It’s early in the morning of August 12, 2014, my 41st birthday, wondering to myself about the actual time of my birth. It remains one of the facts of my mystery as the details of that day are hidden in the memories of a woman that I never knew; pieced together only in the assumptions that I can make based on “non-identifying information” that was given to me when I was 11. It’s a strange sorority to be a part of: this club of adoption. Even though, in 2014, it feels like everyone is doing it…celebrities wanting to save children from war torn countries, and countless couples hoping to fill the void of their longing for a child that can not come from a genetic union of their own. Although I know that it was a correct decision that was made by (or for) my teenaged birthmother over four decades ago, it still feels like a strange way to begin the navigation in this world as a human.
Adopted at two months and two days old, my first lesson in life was to learn to be disconnected in a way that no human is meant to be disconnected from the woman (or in my case, girl) who carries one into the world. On this side of things, I understand the relevance of my spirit’s choice to play out what was a necessity in my life’s imprint.
And, as I sit in the quiet hours of the home of my Aunt and Uncle that has been anything but quiet for the past four days of our family reunion, I understand how and why my spirit chose this entry 41 years ago today. This acknowledgement wasn’t always so. Being in this club of adoption, there is a thread that cannot be understood from outside of its membership. When we meet fellow adoptees, we somehow seem to connect with one another in a moment’s glance upon the affirmation, “I’m adopted, too!”
A week ago, I sat alone in a little bistro in Antigua, Guatemala, after wandering in to Hector’s near Merced Church for an early dinner. I sat at the table facing the door so I could watch the people on the street as the sun began its decent. I have come to be comfortable in the aloneness, as it was the first and later continued lesson of my life. I often treat myself to solo date night dinners while traveling, and observe and watch the people and places and cultures of where I have wandered in the steps that only I have independently chosen. It was my last night in the country before heading back to the states for my Grandfather’s 90th birthday celebration. The upcoming family reunion would be the first time that my family would be in the same place at the same time since all grandchildren and great-grandchildren have been in existence.
As I sat contemplating my upcoming trip, my mind began to spin it’s wondering of what lies ahead. How will things be with my brother whom I haven’t spoken with in over a year? I hope my cousin and I won’t fight like the last heated argument that forged the wedge even deeper between her and I. How much will I allow my family to see of me? Will I share with them who I am and what makes me tick, or will I hide behind what they want me to be, like I have for for the many years before?
As I continued spinning deep in my own thoughts, a woman walks in. A tall, beautiful, black woman with her head wrapped in a silk scarf looks down at my plate of tomatoes and Gouda and asks what I’m eating. It’s one of those instances where she picks the perfect moment to inquire, just as I put the first large bite in my mouth. It takes me a few seconds to chew and respond, but when I do, I confirm that the food is worth staying for. In fact, the tiny bistro came highly recommended by a friend who lives in the area.
“I saw the reviews online, and it sounds like this is the place to be,” she adds, as she takes the table across the small entranceway, also choosing the seat that looks out to the view of the church.
We continue small talk for a moment, as we both recognize each other as solo travelers in a land that we find as equally as captivating.
“I’m a travel writer,” she mentions.
“I’m also a writer,” I share, although this is actually a new acknowledgement for me as I am just getting used to wearing the title.
“What are you working on?”
“I published my memoir a couple of years ago,” she replies.
“What’s the name?” I ask as I take out my phone to make a note of it and her name.
As soon as she tells me the title, I have a feeling we are in the same club. She tells me her name, Mary Williams. I invite her to sit with me for dinner, which is something I never do, but it felt right.
As she gathers her belongings, she asks what my memoir is about.
“It’s about a few things. A main thread is about my healing story of my adoption.”
As she approaches the table, she confirms my suspicion.
“I’m adopted too!” This solidifies our new friendship as we high five one another before she takes her seat.
It feels like a fated meeting. Two members of a unique club, both dedicated to sharing our story.
We continue with the easeful back and forth banter as the sun begins to set and I ask, as I always do, about her story.
“I was adopted at the age of 12…actually….” she pauses, “by Jane Fonda.”
“Well, that’s a new one.” I reply, not missing a beat.
I have never been one to be star struck, and in all actuality, I was more struck by Mary’s ability to write her story down for the world to read, and have the success in doing so.
