I won a contest for my book, and after the night-time euphoria wore off, I woke up sick to my stomach. The only thing worse than when things are going poorly for me is when things are going really well.
HBL called. “I’m worried about you,” he said after a bit. “There was a lightness to your voice yesterday that isn’t there now.”
“I feel like something bad is coming,” I said.
“You’ve been writing a lot of hard stuff about adoption. Maybe you need to pull back a little.”
“I don’t think I can. You know how you said that you were afraid green stuff would shoot out of your son’s mouth if you brought up the subject of his adoption? Well, that’s how I feel: as if green stuff is about to come shooting out of my mouth and it’s scary. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what I’m going to say.”
“What’s the green stuff, really?”
I took a deep breath and checked into the tight twisting ache in my guts. Learning myself was proving to be such a convoluted journey. “Well, it isn’t anger. It’s longing and grief.”
I took another deep breath. I had spent my life avoiding feelings, and now there I was, walking straight into the black pit of stink that had taken up residence in my abdomen. I cleared my throat. If I was going to swim in it, I might as well just dive it. So I started talking.
“I was thinking about when Keats was born. The doctor was concerned that Keats was jaundiced, and so she was on some sort of special table next to my bed shortly after I’d held her for the first time. After a minute on the table, alone, she started to cry and so I reached over the bars of my hospital bed. I could just touch the soft skin of her shoulder, but she immediately quieted, and in that moment I saw the power I had as a mother. I saw the power of my touch was so vital and real that even the fingerprint of a stretched out hand was enough to make my daughter’s nervous system feel everything was going to be okay.”
I didn’t say this to HBL because he’s a dad: but it wasn’t the nurse’s hand that had soothed her, or even her father’s. It was mine. My hand had brought peace to my daughter.
“This is what I think I am both longing for and grieving: the mother touch that would have sealed the trauma of my birth and set me on the long journey of both bonding and developing independence. It will never happen for me and I don’t know what to do.”
HBL, as I have mentioned in other blogs, is the best listener I know, and he did what he did best. He made encouraging sounds, and so I kept talking. I was sitting on a chair, but I felt as if I were floating, as if I were losing control of my body in space. I felt as if I were going insane. Like maybe my brain were slipping out of my ear. I wanted to be quiet. To ask him questions about himself so we could get off the topic of me and how I felt, but I was committed to changing, committed to breaking the old patterns that had left me divorced twice and unsteady in my shoes.
“I feel like when I was born, I wasn’t a fully developed egg. I was more like the membrane that is inside the shell of an egg. I feel like that all the time. Like people have more access to me than they should. I want to feel real, solid.”
“Can you tell me more?”
“I believe that time I was able to soothe Keats after she was born, I helped solidify her shell of self. From that moment on she was able to both bond and separate, but I’m stuck in the membrane stage, even at 52. I’m still waiting for that mother touch to reassure the infant me that everything is going to be okay. And so I long for that touch and grieve the fact I will never get it.”
“Is there a way for me to help you?”
I thought about this sweet man who wanted to help me feel like a fully realized egg, and I saw it was like someone offering a cold compress for my forehead when it was my belly that was on fire.
“I think I just have to write about it,” I said. “I have to find a way to reframe this whole situation so I can see it in a new light and grow up. I don’t think I would be able to do this if I didn’t feel you here as an anchor. Thank you.”
When you are born, your job is to individuate and grow up and fly the coop, but children who are adopted often have a different job, and that is to stay.
When I was younger, there was a story on the news about birth parents reclaiming a child they had given up for adoption. My mother ran from the room. “I would die if anyone took you from me,” she said. I heard her. I heard that I was valued, needed, loved. I heard I was something she felt she needed to hold on to, that someone out in the world might want to take me away from her. That I needed to prove my love by staying.
Every time I tried to leave home: every time I went to sleepover camp or college, I ending up going home early. I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t, and I didn’t know why. I just knew that I wanted to be home even though every time I got there I realized it wasn’t the right place, but it didn’t matter because it was the only home I knew. Time and time again, I just kept turning the car around and heading back home.
Success also played a part in this. Being more successful than my mother was another way of leaving her. I’m not sure how I learned this, but I felt it was my job to exist in her shadow. Then both of us felt safe. This was even connected to how I dressed. If I wore things that my mother saw were too glittery or girly, she would say, “Oh, Anne,” in a way that made me feel I had disappointed both of us, and so I learned not to exhibit myself too brightly so my mother wouldn’t disparage her own self in comparison
When my mother died, I thought I was finally going to be free. I thought I could finally be myself without somehow hurting her. But what happened was that it was like the air was slowly disappearing from the bubble in which I lived. It got harder and harder to breathe, to function. The center of my world was gone, and I wasn’t free: I was lost.
My father sold their house and there was no nest to fly home to, and suddenly I was trapped in a corner of my own making and had nothing left to do but write about the one thing I couldn’t ever talk about freely with my mother: my life.
I started writing You Don’t Look Adopted in March of 2016. I self-published it that summer. In a couple of weeks the first piece to be published by someone other than myself will be available on the blog Manifest-station. It’s an essay called Writing the Mother and it’s about how my mother’s fear and refusal to put her life onto the page affected my ability to do the same. Now she is dead and I am writing freely. I have lost a great deal of fear, and what I am feeling mostly these days is grief and joy. Some days I feel grief and longing. Some days I feel joy and joy. Those, clearly, are the days I love the most. I am learning to tolerate joy. I am learning to tolerate good news. I am learning to tolerate success. Happiness.
This afternoon I smoked a cigarette in the back yard with my friend. She wore a long black coat and had her Patriots hat on backwards. She is beautiful and smart and I was so happy she was my friend. I hadn’t had a cigarette for decades, but I inhaled, exhaled, and loved the dirty burn. We talked about writing another movie together. In the seven years we’ve written together, we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time talking about how our parents have affected our lives. Today we talked about ourselves. We stood in a cloud of smoke, talking, laughing, dreaming about what we could make true on the big screen.
So much imagination goes into making my world real. So much work.
In my world, mothers disappear.
I am learning to stay.