I remember the Christmas of 1994 very well. It was the first Christmas in our new home, our first real home. We had moved into it in August, after I got my job as Section Chief at the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, on the big Bethesda, MD, campus of NIH. It was my first steady job, too, with a regular salary, and it was permanent. No more fellowships, no more insecurity of where we’d live in a year.
We, being my wife Regina, our son Paul, and our daughter Elisabeth, aged four and two. Oh yes, there’s also me, John Heinen, PhD.
Anyway, we had bought our first home, a two-story Cape Cod house in a quiet, middle class neighborhood, ten blocks north of the Washington Beltway. The main selling point was that I could ride my bicycle to work and leave our one and only car to Regina.
Now, I was decorating the living room with pine twigs and such, while Regina brought the kids to bed. I was just using a tack to pin one of Paul’s Christmas drawings to the wall above the cheesy fake fireplace, when the doorbell rang, twice, and seemingly urgent.
Who the hell was that? Curious, I went to open the door, just in time to see and hear an old Chevy Impala speed away. I was thinking what kind of a stupid joke that was when I heard a whimper. My first thought was the neighbor’s cat. But then I looked down.
When I looked back at this evening later, I was positive that I must have looked like an idiot. There, in front of me, on the steps, was a shoe box; and inside that shoe box, I saw the tiny face of an infant. The mouth moved, the little head moved, it had to be real. I actually checked to see whether there was someone with a camera, filming me for Candid camera, but the street was completely empty.
Then the child cried, or rather wailed pitifully. I bent down, to pick up the box, and the wailing stopped for a second. Quickly, I stepped inside and closed the door.
“Regina!” I cried helplessly. “Come here, quick!”
“Whatsamatter, John? What... ?”
She stared at the shoe box. I gestured towards the door.
“Somebody just deposited this on our steps...”
In a flash, Regina was at my side and took the box from my hand. The kids had followed her, in their pajamas. Elisabeth was too small to comprehend, but Paul looked at the baby in Regina’s hands.
“Did Santa bring her for us?” he asked breathlessly, recognizing the infant for a girl right away.
“No, we don’t know. Somebody put the little one on our front steps,” I explained.
“Because we don’t have a real chimney,” Paul answered with conviction.
Meanwhile, Regina had unwrapped the bundle. There was a letter, inside the outer blanket.
Please, please, take care of our little girl. We are desperate, and we cannot raise a child, the way we live. We only want the best for our daughter. She was born this morning, and we think we did everything right. We will scout the neighborhoods and look for a nice family. If you read this, we have thought that you are a nice family.
My name is Eva, and her father’s name is Brian. That is all I can tell. I hope, she will not hate us.
“Jesus H. Christ!” Regina exploded. “How can she just drop her girl on our doorsteps? I’ll give her ‘nice’ if I ever get my hands on her!”
Then she softened.
“Oh my god, she must be starved. Quick, John, drive to the Giant store and get some formula. We’ll start with the soy bean stuff, to be on the safe side. And get diapers, the small ones!”
“Hey, I’m not stupid. I know she doesn’t fit in the trainers yet,” I responded. “We have to call the cops, too.”
Regina had unwrapped the infant.
“That can wait. I’ll call Dr. Edwards first. They did a butcher’s job on the umbilical chord. Go now, while I make the call!”
I put on my coat and left while Regina picked up the phone. The huge grocery store was almost empty. It was a good thing that I had done a lot of the weekend grocery shopping when Elisabeth was an infant. I knew what to buy and where it was. I bought a few baby bottles as well, not quite sure whether our old ones would be okay. I returned within fifteen minutes, but Dr. Edwards’ car was in the drive way already.
He was examining the baby on the changing table in Elisabeth’s room, under the infrared lamp I had installed there. He looked up with a twinkle in his eyes.
“Hi John! Congratulations! It’s a girl!”
I knew immediately that he had been dying to crack that joke.
“Is there anything you want to confess to Regina while I’m examining the girl?”
“Cut it, Elmar!” Regina growled. “How is she?”