She continues to recount the story of reconnecting with her birthmother, which I am more enthralled by as I am contemplating my own search in the year to come. I hang on to her every word, as she takes me down the rabbit hole of her life.
“My family was a part of the Blank Panther movement. I grew up in South Central LA, and went to a summer camp where Mom (Jane) volunteered during my early teenage years. She essentially saved me. I was going through a pretty rough time, and she asked me if I wanted to come live with her. I said yes. I went home and told my Mom (birth mom) I was leaving, and she never stopped me. I didn’t see her again until I was actually writing the book.”
“So, how was the meeting?” I continue to pose the questions, curious, not only about her reconciliation, but also envisioning my own.
It is something that I have always had in the back of my mind, searching for the first part of my life story. When I was a child, I shared with my close friends about being adopted, being given away from the woman who first gave me life. We would envision who she was…this mystery woman.
Maybe it’s Madonna… We would dream when she became our idol at the age of 12, when I first started to wonder outwardly. The ages would seem to match, so for a short period of time, I dreamt that I was the long lost daughter of Madonna Ciccone.
This is when I began to make up my own creative stories to fill in the blanks that felt like unexplainable voids to my childish psyche. Eventually, the some of the black holes were filled for me. My brother and I were forced into counseling by my mother who was attempting to put the pieces back together of her life as our family was crumbling. Divorce was not something that everyone did in 1984. We were the trendsetters. I counted 2 others in my sixth grade classroom, and had no real role models to teach me what it was to be in a family of divorced parents.
As it was happening, I reasoned that I was actually more ok than my mom, which is why I cringed and dreaded our weekly counseling sessions. I honestly couldn’t figure out how the fat, balding, male counselor at Catholic Social Services could help me to “adjust” to my parents divorce, because I saw it coming and I was already fine.
The counselor suggested one evening that he see me alone without my mom hovering to my every word. That pissed me off even more.
“So, how does it feel to have your parents live in two separate places?” he starts in the questioning. I answer all of his obligatory questions pretty easily, and it felt like he is pleased with my answers.
If I keep up like this, I’ll be out in time to get home for Charlie’s Angels, I think to myself. I’ve outsmarted him, I reason, and continue to do what I do best, be the perfect child.
But, as smart as I thought I was, the counselor found a thread of questioning that caught me off guard.
“How do you feel about being adopted?” he prods.
I felt my face get red and my insides get hot. I did not want to answer his question.
“Do you ever think about the mom who gave birth to you?”
“No.” I lied.
“You know, it’s ok if you do. You can talk about it. Your mom and dad are here to answer any questions you have,” he continues to try to say the right things.
“I know,” I lie again. All I want to do is scream to him that they can’t answer the questions. The affirmations and the constant reminders that they gave me and everything that they told me about being wanted and chosen are lies. I continued to pretend, even though we all knew the truth. I was not wanted.
My brother was the only one brave enough to say it outloud. One day he got really mad at me and blurted out, “You’re not my real sister, anyway.”
That sealed the deal for me. Someone finally said it. I wasn’t his real sister. It sealed the deal for him too. It got his mouth washed out with soap, and he never spoke those words again. In some ways I was relieved that he said what I had been thinking for so long.
For many years, I went along with the facade of being special and wanted and chosen. I always knew of my adoption. I can’t remember a time that I didn’t know. My parents had some books for me to read that illustrated the fact that I was so wanted and so loved. Sometimes, I think that they went a little overboard, and my brother could feel it too. That’s why he got so mad at me as I was busy being the perfect one who saved my mother from her childless loneliness. After they got me, my mom forgot that she was so sad that she actually did get pregnant, something that the doctors told her that she would never be able to do after a few years of trying after she and my dad were married.
Even without totally divulging my feelings to the therapist, he must have picked up on something, because my secret was out, and I was less than thrilled about it. He called my mother into the office after our session, and explained to her that I was actually ok with the divorce. My mom seemed relieved, and I shoot her an “I told you so” look.
“But, I do believe that there is something that needs to be addressed, and it is her adoption.”
Damn him. I silently cursed.
