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Children's Voice Article, November/December, 2004

Paternal Instincts

By Neely Tucker

In a place that isn't on any map, in the midst of the Great Depression, in one of the poorest places in America, a man named Clayton Tucker walked out on his wife and infant child.

The place is called Gum Branch, a hamlet on the edge of the Tombigbee National Forest in the low-slung hills of Northeast Mississippi. I know it very well, for that infant was my father. He grew up there, I grew up just a few miles away, and my grandmother, the wife in that unhappy picture, eventually died there.

But the man whose last name I carry, Clayton Tucker, I never knew at all. No one in my family, my father included, ever saw him again. I simply can't call him my grandfather.

I've been thinking about family ties--and what makes children bond to the people who raise them--a good deal recently. Bouncing around the country on a book tour about my cobbled together family, from Miami to San Francisco, from Manhattan to Memphis, I've seen firsthand how the definition of the American family is changing by the day. To paraphrase the slow-witted but prescient Forrest Gump, "Family is as family does."

I should explain.

After Clayton Tucker walked out, my grandmother--a single mother in her teens-married a man named Pete Gazaway. She and Pete bounced around north Mississippi for a decade, my father in tow, in search of jobs. By the time I was born, they were long-since divorced, and she had moved out to Texas, estranged from us. I didn't know any of that growing up. In fact, I scarcely knew her.

But Pete Gazaway raised my father as his own, even after he and my grandmother divorced. The relationship stuck. So when I was a child, it never occurred to me that the man my father called "Daddy" was anything but that. My brother and I called him "Granddaddy Pete" with no sense of irony. I mean, when you're 6, you don't ask your grandparents for ID.

Pete remarried before I was born, to a wonderful woman named Bonnie. She was a short, slightly plump figure in a simple housedress. She was one of 17 children, never learned to drive, and could catch a chicken in the backyard and have it frying in a skillet before you could blink. She was warm when you hugged her, and she hugged you right back. Because my maternal grandmother died when I was just a toddler, and we never saw my paternal grandmother, she was really the only grandmother I ever knew.

Bonnie and Pete lived on a rough-hewn farm off a dirt road about a dozen miles from us. We referred to the place as if it were one word: GranddaddyPetenBonnie's. We spent large parts of each summer at their house, in the morning picking a garden that stretched over three acres, then shelling what we picked in the afternoon. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas were spent at their little wood-frame house; they came to ours for Easter and the Fourth of July.

My parents were very conservative, and the family's dirty laundry wasn't aired, particularly in front of the children. By the time I turned 13 or 14 and finally figured out Pete and Bonnie weren't biologically related to me, it was a distinction without a difference. They were my grandparents, and I knew that because my heart told me so. My father never spoke the name of Clayton Tucker to his children, and he mentioned it only once to my mother when they were dating. Such a position, held over decades of time, impresses me still. It was the inverse corollary that proved Pete's role as father and grandfather, and an unforgettable lesson in what family was and was not, what love was and was not.

But I never realized what an impression Pete and Bonnie had made on me until six years ago, in sub-Saharan Africa, when I met a child who had been abandoned to a fate even more cruel than my father's.

I was a globetrotting foreign correspondent for the Detroit Free Press, based in Zimbabwe. My wife, Vita, an African American from Detroit, and I had decided to volunteer at an orphanage. The nation was at the epicenter of the worldwide AIDS epidemic. Each week, some 500 people were dying of the disease in a country of just 11 million. Abandoned children had become a national crisis.

On our first day in Chinyaradzo Children's Home, in the second crib on the right, I reached down beneath a forest of blankets to pick up a tiny, desperately ill little girl. I looked at the name card above her crib. "Chipo," I said. It was the Shona word for gift.

She had been left to die the day she was born. Someone had left her beneath an acacia tree in the rural areas within hours of birth. Her umbilical cord was still attached at the time. Hundreds of ants feasted on the bloody placental sac. They began to eat her right ear.

By the time she was discovered by a woman passing by on a nearby footpath, she was nearly dead. She was eventually brought into Chinyaradzo, an orphanage in the capital city of Harare. She did not thrive.

At 3 months of age, she weighed just 4.3 pounds. She had had pneumonia three times. She had never smiled or giggled. She was almost completely nonresponsive. Her body was wasting away.

I picked her up, and she seemed to weigh nothing at all. Despite the ravages of her illness, she was stunningly gorgeous. She had big brown eyes with eyelashes so long she seemed to blink in slow motion. She had little toes that looked like little erasers on the end of miniature pencils.

