In all the blue skies of my living, I have never been able to shake that hovering cloud of worry over money. Perhaps it’s the legacy of grandparents who lived through the Depression. Or my own coming-of-age in the 70s and 80s when my pipefitter father went for long stretches without work. Maybe, too, it’s those many years I spent in graduate school, barely making ends meet, racking up degrees while my peers racked up IRAs.
Fortunately, I learned how to stretch a dollar from my parents, who made the most of whatever money they had, including my dad’s unemployment checks. Even when my dad wasn’t working, my parents managed to pay their bills. They didn’t accrue credit card debt. They still tithed at church. We went without wants, but we never went without needs.
Still, I was conscious of how we seemed to be skirting the edge of something much worse than the government cheese in our fridge. I began to see the world around me in price tags: what we ate, where we went, what we did. How much was it? Could we afford it? Did we really need it?
I put a price tag on my sister and me, too, peppering our parents with questions. How much did it cost to adopt us? I wanted a figure, not a guess. I wanted that figure to the tenths and hundredths and thousandths. Maybe some day, I thought, I could pay them back.
My sister and I had made a pact as young children never to ask for anything in a store. Ever. We knew our parents would never send us back if we expressed too many desires, but we didn’t want them to suffer for us, either.
It was hard for me, in this family of penny pinchers and bargain hunters, to get past the idea that my sister and I were a transaction, past my obsession with hoping that my parents got a good deal when they bought us. At times, I measured my achievements by this scale. The more achievements, the better the deal. I was never jealous of our younger brother, never jealous that our mother birthed him into this world and bartered for us—except in this one regard.
Years later, when I told my mom how consumed I was as a child by my own expense, she looked horrified. She actually cried out. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
But it was just one of those childhood anguishes that I could only whisper to my sister, who understood. I didn’t want to make my fear my mother’s burden, too.
My sister is in the process of adopting another child from Morocco. A window has opened, unexpectedly. It’s now or never, sooner rather than later, this chance to return to the orphanage where her first son once lived, an orphanage bursting with children who need checks to spring them and help care for the ones left behind. Now or never, sooner rather than later, despite the fact that she has not had enough time to save the initial outlay of cash.
Most people don’t (need to) bank tens of thousands of dollars before deciding to have another child. Regulations have made the process more expensive than it was for my sister’s first child. Agency fees. Government fees. Medical exams. The U.S. Adoption Tax Credit is also up in the air again.
And so, I advised my sister to do what many others do when faced with seemingly insurmountable adoption costs. I told her to raise it. I told my sister to ask our friends and family to help make it possible.
I’m aware of the controversy in the adoption world over people doing just what I suggested my sister do. It doesn’t matter that we’re raising funds to help the orphanage, too. We’re not—as critics would offer—using the money to empower women to keep their children in the first place. We wish for that world, too, where no one who wants to keep a child is forced to relinquish that child or abandon it. In the mean time, the orphans are reaching.
Our birth mother said she was told if she changed her mind about giving us up for adoption, she’d be on the hook for the bill for her prenatal care and for the labor and delivery. She’d be on the hook for that and raising the two of us.
Money is not the only what if in the complex equation that is adoption, but at the time, my parents had enough to make it happen and our birth mother was backed into a corner in part because she didn’t. By the grace of our own hard times in the years to come, my twin and I went on to learn humility and gratitude that had nothing to do with being adopted but certainly adds some irony to the differentials in the initial transaction.
I wonder what my new nephew will think some day of these efforts to make him a part of our family. I don’t want or need or expect him to be grateful. I only hope, as he works out his own story, that he will feel the village’s love. For this is true at any cost: So many people loved him before any of us knew who he was.
For the last week my oldest son has been away at the beach with my twin and nephew. He’s living the dream, which amounts to a week without his brothers. He loves his brothers, but there are a lot of them. He needed a break.
While he’s been away, I’ve been plowing through his assigned summer reading for seventh grade. A voracious reader, he devoured most of the books before sixth grade ended and left them sitting in a stack on his desk gathering dust. I don’t usually read school books alongside him, mostly because I have my own books to read but also because I witness so much helicoptering in my life as a university professor that I deliberately avoid buzzing around him. But I’ve missed him this past week. And so I’ve been reading his books.
