Alison is nearly three years old. She was adopted last year by a single woman, Shannon, who is a campus minister at a Jesuit college. Both mother and adopted daughter have curly blond hair, round blue eyes, and fair skinthey look so alike that most people assume they are biologically related. This impression is reinforced when Alison talks. A verbally precocious child, she has taken on some of her adoptive mother’s facial expressions and verbal patterns. Shannon has been bringing Allie to our H.I.V. clinic for monthly appointments since the child was 10 months old. (Their names have been changed to protect their privacy.)
My first impression of Shannon was of an attractive woman in her mid-20’s with a clean-cut appearance and an open, trusting face. She was wearing a striped, pink button-down shirt, crisp khaki shorts, white socks and sneakers. There was a small gold cross around her neck. I remember thinking that she looked like a kindergarten teacher. She seemed so young, so cheerful and so naïve that I thought, Does she really know what she’s getting into, adopting a child with H.I.V. disease? I soon learned, however, that Shannon was 34 years old, that she worked as a pastoral counselor at a nearby college and that she fully understood the implications of adopting a child with H.I.V. Over time, I came to realize that Shannon is a remarkable young woman who is anything but naïvea woman who is possessed of a profound spiritual centeredness.
Shannon first heard about Alison when the child was three months old. Alison’s mother, Tamara, had been caught hiding behind a cupboard with Alison in her arms during a drug sweep. Tamara was sent to jail, and the child was turned over to her maternal grandmother. But the grandmother worked from 4 P.M. till 11 P.M. in a local convenience store. It was hard for her to find friends or neighbors to watch the child, and there was no money to pay for babysitters. Shannon offered to babysit Alison for free. At first this was only one day a week; then it became a day and an overnight; then it was for several days and nights at a time. As Shannon grew increasingly fond of the child, she wondered who in Alison’s family would be able to provide her with a permanent home.
For several months Shannon shared Alison with the baby’s grandmother, mother and other relatives on both sides. But family members proved unable to care for her with any consistency. Allie’s mother was on drugs and in and out of prison, and her father was in jail for assault and drug-related offenses. When her grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, it seemed that there was no one in the family who could care for the child. Shannon began to feel that perhaps she was meant to adopt Alison. But she needed to know whether this was indeed God’s will. The grandmother, who by then was quite ill, agreed to put Alison in foster care while Shannon decided what she should do. This took 10 daysabout the length of a Jesuit one-week retreat. It was, Shannon recalls, a very hard, long 10 daysbut by the end she felt convinced that God intended her to adopt the child. I thought, if I don’t do this, I won’t be complete. I need her as much as she needs me. And I feel that God decided this a long time ago.
Shannon then approached Allie’s grandmother, who agreed to the adoption but warned her that Tamara would never let go of her baby. So Shannon went to talk to Tamara, who was in a psychiatric hospital after attempting suicide in prison. The first meeting of these two mothers was as surprising for Shannon as it was dramatic: I walked into her room, says Shannon, and told her who I was, and she started to cry. And she said to me right then, I know I’m never going to be able to raise Allie. I can’t even keep myself away from drugs, so how can I take care of a baby? I want you to take her.’
Shannon was stunned by the speed with which this young woman was able to trust her. She felt this was a sign not only that she was supposed to take on Alison’s care, but also that she was to help Tamara. Tamara told Shannon about her own past growing up in a welfare family in the projects with an alcoholic mother and an abusive father. She described how she became involved with street drugs when she ran away from home at 13, how her life had revolved around drugs ever since, and how she found out she had H.I.V. only when at age 18 she give birth to Alison. At the end of this long, sad story Tamara said to Shannon, I don’t think there’s a way out of this for me, but there’s a way out for Alison, and it’s you, and I want her to have that. Ever since this first meeting, relations between the two mothers have been very warm. Tamara seems to feel that Shannon is a trusted friend, and Shannon has promised to be there for her.
So with Tamara’s approval, Shannon was appointed Alison’s legal guardian. During this time Shannon received support not only from prayer and meditation, but also from other people: from her family; from a student friend who could watch Allie during the day; from her co-workers; and from the college, which promised to pay a substantial part of the adoption fees. To Shannon, this affirmation from friends and family confirmed what I had been experiencing in prayer. It was God’s way of saying, You’re on track here; it’s okay.’ She also found that her new status as a single mom made her a very visible presence on her campus. She observes, Most people think, here’s a single woman adopting a child with AIDS whom she’ll lose in 10 years, and they think I’m nuts! But I’m not alone. God is very much a part of my everyday life and when it’s God’s will, I have this deep sense of consolation where, with each step, I feel that this is what I need to do.
