A week ago, I sat in a rocking chair on Flannery O’Connor’s screened-in porch in rural Georgia. It was ninety-five and humid, with the still, thick air so endemic of southern summertime. I was holding my newborn, a little boy with dark skin and dark hair, only mine because his first mother loved him enough to place him in my arms and kiss him goodbye.

O’Connor [1] would’ve relished our story, I think. She loved orphan boys and hapless do-gooders and teetering saints and misfits of all kinds. Adoption would be exactly her kind of tale.

“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place. . . . Nothing outside you can give you any place. . . . In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got,” she wrote in Wise Blood. She would have appreciated how adoption turns the world upside down, how quickly finding a home for a homeless child reveals our own lack of mooring.

A few days before my contemplation on O’Connor’s porch, I walked through the doors of a small-town hospital in rural Georgia in pursuit of life. The first thing I saw was a five-foot-tall sign that detailed the steps for the safe surrender of one’s newborn. At the check-in desk there was another smaller flyer with the same information. “Ah. You the mama,” said the security guard to me, not unkindly. I stood out with my white skin and northern accent.

“You came all the way to little old Georgia for a baby,” said a nurse, shaking her head in amazement at me. Another gave me an unexpected hug. “Thanks for doing this,” she said, “but don’t you dare cry.” 

I tried to be tough, but when I nuzzled the baby’s tiny brown ears, I felt a lump in my throat, the love I felt for him competing with the heartbreak of his other mother in my mind. He wasn’t mine yet—I was just given permission to love him minute by minute, as we waited to see how his life would unfold, how this chase would end.

One night during my stay, an ear-splitting alarm went off in the maternity ward—an estranged father tried to make an escape with his baby. Afterward, a couple of barrel-chested, deep-voiced police officers walked through the ward and assured the frightened mothers that all was well—we were safe.

But safety is an illusion. Babies are fragile—this is why mothers worry, why we pace in the night. I have never cried so much as I have cried over the adoptions of my kids. In each and every one, birth family drama, health scares, legal hurdles, and deeply broken systems left my heart aching. Sometimes I cried because we were not chosen to parent, because Child Protective Services determined that another placement would be better for the child. Sometimes I cried because death is easily dealt to the most vulnerable, because sometimes the devil wins. Every time, I felt the need to move inside me, the insistence from a Spirit more powerful than me, telling me to keep chasing after love, to keep crying over these babies.

“Satisfy your demand for reason but always remember that charity is beyond reason, and God can be known through charity,” O’Connor wrote to a doubting friend. Adoption is unreasonable. In adoption, we can’t control the prenatal care provided, the delivery experience, the substances ingested during pregnancy—the whole endeavor is shot through with risks no sensible person would take. All we can do is show up with love and grace after the fact, offer kindness and support where we can, and pursue life with the fervor and passion it deserves. Every life, of parent and child, deserves to be fought for, cried over, prayed for, ached with.

So many times my husband and I have chased life into dark places, beyond reason. And three times I have flown home with a miracle wrapped close to my chest, a little being who grows up to say “mama” and “banana” and clap their hands with delight when I laugh.

“Conviction without experience makes for harshness,” O’Connor wrote. I wonder what she would think about how we scream at each other about our bodies, our choices, our rights, our certainties. My experiences have made me more apt to cry at the brokenness of the world, but I believe our tears can be a proxy baptism, a dose of holy water, in a way that our surefire ideas will never be. Perhaps people of faith can offer the world a broken heart instead of our opinions.

“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful,” O’Connor wrote. I thought of her as I trembled in my weakness, as I quailed in fear of meeting the baby’s first mother, the woman who had selflessly sacrificed her body for the life of her son. Here I was in the presence of grace, and it was undoing me.

“Thank you for giving him a better life,” his birth mom told me. “He didn’t deserve to die for my choices. He deserved a chance, and I gave him that.”

We had tears in our eyes. We both looked at this little person—a person, no question about that—who already had likes and dislikes, quirks and character. Our job was the job of love. We each, in our own way, pursued his well-being above our own, above our fears and foibles, above our mistakes and complexities. I’m here to tell you that policymaking and moralizing can’t prepare you for that moment. Storytelling can.

O’Connor was a master storyteller, but it’s easy to see her as a tough nut to crack, a hard woman looking tartly out at the world from her screened-in porch, preferring the company of her birds to people. “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it,” she wrote, sharing yet another bluntly incisive reality to make modern minds quail.

The floorboards of her old plantation house creaked beneath my feet. This was a writer who believed in redemption, grace, and mercy but used bloodshed, racism, and madness to make her point, living in and telling stories of a time and place run through with injustice. Everything about the house reminds me that I am not far removed from when sharecroppers worked the fields and Jim Crow was the custom of the land, and poverty and death continue to dog our steps. “Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better,” O’Connor reminded us. Her crutches in the corner nudged me. My own security is an illusion; I’m not guaranteed tomorrow.

For today, I will hold my baby in gratitude that he is loved deeply. I’ll breathe in the grace of knowing that it could have been otherwise, that new life is a precious gift, that it is always worth pursuing.

After all, “The life you save may very well be your own,” O’Connor wrote.