I couldn’t put down Sarah Weeks’ So B. It, a novel about a 12-year-old girl named Heidi who has so little knowledge of her birth that she’s not even sure of her birth date. She lives with her mother, who has a “bum brain” and cannot tell her anything, and is cared for by a neighbor, who found Heidi and her mother when Heidi was days old. Most of the book is about Heidi’s quest to unlock the mystery of how she came to be. When she discovers a clue from pictures on an old camera, she travels alone by bus from Reno, Nevada, to Liberty, New York, to demand information from the place, and people, in the pictures.
I finished So B. It in stolen moments, leaning against the trash cans in the garage while my other boys played in the yard. I wondered what it would have been like to read this book at 12, the same age my son is. I’m sure it would have stirred in me what it still stirs, despite my knowing so much more about my beginnings. I tried to imagine, too, taking this book into my seventh grade classroom and talking about it with my teacher and peers, with people who, for the most part, had no idea what it was like not to know where they came from.
My son, a dead ringer for his father, has never, not once, wondered how and why he came to be. There is no mystery, no evasive truth. When he wants to know the story of his birth, I tell him. He is surrounded by grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins whose stories wrap him in a cocoon of knowledge.
The 12-year-old me would have felt alone in that classroom. She would have been afraid to speak, to cast herself as different, knowing she was, wishing she wasn’t. She would have spent class period after class period having intense discussions with everyone–in her head.
I call my son at the beach.
We agree that we found the book compelling for different reasons: he, because he’s never felt like that; me, because I have.
“Do you think it’s important to know how you came into this world?” I ask.
“How else would you know you were in the right place?” he says finally.
In my head, I say so be it.
Aloud, I say amen.
As a child, whenever I conjured my birth mother from the blackness of memory, she was always alone, a solitary shadow. I wondered sometimes if she ever married, if she ever had other children, and hoped she had. In my child’s simplicity, I wished that whatever love came to her after she relinquished us had filled her back up.
But even then, even with my wishing, I was still caught off guard when the confidential intermediary from the Midwest Adoption Center who found our birth parents in 2009 told me that my sister and I had a full biological brother, just one year older than us. My intense months of searching had been so focused on our birth mother that I did not even think of anyone else. Now there was a mother, and a father, and a brother. Then there were more children our birth parents had adopted: another sister, two more brothers. But not biological. Even the confidential intermediary issued them forth as asides. So not a sister, not two more brothers. Just three more children.
The search for a birth family is, in many ways, a search for blood, for biology. The reunion is about blood, too. And the days and months and years to follow, they are also about blood. What other motivation is there to keep at it? To do the hard work that goes along with meeting at this stage in our lives? If not for blood, we would still be strangers to one another, enjoying each other’s company–or not–the way people in this world come together, drift apart, come together based on myriad other circumstances.
It took me more than a year to reach out to my birth parents’ daughter. She wasn’t blood, so what right did I have to pull her into the story, into my story? I kept putting myself in her shoes and wondering what it would have been like for two biological daughters to spring forth from my own mother’s past. I didn’t want to bother her, to intrude, to stake any kind of claim. But I wanted her to know, from one adopted person to another, that she mattered. Just because she wasn’t blood, she mattered. After all, she is my birth mother’s daughter. I was relieved when she wrote back. She’d wanted to reach out, too, but wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear from her.
In 2013 we decided to meet at Hersheypark. We brought along our husbands and, between the two of us, our seven sons. We talked all day, and we haven’t stopped talking since. It’s hard to explain this bond between the three of us: my birth mother’s daughter, my twin sister, me. It has nothing to do with biology. It has something to do with adoption, but that’s not everything.
Earlier this month, they stayed with us here in Philadelphia for a couple of nights. In the days before they arrived, I told people we were expecting company. I said, “My birth mother’s daughter and her family are visiting from North Carolina,” and watched them try to sort it out.
Our kids don’t have trouble sorting it out. They consider themselves cousins. They don’t know what to call the adults–are we aunts? are we uncles?–but they are sure of each other. On the first night they were in town, we took them to Rita’s for water ice, and as we stood in front of the counter weighing our flavor options, their oldest boy threw his arm around my oldest. “You know what I like, right?” he asked my son. “Because we’re related.”
Of all the gifts this journey has given my sister and me, this one has been the most surprising, this gift of my birth mother’s daughter. Our connection is not about blood. It’s not even about a shared experience of adoption. While we understand each other in profound ways because of our adoption, we experienced adoption very differently. It’s that: She loves this woman she calls mother, our birth mother, the way we love our own. It’s that: This biological family that is ours by blood is more truly hers. It’s that: She claims the ancestors we don’t feel connected to. It’s that: When we say family is family, we are saying the same thing.
