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Saturday, July 25, 2015

My Nana, My Mom's Mom (The Adoptive Parent and Adoption)

This is another post written by Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan passed away in April of 2014, eight months after meeting her sisters for the first time.

I have been thinking a lot lately about my grandmother, Grace Elizabeth Bissex Thomson. I called her Nana, which is where my mom got her name when my children were born. My Nana's mom, Josephine Hinchman Bissex (1884-1971), nearly died, back in 1914, bringing my grandmother into this world. She would never have another child, so my grandmother was an only child and an only grandchild. "It was lonely sometimes," she told me, "There is nothing like family."
My grandmother, on the right, in a 1936 picture with her friends.

Her parents loved her well, though, and she was happy. When she was fifteen years old, in 1929, her father (Paul Bissex, 1886-1973) helped build a house for the family on Chestnut Street in Haddonfield. Years later, my best friend and I spent hours upon hours playing in the woods at the end of this street. We both lived only a few blocks away. Sometimes in our games we would come upon the crumbling cement remains of an enormous swimming pool, surrounded by trees, and so reclaimed by the earth that you had to have great imagination to picture its original use. This was Mountwell Pool, created by a dam in 1913, a year before my grandmother's birth (the cement pool was added in 1937 as a public works project, and the whole thing was closed in 1971).  My grandmother spent her childhood days here. Later, as a teenager, she met my grandfather, Clarence Thomson (1911-1984), though everyone called him Tommy. "I still remember how he would run by me on his way to the pool, tap me on the head and say 'Hey shorty,' before jumping in," my grandmother told me several times, "It made me so mad! (my grandmother was especially tall). But he sure was handsome."


They married in 1938. Knowing how important family was to my grandmother, I can only imagine how she suffered as she tried to have a baby for nearly ten years. I am not sure how they came to consider adoption. She never talked about it. She only talked about how much she loved my mother and her brother, and how lucky she was to have them. That was her way. After my grandfather died suddenly, in 1984, my mom took her back to her house from the hospital. She was devastated. Still, she told my mom, "I am just going to go to bed and pretend that never happened." Years later, my mom told me this story and said, "Living that way worked for her, and I admire her for it. But it just never did for me."

But I will get to that later. For now, my grandmother. She taught first grade and was known as a "loving but firm" teacher. From what I have heard, that was her style as a mother, too. She relaxed as
"Window Box, 1995"
she aged. She loved beautiful things - her window box with its trailing vines, a collection of glass bottles in the sun, a view of the water -- and was overly proud of her family. My sister and I still laugh about the time my grandmother was in the hospital after having a stroke and a nurse walked in while my sister, a doctor, was visiting. "Nurse, this is my granddaughter," my grandmother proudly said, introducing Kate, "She's a doctor." When the nurse didn't react, my grandmother literally starting tugging on the lanyard around her neck. "Nurse! Nurse! Nurse! Did you hear me? She's a doctor!" It was embarrassing and heartwarming at the same time.

Nana was in her 80s then, and eventually it was another stroke that forced her to move from her Haddonfield home on Jefferson Avenue, where she and my grandfather had raised my mom and my uncle (and where she always had an oatmeal cookie for me, held in the canister above the refrigerator, when I biked over to visit her as a child). She didn't want to go, but she handled the move with her trademark cheer and stalwart heart. The most I ever heard her complain was, "This growing old isn't for the weak." Then she would laugh.

Nana died in April of 2003, a few months before my oldest daughter, named for her, was conceived.
Grace Elizabeth, named for my Nana, looks a lot like my mom's sister
It was that daughter's picture, slipped into a letter in 2013, that convinced my mom's sister that my mom was for real. "I saw that picture and I knew, I just knew," she said, "She looks just like me."

And that knowing led to some of the sweetest moments of my mom's life, even as she battled for her life. She learned she had a younger sister, too, and then the three of them started corresponding daily, catching up on a lifetime apart. Sixty-five years of separation.

"Selfishly, I wish my mom had kept your mother," my one aunt told me, earlier this year, as we reflected on how it all unfolded. There is such sadness in the years that were lost to secrecy, and how little time they had in the end. "Yet I know that then your mom wouldn't have had the good life she had. She and your dad would never have been married. You wouldn't be here. Your children wouldn't be here. And those are all good things." She paused, "I just wish I had gotten a letter when I turned 18 that I had a sister." We were both silent with this thought.

My grandmother and grandfather on their wedding day. 
All these thoughts, of course, bring me to my grandmother. She often spoke of how she couldn't begin to imagine life without my mom and her brother. Without all of us. She was extremely grateful, and she loved us well. I can hardly imagine an alternate life for her in which my mother and my uncle were not her children, for they belong to her and she belongs to them. It is love that cements that.

Yet when you are adopted, there are also others to whom you belong, and who belong to you, even if you never acknowledge them. When, at age 47, my mother let my grandmother know that she was searching, my grandmother supported her, though I know it was difficult for her (she had once told my mom, "I just like to think that you came right from me"). And I know that if Nana had known of the humiliation my mom had to suffer in searching--then pleading-- for the truth of her life, she would have done everything in her power to help her. If she had known what it would mean to my mom to know her sisters, she would have helped her. She loved her, after all.

