As we pulled into the church parking lot on Saint Patrick’s Day and watched people decked out in their dressiest greens stream out of their vehicles, my six-year-old wanted to know just how Irish we were. We live in a neighborhood populated by Irish Catholics, so there was a lot of green heading into mass that day. My six-year-old was wearing purple—his favorite color any day of the year—but the green made him wonder.
My husband, who is often told he looks Irish, whatever that means, and has an Irish last name, which he has passed along to our children, did the math.
“Grandpop is Irish,” he explained, “and Grandmom was English. So, you’re at least 25 percent Irish.”
[My husband left out Grandpop’s latest theory that traces the family to Scotland; he recently visited a town in Virginia that bears the family name and somebody there told him that the family name is Scottish, not Irish. My husband took the information in stride and went on identifying as Irish.]
I saw my son weigh this information against his first grade math skills, which do not yet include percentages. But he does understand money.
“It’s a quarter,” I tried. “Four quarters equal a dollar, so one of your quarters is Irish and one of your quarters is English.”
“What about the rest of me?” he asked.
Suddenly I realized I was talking to him about my adoptive family, not about my biological family. As I had for much of my life, I had slipped into the narrative of origin that was more about family and belonging than about ancestral genes, and I’d done so without pause.
“Wait,” I started. “I’m a quarter French. That makes you….”
But my son was no longer listening. He’d lost interest in the details.
I thought of the family crest that my oldest son had made in school last year. It included flags from Ireland, England, Germany, and the United States—and a baseball. No Scottish flags. No French flags. At his request, we had it made into a magnet for the refrigerator.
“Do you like it?” he asked when he put it on the fridge.
“Perfect,” I told him.
Family stories were an endless source of fascination for me as a child. One great-great-grandfather was a Bible-thumping revivalist preacher who’d fought in the Union Army; he’d met his end as an old man by trying to beat a freight train speeding by the tracks in front of his house. Another great-grandfather was a record-holding minor league baseball player and manager in the Southern League. Another great-grandfather entered the United States through Ellis Island, made his way to the Midwest, and used his skills as a butcher to open a market that would eventually morph into a successful meat packing business that just celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. The women played more traditional roles but they had smarts and grit and were widely admired for it; their husband’s successes depended on it.
When we were kids, my sister and I repeatedly begged our grandmothers to tell us these family stories, and they obliged. They would begin, “Well, your great-grandmother….” Or, “Your grandfather….” Not once did they suggest that these ancestors were not ours because we were adopted. These stories were about family, and we were family.
When I discovered our adoption papers as a late teen, I poured over them, surprised when I came to the information about ethnic origin: Mother is German. Father is French. Ooo, French, I thought. How exotic. I’d never imagined being anything other than German. I tried out the words aloud in case anyone ever asked: “I’m part German and part French.” No one ever asked.
Ultimately, the ancestral blood line did not matter to me as much as the stories did, and that’s what was missing from those papers. What was it like for my birth mother to grow up on a dairy farm, as the adoption papers indicated? What was it like for her to come from a family of five siblings, all, according to the papers, who were successful in their “chosen professions”? What did that mean? What did they do? What were they like? What were their stories? These questions were not about me. They were about them. I didn’t need the answers to figure out who I was. I wanted the answers to know who they were. I still do.
To a large extent, it was easy for me to divorce ethnicity from my own identity because I looked (enough like) my parents; my sister and I were placed with a predominantly German adoptive family who, in many ways, resembled our predominantly German biological family. We didn’t wear difference in our faces as do children who do not share similar ethnic origins with their adoptive parents. It’s harder in such cases to pull off an indifference to origin, that is, to pretend any differences do not exist just because you don’t want them to. I honor that my nephew with his Moroccan origins and his German surname is likely on a much different journey than I was when I was a kid, and I know my sister will do all she can to help him navigate whatever feelings he has as he grows. I also know that he will never once be made to feel like he doesn’t belong to us, to every character and every story that he is entitled to claim for himself as a member of our family.
