One recent afternoon, as I attempted to spray paint an old lamp while simultaneously wrangling our newly adopted golden retriever, my son discovered a ladybug. He was immediately seized by a Big Idea. Sullivan wanted to fashion a cage of some sort and make her his pet. I looked down at his four-year-old self, his pleading eyes alight with excitement, and sighed. Glancing back at my lamp, I stripped off my paint-splattered gloves and headed for the kitchen to find Tupperware. My boy set to work with glee, adding sycamore leaves and pansy petals before gently lowering his insect into her new digs, whispering, “It’s okay, buggy lady. You’ll be safe. And I’ll remember to feed you.” With all the careful precision he could muster, he peered down intently and stroked her speckled orange shell with his index finger before adding a hole-poked cover.

I did, however, put my foot down when Sullivan started inside with a plan to have her sleep on his pillow that night. We discussed housing the bug in the shade of the porch while we picked up his big sister from school, and then letting it fly free before bedtime. Initially reluctant, but eventually sympathetic to the insect’s needs for fresh air and freedom, he acquiesced.

Later, as I was putting away my paints, I chanced upon Sullivan cradling the bughouse in his lap as he slowly rocked her on the swing. “Buggy Lady,” I heard him coo, “You’re going to be my forever pet, okay? Won’t you like that?”

Forever pet. I knew where he’d picked up that term. For the previous two years, my husband, Eli, and I had pursued adoption. We’d always wanted three children, and after struggling through infertility and two complicated pregnancies, adoption was our best bet for bringing a third child into our life. We lived through 18 months of prep work: weighing domestic versus international, selecting an agency, creating our family profile (a glossy print version, as well as a video featuring footage of the four of us frolicking at a park), hiring a social worker, receiving the call that we’d finally been chosen by a pregnant woman named Angie, sending her care packages, flying to Texas to meet her and show her photos of our children and home, paying hefty fees to the agency and its lawyers, and hoping all the while.

During those expectant months, we’d purchased a variety of adoption-themed picture books to acquaint Sullivan (then four) and Madeline (then six) with the idea. “Forever family” is a term used heavily in those stories. As in, “Luke’s forever family helped him write a letter to his birth mother.” In hindsight I’m relieved that Eli and I managed to achieve a balance between preparing our kids for a new sibling, while also protecting them from possible disappointment. We talked up the virtues of adoption in general, but never explicitly told them we were expecting a baby in January. When Madeline asked why her dad and I were flying to Texas for that initial weekend visit, I said, “You know that pregnant lady we’ve been chatting with on the phone? She wants to meet Daddy and me because she’s trying to decide about giving her baby up for adoption.”

Later that afternoon, while Sullivan’s “forever pet” explored her habitat, the kids and I worked our way through first grade pickup, walking the dog, “quiet time,” homework, a Girl Scout sewing project, soccer practice, and finally a quick dinner out. Our spirits were high as we returned home—the kids donned PJ’s and chose mini Snickers from their leftover Halloween bags for dessert.

And that’s when it must have hit Sullivan: the tragedy of his impending loss. I returned from switching over the laundry to find my peppy giggle boy transformed into a sad-sack weeping mess, his tender heart having just fully realized the hour and looming departure of his now-beloved pet. His cries, largely unintelligible, were punctuated by dramatic sniffles and rivers of tears, and seemed mostly to be about needing his ladybug to be his “forever pet.” As he carried on, he clutched the Tupperware to his chest.

I cannot deny that on previous similar occasions, with bedtime already passed and essentials such as tooth-brushing, tidying up, and stories as yet unaccomplished, I have snapped impatiently at the little sniveler, chastising him for his whining.

But tonight, just as that familiar sharp edge was about to rise in my throat, it was arrested by the scene before me: Madeline climbing down from her chair, walking around to

Sully’s side of the table and offering a hug. Sully blinked at her and paused his anguished wails to accept his big sister’s offer, his shoulders slumped and grateful.

“What’s your pet’s name, Sully?” she asked, in her “little mother” comforting voice—a voice which, I must say, relieves me to see at all in her repertoire. “Groppo,” he managed to croak out between torso-wracking sobs. “Oh,” said Madeline, “That’s a great name. I know you want Groppo to be your forever pet, but she’s not really yours. Want me to help let her go? We can say goodbye together.”