It took a full year after Shannon was appointed Alison’s legal guardian for the adoption to be finalized. It was a difficult year, a year of uncertainty. Shannon continued to arrange visits between Alison and her biological family, as instructed by the court. The grandmother maintained that her own health was improving, and that when she recovered fully, she would be taking Alison back to live with her. And Tamara seemed to have changed her mind about the adoption. Over a period of several weeks, she would call Shannon several times a day, excitedly telling her that she was fine now, and that she was going to have Alison returned to her.
Less than a month later, however, the whole situation changed. Tamara broke house arrest and returned to the streets as a prostitute to support her drug habit. Alison’s father signed the adoption papers, recognizing that Tamara was unlikely ever to be a mother to his child and realizing that he was unable to care for an H.I.V.-infected child by himself. When Tamara finally returned to the grandmother’s home, she signed, too. So Alison became Shannon’s daughter.
Throughout, Shannon has remained on good terms with Tamara, feeling that God means her to be a part of Tamara’s life as well as Alison’s. The two women became even closer after the grandmother’s death. Shannon reassured Tamara that she could continue visits with Alison, insisting only that Tamara be drug-free and that contact be regular, not sporadic. But in fact Tamara rarely saw the child. She would schedule visits and then not show up. She would make phone calls, ostensibly to find out how Alison was doing, but soon turning the conversation back to herself and her own problems. Shannon came to feel that the only thing she really could do for Tamara was listen.
Despite Shannon’s support, Tamara’s future looks dim. She does not take her H.I.V. medications regularly, and she seems unable to break her addiction to heroin and cocaine. She continues to return to prostitution for weeks or sometimes months to support her drug habit. Alison’s future, on the other hand, appears good. She has responded well to H.I.V. medications and remains in good healthso far. We all know that Alison’s staying healthy is a race between the progression of her HIV disease and the development of new medications that can keep the virus in check. But we all believe, as well, that there are other, higher forces at work in the lives of this small family.
I’ve talked with Shannon many times about her decision to adopt Alison, once while visiting at her college. I find that I’m deeply moved by her storyespecially by the simplicity and depth of her description of prayer. I need quiet time, she tells me, and if I don’t have it, I get nutty inside. I just feel disconnected, and then I don’t have time to be grateful for the day, or to say to God, if I’ve made a mistake, Look, I really screwed this up, and I need help with it’. For her, prayer is a dimension of her relationship with God: It’s like spending time with your best friend, and if you don’t do it, you miss it.
But Shannon intermingles homely descriptions like these with such phrases as a time of discernment and the spirits of consolation and desolation, alerting me to the way her prayer life draws on the rigorous and methodical spiritual practice of St. Ignatius Loyola. Each year Shannon goes on a 10-day silent retreat, and in her work she is responsible for student retreats involving the learning and practice of Ignatian spirituality.
When I press Shannon to explain how the experience of prayer confirms some decision or act, even asking outright how she is able to distinguish God’s wishes from her own, her answer once again blends the language of St. Ignatius with modern American colloquialisms. When it’s God’s will, I feel a deep sense of peace, a deep sense of consolation. But when it’s only me, I don’t have that sense of peace, and it’s like one of those days when you have too much caffeine and crummy food and not enough rest and you feel like you’re just spinning your wheelswell, that’s what it feels like inside. It’s like I’m holding on too tight, and I’m just squeezing any goodness out of what I’m doing. When I let that go and I let it be ours’ rather than mine,’ then it feels right, and I know I can trust that. This is a prayer form I’ve been trained in, which is to really pay attention to feelings of consolation and desolation.
As a teenager, Shannon wanted to become a nun in order to be closer to God. In a sense, her life now can be seen as a fulfillment of the ideals and passions of a deeply religious teenager. Alison has made my relationship with God more intimate. She’s right thereit’s like God’s creation right out there in front of me. Of course I have no illusions that Alison will have a long life. But I wake up every day, and there she is, and she gives me a kiss, and we get to start all over again. It’s just wonderful. It makes life more precious. We say our prayers at night and every night we say: God, thank you for today; and bless us with another day.’ And that’s how we live.