It started with a sizzle reel.
That’s right, sizzle.
For those not familiar with that, it’s what we in the entertainment world call a sales piece; a promotional video that shows off you or your product, the brand or the wares you are selling – edited cleverly with drama and hype and positioned in a most favorable and exaggerated light. Usually there is a driving track and a hard to miss, intrusive (sometimes even aggressive) title treatment. In other words, it sizzles. It should make the viewer so hot and bothered for the product or service that at the end of it they are gasping, “where do I sign up. I want it now.”
It’s a deal closer.
So when my friend Marshall and his boyfriend Chris asked me to come to Washington DC. and make a sizzle reel for them, I was intrigued. What exactly were they selling and to whom?
‘We’re adopting,’ they announced proudly. ‘And we need a sizzle reel.’
The business of adoption ain’t what it used to be.
It is no longer shrouded in secrecy by the church, or the government, using cloistered nuns to hide mothers in secret places and deliver babies to infertile parents through clandestine tunnels and archaic delivery channels; no more mute transmissions without voice and choice for either parents or birth mothers. The cloak of mystery of adoption is over. The veil is lifted. Adoption has entered the commercial age. The digital world. It is a whole new game. That’s why they wanted a video of them to post on their website for potential birthmothers to review. It’s like a kick-starter for new parents. A pitch that says, ‘Gimme your baby.’ Or something like that but more subtle. Or not.
This is what we have come to.
Adoptions are not just open they are open markets.
Birth mothers want to choose who is going to raise their baby before they give them away. Makes sense, I mean, after the 9 month physical and emotional roller coaster – back breaking pregnancy and torrential flood of hormones then the actual delivery – one deserves to know the recipient of this endurance – and miracle – are good peeps. So now there are websites and interviews, meet and greets and if you really are serious – like my friends – even a reel. For reals.
When Marshall was adopted decades ago, it was a totally different story.
Just as winter was thawing and the light of spring was hovering over DC, I landed fully equipped with camera and curiosity. As a former creative director in the advertising world, I was the perfect man for the job. So I arrived in the pleasant, Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington. I took a photo immediately. Yes. That’s a very good start. Good name for a place to raise a baby. Or is it a little too obvious – maybe a bit earnest? Too Mayberry. A little Gayberry? I wondered.
I have known Marshall since were young guys in Atlanta; playful, selfish, single guys. We met because we wore the exact same glasses, same sweater, similar smile. From across the room at a theatre gathering for the elite of Atlanta – he was Head of Development for AID Atlanta and I was a Creative Director for Cartoon Network…we were friends at first glance. ‘Nice glasses,’ I said. He echoed the sentiment. We complimented ourselves by complimenting each other.
We saw ourselves in each other. In other words, we were sold. No sizzle reel needed.
Ours is that rare friendship that hasn’t relied on currency or transactional tit for tat. No, what can I do for you or the other way around. It hasn’t been put through the fires of romance and sex either. We don’t want or need anything from each other. Never have. In a way, we kind of adopted each other as brothers. When I was in rehab, he was the first to offer a hand, a visit, and a gift. I was always on the phone or a plane after a breakup. Over the years, we have weathered moves, jobs, heartbreak, death, loss, and recovery. This friendship was never ripped apart by difficulties but brought together by them – nonjudgmental. Gently weaving in an out of each other’s lives stitched together by a calm certainly and love. Resilient to time and distance.
I arrived at their place, the home they have created together. Until this visit, I hadn’t spent too much time with Chris, Marshall’s boyfriend and partner. I didn’t know them well as a couple. In the past few years both of Marshall’s parents have passed away – his adoptive parents. Marshall was one of those Catholic Charities secret babies. Since he started dating Chris, Marshall has changed a bit; grew a little quieter, a little calmer, a little grayer; deeper somehow. Maybe it comes with age, maybe it comes from losing your folks, maybe it comes with someone like Chis.
They say, when you meet ‘that’ person. Something in you just lets go. I sensed, something in Marshall had just let go.
