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Becoming her father

Now I know how little anyone raising a child can be sure of.

Jeff and Christine Gammage with Jin Yu (left), now 6, and Zhao Gu, 4, at their Elkins Park home.
Jeff and Christine Gammage with Jin Yu (left), now 6, and Zhao Gu, 4, at their Elkins Park home.Read morePETER TOBIA / Inquirer Staff Photographer

In 2002, Inquirer staff writer Jeff Gammage and his wife, Christine, traveled to Hunan Province, China, to adopt their older daughter, Jin Yu. After documenting parts of the journey in The Inquirer, Gammage turned his experiences with foreign adoption and fatherhood into a book, "China Ghosts: My Daughter's Journey to America, My Passage to Fatherhood," released last week through William Morrow.

The following is an excerpt taken from Chapter 11, "Every Child My Own."

I thought that when I became a father I would know things.

Not everything. But some things.

I thought that being placed in charge of a child would instill in me the knowledge that other parents - my own - seemed always to possess. That by becoming a father, the best choice, the logical selection, would now be obvious.

Instead, those right, rational choices remain as elusive as ever.

I have a whole new appreciation for my parents. Or rather, a new interpretation of them. It's not that I didn't appreciate them. I did.

But as a boy I had no idea what they were up against, this business of making one's way in the world, this endeavor of raising a child. Now I find myself looking at life's challenges through their eyes. I look at my child and imagine how my parents looked at me.

I think that being a parent is a little like being a chemist. Or maybe an engineer. Everybody brings similar tools to the table. But nobody has a guaranteed plan. So everybody is left to do what he thinks might work, to pay attention to what others are doing, and try to build on that progress.

But when I was growing up, my mother and father, I was sure, always knew exactly the right thing to do in every situation, whether it was a child slipping into the deep end of a pool or a washing machine overflowing in the kitchen. My mom and dad knew the answers to every question. They divided light from darkness. If, as a child, I asked my dad, "Right or left?" he said, "Left." If I asked, "Now?" he said, "Not yet." If I asked, "Is there a God?" he said, "Yes."

I remember once, when I was 5 or 6, my dad was driving me to visit my grandmother, so I could show her my new dog. This was in the days before seat belts were widely used, and no one saw any danger in having a child ride standing up in the passenger seat. We were heading north on Route 130, near Burlington, N.J., and had just passed a gas station where the sign on the pump read 39 cents/gallon.

"What's that noise?" I asked.

My dad didn't know. But he heard it too.

We'd gone maybe a half-mile farther when I looked out the passenger-side window to see the strangest sight - a lone car tire rolling beside us, almost even with my door. Even now, some 40 years later, I remember being struck by how funny it seemed. A wheel on the loose, racing the traffic. I turned to tell my dad to look, that someone's tire had come off the axle, but the words never left my mouth. At that moment the rear right side of our car crashed down into the road, jerking us from 50 miles per hour to 20 or 10. It was like we had dropped anchor on the highway.

I remember falling forward as if I'd been shoved, the interior of the windshield filling my field of vision. And I remember my dad's arm materializing in front of my chest, blocking my fall into the glass. I remember thinking, in the strange way that an emergency can bring tiny details into perfect focus, that he had the biggest hands.

After pushing me back into the seat, my dad guided the car to the breakdown lane. He got out and flagged down a cop. Decided we would walk back to the gas station and locate a tow truck. And that we could use my belt as a leash for my dog.

I remember thinking he must lose a tire off his car pretty often, because he knew exactly what to do when it happened.

Now that I'm a father, now that I'm the age my parents were when they were raising me, I know: They were making it up. They were doing their best to apply their knowledge and experience in a way that seemed appropriate to the situation. Now I know how little anyone raising a child can be sure of.

Because kids change, not just year to year but day to day and at times, it can seem, hour to hour. As a parent you struggle to keep pace. Parents get weary, or annoyed. They're uncertain. They're in the wrong mood at the wrong time, or they miss the moment entirely.

Even if they're sure where to draw the line, they might not be able to hold it once it's drawn.

The only thing I know about raising a child is that no amount of preparation can suffice.

Not that I'd had any.

By the time Jin Yu arrived, I had attended hundreds of Phillies baseball games, a score of Eagles football contests, and a dozen Bruce Springsteen concerts. But I'd never once babysat. Or changed a diaper.

