Excerpt

 Excerpt from:

Stretched

One Family’s Story of Foster Care and Adoption

This book is based on a true story; however, names and details have been changed
to protect the privacy of the children.

Sometimes children are born into a family that is ready to welcome them, and sometimes they have to travel around a while before they find a place to call home.  I was one of those wanderers, and was fortunate to eventually land in a loving family.  Although I’m talking about myself right now, Stretched is really about another wandering child:  my youngest son.  It is the story of where he came from, how we went looking for him, and the experiences we all had along the way.  Like any journey through uncharted terrain, the path that led us to each other unwound in twists and turns.  In fact, I didn’t start out looking for a child to adopt at all; I started out looking for the mother who had given me away in 1962.

 

I clearly remember the morning nearly fifteen years ago that launched me on my search for my birth mother.  At the time I was a young mother of two, exhausted, broke, and suddenly frightened.

Standing in a doctor’s office wearing a pink paper gown, I stared up at a brightly lit wall that displayed ghostly images of my right breast.  With his pen, Dr. Tervo circled a row of five small black dots. “This is the area we’re concerned about,” he said.  “Those could be a sign of cancer.”  He looked at me, waiting for a reaction.

I gulped and squinted hard, straining to think clearly through a fog of anxiety.  Why was the area he was pointing to near the top, not near the lump?  “I thought the problem was on the side,” I said, dry-mouthed, pointing at the film.  Did his jaw tighten in annoyance or was that my imagination?

He frowned and began to flip through my chart.  “Do you have any family history of cancer?”

“I don’t know my family history; I was adopted.”  I had already answered that question three times today.  Surely it was in my records.

Without looking up he clicked open his pen and began to fill out a form.  “In cases like yours with a possible cancer and unknown history, the safest thing is to remove the area.  I want you to come back in a month for a core biopsy.  And I’d like more information about your medical history.  Are you in contact with your birth parents?”

“No.”

“Medical history is very important for determining prognosis.”  He stared pointedly at me over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses.  I looked down, trembling slightly in the disposable garment.  I felt as though I was being scolded.  “Try to get that information if at all possible.”

How on earth would I do that?  I wondered.

Dr. Tervo held out the completed form, which I took, unseeing.  I felt him grab my hand and shake vigorously, then he dropped it and strode out of the room.

 

That evening at dinner, I tried to explain to my husband what the doctor had said without letting on to the children that anything was amiss.

“It’s just a lump and some small dots on a film, not necessarily a sign of c-a-n-c-e-r,” I explained.

Will had a lot of questions and I didn’t know any of the answers.

“Is there any risk to having this biopsy?”

“I don’t know.  I didn’t think to ask.”

“What are the chances of someone who is only thirty having breast cancer anyway?”

“Will!”  I glanced nervously at the kids.  “He didn’t say.”

The hospital is a terrible place to go for tests!  Why didn’t you just go to that radiology center over by the mall?  Who’s going to take care of the kids?”  His voice became louder with each sentence.

“Will, stop yelling.”

“I’m not yelling!” He glared at me.  “Why didn’t you tell me about this before?”

In his wide eyes, hidden carefully behind his anger, I could see that he was afraid, just like me.  I twisted my napkin under the table and bit my lip, trying to think how to keep this from escalating into yet another argument in front of the kids.

Our recent move had been much harder on Will than the rest of us.  We were building a townhouse in a new cohousing community, and we’d had to sell our cottage downtown and move into a tiny, one-bedroom apartment until it was done.  The cramped quarters and financial stress were more of a strain on Will than on me or the kids; but still, making a scene at the dinner table was not okay.

I smiled at Mike and Melissa, who stared at us from their booster seats – their dark eyes worried in their flushed little faces.  “Who wants more mac ‘n’ cheese?” I asked brightly.  Will shoved his chair back from the table and headed to the refrigerator for another one of his home brewed beers.

While cleaning up the dishes that night, my mind wandered back to Dr. Tervo’s instructions.  I’d always imagined that finding my birth mother would be an overwhelming and expensive task, requiring the services of a private detective and lawyers.  I didn’t have any idea where to begin and we were broke from the house project.

What exactly had he said?  Did he need the information to decide how to treat me?  I probably should have taken Will or a friend to the appointment with me, someone who would have thought to take notes.

Even if I tried, would I be able to find my biological mother?  Just the thought of her brought a little smile – this mystery woman whose image I’d recreated so many different ways in my mind.  But what if I discovered something I didn’t want to know?  Would my birth mother want to know me?  And would my adoptive parents feel betrayed or think I was ungrateful?  But I had a medical reason to do it now; maybe this was just the nudge I needed to finally start a search.