Yet she didn't know (perhaps because she didn't want to know, but whatever the reason, she didn't know). There is nothing that can be done about this now, because she has died. My mom has died. Time beats on. Still, those of us who are still living are left to speak for those of us who are not (and those of us who cannot speak up). The stories matter. Right now, both New York and Pennsylvania (and I'm sure others, though those are the states I know of) are fighting to change laws that seal adoptees' birth certificates from them forever. They are not having an easy time of it. Over the years, justification for sealing records have ranged from "It protects the adoptee from the stigma of being born out of wedlock" to "It protects the adoptive parents from interference from the birth mother." The current justification is that "It protects the birth mother."

I've read enough of these arguments and learned enough about adoption over the years to believe none of these. I've learned that there are other, terrible reasons behind sealed records. Sometimes, adoptive parents even side with the opposition (though to be fair, there are also many adoptive parents who support adoptee rights). I imagine those fighting for sealed records are motivated by the same fear my grandmother had; or perhaps it is a desire. "I just want to pretend you came right from me," she told my mom. And my mom loved her, so she listened, and she tried. This hurt her. In the end it may have cost her life, though of course we'll never know for sure.

I know this would have been terribly upsetting to my grandmother. It is tough now even to write it. But I also know that had the laws been different -- had society been different -- my grandmother would have followed suit. She would have done what was right. She was a good person. And perhaps then my mom would have met her sisters in her 20s, and they would have known and loved my grandmother, and she them. I would have grown up knowing my aunts and my cousins, and I would have met my uncle, instead of just hearing about what a wonderful man he was. Perhaps my mom would have learned about the family history for melanoma and been diagnosed sooner, and saved. Perhaps. For now, I'll take a page from my grandmother's book and just make the best of what I have, which is a lot. But for those adoptees still living, and for those future adoptees, there is a better way. I hope all those involved in adoption can overcome their fears, and their pain, to do the right thing and make it happen.
My Nana's parents - Josephine Hinchman Bissex (1884-1971) and Paul Bissex (1886-1973) with my uncle soon after he was adopted. Haddonfield, NJ (1949?).

A postcard from my grandmother to her parents at 312 Chestnut Street in Haddonfield (August, 1937). She was on a cross-country train trip with her friends. It reads, "Just had breakfast at Williams, Arizona. Last night as we went to sleep we were in the flat prairies. This morning we awakened in the mountains. It's beautiful. - Betty"




Tuesday, April 28, 2015

And Yet It Moves - In Support of HB 162

Another post by Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan passed away on April 7th, 2014, eight months after being diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma and seven months after being reunited with her two biological sisters. 
My mom, dad, me and family, a month before her diagnosis


And yet it moves. Eppur si muove. These were the rebellious words uttered by Galileo from prison after he was condemned by the Catholic church for continuing to insist that the earth was not the center of the universe, that it moved around the sun. Many intellectuals of the day also condemned him, so attached were they to their own world views. Galileo, a devout Roman Catholic and an intellectual, cared both about his faith and scientific truth, and it is exactly because of this that he could not be silent in the face of what he knew to be true. And yet it moves

My mom, an adoptee, passed away in April of 2014. There are two truths about her death, and I cannot be silent about them. First, she died from melanoma, a (censored) disease that not even the most wonderful oncologist in the world, with the highest level of training, was able to stop. She was diagnosed in July, still feeling wonderful, after finding a small lump in her leg. A week later, knowing what lie ahead but still feeling healthy, she awoke one beautiful Saturday morning at the beach to see that two dark, ugly spots of melanoma had now appeared, one on her toe and one on her face. It was confirmation that this (censored) disease was now coursing through her, maliciously and aggressively. It was horrible. Good people fought valiantly on her behalf. My mom fought valiantly. But in the end, it was not enough.  We lost her. 

My mom also perhaps died, and certainly suffered needlessly, because she was an adoptee. She was blocked by the state (in this case New Jersey) from seeing her original birth certificate because of an antiquated law (now changed), and thus she was blocked from her true and complete medical history (the information the adoption agency released to her was flawed, at best).  She was also blocked from being able to communicate directly with her biological family, and thus from knowing two wonderful sisters for the last 16 years of her life. Not knowing that melanoma was present in her biological family likely contributed to her physician missing the melanoma when her symptoms first occurred.  As with all cancers, timely diagnosis and treatment is crucial for survival.  When she looked into going to court to have her birth certificate unsealed, the lawyer with whom she consulted let her know that she had little chance of winning because she "already had cancer." 

Because of this -- because having her original birth certificate sealed from her was perhaps as responsible for her death as the melanoma itself, and certainly responsible for much unneeded suffering -- it is difficult for me to read about the testimony of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Administrator of Orphans' Court Services against Pennsylvania House Bill 162, which was passed unanimously by the House in October 2013, then stalled in the Senate without a vote prior to the end of the 2014 term. HB 162 would allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates. The ACLU also sent a letter opposing the bill, which was equally difficult for me to read. 