My birth mother’s daughter, my twin, me: we share a mother although it’s far more complicated than that. We share each other, too, but there’s no word for what it is. It’s something like sister, but not, something like it, but more.
I often advise my students to avoid sharing their work with a larger audience until they are able, and willing, to create art from life, a process that requires distance or a craftsman’s care or both. I’ve ignored my own advice at times. A few weeks after my dad died, for example, I wrote about watching him die. The essay, which earned a spot on the “Notable Essays of 2002″ list as cited in The Best American Essays 2003, got its power from an immediacy that read as intimacy. I couldn’t have written the same essay even six months later. “My Father’s Dead (If Only I Could Tell You)” had to be created when I could still hear my dad’s last gasps echoing in my ears. It had to be written while I was still shell-shocked.
This blog is also an exception. I’m writing the story of the reunion with my birth family as that reunion unfolds. Like many narrative blogs, it has taken on a life of its own; it is both life and art at once. As with the essay about my father, part of the lure of the narrative blog is that it’s written in the raw. It won’t stand still. Neither the writer nor the reader knows what’s going to happen next. Maybe the blog knows, but it’s not telling.
But it’s inherently risky to write in medias res, in the midst of things. Especially as communication between my birth family and me has become more (re)strained in the last couple of years, the blog has become the communication. I write. They react. We communicate. Silence. If my blog were a petulant teenager, it might be accused of writing only to spark communication, some kind of reaction, but my blog is not a petulant teenager, and neither am I. Yet it’s often hard for me to anticipate whether the people this story touches will be pleased, hurt, or angered by my words. That’s not a statement about them as much as it’s about my own rhetorical intuition–and the complexity of the situation. Thankfully my journalist twin is also a ruthless editor. I often send her drafts to review and readily take her advice. “Spot on,” she’ll say. Or, “This one’s going to get you in trouble.” Sometimes I’ll send drafts to my birth parents, too, part heads-up, part conversation-starter outside of the blog itself. Still, in those moments before I hit the “Publish” button, I frequently find myself dangling between truth and hurt, hoping that there’s enough truth to honor myself but not enough to cause hurt. Before the day is out, I’ll know if I have succeeded.
I often wish that I could see as far into my birth family as I allow them to see into me, to understand what it is like for them to be discovered, to have the secret they intended to take to their graves exposed, both in life and in art. It must be hard for them, I almost wrote just now, before I heard my sister’s voice reminding, “Don’t speculate.” This isn’t speculation: when the dust settles, my brave birth mother tells me to keep writing. Every time. Keep writing.
The important part here is that in addition to the hundreds of people who read each entry on this blog, there are a handful of people in that audience who are part of the story, who are alive and well, and reading. I’m not worried about my relationship with my twin or my adoptive family, but I do worry that what I write might damage my relationship with my birth family. The bottom line: I don’t want to damage that relationship, and I don’t want to stop writing.
I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. In trying to tell a complete story, a true story, I wrote too much. I projected. I remember one early entry that set off a firestorm, and one I deserved. I quickly went back and corrected the entry–took my words out of my birth mother’s memory–and apologized. I (hope I) haven’t made that mistake again. At other times, the emotional truth of my own story has wounded, and I’ve found myself on the defensive, reeling from the barbs flung back.
In the face of so much risk, it’s hard to explain my (selfish?) compulsion to keep writing, to use writing as the vehicle to discovery. My job does not depend upon this writing. It won’t bring me fame or fortunate. My twin and I are not the secret offspring of a Kardashian or the man who discovered that his biological father is Charles Manson. We’re all pretty average people. And while there is no one “normal” in adoption, our story is fairly run-of-the-mill, too.
So why write? Because I can. Because I can’t not. Because it’s how I know to make sense of of this story that is my life that is my art that is my life.
Today blueprint is a word used to refer informally to any kind of plan, but in the beginning, it was about the process. Alphonse Louis Poitevin, a French chemist, discovered in the mid-nineteeth-century that light turns ferro-gallate, a substance found in gum, blue. Early on, architects and engineers used the blueprint process to make negatives of original drawings. They coated paper with a ferro-gallic solution, placed the document to be copied atop the coated paper, and put it all under glass. After a few minutes in the sun and, later, a good wash with water, they had their negative, their plan, their course to follow.
