"I recommend you do not get pregnant again. As your doctor and as a husband, I would say no."

And just like that, a man in a white coat reaches into my future and rips it apart. All my plans of four kids, spaced two to three years apart — gone — replaced with a question mark.

I was diagnosed with peripartum cardiomyopathy a month after Nicole was born. It's a fancy term for unexplained heart disease caused by pregnancy that left me with a weak heart and at risk for heart failure.

I knew the diagnosis meant any plans of more children were seriously in jeopardy, but until the doctor said it, I still held out hope. And while my doctor says it's my body and I can do what I want, he also questions why I would want to push my luck.

So, there it is — the prognosis. And here I am, now in a strange state of mourning the loss of something I never actually had — grieving a hypothetical future, an intangible idea. I haven't lost a child with a name and a face, but the loss is real, nonetheless.

It was real when I gave my maternity clothes to the Salvation Army instead of neatly storing them in the basement for the next one. It's real when I see a family of four who all have the same nose and jaw line, and I have to fight the sting of envy.

It was real when I finally made the call to an adoption agency, which I put off far too long because it seemed to be the final wind to snuff out my hopes of a "normal" family.

Adoption is painfully real.

When I made that phone call, I realized I had not fully prepared myself for what I would say when someone answered: "Um ... hello? I want a baby." It's not something they teach you in the parenting books.

I cried when we went to orientation at the adoption agency and the couples around the room were introducing themselves. Suddenly, it just seemed so real; I was one of those couples sitting there, listening to a man talk about how to get a baby. I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience, watching myself nod politely as he talked about birth mothers and legal fees.

But inside, I was a mess.

Would anyone pick us? What if I don't bond with an adopted baby? Could I love an adopted baby as much, or at least the same way, as I love Nicole?

As I sat there nodding and acting calm, the man showed a picture of a white family — one child looked just like the parents and the other child was Hispanic. It looked like a riddle from the Sesame Street segment of "one of these things is not like the other."

But as I looked closer, all I could see were four smiling faces with arms wrapped tight around each other. They all belonged to each other — biological and adopted.

To be honest (and selfish), I love that Nicole looks like me. I love that she can roll her tongue just like I can. I look at baby pictures of myself and see her in my eyes and chubby cheeks, or I recognize her dad's smirk on her face. I love that she has the same strawberry hair that I did as a child, and even that she has her father's benign heart murmur.

I love all those things that tell me she's mine, but as I looked at that happy family I realized it's not why I love her.

I love her not because she's a piece of my DNA, but because she's a piece of my heart.

And while the muscle may be weak, my heart will never fully heal until all my children claim their piece — however they choose to get here.


E-mail: stewart.erin@gmail.com