I have always been more curious about his birth parents than he has – at least outwardly. I remember one day when we were at his apartment in the middle of one of the many moves he made over the past couple decades, he mused, ‘Maybe it comes from being adopted but I don’t have many personal items or mementos; I’m just not sentimental.’
Then he brought out a cardboard box. It was filled to the brim with the precious items folded and stuffed inside. Papers, photos, a few objects, letters. Each one with such meaning. I think the opposite is true – the fewer things we keep, the more sentimental we actually are. It’s not the numbers, it’s the depth.
I could tell something was different before I even turned on the camera. Something was connected here. Beneath the sleek, simple, clean design and usual aesthetics of this home – there was a sense of warmth. Like the smell of Aunt Joyce’s fresh baked walnut cake wafting from the kitchen; an emotional version of that. Marshall is one of two. He is a couple. They have that something; an invisible umbilical cord connecting the two of them – they are tethered. It was calm.
I had always arrived the protective brother, the cautious best friend, set out to protect him from someone that would hurt him. Over the next few days I watched them, ate with them, interviewed them. Sometimes on camera, sometime over coffee. Just before or after a nap. Dinner, walks. Farmers market. I watched and listened. Then one night, it just felt right to sink into conversation as they sank into the sofa. They just opened up; talking about the things important to each of them, their dreams, their goals. Their similarities, their differences. Life. Love. Reality. In those moments, Chris appeared to me. Sweet, calm, centering.
I realized it right then – I saw it: Chris had happened to Marshall.
We spent hours, in that one spot, camera locked off, them leaning into each other, in front of a big Spanish Christian painting at the center of the room. Where was the sizzle? I guess you could say the absence of sizzle was the sizzle. Beneath it was substance; sweet and honest.
They talked a lot about why they wanted to adopt.
The previous year, Marshall had met his own birth mother.
Something about being in love with Chris and burying the parents that raised him, something about his relationship and/or stage in life had brought this desire to the surface – he wanted to know.
I had been going through my own adoption journey. In Los Angeles after a decade of soloness, singlehood and profound experiences helping my nieces and nephews after their fathers passed away, I was ready to adopt a child.
I had worked with lawyer and an adoption agency before I ended up in the foster-to-adopt program at LA County. For 12 weeks in the fall, 20 of us met every Thursday from 6-10 pm. We shared dinner, and conversation; something between therapy and boot camp. It was kind of a scared straight for would be adoptees. Counselors painted the worst case scenario; drugs, addiction, violent offenders, birth mothers and relatives that swoop in after 12 months of foster care and reunify with the child you have been loving. It was heartbreaking to hear. Couples dropped out. Singles dropped out.
I stayed in. I’m going to do it. I’ll show them.
And yet I had this sinking feeling I didn’t want to go through the parenting process alone. Being a parent is hard enough. But being a parent in a messed up legal system with 99% of the children exposed to drug and alcohol, surely can be brutal. I graduated from the program, ready, approved, fingerprinted, home checked, CPR’ed about the same time Marshall told me about contacting his birth mother.
‘She handed the phone to her husband.’ He said.
It isn’t always easy. So quickly. I had already learned this in my course. This was normal. After a few visits and months of talking to her on the phone, on this weekend, the sizzle reel weekend, she was going to be there. His birth mother. The woman he was happily building a relationship with, the woman who gave him life was coming to his life just as his life was coming to life. This was the happy ending that Philomena (the story the movie was based on) didn’t get.
That weekend, his closest friends got to meet her.
It was breathtaking to see him in her and her in him. After all these years of not knowing her, we got to be part of the knowing process. She didn’t want to be on camera, I respected her privacy but was able to steal a few moments of them – laughing and eating cake.
She waved a finger at me in playful reprimand – just like a mother. I couldn’t resist watching them falling for each other. Connecting.
Their genetics matched.
Their body language synched.
Over the next months, as I scrolled through hours of footage, watching these two men essentially vowing to be good parents, to raise a child together, I thought of how far we have come – how good-different today is. How poignant it is that she-he-they will create a new story of adoption – with each other in the light, in a different light.
The adaptation of adoption.
