Kristi's Gift

The straightest path from Houston to Lake Jackson is 288 South. The road cuts into the flat, open fields like a piece of black ribbon, racing along for miles. When Kristi Weaver drives that road in her white Plymouth Horizon -- the one with no radio and the driver's-side door that sticks -- she passes the time by talking to herself. There's certainly not much to look at, she says. But there is probably a lot to think about. Because Kristi Weaver takes this trip every few months to visit her son, Ryan, who lives in Lake Jackson with his adoptive parents, Jill and Bill.

Kristi has known the soft swell of pregnancy and the sharp pain of childbirth. But she did not get up for middle-of-the-night feedings. She does not jump and turn to look when someone says "Mommy" in the supermarket or the library. Those are things that belong to Jill and Bill. But unlike birth mothers of the past, Kristi is not shut out from two-and-a-half-year-old Ryan's life. Instead, she is welcomed into it. She attended his baptism and is invited on trips to visit Santa Claus. Jill and Bill want her there at Ryan's high school graduation. So whenever she can, 25-year-old Kristi Weaver gets into her car and begins the long, quiet drive to Lake Jackson.

This is the story of a family who took a journey together down a road that was neither straight nor boring. At the beginning of that road there were obstacles and sacrifice. And at the end of it there was love.

Kristi says she always falls for the way men from Texas say "darlin'," and when it rains, she always prays that homeless people will find a bridge to crawl under. She adores Harry Potter books and keeps a journal, and goes to Saturday-evening Catholic Mass and a Sunday-morning Baptist service, just to be sure. Her voice still grows half-dreamy when she talks about Troy, Ryan's birth father, with whom she lived for three and a half years and who recently left Houston for California to pursue dreams of becoming a race-car mechanic. She is getting used to living on her own for the first time in her whole life, and she lives just a short walk from her job as a receptionist at Nassau Bay City Hall. The outgoing message on her answering machine ends with the chipper reminder, "Have an outstanding day!"

If you had asked her a few years ago what adoption meant, Kristi would have guessed it meant being shuttled away to a convent and having your baby taken from you by a bunch of nuns the second after it was born. And when she got pregnant at the age of 22, the concept of open adoption was foreign to her. But she knew one thing: She didn't think it would be fair to keep this baby.

Troy was working as a technician at Compaq, and she was a cashier at an H-E-B grocery store. Her endometriosis and her habit of forgetting to take her birth control pills on time meant her periods were never normal. So when she was late, she wasn't too worried. But then one night she dreamed that two clear voices were talking to her, "a huge voice and a little bitty voice." Kristi woke up, rolled over, rode a wave of nausea and knew.

"In the dream the voices told me to take care of myself because I was pregnant," says Kristi. She thinks the big booming voice in her dream was God's, and the tiny voice she heard was Ryan's.

She took a home pregnancy test and it was positive. She went to the doctor for a urine test and it was positive. She hoped hard and demanded a blood test. And of course, it was positive. When she told Troy, he suggested an abortion. So did her mother. But Kristi didn't even consider it. She had had one years earlier, with a different boyfriend, and it had left her feeling numb and strange. She had prayed to God for forgiveness, she says. Getting pregnant a second time, getting sick and having that dream -- it made her realize she couldn't handle doing something like that again.

"Physically I could not do that; it would kill me," says Kristi. "And I wanted to live."

She thought about keeping the baby, but didn't know how she would do it. Troy wasn't ready to parent, and she was working at a grocery store making maybe $8 an hour. She didn't want food stamps and WIC (women, infants and children) assistance, she says, because she just knew she would be the type of person to get dependent on them. And parenting alone would mean day care -- something she really knew she didn't want.  

"I hate day cares," she says. "They spend eight hours a day there, and who's teaching who what? Are they changing their diapers on time? What's the ratio? I was freaking."

She spent a lot of time in day care as a child. And some in foster care too. Kristi's childhood was tumultuous. Her mother had Kristi at 19. Kristi has never met her birth father, and even though she knows his name, she won't call him. "Rejection," she says. That's what she's afraid of.

