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The Glue That Holds a Family Together…

by Cheryl Paley


Cheryl and ZoeSo, we get back from our yearly trip to visit my family in Chicago and there it is: an email announcing the cancellation of Zoe’s summer camp. No notice, no apology, just an announcement. 3 days before the beginning of camp. My first response: get hysterical. It’s an old habit, well honed over the past 7 years, particularly the 1st 3 years of single motherhood when there literally was no safety net. When I was sick, when Zoe was sick, when both of us were sick, there we were. When I had 10 bags of groceries and it was raining or snowing and there was no place near my house to park and Zoe was fast asleep in the car seat, I knew I would either get a ticket or get arrested for leaving her in the car while I ran the groceries into the house in the rain or the fish would spoil but… I had to figure it out. Over and over and over again. And somehow, I did. I figured it out. And I am proud of that.

But this little camp test was a benchmark for me. This time the outcome was significantly altered because of my “extended family of friends”, our theme for the month here at IF mag. For me, the “extended family of friends” in Zoe and my life is not just a lovely idea or utopian concept; it’s the glue that holds us together. So, back to the crisis. I immediately (after hyperventilating, of course and uttering a few choice curse words) put out a post on the parents e-list my friend moderates and in less than an hour, with no lead time, 5 people, some good friends, some strangers had contacted their camps and begged them to take Zoe at the last minute. And, in the end, I had 4 choices and handed in a down payment this morning. Case closed. Turnaround time: less than 24 hours.

It never occurred to me during those early years of isolated single motherhood that finding this “extended family of friends” would all but define the quality of my life. And, while I have always felt a sense of pride at having adopted internationally, it isn’t something one dwells on or even talks about much on a day-to-day basis. Certainly, it is not something I am thinking about when Zoe is whining about wanting a popsicle. And yet, the presence of international adoption and adoption in general has added yet another dimension to my “extended family” that is almost too big, too meaningful to take in at one sitting.

So, we’re sitting in Chicago with my parents at our favorite BBQ joint - a friendly, folksy, cheap but clean hangout with great Italian beef – Dengeos Barbeque. And, as previously stated, my daughter is, in fact, whining about wanting a popsicle. All of a sudden, a very cute teenage boy, sitting at the table behind us starts to laugh. I, of course, turn and give him my best apologetic mommy smile and he slowly, sheepishly ventures a few choice introductory words: “Your daughter, she looks just like my cousin.”

This is shorthand in our world for “I know that is not your biological child. I “get it” and want to connect but I don’t want to embarrass you or offend.” Sometimes people will say, “Your daughter is beautiful, where was she born? Mine was born in (insert country of origin).” So I, taking my part in this, counter with, “Where was your cousin born?” “Korea,” he said, smile broadening. The mother and her other 2 daughters turned and, within 10 minutes, 2 tables were connected, through Italian beef and international adoption, as we shared both food and the most amazing stories.

The mom’s name was Susan and she has 4 adopted children; her sister has 6 – all adopted, all disabled, some internationally adopted, some domestic. One of her nieces was found as an infant, tied to a tree, left by a crack addicted mother. This child, now a young adult who just received a full scholarship to college, has no hands. She was supposed to die. But she didn’t. I like to think she was saved by an extended family that knows no color, no restriction, and no boundaries. Angels, I call people like that. God’s workers. I am not so brave, not nearly so noble. But still, I am so proud to be “in that club.” There, in Dengeos Barbeque we sat, taking part in the fraternal bonding ritual of our journeys and of our lives as people who have been saved ourselves and forever changed by an “extended family of friends.”

From the moms on my e-list to the woman in Dengeos, these new friends are not only lifesavers in a pinch, but messengers to a new world, linking Zoe and I to the whole world. And that is as far from the isolation and just-under-the-surface shame I felt at the beginning of my journey as it could possibly be. When I started out I had no one. I knew people “like me” were out there, but I did not know them. Today they are my “extended family of friends” and they appear… everywhere.

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