Since meeting them, I’ve learned that my biological family has a rich history with a fascinating cast of characters, just like my own. It is a family filled with captivating stories. But I listen to these stories, enchanted, from the edge of a book that I did not write and in which I am, for the most part, merely a hidden footnote. It’s hard to explain the difficulty of jumping into that story at this point in my life, of shifting out of one way of knowing into another. It’s a fabulous story in which I remain incredibly interested, but it is one that belongs to other people. I have my own.
I have a much easier time combining the stories—theirs and mine—from the point at which we all met. The memories we make together, what we now might share—that’s what matters most to me.
Maybe my kids, at some point, will want to know additional specifics about their origins. Maybe they’ll care about ancestral lines: the Irish, the German, the Scottish, the French. I’m happy to share with them everything that I know. They’ll have a lot to choose from.
For now, when my son wants to know if he’s Irish, we don’t sweat the details.
“What do you want to be?” my husband and I asked him before he skipped into church.
“Irish!” he declared, his purple glinting in the bright winter sun.
And so you are Irish, kid. In our family, you are anything that you want to be, but you are always ours.
Last week I attended an annual conference sponsored by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs [AWP]. The topic of one of the panels was titled “My Son is Perfect: Writing (Honestly) About Your Own Kids.” One of the issues the writers on this panel discussed was the “fine line” they walk between writing honestly but also protecting their children.
Since becoming a mother, I’ve engaged in self-debates about this very topic myself. Since writing about my adoption and reunion with my birth family, those debates have ramped up considerably. But the “ethics of writing” is a topic that I’ve been researching and writing about well before I had my first child, and well before I discovered my birth family. In fact, I don’t know a literary nonfiction writer—from student to well-established author with multiple volumes behind his/her name—who hasn’t addressed this issue at some level although resolutions range widely.
For me, I decided long ago that I would always write as truthfully as possible and as responsibly as possible. But, as I’ve learned over the years, it’s not as simple as it sounds for no matter what my intentions, no matter how careful and deliberate I am, my words take on a life of their own once they leave my fingers.
Last week, I wrote an entry here on Twinprints that I titled “Grieving Life.” In it, I wrote that at age 31, I blamed my “bastard genes” on my becoming pregnant so quickly after losing my father and getting married. My use of the word bastard led to a string of venomous attacks on my character and my writing that don’t bear repeating here. Suffice it to say, bastard touched a nerve.
I don’t regret using the word. It’s an awful, shocking word, even today. It’s a word that is used to describe children conceived out of wedlock and that was once written on birth certificates of “illegitimate” children. Bastard does not refer to the two people who conceived the child. No, when it comes to this particular word, it is the child who bears the responsibility—the label, the shame—of the actions of others. Looking back, I think I used the word in self-derision as a way of taking ownership of it, of what I knew about myself, and of what I did not know.
And then there’s this: My sister and I grew up in a conservative Christian environment, one that reminded us repeatedly, in no uncertain terms, that sex outside of marriage was wrong. In the adoption narrative our parents told us for as long as I can conjure memory, they always referred to the “mom” and the “dad” who had given birth to us but who could not care for us. When, as a teenager, I read the notes from their caseworker and learned not only that our birth parents were never married but also that our birth father had rejected our birth mother after finding out that she was pregnant, I went through a period of emotional upheaval. My sister and I were a mistake, a sin, I concluded, and didn’t the secrecy surrounding our closed adoption prove just that? Such a discovery did not translate into any kind of judgment against my birth mother—then, or now. I still admired her for her act of courage, for giving me life, and for letting me go. No, any discomfort I had with this new narrative—and even this version was not entirely true for our birth father said he did not know of the pregnancy—was with who I was, not with who she was.
