If my mother hadn't died, if I hadn't gotten divorced, f I hadn’t thrown the pen in the direction of a student, if I hadn’t said fuck a bunch of times, if I hadn’t cried, I wouldn’t have gotten fired. If I hadn’t gotten fired, I wouldn’t have been free to go to the writer’s retreat in Montana. If I hadn’t gone to the writer’s retreat and spent all the savings I didn’t have, I wouldn’t have met Kitty Stockett. If I hadn’t met Kitty Stockett, I wouldn’t have been able to say yes to borrowing her apartment for three months so I could write a book. If I hadn’t written the book, I wouldn’t have done 23 and Me. If I hadn’t done 23 and Me, I wouldn’t have discovered who my birth father was, and if I hadn’t found him, I wouldn’t have had the chance to say yes when my birth father’s brother, my uncle, offered to fly me to stay with him and his family, offered to fly me into the same tiny airport I’d flown into a year to the month earlier to go to the writer’s retreat.
When I was in graduate school, my thesis was about a soap opera character. I wrote about her because I didn’t yet know how to write anything real. And by real I mean anything that cut beneath the surface of who I was. (I still don’t really get plot, however. One of my favorite writers, Lorrie Moore, once said plots are for dead people, and I like that.) The name of my soap opera character was Montana.
I’m going to tell you about something here I have not written about for the same reason I keep something precious in my pocket—so I don’t lose it.
But it happened. It was real, and it was like winning the lottery. Only better because strangers weren’t calling for loans and my taxes weren’t affected.
I have met blood relatives before. Three. One wasn’t interested; one was lukewarm, and one was like Prince Charming coming to my door on his white horse. It has been a few years since our reunion and I don’t see them anymore. Meeting half siblings as an adult is odd. You have already lived so much of your life. It’s like buying ice cream when your freezer is already full. Where will you put it?
So, when I was on the plane to Montana, I sort of wished I’d said no to the plane ticket, to the visit. I didn’t want to meet people and fall in love with them just to lose them.
I’ve realized recently that in general, like tape, people only have so much stick to them. Usually you are born and you stick to your birth mother, your birth father. But if you are taken from them and put into foster care, your weakened stick still sticks to them, and if you are taken away from the foster care and given to parents who want to adopt you, if things have gone smoothly and you weren’t in a Russian orphanage, for example, where caretakers faced you away from them when they changed your diapers so no eye contact happened, so you didn’t get attached, then hopefully you have enough stick to stick to your new parents. I did. I stuck to them, but was there enough stick later in life for a romantic relationship, for example? Uh, no. But boy did I try. And, god help them, my husbands tried even harder. How do you seal a package when the tape won’t stick? There’s no hold. No staying power.
So there I was, on a plane to meet blood relatives and I was afraid that 1. I wouldn’t stick to them, and I would feel like a stranger in a strange world for four days, counting the minutes until my return flight took off and 2. I would stick to them but they wouldn’t stick to me and I’d be back to being a newborn with the discovered shock that the body who had delivered me didn’t want me around.
My hands went ice cold on the flight, but I didn’t get a migraine. My brain danced around the edges of one, considering. I had to remind myself to breathe.
I saw them, my uncle and his granddaughter, before I went through the revolving glass door. My uncle looked like my father. The father who had claimed me as his daughter when I was ten weeks old. My uncle also looked like me. The girl was smooth-haired and beautiful and shy.
My uncle’s son, my cousin, and his two other children, more smooth-haired hilarity and beauty, showed up while we waited for my suitcase.
And we talked. The laughing was almost immediate.
My cousin kept checking in with me. “I know this is a lot for you and that you are a bit of an introvert,” he said (he’s smart and he does his research). “You tell us if we are overwhelming you. We want you to be comfortable.”
My uncle, his sweet wife—my aunt--whom I met at their house, and my cousin kept checking in with me for the entire four days. I felt so understood. I also felt safe.
One of the best parts of my trip was early on when the two men said they had to prepare me for something. We were sitting around the living room, talking, when my cousin cleared his throat. He told me they were an intelligent family, an educated, well-read lot, but that I had to be prepared, because they talked about farting more than most people.