I'd never held a little girl's hand as she walked, never buckled the straps of her patent leather party shoes, or sat up all night taking her temperature when she was sick.

I thought that raising a child would be like taking an ocean journey, sailing steadily from Port A to Port B aboard the sturdy ship of my knowledge and understanding. It's not like that. It's more like trying to body-surf on a giant wave. At moments you're safely tucked in the curl, feeling the speed, the force of the water propelling you toward shore. You think you have mastered the art. Then, without warning, the wave pulls you under, drags you across the broken-shell bed of the shallows, and throws you to the surface, where you gulp air.

I worry about disciplining Jin Yu. That I will be too harsh, because I'm fearful of leaving her spoiled. That I will be soft when what she needs is firm guidance. That she will see me, not as weak, or even stern, but as unfair. I worry that I will be the opposite example for my daughter. And that she will remember. That when Jin Yu is older, she will look back at how she was raised and silently swear that for her kids, things will be different.

And of course, when I worry, about a high fever or her future estimation of my parenting skills, I can never let it show. When you're a father, a portrayal of confidence is mandatory.

Some days, sitting with Jin Yu at the breakfast table, I feel I can see the future stretching out. Sometimes I'm sure she is headed for the stage, where she can act out her fantasies and dramas before a broader audience. Other days I think she's headed into politics, a natural leader, or maybe into a courtroom, an advocate for those in need.

Before Jin Yu arrived, I would hear people talk about molding their children, as if the kids were bright-colored pieces of Play-Doh. And I would figure, well, that must be how it works. I thought raising my child would be an exercise in exactitude, her life order and direction set by me and her mom, like a slot car on a track: the pin and groove neatly fitted, the car unalterably locked on course, speeding toward the finish line.

In real life, it's much different. It's like rolling a marble down a sliding board, the tiny, fragile piece of glass veering wildly from side to side. And as that delicate orb hurtles downward, you get to wait at the top, watching, hoping it will stay within the boundaries of the chute and not spin out into disaster.

The lack of control is terrifying. Maybe that's why parents reduce the experience to banalities. They grow up so fast. You turn around and they're grown. Where does the time go? Then again, the cliches are cliches because they're true.

Already I can feel Jin Yu moving forward - and away. I hear the clock ticking. I notice the continuous, minute changes in her looks and size and demeanor. Some days I almost want to shout, Don't go! Please, don't go. Don't leave. Stay here. Stay my little girl, my baby, my darling. Stay the child who adores me always, the one who on Monday mornings wraps her arms around my legs and shouts, "Dading no go work!" And who, eight hours later, jumps into my arms and kisses me as if I'd been gone for a month.

My fatherhood will be too short. That I know. How long before she is off with her friends? Seven years? Eight? Ten at the most.

Still, being a father has already delivered more laughter than anyone has a right to enjoy, and greater satisfaction than anyone has a right to expect. It has taught me - forced me - to become my better, stronger self. And left me in fear that, on too many days, I have not been the person I'd hoped to be, but the one who is too tired, irritable and removed. The person who fails to understand that every day with Jin Yu is a gift, that these moments and days will pass like a summer wind. That too soon I'll be waving goodbye to my grown-up girl and wondering how it all went so quickly.

Jin Yu was 2 years old when she was adopted from the Xiangtan Social Welfare Institute. Now 6, Jin Yu attends kindergarten, where she specializes in drawing pictures of princesses.

In 2004, Gammage, Christine and Jin Yu returned to China, this time to Gansu Province, to adopt a second daughter, Zhao Gu, then 1, from the Wuwei SWI. Zhao Gu, now 3, is pursuing her interest in pantomime and making funny faces.

'China Ghosts' Signings

Jeff Gammage will give two readings of China Ghosts: My Daughter's Journey to America, My Passage to Fatherhood, in the Philadelphia area in the next month:

For more information, visit his Web page at


About the Author

Jeff Gammage is a staff writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he often writes about adoption. He was born in Trenton, raised in Willingboro, and graduated in 1982 from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. He lives with his wife, Christine, and two adopted daughters, Jin Yu and Zhao Gu, in Elkins Park. They and their daughters hope to revisit China in 2009.


To watch a video interview with author Jeff Gammage, visit EndText