The life I’m not living

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This is the family I don’t have – my birthmother, Linda, in the middle, with my brothers and sisters (l to r) Robert, Julie, Betsy, and Andy around her. The man in the back is Linda’s husband. This picture was taken this summer at the get-together they have every year with all of their families at their cottage on the lake up north.

I don’t know my siblings, and they don’t even know I exist. My birthmother knows who I am and where I am, but wants nothing to do with me.

I think they’re probably an average upper middle-class family, with their ups and downs like everyone else. They’ve done well financially thanks to the start given them by my grandparents and the business they built and handed on to my bmom, who handed it on to my sisters when she and her husband retired several years ago.

They go to church in their small town and are very involved in it. Bmom and hubby are involved in the community volunteering, clubs, etc., as are my two sisters, who still live in that town. My brothers are in two different states far away. All my siblings have children – lots of them – and I’m sure all of their families are nice, but with their joys and sorrows, too. Betsy, for example, is divorced, and I’m sure that’s been hard.

I don’t imagine I have a single thing in common with any of them. I might have, if I’d been raised with them. I would have been the oldest; one of 5 children, rather than an only child. My whole life would have been very different, and I think about that a lot.

I think about the moment that changed my bmom’s and bdad’s lives, and sent my life hurtling in a completely different direction than the one I might have experienced. There was a moment in the summer of 1961 when Linda told Richard (Dick) she was pregnant, and he walked away and left her on her own to “solve the problem.” In the space of an instant following her telling, and before his response, my life balanced precariously between What Will Be and What Could Have Been.

The moment in which he turned his back on her was the moment I became a different person than I was just seconds before. Instead of Linda and Richard’s daughter, I became Byron and Colleen’s daughter. In that instant I became the only child of an uncomfortable mother and a wonderful but weak father, destined for a lonely, difficult life marred by depression. My bmom went on with her life, my bdad on with his – my life simply a footnote in theirs. A blip on the screen that maybe sent a little pang of sadness through them in later years, perhaps.

Linda married someone else, had four more children and has lived a comfortable (from the outside it looks really good) life. Dick was a Vietnam veteran and (when he came back) an alcoholic and died young. Whatever. They had choices. They made them and went on.

I had no choice. I had a troubled childhood, but that may have been my lot anyway. If Linda had married Dick and I had grown up with them, I may have had a difficult childhood living with an alcoholic and/or experienced a “broken” family if they had divorced. If Linda had made the choice to keep me in spite of Dick’s abandonment, I might have been in that family photo above as the oldest sister, or she may have faltered as a single mother and we would have both suffered in poverty. Or she might have married someone else completely and who knows then what our lives would have been like?

It’s all What If.

There are a lot of What If moments in everybody’s lives. I have a bunch and I have regrets, but this is the one that haunts me. I think what bothers me about it is that it isn’t my What If. I think about it all the time. It might have been different. I might have been different, but it wasn’t my choice. I look at that photo (and the ones from other years) and I think how lucky my brothers and sisters are to have each other and to have their own families, and to have grown up with young fun parents who had enough money to have a vacation cottage and to give their kids a good start in life with college paid for and a ready-made successful business to hand them.

None of that happened for me, but as I said, it might not have anyway. Life is a web – break one string and the others vibrate and change shape. I grew up with a wonderful father and a grandmother who was everything to me, and for that I’m very grateful. I’m too old now to blame my failures (or my successes) on my childhood anyway. It happened the way it did and that’s just the way it is. It’s water under the bridge, and it’s only hard for me to remember that now because I’m so unhappy in my current circumstances and the thought of a different life seems appealing. I could have made choices in my life that had led me down a different path, too, so I take responsibility for where I find myself now.

That’s not what this is about. There are times when I can’t help but think about that moment, and the life I’m not living and the family I don’t have. And sometimes it makes me feel better for a short time to think that it’s not fair and it’s not my fault.

But…of course it is.

It’s just what happened and all any of us has to work with is this moment and what’s happening now. The rest is gone.

Frankly, even If I could make it so, I’m not sure I would change any of it. I do not believe that things happen for a reason, and I don’t believe in destiny or divine providence or anything remotely like that. But I do believe in karma and I don’t believe you can avoid the lessons you were meant to have in this life. I think I’m probably living exactly the way I was meant to live and most of it is my fault. My choices, my consequences.

Happy belated birthday, Linda. I wish you and your family well.

