I was 12 years old when I found my adoption papers tucked in a metal box under my parents’ bed. Too young to process alone the gravity of finding out my mother and father were not, in a biological sense, my mother and father, and way too scared to ask questions. My mother went to her grave not knowing that I knew and that I had kept her secret for more than 20 years. My dad came clean about it the day we buried the woman we both loved more than air. The details about how my parents came to adopt me are, to this day, scarce: My parents, having had two foster children—both boys—in their care, wanted a girl. And so they went to an orphanage in downtown Manhattan in search of a chocolate dewdrop of a baby and there I was, in a crib in a dark corner of the basement, chubby and curly-haired and giggly, arms outstretched toward the man who, along with his wife, would love me and nurture me and care for me and pray for me for the rest of our days.
I don’t talk about this much with my father; it’s still an uneasy conversation to have. For him. For me. I don’t want him to think for one second, you see, that I have some kind of grand scheme to go searching for my birth parents. Because really, I don’t. I’ve known for what seems like forever that I have no interest in such folly; Bettye Millner is my mother and James Millner is my father and it is what it is and that’s that. The Heavens made this so. I see absolutely no reason to change the order of this thing.
Still, I always pause when I read stories like this, about a 14-year-old facing manslaughter charges for neonaticide after police found a newborn, lifeless, in a plastic bag in the girl’s room earlier this week. Police were dispatched to the teen’s house after her parents rushed her to the emergency room, bleeding from complications after having given birth. The girl’s parents were clueless about the pregnancy, the birth, and the fact that their grandchild laid dead in their daughter’s room—either having died at birth or having been murdered.
I know that but for the grace of God, this could have been my fate. The woman who carried me in her belly for nine months easily could have been a teenager, frightened by the prospects of having to tell her parents that she was sexually active and with child—a child that she could not reasonably raise on her own. She could have been a young mother, hands already too full with the duty of raising a grip of kids she could barely feed and clothe and house back in the late 60s, when meaningful work and decent pay never seemed to come easy to women, especially black ones. She could have been raped and impregnated by a stranger—or maybe someone she knew. Someone she thought she loved and who was supposed to love her. She could have gotten pregnant in a lustful tryst with a man who was not her significant other—her belly full of the evidence of her infidelity. She could have been many things. Or none of these at all.
In my mind, though, I like to think of my birth mother as selfless. After all, she could have easily given birth to me in secret, ashamed and scared and in deep denial—a pain so searing that she saw no other way out but to take my life. Or she could have found herself on a table in the backroom of an illegal abortion clinic, desperate for a way to end my life to save her own.
Instead, though, this woman gave me life by giving me away. She, or someone she knew, left me on a stoop, I’m told, somewhere down on Canal Street. As far as I know, there was no note—no details, no explanations, no promises. Just the expectation that the people who ran the orphanage would find a decent home for the chocolate dewdrop of a baby with the chubby cheeks and the curly hair, with arms outstretched, looking for a mom and dad to love me and nurture me and care for me and pray for me for the rest of my days.
It could be that my vision of what led me to that stoop on that day at that particular time—just four days before my parents came looking for me—is more romantic than the truth. Or maybe it’s spot on. Whatever it is, I know this much is true: I am forever grateful to her, this woman who gave me life, for letting me live and loving me enough not only to want for me what she knew she couldn’t provide but having the strength to find someone who could. It was a decision that led me to this specific place at this specific time—to a life filled with love and joy and peace and beauty.
What I’m sure she wanted for her baby girl.