My husband and I were married in 1984. We were an unlikely couple- he, an actor in his late 50s, me a young college graduate in my early 20s, recently returned from a year squandered abroad in Venice, Italy, as the au pair for a graduate student in Art History, who was traveling with her six-year-old daughter. (See Letters from Venice- Parts 1-11)
Jimmie and I met at the McCarter Theatre, where I had been hired by my best college friend to work as a dresser for a new Hal Prince-directed show entitled Play Memory. Jimmie was in the cast, playing one in the rowdy group of friends to the lead, Donald Moffat, and our subsequent tour to Philadelphia created many opportunities to get to know each other at drinks after the performances, and as runners in a small group that included a few of the other actors.
But this story isn’t the main story, just a preamble to our subsequent adoption of our son, Chris, who is this story’s headliner.
I feel like I am breaking a long tradition of writing only positive things about one’s children. I also want to say that I am gorgeously and permanently in love with our son Chris, as is his doting father. You see, from a very early time, it has been clear that our son was different from other children. He always took the hard path. He was impetuous, and risk-taking, had an aversion to the usual way of doing things, and an incredible ability to come out of situations smelling like a rose.
I guess you could say he has amazing karma.
We knew it from the moment we set eyes on him, when we visited the foster home where he was staying as a 2 year old. We arrived at the house in Santa Clarita, forty minutes north of our home in North Hollywood. (We had moved there due to the fact that Jimmie had booked a TV show while he was playing in The Iceman Cometh at the Huntington Hartford Theatre). We had been married at this time for seven years, and in spite of our very best efforts, had been unable to have a child.
We had an incredible life and love and the potent desire to share it with a child. I had begun a series of tests to determine why I wasn’t conceiving, and the first was so painful that I was pretty sure I didn’t want to continue down the artificial insemination trail. We had discussed adoption but as yet, had not begun exploring the best way. We knew we couldn’t afford to hire an adoption lawyer, and were skeptical of knowing the birth mother and sharing an open adoption.
One day we were at the North Hollywood park with our German shepherd, Jasper, when we came across a fair, with tables and exhibits. We approached the table marked “adoption.” This was not a table for adopting dogs, but one with information about adopting children through the Department of Children’s Services. It was pretty simple to sign up for an orientation for prospective adoptive parents, which we did. Several weeks later, we sat in a nondescript conference room in a decrepit office tower in Van Nuys at a table with four other prospective parents, listening to a bleak prognosis about how long and grueling the process could be.
“It can take up to three years for you to be assigned a case worker,” the woman intoned. “Then there is the distinct possibility that it can take up to five years for a child to be placed with you. You will need to undergo a lengthy and invasive home study process, and you will need to become certified in CPR and first Aid.”
Honestly, I can’t remember a single positive thing this woman had to say about the process and yet we were so intent on having a child that we accepted the application and filled it out that night and mailed it in.
About two months went by. We were both busy, Jimmie with his TV series, and me with my new work as a PA at Center Theatre Group. We were sharing a car, and I would drive Jimmie to the studio in a warehouse in North Hollywood, and then go on to my work.
We got a call from the DOCS saying that we had been assigned a case worker, whose name was Amy Wong Martinez, and the first hurdle of the process had proven uncharacteristically short and simple. We met with Amy in the office at Wilshire and Vermont, and came away encouraged and excited. We had assignments, to attend the CPR and first Aid training at the Red Cross, and yet another form to fill out.
We signed up for the CPR/First Aid training, and a week or so later, we were kneeling over the rubber training dummies at the Red Cross, learning how to give the baby Heimlich maneuver to an infant.
At home, we were filling out the most difficult questionnaire of our lives.
It began easily enough- preferred gender- male or female? This was easy. We really didn’t have a preference.
Race? Again, easy. We had decided that we were enthusiastic and able to parent a child of any race.
Age of child? We thought we could handle anyone from newborn to about two years. How blithely and blindly we filled out this questionnaire.
Acceptable disabilities? This is where the rubber met the road. I found myself face to face with some pretty insurmountable assumptions. Visually impaired? I was okay with a child who needed glasses, but unable to parent a child who was blind in either one eye or both eyes.
