I always find myself a twinge sad on Mother’s Day. In recent years, I’ve always attributed it to missing my mom, who passed away when I was thirty-six and she a mere sixty-five in the volcanic aftermath of her voluptuous love affair with cigarettes.
My mother was a force of nature. This might surprise anyone who knew the ladylike self-effacing woman she presented to the world, but my brothers and I know her fierce tenacity in all things she did throughout her life. For the first 20 years, she was a loving daughter and sister, growing up in Northeastern Pennsylvania in coal country. The next twenty shaped her as a Mom, as she married my father straight out of Wellesley, foregoing a possible career in something that remains unclear to this day. My dad tells the story about how he hitched a ride back to the naval base in Boston after visiting Mom, a senior at Wellesley. He got into the car with one of her professors who went on and on about Shirley’s aptitudes as a student, and became forlorn to learn she would be marrying and not carrying on in some pursuit of the mind.
But she did. She threw herself into mothering; both she and my Dad engendered in all of us a love of learning, of reading, of love of the arts, exposing us to frequent museum outings and a hard work ethic and love of our family.
The penultimate chapter detailed her return to the life of the mind, after her divorce, returning to the work force, a short lived application of her library science degree in an actual library at Wilkes College, followed by the insane application at nearly fifty to the Columbia School of Journalism. She completed that program, and began her subsequent life as a journalist in Bethlehem and Palmerton, PA.
The final chapter was underscored by her tragic demise from lung cancer. The last year or so was predictably sad, and no matter how many good times we had, the residue of the hospice days remains always for me a sober reminder of our obsolescence as humans.
Cut to my own motherhood. Twenty-five years ago, Jimmie and I adopted a toddler through the LA Department of Children’s’ Services. Born in Los Angeles, the fost-adopt toddler came from a medically challenged scenario; he had been born to a young mother, who had been unable to care for him. In addition, there were maternal grandparents were unable to raise him.
Chris was prenatally exposed to drugs. He had an older sibling, born to the same mother. His father was no longer alive, according to what we were told; the exact details were unclear.
The adoption worker explained the upcoming process to us:
1) We would undergo the home study and they would check our home to make sure we would be safe fost-adopt parents.
2) We were not allowed to meet Chris unless we agreed up front to accept him. They described this as protecting the child, which was, understandably, their first priority. We agreed.
3) Through the next year or so, the process to “free” Chris of parental rights would happen and then the adoption could go ahead. I remember being worried all through that first year that his birth mother would be in the courtroom on the day when we were going to complete the adoption – all of which could happen, according to the DoCS.
4) I did a lot of research at the library about pre-natal drug exposure and the sorts of things we could expect in terms of learning delays, behavioral issues, etc. The court offered Chris nine months of rehabilitation through the CHIME program at UC Northridge, where he attended classes once a week and spent time with other children who were receiving state-funded learning remediation. Chris’ vocabulary was extremely limited when he came to us. He had only eleven words. Jeep was his name for anything with four wheels; doggie, ball. He added cat shortly after coming to live with us. He had been in a foster-adopt home in Santa Clarita with an older child who was mute and communicated with sign language. Chris would bang the tips of his fingers together to signify his wish for a bottle. Within about a month in our highly verbal home, his vocabulary had expanded to 50 words. Chris was such a social child that he also thrived at the CHIME program.
Our adoption worker kept in touch with us with home visits to see how Chris was adjusting to our lives together. She continued to warn us that if his birth mother got back in touch and challenged her parental rights, we could lose Chris.
I am sorry to say that her absence was a gift to us. My husband and I were so enthralled with our “son,” though the adoption was not finalized for more than a year.
The day we went to the Children’s Court to finalize the adoption, I looked around the courtroom to see if his birth mother was there. The judge asked if anyone had any reason for this adoption to not move forward; I held my breath, but no one spoke up, and Chris became our son.
We took a picture of the judge with Chris sitting on his lap in the courtroom. The picture has faded to a funky green and orange tint with the passage of time, and Chris has a frown on his face in sharp contrast to the broad smiles on Jimmie’s and mine.