In past years Pennsylvania Catholic Charities has testified -- without any facts to support their arguments -- that unsealing birth certificates would lead to more abortions. The facts support the opposite. Abortion rates in states where records have been unsealed have actually decreased slightly. This year, perhaps recognizing this, the Pennsylvania Catholic Charities' testimony centers more around its "concern" for birthparent privacy. As a Catholic, I find this testimony particularly upsetting, and misleading. Many birthparents have testified in support of this law (and Catholic Charities in other states has actually reversed its position and supported similar laws). Birthparents have a right to privacy from prying public eyes, yes, and from harassment. We all do. This law provides for privacy. It just does not allow for secrecy. Adoptees, on the other hand, currently have to share the most intimate details of their life just to possibly get their birth certificates (by going through an intermediary, or petitioning the court). I have one adopted friend who has never searched simply because when she learned everything she had to go through (for the mutual consent registry), she found it all too daunting. There are many adoptees, and birthparents, like her. 

The Administrator for Orphans' Court Services speaks of "profound and grave consequences" for birthparents if this law is passed based on her "many years of experience doing search services." One only need to look at the many states that have already enacted similar legislation -- where there have been no "profound and grave consequences" -- to realize that this is not the case. As a side note, when I searched on Google for this administrator's name, to learn more about her (why would anyone, especially someone involved in adoption and claiming to care deeply about the welfare of all involved, oppose this law?), the first link that appeared was one detailing the fees charged for "Adoption Search Inquiries" ($50 for non-identifying information, $150 if you want more -- and this is only after the court approves your petition). As a non-adoptee, I could get my birth certificate easily for $20. 

And the ACLU? Andy Hoover, ACLU of Pennsylvania legislative director, said in an open letter earlier this month: "HB 162 upends the respect for privacy in adoption procedures. Pennsylvania law already allows adoptees' access to important medical and social information of their biological parents without disrupting the privacy of the birth parents' identifying information." No, it does not. Adoptees are suffering, and yes, even dying, because the current system does not work for them. Many, many adoptees, birthparents, and adoptive parents have testified to this. I lived it with my mom. So let me say it again, emphatically: the current system (registries, mutual consent, etc) does not work. And the law now being considered does allow for birth parent privacy (with the contact preference form). I have not once heard of an adoptee taking out a billboard to reveal to the world the identity of her biological parents. We are talking about a person's right to know his or her true identity. It is a human right, and the ACLU should know that. Instead, they defend sealed records as an extension of a woman's right to reproductive health, equating an adoptee to an abortion. I may not have a law degree, but I can see the glaring fallacies in this argument from afar. 

So shame on you, Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, Orphans' Court Services, and Pennsylvania ACLU. You may talk and talk about the need for sealed records despite mountains of evidence to the contrary -- you may even believe in the sanctity of your cause --  but those who know the truth, who care about life (ALL life) and liberty (ALL liberty) will not be silent. I support them. In time, I believe everyone will.  And yet it moves. Eppur si muove. 

DEAR PENNSYLVANIA FRIENDS, HB 162 WILL BE VOTED ON THIS MONTH OR NEXT. PLEASE, IF YOU CAN, CALL THE MEMBERS OF THE HOUSE COMMITTEE ON CHILDREN AND YOUTH (ESPECIALLY IF IN YOUR DISTRICT - I'VE LISTED LINKS TO OUR AREA BELOW) AND EXPRESS YOUR SUPPORT FOR THE BILL. IF YOU KNEW MY MOM, OR KNOW ME, YOU CAN DO SO IN HER MEMORY. SHE KEPT FIGHTING FOR THIS LAW, EVEN AFTER SHE HAD HER OWN INFORMATION, BECAUSE SHE SO BELIEVED IN ITS IMPORTANCE FOR ALL OTHERS. I BELIEVE IN IT TOO. THANK YOU! -Jenn


Acosta, Leslie (Philadelphia County, District 197)
717-772-2004

Brownlee, Michelle (Philadelphia County, District 195)
717-787-3480

Conklin, Scott, Minority Chair
717-787-9473

DeLissio, Pamela (Philadelphia County -- offices on Ridge Ave!)
717-783-4945

Greiner, Keith
717-783-6422

Hill, Kristin
717-783-8389

Keller, Fred
717-787-3443

Kim, Patty
717-783-9342

Kinsey, Stephen (Philadelphia, 201st District, went to Germantown HS)
717-787-3181

Klunk, Kate
717-787-4790

Lewis, Harry (Chester County)
717-787-1806

Maloney, David (Berks County)
717-260-6161

McCarter, Stephen (Montgomery County)
717-783-1079

Miller, Brett
717-705-7161

Miller, Dan
717-783-1850

Moul, Dan, Vice Chair
717-783-5217

Nesbitt, Tedd
717-783-6438

Parker, David
717-787-3364

Rader, Jack
717-787-7732

Ravenstahl, Adam
717-787-5470

Rozzi, Mark (Berks County)
717-783-3290

Saccone, Rick
717-260-6122

Santarsiero, Steven (Bucks County)
717-787-5475

Santora, James (grew up in Drexel Hill!)
717-783-8808

Stephens, Todd
717-260-6163

Toohil, Tarah
717-260-6136

Watson, Katharine, Chair (Bucks County - went to UPenn)

717-787-5452

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

April 7th and Daffodils

Today, April 7th, marks one year since we lost my mom, Susan Perry. She was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma in July of 2013, and a few days later she wrote "Facing a Life-Threatening Illness and Thinking About Adoption" (http://nanadays.blogspot.com/2013/07/facing-life-threatening-illness-and.html -- or click on the post from the menu on the right). I read it and hear her voice. I read it and remember how important this issue is. I hope you find time to read it again today.