For nearly four decades, I lived with, grew with, and was shaped by what it meant to be a product of closed adoption, of a system that by its very nature whispers, “hush, hush,” whispers “shame, shame.” My reactions to this part of who I am may not seem logical to others who have not lived my particular set of experiences. In “Grieving Life,” for example, I write how absurd it was to think that I got pregnant just because I had suffered some kind of terrible loss and yet such thinking brought comfort and order to disordered times in my life. It may also seem absurd how terrified my sister and I were of getting pregnant out of wedlock when we were younger because of our perceived hyper-fertility, a perception that I still have trouble shaking, even today. Instead of concluding in “Grieving Life,” though, that my birth mother and I share some kind of oops-fertility gene, I decided that perhaps our bodies shared a propensity to turn loss into life. However nonsensical such ways of understanding might be to others, I own those understandings. They are part of my story. They are about no one else but me.
Except that they are about others, too. And in the last few years, the others have acquired names. They have their own stories, their own complex emotions and responses to pregnancy, to adoption, to family, and to ancestry based on their experiences. Until a few years ago, I never gave a moment of thought to anyone but my birth mother. I didn’t think of birth grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, or cousins. I didn’t think about, or even care about a genetic line. I spent four decades telling myself, and being told by my family, that beyond my twin, such things did not matter. We belonged to them, to our adoptive family, in every way that mattered. As I grew, all I could bear to process was the woman who brought me into the world. That’s all my head, and heart, could handle. Sometimes it still is.
Last summer I had the privilege of meeting some of my birth mother’s family. My own narrative has expanded to include a whole lot more people, wonderful people. With that expansion, however, come even greater challenges for me as a person who was adopted, and for me as a writer. How do I own, without apology, what I know to be true of my own life? How do I share this story, my story, without inflicting pain?
I could choose silence. But I can’t. I won’t. For me, writing offers a way out of Plato’s dark cave and into a world of truth, into a world that can be frightening and unpleasant at times but also far more enlightening and rewarding than deception, not just for the writer but also for her readers. I am no hero in my own story, and I am far from perfect in my attempts to tell it. But I believe I have a right to tell it, and the responsibility to do so with care. With my birth mother’s blessing, I will continue to try, knowing full well what she risks—vulnerability, exposure, pain—in offering that blessing, in allowing me to pull her, and her story, out of the cave, too. Over 40 years ago, she let go, despite what she wanted for herself. I am so grateful for her courage once again. I step forward with this gift in my hand, more determined than ever to find the way.
One of the last things I whispered in my father’s ear before he took his last breath was a promise: if I ever had a son I would name that son after him. We had never spoken about my having children, or even getting married, for that matter. My dad took everything I did in stride, supporting without interfering or offering unsolicited advice. His approach made me feel confident and strong—and loved. English major? Fine. Graduate school? Fine. Even more graduate school? Fine. Catholic vegetarian fiancé who talked so fast and so smart in his Philly accent that my dad had trouble understanding him? Fine. All fine. So even I was a bit surprised when those urgent words tumbled out of my lips into his dying ear, delivering a promise that he would never have asked me, or expected me, to make. I suppose it was my way of telling him, on his way out of this world, that he wasn’t leaving it entirely.
Six months after my father died, five months after I was married, I became pregnant with my first child. I went into labor on my thirty-first birthday, and my son was born the next day. I cried when I told my mother that he was a boy. His middle name is David Spinner, my father’s name. He is a good, kind, honest soul, just like my father.
I had known my husband less than two years when we married, and a good part of those two years were spent in a long-distance relationship, commuting back and forth between Connecticut, where I was toiling away on my doctorate, and Philadelphia, where my husband had grown up and where he worked as an editor after graduate school. My husband’s mother had died suddenly from cancer, too, a few years before he and I met. Unlike some couples, who enjoy a number of child-free years in their early marriage, racking up alone time and adventures, my husband and I did not. It’s nothing either of us regrets; it just is as it is.
Still, I think we were both surprised that I got pregnant so quickly. I joked at the time about my “bastard genes.” Weren’t my sister and I the product of a woman who had gotten pregnant when she hadn’t wanted to? I cringe now at my own joke. I hate the word bastard. I’ve never considered myself one. No, this first baby of mine, I came to believe instead, was my body’s way of handling grief. It was making a life to cover for a terrible loss. It was making a life that was wanted.