As it turns out, their video was not so much a sales film as a confessional. It felt kinda sorta holy. As holy as the oversized painting that hung in the background. As I watched the footage, I became mesmerized by the painting Marshall bought many years ago at an antiques/vintage auction as art – because it was soulful and colorful. It it was actually a premonition of this moment.
The painting depicts a presentation of a baby. A religious ritual and iconography of a holy child.
It was father’s day when I finally finished the video.
As I got ready to send it off, I viewed it one last time. Here’s what I saw: I saw two men in love with each other, wanting to be fathers to another. They weren’t trying to sell anyone, they were simply bringing their desire out in the open. The sizzle was the truth. Maybe it’s true that gay men once again have something to teach the world. About adapting. About adopting.
The importance of adaptation – adapting our ways of thinking; the need to adopt a new perspective on life, love and family. When we come out of the shadows – there is nothing left but light.
A few months later, they called again. This time, they asked if I would marry them. They caveated – they would get married in DC first – where it was legal. Then, they would have a party/celebration in North Carolina, where Chris was born, where it was still sadly illegal for two men to wed. They wanted me to be more like an emcee; a host. But by the time their November wedding date came around, it was legal to get hitched in North Carolina. He said, “The wedding is gonna be real.” I quickly become a certified minister and on a fallish weekend in the South, surrounded by their family and friends along with pounds of pork and half dozen life size puppets, it happened.
I married them – legally, socially and spiritually.
It was magical and somehow just seemed right. That night, a southern tough guy, big, brash but sweet and a few whiskeys into the night told me over a fierce battle of ping-pong, ‘well, dude that wasn’t so bad.’
He meant to say, ‘gay wedding or straight wedding, love is an incredible thing.’ He meant to say, ‘why have I been so afraid of the gay for so long?’ He meant to say, ‘love is love’. He meant, ‘I’m happy my childhood buddy Chris is happy.’ He meant all of this. We all did. It seemed, the weekly Skype chats we had every Sunday night in the months before the wedding, where the three of us discussed marriage, the meaning, the significance, the aesthetics, the menu, now all dissolved into this one moment. Their wishes, their vows, their dreams sprinkled over all of it.
They were hitched.
Their chosen theme and vows related to the Buddhist principle – Abandon Hope. It is not as cynical as it sounds, it’s actually the simple practice of accepting the moment, planning but not being attached to the outcome. Not hoping for something or someone other than what is.
A few weeks ago, the new couple got a call from their adoption lawyer. In the video and website, it’s quite clear they are in love; two gentle men who not only want to raise a child but are able. All those months ago, when I interviewed them in front of that Spanish painting of a saint and a baby, I had asked them to sell me; pitch me.
‘Why should I give you my baby?’
I was goading them to say something clever or witty or persuasive. I wanted the sizzle slogan for the sizzle reel. They paused and said: “To the mother out there, we just want to say, we’re not gonna try to pitch you or sell you. If it’s a match, it’s a match. If it’s not, then well that’s ok too.”
And they meant it.
I thought, if I were a birth mother faced with the awful, courageous decision, this is what I would want to hear. As it turns out, it was a match.
They got the call last week; Marshall was in San Francisco on business, Chris in New Orleans, they met in Texas. And arrived in the middle of the delivery. They cut the umbilical cord. They held her. All of them were in the light, in the room together.
So, this is what happens, when labels, fears and limitations disappear, love appears.
And she did.
We had our first Skype call today. I got to met her.
Welcome to the planet, little girl.
Marshall called it the ‘common miracle’ of birth. So many do it and yet. But theirs is a little uncommon. The little uncommon miracle. As I watched her and them and me all together in one screenshot, a window on the world, what ran through my mind is the thought that I shared when I married these kind good men, “The world has over 7 billion people, and here we are, just a few of us gathered; what are the odds? It is either a total random coincidence or not.
This is so specific.
It’s got to be a miracle.”
Zuri cooed and kicked and Chris smiled as he held her. And I thought, this is what happens when we abandon hope; everything becomes so, well, sorta really hopeful.