catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 9 :: 2005.05.06 — 2005.05.19


Twice adopted

My mother has a picture of the day my sister and I were brought home from the adoption agency. At times, I think I know that picture quite well in all of its detail and nuances and at other times, I wonder if I have conflated it with other pictures taken of us when we were younger: our coats and hats, our earnest faces and wrinkled foreheads, trying to stay bright and happy for the picture as we squinted in the sun. In fact, by my calculations, my sister would have only been six months old for the coming-home-from-the-agency picture and would not have been standing at all, but would have been held by my father or mother, whoever wasn?t taking the picture. If it was my father, he had light brown hair with long sideburns and would have been beaming. If it was my mother, she would have assuredly been sporting a Jackie Kennedy-looking dress and hair, about the same color as my father?s, teased around her face. They were attractive, young and in their first pastorate. Over the door of the manse hung a sign for my sister and me: ?Welcome home Ann and Leigh.?

I remember the story, too. They could not have a child of their own and so they applied to adopt. They had requested one child, a newborn, although in the telling I think it is softened?or I imagine it was softened?to they were expecting

one child, although they never soften the newborn part. However, the adoption agency called and said that these two cute young girls had come to them, would they be interested? Well, this threw them into a tizzy, for, I believe, there was some sort of time limit placed upon their decision, although in most of our family tales, there is usually some sense of urgency in the actions and motivations of the characters involved, some sense of quick response to what is believed to be ?God?s call.? They decided that this must be ?it,? and I?m not sure if this decision came upon seeing us, or they had some sense of it before, but they took us home.

Somehow, as would happen often in our family history, the church had gotten word and became involved. While my parents were at the agency picking us up, church members had filled the nursery with clothes for two girls, decorated the house for Christmas and laid out toys for the two of us under the tree. Initially, the church had thrown a baby shower for one child. Was this shower in response to a possible adoption that never came through? Was it based on my parents? desires for one child, preferably a newborn? I have never inquired. Even as an adult, I am so lulled into the singsong of the telling that I never bother to ask myself the hard questions, to believe that there are hard questions to ask. I fall into the sense of the ?specialness,? the ?choseness,? the ?divine providence,? words that are especially important to my father. Over the years he would tell us that we were ?chosen.? When I grew up I found out how common it is to tell an adopted child this, but to my father, I believe, it signified more than human choice. I believe what he meant by this was that the choice was also God?s, that God put us all together.

One of my first memories was standing by a spindle bed holding a Barbie. I want to say the Barbie was my first toy, or my first remembered toy. It was certainly a favorite, for out of that plastic flesh colored doll would spring a Barbie empire, complete with a Ken doll, a Barbie house, a Barbie convertible, a Barbie bike and hours and hours of soap opera-like scenarios spun out by my sister and me in which Barbie goes on dates and changes her clothes a thousand times, thanks to the outfit-a-week purchase I made with my dollar allowance.

I have memories, too, of that first church where my father preached, the rich red carpet, the velvet seats, the dark carved pews and walls and stained glass. My father had a voice that could roll up the aisles and sprinkle goose pimples over your flesh and he spoke with a kind of consuming, dramatic resonance that seemed to my young mind like something dangerous and unpredictable. Away from his place at the pulpit, he was a mild-mannered man and allowed me to comb his fine brown hair with a Barbie brush. My Mom would hold us, a child over either leg and rock us to sleep, singing a sorority song that I thought sounded like the saddest song I?d ever heard. She cooked for us. She made dresses and Halloween costumes. She catered to our need to dress up and pretend that we were glamorous ladies.

And yet, there were dark early memories. A dream or reality? A nightlight in the hallway of the very large manse. A storm brewing outside, the lightening cracking. My sister and I chasing each other in circles, screaming. Did we not know where to go? Did someone not hear us? Would no one come? Our shadows on the wall, adding to the terror, the unreality. One time during a storm like this I raced to my parents? room and my mother asked, immediately, ?Where is your sister? Did you just leave her in the room all alone?? This was my first memory of letting Mom down?that I had not, in my self-centered three year old reality, even imagined what she wanted of me. And then there was the guilt of leaving my sister, the sense I was a terrible sister, in fact.

And then there was the dark that no one would ever see, the dark that would still haunt me more than thirty years later. Angry mother. Burns. Forced feedings until my sister threw up. Pressing my face into soiled linens when I got sick in my bed. Angry words. Hurt inside. Smile so hard. ?Smile although your heart is breakingthese are words from a song I remember my mother liking and singing quite frequently, although usually applied to a romantic situation involving unrequited love. My mother was a puzzle. My mother was an enigma. She became more and more complicated as I grew and yearned for her to love me.

