It wasn’t the alarm clock on my cell phone that had so cruelly jarred me from a peaceful slumber that September morning. It was a text message alert.
“I have to tell you something,” my 14-year-old sister, Brianna, wrote.
I had a strong feeling I knew what would come next, even before I began to reply.
My little sister was blessed with piercing blue-gray eyes, blond hair [although she often dyes it darker] and an appealing, slim figure, much more suited to a young woman of 18 or 19 than a high school freshman.
But she was not blessed with self-confidence.
I knew the way she allowed her friends, particularly boys, to take advantage of her need for belonging, so what she was about to tell me came as no surprise.
“What’s up?” I asked reluctantly, in the most non-judgmental tone a text message can conjure.
I held my phone to my chest as I lay in bed, eyes unfocused, gazing up at a sky of speckled white plaster, waiting for the response.
“I’m pregnant. What should I do?”
I knew that day, even before Brianna’s text-messaged response, the next nine months of her life would impact her and so many others in ways none could imagine.
My sister would gain an extra 20, 30 or more pounds. She would face ridicule from her friends, family and society.
But most painfully, she would have to make one of the most heart-wrenching decisions she will ever have to face: to keep her baby and sacrifice her chance at freedom, success and a childhood, or to give up her child and live with the haunting decision for the rest of her days.
And she would do it all before getting her driver’s license.
Although Brianna would often say she felt completely alone in her pain, both physically and emotionally, during her pregnancy, she never was.
Thirty-five percent of teenage girls in the United States become pregnant before the age of 20, according to the Oklahoma Department of Health Services.
Many of those teenage girls will be from our home state. In the most recent data provided by the National Center for Health Statistics, Oklahoma ranks fifth in the nation for the rate of teen births.
In 2007 alone, more than 7,500 Oklahoma girls’ lives would be changed forever by the birth of their first child when they could still be considered children themselves.
I knew Brianna’s situation was not unique. But how could I tell her without sounding like her counselor?
‘HE LOOKS LIKE A MONSTER’
The bright, cheery waiting room at Integris Hospital in Oklahoma City was drowning in blossoming flowers. Red roses and pink lilies welcomed women experiencing the first of the happiest moments of their lives.
But not us.
“You’re Brianna, right?” the receptionist asked with the kind of smile that could have belonged to a beauty queen.
“Yeah,” Brianna replied, her tone erasing the glee from the receptionist’s face. “You can have a seat over there, ” she said less cheerily, pointing to an overstaffed maroon seat.
I seemed woefully out of place in the waiting room. I imagined the receptionists’ quandaries. Isn’t she too young to be that pregnant girl’s mom? She must have had her when she was 15, too.
I wanted to justify myself to them.
“Listen,” I would say. “I’m only here because our mom is too busy playing tennis, our dad is working, our brother is at school and Brianna’s baby daddy is a 19-year-old who’s locked up for robbery and statutory rape, so I was the only one left to take my little sister to her first ultrasound.”
But I knew that would only hurt Brianna.
Once seated, Brianna dropped her head into her hands. There was silence between us as I sat next to my sister, who still easily fitted into ripped jeans and a small t-shirt, even though she was well into her third trimester.
Moments later, a doctor who seemed so happy she might have been dipping into her own medical supply bounced into the waiting room.
“Brianna!” she squealed. “I’m Dr. Carla. So good to see you!”
The woman appeared to be in her mid-50s and a little out of shape, but it was as if pure energy oozed out of her from the top of her brunette quaff to her modest white sneakers.
“Let’s take a look at that baby!” she continued.
With a violent roll of her eyes, Brianna followed her into the darkened room where, for the first time, she would see that the child growing inside her was beginning to look like a human.
“See, that’s the little foot, and that strand along there, that’s his spine,” Dr. Carla said, pointing and making notes.
“Is that his face?” Brianna asked. “He looks like a monster. Or an alien.”
“Yep!” Dr. Carla replied excitedly. “So, have we picked out a name for this little guy?”
Brianna was silent.
