On a whim, I went to a poetry reading the other night. Three old friends happened to be in the lineup and I wanted to surprise them by showing up. I used to be part of that scene.
Nick wasn’t pleased. He’s never pleased when one or both of us is not home at bedtime. When he was younger, he dreaded separations, and his dread had the thread of adoption woven into it.
Many years ago I met a novelist who said to me, “You have to be an outlaw.”
He meant that writing stole time from family. He was right and there’s no way around it. Every line is a little theft; Hemingway was a shitty dad. I’m not a shitty dad, and one reason is that I’ve written a lot less than Hemingway.
I drove to a gritty part of town, feeling like a rebel and a loner. The venue was in the basement of a flophouse that called itself a hotel. It’s name wasn’t Hotel de Dream. I stole that from the title of a book by a mentor of mine.
I waited with a few others by a black door at the end of a long alley. Exactly at six o’clock someone came out to collect the cover charge–six dollars–and stamp our hands. The room was dark, with a few tables and chairs, a bar at the back and a stage on a six-inch riser in front.
There’s much to say about my friends and their poems, but I want to tell you about the one poet I didn’t know. He was white, about fifty, with the air of a someone who had been around the block. He wore his thrift-shop clothes with grace and his nails were clean. Before he said a word you knew some woman in the audience was starting to fall in love with him.
His mother had done time. His father brought him up, along with a sister and brother who both eventually committed suicide. He told us these things without drama or self-pity, and read a piece about dancing with his father.
I thought of John Ruskin, who said that the greatest thing a human being does is to see something and tell what he sees in a plain way. And Charlie Parker, who said if you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn. And I thought of Nick, and how on the day he was born we plucked him out of one world and set him down in another. And how sometimes the difference between two worlds might be a million dollars, or a thousand dollars, or a thousand words, or even something you can’t put your finger on, so it seems like nothing at all.
MY OTHER PEOPLE
The reading ended early, and I got home before Nick’s bedtime. He and Nora were in the kitchen fixing a snack. We laughed and were easy and out of the blue he said, “Tell me about my other people.”
He’d never used those words before, not in that way. He meant his birth family, a subject that occasionally came up.
When he was a year old, I’d written a picture book for him. It was called The Story of Nick. He liked the pictures, and reading the book to him gave us a way to talk about his adoption. My goal had been that he would never remember a time when he didn’t know.
“I’ll get The Story of Nick,” I said.
“No,” he said. “You tell it.”
So I did. How much we’d wanted a baby. How when we decided to adopt all the doors opened. How we found his birth family. How Nora and I were in the room when he was born. How Nora stayed the night with him and we took him home in the morning.
“How come they didn’t keep me?” he said, without drama or self-pity.
This was new ground. I told him our thoughts. I mentioned how much he’d been wanted, how both Nora and Nick’s birth mother had known, when they met, that this was meant to be.
“You know we send her pictures every couple of months,” I said. “She wants to know all about you.”
“I know,” he said.
“The one thing we’re sure of,” Nora said, “Is that even if we don’t know all the reasons, we’re supposed to be your parents.”
The briefest pause.
“I’m glad I’m in this family,” he said.
. . .
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Thoughts on poetry? Adoption? I encourage, invite, bestir, and exhort you to add your comment below. I always respond here.