I was in Florida the first time something seemed off. Sitting on the bed in a Disney hotel, I called Beth (I’ve changed all of the names in this piece to protect privacy) to check in and waited for her raspy “Hello” on the other end, but it never came. Instead, the rings were interrupted by three beeps and a recorded voice: “The number you have reached is no longer in service.”
I hung up and tried again. Same beeps. Same message.
This was the number I had used to call Beth for months. It was on this number that we met, where we made small talk, and where we got to know each other.
It was the only number I had.
Beth first called me in March. My phone rang with an unknown number while I was at work. Knowing it could be an adoption call, I tiptoed to a quiet spot and answered.
One of the first steps of domestic adoption is to set up a phone number different than your personal one that you’ll use to take calls from prospective birth mothers — women who are pregnant and considering adoption for their child. You put your number out there on websites, newspapers and social media and wait for the right call, the one that will lead to a baby.
Beth was a married mother from Georgia, pregnant with her fourth child.
“My husband, Justin, and I can’t take care of another baby. It’s just not possible,” she said.
She laughed when she said this, a deep, husky laugh, and I wondered why. She went on to tell me about Justin’s back injury and her three children with their fair features and unending energy.
“Would it be OK if my lawyer called you? Her name is Robin,” I said as the call came to an end.
“Sure, have her call whenever.”
Beth and I kept in touch over the next few months. I listened as she told stories about her family and lamented about the Georgia heat torturing her pregnant body. My experience so far with attempting to adopt and what I’d learned from our lawyer, at conferences and in books told me to keep my excitement in check. This could change at any time. Beth could stop answering my calls or find another couple she liked more than my husband, Anthony, and me. She could give birth and decide to parent the baby herself.
But she slowly convinced me to have hope. She quelled my fears when she told me to keep calling her no matter what and eased my worries when she said I should never feel that she was blowing me off. She said she was serious about this adoption and about us. I started to believe her.
In April, Beth filled me in on her first doctor’s appointment.
“Well, I had a sonogram today and, uh, we got a bit of a shock.” She said this the way she said most things — at a halfway point between talking and yelling.
“Everything’s fine. But it’s twins. I’m having twins,” she said.
It was perfect. A whole family for us in one shot. I couldn’t ask for more.
“This family needed our help, and we were more than willing to give it to them, for it was nothing compared to what they wanted to give us.”
Anthony and I flew to Georgia in June to meet Beth and her family. While sitting on the porch of a Cracker Barrel, I saw them walking toward us.
“What should we say?” I whispered.
“I don’t know,” Anthony shrugged. “Just say ‘hello,’ I guess.”
When they reached us, I stood up and smiled.
“I guess you’re Beth. It’s great to finally meet you.”
Beth nodded and introduced her family. I had thought that maybe we would hug after months of talking. Maybe we would feel like old friends the moment we met. Instead, it felt more like an awkward blind date ― like the moment you see him and realize that although you spoke on the phone a few times, even shared a few laughs and stories, you don’t really know him at all.
We spent the whole day with this family of five. We strolled through an aquarium watching whale sharks, stingrays and grouper. We ate sprinkled ice cream cones and posed for pictures along the Tennessee River. Anthony held their 2-year-old daughter, Stephanie, in his arms, and we gave each child a small gift. We even visited their home, standing in the driveway in the beating sun while their son rode his scooter.
We covered all the expenses of the day. We paid for lunch and tickets to the aquarium and filled their car with gas when asked. We’d been told that this was often how the process worked. Many birth mothers choose adoption because they can’t afford to care for a child; some of them can’t afford a pregnancy either. This family needed our help, and we were more than willing to give it to them, for it was nothing compared to what they wanted to give us. We’d been helping them financially since we received Beth’s medical records in May. We’d paid their rent and gas bill for the month of June.
The truth is that I wanted them to like us and be happy with us. If we paid for their gas, if we made their lives easier, if we did everything they asked with ease and a smile, maybe they’d know just how much we wanted these babies. Maybe they’d see how much we would love them.