First, I went to our safety deposit box with Mike one morning.  He loved the little room with the double glass doors and the walls of mysterious drawers.  The teller let him put the thin, brass key I had brought into one of the key holes, while she put in the other.  We waited for the soft “click” when they both turned, then she left us alone.  Mikey and I drew out the box and set it on the table; my big hands supporting the back and his soft little chubby ones holding the sides.  I opened the long box, and he climbed up onto a chair so he could watch me sort through its contents.  I showed him his birth certificate and some jewelry Great-Grammy had worn on her wedding day.  He nodded solemnly at each item.

Last, I pulled out the envelope of papers my parents had given to me when I graduated from college.  This was all the information they had received about my birth mother when I was adopted and they had not shared it with me until I was twenty-two.  The old-fashioned packet was discolored and felt stiff and brittle in my hands; the seams of the envelope were starting to open where the aging glue had dried and released its hold.  I longed to unfold those cherished pages right then and feast on the words within, but Mike craned his neck to look at them, too.

“These are Mommy’s papers to carry home,” I told him.  “When we go out, the bank lady will give you a lollipop.”

“Poppipop!!”  Mike chortled.  He scrambled down from the chair and began to toddle out the door as fast as his short legs would carry him.  I hurriedly closed the box and slid it back into its hole, sealing the little door and slipping the key into my pocket.  I caught up to him at the desk in the lobby – a big smile on his face and a red lollipop in one hand.

Later that evening, after the kids had gone to bed and Will was watching the news, I retrieved the envelope from my purse.  My birth mother’s entire life was condensed onto three delicate, golden, typed pages.  I unfolded each one and spread them carefully on the dining table.

Early twenty’s, brown hair, brown eyes, medium height, European descent, college-educated and employed as a teacher until she became pregnant.  Hobbies included playing piano.  As far as medical history, it only said she had had the usual childhood diseases and was healthy at the time of my birth.  Her father, my birth grandfather, was also healthy at the time of my birth.  Her mother had died in a car crash at the age of thirty-six.  No mention of a family history of cancer.

How sad that her mother had died so young.  I tried to imagine her as a motherless little girl.  She must be in her mid-fifties now.  What did she look like?  Was she pretty?  Was she thin and pale like me?  I wondered if I’d gotten my long nose and small ears from her.  Did she teach piano, elementary school, high school?  I took my time as I read and relished each little bit of the scant information.

My birth mother had refused to identify my father, instead saying only that he had brown hair, brown eyes, was handsome and successful in business.  According to her, he was in his mid-thirties when I was born.  That meant he must be in his late sixties now.  Had they fallen in love?  I pictured someone tall, dark, and athletic with a seductive smile.  Was she protecting him by not naming him?  Or maybe he wasn’t such a great guy.  Maybe she had been protecting me by not naming my father.  I frowned.  Maybe he didn’t even know I existed.

What would my parents think if they knew I was looking for her?  I suspected they might feel a little hurt.  Why else would they have kept this information from me for so long?  I consoled myself that what they didn’t know couldn’t hurt them.

Searching online, I found several voluntary registries that collected information from adopted children and birth parents, reuniting them in case of a match.  I filled in their forms with as much information as I had, saying a little prayer each time I clicked the ‘send’ button.  No matches, but I did learn from the number of sites and the volume of pop-up ads that finding birth parents was a thriving business, and I was in good company on my quest.  According to several web sites, the next step was to contact the court that had handled my adoption.  That should be easy; the name was printed at the top of each of the golden pages in my envelope.

The first morning that Melissa and Mike were both in preschool, I dialed information for Boston with trembling fingers and asked for the Suffolk County Court.

“Hello, I’m looking for information about my adoption, which was in 1963.”  I recited the words I had memorized the evening before.

“Hold, please.”

“Suffolk County Clerk of Courts, David McKinnan speaking.  How may I help you?”

“Hello, I’m looking for information about my adoption, which was in 1963.”

“Yes, well, we have a procedure for that.  Just a moment.”

This sounded promising… a “procedure.”

The voice came back on the phone.  “Well, as you may know, we get quite a few of these kinds of request.  I assume you’re looking to be reunited with your birth parents?”

Wait; was that what I wanted?  I thought I was prepared for this call, but things were going too fast.  I thought they could just look up some medical records and tell me if I had a family history of cancer, but here we were talking about reunions.

