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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