“Um, no,” she said quietly. “We’re giving him up for adoption.”
“Oh. Well, then, I understand,” Dr. Carla said with a tone as flat as her expression. The room fell silent, save for the faint sound of the baby’s heartbeat on the ultrasound monitor.
‘SHUT UP, PREGGO!’
On a cool March evening, with everyone home for the weekend, this lower-middle-class family passed the time like many others: watching TV.
But though everyone was home and all the Tipton children were watching the same show, they were not really together.
In this house, the only discussion took the form of the shouting that could be heard above Seinfeld blaring from the TV set in our parents’ room, through their locked door, behind which they feebly attempted to cover the deafening screams coming from the living room.
“Shut up, Preggo!” my brother yelled at Brianna from across the living room.
Another fight had broken out. This time, the epic battle between siblings was over seats.
Seventeen-year-old Lucas, who stands about a foot taller and weighs about a 100 pounds more than our sister, was upset he’d been kicked off the coveted couch and relegated to the uncomfortable computer chair.
“Stupid bitch!” he screamed as he launched a flowery sofa pillow at Brianna’s head.
“Shut up! I hate you!” she fired back.
Before Brianna became pregnant, this sight was already an all-too-familiar one. The family, especially the three kids, have never considered themselves close.
On the contrary, they are lucky to be alive after being forced to coexist for so long.
Brianna’s pregnancy gained her no mercy.
“Can we watch something other than ESPN?” Brianna asked. “I’m so sick of sports.”
“Screw you, I have the remote,” Lucas responded.
When Brianna attempted to grab the remote, she was pushed away violently, with little regard for her safety, or the baby’s, in the debris-covered room.
“Get away, Preggo!” he shouted. “I don’t care if you’re knocked up. You don’t get to do whatever the hell you want.”
“I freaking hate him,” my sister told me that night. “I don’t even consider him my brother, and sometimes I just wish he would die.”
As her words came out like sparks from a fire, the tears welling in her eyes alluded to more sadness than she was willing to share.
OVER THE EDGE
“Oh my God, I didn’t know he was going!” Brianna screamed, motioning toward her father, who wore an oversized college sweatshirt and a look of surprise.
That day, Brianna, by then 15, had to make the most difficult decision of her life, and she wanted to call the shots.
“I don’t want Dad to be there. I don’t even freaking want you to be there,” the teenager screamed at her mother as they walked out the door.
Tears flowed down Brianna’s face as she slammed the door of the family’s gold Caravan.
That day, she would meet the first of two couples that would possibly be the parents of her unborn child.
Brianna was heading down the same path as thousands of girls before her, being forced to cope with the fact that she would be giving up her first child.
More than 57,000 children across the nation were given for adoption in 2009, according to the U.S. Administration for Children and Families.
Oklahoma itself set a state record last year with nearly 1,700 adoptions, a 35% increase over the last five years, according to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
“I don’t even know if I want to do this anymore,” Brianna said. “I don’t know if I can handle this with you all right now.”
But her mother knew their presence was not the real reason for Brianna’s apprehension. Brianna wanted her best friend, Renee, there, but she could not make it.
“A week ago, you were at each other’s throats,” Brianna’s mother said. “Why do you even want her there?”
“It’s called support, and friends fight, and they make up, that’s what they do,” Brianna yelled indignantly.
When the car came to a halt in the parking lot of the Oklahoma City Fairfield Inn, it seemed like the family believed the vehicle might combust. They fled quickly.
The family’s mood was ill reflected in the cheerfully bright hotel lobby.
As we took the cramped elevator up to Room 317, the air was stale and humid, but the silence was like a bitter frost.
Behind the fading yellow door to the room, Sharon, the adoption liaison, wore a grandmotherly matching green shirt and pantsuit.
As she asked the family to sit, Sharon attempted to break the tension, addressing it straight on.
“Brianna, I know you’re upset right now. Can you please talk about it?” she asked.
As Brianna explained her ordeal, her friend’s absence and her parents’ presence, it was clear the stress had sent her over the edge.