The daffodil bulbs that my dad and my four year-old-son Joseph planted on a cold, rainy day in October bloomed for the first time this morning, a little late because of the long winter, but beautiful nonetheless. It seemed like a special, quiet message from my mom as I walked past them this morning. Keep going. Have faith. The spring will come.

For all those working so tirelessly for peace and justice for adoptees -- a cause so close to my mom's heart -- I would say the same. You are like my dad and Joseph working in the cold and the rain, perhaps with a long winter of waiting ahead, but your work will be worth it. The result will be beautiful. Keep planting. Keep waiting. Don't lose the faith. Change -- beautiful change -- is coming. I just know it.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice

Estela de Carlotto, president of Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo
Today, March 24th, is Día Nacional de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justica (Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice) in Argentina. On this day, Argentinians remember the 1976 coup d'etat that toppled President Isabel Perón's government and lead to the seven year repression known as the "Dirty War." During those seven years, some 30,000 people were disappeared, never to be seen again. One mother whose daughter was "disappeared" is Estela de Carlotto. Her daughter was pregnant at the time of her disappearance, and Ms. Carlotto searched for years to find out what happened to that baby. Other women like her also searched, and protested, and they came to be know as the Abuelas of the Plaza de Mayo, all of them searching for the babies that were taken from their children (who were presumably killed) and given in adoption to other families to be raised. It is estimated that 500 such "lost children" exist. 115 have been found and reunited with their families. In the spring of 2013, Ms. Carlotto personally delivered a request to Pope Francis that the Vatican open its records for the period between 1976 and 1983,  for they may contain information about the whereabouts of these children, and any information could help. After all, time is running out for the abuelas, many of whom are in their 80s. "You can count on me. You can count on us," the pope, who was a priest in Argentina during the Dirty War, reportedly told Ms. Carlotto.
Estela de Carlotto with Lionel Messi, who supports the Abuelas

I believe him. This pope, who will come to my home city of Philadelphia next September for the World Celebration of the Family, has been more willing, it seems, than any pope before him, to confront some of the egregious sins of the church. In the case of Argentina, that may include knowingly hiding the origins of babies given for adoption to "good" families. In the case of my country, the United States, that definitely includes convincing young women who were pregnant and unmarried that they were unfit to be mothers and had to give their babies away, and then convincing the public that these same mothers never wanted to be found and needed laws to protect them (and in some cases -- less than 2% -- causing so much shame in those mothers that they actually never did want to be found). I know this to be true because I have met such mothers. They break my heart. One mother I met, well into her 70s, eventually searched for the daughter she had given up for adoption because she couldn't go on living otherwise, but she still feels such shame that she introduces her daughter in public as her niece, and she still hasn't told the father -- a man she loved, and who she planned to marry -- that they have a child together (she went to a Catholic home for unwed mothers once she learned she was pregnant and simply disappeared from his life).

In Argentina, they have a saying for today: Nunca más. Never again. For those adoptees still fighting for laws that allow them the dignity of knowing the full truth of their identity, and for those biological mothers who were shamed and treated horribly, and continue to be used to justify laws that have no benefit for them whatsoever, I say it also. ¡Nunca más! 

Today in Argentina is about Memoria, Justicia, y Verdad: Memory, Truth, and Justice. We could use a bit of that here as well. So many are working for it.
Estela de Carlotto and her grandson

As my mom's story shows, sometimes, despite a lack of truth and justice in the system, people are lucky. She was. She met her sisters, my aunts, who are wonderful, and who brought her an understanding "deeper than I ever thought possible in this lifetime" before she died. Estela de Carlotto, the president of the Abuelas de Mayo who met with the pope two years ago, was also lucky. Often, those who were adopted as babies in Argentina and raised by other families don't want to know the truth. It is too difficult. They love the parents who raised them (and who oftentimes knew nothing about the origins of the baby they adopted). They will never search. But this summer, Estela de Carlotto's grandson - now a grown man - found her. Alegría tremenda, tremendous happiness, is what she felt. Not all those who search will be so lucky, but all should have the right to try. Don't you agree?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Adoption Lawyers Who Oppose Adoptee Rights

Another post by Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan passed away on April 7th after an 8 month battle with Stage IV melanoma.

One afternoon this past August, while vacationing with Anthony and the kids at The Homestead in Virginia, I discovered The Private Adoption Handbook, by Stanley B. Michelman and Meg Schneider, on the bookshelf outside our room (a bookshelf populated with old hardcovers for purely decorative purposes). We had just gotten back from the pool and were waiting for Joseph, four years old, to open the door (which he insisted on doing), when the word "Adoption" on the book's spine caught my eye. I took the book down and began to read. The book, with chapters like "How to
The Homestead Resort, in Virginia.
Choose a Lawyer," "Placing the Ads [for a pregnant mother]," and "Choosing Your Baby," was the collaboration between a private adoption lawyer and an adoptive mother. I could not stop reading. For someone who ten years ago knew, like most of the American public, very little about how adoption really worked (despite having a mom who had been adopted), and who had recently been awakened to some of the incredible injustices tied in with adoption, the book was a window into a hidden world. Meg Schneider, the book's co-author, clearly wrote the book in order to help other couples who were dealing with infertility and seeking to adopt. It was a resource guide on how to do so. In the book, she is incredibly open about the pain she suffered because of her inability to have a biological child, and she also is open about the fierce love she feels for her adoptive children. At one point, she shares the story of how she and her husband finally adopted through the law firm of Stanley Michelman, the lawyer with whom she co-wrote the book:

