Eric stopped the car at the end of the street, two blocks from the address I’d hooked up to the GPS. It was our foster daughter’s first birthday …
“I’m sorry I can’t go in with you,” he said. I have understood. Our grief was different.
He had taped photos of Coco on the wall of his cupboard. He kept the last outfit she wore at home in a plastic bag. He kept the pit of the avocado that he had fed her with us on her last day in a bowl on his dresser. But he didn’t want to see Coco again until a social worker called to tell us we could take her home. He could not. Too much. Too painful.
I just wanted to see her.
We picked Coco up at the hospital when she was three days old. She lived with us for ten months. Then the social workers decided that she could reunite with her birth mother, Evelyn. Now Evelyn and Coco lived in Twin Falls, Idaho, a town 70 miles south of our little mountain town.
I had only seen Coco once since the day we returned it. Evelyn asked if I could pick up Coco from daycare, drive to Evelyn’s house and wait with her until Evelyn got home from work late at night.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” said Eric.
“I’ll do it,” I said.
I drove to the day care center. The woman at the front desk called Evelyn to confirm I was who I said I was to make sure I had permission to take Coco home. Another woman led me into a small room. Coco slept in a crib. I hadn’t seen her in four weeks. Her hair was longer and curly. Her body was longer too, more toddler than baby. Nice. I picked her up, pressed her sleepy weight against my chest, and carried her to the car. When I strapped her into the car seat, she woke up. We looked at each other. I don’t think she recognized me. But she wasn’t afraid.
In my grief I had read theories about early attachment. I had learned that Coco still knew me even if she didn’t recognize my face. My smell. My voice. “Your cells know you,” said a friend who is a pediatrician. “They will know you forever.”
Coco weighed less than five pounds when we took her home from the hospital. Eric and I took turns holding her for hours, skin to skin. Your heart learned to beat from the heart. She learned to breathe from our breath. For weeks we fed her every two hours all night. Please, please, please, I said, holding her tiny body in the darkness.
Now she was turning one on someone else’s. I carried her present, wrapped in glittering unicorn paper, down the block. Eric and I had chosen her present together at the toy store – a cart she could learn to walk in. “Your daughter’s birthday?” had asked the woman behind the counter. “Yes,” we said. It was too hard to explain.
The party was with June, Evelyn’s best friend. A sign on her front door told her to go back. A few men were standing around a hot tub in the back yard, one of them filling it with a hose. I recognized one of the men as Evelyn’s brother. I knew that like Evelyn, he was struggling with addiction.
“I know who you are,” he said to me.
“I know who you are,” I said to him. “Where are you living now?” I asked.
“Around,” he said.
The back door opened into the kitchen. “You did it,” said Evelyn. Coco was in her arms. Evelyn gave it to me.
I was sitting on the floor with Coco in the middle of the kitchen. People walked around us. I held Coco’s hands. She stood across from me, bent her knees, hopped up and down, and smiled. She wore a blue sweater and tiny pink sneakers, her hair in pigtails on her head. I kissed her cheek. I smelled her throat.
An older girl at the party, maybe seven or eight, asked, “Can we take Coco down to the basement to play?”
“No, honey,” said Evelyn. “We see them all the time. Sarah doesn’t. Now it’s her turn. “
A few months before the party, when Coco was still in our care, Evelyn gave me my first Mother’s Day present, a miniature yellow rose planted in a tea cup. We were in the parking lot of a bank, our regular meeting point for Evelyn’s weekly visits with her daughter. That day Coco had her first visit to Evelyn overnight.
“Happy Mother’s Day,” said Evelyn, handing me the rose.
It was her daughter who made me a mother.
At the birthday party, Evelyn let me hold Coco the whole time. I held Coco’s hands as she walked around the house. I carried it on my hip. She snuggled on my lap.
Although our grief was different, Eric and I shared part of it – a void in our chests that we held as if our insides had been hollowed out. I held one year old Coco against this excavated part of me.
June grilled hamburgers. She sent Evelyn person to person taking orders for those who wanted cheese. Corn on the cob cooked in a saucepan on the stove. Two cakes for Coco on the counter – one large and one small, both pink.
I had put a succulent plant in a green pot for June to thank her for taking me in. I knew she would be my lifeline for Coco if something went wrong. She gave me a tour of her house and showed me her daughters’ rooms. She had adopted a daughter and was the guardian of the other, who was technically her niece.
“You know I’m always here,” I said.
“I know you love her,” said June.
Little did I know then that the birthday party would be the last time I would see Coco. Little did I know Evelyn would relapse, lose her job, be evicted from her home, and go to another state to hide from child protection services. I didn’t know she was going to stop talking to June. Little did I know we couldn’t find Evelyn and Coco for months.
That day sweetie. Two pink cakes that day. On this day candles and wishes. That day braids and pink sneakers. Gifts on this day.
After a few hours, my body ran out of everything it had used to keep me upright. This was Coco’s life now. They were her people. She was no longer ours. She was never ours. I texted Eric. Now. I went in front of cake.
I couldn’t get up two days after the party. Everything hurt. “DOMS,” said my therapist. “Delayed sore muscles. What happens after hard training can also happen after trauma. “My grief for Coco has been physical. Toothache. Migraine. Bruises on the shins and forearms. Swollen eyes. Knot in my back. My neck is stiff.
She loves this thing, wrote Evelyn and sent me a picture of Coco, who was sitting in the car, smiling and swinging her legs.
I often felt alone with my grief, like no one understood what I was going through, what I was feeling. For some people, the fact that we always knew she could leave meant that somehow our grief should be less than if our knowledge should have softened the blow.
But one person understood exactly what I was feeling. Evelyn. She lost her daughter to me. Then I lost my daughter to her. In this loss, in this heartbreak, we were one.
Sarah Sentilles is the author of Stranger Care: A Reminder to Love What Isn’t Ours.
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(Illustration by Abbey Lossing for Cup of Jo.)