Why I Dislike the Term "Gotcha Day"
What comes to mind when you think of the word "gotcha?"
For me, it's bringing down a rolled newspaper (with a bang!) on an elusive fly. Or lying on my stomach, reaching under the couch, stretched to the very tips of my fingers, to finally retrieve a long-lost earring. I think of a wide receiver contorting his body at a seemingly inhuman angle to snatch a hurtling football out of the crisp fall sky. These are all satisfying images: the culmination of some effort or exertion in order to get what one wants, needs, or simply wishes for: a house without buzzing, a little fleck of gold, an impossible catch.
Yet I cannot bring myself to think of Custody Day (popularly known as “Gotcha Day”) this way.
September 6, 2016, was the best / worst day of my life. On that day, our family of two became three. We held Isaac in our arms for the first time as our son. The adoption decree had been handed down. He would finally come home with us.
But it was tinged with so much pain, too, because Isaac's experience of that day was so opposite of ours. He'd met us once a handful of times before this, and at 2-and-a-half years of age, had no reason to place any significance on those visits beyond that of a couple run-of-the-mill (if kinda weird) play dates. He had no memory (no experience at all, really) of the past year of anticipation, monitoring, planning and yearning. All he knew was that those people he met once or twice a few months ago were here to take him away from the only mother he'd ever known, and the only family he'd ever remembered and loved.
As you can imagine, he was terrified, distraught, and deeply sad. As soon as the social worker placed him in our arms, the tears came. Then the crying in the middle of the hallway floor of the agency. At one moment I'll never forget, Jason burst into tears and had to retreat to the bathroom to gather himself. Through it all, Foster Mom was amazing. She'd been preparing for this moment and stayed calm and unfathomably strong, letting us take the lead. I can't imagine what this must have been like for her, the woman who still, at the time I write this, has more calendar days with Isaac under her belt at this point than we do; who knew better how to dry his tears than we did; who knew him inside and out, as we yet did not. She held it together until our fledgling, fragile family climbed into the social workers' van and shut the door. As soon as we began to pull away, she collapsed to the curb, finally letting the sadness she'd held in for Isaac's sake wash over her.
Isaac's tears didn't stop until hours later when he finally collapsed on our hotel bed from exhaustion. I'm sure when he awoke from that fever dream just hours later, he expected it to be all just that — a dream. But here he was in a strange room, and stranger people still, looking like they wanted to love him, but unable (as of yet) to give proof of that intention.
It would be a couple of weeks after we returned home before our resilient, incredible force of a son really began to recover from the inherent trauma of this day. In the immediate days following, he would remember Foster Mom with some fogginess and disorientation. In between the fun hours of cuddling, tickling and focused play, in between the hugging, laughing, and singing him to sleep (in short, all the goings on of a regular happy family), he would sometimes go into a corner of the room, crouch down, put his head in his hands and say, simply, "Omma. Omma. Omma." It would shatter me. And then, in the next moment, as he'd look up and run to a toy or stuffed animal to resume play, I'd put myself back together. Grieve, rinse, repeat.
One year later, this day is already a figment of Isaac's distant memory, and that's what we're counting on. We can't bear the thought of him remembering that strife of Custody Day, and to be honest, knowing he'd forget it all eventually (at least on an emotional level) is what got us through those first deeply conflicted hours.
We still keep in touch with Isaac's Foster Mom and hope someday for them to reunite. He doesn't know it yet, but she sends him a Christmas gift every year, and we send her an update on Isaac's progress every few months through our agency. On the day Isaac parted from his Foster Mother, she gave us a large bag of gifts for him, including his Hanbok (a traditional Korean dress used for ceremony and special occasion) and a little silver necklace shaped like a car with his Korean name (Si-yul) and birth date etched on it. I keep that necklace in my jewelry box until the day we decide it's finally time to tell him about the woman who cared for him during his first two years of life. We hope someday she'll meet him as an older child and to discover what a wonderful kid he's grown up to be. I hope she takes solace in the possibility that someday we will all be together again, too.
For now, one year later, this day remains a memory we unlock very rarely. We celebrate the good things about it (We finally became a family!) and look back with deep understanding and awe at how hard it was for the other two people involved to part ways with one another.
Because the truth is, Adoption is beautiful. When it is undergone with the type of care, love, communication and forethought the people involved in ours displayed, most children find loving homes and move forward to lead well-adjusted, fun and family-filled lives, albeit with all the regular day-to-day challenges any other family faces. (Potty training, anyone?) Like the moment of a wild, impossible football catch, Isaac's Custody Day was long-awaited and executed through practice preparation and a considerable amount of expertise.
In other words, the culminating, pivotal moment that was "Gotcha Day" was anything but a snatch-and-grab. Rather, it was a joyful moment we looked forward to for a year and a half, while Isaac's Foster Mother dreaded it. There were three experiencers of this day, and thus three sides to it: the side of profound loss (on the part of Foster Mom), the side of euphoria mixed with equal parts anticipation and guilt (for us) and the side of confusion and bereavement (on the part of our child) who perhaps suffered the most, if only for those first few hours and intermittently in the ensuing weeks.
We don't call it "Gotcha Day" because this phrase fails to acknowledge everyone who experienced it, including our son. We call it "Custody Day" because in the face of all it really was, these are the most reverent, all-encompassing words we can find. Right now, Jason and I celebrate it quietly, in our hearts and minds, and with each other. We read Isaac the cards and well wishes our family sends to him and remind him, if not the reason for the day, all the reasons why we love him — and that we are a family, immediate and extended, burgeoning with people who adore him so completely.
Someday, we will tell Isaac of our joy on Custody Day at finally becoming a family of three. We will also tell him about his Foster Mother's heroism on the day she had to say goodbye. Most importantly, we will try to explain how all three experiences — his, ours and hers — clung together in the same space / time and how, miraculously, there was room in our hearts and minds for it all to unfold at once. Right now, at 3, he's a little too small to understand the complexity of those moments. But he will grow and change and while he does, Jason and I will work to find the best way to tell the story of this day, and all that led up to it.