This is Us
When I was growing up, during dinners I often sat in the corner of the kitchen in an old blue chair because, I claimed, there wasn’t room for me at the table. It was a white table with four red chairs. We pulled a ladderback chair from the dining room when all five of us squeezed in to eat, but I liked sitting at a slight remove. I liked watching and talking from a distance.
I’d grown up knowing I was special: granted, all three of us had been adopted, but I’d been adopted first. I’d arrived seemingly without problems: ten weeks old, theirs from the moment my parents saw me.
When I was a child, my mother would joyfully imitate how desperately I took the bottle; she would proudly talk about how strangers on the streets of New York City would tell her I should be on baby food commercials as they counted the rolls of fat on my legs. Later, as in much later, (as in 50 years later), I would think about what it was like to be an infant who’d lost the planet of familiar, and I would think about how I still eat as if I’m standing at a trough, as if the food might disappear and I better get in as much as I can before it does.
My brother John, blonde, blue-eyed, was eight weeks old when my parents got him; he was beautiful but unholdable. We know now he’d most likely been born addicted to the drugs his birth mother had taken, but in the 1960’s, my mother worried she wasn’t as good a caretaker as she’d thought. She thought she was doing things wrong, but she didn't know what those things were.
It wasn’t that she and my father didn’t fall in love with John. They did. He was their child, also, from the day he arrived. How do I know this? Because my parents told me. Because they never, ever said anything that made me feel they thought of us as adopted, as not 100% theirs.
As wonderful as being entirely claimed sounds, this is also a sticking point and, perhaps, a recipe for disaster. Because we had other parents, a birth mother and a birth father, and even though we had been relinquished, we still weren’t 100% available to be claimed by parents who got us through an agency. Why? Because our genetics tied us to other people. Because our stories, our real stories, the stories no one had told us, the true stories, started the day we were conceived, and no one in this world we inhabited cared about this part of our stories or thought we needed to know them or the people involved.
But more on that later. I’m not through talking about my brothers.
We got Sam when he was two and a half. He was the best thing that ever arrived at our house on 765 High Street. In my memory, he was dropped off—I don’t remember social workers. I just remember my new little brother standing in his new bedroom. He wore a striped shirt and was adorably shy. I had my best friend there to be part of the celebration that the Heffrons had a new toy: a little boy who was a different color than we were and had curly hair we could touch, and, most shocking, a bag of toy guns that my peace-loving parents let him keep!
I can’t write more about Sam without getting angry, so I’m going to leave that for another day. I’ll conclude this section by telling you his name wasn’t Sam when he came to us: it was Terry. I’ve read enough about the traumas associated with adoption now to reel as I write about Sam’s adoption process, and this essay is about something else (it’s so hard to stay focused 1. when writing about adoption and 2. when adopted), but I am going to do my best to focus on what I set out to write here. Just know that my parents loved Sam “as if he were their own” (arg--sorry--when one writes about adoption there is also subtext that jumps in).
The other night, I watched the mid-season finale of This Is Us, and, as it is here, it was Christmas time. As the show drew to its conclusion, Randall’s house filled with family and friends. His birth father was there. And his mother who had adopted Randall at birth. I get chills even as I write this. On this magical Christmas Eve, Randall got to have essential pieces of himself in one room--essentially, he got to have his family at the table.
Granted, this show strives for the sting of reality, so the father who adopted him wasn’t there because he was dead and his birth mother wasn’t there because she was, conveniently enough for the series’ story-line, also dead, but still: the impossible had happened. Fear and shame had been stared down until love was what was left, and Randall got to have it all (it’s Christmas--let me have this one), both stories of who he was (you are my child; you are my child) at the table. He was allowed to be.
I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to have both my mother and my birth mother at my kitchen table. Or my father and my birth father. (The latter is still actually a possibility, and while it would be amazing, I have to say I believe it wouldn’t be as emotionally overwhelming as the mother scenario. The mother carried me, she was the universe from which I sprang, and nothing touches that. But, dear fathers, if you read this, you have a daughter who would be deeply honored and moved to eat in your mutual presence. Truly, I am so afraid this will never happen, I need to minimize it here. It’s okay if it never happens. I understand. I don’t deserve to have it all. That’s what being relinquished does—it teaches you to set the bar really low. I’m learning to raise it. So, yes, I want this to happen; Fathers, I want you to man up and show up.)
As a Christmas present to myself, I’m going to go back to the time when I was sitting in the blue chair, and I’m going to put myself at the table. I’m also going to pull up a second ladderback chair and I’m going to make a place for my birth mother.
Oh, what the hell. I’m going to get a third chair and make a place for my birth father.
Oh, come on, Anne. Just go for it. Have the courage to ask for what you want.
Fine. I’m going to go into the garage and get four lawn chairs, and I’m going to make places for my brothers’ birth mothers and birth fathers.
In this Christmas dinner in my mind we are going to have eleven people at the table. And you know what the first thing I hear is? Laughter. I see a room that is warm with the heat of bodies; I see a black man surrounded by white people; I see my mother furtively looking around while acting the good hostess, checking that none of the guests are reaching to grab one of her children and steal them away, but I also see her falling into conversation and laughter because the birth parents remind my mother of her children, and so she inherently feels at home with and loves these people.
And when I check into my heart during this loud dinner? It’s on par of how I felt when my daughter was born. (You know I am typing through tears now). It would be a miracle. I would be so real.
Dear parents who adopted their children, please, please, please, this holiday season, make space at your table for the people who gave your children life.
Making space for your children and their stories will be the single most important gift you could give your son or daughter: permission to be both your child and the child of who made him or her. I know that when you adopted a child, you wanted a child of your own, but that’s stealing. Wake up. I love you, dear parents, but wake up. You get a plant at the nursery and you water it because you want to nourish the roots so the plant can grow. A child is no different.
Buy more chairs; get a bigger table.
p.s. I posted this with a picture of a heart, because I had no picture to match the scene. I couldn’t even find one on the internet of a group of white people with a mixed race child and a black man. Huh. Isn’t that funny. What a surprise.
A discussion for another day…