Daughter McKenna graduates from high school in a couple of weeks. We’re excited for her journey ahead. She’s committed to attending Creighton University and has been accepted into their School of Nursing. Even though she’ll be going to college in her home town, she’ll stay in the dorm to fully integrate into campus life. Her dad and I are very proud of her and the path she has chosen to pursue.
Before letting her go, I must take time to reflect on how she came to be our daughter.
You might have read how Allen and I adopted McKenna’s older sister, Kellini. When we decided to find a sibling for our first-born child, it was as though McKenna dropped from Heaven into our laps.
Best Christmas Present EVER
We learned of McKenna’s impending birth through a relative of a friend while we were visiting Allen’s family in West Virginia for Christmas 1993. Our friend explained that the birth mother was working with an adoption agency in New England, but we still had a chance at the baby since the mother was considering an open adoption and preferred one with a West Virginian.
Score one point for us because of Allen’s heritage.
Score another point because our friend, Rob Adkins, was an attorney and could steer us around legal bombs while his wife, Rhonda acted as our liaison with the mother.
Within days, we snagged an interview with McKenna’s birth mother, “Sheila,” who was still ten weeks away from her due date. We drove six hours out of our way home to have a face-to-face talk with her. We met in the home she shared temporarily with her brother and his family.
It took considerable effort to look rested, which I wasn’t after having spent the holidays 1000 miles away from my own bed and bath in the home of my in-laws. Don’t get me wrong. I dearly love Allen’s family. And they dearly love me and Kellini. But taking Christmas on the road with a 20-month-old toddler is challenging at best.
I recognized this meeting with Sheila for what it was—a calculated risk. Unlike our interview with Kellini’s birth mom, this young woman could actually watch our parenting skills and base her decision on our actions. Even if she did choose us, she would have over two months to change her mind. There were no guarantees.
Adding to our family was worth the risks.
Soon after the introductions, Kellini broke a toy belonging to Sheila’s niece.
Deduct one point from our parenting score sheet.
We offered to replace the toy, silently worrying if the gesture could legally constitute a bribe. Sheila and her sister-in-law, “Bonnie” declined our offer.
Damn the courts; we’d send a new toy from Omaha anyway. We planned to mail it in a box wrapped in plain, brown paper along with the “birth mother letter.”
Prize Winning Story
For those of you unfamiliar with open adoptions, this letter is a résumé adoptive candidates write to sway the birth mother and secure an interview.
The letter is a sales tool, of sorts. It introduces the adoptive parents listing our parenting philosophy, financial health, and emotional commitment to the baby. It’s generally used as a first step in the open adoption process.
I had to rewrite our “standard” letter to reflect the fact we’d already met Sheila. It was the hardest revision I’ve ever made. I agonized over the wording for three days. Finally, the edits were complete and approved by Allen—this venture’s Managing Editor.
I’d decided a typed letter was too formal. Handwritten was best and my penmanship was decent, so I felt confident. I used special bond lavender paper with little butterflies in the upper corner. During our visit, Kellini had told Sheila that she loved butterflies. I’d made a mental note of Sheila’s smile.
Because of handwriting errors, I recopied the letter twice. I wanted the document (and me) to seem perfect. Each time my penmanship got shakier. Finally, I gave up. Stuffed the letter in its matching envelope and stuck it in the box with the new toy. Convinced I was in a race with the adoption agency, I shipped the package to West Virginia using FedEx. Overnight delivery.
I wanted to call Rhonda, but Allen stopped me. Pressure, even via casual inquiry, was not a good tactical move, he said. I acquiesced and tried not to get too excited. At least this time, I had Kellini to keep me busy.
If we didn’t get chosen for this baby, we had the best gift already. Our sweet Kellini Anita. Her smile kept me going the three weeks it took to hear back from West Virginia.
In late January, we had Sheila’s decision. She’d chosen us to be the adoptive parents. I cried with her on the phone. She promised to call when the baby was born. I promised we’d come ASAP to West Virginia because she wanted to be sure the baby had an advocate before she left the hospital.
Sheila went on to say she wanted nothing to do with the baby. She wouldn’t be holding it after delivery; didn’t even want to know the sex. She couldn’t imagine giving away a child after she’d had a chance to bond with it.
Who was I to judge the method she chose to protect her feelings?
Getting Ready for Baby
We prepared by shifting Kellini out of her crib to a “big girl” bed. Maybe it’s easier to explain this upcoming change to kids when you have visual aids—i.e. an expanding belly where the new baby brother or sister is growing. Kellini did NOT get it.
On Friday, February 11, 1994, Allen and I dropped Kellini off for a sleep-over with my mom so we could celebrate Valentine’s Day early. When we arrived home at 10:00 p.m., a message waited for us on our answering machine. Sheila was in labor.
What! A month early?
We had no number to use to return the call since cell phones weren’t common then. So we had to wait. In the meantime, I called the airline to book reservations for immediate departure to West Virginia. I got the airline recording instructing me to “hold for the next available agent.”
I sat in the kitchen with the phone glued to my ear for twenty minutes. Finally, I pushed the speaker button so I could hear when the agent came on the line. I ran to start a load of laundry and grab the suitcases.
Allen had gone to bed. See how perspective fathers are calmer even when focused breathing and ice chips aren’t involved?
Convinced I’d made all possible arrangements, I went to bed at 2:30. Fitfully, I tossed until I gave into exhaustion and fell asleep. I didn’t rest soundly since I waited for the phone to ring announcing the birth of our new son or daughter.
At 5:30 a.m., I jumped up with a start. I realized I hadn’t disconnected the call I’d made to the airline. The telephone had been off the hook all night long!