“I just need to know if this will be a deal breaker. Under the current circumstances, can you meet these couples and make a good decision you can be at peace with?” Sharon asked, her head cocked.
Brianna paused, pulling tissues from the cheap, flowery box next to her.
“I need to. I don’t want to put off meeting them any longer,” Brianna said with battered confidence in her voice.
“I want to do this. I can do this.”
As Sharon fetched the couple downstairs, the Tiptons sat silently, taking note of the unmade bed, the cheap, mismatched upholstery, and their own forced, dressed-up appearance, with their nice jeans and best attempts at make-up.
After a few long minutes, a knock was heard at the door.
‘MOM, WHO’S THAT LADY?’
The young couple, Tim and Lindsey, politely shook the mother’s, the father’s, the sister’s and, finally, Brianna’s hand.
It was not clear whether they were dressed like normal people on a normal day, wearing jeans, T-shirts and sandals, or if they wanted to appear as normal as possible.
As they sat in the faded green chairs, they knew the rest of their lives depended on the naïve opinion of the 15-year-old before them.
“As Brianna knows, I would like to begin with a prayer, if it’s all right with everyone in the room,” Sharon said.
With heads bowed and eyes closed, it’s hard to imagine how mysteriously God’s plan works out, if one believes in that sort of thing.
Perhaps Brianna was meant to become pregnant when she was too young to handle it only to provide this young couple with the child they so desperately wanted but for some reason could not have.
Whether there was any divine intervention in the unbearably hot hotel room was unknowable. The fact of the matter was that Tim and Lindsey were interviewing with a child for a child.
For the next hour or so, the families learned about each other. But one pressing issue had not been addressed.
“Brianna, I would like you to explain to Tim and Lindsey what kind of visitation you need because I don’t want there to be any confusion,” Sharon said.
“I would like to see him every three or four months for the first year and then every six months indefinitely,” Brianna said.
After a moment of silence, Lindsey, a petite young woman with bouncy brown curls, spoke gently.
“We understand why you would want that kind of assurance, but we just have a couple of issues,” she said.
“First, I see the grief in your family’s eyes and your eyes, and I would just like to wrap you in my arms and make everything better for you. But I just think it will be very hard for you to end the grieving process that way.”
Lindsey seemed unsure of whether she wanted to continue, but she spoke again.
“We just don’t want our baby, if you choose us, to ever be confused or saddened by anything. We would never want him to have to ask us with tears in his eyes, ‘Mom, who’s that lady that keeps popping up every once in a while?'” she said, a tear collecting in her eye.
This was a defining issue for Brianna, and Lindsey had not given her the answer she wanted. They would not become her baby’s parents.
Whether the couple knew the outcome of their meeting, they politely thanked everyone for coming and waved goodbye.
Brianna’s family soon departed, and it was Schlotsky’s sandwiches and a little more conversation than before on the dinner menu.
As they sat around the table at the restaurant, there was even some laughing about the day’s events.
ROGER AND LEEANNE
The next day, the Tipton family returned to the Fairfield Inn.
If Brianna didn’t choose that day’s family, there would be more appointments to be set, potential parents to be contacted and a list of arrangements to be made to continue the process.
And time was running out. The baby would arrive in fewer than two months. Sharon again answered the door in a matching pantsuit, although this time it was a taupe number.
Brianna spoke first.
“So, what happens if we get to May and the baby is born and I haven’t found a family I trust?”
“Then we would need to address whether you really are at peace with your decision to adopt,” Sharon replied.
If she were not at peace with that decision, it would not be a unique occurrence.
On average, only 15% of teenage girls in her age group across the U.S. settle on adoption, due in large part to their inability to maturely evaluate the best option for themselves and their baby, according to Sharon Rodine of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.
Many of these young mothers think they have found the perfect family to take their children but back out once the children are born.
But this time in Room 317, something different happened after the heart-tugging knock on the door.
This couple was older and a bit more frazzled, but they inspired a different attitude from the Tiptons.
LeeAnne wore a simple black and white sweater. She had a strange, birdlike appearance and sported short, blond hair.