There are so many sweet things from her growing-up years that she says she values, like the way her mother could tell stories or pretend to be the "Tickle Monster," and would take her to see her grandfather on his farm in Dayton. There, Kristi would get to ride on his four-wheeler through the woods. But she had the stinging memories, too. Her mother was always taking her to live with relatives and family friends, always moving to different parts of the city. Kristi thinks she must have attended at least ten different elementary schools. At one point her mother lost custody, and she and her sister were sent to live with a stepfather -- the man whose last name she still carries. There, she was beaten. Three days shy of her eighth birthday, her stepfather dumped her in a tub of scalding water. Her ankles and feet still show the scars of her third-degree burns. When Kristi talks about this, her voice is even and calm and shocking in its forgiveness. Her stepfather was not a well man, she admits. He didn't know what he was doing. She says a thank-you prayer out loud that it was she and not her sister who was hurt.

"He'll meet his maker on his own terms, and he's set those terms, and I just hope he's asked for forgiveness," she says.

So Kristi had survived. But she was 22 and pregnant, and she wanted only the best for that baby. She went to Barnes & Noble and bought everything from baby name books to books on single parenting to books on adoption. When an aunt who had been adopted suggested the Homes of St. Mark, one of the oldest adoption agencies in Houston, Kristi contacted Pam Lucas, the Homes' director of adoption. After talking to Pam, she began to understand a different kind of adoption. One that was legally binding, like the ones she had imagined. But one that would allow her to know her baby, see his pictures as he grew up and even visit him from time to time. The Homes selected adoptive parents who were counseled, went to meetings, learned about openness and wanted it too, Pam told her. If Kristi wanted to place her child, she would have counseling, one-on-one attention and support. It was the first option that made any sense to Kristi.

Pam came out to meet her, and the day after that first meeting she sent Kristi a Homes of St. Mark "résumé book" complete with pictures and letters from families hungry to adopt a child. Pam told Kristi to look it over and see what she thought.

Kristi started reading. At first she tried to get Troy to read, but he wouldn't. He only wanted to sit on the couch and watch football. Every time Kristi would try to make him look at the pictures he would tell her he really didn't want to. Maybe tomorrow, he would say. But not today.

"Okay," Kristi finally told him, "if you don't read this now, you don't have a choice, and I don't care."

Finally, Troy agreed to look. After sifting through 30 résumés -- all complete with smiling photos and heartbreaking letters -- Kristi and Troy found Jill and Bill Clark. Troy, who had taken classes at the University of Texas at Austin, wasn't thrilled with the fact that Bill was an Aggie. But Troy and Kristi, both Catholic, liked that Bill and Jill were Catholic. Bill had a great job as an engineer, and Jill wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. The couple had been married for 19 years and had spent 13 of those trying to get pregnant and another three waiting for a child to adopt. They had gone through round after round of infertility treatments and Jill had lost two pregnancies. They had nieces and nephews who loved them, and Jill and Bill loved them back. But they wanted a baby of their own, too.

"Aunt Jill and Uncle Bill are really nice people," wrote the Clarks' eight-year-old nephew, in a recommendation Jill and Bill had included in their letter. "They serve really good food and they talk to me. I want to know when they are going to get a baby."  

Kristi can't quite explain it, even today. But it wasn't any one thing about the couple. It was more like magic. Just like she had known she was pregnant, she knew Jill and Bill were the ones for her. Right before Thanksgiving Kristi called Pam Lucas. She wanted to make sure Pam called the Clarks before Thanksgiving Day, so they'd really have something to be thankful for.

"Oh, I was just floating around that day. "We've been chosen, we've been chosen,' " says Jill.

Soon after, the two couples met at the Homes of St. Mark, with Pam facilitating. Those meetings are almost like first dates, Pam says. Everyone wants everybody to like everybody else. Kristi, a self-proclaimed chatterbox, filled the empty spaces with stories of her grandfather's farm and things she liked to do when she was little. She wasn't nervous, she says, but excited. After the meeting, as they were getting ready to go, the baby moved for the first time.

