Life After Jessica

UPDATED 09/05/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/05/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

IT IS A STICKY SUMMER EVENING IN Ann Arbor, Mich., and Robby DeBoer is pacing the driveway with her new baby nestled close in his Snugli. "It's all right, little buddy. You just needed some fresh air, didn't you?" she coos to 2½-month-old Casey, who soon falls asleep. Returning inside, Robby hands him to her husband, Jan, and settles into an overstuffed rocker. She seems relaxed, and her eyes are bright with maternal joy, but anxiety seizes her the moment she is asked to discuss Casey's adoption. "It's not finalized, and we're not going to take any steps to jeopardize it," she says, with some irritation. "We can't have something go wrong again."

Things had all gone horribly wrong for the DeBoers in a previous attempt at adoption, when they were forced last August to return their daughter Jessica to her biological parents, Cara and Dan Schmidt, after a wrenching and very public 2½-year court battle. Jan and Robby were paralyzed with grief, and it was only after extensive therapy that they felt ready to adopt the newborn Casey this spring. Now Robby, 37, is going public with her account of the custody battle in a new book, Losing Jessica (Doubleday), in which she vents her frustration at the Schmidts, the judicial system and the pain that both caused her family.

Reviewers have not been kind ("Her self-interest, expressed with extreme emotionalism, underpins this vexed book," says Publishers Weekly), but Robby makes no apologies. "The book is for Jessi, and I'm not going to sugarcoat it," she says. "It's honest and deals with all the emotions we went through." Even the joy of bringing Casey home the first time last June, she adds, was tinged with sadness. "It was wonderful to hold an infant again," says Robby. "But it was bittersweet because of the memory of Jessi."

When asked to describe the day they lost her, the DeBoers shake their heads in silence. Moments later, Robby's mind drifts back to the moment she was told it was time for Jessi to go: "I just kept saying, 'No, it's not.' It was hell, pure hell." Adds Jan: "My forearms started trembling—I could feel the anxiety oozing out of them, knowing it was the last second I was going to hold her." Neither could bear to watch as the wailing Jessica was driven away in a van. Afterward the DeBoers spent two weeks in Sun Valley, Idaho, where Robby was so distraught she rarely got out of bed. Returning to Ann Arbor, the DeBoers had so much pent-up anger they found themselves arguing with each other. "It got loud sometimes," Jan admits. "The emotions were so high, the pain so deep."

With the encouragement of their therapist, Jan, 41, threw himself back into his work as a printer at the University of Michigan, and Robby set out to confront her feelings by writing. She claims to feel little anger toward the Schmidts but describes their limited contact as unsettling. That includes a rambling message left on the DeBoers' answering machine last November, in which Cara talked about how well Jessi (now Anna) was faring and said she "doesn't need to be the freak show that you turned her into anymore." The DeBoers continue to send occasional gifts to the little girl, including a large toy cottage that they later learned the Schmidts had returned to the store. "We have to do what we think is right for Jessi," says Robby, "not what the Schmidts think is right."

For months the DeBoers kept coming across little reminders of Jessica, such as a pair of her tennis shoes that Robby found in the trunk of her car. "She loved to wear tennis shoes without socks, like her mom," Robby says. Both Robby and Jan came to dread the holidays, but on Feb. 8, Jessi's third birthday, Robby woke at dawn and was startled to see the moon lingering in the sky. "It was as if Jessi was there and was smiling," she says. Three months later, when the book was finished, they felt strong enough to try adoption once again. (Robby says Casey was not the first newborn they had the opportunity to adopt since losing Jessica but will not offer any further details.) "Jan and I don't live our lives based on fear," says Robby. "I was in a devastating car accident a couple of years ago, but that doesn't mean I stopped driving."

Still, Robby admits that whenever little Casey takes a big leap forward (cradled in her arms in the kitchen, he smiled for the first time in early July), they can't help but think about the first time Jessi did the same thing. A tiny chair with Jessica's name on it sits not far from the crib where Casey sleeps, and her portrait is next to his on the living-room mantel. "Casey will always know that Jessi was a part of our lives," says Robby. The De-Boers claim they will not try to initiate contact with Jessi, even when she is older. "It is her choice," Robby says, and Jan knows exactly what he would say if the DeBoers' dream of seeing Jessi again comes true: "Give me a hug. I love you."

DAVID GROGAN
FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Ann Arbor

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