Say goodbye. That is something my husband and I didn’t get to do back in Texas. What we did get, though, was one beautiful day with the child we thought we were adopting. We’d already picked out a name and assembled a crib in the nursery. It was waiting for him, along with his soon-to-be siblings and grandparents, back home in California. We arrived just after his birth, and spent the next 24 hours feeding him, changing him, swaddling him, and studying him. His upcurled eyelashes, the fine web of veins on his eyelids, his quietly rhythmic breathing. I imagined cradling the soft, flour-sack weight of him in my arms and crouching down low to introduce Madeline and Sullivan upon our return home. I envisioned them lightly brushing his apricot-soft cheeks with the backs of their small hands, and whispering his name: Anthony.

On our third day in Texas, while Eli and I were out picking up lunch for Angie, she got dressed and walked out of the hospital. Just like that, she left with her son—not ever our son, really—and vanished from our lives. When the man at the front desk matter-of-factly informed us that no, we could not go up to her room because she’d already checked out, I was baffled. Clutching our bag of deli sandwiches, I scanned the waiting room for the two of them. “Of course they’re here, right?” I asked Eli. “She must be waiting somewhere else.”

But the look on Eli’s face yanked me out of that false reality. He’d already noticed her car missing from the lot, but hadn’t said anything. He’d already pieced together the fact that she must have buckled the baby into our infant car seat, which we’d brought from home and left in her room. Without it, Angie could not have legally taken him from the hospital. But she had it, and she had him, and she drove away.

At first Eli and I clung to the hope that Angie would change her mind. After frantic calls to her cell, to our adoption coordinator, and also our social worker, we decided to wait three more days in Texas. The two of us rattled around the motel room, checking our phones and bumping into the large collapsible bassinette we’d cheerfully requested upon arrival. We should have had someone come take it away. Later, when we finally checked out, we informed the front desk that there were a bunch of baby supplies in our room—newborn diapers, footed infant pajamas, feather-soft swaddling blankets—and perhaps someone else could use them.

On the plane, Eli and I held hands and cried. We poked and prodded at all the dangling questions surrounding our loss. Did Angie plan this all along? Did we do something to offend her at the hospital? Was her departure born of an impulsive, emotional moment of doubt? How much money, exactly, had our adoption agency released to her for living expenses? For my part, I agonized that perhaps she’d detected some dark flaw in me that made me unworthy of her son. For Eli, there was a lot of anger. For both of us, an unwelcome cynicism edged its way into our understanding of the past two years. It wasn’t the money: at least a portion of our adoption agency’s fees would be refunded. It was however, in some part, a discomfiting sense of having been had. Of having been swindled out of so much emotional and mental energy, so much time that otherwise would have been spent nurturing and enjoying our family of four.

On the day when Angie first went into labor, Eli and I were 20 minutes into Madeline’s seventh birthday party. We had four lanes of jubilant guests at our local bowling alley. Pizza was being served, and our daughter’s favorite cake and ice cream were at the ready. Upon receiving the call, the two of us hurriedly delegated all hosting responsibilities to my parents, and urged friends to take plenty of photos. Riding a tide of enthusiastic well-wishes, we gave Madeline and Sullivan frantic kisses, and then dashed off to the airport. We didn’t want to miss the birth.

Over the following months, we eventually managed to move past regret and to stop grasping at unanswerables. Angie is the only one who could possibly set the record straight, and we haven’t heard from her. So when questions about our loss loom ahead in my mind’s eye, taunting and pointing me toward a place of bitterness and self-pity, I avert my mental gaze. There are plenty of other things in my field of vision upon which my eyes can thankfully alight.

On the evening of Sullivan’s ladybug escapade, Eli was working, so it was just Madeline and I who walked him out to the porch. With his thumb and forefinger, my boy gravely peeled back the plastic wrap and lifted his pet up to the night air. After a tap on the Tupperware, she took flight and was gone. The three of us watched in silence.

I then pulled both kids into a hug so that we could honor Sully’s sorrow and share in his mourning together. Of course that was when the dog bounded onto the porch and needled her big wet muzzle into the embrace, which brought blessed giggles all around. That night I heard our laughter. I recognized a sound both familiar and strange. It was the sound of healing.