 

Mother’s Day isn’t all cards and flowers

My birthmother lives less than 100 miles from me. I know who she is, where she lives, and she know where I am, too. We’ve corresponded – almost 10 years ago – through an intermediary before we knew who the other was.

She doesn’t want to meet me, and has not contacted me since we stopped writing in 2009. I wrote to her a couple of years ago to inform her that my address and phone # had changed. I’m always hopeful that she’ll change her mind. I received no response.

She has 4 other children and other family in the area. I have 2 brothers, two sisters, several nieces and nephews, and an aunt that lives close by, as well. I don’t know any of them. My aunt showed up as a “Close Family” DNA match on Ancestry.com a few months ago, but she hasn’t contacted me. I don’t know if she knows who I am or not. My birthmother wrote that she hadn’t told anyone other than her current husband when they married in the 1960s. My aunt was probably too young to have been aware of what my bmom was going through then, so it’s entirely possible she didn’t know about me. Apparently she doesn’t want to know.

I don’t understand it. I just wanted to meet her. That’s all. I have a family, and honestly the whole idea of “mother” is fraught with peril for me. That’s not what I want or need, either. I just wanted to hear her voice, see the way she walks, the way she moves her hands when she talks. I wanted to know if I am like her.

I know I don’t look much like her. I have her coloring and that’s about it. My face is my birthfather’s almost exactly, and my guess is that’s why she doesn’t want anything to do with me. He hurt her, and I get that. I’m not him, but I’m sure I’m all wrapped up in those bad memories. Hard to process that I’m an adult with a life now; not the baby she had to leave behind. In our correspondence, I got the sense that she is not that self-aware, and that she put that experience out of her mind – quite literally – some time ago, and hasn’t looked back.

She doesn’t feel like she owes me anything, and I agree. I don’t imagine we have much in common – I know she’s very involved in her church, and she’s very conservative politically. Ditto my sisters, who are soccer moms and live near their mother. My brothers both live out of state, and I don’t know much about them. Thanks to the internet, I know where they all live and what they look like. I’m grateful for that.

My birthfather is dead. He died in 1999, after a shortened, difficult life. He never married or had other children. He died of alcoholism. I have been in touch with his oldest brother, who was very gracious and sent me my bdad’s senior picture. He was a veteran of the Vietnam War, and my uncle said he was never right after he came back. Very sad.

All of my bgrandparents are dead. My birthmother’s mother died just a short time before we started writing. Her brother died a few years ago. He was old enough at the time of my birth to know what was going on, so bmom’s secret died with him and my bgrandparents, except for her husband, who I’m certain she didn’t tell about my recent contact.

So I know alot, and that has been a great thing. Just knowing that there were actual people involved in my birth made me feel more like I belong here, which I didn’t much as a kid. I’m a genealogy nut, so I’ve traced both families back as far as I can, and that’s been cool, too. The DNA thing was profoundly satisfying. As it turns out I really am the whitest white girl in America – 100% England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Knowing that meant a lot to me.

But it’s not enough. I want to meet her. I want to look in her eyes, smell her perfume, see her smile. That’s all. No one needs to know; just an hour or so, in a neutral town where no one knows either of us.

But she can’t do it. She has rejected me once again. This time it’s actually me she’s said “no” to. I’m a person now, not a baby she never saw or felt a connection to (her words).

On the shows like “Long Lost Family” and on the internet people get all dewy-eyed at the thought of a “reunion.” People hug and cry and express love to people they’ve just met and everyone feels all warm and fuzzy about it.

But this is the reality for most of us. No reunion, no happy ending. No cameras rolling.

Just the emptiness of rejection all over again.

 

 

Wasting Away

“To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing, to contemplate the beautiful thing: that is enough for one man’s life.”
T.S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism

I caught up with a childhood friend yesterday on Facebook. She and I were best friends and neighbors until she moved away when we were both 14. I’ve seen her once since then – 30 years or so ago when she came back to town to visit her mother – but then we lost touch. It was nice to see pictures of her now and to hear about her life, but it made me sad, too.

When asked to superficially describe my life I find the only thing I’m comfortable talking about is my work. I don’t want to admit that much of my life was determined by the severity and duration of the chronic depression I’ve struggled with since high school, and the rest by my obligation to my parents. I feel good about myself and the fact that I’ve survived the depression and done right by my family, until I’m talking to someone else, especially someone I grew up with. Then I find that I feel that – compared to them – I’ve wasted my life. Or, at least, that I have nothing to show for it.