Audibly impaired? I was accepting of some hearing loss but not complete deafness.
Lost limbs? How limited I felt. I needed our child to be whole of body.
Learning differences? What were learning differences? I didn’t have a clue. There were things like dislexia that seemed possible to cope with, and mental retardation, which did not. It was sobering, humbling, and so fundamental to confront these limitations in myself, but critical to be honest about what they were. And how fortunate we were to be able to be selective about these things, unlike the birth parents of most children, where it’s really a crap shoot.
We finished the form and sent it back to Amy.
I will never forget the date, October 3rd, 1991. The phone rang, and I heard Amy’s cheery voice say, ” there is someone we think you and Jimmie might be interested in. He is two and two months old, and is currently in a foster home for medically fragile children due to prenatal drug exposure. I drew in a sharp breath, as this could have profound impact on his learning. She was quick to say that per the DOCS protocol, we would need to accept him as a foster child sight unseen, because they didn’t have prospective parents meet children and then say no. The process was built to protect the child, and we had understood this when we initially signed up. Accepting this child into our fost/adopt home didn’t mean we had to adopt him- we could just foster him, but I knew that as soon as he came to us we would adopt him. Just as I had known when Jimmie asked me to move in with him, that it was tantamount to my accepting a marriage proposal. That’s just how I am made, and how I sensed, correctly, that Jimmie was made.
Jimmie wasn’t home at this point. He was at work. I was stage managing a play at LATC with the extremely gifted Iranian director, Reza Abdoh, but hadn’t yet gone to work that day. I asked Amy to continue with the explanation of this child so I could tell Jimmie and get back to her. She went on. “He is adorable- he has curly dark hair and a lovely smile. He lives in a home in Santa Clarita. He has had some feeding issues- he eats quite a bit and gets very upset when he can’t get the food. He had been in two homes since birth- the first a home in Kern County, further north- he was there until he was about 8 months old, and then moved to this home in Santa Clarita. The parents there have another girl who is severely delayed and doesn’t speak. Chris, the two-year-old, has begun using sign language to ask for his bottle, and we would like to get him placed outside of this home so that he can develop more language skills.”
His mother was using cocaine and maybe other drugs at the time she was arrested, and was in Sybil Brand jail at the time of his birth.”
And that was about all we had to go on. I hung up with Amy, and dialed Jimmie’s dressing room at Molly Dodd. We were elated, and happily agreed to move forward with meeting Chris.
When Jimmie returned to the house that night, we celebrated that we would be meeting Chris in a few days. The arrangement was that we would meet him first at Donna and Jim’s house in Santa Clarita, and then would spend a half hour or so with him there. Our next “date” would be a short afternoon trip with Chris where we decided to take him to a nearby park with a petting zoo and then back home. Finally, if all was going well, we would take him home with us for an overnight trip to see how that went.
The day of our first meeting with Chris, sometime in the early part of October of 1991, we drove up to Santa Clarita with much excitement. It seemed so far away which was ironic, because later Chris played hockey with a team for four years that was based in Valencia, near Santa Clarita. But this day, Jimmie drove and I navigated with the instructions Amy had given us and we pulled up to the house a few minutes early and sat together in the car.
At the appointed hour, we got out of the car and approached the front door, where we were greeted by Donna and Jim. Jim was holding Chris in his arms, and he was adorable. He had laughing eyes, and a full head of dark curls; he was soon down on the ground as we sat together in the front living room and met Donna and Jim’s child and their pet basset hound.
Chris was alternatively shy and raucous, bouncing from Jim to Donna, and eventually to us. He was mostly unguarded and naturally affectionate. He eventually let us hold him and carry him outside to show us his playground area in the back yard. He showed us how he liked to swing, and run around the yard. Meanwhile Donna caught us up about his health and favorite things. She prepared a bottle for him and we watched as he sucked on it greedily. He had very few words: ball, jeep ( for all cars), dog, fuck (for all trucks), dad (for Jim, of course). I think in the first weeks, I counted 11 words in his vocabulary.
We left their house after about an hour and were completely enthralled with Chris. We made plans for our picnic date later that week.