Fast forward to 2015, a Friday afternoon late in March, when, as is the case for many major disclosures from Chris, I received a text message that said simply:
C: I think I just found my birth mother and we just talked.
Whoa. It was a staggering revelation, and the details are his to tell. We shared back and forth extensively the details of his discovery. We were alternately thrilled and terrified. In the days immediately following their online reunion, I thought about all the information she shared immediately with him, and was shocked at how frank she had been. Chris remarked more than once since then how candid she has been with him and how much “like him” that is. And he’s right – he is very candid and so, obviously, is she. Thank goodness. There are so many ways that an adopted child’s finding his or her birth mother can go. She was not only ready to hear from him, but also let him know that she had tried to find him.
The whole thing happened so fast that I felt more than a little overwhelmed by the process. This digitally accessible world made the following inevitable: within a few hours, his mother had posted on FB that she had found her son, followed by her other child, Chris’ half sister, posting that she had found her brother who had been “lost to the system.” As the “system” to which Chris was “lost,” I initially took gross offense to that statement, as I’m sure she may take offense from my description of the details at the time of Chris’s placement with us.
It is offensive because it is, of course, only half of the story. There is so much we don’t know about each other, and of course, we have all made assumptions. The story is important and I hope that we can tell it together with candor and compassion.
A few nights after they reconnected, I received several pictures from Chris’ birth mother via FB Messenger, pictures of her grown child and her grandchild, and a few pictures of herself as a baby. In addition, she asked to be friends on FB. I was nervous that she wanted to be a part of our lives, too, but I understand the inevitable hunger from 25 years of separation. While she didn’t say it, I think she wanted me to reciprocate with pictures of Chris as a little boy growing up.
In 1991, as Jimmie and I got ready to welcome a foster child into our home, they asked us to prepare a picture book of pictures of our family that could be shared with Chris so he could “meet his future family”. We included pictures of the two of us, lounging on the grass at our first home in North Hollywood, and pictures of our many pets then – we had three cats and two dogs. We included some pictures of my parents and Jimmie’s parents. They were, of course, at that time, photos that we pulled from photo albums, some of them taken around that time. Excitedly, we drove to the drug store to drop off for processing, then back to pick them up, slipping them between the plastic sleeves of the small 4 x 6 photo book I had purchased for this precious gift for our new child. Not many of us use photo albums any more. We trust our computers and the mysterious “cloud” to store our precious family heirlooms – I worry sometimes that a simple loss of electricity or connectivity could obliterate lifetimes of images for future generations.
That first Sunday night, when I received those few digital photos shared by Chris’ birth mother, it felt almost like the same exercise Jimmie and I had gone through so many years ago– she was preparing us for receiving the new members of our family. And I was, on Sunday, not ready to receive them, or her into our lives.
The social welfare system is complicated. I don’t remember now when all the details about Chris’ birth parents were shared with us, but I think it was sometime after we had fallen in love with our little boy. Which happened immediately. From the minute when the door opened at the foster home in Santa Clarita, and we saw his two foot high body with a mop of black curls and a little pony tail, that 300 watt smile, and his enthusiastic embrace of life, it was over for us. We were completely smitten. There is probably very little information they could have shared with us at that point that would have dissuaded us from loving him. The little information we did receive came months later during the process of “freeing” him from his birth parents.
Even now, three years after Chris found his other mother, the psychological tsunami is strong. I appreciate every day that a hole within Chris’ heart that has been filled by finding his birth mother. The fact that he hasn’t known about where he came from was always clearly a painful gap in his life which he has always shared frankly with us, not to be hurtful at all, but to let us know it has been missing. Shel Silverstein, “The Missing Piece,” was one of Chris’ favorite books when he was young.
And Chris has found not only his birth mother, but his birth sister, and her children as well. They met shortly after his discovery, and then he met his birth mom. Life is rich and full of surprises and I am thrilled that we know more about his roots. Especially now that he’s a father.
So here are a few photos from the journey together up until today. Because we are all only the mothers that our children allow us to be.