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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Theall

Motherhood and Adoption

Our son “L” trails me over rocks and brush in the roadless wilderness of Alaska. He holds a camera in his hands, the extra one I carry on shoots and have set up for him. I try not to be overly enthusiastic, but inside I thrill at the idea that he might be interested in something, anything really. We adopted our son from foster care when he was two years old. The short time he lived elsewhere lodged in his sub-conscious and body memories like shrapnel from a war. He cried and no one came. No one held or cuddled him. He had bed sores from his crib and infections and an overflowing diaper. He was starved and left to drown in a bathtub before he could even hold his head up. The list goes on.

Despite his exposure by us to myriad activities including everything from martial arts to graphic novel creation, robotics, coding, and music, our son remains flat, dispassionate, unengaged. Because he’s a teenager now, one might say he’s disaffected like all teens, that it’s age-appropriate. And I might agree, if he hadn’t been threatening to harm himself since second grade. Like many parents of kids who are different, who struggle with trauma, learning disabilities, and special needs, we wage a daily battle to advocate for our son with therapists, psychiatrists, the school system, society. Some days we win. Most, we don’t. But we always try.

As editor at Alaska magazine and a professional photographer, I’ve been all over Alaska and have even taken “L” a time or two, but I never felt he was ready for a bear-viewing trip with me. This summer, that changed. In 2019, I photographed a sow with three spring cubs, one I knew from previous years. In 2020, I heard that she had abandoned them. Two had died. The third, now a second-season cub still not old enough to be on his own, had been spotted following a young female bear with a new spring cub of her own. At first, the mother bear chased off the older cub. But at some point, her spring cub started playing with the orphaned cub. This went on for some time, until the mother adopted the older cub. The mom and her two cubs had been seen sleeping on each other and traveling as a family. “L” and I went with a guide to find her and photograph her.

He had begged to come with me, even though I told him the hike would be long and that there would be no guarantees we would find her. He assured me that he was up for it. Even though he has ADHD, he kept his focus. It was “L” who spotted the bears first. They slept in tall grass on a ridge just above us, the adopted cub with his head on top of his mom’s body–the spring cub a foot or so away. For three hours, we watched them sleep, then forage along the shore. I told “L” I was waiting to see if she would nurse, the most vulnerable thing a bear can do with her young. He said, “So we are going to wait until you get the shot, right?” I told him yes, and suggested that if he was getting bored, that he take images of flowers and bugs and other macro subjects–that his lens was perfect for those. To my surprise, he did. His work was impressive, and he continued to show me his screen, pride radiating from him.

At a certain point, the two cubs trailed their mother past us over to the river bank, where she eased back, placing her paws around both cubs, and nursed.

“L” screamed with excitement and began jumping around, and I had to settle him, even though I didn’t want to. It was the happiest I’d seen him in a long time, but I didn’t want us to startle the bears or elicit a defensive response from the sow. “L” pressed the shutter, firing off image after image of this rare and beautiful moment. And it was for us as well. Just a snapshot. A brief fleeting moment. But it was ours.

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