There’s the myth we are cut in half and we spend our lives looking for our other half. When I had met my half-brother and saw we had the same curved little toe, that was one of those there you are/there I am moments. And the fart conversation was the other. I am the queen of farts. I love gas. And poop. The whole nine yards.
I did not just stick to these people—I clicked with them. Shared DNA means something. It means wonky little toes and gas. It means the rhythm of your conversation may match in a way you’ve never experienced before. So this is why people sit around and talk? Because it's easy?
The last night in Montana, my cousin’s beautiful and funny wife returned from a trip, and the group of us went to dinner. (We’d eaten a lot in the last four days, and we just kept eating. It was a way of bonding, and since we were an active group we knew it would just be a matter of days until we had sweated off the collateral damage of reunion.) I ate and listened and talked and laughed and looked. I kept looking at each family member and telling my brain our connection so my brain could make the stick. That’s X, and he’s my cousin. That’s Y and he’s my uncle. I was both a stranger and family. I also felt like that growing up, so it’s a familiar feeling. Like being a baseball player who rounds all the bases and then slides around home plate.
Here’s where the story heads straight into Adoption World. I have to call my uncle and my cousin X and Y because my birth father isn’t allowed, by his wife, to talk to me. And so the world can’t know he’s my father. And so if you find out who these people are in Montana who are related to me, that means I betrayed their confidence, and I may lose them. I can’t show you the group photos we took, and it worries me that in one of my crazy Facebook (Yes, I wrote Fecebook by mistake. See? Poop and farts. Poop and farts.) posting sprees I might put up one of their pictures by mistake and break the agreed vow of secrecy and silence. And make them mad at me. And make them leave.
But then there’s this. The day I was packing to leave Montana, my aunt came into to the bedroom they now, when we talk on the phone, call your room, and said, “I have a problem.” I got still, wondering what I had done wrong. “You are leaving,” she said. “And I want you to stay.”
I hugged her, and we each said, “I love you.”
I brought my suitcase into the living room and my uncle said, “I want you to hear something. Please sit down.” I sat on the couch and looked at him, lean and handsome like my dad, but with teeth and a smile and a face that reminded me of me. “I love you and I will never let you go,” he said. I made myself calmly hold his gaze, but there were fireworks going off in my brain.
I’d written about that in my book, the book my uncle had read twice. I’d written about how I’d trained my new writer friends Lorna and Cheryl to say I love you and I’ll never leave as we drove away from our writer’s retreat and back to our separate lives. I’d only recently realized that was a sentence, as an adoptee, I needed to hear almost constantly from everyone who mattered to me. It was like the part of my brain which could hear that information once and retain it was burned away, and so the empty space needed constant refilling. I love you and I’ll never leave. I love you and I’ll never leave. It’s the stick.
I believe I can change. I believe I can learn to stay. I believe I can learn that others will stay. I think I can grow stick the way...the way...the way you can throw away old tape and buy a whole new roll.
And my uncle and his wife and my cousin and his wife and their three kids whom I adore, are helping with the stick. My uncle’s other children, whom I have only met by Facebook or phone, are also helping. They keep showing up, checking in. Writing. Calling. Showing up for an adoptee matters. We think you are going to leave. We think you don’t want us. (Maybe not all adoptees think that way, but I do. And the adoptees that write to me share similar feelings. So I feel justified in saying “we”.)
I don’t want to tell you too much about Montana because someone might know someone and then I’ve spilled the beans and the party’s over, so just know that even though I have had my share of rejection in the reunion process, the family I found in Montana more than made up for the sting of No, you aren’t my daughter or No, I can’t talk to you.
Okay, I’m getting Hallmark here. The rejection was more than a sting, it was like an icepick in the guts, but that’s one reason I write: to let people know what it is like when an adoptee is rejected by blood relatives. The damage goes deep. Just as, when an adoptee is embraced by blood relatives, the healing is immeasurable.
The whole trip feels like a miracle to me. I still can’t believe it happened. I feel so valuable. I feel so much more myself.
For 2017, I wish all adoptees who crave reunion find it. For 2017, I wish that all family members contacted by an adoptee open the door.
We only have so much stick. Let us use it.
Happy New Year.
As a postscript: I got an email from both X and Y soon after I posted this blog. I was told there was nothing I could do to diminish their love for me, that it came with a lifetime guarantee.