Family matters of commitment Adoption: When Brenda and Bob Gates brought two young sisters into their home, they weren't sure what they were in for. Now, they say, each day draws family closer.

October 31, 1997|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Brenda Gates' heart pounded as she ran down Bethany Beach, desperately trying to catch up with the little girl sprinting ahead of her. Miriel was going to be her daughter. The adoption was already in process. She had to catch her.

Five-year-old Miriel didn't stop running, and neither did Gates. But it was no use. She felt like she was going to drop from a heart attack.

"I decided to stop," says Gates, recalling that moment two summers ago.

She turned and headed back. Miriel stopped, too, turned around and followed Gates. The test was over.

There would be many more in the months ahead, though, enough to make Gates and her husband Bob, 42, wonder if adopting Miriel and her sister, Kali, had been a good idea.

Life had been much simpler before. They were successful lawyers with a 7-year-old son, Graeme. Brenda, 49, was a domestic master in Circuit Court. Bob was staff counsel in the Department of Veterans Affairs. They had talked about adoption, but Bob wasn't ready.

"I was pretty much a new father," he says, mulling over old thoughts. "I don't know when you become a professional father, but I thought I was still a rookie at being a father, and to take on maybe another child that I didn't know anything about seemed like a daunting task."

His heart softened after Oct. 16, 1995, the day he joined thousands of other black men on the Mall in Washington. He rose early that day to catch the MARC train to Union Station. No way was he going to miss this day.

He joined a rainbow of black men, some with dark skin and curly hair, some like Gates, who is bi-racial, with light skin and straight hair. Those differences didn't matter. They were just black men, crying, hugging, the entire crowd holding hands. Gates remembers the energy surging through him, quietly reflecting on that crisp, clear fall day. "I'm a Christian, so I felt that definitely God's presence was there."

He came home on fire, wanting, needing to do something. Volunteering with the Masons and the Omega Psi Phi fraternity had been fulfilling to a degree. But he didn't want to go back to that. He wanted to go forward. The adoption idea resurfaced. Were they ready to commit?

"Commitment is the key word here," says Brenda, sitting on a sofa in their comfortable, northeast Baltimore home.

Commitment became their byword, a mantra informing their decision. Adoption wasn't like volunteering. You couldn't drop in, stay awhile, then go home. They considered being foster parents, but that would only make their home a way station in a child's life. They wanted something long-lasting, something permanent. Bob Gates remembers asking himself: "What can I do on a daily basis, 24-7, that can have a long-term impact?

"I couldn't think of anything more than adoption, where I could take a child at an early age, impart my values, our values, to that child to give them an opportunity they may never have had otherwise."

They discussed the possibility for months. Some family members cautioned them against it. Others mentioned nightmare stories about adopted children who became holy terrors. Did they really want to take the risk?

"We as an African-American community need to make a commitment to our children," says Brenda. "These are our children. They may not have been born to us biologically, but these are our children and we need to bring them into our homes."

The Gateses, who lived in Hunt Valley at the time, called the Baltimore County Department of Social Services and made an appointment. Later, they took three Saturdays of seminars offered by "One Church, One Child," which provides adoption services for blacks. They told social workers they didn't want a baby.

"Been there, done that," says Brenda. "We wanted a more difficult-to-adopt child."

Some weeks later, they found themselves meeting Miriel and Kali. The girls didn't know two of the adults sitting in the Chuck E. Cheese in Catonsville could become their parents.

"It's like a blind date," says Bob Gates.

The girls thought they were just on an outing. The Gateses were told not to stare; just be distant, dispassionate observers. Brenda remembers being nervous about the arrangement. It would be hard to walk away.

The cute, curly-haired sisters had their own special needs. They were 4 and 5, bi-racial, and veterans of the foster care system. Who would ever take them?

"I guess I just connected with [Kali]," says Bob Gates. "It just seemed as though we ended up next to each other, playing this game. And the rest is history."

Short visits to the foster home in Woodlawn led to dinner at the Gates home, then an overnight stay. As successful as those visits were, there was still frustration.

"We'd get into a groove, and then we'd have to take them back," says Bob Gates.

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