04/24/2009 12:36 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Madonna, Angelina & Me: What an Absentee Dad Can Teach Us All About Adoption

Adoption has been a hot topic lately, what with Madonna's application to adopt another child from Malawi denied, and the father of young "Slumdog Millionaire" star Rubina Ali's alleged attempt to sell her for $250,000. Not to mention endless speculations about where in the world Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt will be adding to their brood next. But while the media's attention to adoption generally inspires me to change the channel or turn the page (they almost always get it wrong, leave out part of the story or rely on stereotypes), a recent encounter I can't seem to shake has compelled me to add a story of my own to the already overcrowded adoption dialogue.

While visiting my parents in Miami last week, my daughter and I stopped into a local nail salon for mother-daughter pedicures, a treat we save for occasions like vacations or the first warm spring day. We chose our colors and were directed to our chairs. Lili dunked her toes into the bubbling footbath. I handed the technician my polish.

"Is she adopted?" he asked, before my flip-flops even hit the floor.

At home in Brooklyn, our neighborhood nail places are staffed mostly by Chinese immigrants, so Lili, who was born in China herself, is used to being asked about her heritage by strangers who paint little flowers on her tiny blue nails. Here in Miami, my manicurist (I'll call him Dave), like most of the salon's employees, was Vietnamese. While his coworkers were taken by my daughter's gap-toothed grin and giggles, Dave was more interested in me, the adoptive mom.

For the next 30 minutes, as he scrubbed and massaged and filed and polished, Dave told me the saga of his own family: How he and his wife had married young and had three kids before he was 30. How the marriage fell apart six years ago and ended in divorce. How he and his ex-wife decided to relinquish their children for adoption at the ages of 9, 5 and 2.

Though my first instinct was to jump up from my chair and yell, "Overshare!" I listened as Dave went on to tell me that a couple had been interested in adopting the children, but only the younger two. Unable to bear the thought of separating them, or stomach the idea of signing away their rights to ever see them again (as the prospective parents insisted), Dave and his ex-wife decided not to relinquish the children. Instead, Dave, whose own father left before he was born, took off from their Upstate New York town and headed down to Miami where he's been ever since. Until recently, he hadn't spoken or written to any of his kids in the six years since he left, though he apparently does make child support payments ("has to," he says).

"If you adopted my kids, would you let me see them?" Dave asked, right after telling me he'd been a "real bad dad."

"I'm not adopting your kids," I told him, unwilling to go there. "Two is enough for me."

The truth is, I would love for my own kids to be able to have contact with their biological mothers and fathers. Almost all children available for adoption from China were abandoned anonymously, so there's little hope they'll ever meet their birth families. And it's obvious that, even at ages six and three, not knowing who and where they came from has left a blank page in my children's stories that no one else can fill in. It's not hard to imagine how someone adopting older children would be threatened by the idea of the birthparents being a part of their lives. But whether present and in the flesh or cobbled together from memory and fantasy, a child's biological parents are a part of every adoptive family in one way or another.

Families like mine are asked personal and intrusive questions all the time. Most of us are used to it, and we all have our ways of dealing with the nosy strangers in the check out line and the friends and relatives who really should know better. But Dave and his desire to share his story with me caught me off guard. I felt like the priest at his confessional, who he was hoping would absolve him of his parenting sins simply because I was an adoptive mom. Part of me wanted to say, "Hey, deadbeat dad, go home to your kids or spare me the sob story and finish my top coat."

Yet I was struck by how, in spite of everything, Dave really did seem to love his kids. The idea of relinquishing his daughter and sons forever with no further contact had been unthinkable to him. And though he may not have seen or spoken to them in six years, Dave beamed when he described his plans to drive the 25 or 30 hours from Miami to visit them. At the end of their most recent phone call, he told each of his kids that he loved and missed them, and they told him the same. It must have been the first time in over half a decade that he'd heard those words. Was Dave nearly in tears as he described that phone call, or was I imagining it? I'm not sure. Over the course of our encounter he'd also asked me to adopt him more than once.

One thing I am sure of is that it's impossible to jump to conclusions about any one family's story, whether it's mine or Dave's or Madonna's or Rubina Ali's. In every adoption story, someone's loss is another's gain. The knowledge that I wouldn't have my dear, sweet, hilarious, full-of-life kids had someone else not made the impossible decision to place them at the doorsteps of a preschool and an orphanage is something I carry with me every day. Every new accomplishment, milestone and lost tooth I get to witness is an event the mothers and fathers who gave my children life will never get to see.

I have not walked in the shoes of a young woman in rural Hunan, a grandmother in Malawi, a poor man in the slums of Mumbai or a regretful absentee dad in Miami. Some of us are blessed with choices, others must weigh one unthinkable option against the next. When our nails had dried, Lili and I went back to our family, our vacation and our busy lives. But I still haven't been able to leave Dave entirely behind. Pedicures with my daughter will never be the same.