“Um…I…eventually,” I finally mumbled, feeling suddenly hot.  I sat down at the kitchen table and dabbed my eyes with a paper napkin left over from breakfast.  A swell of emotion I couldn’t quite identify was rising inside me.

“Well, when the court finalized your adoption, we made a promise to your birth parents and your adoptive parents not to reveal their identities.  But it’s so common these days for adoptees to search for birth parents, the judge may allow us to contact your birth parents and ask them if they will agree to speak with you.  If they do, we’ll give each of you the other’s contact information.  If they don’t, then we ask you to respect their privacy.”  He paused. “Although, of course, that decision is up to you.”

“Oh, I would never…” I trailed off.  Would I ‘never’?  I wasn’t sure.

He waited for me to finish my sentence, but I wasn’t able to, so he went on.  “To start the process you need to write a letter, which I will present to the judge and she will decide whether or not to approve your request.  Do you have a pencil and paper?”

“Just a minute.”  I rushed into the kitchen, flipped over one of Melissa’s damp paintings that was drying on the counter, and grabbed a washable marker out of her box.  “I’ve got it, please go ahead.”

“Well, the judge is going to look at this and decide if your reasons for wanting to find your birth mother are tenable.  We try to protect birth parents from children who want money or who might harass them in any way.  Just tell us honestly why you want to find him or her and what you would do if you were able to talk with them.  And we need to know if you have a medical reason, such as wanting an organ for transplant.”

After he hung up, I cradled the phone for a few minutes before carefully replacing it on its receiver.  It was hard to imagine that someone might search for a birth parent to ask for money or an organ.  Was that kind of thing common?  Well, it shouldn’t be too hard to convince someone I wasn’t looking for body parts.  Should I mention the possible breast cancer?  I chewed a nail absently; probably not.  I didn’t want to sound needy.

I spent several days writing and rewriting my letter.  First I tried a short, formal business letter, then an emotional plea for biological connection, but nothing sounded just right.  I merged, edited, cut, and revised for hours late into the night until I had a version that wasn’t perfect, but I thought it sounded sincere and it was truthful:

 

January 6, 1996

                                                                                        

First Judge of Probate Court Margaret A. Fitzwilliam

Suffolk County Probate Court

 

Dear Judge Fitzwilliam,

I am writing to petition the court to open the records regarding my adoption and provide to me the identities of my birth mother and birth father.

My adoption was finalized by the court on May 30, 1964.  My adoptive parents are Shirley and Norman Williams.

I lived in the Boston area until 1973, when my family moved to North Carolina.  Except for attending college in Ohio, I have lived in North Carolina ever since.  I graduated in 1985 and attended graduate school at the University of North Carolina.  I was married in 1988 and we have two children, Melissa age four years and Mike age twenty months. Currently I spend most of my day at home with my children, and am also employed part time as a medical writer.  I love my parents very dearly and my desire to find my birth parents has nothing to do with them or the wonderful job they did raising and loving and caring for me.

I had less interest in learning about my birth parents as a child.  But when I began trying to conceive a baby of my own, suddenly many questions came up, and I understood for the first time what my birth mother had done for me.  Although the births of my own children have raised the most questions in my mind about my birth parents, I think of them often in other ways as well.  The questions grow every day and I feel I am at the point in my life when I need to have them answered, even if the answers are not all positive. 

I do not have any specific expectations of my birth parents.  I would like to meet them, especially my birth mother.  I would like to learn about my family and medical history.  I would like to meet any birth-siblings I might have, and I would like to meet my birth father before he dies. 

What I want most is to look into the face of the woman who gave me my life and say “thank you”.

These are the reasons I am asking you to provide me with the names of my birth parents.  I would be happy to send any other information you might require.  I look forward to your response. 

 

I took the letter to the bank to have my signature notarized, then mailed it with a quick prayer, and waited.

 

Two weeks later on a Friday morning, I was working at my desk in the corner of our cramped apartment bedroom when the phone rang.  It was him.

“I have some information about your case,” he began.

“Yes?”  I caught my breath, pushed the lap top computer back on the desk and leaned forward.

“The judge approved your request to open your adoption files and I was assigned to find your birth mother.”

“Yes?”  I grasped the receiver tighter, willing him to continue.

“I was able to reach her and communicate your request, but I’m sorry to say your birth mother did not consent.”

Feeling my eyes fill, I slumped back in the desk chair for a moment, then slowly leaned towards the bedside table to pull a tissue from the box.  I blew my nose.  I didn’t want to let him hang up and leave me empty and wondering what had gone wrong.  There had to be something more.  “So you talked to her?”  I finally managed to say.

