I watched as Raina closed the door of my old bug with her butt. It was hers now. She pushed and the door pushed back. The contents were practically over flowing and her petite frame was not strong enough to force all of them into her tiny car. Michael chuckled as he walked forward to help her before the car knocked her on her butt.
“Scootch over string bean, I’ll get it.” He shoved the door closed with his burly arms and dusted off his hands. “You need to clean that thing before you get to the rez. I don’t want them thinking we brought you up to be filthy.
“Oh hush Dad now you sound like mom. It’s just going to get dusty again when I get there. “Her ebony head peaked over his shoulder “No offense Mom!”
“None taken sweetie, but you could at least show up clean and get dirty there. At least then it wouldn’t reflect on us and your upbringing. Just hit a drive thru car wash on the way or something.”
She walked around her father with her head tilted back as she laughed, “Momma, they know you brought me up right. It’s just time for me to learn about my heritage and my future with the tribe. If they thought you and Daddy weren’t doing right by me they would have taken steps to bring me to the rez before I turned 18.” She wrapped her arms around me, and I felt my eyes well up with tears, I missed her already. Although she now stood almost 6 feet tall and towered over me, I still saw her as the five year old little girl who had peaked around the corner at me at the Sacred Heart orphanage. I didn’t want to let go then, when she climbed into my lap like we had known each other forever, and I didn’t want to let go now.
“Mom, I can’t breathe.”
“Sorry baby, I was just remembering when you hugged me and barely came to my thigh.” I held her by the shoulders and looked into the eyes of the beautiful young lady Michael and I had raised she leaned forward, kissed me on the forehead and then she walked away, waved at us and then drove off to begin the next chapter in her life. I cried. I also wondered what I was going to do for this new chapter in my life.
Michael stood by my side and we waved to her retreating car until we couldn’t see her ladybug pillow pet stuffed into her back window anymore.
I could hear the tears threatening to choke back Michael’s voice when he spoke, “Remember when we were teaching her how to drive and she couldn’t figure out how to use her side view mirrors if the back window was blocked.”
“I do. She was so silly, she really didn't understand what they were for, never mind how to use them.” I said through the pain in my chest, that must be what the tugging of my baby bird flying from the nest feels like. As her car rounded the curve at the end of the street, Michael pulled me closer to him and we walked arm and arm into our empty nest. “I’m going to go to my office for a while and busy my mind with all things not Raina” I lied.
“Ok baby, I’m going to get some side work done then. Come get me when you’re ready to get something to eat ok?”
“Ok.” I sniffled and then stole a kiss before retreating to my sanctuary. As I stepped through the door, I looked at my faded lavender love seat. Over the years Raina had spent a lot of time up here with me and my love seat. I don't know what I was thinking, this was everything Echo. I still remember the first time Raina came up to my study. I couldn't sit on the love seat without her today, so I walked over to my desk and sat in the window seat. As I looked over the tire swing and her hand prints, permanently fixed in the cement of the front walk, the memories flooded my heart and my eyes and tears rolled down my cheeks as I thought back to when this all started. The year was 1995, it was just a few weeks into summer and a few months before her 6th birthday.
I remember it like it was yesterday. I closed the door to my classic red convertible VW bug and looked over the rag top at the orphanage. The same bug she had turned into a lady bug and drove away from home in. The intricately carved, arched entryway to the orphanage spoke to the age of the building. I surveyed the dark red brick of the ancient building, and noticed it was cracked and crumbling in some places. I must admit, it made me a little wary of walking through the eroding archway. The orphanage stretched out from both directions of the entryway and branched off into two v-shaped wings. Enclosed by a cast iron gate, the property occupied an entire city block.
I ran my fingers nervously through my freshly frosted hair as I carefully navigated the cracked cobblestone walkway leading to the building. The ancient oak trees that dotted the grounds were lush and beautiful this time of year. Yet, I couldn’t help but to imagine how creepy they would look on a gloomy winter’s day, with leafless branches stretching towards the windows, especially the two that nearly dwarfed the entryway. The contrast of beauty and darkness was unnerving. I remember thinking how much the building and grounds reminded me of the building in the Omen, specifically the scene where the priest impaled himself on the pointy cast iron gate.
As I drew closer, two windows on either side of the entrance came into view and I glimpsed several little faces peering out of the windows from behind thick dark curtains. Some of the children appeared to be whispering among themselves. The thought crossed my mind that each of the children in the window was hoping I was there to take them home and it made my heart weep.