I was a pleaser and my sister was more rebellious but popular. Our brother, also adopted, was a dropout and the black sheep. Eventually he died in a car accident, alone, at night, after drinking with friends. He skidded on wet streets and crashed into a bush. Was he drunk? The papers did not say, did not mention alcohol in any form, I noticed with a strange sort of bitterness that shamed me?another cover-up of the fraud we were. My father was by this time the pastor of a 5,000-member church, moving up and climbing, while the rest of us were falling around him like flies. In a few years, I would be mentally ill. Also in a few years, my mother would still be weeping unexpectedly and uncontrollably in public places because of her grief over my brother.

During my senior year in college, my past came knocking. My biological grandfather had found my parents, tracing my father through his various pastorates. My parents gathered my sister and me from our respective colleges and told us about this unexpected turn of events. They wanted to give us the chance to choose what we would do with this information: whether or not we wanted to know more. A secret thrill ran through me that I would at last learn more about my history. I had always been the one to ask my sister if she was curious about where we came from, but she always frowned and told me to hush up and leave her alone. Of course I wanted to know, but I tried to disguise my desire to show my loyalty to my parents. I tried to mask how excited and curious I was when they handed over the envelope containing a letter from my grandfather. This letter explained my mother?s life and her death, suicide. It also contained pictures of her and my sister and I when we were younger. The pictures of my mother looked like me, I thought, especially the ones of her when she was in her early twenties. And my half brother looked like me, too. Eventually, we met my grandfather and I noticed that his hands were like mine: large. I had always hated my hands and now I knew. They were someone?s. They belonged. They made sense now and that made them beautiful. It must have taken a tremendous effort for my parents to hand over that envelope, to be on the other side of a very large coin, to see that they had chosen and now their daughters were choosing something not instead of, perhaps, but in addition to.

I felt that I might understand more about my identity from my grandfather, that I might find some of my groundedness there, that I might learn of a different mother, maybe one who loved me even though she had given me up. My biological father, who was still alive, had been told what my grandfather was doing, but wanted no part of it?a small hit, but it was the mother?s love that I sought. I eventually got myself entangled with what was left of my biological family. I went to my half brother?s high school graduation party. I also received a journal of my mother?s that she kept several months before her suicide. It was fragmented and strange, even though she was a smart woman, having gotten her PhD after she put my sister and me up for adoption.

What I got from this family was anything but groundedness. Demanding relatives began to emerge who struck me as unstable. I began to feel unsafe. Around the same time, my grandfather wrote to say he was backing off from our relationship. I never figured out why or what I had done wrong. I had been diagnosed as bipolar and as a part of figuring this out, had asked him about the family?s history with mental illness. Maybe he was worried I was going down the same road as his daughter. He used to say I looked like her. Maybe he was breaking off contact in case it was causing a problem for me or in case it was going to mean another heartbreak for him should I do the things that she had done. How easy it had been for him to come in, stir things up and leave. I wrote him an angry note, which was no doubt the tip of the iceberg for me mentally. The old self would have stuffed the anger down, but something inside was coming unleashed.

Then my grandfather shared the letter with my adoptive father. My father called me and demanded to know what I was doing, hurting an old man like that, who was I and where was his sweet girl. Siding with my grandfather, he seemed to be using this as an opportunity to voice certain frustrations of his own about me, this disturbing new me that he appeared not to like. I felt that my entire past was lined up against me, and I felt myself slipping away as my father yelled and yelled and yelled. Just who was I? he wanted to know. Who was I, indeed. I couldn?t have told him for the life of me. And behind the panic and the anger and the loud words was the frustration at the mess I was making of his vision of that perfect chosen family that, even though my brother had died, he had managed to maintain and to hold up to his congregation.

Four years later, I know better how to answer that question. Though I am tempted to answer it by saying I am a child of a minister whose ambition trumped the needs of his family, or I am a child of a unsatisfied mother, or I a child of a woman who gave me up for adoption and twelve years later killed herself, or I am a grandchild of a man who eventually decided I was too much for him or too little, I know better. These labels could drag me down to the depths of self-pity or despair. These labels could hem me in and fill my head with self-doubt and derision. ?Why doesn?t anyone want you they could very well demand, as they have demanded of me in the past.

The good news for me is that my true identity is as a child of God: ?Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God?children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband?s will, but born of God? (John 1:12-13).

Today, my sister and I are very close. We have weathered many storms together and now we take care of each other?s children and share each other?s burdens. Though I know my true identity, it still unfolds for me daily. As I grow closer to God, I pray that I might be strengthened by this knowledge, for in the face of my past that is still ever present, my only hope is in God my Father, who is the only one who can break its hold. My sister sent me an e-mail today, sharing a helpful passage: ?Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me? (Psalm 27:10).

your comments

comments powered by Disqus