Xuelan is One:
On February 14th, Cammie and Michael Townsend waited, along with nine other couples and two single women, in the overheated and overly bright adoption room. They were both in their thirties, she with light brown hair and pale blue eyes, he balding and brown eyed. They were wearing their best clothes, to make a good impression on the officials.
A disinterested observer would say that Cammie was more excited and nervous with anticipation than Michael, but then weren't women supposed to be more excited about becoming mothers than men were about becoming fathers? She also looked thinner and more delicate than the other women there.
There was a reason for that; she was a survivor of childhood leukemia, and the disease had left a mark on her. It had also left her unable to bring a child into the world. She read from a piece of paper which was worn with handling. "Jing-an Xuelan," she said, "Found abandoned in Jing-an Temple on December 22, approximately 1 day old, umbilical cord still attached. A lovely and healthy baby with very fair skin and intelligent eyes."
"That's the hundredth time you've read that, Cammie," her husband protested with a laugh in his voice. "And we're about ten minutes away from getting to hold her."
"I can't help it! I've waited for this moment my whole life." She put the document back in her purse and took her husband's hand. Just then a door to the outside opened, letting in a gust of icy wind and a line of twelve women, each one holding a toddler. In single file, they took seats against the wall on the opposite side of the room. An official called up each adoptive parent in alphabetical order, and they stood up to receive their child, complete the paperwork, and have their photos taken together.
As it happened, the Townsends were the last to be called up, and so Cammie kept looking from toddler to toddler, trying to guess which one was Xuelan. The babies were dressed identically in blue pants and red winter jackets, their rounded cheeks reddened by the cold outside.
Finally it was their turn. Cammie Townsend began to cry as the woman holding Xuelan put the toddler into her arms.
"Oh. Oh, God! Oh, she's beautiful. She's perfect." Maybe it was her imagination, but Xuelan seemed to have finer skin and cuter features than any of the other toddlers. Xuelan wasn't terrified or crying like the other toddlers, but alert and engaged. With one hand, she reached up and patted Cammie's cheek, as if to pat away the tears.
"Oh, you are so sweet, you precious, precious baby! I know you don't understand me, but I'm your mommy now, and I love you! Is this your bunny toy? It's almost as adorable as you are."
"What is her American name?" asked the official who was finalizing the papers.
"Valentine Xuelan Townsend," Michael Townsend said.
Valentine Xuelan is Five:
Judy Townsend, the sister of Michael Townsend, and owner of 'The Rainbow Lodge' in Anthracite, Pennsylvania, was going over the reservation list for the next month while her life partner Alison worked in the kitchen, getting breakfast pre-prepared for the next morning.
Valentine, her niece, was coloring in a Disney coloring book on the floor in a sunspot. She was talking to her favorite and oldest toy, Mrs. Bun-Bun, in Mandarin as she did so. Cammie Townsend believed strongly in keeping a connection between Val and the country she came from, so she chose a bilingual Montessori school for her. Montessori schools emphasized children learning what they wanted to, of their own choice and at their own pace, and so Val was almost frighteningly literate and read at a fourth grade level at the age of five.
However, a few months before, Cammie had gone in for a checkup and come back with the news that her leukemia had returned. Overwhelmed by having a sick wife to care for and by working nearly eighty hours a week at his law firm, Michael had asked Judy to take Valentine until---well, until Cammie was better. If Cammie got better.
It was an imposition, but Michael had accompanied the request with a big fat check, big enough to cover renovations to cabins 6 through 10. Besides, Val loved the lodge with the woods and the creek which flowed to the lake—and she loved her Aunt Judy and Aunt Alison. It was impossible not to love her back.
The problem was, Cammie wasn't getting better, no matter how Michael tried to be positive. And Judy knew her brother too well. He wasn't a bad person—but he wasn't really a good person either. When it came to personal relationships and his life outside of work, he took the easy way out every single time. He was the kind of person who never bothered getting anyone gifts for Christmas or birthdays. He just gave gift cards instead.
The ultimate example of this was how he dealt with Cammie's illness and taking care of Val. Rather than finding a nanny or caregiver in the city, which would have taken time and effort of his part, he had almost immediately called Judy to drive two hundred miles to come and get her. Never mind that Cammie's heart was breaking over the separation and she called every day—every day that she had the strength, that is—to talk to her daughter.
Just then, the phone rang.
"Hello?" Judy said as she picked up the phone.
Michael's voice came through, though rougher and thicker than she had ever known it. "Jude, Cammie—she passed away. Half an hour ago."
"Oh, no. Mike, I'm so sorry," Judy said, and she meant it. She and Cammie had been friends in college, and she had introduced her friend to her brother.
"She was awesome, Jude, she really was. I thought she was going to beat it. She did before."
"I know," Judy replied. "Are you going to be okay?"
"Yeah. I guess." His voice squeaked a little as he said it—she heard stifled tears in it. "I just—I can't—You're there with Val. Can you—can you explain it to her?"
"Explain this? I guess I can," she said. "You'll let me know when—when the arrangements are finalized, won't you?"
"Yeah. And—I know it's imposing on you again, but can you keep on looking after Val? I'm never home, and you work from home, so—."
"As long as you need me to," Judy said it, realizing it might mean years. Valentine was Cammie's loved and longed for daughter. Now it seemed she was Judy's.
Val is Eight:
Daddy met Brenda last June. She had a daughter named Brandi who was a year older than Val, and the first time they met, Brandi was mean to her. She said that Val smelled bad, and she didn't want Val playing with her toys and making them stinky too. She asked Val why her parents didn't want her, so Val went to Daddy and said that Brandi was discriminating against her and she wanted to go back to Aunt Judy's.
Brenda's face got all tight and funny, and she took Brandi outside to talk to her, while Daddy said that he was sorry Brandi was being mean, but saying that Brandi was discriminating against her was ridiculous. Val said it wasn't, because Brandi said she stunk like the dumpster out back of a Chinese restaurant, because that was where her real parents threw her, and that was racist.
That made Daddy laugh in an uncomfortable way, and he said Brenda would talk to Brandi about it. Brenda and Brandi came back in then, and Brandi's face was all red. It looked like she had tears in her eyes too. Brandi apologized and said she was wrong and would never say things like that again. And she didn't—but she would pinch Val whenever no adults were looking.
Then on Valentine's Day—which was always her special day, because it was the day she was adopted and it was her name—Daddy gave Brenda a diamond ring and asked her to marry him, and Brenda said yes with a big shiny smile on her face, and she said they were all going to be one family now, so come here and let her kiss her new daughter.
Val did, but she noticed the smile she gave Val wasn't as big or shiny. It wasn't even as big or shiny as the smile she gave Brandi. But Daddy was happy, and that was good. Now that she would have a mom again, she came back to live with him and Brenda and Brandi.
They all moved in, but Brandi wanted the room which had been Val's before. Daddy said it was her room though, and Brandi couldn't have it. Then Brenda stepped in, and said Brandi needed it more because she was older and the room was bigger. Didn't he want her to feel like it was her home too?
So Brandi got the room. Brandi still pinched her whenever adults weren't looking, but now she also sometimes pulled on the corners of her eyes to make them look slanted, and whispered 'Chinky-chinky-ching-chong.' Except now Daddy just said "Don't make trouble, Val."
Now Val wished she was still living with Aunt Judy and Aunt Ali, who she missed terribly, but Brenda said they were a Bad Influence and she didn't want them coming in contact with her daughter. Daughters, she meant… Daughters, plural.
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