My book doesn’t have a whole lot to do with Alaska, so when I thought about what excerpt to post on Alaska magazine’s web site, I could have easily passed. Except, there’s this one chapter…one that saved and gutted me to write…that has everything to do with the power and promise of that wild place. Some of you know first hand the way mountains like those in the Last Frontier speak and imbed themselves into who you are. I went there because of this, but I had no idea they could also predict the future. None at all.
TEACHING THE CAT TO SIT: EXCERPT (adapted from two chapters)
I can clearly picture Jeremy’s face, with his curious algae-colored eyes and the ears that stuck out from his head in an attentive way, like he was trying to understand us. He was twenty-one days old and had been removed from his mother at the hospital because he was born drug-positive. Mom was an eighteen-year-old addict. Dad was thirty-six and had disappeared. Social services had placed the baby back in the home with his mom three times in three weeks, with no success.
The minute they told us about him, Jill called each member of her family. She held the phone between her ear and shoulder and paced the halls of our home like a new dad handing out cigars at the hospital. Less than an hour later, we drove to social services and left in the rain, instant parents, with an infant sleeping in his car seat. Jill drove while I sat next to Jeremy in the backseat, unable to take my eyes off him, smoothing the blanket he came with. We passed a Walmart and Jill ran inside to get some of the things we’d need while I waited in the car. Jeremy moved his mouth in circles, his tongue white with yeast from a thrush infection that had recently developed. I used my cell phone to dial the number the case aide had given me for the People’s Clinic, a place where foster care children on Medicaid could be treated. Jeremy slept through cracks of thunder.
Jill returned with three bags, her eyes wide, as if she’d been struck by lightning on her way across the parking lot. “I was beginning to think you’d gone out for a pack of smokes and left us,” I said. It was an old joke between us, but she didn’t laugh. Her earlier excitement seemed squashed by reality. We left that Walmart parking lot with our new baby waking in the backseat and a full-on rainbow in front of our windshield. I took it as a message from God. I was in love. Jill was in shock. And, because Jill had no idea how many diapers a baby might go through in a day or a week or a year, Walmart was now out of Pampers.
The first night, Jeremy didn’t sleep. He was inconsolable, and we had no idea how to make his world right. He cried for so many hours straight we thought he might hurt himself. We called Jill’s three sisters, then her mother, Ellen, for advice. I stayed on the phone with Ellen for an hour. She reassured me. Convinced me we couldn’t break him. Promised she’d be there by the weekend to help us with her new grandson.
Jill and I rocked him, tried different brands of formula, checked his diaper, dangled toys in front of him, and sang. We ruled out fever, rashes, and colic. We put him in bed with us and took turns laying him on our chests. I understood my mother in that moment, when she had relayed a story to me once about getting so frustrated with me when I was sick as an infant that she’d literally thrown me into my crib, and then felt so guilty about it that she cradled and kissed my clammy, crimson face for the next twenty-four hours straight. I was furious with my mother now. She should be here. And yet, I hadn’t even given her the opportunity. I blamed her for that too.
In the morning the social worker called to tell us she’d be picking up Jeremy for a supervised visit with his mom. When she asked about our night, I told her that it was miserable for all of us. Her answer was shocking and simple: “He’s going through withdrawal,” she said. “Cocaine, PCP, and meth.” She explained that on this visit with his birth mother and every one thereafter Jeremy would breast-feed, even though his mother’s milk was still testing positive for all three drugs. The baby would suffer from withdrawal every time he was away from her. No secret ingredient in the Nestlé’s formula could compete with meth. How could we bond with a baby who was literally addicted to his mother?
“It’s the law. She has the right to breast-feed her child,” the social worker said.
One week later, Jill and I were at the People’s Clinic with Jeremy when my cell phone rang. I rocked Jeremy’s carrier with the toe of my shoe and listened. The social worker explained: Our baby had an aunt. She wanted to adopt Jeremy. We were to keep Jeremy for a few more days and then take him to social services and leave him there.
In the car, Jill and I drove without speaking while Jeremy slept in his seat behind us. A deer darted in front of us and Jill swerved. She slammed on the brakes. I reached across and banged on the horn to warn oncoming traffic. Three cars in rapid succession crushed the animal like a battering ram. His bones snapped and parts of his body separated and flew into the air alongside our windshield. I don’t know if we screamed, but we pulled over to the side of the road. Traffic poured by us. Jill grabbed the wheel with both hands and put her forehead against it. I slumped against the dash. Jill gutted out words between sobs. “Why is this happening? I don’t understand.”
I moaned into my hands. “We didn’t want him enough. God did this because we didn’t want him enough. He took him away.”
We went through the motions for the next two days, loving a baby we knew was no longer ours. I memorized his smell, and read to him, and covered him with kisses. Jill’s mother, Ellen, flew in, and went with us to social services, sat with us in the office as we said our goodbyes to Jeremy, and held on to us as we left empty-handed.
For several days, Jill and I didn’t talk. We circled each other in our grief. Ellen stayed with us, counseled us. And because I knew she was a devout, born-again Christian, I asked her why God had allowed this to happen to us. We sat on the couch in the loft, side by side. She said, “Well, honey, maybe this wasn’t about you at all. Maybe it was about Jeremy.” She pulled me toward her, leaned my head against her shoulder. “God knew that the two of you would provide him with a safe and loving place when he needed it most. Maybe it’s as simple as that.”
Ellen didn’t leave until it seemed we could stand on our own again.
Like many people dealing with grief, we decided we needed to get lost somewhere in order to regain our bearings. So we chose a place one hundred miles from any road and that could only be reached by plane. The Ultima Thule, a lodge in the middle of Wrangell-St. Elias facing three miles of the glacier-fed Chitina River in Alaska, possessed the resilience we needed, having been destroyed and rebuilt three times by fire and flood. The name “Ultima Thule” meant a land remote beyond reckoning, beyond the borders of the known world.
One afternoon while Jill fished for sockeye salmon, I flew overhead in a bush plane the size of a confessional. Sitting in the lap of a guide named Too Tall, I asked the names of the peaks, anxious to make sense of them. “Those are orphaned peaks,” Too Tall told me. “Can’t land on them or climb them. No one’s ever set foot on them.”
We banked right and ascended higher. Three serrated peaks spread out across the horizon, cutting holes through a gauze of white clouds, obscuring their beginnings from me. I snapped away with my Nikon and leaned over Too Tall’s shoulder to ask him if those mountains had names. He nodded and pointed at each one in succession. He spoke three words and I repeated after him: “Connor. Bona. Jackson.”
Shortly after we returned from Alaska, Jill and I got the call for a thirteen-month-old little boy. We met the social workers for a presentation on the child who would be ours. They told us about the boy’s mom, Tara, and his father, Brian, the homeless kids who had given birth to him. They gave us his well-worn history. And when they were finished they showed us his photo and told us his given name: Connor Bona Jackson.
To Buy Teaching the Cat to Sit for yourself or someone else, CLICK HERE.