Less than a year after my best friend Karen died suddenly in 2011, I became pregnant with my fourth child. I’m due in a few weeks, on Easter. This time, I was actively trying not to get pregnant. In fact, in one of the last conversations I had with Karen before she died, she warned me to be careful. “Your fertility gives one last gasp on its way out,” she said. She was teasing, covering for her own annoyance that she was on blood thinners in the ICU, unable to get out of bed, and having her period. “Oh, don’t you worry,” I said.
A few days later, she was dead. Eight months later, I was pregnant.
I know it’s absurd to believe that my body creates a baby every time I grieve, because I grieve. But as my belly swells again with life, I can’t stop thinking of my father, or Karen, or my birth mother. Yes, my birth mother, pregnant with my sister and me, not too long after her own beloved father died suddenly from a heart attack. My birth mother, pregnant again with the son she did keep, months after giving birth to my sister and me.
These aren’t bastard genes that I’ve inherited from my birth mother. Maybe they’re loss genes instead. In the face of sadness, as long as they are able, our bodies turn to life.
I’ve spent the last five days hopping on and off CTA trains–brown to red to blue to red to brown–and ducking in and out of library archives and government offices and a hospital. Tonight, after leaving the stately City Hall building downtown, with sheaths of paper in hand that tell me absolutely nothing about my own life, I realized how exhausted I was. I can’t even tell you what I’m looking for anymore because I don’t know myself. All I know is that my life started here, in Chicago, in this city that I have always loved because of that. If there is a beginning, it must be here, somewhere.
In the archives at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) library are boxes upon boxes of papers that the Florence Crittenton Anchorage donated when the home for unwed mothers–where my birth mother was a resident–shuttered in 1974. In these boxes are case notes and employee records and board meeting minutes that mention numerous residents. Nowhere, however, is there any mention of Lois B., the 22-year-old mother expecting twins who was a resident there in March, April, May, June and July 1970. (She celebrated her 23rd birthday there in April.)
The intake cards from the home, the ones that contain the full names of nearly all the women who resided at Florence Crittenton Anchorage from 1949 to 1973, were transferred in 1973 to the Chicago offices of Children’s Home + Aid, according to documents in the UIC archives. But when I contacted Children’s Home + Aid, the woman I spoke to had no idea what I was talking about. She asked around the office, but nobody knew anything about the records of the mothers from Florence Crittenton. I told her I had evidence, photographs of documents from the archives that discuss the transfer from Florence Crittenton to Children’s Home + Aid. At her request, I e-mailed them to her.
My sister, mother, and I drove to the site of the home. The building that housed all those pregnant women and their stories still stands at 2678 West Washington Boulevard. The neighborhood is dotted with boarded-up homes. It had seen better days even in 1970, when our birth mother was there. I jumped out of the car with my camera and shot some photos of the property. I quickly moved around the main house, under an old brick arch and into the backyard, stepping over broken concrete. In the UIC archives, I had seen photographs of BBQs in this backyard, a handful of pregnant women standing around a grill, all hidden from the street. I wondered who, if anyone, still lived in this building.
At City Hall, a woman in the Tax Assessor’s office told me that 2678 West Washington Boulevard does not exist. I gave her the building’s original permit number, from the year 1888, which I had found earlier on microfilm in the UIC library. I needed this permit number to obtain a legal description of the property, which I needed to search for a history of its owners. She told me that my permit number was invalid. I showed her a copy of what I had found on microfilm. I explained to her that I had seen the house, that I had stood in front of it, had walked around the property. ”It’s there,” I said. ”It’s still standing.” She didn’t even look up from her computer. ”That,” she said, “means nothing.”
In the basement of the Cook County Building, I sat before another microfilm reader, pouring over old documents related to the home. These documents have nothing to do with my birth mother, or my sister and me. They are tangential paper trails. They are what I have, though, so I follow them. I have spent days following paper trails that lead further and further away from my own story because it feels more productive to keep going than to stop and give up.