"Hey, pretty girl," I whispered.

I playfully rocked her back and forth. I leaned down and bumped my nose against hers. I got no response at all.

Then she reached out with her hand and, in a wobbling gesture, wrapped it around my little finger.

I cannot explain what happened to me then.

I had worked in any number of war and violent conflict zones for years--Bosnia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Lebanon, Iraq--and had grown a callous over the natural sense of compassion. It was necessary, of course--journalists, like police, firefighters, and paramedics, simply can't get personally involved in each tragedy they witness.

But when Chipo's hand closed over mine, I felt some long-forgotten part of me stir.

"Hey baby," I called to Vita. "Come look at this little punkin." Vita was as smitten as I was.

Chipo's health was disastrous--she was the sickest child in an orphanage where 18 infants or toddlers would die that year--and there was no guarantee she would live another week. And although we loved her at first sight, adoptions by foreign nationals were all but illegal in Zimbabwe. As we stood in the orphanage that day, the odds of Chipo growing up as our child seemed something that Vegas wouldn't bother to calculate.

But I remembered my father being abandoned, and how he was raised by a man who wasn't his biological father. I remembered the depth of love I had for Bonnie, and the long summers we spent at their house, and there was no doubt in my heart--this was our child.

We were allowed to take Chipo home for the weekend, a sort of trial foster arrangement, and it was terrifying. Her breath was as faint as mist and as hard to hear. She was so ill, we had to feed her with a syringe. She was so tiny, we had to bathe her in the sink.

We took her back to the orphanage on Sunday night, as required. The next morning, I flew to the Democratic Republic of Congo to cover a rebellion. Vita stopped by the orphanage after dropping me off at the airport.

Chipo was going into cardiac arrest. Vita did not hesitate. She picked her up and ran for the best private clinic in town. Chipo was rushed into the intensive card ward and placed in an oxygen tent. The doctors gave no guarantee she would survive the night.

But with Vita always at her side, Chipo somehow hung on. Four days later, she was still alive. The doctor, who was touched by Vita's devotion, asked if we would consider taking Chipo into our home, because to return such an ill child to the orphanage was tantamount to a death sentence.

Vita said yes, of course.

It would be nice if that were the end of the story, but it's actually the beginning. For months, we fought to keep Chipo alive. She smiled for the first time when she was 6 months old. Then she began to eat and chew and chew and eat. Her weight doubled, then quadrupled. More than a year later, we would get the best news of all--she was not HIV-positive. She was going to live.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe began to fall apart. The government of President Robert Mugabe, losing popularity after 20 years in power, began to look for scapegoats rather than lose elections. His first enemies were independent Zimbabwean journalists and foreign correspondents. His administration deemed us to be persona non grata, or outright enemies of the state. We were all called in for questioning. My phone line was tapped. Two local journalists were abducted by the military, tortured, and finally released. Others were arrested; still others were beaten or received death threats.

In Zimbabwe, the law does not allow foreign nationals to adopt children, so in this atmosphere, the only way we could make Chipo our child was to persuade the national minister of child welfare--a presidential cabinet position--to personally sign an exemption to the law.

We fought for 18 months to make that happen, finally managing to leave the country eight days before the elections that marked Zimbabwe's collapse. All foreign correspondents were later forced from the country.

Today, we live in Washington, DC. I hung up my spurs as a foreign correspondent. I'm now a staff writer at the Washington Post, staying close to home so I can be with Chipo every day. Vita, a paralegal and a research librarian by training, was so moved by her experiences at the orphanage that she changed careers. She now does development work in East Africa for World Vision, a nonprofit religious charity--now she's the one who spends time traveling the back roads of rural Africa. Chipo is a bright, effervescent 6-year-old with dreadlocks.

She is still the most beautiful human being I know.

My parents, who had been put off by the interracial nature of our marriage, changed when Chipo came home with us. My father, who had grown up with the sting of being abandoned, fell in love with his granddaughter immediately.

He dotes on her now, as does my mother, and Chipo loves the week or two she spends alone with them on the farm each summer in Mississippi.

She calls them "Big Daddy and Granny," as is fitting, I think. It reminds me of my own grandparents, who taught me the meaning of what family really is, a language that is only spoken in the terrain of the heart.

Neely Tucker is a staff writer with the Washington Post and author of Love in the Driest Season, the story of the struggles he and his wife encountered while adopting Chipo.
Love in the Driest Season
$23.95, Crown Publishers
ISBN 0609609769
A paperback edition will be published Spring 2005.

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