By Janet Villa
There is a term for an answer too late in the coming. The French call it l’esprit de l’escalier—literally, “stairwell wit”—a comeback given too late, a retort thought of only after the moment had ended, perhaps when one is on the stairs, leaving the event that required the rejoinder.
A few Tuesdays ago, I was called to testify in our petition to adopt Anna. The prosecutor was merciless in his cross-examination of the witnesses before me. A young woman filing for an annulment struggled to articulate her pain and stammered, “May I please speak in Tagalog?” She was crying; reliving her agony before an audience had not been easy. The prosecutor ignored her and continued with his inquisition. He was equally cutthroat with a young man seeking to adopt his wife’s birth children, already under his care. “Finally? Finally?!?” the prosecutor said, descending on the man to show him his unfortunate use of word in an affidavit. I understood the prosecutor—his job was to disturb and disconcert witnesses, to determine if collusion exists, to be the devil’s advocate.
I thought, ‘Well, he’s not going to get me, I’m a lawyer.’ What I had forgotten was that a lawyer often makes the worst client.
I was settled on the witness stand, relieved after having given my direct testimony. I was composed; only my hands were cold. I was ready for the prosecutor. He rose to his feet and asked, “What did you feel when you first saw Grace (Anna)?”
I blinked. My eyes flew to my husband, Jojo, who had moved nearer to the clerk of court to lend me his support. He had been my strength and true companion in the roller-coaster search for Anna; the night that we had been told that we could finally meet Anna for the first time, he suggested that we sleep in the room that we had especially prepared for her. That night he had taken melatonin, his first time to take a sleeping aid; it had not been easy for him to go down from an all-time high.
In the courtroom, the prosecutor waited for me to marshal my thoughts. Jojo’s eyes were soft and his smile was kind. To my dismay, I cried. “I thought she looked gorgeous,” I said. “She looked like my husband.” And thirty heads swiveled to look at Jojo, who was holding back his own tears. I wondered if the court transcript would show that I cried.
“What will you do if the court will deny your petition for adoption?” the prosecutor asked.
I blanched. In one episode of Once Upon a Time, the young boy Henry told his birth mother, “I know why you gave me away. You wanted to give me my best chance.” I understood Henry—Jojo and I are Anna’s best chance too. We had presumed that our happy ending was so obvious that we hadn’t thought about alternate realities. But I was required to answer only the question—it was a hearing, after all—so I told the prosecutor, “I don’t know. We have not thought that far.”
Had I enough wit and more latitude, I would have shared with the court the letter I had written to Anna about the day we met, February 27, 2010. She was ten months old. And she was ours long before we met her. This letter was a rejoinder long before it became l’esprit de l’escalier.
I overthink. It’s my default mode when there are far too many emotions to process. On the way to KBF to read about you, I think about the best route to avoid crazy Cubao traffic, if we’d find parking on 10th Street, if the supersize Makro along EDSA is actually earning money. That way I wouldn’t jump out of the car, trying to outdo your dad’s gentle driving. Your dad is always gentle; when he gets excited, he’s like a boy given a new bike: his face would split into a grin, he’d clap his hands, lift the heels of his feet to do mini-hops, and say hee hee hee hee. Not what you’d expect from a hulk of a warrior with hands big enough to kill for you and me. This morning he has the same grin—partly anxious, partly excited, but wholly happy. He grips the wheel tighter than usual and asks questions I can’t answer: how do you look like? Will you like us? You see, we love you already–that’s a given. After trusting God to choose you for us, we know you will be His Best. But still a frisson runs through us, a sharp unreadiness for what we’ve been waiting for so long. This turmoil—this contradiction—will soon be part of our days, for what child doesn’t cause upheaval?
The folder about you is pretty lean—there are stories about you, your birth mother, papers and more papers, and, finally, a dark black-and-white printout of you tucked away on the last page. It isn’t very clear, and in it you looked big, almost enormous, dwarfing your monobloc chair as you looked down at the camera. Your hair was caught up in a ponytail high atop your head, severely pulling up the corner of your eyes. With a grin that puffed your balloon cheeks even more, you looked like a Chinese princess. A ginormous Chinese princess.
“She will wreck her crib,” your daddy laughs. I can’t figure out his laugh; I am too busy trying to find you in the bad printout of an ill-taken photograph.
“Would you like to meet her?” our social worker, Mrs. Myrna Pineda asks.
“Yes,” we say.
“Then you’ll have to first accept her.”
“Yes.” That was a no-brainer. We had trusted God this far; we trust Him with you, even the version of you that we can’t decipher from the photo.
An hour later your father and I stop for a quick lunch at Shakey’s before heading to Cavite to meet you. He suggests that we call your Tito Mickey and Tita Tina to join us; they live in nearby Eastwood. But I demur. I am not good company right now: my head and heart have already flown to Cavite.
We arrive in your home, Ministries Without Borders, three torturous hours later. The air is sharp, and the clouds highlight the blue sky. MWB is a massive, beautiful complex: modern, white buildings surrounding a grassy expanse that is framed by fruit trees. Last October we prayed that you would live among Christians, loved by your caregivers, be given adequate nutrition, and live in a clean home. We got our wish. Norwegian pastors and nurses have prayed for you. Filipino caregivers and social workers have cared for you.
The building in which you live is ridiculously clean. All of us remove our slippers before entering. The children are allowed to play on the spotless tile floors. There is a play area with a mural of Noah’s Ark, sprinkled with toys sent from Europe.
When we enter your building, the older children on the first floor—about 2 to 4 years old—look up expectantly, hopefully. Your father’s heart breaks; he wants to bring home all the children. You, together with the other infants, live on the second floor. Something holds us back: we tarry, listening to the older children’s histories; we hang on to the last bits of us before you will change us forever.
Your father and I expected you to be big, so when we reach your room, our eyes search among the bigger babies playing on the floor, and it isn’t until you are right in front of us, carried by your caregiver, that we finally see you.
You are perfect. Your father laughs, and all I can say over and over again is, “You are gorgeous. You are so gorgeous.” I don’t know what else to say. You are gorgeous. You look so much like your dad that the caregivers tease him for merely reclaiming you. “Tinutubos mo lang yata, sir,” they say, and your father is tickled pink.
You cry in my arms, so I turn you over to your dad. He cradles your head with his hand, and you quiet down. Daddy’s girl, just the way you should be. Your father’s left arm scoops me in a three-way embrace, and I hug you both, now a family. A little while later, your head suddenly drops to your father’s chest, and you sleep, safe. Your dad blinks back tears at this sudden show of trust, and no power on heaven and earth could have taken you away from us in that instant. You are ours, we are yours.