My own story just seems to lead nowhere here. Earlier today I got off the brown line train at Wellington, a station that sits nearly on top of Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center. 836 West Wellington Avenue. This address belongs to the hospital where my birth certificate says my sister and I came into being. It is also the address connected to the doctor that the certificate says delivered us. For the last few months, I have corresponded with people from the Health Management office, trying to determine if records of our birth mother’s labor and delivery, or my sister’s and my birth, still exist. Nobody knows. After several exchanges, they stopped e-mailing me back.
This morning I met with someone from the hospital’s Media Relations team. She said she could assist me but not today. No, today it would be impossible for me to learn anything more about the doctor who delivered us, the maternity ward where my sister and I left my birth mother, the records of all us being there together that may or may not exist. Now that the woman from Media Relations has my e-mail, though, now that I am real–a smile, a shaking hand, a business card–she promised she would put me in touch with people who might be able to help.
My sister, earlier than that, had dropped me off at another library where the archivist thought there might be something of interest about the home, or the hospital, or the doctor. Before I got out of the car, my sister asked me why all of this mattered. I paused and looked at her.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. I meant it.
But I got out of there car anyway and went into the library to meet the archivist and see what she might have.
It began where it ended. There was nothing there.
Come next February, it will be four years since I learned who my birth family is. From the beginning, we recognized we were in unchartered territory, and we said as much to one another. That’s where the title of this blog comes from, and the book that I am writing. I morphed the word blueprint–a model, a prototype, a guide–into twinprint. More than being adopted, or being from the Midwest, or being this or that early defining thing, I have been guided in so much of my life by being a twin. I don’t feel lost in that part of myself.
Even though the story of adoption search and reunion was new to all of us, and that newness created a honeymoon of excitement and possibility in the beginning, our story is not unusual. Many other people have been in our position, tracking down birth parents or birth children, reuniting with them, trying to make a go at a relationship with one another. It may be uncommon that our birth parents are still together, having married less than a year after my sister and I were born, but it’s not unheard of. And other people who were adopted have also found, as my sister and I did, a full biological sibling (or two or three) that they never knew about, or even imagined. There are twins out there, too, adopted together as infants, some who have embarked on a search for birth families, others who have not.
Along the way, I have heard, and read, stories from people involved in adoption reunions who say how hard it is after the initial excitement wanes. So many Hollywood-esque reunions fizzle as time goes on. I recently met someone who hadn’t seen or talked to her birth mother in the fifteen years since they happily found one another, for no other reason than, well, they just hadn’t. One after another, those years disappeared in a blink.
I don’t like being ordinary, not in that way, in any case. I wanted my birth family and my adopted family to come together in some kind of extraordinary manner–though I had no idea what this new kind of family would look like or what its role would be in relation to the families we already had. Unchartered territory. No blueprint. Still, I believed that if we remained open to the process, if we let love and good will and kindness and patience guide us, we all had it in us to be more than a statistic.
Nearly four years in, I’m not so sure anymore that we can avoid the reality of the statistic. This business of adoption reunion is just that hard. The honeymoon is officially over, and we’ve settled into an uneasy quiet, caught in the busyness of our separate lives, focused on the people in front of us (old family) who need us more (than new family). We have no plans to meet up again any time soon. That’s not a terrible thing; it just is as it is.
As someone who has been married well over a decade, I knew the starry-eyed bliss wasn’t going to last forever, at least not at its initial intensity. I didn’t necessarily mourn the end, though, because I also knew from experience that something else would take over, something unimaginable in the beginning but just as good, even better. We’d grow into something deeper, more profound, based on love and shared experiences, both good and bad, and based on security.
