I Was Born Here
Chicago. Even now, so many years later, I think of this city with such affection, with such longing. The reality is, I hardly know Chicago, not the way I know other cities and spaces where I have spent far more time. But Chicago is a kind of spiritual home for me. From the time I was old enough to understand that I was born there, I latched onto it as solid evidence that I existed before August 7, 1970, the day my parents collected my sister and me and carried us farther south, deeper into the prairie, away from her. I latched onto it because my birth mother had been there at one time, had been there with us, might still be there. It said so on our birth certificate. 5b. CHICAGO. I wasn’t looking around for her as much as feeling around for her. Anything was possible, so everything was.
At some point in my late teens, I found myself in Chicago with my parents. None of us remembers why we were in the city, without my siblings, and not out in the western suburbs where my mom’s sister and her family lived and where we spent so many wonderful summer weekends and holidays as I was growing up. But there I was, alone in the back of our van, trying to locate us on the AAA map, desperate to know this city better than I did, tracing the streets with my finger as my dad drove. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a square on the map that marked a nearby hospital and read, “Illinois Masonic Medical Center.” My heart skipped. I knew this was the hospital where my sister and I had been born. I had never been back and now, suddenly, I needed to be there. My voice was a tentative whisper. “Could we go? Could we see it?” Of course we could. My parents didn’t hesitate for a moment. “What do you want to do?” my mom asked kindly once we were inside. I didn’t know. My desire had come on so swiftly that now it felt too impulsive. I hadn’t thought it through.
“Where the babies are kept?” I said. “The maternity floor?”
This is all I knew then: we were born there at 2:08 p.m. and 2:10 p.m. on July 15, 1970. The doctor cut our birth mother open to bring us out into the world. This is all we had been told then: I was born first, weighing 5 pounds, 13 ounces; my sister weighed 4 pounds, 1 ounce. I was 19 inches long; she was 18. I was discharged on July 24 and sent to a foster home. My tiny sister lay in an isolette, warming and growing, for an additional week until she joined me. Our Apgar scores were good. Our color was normal. We cried. “No problems,” my mom wrote in her notes from the caseworker. “All normal.”
Everything else was sealed away, hidden from view.
Here is what we didn’t know: how long my birth mother had been in labor, if she was alone, how long she stayed in the hospital, if she held us, where she went when she left the hospital. We didn’t know how she let us go, only how we were taken.
I felt anxious, furtive. I knew they didn’t want me to be here, whoever it was that closed adoptions and kept the key. I took a deep breath and walked tentatively up to the security guard at the podium between the elevators. “Can I see the maternity ward?” I asked, then added for validation, “I was born here.” He shook his head, “Only mothers and their babies belong on that floor.” I can’t remember anything else about the lobby. I’m not even sure if the elevators were where I see them in my mind, if the walls were really pale green, if there was a podium or a desk, if the guard stood or sat. But I do remember his words, “Only mothers and their babies belong.” I didn’t belong. That’s what I heard him say. I didn’t belong there. I didn’t have a right to be there. I shouldn’t be there.
On our way out, my mother stepped into the gift shop and returned with a white paper bag. “This is for you,” she told me, smiling. I pulled a tiny pink t-shirt out of the bag. It was the smallest shirt I had ever seen, decorated with yellow baby chicks emerging from broken eggs and the words: “I was born at Illinois Masonic Medical Center.” I looked at my mom’s face, so full of love, and mumbled the most sincere thank you that I could muster. I gave her a hug, then stepped away from her, overcome with sadness. I didn’t want her to buy me that shirt. She hadn’t been there; this place was before her. Yet, I was angry at myself for even thinking that, for not being more grateful for what she had attempted to do for me, and maybe for herself: buy back a piece of my birth, give me something that I, we, could keep.
Moments later, my parents and I went back through the front doors with their fat brass handles. I touched them with my fingers, then grasped them with full palms. I wiped myself all over those handles, thinking, She might have touched these. I knew there was no way that her prints were still there, but just in case, I put mine all over those handles, all over the shine that marked the doors in and out of the one place, the only place, I knew for a fact that the three of us had shared.
Over the years, I moved many times, taking that white paper bag with me, never pulling out the shirt until my first son was born. And then, I put it on him, and on the next child, and on the next. All three of my boys wore that shirt. The smallest boy, just a few ounces bigger than I was at birth, was swallowed by it, and when I held him, I held a version of myself, clutching the weight of me in my own hands. It felt good to put that shirt on my boys, even if they were born somewhere else, even if they crawled out of the woman who gave birth to them, and stayed. I was reaching out to her and making it all right with that little pink shirt, now on my own children, whom I was keeping. I was reaching out to her, wherever she was, in Chicago or somewhere else.
She is somewhere else now, far from Chicago, and tomorrow morning, I will get on a plane to see her. I am on a mission of mercy, or grace, trying to establish a present out of a past we never shared, or barely shared. I asked her if she wanted to see anything that I have from my childhood: a Chicago newspaper from the day we were born, the tiny pink dress I wore the day my parents brought us home, my birth announcement, my baptismal bonnet. I don’t know how much I should resurrect this ghost baby who is now grown up, how much my birth mother wants to hold her again, whether she can or should. So I asked first, “What do you want me to bring?” She wrote back, “I want to see and ‘touch’ anything you have from your childhood.”
Into a plastic bag I begin to pack remnants of my earliest childhood: the coming-home dress, the bonnet, the newspaper clippings, photos, my mother’s notes from her caseworker. And then the tiny pink t-shirt with the yellow chicks, now faded from multiple washings. On the front of the shirt, in raised white letters still clinging to the cotton, it says, “I was born.” It says, “I was.”