"...I underwent the last surgical procedure. The news was bleak. It left us little hope of ever having our own biological child. I was surprised and horrified when the doctor told me the results of the exploratory surgery, as I had been led to believe, up until then, that I would probably be able to conceive and carry a baby to term. We were both very distressed, and I, in particular, felt miserably lost. Neal, however, who is always wonderful in a crisis and never one to let bad times do him in, called Stanley's office from a hospital phone booth before I even woke up from the anesthetic. 'I'm not going to wake Meg up with nothing but bad news,' he told an attorney working for Stanley. 'I want to tell her we're going to have a baby soon.' ... Stanley's assistant was comforting and positive. Basically she said, 'We'll help you out of this, and soon.' Three days after I got home from the hospital, I found out she was a lady of her word."

A page later, she writes, "That night Neil and I talked about the situation. We really couldn't find anything we didn't like about it. The only problem was a superficial one: The baby would probably not look like us. The builds and colorings of both birth parents seemed to preclude that possibility. Then we reminded ourselves that though I'm a brunette, my mother is a blonde and my grandfather was a carrot top. If we had conceived a child, anything could have happened..."

As I said, I could not put the book down, so each night once the kids went to bed I stayed up late reading, by the light of my phone, story after heartbreaking story of couples who were devastated when they could not have children of their own, and whose dreams then came true because of the law office of Stanley Michelman.

But all I could think about were all those adopted children. Children, like my mom, who became adults and deserved the right to be able to search out their history. I was astonished throughout the book at the casual way in which this need was dismissed, not even discussed. Or, if it was discussed, it was done so with only the needs of the parents in mind: "I have a photograph of her [her son's birth mother], but I would have liked to be able to tell our son about her voice and her words as well. Everyone has a history, and I know that a part of who he is has been left behind with his birth mother. Speaking with her would have given me yet another sense of him and where he came from, even though I know it couldn't make me feel any closer to him."

Oh, Stanley and Meg, how could you not have written here, after this clearly caring mother's story, about how that little boy would grow up and very well might need to search out that "part of him that was left behind with his birth mother"? How could you not have discussed legislation allowing adult adoptees access to their birth records? And, Stanley Michelman, how could you, with all of your years of adoption experience, not have supported such legislation? How could any adoption lawyer not support such legislation, when it is SO CLEARLY the best thing for adoptees? The book was published in 1988, after all. The information was out there.

When I got home from vacation, the book finished, I looked up Stanley Michelman, the adoption lawyer. He passed away in 2009, and I found myself feeling so conflicted as I read his obituary, which described him as a loving father and grandfather who, after losing a grandson, had become incredibly active in supporting research on childhood genetic diseases (irony of adoptees being blocked from knowledge of own genetic histories not lost on me). It also stated that he had finalized more than 5,000 adoptions. Next, I found his name on many, many posts on adoption.com. Birth mothers were looking for their children they had given up, and adoptees were looking for their original parents. Some were looking for siblings.

New York State, where Mr. Michelman practiced for years, could perhaps be the next state to allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates. The law pending, which has 90 sponsors out of 150 members in the NY State Assembly, would finally give adoptees, whose rights have been denied for so long, the right to search out that history, that "part ... left behind." So who's fighting against it? One group, and a powerful one, consists of lawyers just like Mr. Michelman. And people who have not taken the time to listen to adult adoptees' stories, stories every bit as important as those of adoptive parents, and those of birth mothers (and, dare I say, maybe, maybe, even just a little more important, if adoption exists, as everyone claims, truly for the benefit of the child, of the adoptee), are easily swayed.

May we only be swayed by the truth. May adoptive parents and adoption lawyers who do not yet realize the importance of this law open their eyes, and find their voice, and speak up for the adopted children they raised, or placed, who have now grown up and need this right. May people finally, finally listen to adoptees and hear what it was like to be adopted, and try to understand. May that understanding lead to action. That is my wish, and I know it was the wish of my mom. Truth and love. There is nothing greater, or more important.

