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.
On top of that, I found a card in the mail box, from Christina’s mother. It was addressed to me. She offered her condolences for Regina, and she wrote that she was clean now and working in a bookstore in Rockville. She offered to contribute to Christina’s upkeep, from her salary, if money was tight for us.
I was worried when I received that card, and I showed it to my lawyer. He assured me that there was no way for Eva Sorensen to reclaim Christina. Only then did I answer her, thanking her for her sympathy, and assuring her that we were fine, financially. I hoped that would be the last we heard from her.
I was taking a day off, in early December. Armed with the Christmas wish lists of my three kids, I hit the malls. Paul wanted an iPod as his main wish, and I got that in the new Apple Store in White Flint Mall, in Rockville.
My next stop was a book store in a strip mall off Rockville Pike. Both Elisabeth and Christina wanted Harry Potter books. I also wanted to shop for gifts for my sister and her family. While I filled the basket, I noticed a pretty faced young lady who kept looking at me. She wore a name plate, and when I approached the register, I saw the name on it.
You guessed it. The name plate read “Eva Sorensen”. Now I knew why she looked familiar. Christina had the same eyes and nose, and the same blonde hair. But what a change from the emaciated wreck we had met nine years ago!
Eva Sorensen was nervous under my gaze.
“Hello, Mr. Heinen,” she almost whispered.
“Hello, Miss Sorensen. So, we finally meet again. I hardly recognized you, though.”
“I felt so sorry for you and your family, when I read the obituary for your wife. I hope I did not alarm you when I wrote that card.”
Her voice was a little stronger now.
“No, it was very kind of you to write and offer your help,” I answered, not quite truthfully.
Hell, seeing her from up close, I could not tell her that I had run to my lawyer with her card.
“I was thinking, would you allow me ... I mean, I have an employee’s discount here ... May I buy the books for your children? It would mean a lot to me, and I have nobody else to give presents to.”
She looked at me.
“I don’t know...” I temporized, feeling unsure. This could be a can of worms.
She seemingly collected all her courage.
“I can take a half hour off. May I invite you to a coffee next door? I really need to speak with you. Please?”
Damn! Christina’s eyes were looking at me imploringly. I could never refuse Christina, or Elisabeth, for that matter.
“Hrhm, yes, I can ... Why not...”
Mr. Lightning Wit.
She spoke briefly to one of her colleagues and placed the books under the counter before we left the store and went into the next door coffee shop. She ordered a cup of straight Colombian brew, and I found myself ordering the same.
“Mr. Heinen, I know I have no rights to see Christina. She probably should not know of my existence, either. I messed up my life. I deserted her. I have no excuse for that. I really did not know what to do, back then. In the hospital, they would have called the social workers, and they would have arrested Brian. I loved him. And I still believe that he loved me, in his way. He made me quit drugs and alcohol during the pregnancy. He even reduced his own dose to the minimum he needed. He read up on obstetrics, to help me.”
“Thank god for that,” I said, meaning it. “Christina is a healthy and normal child. You did not damage her.”
“Knowing that, took a load off my soul.”
“One thing I’d like to know, Miss Sorensen. How did you pick us, back then?”
Hell, while we were talking, I could as well get some information.
“We sort of strolled through your neighborhood for a few days before I gave birth. It was far away from anybody who knew us. We saw your wife, she was standing with your kids on the front lawn, playing. She saw that I was pregnant and smiled at me. She looked so nice! I knew then, she’d be the right mother for my child.”
I was silent. Being reminded of what I had lost still was not easy for me. Then I thought of something.
“Do you think Christina is ... Brian’s child?”
She blushed deeply.
“I did not turn tricks, back then. Brian wouldn’t allow it. That was only later, when he needed more and more of the stuff, and after I got hooked on that poison myself.”
“What did you take?”
“Mostly H, and pain relievers when we couldn’t get H. Some pot, too. Never crack, though, and never coke. I only did it for half a year, before I ... killed that man.”
“How was the rehab?”
This was developing into an interrogation.
“Tough. I was a complete mess. I was malnourished and underweight, I was addicted to H, and I had lost the only person I trusted.”
“Brian. For four years, he had told me what to do and when to do it. I went from obeying my parents to obeying him. The shrinks had to rebuild me, from scratch.”
“And you are clean now?”
She nodded emphatically.
“I take monthly drug tests, voluntarily. I picked the job selling books because it doesn’t expose me to drugs or alcohol. I go to group therapy, twice a month. I don’t visit dance clubs or bars.”
“You’re not having a lot of fun,” I remarked, more to myself.
“I enjoy the little things. Sitting here, drinking coffee. Reading a book at night. One day, I may even meet a man, too, and I may have another chance at being a mother; a real mother, this time.”
“That’s good, really good. I think it takes a lot of strength to accomplish that, after what you went through. How did you meet Brian. It sounds like he was older than you.”
“He picked me during my third night on the streets. I was hungry, and he had food. He was cool; he didn’t demand ... anything.”
“You ran away from home?”
“When I was twelve. My Dad died in Desert Storm. My mother hooked up with another man almost immediately. I think she was betraying Dad all the time. I had to call him Daddy, and when I refused, she’d slap me around. I thought I’d run away for a week or two, and scare her, you know? But then I hooked up with Brian.”
“You missed out on high school, then?”
“No, after rehab, they sent me into a training program, to catch up. Then I was placed with foster parents. They were really nice people, retired teachers. I entered high school at Junior level, and they tutored me at home. I had a pretty good GPA when I finished. That got me the job here. In the evenings, I attend community college. I figure, in four to five years, I’ll have a college degree.”
“I don’t know. I focus on learning and staying clean for the next days, weeks, and months. I haven’t had a real test, yet, you know, a serious temptation.”
By this time, I thought it was time to return to the original subject.
“So, why do you want to send Chris a Christmas gift? I mean, she is not lacking anything.”
“I...” she began, then she reconsidered. “I guess, I want to built up something. A gift now, maybe a gift and a letter next year. I want her to know that I’m not a cold-hearted junkie monster. Maybe, when she is all grown up, she will allow me to see her.”
That wasn’t entirely harebrained, I thought. Chris sometimes asked why her mother had given her away. It’s something kids cannot accept easily. Perhaps, talking to the woman her mother had become, would help Chris to accept herself.
“Would you be willing to see her face to face?” I asked.
Eva Sorensen turned pale as a sheet.
“Y-you mean, talk to her?”
“Under my supervision, yes. I need to sound her out about this, d I won’t force her if she refuses.”
A shy smile spread over her lips.
“It would be a dream come true. Do you really think she would listen to me?”
“You’ll have to risk it. Why don’t you give me your phone number, and I’ll give you a call?”