“The Nature of Our Emergency” by Amie Heasley

Thirty-some minutes was too long not to lay eyes on her, to witness the rise and fall of her chest.

Kidnapping, carbon-monoxide poisoning, domestic violence, assault, murder, terrorism, hostage situation, trapped beneath the weight of what? Faulty Ikea dresser? Great-grandma’s antique credenza? We don’t have earthquakes or hurricanes in Michigan, but that specific part of the building, that very ceiling of that very apartment could’ve collapsed from minimal seismic activity or straight-line winds. Ava could be buried beneath debris. She could be struggling to free herself from somebody’s firm grip.

Earlier on a Saturday morning than our daughter would’ve preferred, my husband dropped her off to undergo a cultural rite of passage: hair braiding. Undergo equals sitting anywhere from two to five hours while the young woman I’ll call E strong-arms Ava’s hair into an amazing work of manageable beauty.

My husband and I had taken full advantage of E’s gift for about two years. We’d celebrated her recent acceptance into our alma mater, offered her advice regarding coping with a manipulative boss and living with an annoying roommate, held her dependable gaze, thanked her for her patience and guidance on black hair care, opened our refrigerator and our hearts to her. I’ve no idea what they’d charge in a salon, but we’d always paid her more than she requested, hadn’t we? Not that any amount of money would have mattered in that moment. 

The moment our daughter was gone.

“Who is my real mom?” A drop in our daughter’s flood of questions. This one asked five months after my husband called the police on the college student who braided Ava’s hair.

She’d asked right at the start of our bedtime routine: books and “petting,” a term of endearment for me rubbing circles on her back, culminating with twelve kisses on the cheek. While the number of kisses has reached the height of twenty, it’s never dipped below eleven.

“Me,” I said without hesitation, and reminded Ava of the role of her other mother, her birth mother. The mother who described her hair in the adoption paperwork as “thick, wavy and curly,” just like our daughter’s.

An innocent query, but that word. Real. Here was a question my friends wouldn’t have to hear spilling from the mouths of their babes. They wouldn’t have to face navigating any Adoption Q&A with their children.

What does it mean to be somebody’s real mom or dad? 

I won’t deny I’ve felt like an impostor, and not only because I’ve pulled every rabbit out of my hat, every bright scarf from my sleeve to bend my six going on fourteen-year-old to my will. Or at least persuade her to put on her shoes, corral her unruly herd of stuffed animals, eat anything leafy or green, or go to goddamn bed for the love of goddamn humanity. 

As an adoptive parent of a child of another race you can’t stop “different” or “less than” or “fraud” from crowding your conscience. When you’re a white mother in the throes of dragging your black screaming, punching and kicking toddler out of Target, you feel judgment upon thee in The Biblical Sense.

So what parent hasn’t faced the gauntlet of their kid’s public tantrums? Most, however, also happen to resemble their children, even if only in faint brushstrokes. 

When we’d decided to adopt, my husband and I leapt into the deep end arms open wide to all races. Along with the standard prep, scrutiny and education, that also required having to attend a transracial adoption training class.

“Love and full membership”…“individuality”…“race-conscious society”…“belonging”…“racial pride”…“birth culture”…“heritage.” We did our best to soak up key words and phrases from the agency’s adapted “Transracially Adopted Children’s Bill of Rights.” A single class to cover the daily ins and outs, the ups and downs, the pitfalls and the perks of raising a child of another race in a world that whitewashes racism.

After eight years of “trying,” we stepped arm in arm from the shade of our comfort zone to become Conspicuous Adoptive Parents. Twenty-four hour notice of Ava’s arrival, and the instruction manual for Raising a Child of Another Race was plum out of stock at Babies “R” Us.

What does it mean to be somebody’s mom and dad? What does it mean to be the white mom and dad of a black daughter?

White parents teach their white kids to say please and thank you, to wash their hands after going to the bathroom and before eating, to use a fork, ride a bike and tie their shoes, to recite and print the letters of the alphabet, to clean up their Legos and put the caps back on their markers, to wield words, not fists. White parents of white kids don’t have to give them “The Talk.” Not the birds and the bees; the conversation that if not delivered and taken to heart could result in the incarceration or death of their child. 

I’m ashamed, but I’m not going to lie. “The Talk” played a significant role in our stating a clear preference to adopt a baby girl. It was intimidating to consider the responsibility of rearing a child of any race in our middle-class home in southwest Michigan. It was terrifying to consider the responsibility of rearing a black son in any class of home in Anywhere, USA. 

This decision gave us Ava, and for that, I’ll never apologize. Still, the fierceness of my love doesn’t change the fact that she’s black and we’re white. As much as I want to navigate and shield, I must also brace myself for Ava’s journey growing up black. A towering order for a mother who couldn’t quite manage her daughter’s hair without hiring somebody.

Profiling. Institutional racism. Trumpism. Media distortion and bias. White nationalism. Injustice. Microagressions. Uninvited touching. Confederate flags. Grown men who gun down children for wearing hoodies or waving toy pistols. How would I prepare Ava for a lifetime reality I’d never glimpse?

