I changed my name from Moskowitz to Goldstein when I married my first husband, Steven in 1996. As Jewish names go, I considered it a lateral move. Steve was 29, and when he wore glasses, people said he looked like the actor Rick Moranis. Five years after our wedding, on September 11th, Steve went to work. He had just started at Cantor Fitzgerald three weeks prior and, as the “new guy”, was determined to be the first one in every morning. He never came home.
My life seemed essentially over at 33, but I couldn’t dive off the deep end because we had two children who needed me. Hanna was three at the time, and her little brother Harris would celebrate his first birthday the following week.
One morning, after months filled with blurry, robotic days, I was walking Hanna to her friend Jules’ house for a play date. She looked up at me, her face an exact carbon copy of her dad’s with smiling eyes and full, Angelina Jolie lips, and asked, “Are we ever going to get another daddy?” I needed a moment to steady myself before answering. Undoubtedly, Hanna and Harris deserved a father, but that meant I would have to marry again. It was inconceivable that I would ever love another man the way I loved Steve.
As more time went on, I realized how much I missed not only being married to Steve, but simply being married. I wanted someone to laugh with about the ridiculous American Idol contestants, hold hands with while falling asleep and even argue with over the electric bill. Gradually, the idea of sharing my life with someone else, and giving Hanna and Harris the chance to grow up with a father seemed less repulsive. I would never let go of Steve, but so much of him lived on through the kids.
Fourteen months after Steve’s death, I was fixed up with a man named Eric Goldstein. At six foot-three, with dark skin and thick black hair, he looked nothing like Steve. Yet, with similar laid-back dispositions and welcoming smiles, they had more than just the last name in common. During our first phone conversation I learned Eric was divorced and shared custody of his two sons. When he told me their names were Jacob and Harris I laughed, assuming he was joking.
“No seriously, what are their names?” I asked.
“I swear they really are Jacob and Harris.”
“My son’s name is Harris too,” I said in disbelief.
During the next year, Eric and I fell in love. We eventually got engaged, and bought a house together. Our first order of business was to figure out how to differentiate between the two Harrises. We decided to use their middle names: Harris Corey was Eric’s son and Harris Adam was mine. Eric and I, along with Jacob, Hanna, Harris Corey and Harris Adam moved in to our newly constructed house in March of 2004.
In May of that year, I married Eric and became Mrs. Goldstein for the second time. Hanna and Harris Adam were over the moon. I pointed out how lucky they were to have two daddies, one in heaven and one here. We decided to use the monikers “daddy Steve” and “daddy Eric,” to specify.
In October 2005, Eric approached me to ask if he could legally adopt Hanna and Harris Adam. He wasn’t trying to replace Steve, but felt it was important that Hanna and Harris grow up with the security that came along with legalizing a decision; much like getting married did to an engagement. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for Eric, but I also felt guilty and sad. I knew this was the best thing for my children, but I wondered what it meant for Steve. Would he still be their father?
Hanna and Harris seemed overjoyed with the idea and wanted it to happen as quickly as possible. The background checks, letters of reference and fingerprints seemed invasive, but went smoothly. On March 9, 2006, we were scheduled to appear before a judge to officially sign the papers. I had no reservations until the night before the hearing.
“Did you hear that?” Eric shook me awake asking at 2 a.m. The sound of muffled voices was coming from the hallway. We opened our bedroom door and saw Hanna. She seemed puzzled and kept repeating, “we have to go, we have to go,” while dragging her little brother down the hallway. Realizing she was sleepwalking, we tucked both kids back in their beds. Back in ours, Eric conked out right away, but I was shaken. I feared Hanna’s nightmare was some kind of omen warning me not to go through with the adoption.
The next morning all six of us drove to the courthouse. In the cavernous waiting area, the kids started bickering. Hanna broke down in a heap of sobs. “I don’t want to be adopted,” she said. I scooped her up in my arms and ran toward the bathroom, just as the judge called our case. I told our attorney I needed a moment. “We can’t ask a judge to wait too long, you need to hurry up,” was her curt reply.
In the bathroom I picked up my 8 year-old little girl, placed her on the cracked Formica countertop and said, “Hanna, you don’t have to do this. We can get in the car right now and go home.” She blurted out, “I don’t want daddy Steve to be mad at me.” I couldn’t hold back my sobbing. “Hanna, daddy Steve will always be your father. Nothing can ever change that.” I continued, “but Eric will do the things daddy Steve can no longer do, like take you to father-daughter dances and cheer at your recitals. You don’t have to make a choice, you can have them both,” I offered.
“So daddy Steve won’t be mad at me for doing this?” she asked.
“No, angel, it’s what he would have wanted. But you have to do what feels right in your heart,” I added.
“I want daddy Eric to adopt me,” she said with relief.
We went into the courtroom. I clutched Hanna on my lap. I didn’t want to minimize the gratitude I felt toward Eric, nor take anything away from this meaningful day, so I didn’t share the bathroom encounter with him.
That June, I got a letter from our attorney. It said they needed to issue new birth certificates for the kids and gave the address where to send the $54 fee. I was about to comply, but something wasn’t sitting right. “In order for the courts to issue new birth certificates they need to remove Steve’s name and replace it with Eric’s,” said my attorney.
I was in shock. Steve was their biological father, the one who cried witnessing their births, the one who was supposed to walk Hanna down the aisle. Three and a half years later, the letter and payment instructions still sit in a folder in my file cabinet. I can’t bring myself to send it in. I’m hoping, since we are all “Goldsteins,” nobody will notice.
Jill Goldstein is a freelance writer living in Short Hills, New Jersey. Her inspiring essays about overcoming tragedy and starting over have been featured in magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Parents, Option B and the successful book, “Chicken Soup for the Girlfriends Soul.” You can read all about Jill’s story in her blog, My Life in Blue Jeans.