"You know that feeling when you're falling in love and you get butterflies in your stomach and you're just as light as air? It's just like that," Kristi explains. "The baby kicking is like falling in love."

Jill and Bill quickly became part of their lives. They would meet and talk about how things were going. Kristi called Jill all the time just to talk about the pregnancy. They went shopping for baby clothes, and Jill gave Kristi a medal of St. Thomas, the patron saint of mothers and children, to wear during the pregnancy. They went to doctor's visits, they helped pick out names. At first, Jill and Bill wanted to name the baby Troy if it was a boy, but Kristi and Troy rejected the idea. No, they said, you're going to be the parents. So they picked Ryan instead.

Not all was perfect, however. Troy couldn't bring himself to talk much about the adoption. He still can't. Kristi thinks it was hard for him to bring a baby into the world and then admit he couldn't care for it as he wanted to. And even though Troy's family supported the decision, Kristi's relatives insisted she had made a choice that would lead only to regret. They thought she should keep her baby. They accused Troy of making her give up the child, something Kristi furiously denies.

"Every time I talked to them it was a big argument: "You're making the biggest mistake of your life.' And I just couldn't talk to them anymore," she says. "They still don't ever see Ryan, which breaks my heart. But I can't force them to."

Plus, Kristi had about ten miles of what-ifs on her mind. What if she could never get pregnant again? What if Jill and Bill were just pretending? What if they didn't like her as much as they seemed to? What if the openness didn't work?

Jill and Bill were nervous too. And vulnerable. They knew no matter how much they had gotten to know Kristi, no matter how much she seemed to like and trust them -- they knew that at the last minute Kristi could change her mind. They knew it even when they showed up at the hospital on the day Kristi was induced. All of Kristi's and Troy's relatives showed up at Memorial Hospital in The Woodlands, but Jill and Bill were the first to arrive. In the waiting room, Jill told Kristi's mom that even if Kristi changed her mind, they would not regret meeting her, because they liked her so much. And Kristi's mom said Kristi would never do that, because she would rather break her own heart than the hearts of Jill and Bill. Kristi appreciated that, she says, but she doesn't understand how even after the birth her mother still tried to get her to change her mind.

But Kristi didn't. In a small ceremony at the hospital, two days after he was born, Kristi placed her son with Jill and Bill. Two days later she would officially sign the papers.

It was a bittersweet day, and there were tears, of course. Nobody's dream is to grow up and be a single mom or go through an adoption, says Kristi. The dream is to grow up and find Mr. Perfect and get the little house with the picket fence and the babies. So it was hard to admit she could not face the responsibility of motherhood.

"It's like taking those big horse pills," she says. "They don't go down easy."

But in the end, Kristi insists she was so sure of her choice that when she got into the car to go home from the hospital she felt mostly at peace. A few weeks later she went out to visit the Clarks, and Jill and Bill went out to dinner and left her alone with Ryan. Kristi was shocked.  

"Oh, I was so ready for them to come back," she says. "With a newborn I could just imagine everything that could go wrong. They've always commended me on my bravery. And I always tell them I had the easy part."

Jill and Bill did come back, of course. And so did Kristi. For the christening, for the birthdays, for the visits to Santa Claus. And bit by bit, before everyone's eyes, the open adoption was working.

This is not the way it was always done. But in every way that open adoption is revolutionary, it is also a throwback to the past, explains Bruce Rappaport, executive director of the 18-year-old Independent Adoption Center in Pleasant Hill, California, and one of the founders of the ten-year-old National Federation for Open Adoption Education. The center and federation were trailblazers in both practicing open adoption and educating other agencies about its benefits and challenges. Agencies like the Homes of St. Mark regularly attend federation-sponsored conferences that hold workshops such as "Post Adoption Issues in Open Adoption" and "Opening Closed or Semi-Open Adoptions." Social workers also can be certified through the federation as open adoption practitioners by arriving early to the conference and attending specific classes.

"People think open adoption is this radical idea," says Rappaport. "But it's more about going back and creating extended families."

