When Rain Hurts by Mary Evelyn Greene

January 25, 2010

August 1, 2007 Journal Entry and Chapter 1

Good Morning, Birthday Boy! (Aug. 4, 2007)

August 1, 2007.  “It is four more weeks until my birthday?”  “No Peter,” I say, “your birthday is in 3 days.”  Four weeks ago the question was correct, and it has stuck in his head as stubbornly as gum sticks to the bottom of his shoe.  Last month I told him his birthday was in four weeks and now he can’t alter his question to accommodate the passage of time.  “I will be 6 yesterday,” he continues.  He flaps his arms and jumps on his toes.  He’s excited.  What he means is “I will be 6 on my birthday.”  The past and the future are mysteries to Peter.  He is grounded in the present by the weighty conspiracy of neglect, abuse, prenatal alcohol exposure and genetic anomaly.  He’ll receive birthday presents from my husband and me and gobs more from adoring relatives on both sides of the family.  He’ll announce every toy is his favorite and each will be cherished for the remainder of the day.  Then they’ll be forgotten, each and every one, tossed aside with the growing mound of other toys received over the last two and a half years.  He’ll return to playing with a single piece of Tinker Toy, a car, or maybe an Amtrak ticket stub given to him by Grandpa Frank.  Ideas, toys, people, hopes, likes, and dislikes are to Peter like bubbles blown from a child’s wand, bursting from existence with the blink of an eye.  I look at his gorgeous, bright-eyed face that belies an inner disharmony.  I know only scattered and unreliable bits of his past but I fully understand that the future is coming, and I’m scared for my son.  Like any mother, I want Peter’s future to brim with promise.  But what if it doesn’t?  What then?

Chapter 1:  The Philtrum

After Russia, I can’t help but stare at philtrums.  I think I’m doomed to obsess over this obscure but vital piece of human anatomy for the rest of my life.  I see beauty in philtrums, and on occasion I can detect heartache.  The philtrum is the vertical groove between the upper lip and nose.  In the womb, a baby’s normally growing brain differentiates into the left and right frontal lobes.  Near the end of this process, if all goes according to plan, two folds of flesh grow around the skull and meet in the front of what becomes the baby’s face. The philtrum is essentially a seam, the place where the halves of the face fuse.  It’s a mark of symmetry, a talisman of sorts.  A well-formed philtrum is proof of our grand anatomical design and the centerpiece of a well-formed face.  A poorly formed philtrum predicts abnormal brain development.

I have an ordinary, unexciting philtrum.  My husband Pat’s is a little nicer.  Our daughter Sophie has a deep and luminous groove, beautiful and rich in its perfection.  I smile with relief when I think of it.  Peter, whom I’ve grown to love with a once inconceivable intensity, doesn’t have one at all.  He will always be the half boy underwater, swimming, always swimming toward something, not sure of where he’s going because the weight of the water disorients him and his own air bubbles distort his vision and prickle his hyper-alert skin.

May 2007

Lost but plucky in the vast expanse of a backyard pool.  He is not whole and never will be.  The groove between his upper lip and nose is silky smooth.

Well before science was able to explain the developmental significance of the philtrum, the ancients recognized its importance.  The word philtrum comes from the Greek philtron, from philein, meaning, “to love”, “to kiss”.   According to the Jewish Talmud, God sends an angel to each womb and teaches the unborn baby all the wisdom of the world.  Just before the baby is born, the angel touches it between the upper lip and the nose and all that has been taught is forgotten.  Other folklores claim that the philtrum is the spot where the angel put his finger to “shush” the baby in the womb from talking about heaven, or from telling another secret.  Still other stories say the philtrum is an indent left by the finger of God Himself.

I won’t accept the cruelty of a god who would overlook my son, and so I have formed my own view.  To me, the philtrum is a marker of hope.  Not a guarantee of health or happiness or even normalcy, whatever that means, but a reason for optimism.  Without a philtrum, there is no such thing as a healthy start.  And a head start?  That’s out of the question.

I haven’t always been consumed with talk of philtrums.  The seed of my obsession sprouted in late winter 2004 and fully blossomed two years later.  Before then, I can’t honestly say I’d heard the term, and was only vaguely aware of its presence on the human face  – mine or anyone else’s.

Some time in the weeks before the tulips bloomed in Manhattan, Pat and I signed up for an information meeting being held by a local adoption agency, Happy Families, at a Jewish community center.  We had long ago agreed we wanted to adopt a child, even if we successfully conceived, a possibility that was growing more remote with each passing month.  And so our odyssey began that night, the first of many stumbles along the way toward adoptive parenting.  The date on the advertisement was wrong, though we didn’t know it at the time, and we were a little late.  We slipped into the room and sat down at a long table with several other couples and a few singles.  A woman with untamable gray hair, a compelling voice and fiercely intelligent eyes was asking folks to say a little about themselves.  Pat and I were nervous.  We felt certain we had blundered our way into a Jewish studies seminar and our non-Jewish status was about to be found out.  Worse still, maybe we had unwittingly joined a sex therapy group and were about to be asked to share intimate details about our marriage.  We needed to leave, and quick.

But the woman with the wild hair asked what we hoped to get out of the “class” just as we were making our escape.  I blathered something incomprehensible about a Happy Families mix-up and scurried to the door like a panicked squirrel, Pat and satchel in tow.  She laughed and asked us to stay.  It turns out we had walked into an international pre-adoption parenting course being hosted by Kathy Brodsky and Dr. Jane Aronson on behalf of the Jewish Child Care Association of New York.  Dr. Aronson, we soon discovered, is a world-renowned adoption pediatrician, top in her field and an adoptive mother herself.  We learned so much that night we decided to sign up for the rest of the course.  Of the thousands of adoption-related mistakes made by us, this was by far the most providential.  We never did catch up with Happy Families.

In many ways, our entire story relates back to meeting Dr. Aronson that night. She is the person who explained the importance of the philtrum to me and everyone else in the room.  I remember Pat and several other men nodding in agreement when she described it as the mustache area that men hate to shave.  I looked around and realized, whether consciously or not, that every single person in attendance was locating and exploring his or her own ribbon of flesh between the upper lip and nose.  I was doing it too.  How odd we must have looked in the presence of each other, outlining the peaks and valley of our grooves with the pads of our fingers.  I remember trying to catch a glimpse of Dr. Aronson’s, as though the shape of her philtrum might reveal the mystery of the person inside.

As I learned about the philtrum, I struggled to process why this information, so seemingly obscure at the time, was so important for Pat and me to understand, and what it meant for our future child.  After that night I knew I needed to make sure our own adopted children had one, that part was clear.  Prospective children without philtrums are considered “high risk”, an ambiguous term with clear implications, even to a novice like me.  The risk of children born with missing or “indistinct” philtrums is greatest, we were told, in Eastern European countries.

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