I think it was in the same time that we had our home study, which consisted of a visit to the house, an appraisal of our animal population, which at that time was 2 cats and a dog, and a physical assessment of doors, electrical, heating and cooling, and child proofing, which I had just begun to do.
A few days later, armed with a new car seat for Chris, we drove back up to Santa Clarita and picked him up for the day visit. We felt so nervous after buckling him into his car seat, and driving to the park, armed with the directions from Donna and Jim. When we arrived at the park, we sat briefly on the ground to eat our picnic, then kicked the blue plastic ball around the yard that we had brought along with us.
Again, it was magical. Chris loved the feeding of the goats at the petting zoo there in the little park. We were bonding well, and were excited to have our sleepover date.
But first, we needed to transform the guest bedroom, which had a full size bed in it and had housed my Mom or Dad for visits. It had sliding doors outside, and pretty unappealing carpet.
We went to Ikea and bought some carpet tiles, which we installed, and then began to put the single bed together. It was a transitional bed, with slats on the one side, and our adoption worker, Amy, was there to help us put it together. Instant parenthood in the span of less than a month. I felt extreme jealousy about the people who have 9 months to prepare for their new arrival.
Chris’ first visit to our house went very well. He loved our two cats and dog, and proceeded to chase them around the house. We had a big back yard for him to play in, and he enjoyed the experience, as did we. One of the first pictures we have of Chris is sitting on the bench in our back yard, being held by Jimmie and he held a large stick-shaped piece of styrofoam in his hand. He looked like he was being restrained from chasing a cat with it, but he and Jimmie both beamed in the picture.
Our one night stay over went very well, and Chris slept in his new bed, staying there until we came to get him out in the morning. (This was very impressive to me at the time, and now, knowing Chris, even more so).
Things moved ahead rapidly and it was determined that Chris would change households and live with us full time until his adoption was finalized, a process that could take up to 2-3 years depending on whether the birth parents freed him for adoption.
Here’s a story to reveal j ust how unprepared for parenthood I was. I was or had just finished stage managing the play Bogeyman, at LATC, and so I would have my evenings free. Halloween was around the bend, and we had a very active Halloween scene on our street in North Hollywood, necessitating purchases of candy by the gross for our little visitors who were frequently brought to the neighborhood in large groups by van. There was a steady stream of little gobblins and princesses, and the accompanying cacaphony of doggy greetings by Jasper. it was a little overwhelming even for us.
I had a long love of Christo’s work, going back to my college days where I and my cronies had “wrapped” Blair Arch, a large walkway and ogival dorm with a tower and Arch over a staircase leading down to the bookstore at Princeton. We sewed together 8 large queen bed sheets, after first dying them orange, and then recruited some of the rugby jocks who live in the Blair arch tower to hang the assemblage out their windows and secured it with rope to the windows. It was our homage to Christo, and our team of artistic renegades sat on the grass and watched people come through the arch and remark on it as it billowed across the span.
I think we had left on corner uncovered to allow passage. It was our homage to his canyon in Arizona, that he had wrapped with orange nylon. We finally had to remove it after some hooligans took a lighter to it and threatened to burn it down. Another of our artistic happenings was to wrap all the sculptures all over the campus with Saran Wrap, burlap and twine. This would have been disruptive enough, but we did it the night before the all campus sculpture run which was led by one of the faculty members from the fine arts department and which was very much ruined by our shenanigans.
At any rate, knowing that Chris would be coming to stay with us permanently on October 30th, I thought it would be brilliant, witty, clever, and appropriate for his Halloween costume to be a Christo umbrella, so I looked until I found pjs that were Winnie the Pooh themed, yellow onesies with feet, and found a little child sized yellow umbrella. My idea as that we would greet the Halloween guests with the umbrella up and hand out candy that way, much to the delight of all the trick or treaters and Chris.
Well, you might imagine how that went. Halloween came and on his second day in the new neighborhood with a new family, we opened the front door to a steady parade of people with scary masks at the door. Great plan, new Mom!
In later years, Chris embraced Halloween as a pirate, and many other colorful characters, but it was a bit much for that second night in his new home.