-----------
One more thing:

Just tonight I came across an article online, "Birth mother privacy a concern as adoption bill moves forward" (http://wishtv.com/2015/02/12/birth-record-privacy-a-concern-as-adoption-bill-moves-forward/), an article about Indiana's pending legislation. The "expert" on adoption quoted in the article (and opposing adoptees' access to their original birth certificate) is another adoption lawyer whose wesbite, http://www.indianaadoption.com/, reminds me eerily of Stanley Michelman's book. I do not know why I continue to be astonished, but I am. How could this lawyer possibly believe that sealing records is best practice? How could he? Below is the comment I left:


My mom, an adoptee, had to use an "intermediary" like Mr. Kirsh mentions in order to attempt to find her birth mother 15 years ago. I hope Mr. Kirsh and his colleagues at Kirsh and Kirsh realize how insulting and demeaning it it for a grown woman to have to PAY and essentially beg another person, a stranger, for personal information. This should never be the case (and I have to imagine that Mr. Kirsh's opposition to laws allowing adoptees access to their original birth certificates --something that the American Academy of Pediatrics endorses -- has a lot to do with his profits from adoption and very little to do with his true concern for birth mothers, whether he realizes it or not). My mom's birth mother, when contacted by the intermediary, was one of those few who said she did not want contact. "She seemed like she was holding something back," the intermediary told my mom. Then she told her the case was closed and she could/would do nothing else. One phone call from a stranger and it was over. That is how these intermediaries (paid for their services) work. My mom, facing health issues at the time and also realizing, for the first time in her life, that it was her RIGHT to find her birth mother, and for the two of them to decide like the grown adults that they were whether or not they would have a relationship, found her mother on her own (and at great expense). She wrote her a letter in her OWN voice and sent it via certified mail. Though she and her birth mother did not go on to have a relationship, the interaction they had because of that letter was incredibly helpful to my mom, both medically and personally. It also helped her realize how ridiculous our current adoption laws are (that do not allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates). She became an advocate for adoptee rights and began to REALLY learn about the reasons the system is the way it is (lawyers who profit big time being one of them). Late in 2013, my mom was (somewhat miraculously) reunited with her two birth sisters (who happened to be desperately searching for her). What she learned revealed a mother who was both scared and scarred by the secrets she carried. "They kept it secret. That's how they came to peace with their decision," says Mr. Kirsh. He could not be farther from the truth, and if he truly cared about birth mothers, or adoptees, he would have to acknowledge that. Secrets will never lead to true peace. Only truth can do that. My mom wrote about this on her blog in July of 2013, right after she was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma and right before she was reunited with her sisters:http://nanadays.blogspot.com/2....
After an 8 month battle with melanoma, my mom died last April, right before NJ's law allowing adult adoptees access to their birth certificates (beginning in 2017) was signed. I wish she could have seen it, but she did always say that "Change will come. I don't know if it will be in my lifetime, but change will come."
To the author of this article, I thank you for covering adoption and hope that you continue to do so. I feel strongly that, had you known, as a responsible journalist you should have revealed Mr. Kirsh's financial interest in promoting the status quo of closed adoption records when quoting him in this article. A brief visit to his firm's website confirmed that for me. The birth mother that his firm found for you was most likely "scared and scarred" like my mom's birth mother had been. Under Indiana's proposed law allowing adult adoptees access to their birth certificates, she would still have her privacy (the birth certificates do not become public record, after all). Someone with her best interests in mind would explain that to her (and, perhaps, gently encourage her to begin working towards true peace in her life, through the truth).


Friday, November 28, 2014

#FlipTheScript (My Mom's Voice, An Adoptee's Voice)

Another post by Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan passed away on April 7th, 2014 eight months after being diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma and seven months after being reunited with her biological sisters.

I have been wanting to write something during November for National Adoption Month, and tonight, with two days left in November, I came across Angela Tucker's wonderful article, The Missing Voice in the Adoption Conversation, in Christianity Today magazine. Angela, an adoptee, talks about her ambivalent feelings about National Adoption Month given the complexities of adoption. I read the article at my dad's house, where my sister and I (and our kids) were having dinner and helping to decorate the Christmas tree. Angela talked about the need for adoptees' voices to be heard during National Adoption Month. I agree. I am not my mom, but I will do my best to speak for her, and tell her story.

My mom and my daughter Grace. Love and miss you, mom. 
My mom, who was born on July 9th, 1950, was adopted by my grandparents and brought to Haddonfield, New Jersey, on October 9th, 1950. She never found out where she was for those first three months, but she did always know she was adopted. In Haddonfield, she joined her older brother, Doug (also adopted, at the age of 11 months) and her dog, Happy. Her parents were loving and wonderful, and her life was a good one. She married my dad, who had lived down the street from her, when she was twenty-one. My sister was born when she was twenty-four. I came along three years later. When we were younger, I remember asking my mom if she was ever curious about her original mother. I think this was soon after my parents had my sister and me watch The Miracle of Life on PBS. Now that I knew where babies came from, I found myself very curious as to where she had been before she arrived at my grandparents' house. "No, not really," she replied casually, but then added, "I guess I did think about it a lot after both you and Kate were born ... " We didn't talk about it after that. Sometimes, when asked to fill out a family tree or explain my ethnicity for a school project, I remember feeling confused. "My grandfather's family is from Scotland," I would say, thinking about the stories I had heard of my mother's dad making bootleg liquor in the back of his dad's car (he was a bit wild, though a lot of fun). I loved these stories, as I loved the stories about my grandmother's family, and I felt connected to them as part of my family narrative (I still do), but I also felt connected to something else, something I couldn't quite name.

