I ask how Joanne and Merrel met and learn that she had returned to Idaho to nurse her dying mother, while he, living next door, was nursing his dying wife. After the deaths, they got into a van and just drove, stopping in places that appealed. A small town outside Eugene won their hearts, and there they settled. It's something Eamon and I might have done—did in the case of the house we sit in right now. Merrel keeps his eyes mostly on Joanne. You'd have to be blind to miss how much he cares for her.

She brings up her relationship with God. "I talk to him, just straight, and he always understands and helps. I'm really very religious." Joanna and I exchange looks: We don't go there. I'm a cultural Jew with no religion as such; this is how Jo was raised and what she cleaves to. I say, "It must be really comforting to you" ...or something similar.

Actually, what she's just said about God reminds me of an e-mail in which she'd quoted a life lesson from her adored late father about dealing with a problem: "Think it through, and if there's something to do, do it right now. If there's nothing, forget it and don't worry, because no amount of worry will cure it. So that's how I've lived my life." Which, if literally true, makes her the most worry-free human I've ever met.

But a moment later, I see it's not precisely true, because she turns to me and says, "You know when that man killed his adopted little girl?"

"You mean Joel Steinberg?"

She nods. "I was worried sick then. I mean, they told me at the hospital that my baby was going to a very good home—a doctor and his wife. And that made me feel...easier. But how can anyone really know? Steinberg was a lawyer and rich. They must've told that baby's mother..."

Sympathy floods me. "Yeah," I murmur. Triggered by mention of Steinberg, my head fills with another child-centered story, as iconic a nightmare for me as Steinberg had been for Joanne: a Chicago toddler, snatched, screaming in terror, from his adoptive mother's arms—by court order. This because his birth father had never known of his existence, so had not given his consent to the adoption. Now reunited with his old girlfriend, they felt entitled to "their son." Incredibly, the Illinois Supreme Court (overturning lower-court decisions in favor of the adoption) ruled for ties of blood over ties of life and removed the child from the only home he'd ever known.


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