After that weekend, after Beth told Robin how wonderful she thought we were, I started to let my guard slip down even more. I let other potential birth mothers pass me by. I forgot to return an email or two. When my cousin called from Nevada about Lacey, a pregnant woman in her church considering adoption, I told her I couldn’t get involved. I thought it was wrong to speak to Lacey when I knew my babies would probably be in my arms by Thanksgiving.
In July, we took a trip to Disney. As we made our way through the parks, I watched my brother-in-law and sister-in-law care for their 2-year-old twins and imagined the next year when we’d return with our own, their fair skin blushing red in the heat, their hair streaked with highlights from a day spent under the sun.
But then I tried to call Beth. Those beeps rang in my ear. The message told me their number was disconnected.
Dread is an awful feeling. It’s not only fear, but not fully sadness either. It’s like a hope that hurts ― a hope that you’re wrong, that the thing you fear won’t be true because it can’t be, that everything will be fine.
I told Anthony and called Robin, and we agreed it could simply mean their phone was turned off. They were struggling financially; it wouldn’t be crazy for a phone bill to go unpaid.
“I doubt it means anything,” Robin said. “These people took the time to spend a weekend with you. I’d be very surprised if they just disappeared.”
Later, as we strolled through SeaWorld, I did my best to remain calm. Robin said she’d do some digging to play it safe. She’d email her network of adoption attorneys with Beth’s name and call if anything came up. But it wasn’t her call I was waiting for. I wanted nothing more than to hear Beth’s voice over the receiver, to hear that deep laugh in my ears and know that all was OK.
We stepped into Penguin Encounter and made our way toward the first exhibit. There were puffins behind the glass wall that stretched before us. A long wooden sign hung behind us with different facts about the birds. If I’d read the sign carefully, maybe I would have learned about puffins’ skill in disguise, how their colors, black and white like cubes of dice, help fool their prey. From below, their white stomachs blend into the bright surface of the water; from above, their black backs blend into the darkness of the depths. Their prey can’t see them coming. Even when they do, once the light hits the puffin the right way, he simply disappears.
My phone buzzed in my pocket.
“Hi, Robin,” I answered.
“Hey, Kimberly. I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
Bodies moved all around me. Men, women, children. The puffins waddled about behind the glass, their orange feet shuffling on cragged rocks. Kids laughed and pointed. Dads snapped photos.
But none of it was really there. All there was was Robin’s voice.
“Two of the attorneys contacted me after I shared Beth’s name,” she said. “The first said he has clients who went to Georgia to meet Beth’s family this June. And, worse, the other told me that he had clients who were scammed by Beth about two years ago. Doesn’t she have a baby around that age?”
“She does. Stephanie.”
I put the pieces together. When Beth was pregnant with Stephanie, she had told some other couple that they could adopt the baby in her belly. She took their money. Maybe she met them on a hot Georgia day. Maybe she ate lunch beside them, toured an aquarium or let them hold her child in their arms.
“Somewhere along the line, someone tipped off Beth. Only hours after she’d called to check in and acted perfectly normal on the phone, she sent Robin an email that claimed she had a change of heart and would not be placing her children with me and Anthony.”
As we unpacked our luggage a few days later, Beth called. She told me she’d had to move because her air conditioning had broken. I didn’t mention what I’d learned about her. I wasn’t ready to let go. Maybe Beth really did think we were wonderful. Maybe, somehow, she really did want us to raise her babies.
After we hung up, we kept investigating. Another attorney emailed Robin and said his former clients had adopted a child from Beth, but she used her legal first name then. And though that couple was lucky enough to bring a baby home, Beth drained them of every penny she could first. Robin called Beth’s doctor and unsuccessfully tried to get more information. And Anthony called the management firm to which we’d written the check for their rent. The call wasn’t answered by a secretary or receptionist. There was no professional greeting. A man casually said hello into the phone, a man whose voice was so familiar, so much like Justin’s, Beth’s husband.
