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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Joseph, My Mom, and Unanswered Questions

Joseph in May. He has grown up so much since September.

This is another post by Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan passed away on April 7th after an 8-month battle with melanoma. 

 This Thursday was my son Joseph's last day of school until next year, and we celebrated by bringing in fruit for the class and letting his teachers know how thankful we are. When I picked him up he was sitting happily with his friends, laughing and eating his snack, and though he was happy to see me, he wasn't in any hurry to leave.

What a difference since September, when I first brought Joseph to Kindercare, which is right across the street from where I teach in Philadelphia. He was two then and, because of my mom, had never before had to go to daycare or school. Like my girls, Joseph loved "Nana Days," when my mom brought him to the Discovery Museum or the playground and generally showered him with love. This September, a mere month after my mom's diagnosis with Stage IV melanoma, Joseph started school. He sobbed and clung to my leg when I dropped him off, and when I picked him up afterwards, nearly eight hours later, he was so overcome with emotion that he fell off his chair onto the floor as soon as he saw me and again broke into sobs. "Mommy," he said, and the look on his face was clear: "I didn't know if you were coming back."
Joseph on the first day of school, looking a little nervous.

Of course I was coming back. And as Joseph saw that this was true, day after day, week after week, and as he made friends and played on the playground and grew to love his teachers in the two-year-old classroom (Ms. Wanda, Ms. Stefanie, Ms. Jessica, Ms. Angie), he began to relax and enjoy himself. Eventually he gave me a hug and a kiss goodbye in the morning and ran off to play with his friends.

Joseph at 3 months, when my mom first started caring for him.
None of this is to say that no longer having my mom care for Joseph was not a huge loss, or that her two years of caring for him were not extremely important in his life. I plan to tell Joseph stories about his time with my mom for the rest of his life so that, if he doesn't remember himself, he will at least know. He will know how much he was loved, and what sacrifices were made for him. And another thing: none of this is to say that had I not come back, for whatever reason, that Joseph wouldn't have been truly traumatized, regardless of how wonderful his teachers were. And he would have been especially traumatized had all reasons for me not coming back been blocked from him forever. Had all information about me been blocked from him forever. I've been thinking about this lately as I think about the mysteries surrounding my mom's early life because of her adoption. She was three months old when my grandparents took her home. Three months! Who held her during those days and weeks before her new life? Who first saw her smile? Was she loved, spoken to, rocked back to sleep when she cried?

This winter, my mom received a letter from the Children's Home Society of New Jersey, the adoption agency that placed her, in response to a letter she had sent them asking for more information about her life, since she had been reunited with her sisters and her original mother had recently passed away.  What possible reason was left for any secrecy? The agency did send my mom more information about her father, and an older son that he had, but wrote that they could tell her nothing about who cared for her for the first three months of her life. "We could have you speak with a current foster family if you are curious as to what that experience is like," they wrote. That made us laugh.

My mom and dad also received another letter from
the Children's Home Society of New Jersey this
My mom, me, and Joseph in Parque Retiro, Madrid, in July 2013.
winter, one in response to their letter urging the agency to support S873/A1259, or the Adoptees Birthright Bill (signed into law in NJ in May) which will allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates, or OBCs. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Child Welfare League of America, among many, many other groups and institutions, support legislation such as this. Still: "We will take no position on the bill," the agency wrote to my parents.

I must admit that this is as much a mystery to me as the first three months of my mother's life. Why would an institution whose sole goal is to protect children not speak out on behalf of those thousands of children it placed for adoption who had their rights stripped from them? Donna Pressma, President and CEO of the Children's Home Society of Trenton since 1986 even chairs, according to her biography, a committee for the Child Welfare League of America (this one on children with HIV).

There are some other mysteries for me as well, mysteries I was reminded of as I searched the agency's website for clues to my mom's history, to my history. For instance: Why must an adoptee pay anything in order to receive information about his or her own family history? I knew that my mom paid for the piece of paper with minimal information about her original family (the one we laughed about for its inaccuracies with my mom's sisters this fall) back in 2002, but the prices listed here reminded me how much. $75 for basic information, $200 for a complete background, and $500 for a search, meaning that the agency would attempt to contact an original family member for you. $100 for each additional search (a sibling, a father). $50/hr for a pre-search counseling session. If I remember correctly, for my mom this consisted of someone asking her, "Why do you want to know?" (Eventually, my mother would pay several thousand dollars to an outside source to find her mother on her own so that she could deliver a letter to her "in her own voice," something I believe that is important for all adoptees to be able to do).

Also: why did my mom's original mother ever have to pay anything to the adoption agency? This winter my mom's sister Jo gave us a letter her mother had kept all these years about just this. Apparently she had fallen behind on payments but finally caught up, and a letter was sent to acknowledge this.  My mother's parents also paid a lot of money to finalize her adoption. I know diapers and formula are expensive, but ... well, it just doesn't add up.

Joseph at 2 months. So much had already happened in his life. Where and with whom was my mom at this age?
Children's Home Society of New Jersey, if you are reading, let me say that it seems, from your website, that you do some wonderful work for children. You wrote to my mom that you read her letters with "great compassion," and indeed much of your work does seem to be infused with this compassion. Yet how can compassion for adopted children stop once they become adults and begin advocating for their rights? Where is the compassion in charging them $500 simply to connect them to the parent or parents that you had a part in separating them from? And why can't we know where my mom was for the first three months of her life? Do those records not exist?

Faced with the losses tied up in sealed-records adoption, one can become overwhelmed. Faced with any loss, actually, one can become overwhelmed. I know that's how I was feeling last September when I picked up Joseph, sobbing, from the floor after his first day of school. Back in the car, once he was safely buckled, I let the feelings sink in. What I had already lost with my mom's diagnosis. What I might lose. Mom.

It was then, when I was feeling most lost, that the phone rang. I didn't recognize the number, but something made me pick it up. Joseph, unusually, sat quiet in the back.

"Hello, this is Jenn," I said.

"Jenn? Jenn Gentlesk?" spoke a sweet, yet inquisitive, and perhaps slightly nervous voice.


"I received your letter today, your letter you sent by certified mail, the one about your mom, Susan Perry ... I'm ... her sister." Carol then explained that my mom had another, younger sister (Jo), and that they both had been frantically searching for my mom for two weeks, ever since Jo had accidentally found a birth record in her mother's apartment.

I can't speak for my mom, but I know that at this moment in my life, when I was feeling a bit as though God had dropped me off at daycare and was never coming back, to hear "We were frantically searching for you," and then to be found, was nothing less than miraculous. I am grateful, and humbled, to have been touched by this miracle. It has sustained me through this incredibly difficult year. And I'm hoping that, like Joseph at his school, each day going forward will be a little easier for me. That each day I'll find some joy.

Yet is shouldn't take a miracle (or thousands of dollars) for people who are related to each other by blood to find each other. There are enough mysteries and tragedies in life that we can't do anything about and need true miracles for. As I reflect on this year -- the beautiful reunion with my mom's sisters, the devastating loss of my mom -- I know there are some questions that I'll never be able to answer. But others, well, I'm going to keep searching until I find what I'm looking for ... I'm going to search for answers for my mom.
My mom and Joseph in Spain last summer. She would hate how she looked in this picture (she had just woken up on our first day in the country, and was jet-lagged from our day of travel), but I love how her hand is on Joseph's leg, and how happy they look just sitting together.