I became a mother in the back of a taxi cab.
The taxi was a late-model, jacked-up Honda, its plush chairs covered with delicate white doilies. Vietnam traffic dared not impede my driver, a silently brooding young man who weaved between Cyclos and motorcycles weighed down by fruit, vegetables, live chickens, entire families. I sat tensely in the backseat, holding my son, wondering into what I had just gotten myself.
Just, of course, isn’t quite right. After all, we had been planning our adoption for almost a year. We had known about our son, Benjamin Quan, for four months, his picture having popped up on our computer screen in early May 2002, as we were despairing of ever receiving a referral. Despite a medical history fraught with question marks, the scrawny little boy named Do Minh Quan claimed our love the moment we saw his picture; we were endeared by his stick legs poking out from blue pajamas and an enormous diaper—enormous, of course, because Benjamin was so small. Without question, we knew this was our son.
In late September of the same year, we held our slowly growing baby in his second-story orphanage room. While his paperwork was being finalized, we fed Benjamin Quan a bottle, changed his clothes. I grinned and nodded to his caregiver, since I could not speak Vietnamese, and she knew little English; my smile was the only way I could thank her for spending time with my son during his three-month hospital stay, for nurturing my son, for preparing him to be loved by these strangers, his soon-to-be parents.
For three hours in the orphanage room, I felt more like Benjamin’s babysitter than his mother. And I felt fine. Then, after the decrees were signed, after the caregiver said her goodbyes, I climbed into the taxi, gunning its engines at the orphanage gates. Benjamin was handed to me, as was his now-lukewarm bottle, and we were off.
I was, beyond a doubt, a mother. I no longer felt fine.
As the taxi weaved its way toward Ho Chi Minh City, I looked down at the infant-sized tempest crying on my lap. The taxi horn’s constant bleating did little to quell my nerves, nor did the large delivery trucks careening toward us on the narrow unmarked road. We swayed in the back seat without seatbelts or car seats, and so my mother-instinct was nudged to life. I felt my arms wend tighter around my new son, as if I could protect him from the car wreck that now seemed inevitable.
I also thought about that other inevitable car wreck: my life, now that I was a new mother. In the taxi hurtling through Vietnam space, I said goodbye to late mornings in bed, my upwards career trajectory, last-minute trips to the beach. The changed lifestyle wrought by parenthood had at once seemed a distant mirage, but now that distance had closed, the mirage vaporized.
This was it: I was now a mother.
During the time it takes for a speeding car to reach Saigon, I recognized the life-long sentence I’d been handed, through the taxi door, with my son: I would be obligated to serve this small stranger for the rest of my life. The rest of my life suddenly stretched far too long—and, perhaps, far too short.
At the city’s outskirts, a misting rain settled on the crowded streets. Benjamin, still squeezed tightly in my arms, started to relax, his cries muted to a soft murmur. Our taxi driver pulled under the canopy of the New World Hotel, and bellhops opened my door. I gathered Benjamin to my shoulder, pulled ourselves out of the taxi, and took my first faltering step into motherhood.