from the telephone and looked at Bob. He was staring at the table, not moving a muscle. I could tell he was worried. In the beginning he was not convinced adoption was a good option. If we could not have a child of our own, maybe that was meant to be. He told me early on in the process that he was afraid we shouldn’t do this.
All I could feel was happiness. A baby like this was left by parents to fend for herself. To make it into this world with all those challenges. I wanted to do this. Love and care would make all this possible. And all those resources. It wasn’t like we’d be doing this on our own. I’ve wanted to be a mother all my life. This was our chance.
Sue broke the silence. “Mr. and Mrs. Ritchie, this is a lot to think about. You take time to talk, get family advice and make a list of what else you might want to know. We can talk next week.”
I put my hand on Bob’s hoping to feel agreement. I asked, “When can we see her?”
Bob squeezed my hand and nodded.
Later that evening, as we continued to talk about all that we knew and what we didn’t, Bob said, “You know once you see her, you will be in it for the long haul. What about talking to all the specialists first?”
We met the baby three days later. The meeting place was at a church nursery. The room was dark except for light peeking through the curtains. We had been told she was sleeping, but we could go in. She lay in the bassinet in a dress which looked like she was ready for a special occasion. A light blanket covered her legs. She looked angelic. The blond curls showed she had been moving around. Some were over her forehead and cheeks.
I reached down to move her curls so I could see her face. She squirmed a bit but did not open her eyes. I reached for her, both hands under her cradling the back and head. I lifted her to my chest. Her neck was strong. She allowed me to bring her to my shoulder. I saw no signs of special needs. Just a beautiful baby who needed us. And I needed her. Bob was right. At that point, I was in it for the long haul.
After a few minutes, I looked over at Bob and turned her toward him. At first awkward, then with comfort, he brought her to his chest. She fit just right. Bob closed his eyes as if praying. It was the best snuggle.
Tear flowed down my cheeks. She was home in our arms.
With therapy, love, and care from a village of people, our daughter grew to meet her developmental milestones and overcome the gross and fine motor challenges. She did well in school, graduated with honors, finished college and is a great human.
She is perfect.