I don’t watch TV a lot, but when I find a show I like (this year it was Chef’s Table and Transparent) I glue myself to the screen and don’t peel myself off until the lights go out. I go deep. I disappear into the beauty of the images and the locations and the stories.
I don’t behave like this with This is Us, a show I’m guessing will have more life-long effects on me than the other two shows combined.
I have to walk around the TV for a bit before turning it on. It’s not that I’m afraid, but my reluctance to watch This is Us is similar to my reluctance to step into a church. As soon as a walk into a place of worship--it doesn’t matter the denomination--I start to choke on my own tears.
There are too many feelings in a church for me. I have to learn how to contain the joy and grief and love I feel. I have to learn not to choke on the thoughts of the holy spirit and all that is beautiful and good. Church also reminds me I am going to die. That everyone I love is going to die. It makes me think of Michelangelo and bloodshed in Palestine and music and the taste of Pepperidge farm bread. It’s too much. I can’t do it, so I rarely go.
But I want to. I am reading Reggie Ray’s book Touching Enlightenment, Finding Realization in the Body, and even more than stepping into a church, I want to live as if I carry one inside of me. I want to live as if I am a church. A place of worship. Now that I am over fifty and I have done the dirty work of becoming an adult, I want to live as the manifestation of what is most holy and sacred, and so I need to learn to contain more feelings. Mostly I want to be a good person who contributes more than she takes. (And I want to eat good food. And not get so huge I have to buy new clothes, if that’s not too much to ask.)
Watching This is Us is part of my training.
This is what undid me last night: Jack had confronted his son Randall until Randall finally admitted that he was, in fact, smarter than he let on. And Jack looked his son in the eyes (already I am crying) and told him that he didn’t normally bring up the fact that Randall was adopted because, more than anything, Randall was Jack’s son, but the fact was that Randall was adopted and that meant he did come with a different skill tool bag (my words) than the other kids in the family. Jack tells Randall these differences need to be celebrated, and as Randall’s father, it is Jack’s job to make sure Randall flourishes (again my words, but you get the gist).
Randall’s eyes filled with tears, and Jack reached to hug his son. Randall reached up to hug his father as if he, Randall, were drowning. And that’s when I felt as if someone had punched me in the gut.
I imagined that the rest of the non-adopted world was breathing a sigh of relieved joy: Randall was okay. He was loved. He was going to be encouraged to be himself, but I felt like throwing up.
I saw love in the hug, yes, so much love on both sides, but I also saw childish grief so great it would never be articulated because at the time Randall did not have the words to talk about his feelings. In that moment, the core of who Randall was needed to be hugged by source, by a person who had created him, in order for all the pieces of who he was to feel at home and safe, but that was not available, and so all he would feel was wordless unease. Like, I must not be entirely real because here I am being hugged by my father whom I love so much and yet things still aren’t exactly right. And so he would hold onto his father even tighter, but it would be like trying to get toothpaste out of an already empty tube.
It’s these times when adoptees go into autopilot or sink into depression or act out in rage, and no one understands why, because no one sees what is missing. Love isn’t enough for adoptees when they don’t have contact with their birth parents. Love is so good, it’s true. Love is healing, but it’s not enough. We need to be mirrored by what brought us into the world. We just do.
I didn’t even have to meet my birth mother to feel mirrored by her. I finally got to see a picture of her when I was forty. I learned she and I were the same height and weight. I learned she was a physical therapist (so that was why I’d been so drawn to bodywork despite my cerebral family’s more bookish pursuits!). These facts settled my guts. I was connected to the world. My roots became deeper, more supportive. I was more myself. Life was better.
As painful as it was to see Randall’s face when he hugged his father, as painful as it was to remember sometimes feeling a hug from my parents was not enough and that I was therefore not okay, I feel more alive today for having sat in witness to another adoptee’s pain (yes, it was a TV show; yes it was an actor, but I’ll take what I can get when it is this good) and, as a result, to my own. I hurt, but it’s a hurt I can name now, a hurt I can write about, talk about. As a young adoptee, as a middle-aged adoptee, I hurt, but I didn’t know why, and so the feelings jammed in my body and caused perpetual stomach problems, perpetual headaches. A desire to disappear.
I hurt now, but it’s a sweet, flowing hurt. It runs like tears, like water, like blood. It feels like I’m walking into a church. Finally. I can tell you what it feels like to be adopted. And because your heart is large, you listen.