But Then Came A Fifth
We didn’t always have a family of five. It was once only two. When my older sister came it was three, and when I came it finally became four. That was it. We were only a family of four. I liked our family of four. I always thought that four was a nice number for a family.
But then came a fifth, and that fifth wasn’t even ours to keep. She belonged to somebody else. I remember our car skidding to a stop in front of a dimly lit building I’d never seen before. The only light came from one single door in the corner, almost beckoning us to come in. She was only four months old at the time and felt like a fragile dandelion that could be blown by the slightest breeze.
Mom said she was only supposed to stay the night. That night.
I remember sitting on our big, leather couch watching this giggling mess of a baby trying to roll over on the floor. I wondered what made her giggle so much. I wondered what made me smile when seeing this baby filled with uncontainable laughter.
Mom said she was only supposed to stay this week. That week.
I remember walking through the bread aisle in Publix and being met with the uncomfortable feeling of someone watching my back. Every person in every aisle reacted the same. Their one glance turning into that one stare. She was brown and we were white. Every one of their drawn-out looks was a reminder, that she wasn’t ours to keep. We continued on past the bakery and its sugar-filled smells. Each pastry was a work of art. Yet among the many intricate designs was a simple black and white cookie. Although that simple pastry was made of frosting and dough, not glass, I felt as if my family’s reflection was on display for everyone to see.
Mom said she was only supposed to stay this month. That month.
I remember signing up for the childcare at my church, just so she wouldn’t cry every time we dropped her off. I wondered what made her cry so hard. Did she think we wouldn’t ever come back? Did she think we were leaving her?
Mom said she didn’t know how long she was staying. I hoped forever.
I liked the number five. I thought that five was a nice number for a family. I wanted a family of five.
Mom said we were just going on a trip to Colorado. Just a trip.
I remember asking “Why can’t she come with us?” and Mom replying “She’s too little to go on a plane.” I didn’t argue. Mom was always right. Mom was always right unless she wanted to be wrong.
Wrong. I remember sitting in the fake leather seats in the congested airplane. The air was filled with the sound of high-pitched crying. Looking down the aisle, I could see a small infant, no older than four months, wailing in her mother’s arms. I glanced back at Mom, studying her face. Before I could ask that simple question once more, she answered.
“She went back.” Mom said. The word back seemed hard to say in her mouth. A word that I might have written a thousand times over without it truly having meaning. She went back. She belonged to somebody else. Not us.
I remember that night in Colorado. My white, hotel sheets had been darkened from my tears. The cold, wet feeling left on my pillow that wouldn’t ever dry. We were only a family of four. I hated the number four.
For an entire year, we went without hearing from or seeing her. Our four-person family didn’t feel quite right, like a car with four wheels, yet it was still missing its steering wheel. Our even-numbered family somehow felt odd.
For one of the first times in my life, I kneeled down onto the carpeted flooring in my bedroom and prayed. For the first time, I didn’t fight the tears in my eyes. I let them roll down my cheeks and onto the floor. For the first time, I let out everything.
Why couldn’t she stay? Why couldn’t she look like us? Why couldn’t she… Why couldn’t she…
My hands gripped harder onto my scuffed knees. Each tear tore through me.
And I prayed one simple sentence. Just let me see her again.
As usual, we went to church on Saturday. As usual, we would walk by the playground. It all felt like an as usual Saturday. But then came the fifth, running into the playground. There she was. She was there. But as I came and sat with her on the playground, I saw no recognition in her face.
“Do you know my name?” I smiled trying to say without letting the tears fall. The little brown girl with afro hair shook her head, and then went back to the slides on the playground. Up and down. Up and down. I couldn’t help but watch, my eyes following her movements. Up and down. Up and down.
When I met her once again in the childcare room at church, I couldn’t help but feel overjoyed. Now there was a slight bit of recognition in her face. For me, that was enough. I was surrounded by children, yet I truly cared for only one.
Week after week, I held her in my arms every Saturday. Only on Saturday. I loved Saturday.
Mom said she’s coming back.
Back. The word’s meaning had changed so drastically. She was coming back home. This time I promised to hold onto her tight and never let go.
A year went by - I had gotten used to her monthly visits with the mother, and the difference in the way she acted when she came back home.
Another year - I had gotten used to her father’s letters from jail, which she couldn’t yet read, and his drawings of Mickey Mouse.
Another year - I had gotten used to her funny little questions, “Mommy, when I get older will I be white?”
And on May 26th of that same year, Mom said she would stay. And I knew she meant forever.