We have love, we have a handful of shared experiences, but we don’t have one of the crucial ingredients that keep most families going no matter what. We don’t have security. We don’t have: “No matter what happens, I’m not going anywhere”–maybe because we came into this world already leaving one another. Moreover, I think we’ve all realized that we do have a choice after all: to go or to come, to be present or to disappear. Those choices make a statement about where we are in the process, about what we are willing, or not willing, to do. Sometimes the reasons for silence are absolutely legitimate, necessary, healthy. But if one person is going while the other is coming, if one person is present while the other disappears, then the imbalance inevitably wounds. And once you get stuck in such a cycle, it’s hard to get out of it, to build trust, to feel secure, to be a family.
In mid-June, my birth father sent around a video that had gone viral on the internet. The video, titled “Murmuration,” was shot by two young British filmmakers who late last fall took a canoe out on the River Shannon in Ireland. While the women were on the boat, they witnessed a murmuration, thousands of starlings turning and twisting in a unified dance that is breathtaking to watch.
In mid-June, my birth family and my adoptive family were not in unison. Unlike the starlings, our dance was more mosh than ballet. Shortly after we received the video, our birth mother sent an e-mail to my sister that my sister shared with me. Our birth mother wrote, “for ‘heaven’s sake’ if the birds can fly so well together in unison, certainly [we] can merge, separate and remerge from time to time also, without damage to anyone.” My sister and I both nodded. We smiled at her determined spirit–one of the characteristics that we love in her. Yes. Yes. But how?
Scientists understand why starling flocks move as they do, but they don’t yet know how the birds are physiologically wired to do so. Like many of the most beautiful and complex phenomena in nature, it remains a mystery.
As fall takes hold here in Pennsylvania, the birds gather in chattering clumps in the tops of glowing trees. I watch and wait for them to guide us, to show us how it’s done. But in a blink they are in motion, swooping, dipping, drawing giant black commas against the blue-gray sky. In a blink, they are gone.
Our birth parents are there waiting for us when we pull into the gravel parking lot of the old train station in Breckenridge, Minnesota. We agreed to meet there before following them across the Red River into North Dakota and on to the farm where my birth mother grew up.
In many ways, it is a fitting destination for us to gather first, this place that holds the memories of countless journeys. The train depot itself is no longer used for passengers. Only freight trains pass by now, and the crumbling station serves as a storage shed. My birth mother’s niece, who is also waiting for us, arranged for us to have a tour, and a kind railroad worker in overalls and a bright orange t-shirt opens the door to the station and beckons us to wander among the old signs and shelves of parts.
It feels significant, all of us being here together, mostly because we never were. After giving birth to us in Chicago, our birth mother returned home to North Dakota. The passenger train left her here, in the middle of the night. Nobody knew anything about where she had just been, about what she had gone through, about what she had left behind. This place marks her coming home, her starting over, her trying to forget.
She told us she doesn’t remember the train ride home after leaving Chicago, only the sadness, only the emptiness that became a darkness and blocked out the particulars. After touring the station, we step outside to look around the yard. My six-year-old son sits on the tracks in front of the station until they begin to rumble. We back up to watch a long freight swoosh by, clacking and rocking on the tracks, as he jumps up and down in excitement.
During my childhood on the Midwestern prairie, I fell asleep at night to factory and train whistles blowing in the distance. Trips across town were frequently interrupted by long waits at railroad crossings as freights passed. Trains remind me of home. They also remind me of possibilities, of how my child’s mind raced after them, wondering where they were going, wondering if one day I’d get there, too. I smile at the sound and tell my birth mother how much I love it. ”Not me,” she says, shaking her head. No, trains remind my birth mother of loss. They take people away from who, and what, they love. As we watch the freight speed by, she describes her father, tears in his eyes, sending her off and back to college in the semesters before he died suddenly from a heart attack. I understand her sadness, but it isn’t enough to tamp the excitement of my own memories, my own experiences. As the train blows past us, I realize there are parts of this story we can never fully share.
