I do not want a biological child. Most people think that’s weird. In fact, they don’t believe me. But after three rounds of so-called “non-invasive” fertility treatments, I’m 100% sure.
“Don’t you want to try IVF? my husband, Ben, regularly asks.
“Positive,” I say.
I look every day at my 18-month-old daughter’s black possum eyes—beautiful eyes her birth mother gave her—and I’m saturated with love. I crush Sophea’s Cambodian button nose against my pointed Caucasian nose and inhale her sweet scent. It’s an unbeatable high.
My fear and adoration for this perfect child could not be stronger with a genetic child. I want to adopt again and give another abandoned child a home.
So here I am in a Cambodian orphanage. Languishing babies and toddlers sit at my feet. A young boy with scarred legs and matted hair leaped towards me. He circles around me and I smile trying to catch him in my arms. When he walks away, his laugh breaks the calm of the room.
“That three-year-old boy,” said Vichet, the orphanage director, hoarsely. He waves his chubby hand dismissively at the boy, as if it were an expired product. “The Italian family will adopt.”
The boy looks up at me and beams – a rare sighting in an orphanage. One of his eyes closes in a cheeky wink.
I playfully lunge at him and grab his waist, “I caught you!”
He tilts his head back, opens his mouth wide to laugh, and shows brown-stained teeth. Her joyful cries echo off the ceramic tiles of the room and ricochet off the scuffed walls, the lightness of her sound contrasting sharply with the dark ambiance of this unfortunate place.
Vichet points to a toddler standing in a corner next to a pile of bricks. Twig legs stick out from under her belly like an M&M cartoon character. Yet this kid lacks the cheerfulness of those candy-covered chocolate guys. His expression is dull to match his brittle hair, his bleached color a sign of malnutrition. The boy squeezes a plastic comb; a kind of toy in this one-room house devoid of toys. “He is free to adopt. Mother does not want. She raped.
My spine trembles and I look at the innocent child, product of violence, thrown away like trash.
Her unwashed jumpsuit hangs down to her knees, about five sizes too big, the buttons undone. A sleeve falls to her elbow as it falls from her shoulder.
Vichet gestures to a baby cradled on the lap of a nanny sitting cross-legged on the floor.
“This boy can also adopt.”
An intimidating feeling came over me.
It’s no use crying; they know no one will pick them up, so they closed. They carry a morbid morbidity. It’s the loudest silence I’ve ever heard.
I glance over at Sophea, balancing on Ben’s hip. Her bangs are stuck to her forehead with sweat from the damp air. I want her to take care of the kids, to be attracted to one of them, to help me choose, but she’s busy tugging on Ben’s earlobe like if she stretched Play-Doh.
I remember the day we met her in an orphanage not far from here, on the other side of Phnom Penh. His orphanage had the same dormitory feel, the same silence.
Orphanage babies don’t cry. It’s no use crying; they know no one will pick them up, so they closed. They carry a morbid morbidity. It’s the loudest silence I’ve ever heard.
The Sophea Orphanage had similar dark wooden cots stuck together like a row of crates, but the beds in this building are used to store blankets and clothes instead of sleeping babies. Here, babies lie in olive-green hammocks that look homemade; sheets of canvas roughly joined to bamboo sticks at each end.
A baby with a head like a bowling ball sleeps in a hammock, her disproportionately small body molded into the curve of the hanging fabric.
“And this baby?” I ask Vichet, pointing to the hammock. I immediately regret my question. It sounds so rude, so professional…so fake.
Not what I imagined when we booked our flights to Phnom Penh. This has nothing to do with our first encounter with Sophea, when my eyes filled with tears as I held her featherweight body; my voice cracked and a strong motherly spark ignited within me as I gazed at her angelic face. Today, I’m just a heartless meat peddler in a market that has no room for emotions.
Vichet shakes his head and wrinkles his face like someone who has sucked on a lemon wedge. “Sick. Has a deformity. He nods at another baby lying inactive in a cocoon of green canvas that acts more like a cage. “This baby girl can adopt. Two months.
Mittens with cartoon bears cover baby’s little hands. A bib, to catch the dribble oozing from his double chin, partially hides a rash on his neck that looks clammy and sore. A red Buddhist thread is tied around her wrist, like the one Sophea wore when we adopted her. Sophea wasn’t chubby like this baby. I remember her stick arms when I first held her; a frail bird fallen from its nest.
A small dog trots inside, its claws rattling the tiles. Ben puts Sophea down so she can pat her and his gaze scans the room to study the children. Sixteen years as a couple taught me to read his mind, but Ben’s face is blank today, offering no clue to his thoughts. I, too, scan the faces of the calm children around us, hoping to feel a connection with one of them.
Sophea is still not interested in any of them. She is more in love with the ball of white fur that she chases to the door. It’s unfair to expect a reaction from her that might steer me toward a particular baby, a job that’s too hard for a child. The scruffy dog rolls onto its back to rub its stomach and Sophea laughs, her joy lifting the darkness in the room.
The only other kid to make noise since we arrived is the boy with the cheeky grin. He is now sitting darkly, dragging his finger across the gray floor. Sophea was just as withdrawn as the children in this house when we met her nine months ago, but we gave her the chance to escape the cage of her orphanage, to fly. These children are enclosed in peeling eggshell yellow walls, imprisoned by security grilles at the windows. My stomach is sinking. I have to release one of these babies, but I don’t know where to start.
Taking a deep breath to clear my head, I feel my chest heave. A bead of sweat drips from my cleavage to my navel and I pinch the front of my cotton dress, rocking it back and forth to fan myself in this stuffy room. I feel overwhelmed. Sick. Saddened by Vichet’s rudeness and angry at the way we showed up at this place and flashed our privilege like peacocks fanning their tails.
Swallowing hard, I walk over to Ben and lean on his muscular shoulder. “It’s not okay,” I whisper. “Like baby shopping.”
He rubs my back. “Let’s get out of here.” Ben walks over to Vichet and holds out his arm for a handshake. “Okay, thank you. We’ll think about it and call you tomorrow.
“Okay, okay,” Vichet said.
“’It’s not okay,’ I whisper. “Like baby shopping.”
I smile at Vichet, thank him in Khmer – “Orkun” – and place my palms to my face in Cambodian sampeah.
Vichet walks us outside, the soles of his rubber sandals dragging, as if he doesn’t care to lift his feet. The late morning sun makes me squint. I look at my shoes. They smooth the weeds as I walk on the damp earth.
I wonder if the plants will bounce back from the damage I cause. Will the poor children in the building behind me recover from the damage of institutional life? It’s my duty to help one of them.
Sarak, our driver, jumps from a jade green swing that is under a mango tree. Its rusty hinges creak. He rushes to the car and opens the back door with a broad smile.
I take Sophea from Ben’s hands, lift her through the open door and strap her into her car seat, taking the time to collect my thoughts. I kiss her forehead and inhale the citrus aroma of baby shampoo in her hair before pulling away and staring into her dark eyes – eyes once saturated with grief, now shining like polished marble. Sick and malnourished after the death of her biological mother, we gave her a second chance at life. Our frail little bird has grown wings. Another child deserves that same chance.
Edited excerpt from The common thread: an adoption memoir (Austin Macauley) by Sarah Salmon, out now.
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