When my mom was 47, she was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. I will always remember the year and her age, because it was the year that I studied abroad in Spain. That spring (1997), my parents and sister came to visit me for a week in Granada. My mom was fine, though I do remember that she suddenly found it impossible to ride in elevators. "I feel like the walls are closing in on me in there," she explained, "I just can't." In Marbella, we stayed in a hotel room eight flights up and she took the stairs. A month later, I was done my studies and visiting my dad's cousin in Milan, Italy, when my dad called and told me my mom had been diagnosed, that she was having surgery, and that I should come home right away. I did. It was in those months after the surgery, as my parents researched treatment options and my mom was asked again and again for her medical background and couldn't give it, that my mom decided to search for her birth parents. My sister, a doctor, practically insisted on it.

My grandmother gave my mom the information she had, and my mother contacted the adoption agency. "Why do you want to know?" she was asked. She had the medical reason to give, which I'm sure she did, and that was good, because her natural desire to know, and her recognition of this desire, was deeply buried beneath years of denial out of a fear of hurting her adoptive parents, whom she loved, and a desire to please society, which seemed to want her, and all adoptees, to reaffirm its belief that adoption was a "win-win" situation. I do not know how aware of her own feelings my mom was at this point, but she was never one to hide anything from us, and even after she called the agency she spoke of her search casually, as though it wasn't of any great importance to her. But I know from what happened afterwards that it was--even when she didn't know it, or couldn't express it.

In short: the adoption agency told my mother her original mother had wanted no contact, and so all my mom had a right to see were some papers with "non-identifying" information (information that had been filled out nearly 50 years before). My mom still did not have the medical information she needed, and I think she was also awakening to the fact that this search was important to her for more than just medical reasons. She did, eventually, find her mother through some enlightened individuals, and she was able to send her a certified letter in which she spoke of who she was, the life she had lived, and the current crisis she was in that required her to know more about her medical history. Her mother sent back a more complete medical history and then, miraculously, she called. "I have always loved you in my heart," she told my mother.

Also, perhaps miraculously, my mom got better. The melanoma had been under the nail of her big toe, and the surgeons removed that toe completely. "I would much rather be alive with no big toe than not be alive at all," she would say. The scans every three months, and then every six, and then just every year, were always anxiety-producing, but eventually the worry lessoned, and my mom was able to just live her life. My sister and I each got married, and then grandkids came along. My mom was busy, and happy.

At the same time, her experience with the adoption agency when searching for her original mother had awakened her to the injustices that all adoptees face. She joined NJCare and began working for adult adoptees to have access to their original birth certificates. She began this blog. She told her story. Telling her story was important.

In the comments section after Angela Tucker's article in Christianity Today, an article that is really only saying that adoptees need to have a voice in the discussion, one adoptive father speaks of adult adoptees as "pushing this #FlipTheScript stuff" and ends by asking that adult adoptees "get some perspective." It is a comment that saddens me terribly. I know it would have saddened my mom. I wish she were here to write about it herself. But she is not.

My mom had 16 wonderful years of life after her original melanoma diagnosis. She did not have a relationship with her original mother during this time, but that was ok. Adult adoptees having access to their original birth certificates is not about them having a relationship, necessarily, with their birth parents. It is about finally, finally giving them an ounce of power in searching out their own identities. What they decide to do with that power is up to them.

A few years after my mom's original diagnosis, her own (a)mother, my Nana, died. My mom and her were always completely devoted to each other. That devotion was clear tonight as I looked through boxes of my mom's keepsakes. There were all the things of my mom's that Nana had kept. There was the scribble on a scrap of paper ("Susan drew this, 4 years old"), the holiday cards, the careful notes about birthday parties at the beach, the pictures, even a letter to the editor my mom had written to the editor of the local paper in her twenties, Dog was not a stray. There was the long letter of thanks my mom had written her mother for Christmas as a grown adult, and a copy of the letter my mom had written to the hospital after her father had died. He had gone in for what was supposed to be routine surgery, and something had gone terribly wrong. My mom had been greatly angered by the callous way in which the doctor treated her and her mother afterwards, and she let him know. There was also, of course, the program from my grandmother's funeral, and all the cards people had sent my mom. "Nobody loves you like your mother," my mom told me after Nana died, "It's just this irreplaceable loss."

So my mother's making her voice heard was never about criticizing her (a)parents. She knew how lucky she was to have them, and they knew how lucky they were to have her. My mother shared her voice because she had just what the adoptive father commenting on Angela Tucker's article asked her (and all adoptees) to have: perspective.

Thank you to all the brave adoptees who continue to speak about their experiences so that others can understand. Thank you, Angela Tucker. And thank you, thank you, those who listen. Sometimes that can be hard to do, but it is the right thing to do, and it is worth it. #FlipTheScript

Sunday, November 2, 2014

All Souls Day and My Mom

Another post by Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan passed away in April of 2014 eight months after being diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma and seven months after reuniting with her biological sisters.