I ran to the kitchen and grabbed the receiver. Disengaged the speaker feature. The “on hold” music still played. Since I’d worked for years at a hotel reservation center, I mentally calculated how much money the airline had just lost in unproductive “talk time” during the past several hours. Then I hung up the phone and waited for the call from the delivery room.
Had I already missed it? I paced. Made coffee. Paced some more.
I tried to awaken Allen, but he was having none of my panic attack. He instructed me to rouse him when I had news. I can now look back and appreciate his judicious delegation of worry.
Sheila’s sister-in-law called at 6:30. My heart stopped. We exchanged pleasantries and Bonnie passed the phone to Sheila who congratulated us on the birth of our new daughter.
No Time to Cry
I woke up Allen.
We went into commando mode. Time to move the troops. Allen finished packing. I called the airline, then called my mom who assured me she would have Kellini bathed and ready to travel by 8:30 to be picked up on our way to the airport for our 10 a.m. flight.
Allen called his mom to notify her of our impending arrival. We would stay with his parents for the length of time it would take to process the initial legal papers to adopt McKenna Frances—as we’d already named our beautiful new daughter.
Maw-maw Hager didn’t have time to cry either. She needed to get her house ready for a newborn. She’d have to borrow a bassinet, run to the store to buy diapers. What size, she wanted to know.
Now, here’s the deal. We were doing all this hoop-jumping with only a birth mother’s promise and faith in our commitment to become McKenna’s parents.
All that shook loose and tumbled to the floor when we walked into Sheila’s hospital room and she was holding the baby, feeding her from a bottle. A quick glance around and my eye caught two baby presents and the crumpled wrapping paper they’d been wearing when delivered.
It was as though the universe had taken my joy, dropped it into a blender, and pushed the start button. Had Sheila changed her mind? Would we be returning to Kellini with an empty car seat? How could we explain to a toddler that she wouldn’t get the baby sister we’d promised her?
I took a deep breath and forced a smile. Greeted Sheila and Bonnie.
Sheila put aside the bottle, fumbling with the baby as an inexperienced mother does when shifting a newborn. I wanted to jump over the bed rail to support the baby’s head. Nervously, I waited for Sheila’s cue how to proceed.
She beckoned me, held up the baby and said, “I’d like to introduce you to McKenna Frances Hager.” She kissed the baby and continued, “McKenna, meet your mom. “
She passed me the infant and I held our daughter for the first time. Silent and petite, she barely moved in my arms. I wanted to rip apart the receiving blanket to count fingers and toes and to smell her newborn freshness.
Sheila later explained the gifts were from friends who had mistakenly assumed she’d keep the baby. She gave Allen the new diaper bag and bibs and then warned us. The birth father had shown up at the hospital, looking to take the baby home with him.
It was still Sheila’s intention to give us McKenna because she was in no position to care for her. She had no job. No home of her own. And neither did the birth father, “Clark.” But because she didn’t want McKenna to go to Clark by default, she wouldn’t sign the papers relinquishing her parental rights unless guaranteed McKenna wouldn’t end up with the birth father.
For three days we commuted back and forth the three hours each way from Allen’s parents’ home in Huntington to the hospital. (Kellini stayed with Allen’s sister, Anita, who’d taken time off from work to watch her favorite niece.)
The birth father requested to meet with us. We did so in a hospital conference room. Clark was a tall, boldly handsome man. He was soft-spoken, young (21) and really confused about the decisions and consequences facing him.
At one point Allen and I were paying for the services of three attorneys all sitting in different cities trying to untangle the legal aspects of the case.
Several times, our own attorney advised us to walk away.
When we weren’t in courtrooms or on legal conference calls, we fed, rocked, and bathed McKenna. The hospital had given us an empty room on the maternity floor and brought McKenna to us whenever we asked. In a quick heartbeat I’d fallen in love with her and had no intention of leaving her behind.
While we could choose whether or not to take our attorney’s advice, we knew we had to follow the law. West Virginia had a 72-hour waiting period after a child’s birth before the parents could relinquish their rights. Increasingly, our chances of obtaining legal claim to McKenna seemed to diminish.
The drive back to Huntington those first two nights was excruciating. For three hours in transit we discussed our options and McKenna’s future—with and without us. And we cried.
On the third day, the hospital was anxious to discharge McKenna since she was healthy enough to be released. There was still adoption paperwork left to sign. Finally, at 5 p.m. all interested parties assembled in one crowded conference room in a small law practice off main street. Attorneys for the birth mother and father were present. Our attorney was on stand-by in Omaha.
Then Clark requested one last private meeting with Allen and me.
As the three of us shuffled down a narrow hall, I wondered, what now?
At 6’3” he towered over me in a tiny room filled with filing cabinets. He cleared his throat. “Mrs. Hager,” he started, “have you spent a lot of time with the baby in the last few days?”
“Yes,” I answered, fighting back my fear.
He took out a 5 X 7, black and white photo printed on heavy matte stock paper. He handed it to me and explained, “This is a picture of me right after I was born. Does the baby look like me?”
I took the photo and stared at it through misty eyes. McKenna had the same dark complexion, the same dark hair. Her eyes were the same shape as Clark’s.
“Yes, she looks a lot like you.” I offered the photo back to him.
He shook his head and refused it. “No. You keep it. For McKenna. Give it to her when she’s old enough and tell her it’s from me.”
It was the most precious gift anyone could have given our baby.
I barely kept myself together through the signing of all the paperwork in the attorney’s office. The rest of the day and the next two days until we boarded the plane home are a blur. Thankfully, we have photos taken by Allen’s family commemorating the important “firsts” of those hectic days.
Later this month, as we celebrate McKenna’s achievements—graduation, honor roll, many scholarship offers—I will hold in my heart special gratitude for the sacrifices and selfless decisions of her birth parents. I’m sure they both will be thinking of her and wishing her all their love and many blessings for the future.