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Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008 11:44 pm

Smiles across the miles

In all kinds of families, connections run deep

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My baby Evan has always had a million dollar smile. I’m not saying that because I’m his mom; everybody with normal eyesight notices. It’s not just his perfectly aligned milk-white teeth, set off by his mocha skin; it’s not even the dimples in each cheek. The essence comes from the gleam in his eyes and a certain jaunty tilt to his head. When he flashes his megawatt version, people melt. “Wow, look at that beautiful smile,” they say.

That’s why I have always been mystified by his annual school pictures.

Every year (except that one time in preschool when he looked like he had just swallowed a wire coat hanger), he has posed with his lips Super Glued together and rolled inward, like he’s signaling someone across the room to keep quiet or trying to contain live goldfish in his mouth. It’s nothing like his usual dazzling showstopper. It’s so un-Evanish I can’t even bring myself to send a wallet-size print to the grandparents.

But a few weeks ago, I solved the mystery.

I was rearranging some shelves in my living room, and stumbled across Evan’s baby book. He’s eight years old now; I hadn’t looked at that book in forever. As I flipped through the pages, two photos fell out. They were school pictures taken the same year Evan was born — pics of his older siblings, Derrion and Shabree.

Evan is adopted. His birth mother, Samantha, doesn’t fit the popular stereotype of someone who would choose to place her baby for adoption. When she made her decision, she wasn’t a teenager in trouble; she had been there, done that twice already, and elected to keep both of those babies. By the time she found herself pregnant with Evan, Samantha was carrying a full load of classes at an Ohio community college and putting in a 40-hour week at Taco Bell. Her daughter Shabree was close to 11; her son Derrion was almost 9. She was making a valiant effort to move on with her life.

We keep in touch fairly regularly with Samantha, mostly via telephone. She and Derrion now live in New York, but a few Christmases ago, they came for a five-day visit in our home. Strange as that concept sounds to some folks, it felt right and natural to us. What I remember of those five days was food, laughter and Scrabble.

I expected the same calm feeling of normalcy when I took Evan to meet Shabree this past summer. Shabree still lives with her maternal grandmother, Mattie, in Ohio; we were passing through on our way home from one of Evan’s sporting events.

They live in a tidy but un-air-conditioned two-bedroom apartment in a neighborhood full of similar dwellings. The June heat had many residents relaxing outside. When we arrived, Mattie was sitting by her living room window. She embraced Evan, pronounced him “beautiful,” and said she had asked God to allow her to live long enough to see him. She phoned Shabree, who was visiting a neighbor: “Get up here and meet you brother!”

Now 18 years old and 6-foot-2, she had an almost regal air about her. She hugged Evan, backed away to get a good look at him, then sat down and seemed suddenly quiet. All the way across the room, her grandmother sensed it. “Don’t cry, Shabree,” Mattie said. Too late. A tear or two slid down the girl’s face.

I’m adopted, and lucky enough to have gotten to know some of my birth siblings (sorry, there’s not a more graceful term). I recognized the connection between Evan and Shabree. I sat inside with Mattie while Shabree took my son outside to play, then all around the neighborhood to meet her friends. After lunch, I milked the situation by claiming the couch for a nap. When I woke up, they were in her bedroom playing a video game.

If Evan could have ordered a big sister custom-made by some deluxe sibling supply house, it would have been Shabree. Like him, she’s highly intelligent; like him, she’s exceptionally funny. Like him, she’s tenderhearted and deep.

When it came time for us to leave, a few more tears leaked from her eyes. Evan stayed dry until we drove away, and then the profound sadness drenched his face. When I asked him if he was already missing Shabree, he said no, and made up a story about some kid at his summer camp.

It’s all right, son; I know.

Every November, I devote a column to Evan. It’s National Adoption Month, it’s his birthday month, and it’s Thanksgiving. That’s already three reasons to write about my baby, but this year, there was a fourth: as Evan reminded me, it’s time for picture re-takes at his school.

I got out his baby book and showed him the pictures of Derrion and Shabree that Samantha had given me when he was born. Evan noticed immediately. “They both smiled the same way I did!” he said.

I told him he didn’t need to do the re-takes. I like his school pictures just exactly the way they are.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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