This morning, on All Souls Day, a day the Catholic Church has traditionally recognized as one to remember and pray for our loved ones who have died, I cleaned out my dresser and put it out on the curb. Our house was burglarized two weeks ago (You can read about it HERE), and the robbers, in their rush to pull out all the drawers and look for treasures, actually broke them (the dresser was an inexpensive Ikea piece that I bought 12 years ago, when I first got married, so no surprise there, just some annoyance). Among my clothes I found some folded pieces of paper, and I discovered, when I opened them, that they were journal entries from last fall, scribbled just after my mom's diagnosis. I wish I could have kept a journal of every day, of everything that happened and everything that we said to each other from her diagnosis in late July to her death in early April, but even now I know that it was impossible. These scraps of paper are all that I could do. Finding them today, it was enough. Here is the first one, from September 4th, two days before I sent a letter to Carol, her biological sister, and five days before she, Carol, and Joanne, her two sisters, were reunited:
I know I wrote "too" wrong in "Because I asked her to(o)!" That is just a reminder of how crazy last year was, trying to be there for my mom, my own children, and my students. "The whole thing cut me to the core." Yes, it did. 
When my mom's diagnosis was still new, I felt like I couldn't breathe. Sometimes at night I would have to get out of bed and go sit on the front porch to stare at the stars and wonder how we could get out of this. Please, please, please, I would pray. Not my mom. It was during this time that I asked my mom's blessing to write her sister, who didn't know about her (or so we thought). My mom had known about this sister for a few years but hadn't written for many reasons. Her original mother, when my mom had finally found her years before, had told my mom that she was a secret from everyone, even her own daughter, and asked her not to make trouble. My mom was not a trouble maker. Neither was I, really, but the only answer I could discern from all my fervent praying for my mom was Send the letter. It didn't make sense, really, when there were so many other things to be worrying about, but that inner voice, Send the letter, just wouldn't go away. So I sat down late one Thursday night and wrote a letter to my mom's older sister. I tucked in two pictures, one of each of my daughters, to help soften what I imagined would be quite a shock, and included a letter my mom had written herself, several years before, but never sent. I mailed it the next day.
It is strange for me to read "half sister" here, since my mom's older sister, once reunited with her, became a "full sister" in every way, as did her younger sister. 
That weekend, my mom got really sick. My dad called me when I was on the way home from my sister's and asked if I would come over. I did. My mom and I lay in her bed together, the full weight of what she was facing upon us both. We cried a bit, and we laughed, too. Please, please, please, I prayed, Not my mom. I wasn't thinking at all about the letter I had written to her sister. I was thinking about her, and how I wasn't really sure if I could live without her.
This was written two days before talking with my mom's older sister for the first time. "We've been desperately searching for her," my mom's sister told me, when we did talk, explaining that they had found a birth record two weeks before.

Monday was my first day back at school with students, and my first day ever taking Joseph, my then two-year-old, to day care. I had no idea how I was going to get through the day, let alone the week, or the year. And it was at the end of that day, right after I picked up Joseph, that I received the phone call from my mom's older sister (I've written about this day in a previous post -- Click HERE to read). I might as well have had an actual angel come sit down beside me in the car, I felt so comforted. I knew that this was a miracle, and I think that my mom and her sisters did too. They had found each other, despite everything. They had found each other.
The miracle of my mom's reunion with her sisters helped lift my heart, and my mom's heart, at a time when it was needed most. To this day, it helps me keep my faith in a God who is loving and merciful, one who held my mom (and her siblings) in the palm of His hand, and holds her (and them) still. 
My mom was soon speaking with her sisters herself, and they were making the drive down to see her as often as possible. They e-mailed her, too, every single day, with little funny stories, words of encouragement, and words of love. They were my mom's angels. They were mine, too. And I need to hold on to this goodness, this reminder, when I am made crazy by everything else.

Today, on All Souls Day, I did not go to church. I simply couldn't. The Catholic Church has been so adamant in its opposition to allowing adoptees access to their original birth certificates, and so disingenuous in its arguing, that I find it currently impossible to attend, despite the goodness of so many I know who do attend (and usually know nothing about this scandal). Instead, my husband and I ourselves read the story of Mary and Martha mourning the death of their brother Lazarus to our children, and we prayed for the souls of those we have loved. I do not know what we'll do going forward. I can only follow my heart, and my earnest prayers, and do what I believe to be right.

After all of the press about my mom and adoption last year, I have been approached by so many in the adoption triad who have shared their stories with me. I listen very, very carefully. And what I have learned is that most of us would not even survive what birth (original) mothers were made to go through. The very Catholic church that is now using birth mothers as an argument for not allowing adoptees access to their original birth certificates is the one that shamed them (birth mothers) into giving up their children, telling them to "forget about them," in the first place. Women had to pay room and board, and often work, in exchange for their medical care, and then their babies were given away (at a high price) before they ever had a chance to hold them. I cannot begin to imagine the grief.

There is great grief, too, for adoptees, blocked forever from knowing who this mother was. I saw this clearly enough with my own mom, even as she loved and cherished her own adoptive parents. And I know that there is often grief for adoptive parents, before the adoption, as they deal with the excruciating pain of miscarriages and infertility. Please, please, please, we have all prayed at one time, our hearts filled with grief. Sometimes, it feels as if there is no answer. Sometimes, we wonder where God could be. I do too. But I have had it confirmed in my heart, in the deepest seat of my soul, that a God of mercy, and tenderness, and love, and TRUTH, does exist beneath the madness, of which I can still make no sense. In the face of great grief, love and truth are the only answer. Secrecy, shame, and fear are not. Don't you agree, dear Catholic Church? For you are worth so much more to me than an Ikea bedroom dresser, and I would rather not take you to the curb. But if I must choose between Love and Truth and you, I will choose Love and Truth, for that, of course, is God.

My Ikea dresser on the curb