Somewhere along the line, someone tipped off Beth. Only hours after she’d called to check in and acted perfectly normal on the phone, she sent Robin an email that claimed she had a change of heart and would not be placing her children with me and Anthony.
It was too perfect ― too well-timed ― and we knew the real reason. Legally, as long as she changed her mind about the adoption, she did nothing wrong by taking our money.
We tried anyway. Robin called the authorities, but when the local sheriff knocked on the family’s door — the one Anthony and I had stood in front of while Justin showed us his motorcycle — he found only empty rooms inside. The three children were gone. Justin was gone. And Beth, along with the two babies blooming inside her, had disappeared.
In one of the pictures of that weekend in Georgia, Anthony holds Stephanie on his hip. I stand at his other side, my arm weaved through his. She wasn’t our daughter. This wasn’t our family. But before they disappeared, I’d stare at that picture often, at Stephanie’s skinny leg hanging by Anthony’s stomach, my hand draped over his wrist, our crooked smiles, and I could see the family that would be ours, the happy future I wanted so badly. But now, I only saw the picture fading away. I imagined it burning up, the ends curling up in the flames and our faces crumbling as the paper melted away into dust.
Beth was not the first prospective birth mother to ghost us. There was Vanessa, who sent me paragraph-long texts telling me how much she liked us. After three weeks, though, her texts had dwindled to single words and then stopped coming altogether. There was Samantha, who filled out Robin’s paperwork and kept me updated on doctor’s appointments, but stopped answering my calls after a month.
There were many more. Most called only once, without ever taking the next step of calling Robin or returning my texts or emails. Each woman brought hope and expectation, and most ghosted away without warning. But, in truth, these women didn’t owe us anything anyway. They were facing a decision unfathomable to most people. They were allowed to change their minds or find someone else. And they didn’t need to tell us about it.
But Beth. She weaved her thread of lies deep into our skin. She used whatever words she could to earn our trust, only to rip it from us in the end. Every prospective birth mother that came and went broke my heart a little more, each one left me a little less hopeful. But Beth broke me down. I wasn’t sure anymore that it would happen for us. I wasn’t ready to trust another birth mother. I didn’t want to post new pictures to our website or work on the next set of newspaper ads. I only wanted to cry.
Now, when the adoption line rang, I felt tired. I’d answer reluctantly, certain the person on the other end was telling me lies.
Even when the phone rang on Aug. 3, 2011, I had little hope. As it buzzed next to my bed, I felt only annoyed that it was waking me up. When I picked up and learned about the caller’s niece, born three hours earlier, I took lazy notes on a legal pad and imagined an empty bassinet in an Oklahoma hospital, where the baby she spoke of didn’t really exist.
But as it turns out, she did. In a whirlwind of plane tickets and luggage, a rented car and hotel reservations, we made our way over 1,000 miles to meet our daughter. She was in our arms the next day. Now, we’re a happy family of four with a second daughter we brought home four years later.
Adopting can feel a lot like dating. You wait for the phone to ring and for texts to chime. People on the other side sometimes tell you lies. Sometimes, they break your heart so deeply, you’re not sure you’ll recover, or they fade away without even saying goodbye. But, sometimes, you find the right one. And there, in one moment, like when you feel your baby’s body soften as you place her on your shoulder, or look into her small face and choose her name, you just know.
It was all worth it. Every piece of paperwork and awkward phone call. All the hours spent searching for pictures for your portfolio and writing all the right words. Each time you watched a friend, relative or stranger bring her baby home, and your chest filled with secret sadness. Every “no” and every almost, even the ones that made you cry on your partner’s shoulder, even the ones that left you broken. Each one led you to this baby, to this place where there aren’t any ghosts. Here, the ghosts have vanished and can’t haunt you anymore.
Kimberly Rex is a freelance writer who lives in New York with her husband and two daughters. Her work has appeared in SELF, Teen Vogue and Your Teen, among others. You can often find her breaking her new phone, rewatching “Friends” and overanalyzing all things. Follow her on Facebook.