On the face of it, anyway. In the condensed Facebook version you can’t see how much I’ve grown as a human, or what I went through just to be alive now. On the surface, it seems like maybe I took the “easy way out” by staying in my hometown and living a “small” life by myself. Maybe I was lazy or scared and couldn’t manage anything more important or exciting. Or more normal. 

What’s not clear is that my life has been the hardest way out, for me, anyway, because none of it is what I wanted or dreamed of. I’ve had to deal with the worst things I could imagine as a child – never getting away from my family and being alone all my life. I didn’t ask for depression; it just took over. I didn’t ask to have the parents I got or to feel obligated to them. I didn’t choose any of the things that made other choices impossible as my life went on. I have always just made the best of what I was given, which in terms of freedom to choose, was not a lot.

In the vast realm of human suffering, my life doesn’t even register on the scale, but it was hard for me. It’s been a struggle. I don’t have anything to show for it except that I AM STILL HERE. Still getting out of bed every morning and facing the days as they come. Going through a very difficult time right now and hoping that things will get better, but knowing they may not for a while, and still getting out of bed.

Every. Single. Day.

That’s worth something, isn’t it? Not giving up? Still trying to be a good person, and trying to do the right thing. Isn’t that valuable? I think so. But it doesn’t condense well, and that will always be a problem for me, as much of what goes on between people never goes below the surface.

I know, though. I know the whole story and I know I’m alright. My life has been worthwhile. I haven’t wasted anything. Most importantly, the ending hasn’t been written yet. There is more to come and I will keep showing up for whatever it is with the best that I have to offer.

 

Throw me a line

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I spent most of yesterday at the hospital with my nearly 86 year-old mother. First we were in the Emergency Department, then later she was admitted for an overnight stay and some tests this morning. (She’s home again now and everything’s going to be okay.)

What struck me most about the day when I finally got home last night and thought about it was the waiting. There is no sense of urgency in the ED these days. We’ve been fairly frequent visitors since I moved in with mom 5+ years ago, and it doesn’t seem to me that it has always been as bad as it was yesterday, but waiting is definitely a big part of that experience.

There’s no choice but to gut it out, though, cuz the fact that you’re miserable and that it might be their job to ease your misery as if it were an emergency, clearly does not seem to register with anyone there. It makes me wonder how these people are being trained, and maybe even why they wanted to be in a “helping” profession in the first place. Didn’t they know they were going to have to deal with sick people?

The most helpful thing they did in the 5+ hours we were there was to admit mom into the actual hospital, which was a completely different experience. Thank goodness.

Anyway, that’s another blog. Back to waiting

I had an epiphany sitting in the uncomfortable chair in the little room in the ED in which my mother was on a gurney writhing and moaning in pain, and we were waiting for someone to decide to do something. I realized that I’ve been waiting for my mother all of my life. Waiting for her to let me go. Waiting for her to grow up and realize that she was the parent. Waiting to begin the life I dreamed of, not the life she envisioned for me with her as the center and my own needs secondary (read: non-existent).

There are a lot of dynamics at play in our relationship, adoptee guilt, fear of abandonment and need to please not being the least of them. I take responsibility for my choices – I could have walked away and never looked back, certainly. That’s not my nature, though, and there were other reasons I gave in to the manipulation, so I own my decisions. I spent a fair amount of time in therapy a while ago working through the resentment, so that’s not really an issue anymore, and I am certainly here now with her since my dad died by choice. I have been a good daughter to her and my dad and I feel good about that. I think it matters. 

But I realized yesterday that now instead of waiting and hoping she will change, I am waiting for her to die. I think about the changes I’ll make in my life after she passes and that makes me feel hopeful about the future in a way I’ve never experienced before. Being tied to her and her needs has always been a given, a limiting factor in my life, and the end of that is in sight now. I’m not wishing for her death, and it is most likely years away, but it’s no longer a lifetime away.

It seems a little ghoulish, but I’m making plans for my life without her and Iooking forward to that time, much the same way I’m looking forward to retirement. To me both those things represent the freedom – the liberation – I’ve been hoping for all of my life.

I felt a little guilty last night when I realized I was thinking in those terms, but there it is. It’s probably just rationalization, but I feel like I have done my time, and it’s not horrible for me to be thinking about my mother’s demise as a good thing. My parents have lived good long lives, and in a lot of ways I eased the way for them, certainly for my mother. I served my parents well and when that service comes to an end, I will be free and clear. All debts paid, and a clean slate before me on which to write the rest of my story.