Like this, too: My birth mother never stood at these tracks with twin girls inside her. The December after she conceived us, she couldn’t afford to go home for Christmas The next July, her arms were empty. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like, stepping off that train in Breckenridge and back onto the soil of her home after leaving behind the two lives she had nurtured in her womb for nine months. I want to throw my arms around her in profound love and and grieve, mother to mother, for the loss that became my life. But in this moment, she is the mother and I am someone else’s daughter.
So instead, I stand beside her, as close as I can without touching, trying to absorb a sorrow I will never experience. As the train leaves the station with one last long whistle, I stand beside my birth mother with a baby of my own in my belly, one that I won’t even know about for another few weeks. It’s a baby that I didn’t expect, that I didn’t plan to have, but one that I will not have to let go.
Four decades after my birth mother first returned here without us, we’re all together again, juggling our endings and our beginnings, our goings and comings, plus one more.
Several weeks after I buried my father, I couldn’t get the sounds of his dying out of my ears. Perhaps if he had died peacefully, the sound of his voice, or his belly laugh, anything but his violent end from pancreatic cancer, would have filled my ears instead. But no, the last word I heard him utter before he slipped into a coma was an anguished “Why?” Hours later, his last hours, his breaths became enormous gasps, so strong that they lifted his body from the bed.
Since childhood, I have used writing to order a world that I love but that is sometimes hard to understand. A few weeks after my father died, I began to write his death. I wrote for days, without stopping, because back then I didn’t have children who needed me. I had only myself and time to sort it all out. I didn’t worry about the impact of my words on anyone, least of all my father, and not just because he was dead and could not protest. My father was one of my biggest fans. He may not have always understood the intricacies of my scholarly/writerly life, but his support was unwavering. He never questioned or criticized my choices. He would have honored my need to write and blessed the journey, as foreign as that journey must have been to him.
When I sat down to the story of his death, what I did not yet have was distance. Trying to make art out of life when you’re in the thick of life is a difficult endeavor. I’m not talking about writing in a journal or a diary, the writing you do for yourself and not for an audience. Art is about an audience, and when you write your life into art, you are writing primarily for others. Those others expect a certain level of fair and honest reflection, especially in essay writing, my genre of choice. They expect some perspective. I had to force an understanding on my father’s death when I was still struggling to make sense of it, when my grief was still so raw. Ultimately, I think the essay worked although it took no small effort to wrench it into shape. The editors of Fourth Genre, one of my favorite creative nonfiction journals, picked it up, and it later made its way into the “Notable Essays” section of The Best American Essays 2003.
Writing my adoption and reunion story has been far trickier than anything I’ve ever written. The people connected to my story are alive and well (thankfully!), and they have their own stories to tell, their own feelings to share, their own perspectives to offer. The parts of the story that each of them owns sometimes bump into the parts of the story that I own, and it requires a delicate dance. Early in the process, I inadvertently stepped on toes as I figured this out. Even now, as I continue to turn my life over in order to make art of it, people go tumbling about in the process, no matter how careful I try to be. What I write has hurt people, or angered them–and they’ve told me so. Their criticism–not of my writing but of the person I am behind the words–wounds me back. It’s a paralyzing, painful process.
In my lowest moments, I tell myself that I could stop this story. I could stop writing. It would surely save a lot of heartache. I’m not sure that it would ultimately repair any damage, or inspire any further growth, but it certainly would not cause any further distress to already fragile relationships.
But something compels me to keep going, and it’s not just my own sometimes inexplicable desire to make sense of my part of this story. I also believe that in writing my story, I might help others make sense of theirs, no matter if they have been affected by adoption or not.
My dad wasn’t perfect, but he was an honest man, a good man. He lived a simple life, a faithful life, a true life.
When I reach for this difficult story, when I begin to write again, his face is the one that appears before me. He died before the ending, before he could meet my birth parents and my birth brother and their extended family, before he could be a part of both the joy and the pain of the last few years. But he is still here, nodding in approval. He is telling me to write. He is telling me to keep going. He is telling me to be true. His hand is on my shoulder, that thick, tanned hand, rough from his hard work as a laborer, but gentle in its touch. When I close my eyes, I can almost feel it there.