Around Ava’s age I fell asleep beneath some hanging bolts of fabric. Or was it a clothing rack—fiftypercent off slacks and blouses? Or was it my husband? We didn’t know each other back then, but both of us went MIA as kids in the same small town on some innocuous day of shopping with our mothers. The residual specifics are fuzzy, maybe because fear didn’t freeze the details of our temporary disappearing acts. I don’t recall either of us being afraid. Our moms though. I’m betting our separate vanishings scared them shitless. They’d remember everything in slow-motion crystal clarity.

Yet our most concrete memories are fickle, too. Eleven months later and I can’t quite picture what Ava wore the day she vanished for thirty-three and a half minutes, give or take. I’m certain I watched my husband’s chugging breath—tiny clouds of panic rising and dispersing in the chilly November air. I remember his knuckles, red and swollen like he’d been in a bar fight.

What did the emergency dispatcher say after my husband said he’d break into E’s apartment? Please don’t do that, sir? Was it something more reassuring? Movie melodramatic? Help is on the way! No, it was measured and calm, but firm about the B&E, as in, “no-no, sir, that’s not a good idea.”

The general facts as I remember them:

  • E didn’t have access to a car for the day. Could she braid Ava’s hair at her apartment?
  • We left our daughter at E’s at nine-thirty a.m.
  • At eleven-fifty a.m., E texted she’d finished.
  • Ten minutes later we arrived at E’s apartment to pick up our daughter.
  • Nobody answered the buzzer.
  • My husband shrugged; E mentioned it’d been malfunctioning.
  • Nobody went in or out of the building. We waited.
  • My husband texted E. We waited.
  • Nobody went in or out of the building.
  • My husband called E. The call went straight to voicemail. We waited.
  • My husband told me to stay put; he’d check around back, maybe get their attention through the slider or a window.
  • I waited alone, shivering but unwavering. (This was nothing more than a minor inconvenience, a blip on the radar of our ho-hum Saturday.)
  • Nobody went in or out of the building.
  • My mind raced. Doesn’t anybody else live here? Nobody returning from brunch? Heading out for milk or cigarettes? Taking the dog out for a stroll? Did they allow pets there? Sure, they did. E had a miniature terrier, a toy Yorkie named something or other. Sweets? Pooky? Coco? What was that ankle biter’s name anyway? The dog growled and snapped whenever I tried to pet it.
  • Why wasn’t E answering our buzzes, texts, calls, my husband’s tapping, knocking, pounding, pounding, pounding?
  • Where was Ava?

A heartbeat away from dreadlocks. The gist of what was said the first time we had our three-year-old daughter’s hair braided.

I like dreadlocks, but that comment. Yeah, we were white. Yeah, the woman about to braid Ava’s hair was black. But she’d caught our daughter post-bath. But our daughter didn’t have one shred of patience left for one millisecond more of our pulling and combing. But our daughter had been ours since she was two days old, and by some miracle, two white folks had avoided having to shave her head due to dreadlocks, wads of chewed gum or squirrel nests. 

But, but, but.

This was a year or so before we’d met E. Ava’s inaugural braider was both talented and unreliable. When it comes to black hair, I learned fast to bow to the all-mighty power of the braid. Not having to detangle, comb and fuss with Ava’s hair for anywhere between four and eight weeks was akin to angels breaking into song. The gentle rattling of the rainbow of barrettes dangling from the ends of her braids was a homing device tethered to my heart.

Three things not as divine: 1) forcing your toddler to sit for evermore 2) wiping tears rolling down her chubby cheeks and 3) telling her you know it hurts, honey, but it’ll be over soon.

Braiding minimizes breakage and promotes healthy hair growth. It’s also an ancient grooming technique. It’s also a way to teach our daughter the importance of caring for her hair. It’s also a way to connect her to her birth culture. It’s also a way to show pride in her blackness.

It’s also painful. Expecting your kid to endure pain on the regular for a hair care regimen. Here was another reality I couldn’t grasp.

Have I mentioned Ava’s hair is abundant? Depending on the time of day, the style, her activity level or the alignment of the planets and stars, it can be dense, coarse, dull, soft, defined, woolly, tidy, brittle, tangled, dry, strong, smooth, glistening and wild. It is a magnificent force that demands and draws awe.

Most days I might wash and throw my hair into a damp bun. It grows curlier and frizzier with age, and when the weather’s humid, it’s often hidden under a baseball cap. Nobody takes notice if I don’t comb, straighten or otherwise tame it. Nobody says I should “fix it.” Nobody places a finger on it without my permission. To my recollection, no kid has ever laughed at my hair or pronounced it ugly. My hair is part of me and who I am, but it makes no political statements whether braided, ponytailed or in its free and natural state. 

To the contrary, the mass of tight curly wonder that crowns our daughter’s head is a constant topic of whispers, advice, fondling and opinion, well-meaning and not.

He was on the phone but kept his distance. First, I assumed he’d reached E. Next, I realized the dialogue seemed long-winded. He’d been pacing too much. 

“I called nine, one, one,” he said.

There I stood, the pillar of motherhood strength and duty, barred from E’s apartment entryway. I replied with what not why. Not what have you done, but my God, what are we going to do? 

