When I left work for the train station to pick up my daughter, Cathy, in Seattle, I didn’t know what to expect. My husband was in New York City and I was on my own for the week. Cathy and I were getting together at my apartment for the weekend to prepare for our upcoming presentation at the AAC conference in San Francisco. For the first time since we started our collective memoir ten years ago – Kathleen~Cathleen – we were going to read some of what we had written to each other.
We chose pieces from four chapters that would represent turning points in our relationship – Honeymoon, Going Dark, Therapy, Integration – chapters that each describe the emotional weather of a birthmother and a relinquished adoptee post-reunion and further down the road to a long-term relationship.
We had shared a couple of brief excerpts for our feature article, “Being the Secret” in the Spring 2014 edition of the Adoption Constellation magazine for Adoption Mosaic. That share made us eager to hear more from each other’s writing.
What follows is the aftermath of what I learned from that first share between us.
There is no substitute for being somebody’s mother. There is nobody else who can be that. Having a baby means being somebody’s mother. When mother is not present after baby is born, baby knows , and wonders where you are. No matter how good the substitute is, there is no substitute. The baby knows its mother and feels the loss of her when she is gone.
This is the truth of what my daughter told me tonight. Tonight we read previously unshared chapters aloud, and to each other. We are preparing for a conference where we will read our excerpts to a roomful of strangers. It was time to uncover our secret writing to each other.
Listening from where we sat on my living room couch in Seattle, I heard her younger self reacting to the me she met on that exploratory summer in 1993. I also read back to her from the same place in time and we surprised each other with our synchronism. Our take on each other, and the confusion that chased our courage was vivid and honest. To listen and experience her written take on me was painful, sometimes brutal, and made me bark with laughter and quietly weep. Nothing surprised me , but it was still a shock to hear her descriptions filled with snapshots that rang true. It was wild to hear her read aloud what she had written in secret. I felt intimately included and exposed at the same time, trapped in the words of a twenty-two year old witness as to the person she found in me.
We listened to each other read on the couch as we sipped the champagne we had poured to celebrate this turning point. We had waited 10 full years to share these few selected parts of what we had written about each other. The words both shocked and soothed me. The excerpts we chose for the conference came from the Honeymoon, Going Dark, Therapy, and Integration chapters. As we read to each other, we find that we have unwittingly written about many of the same exact moments in our remembered history. The conversation that followed what we read went deep into the night through gullies of tears, gulps of surprise and connection, laughter and horror that stirred us to more questions. Our thoughts chased each other aloud, and whipped eddies around the rock embedded in the riverbottom of our story as we stepped from stone to stone.
Our words, wet with memories, stirred the ingredients that were suddenly unsettled beneath the lives we led and now shared. The original question kept beckoning in the call and response of our story as we read.
For Cathy, there was no excuse that I chose to leave her and she felt that my absence had inflicted irreversible damage. Even sitting in front of her after all these years in reunion, I could not give her what she wanted, what would have been her birthright – those early years with me as her mother. The mother sitting here beside her now was not the one she had needed – the one that would’ve held and comforted her in the beginning when she was new. We cried as she told me that my youth and lack of experience didn’t excuse me from what she was forced to endure without me. She wanted me to have changed my mind, to have done what I didn’t think at the time I could do and raise her beside me – not leave her alone, parted forever from me and the beginning she might have had in my company. She told me that she felt certain that I would have given her everything she had needed, and nothing would have been too big to overcome. We would have made it. I could have done it. She knew me well enough now to know it. And now, so did I. It could have worked out differently.
She may have been given the best situation possible given our circumstances, and she was loved as kin by her adoptive parents, but that didn’t make it easy or okay that she was put there. She was made to become the child of strangers, and she had an innate sense from the beginning that she had lost her way. She came to learn that it was just the way it was.
What my daughter told me translated into the opposite of what I had believed for all these years – that I was giving her to a better life than she would have had with me. From her perspective, that wasn’t true. Just because I didn’t have the confidence to raise her as a teenaged single mother in 1971 didn’t mean that it wouldn’t have worked out for us to be together. In her eyes, she thought I should have tried. In her eyes, if I loved her, I would have tried. Her secret wish all these years was that I would have tried, and now – looking back with honest and older, if not wiser eyes, I know that it probably would have worked out, one way or the other. Everything does. I thought at the time that I was doing the responsible thing. I learned that night that she thought that I abdicated my responsibiiity and that it was inexcusable, irreversible and, yes, she was very angry. By the time we finished talking, I didn’t even think she liked me and now I see, for the first time really, that the upset is still so fresh , and it’s because she couldn’t be with me, be mine, from the start – to finish.
I told Cathy that I didn’t have thoughts of raising children when I was a child – that I longed for a more interesting world than the one I saw my mother living in. I had wished I had been a boy when I saw my brothers go on a fruit boat to Panama with our grandfather, while I stayed home with my mother and younger siblings “because I was a girl”. I wanted to be independent and to do whatever I wanted about anything and everything. I didn’t want anything to get in the way of my childish dreams.
Cathy looked surprised, and maybe even relieved, and said, “That’s important! That needs to be in the book” as though it explained the confounded truth. Maybe she was able to see that my errant decision to live without her didn’t have anything to do with her or who she was. I wondered if she really thought that I had given her up because I didn’t like her – that I had thought there was something wrong with her? I always felt love for her and had never thought there was anything wrong with her; from the very beginning moments of her life, she was perfect. I knew she was perfect. I may not have developed my maternal instincts yet and being a mother would be something I would have to later choose to become.
When I asked Cathy, as we faced each other on the couch, what she thought I should have done, she looked me in the eye and said, “Termination.”
I lost my breath and quietly let out the words that hollered in my head as I asked her. “But what about the fact that you are living? Doesn’t that have value? Doesn’t it matter to you? Don’t you want to be alive? What if you make a difference, for you or for others or for your children, that couldn’t have happened without you?”
These unanswerable questions held no weight in her answer, nor any conviction in her eyes. She wasn’t sure that any of that really mattered. Her look made me feel foolish and naive. I held on to her gaze and she looked back quietly as though it was just a fact… As though the fact of her living self was irrelevant. How can that be? She was important enough to come this far. The irony of the blessing and the curse didn’t escape me.
“I’m sorry” I said as we held each other, crying.
Now we are left to trust that what’s done is done. We can only make the best of what we have, where we are, who we are with. I am grateful for what we have together. My sorrow is real, but so is my joy. I sense that this kind of conversation has to happen between two people who really care about each other, as well as the truth these conversations uncover. Maybe it doesn’t matter if the answers aren’t clear. Our mindful relationship outweighs what we could say about it. The fact that my mother and I don’t talk as openly as my daughter and I do reassures me that we are on the right path.
I may never be able to fill the gap she feels anymore than my mother can fill mine. Feelings of disconnection are part of the human condition and persistant, consistent, and steady unconditional love is what heals the gap.
I reach to understand – on an intellectual level – why her perspective that termination would have been easier for her; is it because then there would have been no “her without us?” to concern herself with? That has such an empty ring to it when life is so full.
Her pragmatism and anger makes me sad as I ponder the consequence of my relinquishment, an act that was based on my teenaged, Catholic-raised perception of love.
I love my daughter. The ironies in our lives have conspired to synchronize over and over again because we are connected – even when we’re not.
I want to believe that my child’s capacity to feel loved will open up wide and fill to the brim with answers to her heart’s desires so that she may get to live her life – heart, body and soul – to the fullest, with or without her mother, and that our bond will rebuild the trust that was interrupted at birth, creating ties that weave us freely and inextricably together.
To read my daughter’s counterblog, visit ReunionEyes.