I felt the tears welling up from inside, and smashed them back down like I had learned to do from an early age. “It’s only life…It’s only life…It’s only life…” was my ongoing mantra. I gave it to myself when I was called out in second grade for being overly emotional. My teacher at the time brought my parents and me together for our parent teacher child conference,and suggested that I see a child psychologist to deal with my emotional difficulties. Evidently, it was frowned upon to be emotional and cry at the drop of a hat.
My father was furious and said the teacher did not know what she was talking about, and that I did not need to see a psychologist. From that moment on, I learned to hold my emotions inside with the use of my mantra. So, yet again, I revert back to my mantra as the asshole psychologist continues to tell my mother how to deal with my adoption issues. The last thing I wanted to do was talk to my mom about being adopted. It was just as awful to talk to her about a boy that I liked or getting my period.
But, what did come of the meeting in the counselor’s office that night, was the information that made my mystery seem a little less mysterious. The next day after our session, my mom emerged with some pages of handwritten information about my birth, but more importantly to me, my birth family. She handed it to me, and told me that she had written down all of the information that she had been given by the social worker when they had gotten me when I was two months old.
There it was, my first introduction to the rest of my story. I didn’t want to make it seem like a big deal, because my mom was already so sad that my dad left, and I didn’t want her to think that I would do the same, so I just said “Thanks” and acted like it was any other ordinary day.
I took the precious information to my room and scoured over it for hours. It was better than a birthday gift, the paragraphs in my Mom’s handwriting. All these years, I was only a counseling session away from filling in some of the voids and mysteries of where I came from. Before then, I never knew the reasons I was given away, so I made them up in my own mind. It made more sense to me, reading parts of my birth-mom’s story.
She was still in high school, maybe only 5 years older than I was as I was reading it. It seemed strange to me. I had not even had my first kiss, I can’t even imagine what it would feel like to have a baby.
She liked to ride horses, and was on the student counsel. She took French.
I’m going to take French, I decided in that moment. This turned out to be the one regret of my life’s decisions that I now have living in a Latin American country and constantly slaughtering its native language.
She liked creative writing. That’s where I get it from...I knew it!
For some reason, that stuck out to me the most. We are both writers with blue eyes and brown hair. It was the thing that had been passed down from my mom. I outdid her in school, most likely from the monetary bribes that came my way from my parents and grandparents, as she was only a B student, and I made straight As.
In some fucked up way, the counselor was right. I just needed a little more information to hold to. I read the pieces of paper and put them away in my safe place, although I didn’t pay attention to the rest of the story until I needed to unravel it years later in my healing process.
All I cared about was that we were both writers. And, maybe, one day, when I write my story, she will hear about me and know it’s me. Maybe she will be willing to know me because we have that in common, I reasoned as an imaginative 11 year old that was just given a pretty spectacular gift of a piece of my puzzle that had been hidden away for more than the first decade of my life.
And, here I was, 30 years later, sitting across from a woman who did know the story of the first decade of her life, maybe even a little too well. It didn’t really matter. We were both in the same club, understanding the loss of the one person who was supposed to love us and nurture us unconditionally.
Through our distinctly different, yet similar stories, we shared the common bond of understanding that for our spirits to grow in the spectacular ways that they had so far, we had to be given to a family that could foster that growth.
The sun had set a couple of hours before, and the little bistro across from the church that bordered the cobblestone streets of Antigua was bursting with people and families and food and wine, and I was the most at home as I had been in some time. In some strange way, I found a long-lost sister. One who shared my lineage of abandonment and came through to the other side of understanding of why it was necessary for it to be the way it was.
As we said our goodbye’s, I silently thanked my angels for directing our steps to their convergence. This chance meeting reminded me that everything is exactly as it should be.
I don’t know if it was the inspired and unexpected meeting of Mary, or if it was the decade plus years of conscious healing that I made my full time job, but the reunion with my family was the most nourishing and most flawless reconnection that I can ever remember. We all came together to celebrate our patriarch, George Ivan Gilson, Jr. on the 8th anniversary of my Nana’s passing. And, although I am not even close to seeing eye to eye with my politically conservative, deeply Christian family, I have come to honor them for who they are, and see the many gifts that have guided me to be the seeker, the healer and the teacher that I am today. It was the best birthday gift that I can remember: the gift of perspective.