By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Ben DuBose
Bill and Jill's home is a child's paradise, with a spacious playroom as big as a nursery school classroom that looks out onto the duck pond in the backyard. The room is covered in multicolored toys and dozens of Matchbox cars and children's drawings, and not so far away from the playroom are stacks and stacks of children's books, including some about adoption that explain the concept in terms they hopefully will understand. Ryan's bedroom is done in a Noah's Ark theme, with photographs of bright green frogs on the walls and a soft white quilt Troy's mother made that rests at the foot of his bed. Jill and Bill clearly have made their home one that proves how much they wanted kids.
"I see us together at ball games and graduation," says Jill of Kristi and Troy, and their extended families, as Ryan and Tyler repeatedly run to her for hugs. "I feel like it takes all of us. You can never have enough people loving you."
Kristi moves easily among the Clarks, and they seem relaxed around her. During her six-hour visit she gives Ryan a bath, reads him storybooks and makes funny faces at him as he eats his chicken nuggets and Goldfish crackers. She wants to know if his favorite color is still purple, because that's her favorite color, too. She wonders out loud if his love of cars comes from the race-car games she used to play on a laptop computer that she propped up on her belly while she was pregnant. She wants to know if he remembers the song she taught him the last time she was there.
"I'm a Chevy, I'm a Ford, got four round wheels and a rolling board," she sings, as Ryan and Tyler attempt to follow along.
It's not always easy. She doesn't have as much support from Troy as she wishes she did. And while his family has made efforts to get to know the Clarks and see Ryan, Kristi's family has not seen him since the day of the birth. They still think Kristi should have kept her baby, she says.
"The door is always open to them, and when they're ready, we'll be ready," says Jill. "And it will be wonderful."
"She's more optimistic than I am," says Kristi.
Jill and Bill worry not about Kristi's relationship with Ryan but about the fact that Tyler's birth mother is not in the picture. Even though Kristi has become close with Tyler and developed her own special bond with him, the Clarks wonder about the day when the boys are old enough to understand the circumstances and differences in their adoptions.
"It would be nice for them to both have special friends, in the perfect world," says Jill.
Kristi and Jill and Bill sometimes talk about the future, about what it will be like when the boys are teenagers. Bill rolls his eyes in mock terror at the thought.
"In my family, teenagers were a nightmare," Kristi says. "I would always say I was going to run away and live with my grandfather."
Do the Clarks ever wonder what would happen if one day Ryan got angry, got mad in that way teenagers do, and showed up at Kristi's doorstep in protest? They do, but it is one of the countless things they talked about with Kristi before Ryan was even born. And they already know the answer.
"If he showed up on my door, well, I'd call Jill and Bill and say, "He's here, he's arrived, come get him,' " says Kristi. "Because even though I love him and think of him as my son, I'm his birth mom." Then she motions to Jill and adds, "That's Mommy."
By the end of her visit that day after Thanksgiving, the sun has gone away and it is cooler. The boys are in bed, the drive home is a long one, and Kristi has to leave. Jill and Bill hug her goodnight, tell her they love her and arm her with the latest works of art by Ryan and Tyler Clark. In the car, Kristi agrees that everybody should have a family like that one. She says she even made a joke once with Jill and Bill that she wouldn't mind if they adopted her, too.
It must be hard for her to see Ryan and then to say good-bye. And it is, she says. But only a little. Because more than being difficult, seeing her son makes her realize she did the right thing. She sees Ryan is having the life that every kid should have, in spades. And more than anything, it adds to her determination to make Ryan proud of her, and not just because she gave him life. But because of who she is and who she wants to be.
Kristi has plans for herself. Plans like going back to school, becoming a social worker, maybe even working in open adoption someday. She wonders out loud if she'll ever get married and have more children. She says she's "working on that self-esteem thing." She jokes about taking etiquette classes, "the kind where they make you walk with a book on your head," she says, patting the top of her curls. "Because Grace is not my name."