“Healthy! Well developed, too. Normal reflexes, no overt signs of crack damage from the pregnancy.”
Regina and I gasped in unison. That was something we had not thought of. What if the parents were crack junkies? What if... ?
“We need to test her for HIV and hepatitis,” Elmar Edwards continued. “On first look, though, I’d say she’s a healthy baby. Have you called the cops, yet?”
“They should be here any minute. I called them when you drove up.”
Indeed, while we were taking, we suddenly saw the reflection of flashing lights, coming from the living room.
“Oh great! That should endear us to the neighbors forever,” I sighed. “The first Christmas here, and we have the cops over.”
The two Maryland Troopers were nice and understanding, though. They took my statement about what I had seen, and when Regina offered to take care of the baby over the holidays, they called their boss and got the okay.
When the troopers and Dr. Edwards had left, Regina gave me a long, questioning look. I nodded.
“Let’s!” I said.
It was all we needed to say. With some effort, I got the children to sleep while Regina fed the little girl. I found the old crib in the garage, and soon our Christmas girl was sleeping.
When we finally were able to go to bed, Regina cuddled close to me.
“You know,” she said, “it’s almost perfect. I may get another child without having to sleep with you first.”
I could hear the laughter in her voice. I let my hand wander under her pajama top.
“But you have to sleep with me to keep her,” I demanded.
“That’s coercion,” she mumbled, but she willingly pushed down her pajama bottoms.
We were a happy family of five when we celebrated the birth of Christ. Christina, our Christmas child was formally ours. The troopers had not been able, at first, to identify the parents, and she was declared an abandoned child. We applied for guardianship, and Montgomery County was happy to make us foster parents.
This year, however, in August, Christina’s real mother had been picked up by the D.C. police. The girl was sixteen! She was turning tricks for her junkie boyfriend. It seemed that her last John (why John, why not Bill?) demanded a bareback ride. When she refused, he became violent, and she stabbed him in self defense.
Of course, the shit hit the fan. Christina’s mother was cleared on the homicide charge, but charged with drug possession and prostitution. The state was willing to drop those charges in return for her turning witness against her boyfriend/pimp/dealer. It seemed the guy cared enough for her to urge her to accept the deal. She was placed in a closed rehab facility.
Christina’s father was convicted of everything the State could pile up against him. Five to seven years was the sentence, and he did not survive the first year in the pen. Pimping out a minor apparently had not added to his popularity.
On the positive side, Christina’s mother signed away her parental rights. We had a meeting with the lawyers and social service people. My first impression of Eva Sorensen was not favorable. She was borderline emaciated, and although they had spruced her up a little bit in the hospital, she looked terrible. I remember thinking, ‘Sixteen, and a walking corpse already.’
Regina, bless her heart, did not tear her a new rectum, as she had threatened two years ago. She took pity on the wretched girl, even hugged her before she was led away by orderlies of the rehab centre.
Finally, we were able to file for adoption. Christina Sorensen became Christina Heinen.
Christmas 2004 was very hard on all of us, because it was the first holidays without Regina. Eight months ago, she had worked in the garden and cut herself with a knife she used for digging in the soil. I was gone to a meeting for a few days. She missed the first signs of sepsis, and when she finally saw Dr. Edwards, the infection was out of control. She died in a coma, a day after my emergency return.
I only remember the first weeks as a hazy succession of miserable days. Regina and I had been together since college. A life without her seemed impossible. I nearly crumbled under the weight. Add to this that I had three kids and a job. My colleagues were wonderful. While they took over as much of my workload as possible, their wives and husbands took turns, picking up the kids from school. I owe them, big time.
I had taken what leave I had in the first weeks after Regina’s death, but my Lab Chief told me, in no uncertain terms, to keep my butt away from the lab over the holidays.
We did the whole decoration thing, the Christmas tree, the gifts, but we could not muster a lot of the holiday spirit. Elisabeth and Christina spent most of the holidays on my lap, seeking safety in the contact.
.... There is more of this story ...