Through many discussions, visits, and court transcripts I later found that The Sacred Heart Orphanage housed approximately six hundred children from newborns to high school seniors. The dorms grew in size in direct proportion to the age of the children housed there. The nursery was the smallest. I suspect this was because most families wanted a baby, so it was very rare to find more than two or three babies there at any given time. The older children were much harder to find homes for, having spent so many years in the orphanage - or worse yet, the children orphaned during adolescence. These children languish at the orphanage because prospective parents were aware the older children carried more baggage than the garbage bags they used to tote their belongings. Many of the older children simply would never adjust well within a nuclear family, and therefore they stayed until they reached the age of emancipation.
I remember wrapping my hand around the old brass door handle, and the way it felt cool in my hand on such a warm day. I had tugged the heavy oak door open and I still remember how the sterile smell of a hospital ward floated past my nose as the cool air rushed out to meet the heat of the day. I later found it always smelled of Lysol, wood polish, and bleach.I had foolishly hoped a building that housed so many children would smell of cookies and play dough. I remember thinking that no child belongs in a place like this. As the door swooshed closed behind me, a well-dressed blonde woman strode toward me with a stack of files in hand. I had met her before, she was Jennifer's assistant Lynn.
Apparently she had thought I wouldn't recognize her. “Hello, Mikaela! We’ve met briefly before. My name is Lynn. I’m Jennifer’s assistant. She’s talking with one of the children right now, but if you could just have a seat, she’ll be with you shortly. Here are some of Echo’s recent files, you can look at them while you’re waiting,” She led me to a waiting area and dropped the stack of files on a square coffee table surrounded by three chairs and a couch. Before I could say thank you, Lynn jaunted off down the hallway, whistling a catchy little children’s song. It sounded familiar but I couldn't scrape the name off the tip of my tongue.
I watched Lynn’s retreating back for several moments before I was able to lift my jaw off the floor. To this day I swear I have a scar under there from it that I can't see. I glanced at the stack of five files and wondered how it was possible that a child's most recent history filled five thick manila folders. I sat down in one of the hard plastic couches and once again felt as though I were in a hospital instead of a place children called home. As I leaned forward to look at the first file on the stack, I caught a glimpse of movement just out of the corner of my eye. I had glanced toward the door, and seeing no one there once again reached for the top file. A moment later, as I began to open the file, I caught the movement again.
“Is somebody there?” Its okay, you can come in. I don’t bite,” I folded my hands in my lap, sensing in my belly this must be a child. As usual, my gut instinct was right. What it didn’t prepare me for was which child it was. Slowly a beautiful little girl emerged from behind the wall to stand in the doorway. I slowly drank in her long shiny black hair, high olive colored cheekbones and surprisingly sparkling blue eyes. They were the same blue eyes that had stared back at me for the last six months from the picture she had taped to her vanity mirror. She looked small for a child who was almost six years old and wore a small blue cotton sundress. I couldn't stop the smile that spread over my face. “Well hello there. What’s your name, Princess?” I asked, knowing all along what her answer would be, or at least I thought I did.
"No!" she giggled, "my name is not Princess it is Raina Marie Smythe."
I chuckled before answering, “Well, Raina Marie Smythe, my name is Mikaela Elizabeth Shepard. I am thirty- five years old and yes, I am here to become somebody’s new Mommy. My husband, the daddy as you call him, is at work. He’s a soldier in the army.” I paused briefly exploring all of the expressions she was experiencing in her eyes and face. “My turn to ask a question, okay? How long have you lived here for?”
Raina looked down, then said quietly, “People don’t want little girls who are different like me. You know… Indians, or black, or, well, not white and perfect.”
Not the answer I was expecting...needless to say. “Well, honey,” I leaned forward and rested my arms on my legs, “I am not people. I am Me and You are You. And sweetheart, people like you and me, people like us…you know, people well, we are special people.”
For the first time Echo looked into my eyes and smiled a smile that lit the whole world in a different shade of happy. “Really?”
At that moment, the sound of high heels clicking down the ceramic tiled hallway reached the room. They both turned to look as Jennifer entered the room appearing quite flustered. Her hair was pulled into a severe bun; wire-rimmed glasses perched on a straight English nose, and a look of utter frustration on her face. I watched Jennifer’s body relax as she noticed Raina was in the room and followed Jennifer’s gaze to Raina. I hid my involuntary smile, as suddenly, Echo found a new interest in her own shoes and did her best to avoid eye contact with anyone in the room.