Her husband, Roger, wore jeans and a plaid shirt. He seemed as if he would be at home shooting deer or gutting fish.
They politely introduced themselves, but it was obvious Brianna felt more calm in their company.
After discussing all the pleasantries – occupations, pastimes, beliefs – the topic came up.
Brianna laid down her visitation demands.
But the couple was unfazed.
“My family went through a similar situation,” Roger began, tears pooling in his eyes. “So I understand completely how difficult this is for you and your family and we would never, ever want to keep you from being involved in his life however you want.”
As the potential father continued, his emotion touched everyone in the room, especially the soon-to-be birth mother.
After the families said their goodbyes and LeeAnne and Roger took their leave, a peace settled over the room. Brianna turned to Sharon.
“You know how I told you when we met that I felt like I wouldn’t want to work with anyone else but you?” she asked. “I know that about Roger and LeeAnne. I don’t need to meet any other couples.”
Again, Brianna ventured down a long hotel hallway, but this time under very different circumstances than those of half a year ago.
As she entered the cheery hotel room, the bright greens, blues and golds of the walls and curtains didn’t seem ironic. The flowers adorning the overstuffed cushions didn’t appear to mock the inhabitants atop them.
Brianna was about 30 pounds lighter, and there was an apprehensive excitement in her demeanor.
For the first time since Brianna had parted ways with her newborn son, since her mother had last seen her first grandchild, they would get to hold Corbin Avery.
Sharon again greeted the family with her typical glee. But it seemed the couple on the other side of the door was not the same couple that had asked Brianna to make the ultimate sacrifice for their sake a few months ago.
This was in fact Lee Anne and Roger, but they projected utter contentment.
They looked weary, like all parents of infants do, but they didn’t seem concerned. Lee Anne’s once-blond, highly-styled hair had not seen a salon for some time. Roger’s shirt was untucked. But they beamed with joy that reflected in Brianna’s face.
The plump Corbin, who had gone from modest six pounds to a healthy 12 in only four months of life, was dressed like a man imagines his boy should be: blue jeans and a red, striped T-shirt with a baseball motif.
There was nothing mistaking this baby was anything but a boy, and it made his parents happy when Brianna and her mother pointed that out.
“He loves to watch the game with me,” Roger said, smiling.
“He’s so heavy!” Brianna exclaimed as Corbin was passed to her. “He won’t sit down at all.”
The baby had no desire no do anything other than stand, though his legs would not support that wish. As Brianna attempted to hold him, he hinted at a tantrum if his unknown demands were not immediately satisfied.
“What should I do?” Brianna asked.
“Just try to make him comfortable,” her mother replied.
“Maybe he wants to walk around for a bit,” his mother said.
Brianna bounced him up and down, something he liked very much. She seemed disappointed that no smile emerged from her efforts, but elated that she had forestalled his cries.
For some time, the two families sat in the meager hotel room, talking.
They discussed Corbin and his development, Brianna and her activities, even how Roger and LeeAnne’s lives had been changed by Corbin’s arrival.
It was decided that it was time to grab a meal now that Corbin had finally closed his tiny eyes, so the families and Sharon made plans to meet somewhere nearby.
In the Tipton car, happiness mixed with a twinge of sadness. Excitement blended with the slightest hint of remorse.
“I couldn’t even hold him right,” Brianna said. “He’s my baby. I should at least be able to hold him properly.”
“You won’t even have a baby for another 10 years, so what does it matter now?” I asked in my half-concocted attempt to console her. “Besides, it’s not like he’s your baby anyway.”
“There’s a part of him that will always belong to Brianna,” our mother said, with a shocking degree of compassion and understanding.
Brianna didn’t offer her typical sarcastic quip or hateful remark.
But she didn’t say much for the rest of the ride.
– Karlie Tipton is a journalism student in the Gaylord College at the University of Oklahoma. This story originally appeared in Routes, a multimedia webzine that publishes the college’s best student work. Routes can be found at http://routes.ou.edu