No more waiting then – for anything or anyone. I have a lot to catch up on!

 

Apples and trees, near and far

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I was adopted as an infant, so there’s a lot I don’t know about my genetic medical history. I was in touch with my birthmother via letters for a brief time, 10 years ago or so, so I do know a couple of things about her medical history – she had breast cancer – but nothing more current.

I know my birth parents’ names and being a genealogist, I have traced back those family lines as far as I can. So I also know the cause of death of immediate relatives on both sides, but nothing more than that medically – just what killed them. I did a DNA test several years ago, but that doesn’t tell me much beyond what ethnicity I am. The upshot is that I don’t know what specifically lurks in my genes; what I should be watching out for medically as I age.

So I’m proactive about regular doctor visits and screening tests. Doctors always ask me about my family history, and I have to tell them beyond my mother’s breast cancer, I don’t really know. This is frustrating to them and to me, but that’s just the way it is. I’m lucky I know my bparents names. (That’s a story for another time.) There are so many adoptees who don’t have the first clue about their genes, and what might be hiding in  there waiting to pounce.

Today I went to the skin doc for the first time. I have a million freckles and almost as many moles – lovely Scots-Irish skin. They, of course, asked me about my family medical history, and I told them I was adopted and didn’t know much. The young woman who was giving me the once-over, paused as she was looking at my back, and said, “I know you don’t know your birthmother, but I can tell you that her back looks exactly like yours.”

It threw me for a minute. What a thing to say! So I said, “Why?” and she said that most of the moles on my back were genetic, that in fact, a predisposition to a certain type of mole and just being mole-y in general is a genetic trait. I didn’t know that, did you? I had never really thought about it, actually.

On my way home I thought I should have asked her how she knew it was my bmother’s back I got and not my bfather’s, but I think she’s probably right about which parent passed down that gene. I have a picture of my bfather and he has really nice smooth, non-freckled skin.

I got his crappy eyesight and allergies, but the skin was all hers, apparently. I have pictures of her, too, and while my facial features and blue eyes are my bfather’s, it’s clear to me as I get older that with those exceptions, my genes are trying to turn me into my bmother – a short fat woman with whiter-than-white freckled/mole-covered skin. Lucky me.

So in addition to the other gifts heredity has given me – high blood pressure and high cholesterol, a higher risk of breast cancer, as well as the aforementioned crappy eyesight and allergies; thanks gang – now I get to worry about melanoma, too. Yikes!

Well, we all got something from our folks, right? It could have been a lot worse. I’m not complaining. I have been spared plenty of other really horrible hand-me-down stuff. What does bug me is that I don’t know my own genetic/medical history. That’s just ridiculous. We know now how profoundly we are shaped by our DNA, and it’s just not right that adoptees don’t always have access to that information. Pretty barbaric in this day and age, if you ask me.

Well, you didn’t ask me, but there it is. Most people who don’t have an adoptee in their lives don’t know that for a long period of time, and still in some cases today, original records were sealed at the time of the adoption, and most adoptees don’t have access to information about their birth parents or their medical history.

The idea was that the child was to be considered part of a new family, her “past” erased, as though she just sprouted one day fully formed, in the arms of her adoptive mother and father. Not only was she given the family name, but she was to take on all the family characteristics, too. My house is your house, my history is your history.

For lots of reasons (another time) that was just a stupid idea that has caused untold heartache around adoption for decades, but the most ridiculous notion was that genetics wouldn’t matter and that the child would never need to know what kinds of diseases ran in his/her birth family. Cuz here’s what they failed to consider: that child would not always be a child! Just as in the storybook this practice was modeled after, the child was to grow up and live happily ever after, no problem, see ya, good luck!

Of course this wasn’t a story. This was a human being, with a real life and real feelings and real concerns about health, and what genes he/she would be passing on to her own children. Did anyone consider that before they tied everything up in that pretty pink and blue bow?

Nope. Oh well.

For the record, I’m not anti-adoption, or bitter about my experience or on a crusade of any kind. Being an adoptee is just one small part of who I am. Adoption was and is a small detail of my life. I’m grateful to be here; the logistics of my arrival are water under the bridge. Every once in a while, though, like today, it pops up and kicks me good, and reminds me that I can’t take some things for granted. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it makes me more vigilant and I’m better off because of it.

Maybe. Maybe not. Either way it still bugs me.