At the turn of the 20th century, most adoptions in America were open, says Rappaport, and often took place between family members or members of the same church congregation or small town. If a young woman had a child she could not care for, the child often was sent to live with a relative or family friend who could. Oftentimes everyone knew the identity of the birth mother -- even the child -- and everyone involved continued to have some contact with one another.

"People who say, "I was raised by my aunt' or "I was raised by my grandmother,' in a sense, that was open adoption," says Rappaport.

But in the '40s and '50s, as extended families began to live in different parts of the country and the suburbs began to sprawl, adoption became a legal transaction handled by agencies. And it quickly became shrouded in taboo and silence, Rappaport says. Agencies openly referred to infertile adoptive parents as "barren" and birth mothers as "promiscuous," often because they were young and unwed. It was not uncommon for adopted children to remain ignorant of the circumstances surrounding their birth. Even if they learned of it, they were often told to keep it a secret from others. Their medical histories and ethnic heritage were lost to them. As recently as 15 to 20 years ago, hospitals assigned birth mothers a sort of scarlet letter; their hospital doors were labeled with the acronym DNS-DNP, meaning do not show, do not publish. Nurses were ordered to prevent the mother from seeing the child, and the baby often was taken away immediately after delivery. In some extreme cases, the mother's head was forcibly held down during the birth so she could not catch even a glimpse of the infant before it was handed to a social worker. The mother's name was never placed on the hospital door, and if someone telephoned for her, hospital employees were instructed to tell the caller there was no patient by that name. It was literally as if she did not exist.

In some cases, the birth mother was allowed to hold the baby for a short while. But inevitably a social worker would arrive to take the child. And as the social worker walked out the door, the young woman was faced with the surreal fact that she most likely would never see that child again. She would never even know her baby's first name.

"I knew one social worker who said she felt like she was being sent by the devil," says Rappaport. "She would have to go into these young girls' rooms and say, "Give me your baby.' She used to go home and throw up."

These difficult procedures, along with the legalization of abortion and the increased societal acceptance of single motherhood, drove adoption rates down to single digits. The center estimates that a little over 30 years ago, 60 percent of unwed mothers placed their children for adoption. By the '80s the number was down to 3 percent and shrinking.

"California always starts these things," jokes Rappaport, when asked why the Independent Adoption Center started exploring open adoption nearly two decades ago. In truth, the center was troubled by the adopted child's hunger for history (in the '60s there was a movement among adoptees to make it easier to open sealed records), the birth mother's pain and the anxiety of adoptive parents who had few answers to give their children and who wondered if they would one day be left behind when their child wanted to search for his or her "real" mother. As the center began incorporating counseling, meetings between the parents and birth mother before the birth, and facilitated communication after the birth, they were intrigued with what they found. While agencies of similar size were doing eight to ten closed adoptions a year, the center was doing eight to ten open adoptions a week. And they began to notice something else: While closed adoptions had a failure rate of 30 to 40 percent, meaning the birth mother eventually declined to sign over her parental rights, the center's open adoptions had a failure rate of 10 to 15 percent.  

And there was something even more amazing. The process seemed to be working long-term. While open adoption is still too new to have produced a large amount of concrete data, one 1998 study cited by some agencies observed 190 adoptive families and 169 birth mothers experiencing some level of openness in the relationship. Four to 12 years after the adoptions, the study, conducted by researchers Ruth McCoy and Hal Grotevant, found no apparent fear among adoptive parents that the birth mother would attempt to reclaim her child or otherwise intrude. In addition, the openness did not interfere with the majority of adoptive parents' sense of entitlement to parenthood. At the center, Rappaport discovered that those involved found the process comfortable and natural. Adoptive parents started recommending the center. Birth mothers started saying they never could have placed their child for adoption if not for the openness. And adopted children seemed, well, almost unaware of all the fuss.

"It will be a lot more years until we have hard data," says Rappaport. "But when I ask open adoptees what open adoption means to them, they say they don't know. They find the question boring. Because for them there is no other way to do it. And that's the sign that's really powerful. It's normal."