The cop pulled up after my husband’s second call, the one where the dispatcher advised him against jimmying a window, smashing through the glass with what? His bare hands? A random crowbar discarded in the parking lot? We bowled in a league of hacks every other weekend. A twelve- or fourteen-pounder left in our trunk might do the trick.

He could hear the incessant barking of E’s dog. Darkness through the window. No movement. No glow of cartoons on the TV or the iPad cast aside and left running. My iPad. If I had to listen to the theme song to Paw Patrol one…more…time. Paw Patrol, Paw Patrol, we’ll be there on the double! How often had I told Ava to turn the stupid thing down or shut…it…off. She should take in the world around her for a change. 

Wherever Ava was now, was she able to drink in her surroundings? Observation could be key to her survival. Screens. A blessing and a curse. Had we taught our daughter how to size up anything? Intuit by looking, smelling, hearing, tasting?

What is your daughter’s name?

When was she born?

How tall is she?

How much does she weigh?

What is her eye color?

What is her hair color?

What is your name?

What is your birth date?

How long have you known the person she’s with?

What is her name?

How old is she?

Do you trust her? 

The officer doled out the necessary questions per standard operating procedure. Between pleading with him to get us inside E’s apartment, my husband gave him the necessary data. That’s when the nature of our emergency struck me. We were filling out a missing person’s report and the missing person was our daughter.

Seconds tormented with their predictable, confounded ticking—Paw Patrol, Paw Patrol, whenever you’re in trouble!—and then, poof, ta-da, on the double! There our Ava was behind a man we hadn’t met in the passenger seat, safe and sound in the back of a car E said she didn’t have for the day. My husband threw his arms around me. His eyes welled.

“It’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK.”

What else can I say other than this chant wound up being accurate? Ava was okay. E was okay. We were all wholly, triumphantly okay. 

I should’ve thanked that cop or shook his hand. I can’t say I mumbled so much as a halfhearted goodbye. I can say with confidence I felt the drumming of my heart. I can also say E said “I’m sorry,” and we said sorry, too.

What were we sorry for? The older we grow, the easier we forgive. Saying sorry. A blessing and a curse. 

My husband waited outside with our daughter. I followed E into her apartment to collect Ava’s hair products and Lamby, the ratty security blanket with a lamb’s head she dragged everywhere. I paid E and blurted something stock: “This was two-thousand seventeen…we had no idea where either of them were…anything could’ve happened.” She said she understood. We were the parents.

E was right. We were the parents. But what kind of parents were we? A mother and a father at the mercy of the woman who “fixed” Ava’s hair. We didn’t even know E’s last name.

We did reach out to her again, two weeks later with a text that might’ve cracked the door to discovering what really happened that day. Why did E put our daughter in the back of a car without a booster seat to run a supposed errand without our permission?

Why was her phone off?

Why did she say she didn’t have a car when she did?

Did her boyfriend need a ride home from work? Or was it some friend’s house, like Ava told us?

Was he her boyfriend?

What was his first name?

What was his last name?

How long had she known him?

Did she trust him?

Did E think we called the cops on her because of the color of her skin?

Did we call the cops on E because of the color of her skin?

Were we acting on gut instinct? Or helicopter parenting?

Did E want to braid Ava’s hair any longer?

Did we want E to braid Ava’s hair any longer?

A month or so went by and E finally got around to replying. She said if Ava needed her hair braided, she was available at such and such a day and such and such a time. Not a syllable or an emoji about what transpired at her apartment. No hint of regret.

Her offer arrived too late. We’d let go of most of our questions and moved on to somebody new.

It’s October, days away from Ava’s seventh birthday. The leaves blaze with oranges and yellows and reds, and yet summer’s fever refuses to break.

The kind and considerate woman in her early thirties who now braids our daughter’s hair has a little boy. Sometimes she brings her son over to keep our daughter company. Sometimes they watch Paw Patrol to pass the minutes and hours, but more often it’s Johnny Test, or groan, SIS vs BRO. We two mothers shake our heads and laugh. Neither of us understands what’s fun about watching kids on YouTube make slime or play video games.

For me, there is joy in watching the rhythm of this woman’s steady hands, and there is relief in her working her magic on Ava’s hair inside the bubble of my living room. I’ve accepted I’m not less of a mother for hiring somebody to give our daughter’s hair the care and expertise it deserves.

Born into white privilege, I also accept I’ve had and acted on racial biases. I can’t speak for my husband, but I also believe we didn’t call the police on E because of her race. Perception be damned. We were protecting our daughter. That’s our job, black and white.

Ava’s hair braiding must take place at our house, with me or my husband staying on premise. Besides the establishment of this simple rule, there’s another small consolation. It came to me in the middle of the night, trivial but explicit.

Teddy. The name of E’s yapping dog.

Amie Heasley earned her MFA in fiction from Western Michigan University. You can find some of her work online or in the pages of Juked, Fiction Southeast, great weather for MEDIA, Mikrokosmos, Stoneboat Literary Journal, Literary Orphans and Monkeybicycle. She lives and loves in Kalamazoo with her daughter and husband.