HOME PLACE - Picking up pieces to restore a child's life

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Editor's note: This is the first of a series of weekly columns Sheila Hagar is writing to take a look at prenatal injury through drug and alcohol use and the long-term effects on her family.

I'm sitting here at my desk with my daughter's list in front of me. It's been in line-of-sight for days and days, willing me to unfold the truth.

Her printing is beautiful -- rounded letters sit neatly on the notebook paper's lines, nearly romantic in their curves and swooshes.

One side of the page is labeled "good," while the other is titled "bad."

If only this was that simple. Good or bad, black or white, true or false.

But brain damage from prenatal drug and alcohol use is never cut and dried.

Some of my child's phrases are underlined ... she wanted to make sure I wrote those out loud and clear. And all these points, my daughter decided on her own. From a place of real torture at times.

Let me assure you, there have been months of discussion, consultation with the family counselor and other professionals. Tears were shed over a hot pink comforter as the cruelty of other children spilled out in a finally-released torrent of pain.

Mostly, however, there was a pleading in my child's beautiful gray-green eyes for the understanding of others. Thus, I am writing the story I've always said was not mine to tell, but that of my children.

This is a narrative, a history, meant to be written by someone who can cobble words together perfectly, weaving in and out of past, present and future. Someone who has perspective of quite some distance and no emotional ties.

But you're stuck with me and my viewpoint is up close and personal. And those emotional ties twist me up in knots at times.

And because I can't think how else to do this, let's start at the beginning.

You know I have six children. One son and five daughters have been the foundation of many columns for just shy of the past 13 years every other Tuesday in this newspaper. What you may not know is that half of my kiddos started life elsewhere, in an another mother's body.

There is no shame in adoption, not a single aspect of it. I believe that with every fiber of my being. However, society often gives off quite another vibe. You can hear it in the thinly-veiled questions, posed as interest but pointed just enough so as to dig out something, anything. You can see it in the sympathetic nod with the cocked head, arms loosely crossed and the brow furrowed slightly with concern.

Worse than that is the cheerful affirmation. "Oh, those children are so lucky to be in your family!"

I decided right from the beginning that how we became a family was not for the consumption of others. It seemed like the right thing to do, to fence in our fairly public family life with a set-in-stone boundary. I figured it would stay that way always, and that my youngest babies would pack up their birth stories along with their high school memorabilia when they leave home for the final time.

Circumstances beyond my family's control have changed the course of that plan, however.

Let me explain, in this column and others to follow.

The story begins in 1996 when we brought twin toddlers into our family and home. We had never planned on adding to our family, not really, despite a primal yearning to have more children.

Yet in a matter of four months, we had gone from hearing that these tiny girls needed a permanent family to buying diapers, sippy cups and more pink and purple clothing than any closet should have to hold.

Two years later we welcomed their baby sister.

Life was chaotic on every level. Although our son was grown and out of the house, our oldest daughters were plenty young enough to feel the impact of doubling our family size. As were their parents.

Every activity has to revolve around the logistics of a large group of people living and doing things with one another. All events took twice as long, accompanied by twice as much noise and definitely triple -- at the least -- hurdles to jump.

One twin was especially challenging from the first minutes I was her mommy. "This," I told my husband, "is perfect. The strong-willed daughter gets paired up with the steel-spined mom."

This wasn't my first rodeo with a stubborn girl-child and I rarely flinched in those days. Problems? I had answers, fortified with 20 years of parenting.

Eventually, however, I didn't.

My usual consistency, schedule, structure, no-nonsense style of parenting was tested almost every minute of every day by this little girl. Her days, our days, were spent doing a specific dance, meant to ward off confrontation and stomp out fires at the same time.

Our maneuvers failed much of the time. Failed big time.

Her twin, on the other hand, was often too quiet and too compliant. As she approached kindergarten, the skills I had seen develop in my other children appeared late or not at all.

We had been told the twins were "special needs" before adoption, but we also noticed the state of Oregon likes to apply that label liberally to any child coming out of a dysfunctional situation.

And, oh, how I can draw a picture of what this particular dysfunction looked like. But that's one of my daughter's requests: "Can you please not talk about how poor my birth parents were and where they lived?"

In her mind, those two components were the biggest issues. I hope she never learns the whole truth.

So I won't talk about it. But it was a situation that simply closing my eyes and seeing my children living in as infants makes me want to retch. Still.

We were soon to find out, however, that miserable start in life was the least of my daughters' problems.

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