Other agencies began to hear stories of the center's successes, including Houston's 47-year-old Homes of St. Mark, a nonsectarian, licensed agency. The Homes is now part of what Rappaport estimates is a majority of agencies in the country that practice open adoption, with 30 percent of licensed agencies still doing mostly closed adoptions. Private adoptions, which Rappaport says are risky because of the lack of counseling for the birth mother and its subsequent higher-than-average failure rate, can run the gamut from closed to open.

The Homes of St. Mark is a member of the federation and began doing open adoptions 12 years ago. Pam Lucas believes that the Homes was one of the first agencies in Houston to practice this kind of adoption. About 85 percent of its adoptions are open, with the other 15 percent remaining "semi-open," meaning cards and pictures are exchanged but there is usually no physical contact. The Homes also works to place children in CPS custody into permanent homes, and these adoptions are sometimes closed due to a birth mother who has problems with drugs or other issues. Pam estimates about 50 children are placed with parents each year and the majority of their birth mothers are college-age and unmarried. Birth fathers are involved in the process about half the time. As director of adoption, Pam is shouldered with the complex job of explaining this new concept of adoption to everyone involved.

"It's not uncommon for adoptive parents to contact us and when we ask them, "How do you feel about open adoption?' their hair stands on end," says Pam. Adoptive parents new to the process have a host of concerns. Will the child think of the birth mother as his real mother, and his adoptive parents as just the folks who tuck him in at night? When the child becomes a teenager, will she want to run away and go live with her birth mother? Will the birth mother be out lurking in shadows somewhere, trying to take over the parenting role? Pam adds that there is often family pressure on adoptive parents. Don't do this, they're told. It's sure to be a mistake.

Pam says open adoption agencies combat these worries by counseling birth parents and placing would-be adoptive parents in intensive monthly meetings with others wishing to adopt. From the time they are approved by the agency to the time when they receive their child (which can take anywhere from two weeks to several years), the couples learn about the history of open adoption, how it works and why it has worked for others. Meanwhile, the Homes counsels birth mothers to make sure they are confident in their decision to place. If a pregnant woman changes her mind during the process, the Homes will do whatever it can to help her develop a parenting plan, as opposed to talking her out of her decision. This seriously reduces the agency's failure rate.  

When a birth mother selects a potential mom and dad from a résumé book, Pam arranges a first meeting. After the facilitated meeting, and if there is a "match" (which almost always happens the first time around, says Pam), the adoptive parents and birth parents begin the first steps of a complicated dance that hopefully will ensure what will be a lifelong relationship. Like Jill and Bill, adoptive parents might take birth mothers out to shop for baby clothes together, or accompany the birth mother to a doctor's visit. They might choose a name together. They discuss, with help from the Homes, what openness means to them and what kind of boundaries need to be set. As this happens, Pam says, the couples involved are building a line of communication that will stretch on long after the child is born. And so when the birth mother places her child, she knows that she has made a decision that will benefit him or her, and the adoptive parents feel comfortable with her. The couples can get so at ease, Pam says, that birth mothers sometimes invite the adoptive parents to cut the umbilical cord in the hospital. Many birth parents and adoptive parents create a ceremony to transfer custody either in the hospital chapel or at the Homes. And after the adoption is finalized, Pam estimates, birth mothers see the child about every three months, although they might communicate with the adoptive parents on the phone or through letters more often than that. The Homes continues to follow up with everyone, and to serve as a resource and hold annual picnics and holiday parties for all the families.

Pam is quick to stress that while the adoption is legally binding, the open aspect of it is not. Nothing is signed to give the illusion of openness as a legal contract. Instead, she says, it is more of a fluid relationship that will change as time goes on. In most cases, Pam says, the child sees the birth mother as a good family friend. His adoptive parents, who provide the child with day-to-day care and love, are always understood to be his mom and dad. By the time the child is old enough to understand, he is so accustomed to the birth mother's presence that it becomes normal to him.

"We had one seven- or eight-year-old open-adopted child who had a connection with his birth mother, and she asked him to be in her wedding as the ring bearer," says Rappaport. "The adoptive parents loved going to the wedding and seeing their son in a tuxedo walking down the aisle."