Twin Prints–the blog, the book, the life–was meant to be both a plan, and a process. It was going to be about people coming together and finding their way through the complexity of adoption and reunion. Whatever was discovered along the way would line the paper, taking shape under light’s exposure. Maybe that drawing would help others find their way in their own stories. Or maybe it wouldn’t. After all, there’s no one-size-fits-all to adoption, or to adoption reunion. At the very least, it would be an artifact of my own story, of my twin’s and mine. It would be our twin print.
Five years ago, when I first learned who my birth parents were, I was full of wonder and optimism. It’s exciting to build something from scratch, to sketch out those initial drawings, to imagine what could be. In the newlywed stage of our reunion, I was up for the challenge, confident that we could do it, whatever “it” was. At the very least, I hoped we could share the joy–and peace–of knowing who we all are and make the most of whatever time we have left together on this earth.
But five years out, we’ve stumbled into long spaces of opacity. I’ve realized that I can’t make it work. And while it pains me to say it, I’ve realized, too, that I don’t necessarily want to anymore, at least not at all costs.
Here’s what the negative of this original will tell you right now if you were to unfold it before you:
- Adoption reunion is not easy.
- In many cases, it might not even be possible.
- Nobody is to blame.
- My birth parents are good people.
- My sister and I are good people.
- But good people + good people do not necessarily equal a good relationship.
- In fact, no matter what rights people who were adopted gain–and I’m all for such rights–there is no corresponding right to a relationship that accompanies information, no guarantee that a good, healthy relationship can be made from people affected by adoption.
My birth mother told me recently that she has taken a step back. I didn’t need her to tell me that. I already sensed her moving away. And I haven’t followed.
On most days, I am mentally sound, happy, healthy, almost functional, no small feat with four boys. I have a husband I love and admire. A fulfilling career. More friends than I can possibly be good to at this point in my life. A mother who, even at 71, drops everything when I need her and takes an Amtrak train halfway across the country to help me juggle it all. I have a twin who is my best friend and soulmate (sorry, husband) and a brother who makes me laugh, drives me crazy, and loves me unconditionally. An extended family of aunts and uncles and cousins whom I adore. An identity. A history. Ancestors I’ve inherited through adoption. It’s more than enough. It would be okay if it weren’t, but for me, it is.
The bottom line: I don’t need a relationship with my birth parents. They don’t need me and my twin, either.
That, I think, is the root of the problem, the blue of the negative.
We don’t need each other.
And so here we are, five years out, good people stuck between need and desire, not sure what comes next.
Several years ago I nearly severed the tip of my middle finger in a moment of carelessness in the kitchen. I was using a paring knife to separate two frozen veggie burgers that I intended to put on the grill for dinner when the knife slipped and sliced to the bone the finger on my left hand. I grabbed boy #3, then a baby, and a towel to soak the blood, and hurried off to the neighborhood ER to get my finger put back together. There, I nursed the baby while the attendants worked on my hand. Halfway through, one of them apologized. “They won’t let us get the good glue anymore,” he told me. “Sorry.” An hour later, my finger put back together with mediocre glue, I went home and finished cooking dinner.
My finger throbbed the rest of the summer. And then it went numb. By the next spring, it was no longer tender to the touch, but I also couldn’t feel anything. At some point, while writing, I realized that I no longer used it at all. My other fingers hopped over it to press the “e,” “d,” and “c” keys on my laptop. My friend Kerry, a physical therapist, told me that I needed to retrain my brain to use the finger. I tried—but it was too much work. It took more time than I had to direct my finger: press “e,” press “r.” I had too much to do, too much to say. And it was exhausting, getting that finger to work again. It felt as if my left hand were in the home stretch of a marathon. It made my whole body tired.
So I’ve learned to get along with a finger that doesn’t work right. It hasn’t affected my life, even my writing life, in any significant way. I’m only self-conscious of the awkward hopscotching I do across the keyboard when somebody is watching me type. It’s the piano that I’ve lost. I can’t play with a hand that doesn’t work right. The older boys take lessons, practicing at home on my grandma Heinkel’s Everett, which used to sit in the corner of the long, blue formal living room in her house in Illinois. My grandmother played that piano, as did my mother, then my siblings and me. But it was my brother whom my grandmother most loved to hear. “I just love a man at the piano,” she’d say, pronouncing it pee-anna in her Midwestern drawl.
I love to listen to my boys play, too. I don’t even mind–because my grandmother would not have, either–that the keys of her pee-anna are often covered in their hand grub. They sit at that piano in their underwear, and their baseball uniforms, banging away at Mozart and Coldplay. Sometimes they’re happy and focused. Sometimes they’re weeping or furious. Sometimes they’re at the piano simply to escape something, or someone, in the house by drowning themselves in their music.