I had met with Jennifer and her assistant Lynn at the department of Social Services many times since being approved as an adoptive parent. I had always found Jennifer to be professional and businesslike; and had often wondered how such an executive business type would deal with children. Which is why I was surprised when Jennifer’s stiff business demeanor crumbled and she knelt down in front of Raina and gently tilted the child’s delicate face towards hers.
“Raina your entire unit is looking for you. You know you’re not supposed to leave without a buddy or a grown up.” Jennifer winked at me above her ebony head.
“I found our little wanderer,” she said into a walkie talkie device with a long wire that was attached to her ear. She looked like she was in the secret service of little girls.
Shortly thereafter, Lynn rushed around the corner and ran right into Jennifer, “Oh! I’m sorry; I was trying to get here as fast as I could. Are you ok?”
Jennifer smiled at her assistant and gave her a pat on the shoulder, “Lynn will take you back to your unit, Raina. Now scoot,” she scolded softly and watched as Raina walk down the hall compliantly beside Lynn reaching up to take her hand. She turned back to wave at me before they disappeared around a corner.
Today was quite reminiscent of the first time she said goodbye. I watched till I couldn't see her anymore. The thought brought fresh tears to my eyes.
I checked my cell phone to see if she had called or texted yet. She was driving all the way to North Dakota alone, to take her place in her birth family as the new matriarch of her tribe. I just couldn't see her at the ripe old age of twenty one, being the matriarch of anything. She had just barely finished her degree in ecology a few weeks ago.
As I looked out the window, I saw the tire swing swaying gently in the summer breeze. I started to become lost in the memories of friends, best friends, cousins and boy friends all sitting on the swing with Raina, gently swaying back and forth, tears and laughter, quietly leaning back and staring up at the sky. Having discussions that helped them to discover themselves. I, myself, sat and wiped her tears over her first pet ever dying, her first lost friend, and the first boy who ever broke her heart.
I chuckled softly to myself as I remembered the quiet rant Michael went on the first time a boy hurt his baby girl.
"What's so funny?" I hadn't heard Michael coming up the stairs so he startled me, which only made my chuckle turn into a full blown belly laugh. I'm that woman who laughs her way through a haunted house because I am scared to death. "Sorry babe, I didn't mean to startle you."
I caught my breath and calmed my laughter, "I was just thinking about the time the Levy boy broke up with Raina because she wouldn't do more than kiss him. I thought you were going to string him up next to the tire swing."
" I probably would have, if she hadn't begged me not to kill him." I felt his chest moved as he climbed into the window seat behind me. "Whatcha doing up here?"
"Jus' sitting here crying, waiting for her to check in. I mean, we always knew this was coming, but the day came so fast. She's only twenty one. She's just a baby."
"The rest of the world doesn't see her that way, and her tribe doesn't see her that way."
"We are her tribe.."
"I know, I know but it doesn't hurt any less. I know we have technically shared her" quoting with my fingertips, "but she was supposed to be our baby. My dream angel came back as soon as the tribe came into our lives and she hasn't left and I know you think I am crazy but the dreams aren't stopping."
"It's your subconscious babe we have been through this before. You are worried about her so you are dreaming that the her mother is coming to you to save her from them. I don't blame you for that, but Raina is a strong young woman and is looking forward to this next phase of her life, it's why she studied sustainable agricultural design in college. If there is a problem she will let us know."
"I s'pose. I just feel like we have had too many goodbyes. I still remember the first day I took her home and she told her whole unit she was getting adopted."
"Tell me the story again."
I leaned back against Michael and closed my eyes, so comfortable in his arms. "Well, when Lynn came and took Raina back to her unit, Jennifer had returned her attention to me, her professional face was back in place, it was creepy how she flipped back and forth so easily. She said “Hello Mikaela. Glad you could make it today. I am so sorry you had to wait. Let’s head to my office so we can talk, the walls have little ears and big mouths. With this many children rumors fly at the speed of light. Anything we say in this room will be broadcast throughout the entire building before we can even let Raina know what’s going on. That could turn out very badly. We like to have lots of supportive adults in place when the children learn that one of them is going to be leaving soon.” She grabbed the stack of files off the table, “Please, follow me.” So I did.