Ultimately the situation allows for answers to questions, says Rappaport. The questions that sometimes surround closed adoptions -- Why couldn't my birth mother raise me? Where is my baby? What do I tell my child when he asks what ethnicity he is? -- no longer produce pain. Because in open adoption the answers are right there.

"People believe open adoption is risky, but closed adoption is more risky," he says. "No one involved knows who's going to show up one day."

And where one might assume birth mothers want the most contact, both Rappaport and Pam agree that one of the biggest challenges facing open adoption providers are adoptive parents who are not satisfied with the level of openness -- instead of too much, they want more.

"They know it's definitely best for the baby to know her, and it gives them a sense of entitlement to the baby because she's supporting that union," says Pam.

Birth mothers, who are often young when they give birth, are more apt to move away and become involved in school or career. And although the process is handled as gently as possible, Rappaport acknowledges that there is often some pain associated with seeing the child, no matter how affirming and giving the adoptive parents are. And like Kristi, many birth mothers have to deal with extended families that feel they made a decision they will live to regret.

Pam has seen numbers at the Homes go up since open adoption became the norm. She is cheered that the concept is catching on in more and more agencies every year. She only wishes more people could understand that in this day and age of remarriage, stepparents, half sisters and so on, the new adoptive family is simply a different kind of normal for some people.  

"It becomes this mutual admiration society between all of them," says Pam. "It's such a travesty that birth mothers are shamed by society, when they're really such brave, courageous people. I mean, what is the most ultimate gift you could give? And what would it take to do that?"

"Sometimes I get a little nervous, just before I get there," Kristi says, peering through the window as the car pulls into the driveway of Jill and Bill's one-story home, which backs up against a duck pond and is surrounded by trees that are just changing color. "I don't know why, because I always get there and it's wonderful." It is the day after Thanksgiving, and the air is clean and cool. The sun is shining hard enough to make your eyes hurt.

"Kristi's here!" announces Jill, stepping out from the screened-in back porch. Behind her is the rest of the Clark family. They are boisterous and friendly, tripping over themselves to say hello. There is Ryan, towheaded and blue-eyed, and Tyler, who is just seven and a half months older than Ryan and who could easily pass for his twin. Tyler first entered Jill and Bill's lives as a CPS foster child shortly before Ryan was born, and was legally adopted after Ryan. Tyler also was placed through the Homes of St. Mark, but unlike Ryan's, Tyler's birth mother does not have a relationship with the Clark family or Tyler.

Ryan knows Kristi. Without prompting, he calls her by her first name -- never Mom -- and Jill and Bill refer to her as his special friend. Like all little boys, during this visit he will sometimes run right to her for a hug, or he might balk and shy away. It has been seven months since Ryan last saw Kristi in person at his second birthday party. But Jill and Bill talk to him about her, send Kristi his photos and drawings, and call her on the phone every few weeks. For Christmas, Jill and Bill gave Kristi a framed photo of both boys on Santa's lap. If they are going to be in Houston for a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's or any kind of event, Jill always calls Kristi ahead of time and tells her to feel free to stop in and say hello.

"Are you staying or what?" Ryan asks Kristi, as the family sits down to dinner in Jill and Bill's kitchen, decked out in true Texas fashion with bluebonnets painted or printed on just about anything that doesn't move. Yes, Kristi tells him. She's staying for a while. Bill and Jill order pizza, make coffee and fill the room with story after story of Ryan and Tyler's latest escapades: their Toy Story Halloween costumes, the music class they're taking. Paper snowmen that the boys have made are clipped to the refrigerator under dozens of family photos, and a Big Boy Behavior chart is taped to the kitchen door. At Jill's prompting, the boys show Kristi how they can count to ten in French and sing "Happy Birthday" in Portuguese.

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."

It is a long ride back to the city, but she could talk all night. There's not much to look at anyway, except the headlights from oncoming traffic splitting the night sky in two.

"They thought I was being selfish because I didn't want to be bothered with motherhood," says Kristi, referring to her family. "And you could look at it that way. That it was selfish that I didn't want to be a mom. But it was selfish because I did love him. I was selfish for the both of us."

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