I used to do that, too. I miss it.
There’s a piano in my mother’s house in Illinois. There’s a piano in my birth mother’s house in Colorado. This is one of those shared traits that the social workers made much of on our adoption paperwork. Both mothers play the piano! My fingers know well the piano in my mother’s house, but they have never touched my birth mother’s. Hers sits just outside the door of the basement bedroom where I stayed two years ago when I visited. In the midst of the emotional whirl of that visit, I longed to play it, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to with my dead finger. I wanted to ask her to play it for me, to connect the mothers and the childhood that was and wasn’t, but I didn’t do that, either. My mother often plays when she is here in Philadelphia visiting us. Her music wraps me up like a child again.
I’ve since started over myself, playing the same elementary music my boys are learning, hoping to retrain my finger to find its way among the keys. Some day, perhaps nobody will be able to tell again that something was lost from me. What you will hear is the put-together melody of tender hard work. It’s as real as anything you’ve ever heard. It’s not a facade. It’s not a stiff upper lip. It’s not a grin that bears it. Listen: this is the music of adoption. It is all the notes made amidst loss and found, played by a triad of broken people healed and healing.
When I was younger, we rarely celebrated New Year’s Eve with any kind of hoopla. My parents did not entertain big, drink big or spend big, so New Year’s Eve celebrations were quiet, family affairs. One year when I was in college, my maternal grandparents took the entire family to Los Angeles for the Rose Bowl, and that New Year’s Eve with my cousins and siblings at the Westin Bonaventure is the closest I have ever come to an iconic New Year’s Eve celebration. For most of my teens and early twenties, I traded my prom dress for a quiet evening with my paternal grandmother, who, by that point, was alone, having buried her husband and the adult son with cerebral palsy whom she had cared for his entire life.
New Year’s Eve at Grandma Spinner’s was a non-stop snack fest of Mountain Dew, Jiffy Pop, and cans of Planter’s Cheez Balls. Rather than attend the parties hosted by my friends, I preferred to ring in the new year emotionally safe, unconditionally loved, and satiated with salt. We’d spend the evening in our pajamas, popping Cheez Balls, watching Dick Clark, and working on our needlepoint canvas tissues boxes. As I grew older, I tried to do both: heading to the party earlier in the evening but making a point to be back at Grandma’s by midnight so we could ring in the New Year together. One year I lost track of the time–or maybe I purposefully ignored it–and it was past twelve before I arrived at my grandmother’s house. As I walked up the steps to her front door, I peered through the picture window in her living room to catch her face unguarded. The colors from the TV set made her eyes look hollow. When I opened the door, she got up from her chair to give me a hug. “I’m sorry, Grandma,” I told her. “Happy New Year, darlin’,” she simply said, holding me tight.
I feel fortunate to have reached my middle years with few regrets. Like a good cliche, the bad choices and mistakes that I have made have nearly always yielded unexpected opportunities, humbling me in the process. Plus, I was adopted. My entire life was set on course by something that wasn’t supposed to happen. That keeps it real–and leaves me to obsess over the little details, the smaller barbs that I have inflicted on myself and others. That B+ in high school biology. That errant throw that broke my softball coach’s nose. That New Year’s Eve I chose myself over my grandmother.
2013 will go down in my adoption history as a quiet one, with very little contact between me and my birth family. We’ve all been busy with our own lives and personal upheavals, but there’s more to it than that. At least for me, silence has become the path of least resistance. The noise has come instead from the edges. I finally was able to tour the Chicago maternity ward where my sister and I were born. The social worker who helped facilitate our adoption, and who was friends with my birth mother in college, attended my youngest son’s baptism. I met my birth parent’s daughter this past summer and have since forged a relationship with her. I’m looking forward to the outings we have planned with our families in the coming year.
For all that this reunion journey has, and hasn’t, been, I don’t for a moment regret embarking on it. But moving forward in this new year means staying tethered to the light behind me.
And there they are, my mother, husband and four sons, bundled up against the cold at Franklin Square in Philadelphia, where we have gone to ring in 2014 after a meal at our favorite vegan spot in Chinatown. The square is ablaze with white holiday lights, and the night sky is lit by red, white and blue fireworks shot over the Delaware River. Amid it all, their faces are bright and happy, alight with the noisy, sure glow of love. There are no regrets here, no hindsight, no resolutions, either. It’s the perfect place to end the year.