The formalities over, David seemed to relax a bit.  “Actually, she was very easy to find.  You may know that back then, many women who were pregnant traveled to other areas of the country to give birth and place their babies for adoption, to keep the matter private.  That was the case with your birth mother.  She was from another state.”

“Oh?”  I thought of all the times when, as a child in Boston, I had seen women on the street whom I thought looked like me and wondered if they were my birth mother.  She didn’t even live there.

“Yes.  Sometimes that makes people hard to find, but in her case, she was still living in the same town she had come from in 1962, so she was very easy to locate through public records.  I found her telephone number and was able to call, but each time a man answered and wouldn’t let me talk to her.  So, I kept trying at different times of day, and eventually reached her when she was home alone.  When I told her who I was, she knew immediately what I was calling about.  She said she had been waiting for my call for thirty years.”  David cleared his throat and paused.

I sucked in a quivering breath.  He had heard the sound of her voice!  “What else did she say?”

“Well, I told her you had requested contact with her, but she explained that she had never told anyone about having you.  She said that even her husband didn’t know she’d had a baby, and in her current situation, she couldn’t possibly tell anyone now.”

I reached for a fresh handful of tissues.  I was a secret?

David continued, speaking quietly and gently now.  “She seemed to be interested in hearing more, so I asked if I could read your letter to her, and she said “yes.”

“She did?”  I was dismayed.  I didn’t know she would hear the letter.  If I’d though it was for her, I’d have written it differently.  I could have told her about how Melissa looked just like me, about how I loved horses, hiking, and reading novels, and how I’d wondered about her my whole life…

“After I read it to her, leaving out identifying information, of course, she was quiet for several moments.  Then she said ‘I’m glad to know after all these years I did the right thing.  Tell her I couldn’t have done as much for her if I’d kept her.’”

I pulled my knees up to my chest and held on tightly.  I couldn’t speak…she hadn’t forgotten me…  The tissue box was empty.  David seemed to understand and waited a few moments.

“Even though she said she couldn’t speak to you now, she did allow me to give her the case number and instructions for contacting the court.  It may be that her situation will change in the future.”

The rest of the conversation was a blur.  At the end, I mumbled something that I hoped sounded like thanks and hung up the phone.  Rocking myself slowly, I reviewed every word David had said over and over in my mind.  I had always wondered if my birth mother had loved me, and why she had given me away.  Now I knew.  For the first time, I really understood how fortunate I was to have the parents I had.  At the same time, the pain of what I had lost cut deeper than ever before.

Mothers shouldn’t have to hide their babies away.  Children shouldn’t have to wonder if their mothers love them.  When I finally rose heavily and walked into the bathroom to wash my face, one thing was clear in my mind:  If I ever adopted a child, I would make sure she never had to wonder like I had.

 

As the months passed and I thought more and more about my own closed adoption, I felt drawn to adopt a child of my own.  Will and I had often talked of having another child, and I wanted our last one to be adopted.  I longed to pass on what I had learned about being loved by someone who wasn’t there, about accepting love where you can find it, and about feeling whole even when the person who made you is absent.  I wanted to reassure a birth mother that her child was cared for and loved.  There are so many children who need homes, I reasoned.  It shouldn’t be too hard to find the right one for us.

But this was not the right time.  Living in the cramped apartment was straining our marriage.  And we still had that biopsy to get through.  Bringing another child into our family now didn’t seem fair.  I would broach the idea with Will when we were in a better place and things had settled down for us.  We had to wait until we were ready.

The right time for us did finally arrive more than a year later.  Full of enthusiasm and naiveté, we launched ourselves into a relationship with our county’s social services department.  We had no idea that we were beginning a journey that would stretch our family of four to one of six and tear us back down to five two times over; one that would teach us about loving children who don’t know how to love, the importance of patience, and the heartbreak of losing parents, children, innocence, and trust.  Through our relationships with a 15 year-old Salvadoran birthmother, her baby, and a traumatized African-American toddler we learned that sometimes love is hard work, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all.

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Responses

  1. It looks great!
    Can’t wait to read more 🙂

  2. really interesting story, and well written. When are you sending out the next chapter? I am eager to read it!

  3. Dear Nancy, This piece kept me completely enrapt while reading and I can’t wait to learn more. I think I told you that I have tried to summon the courage to write of our attempt to lovingly raise a 5 yo child we adopted, who had been severely abused, and because of all the pain involved have found myself unable to begin. The fact that you actually wrote your book is incredibly impressive to me and, now that I’ve read some of it and can sense it’s honesty, I know I’ll be taken by the book itself. Thank you for sharing your story! Wishing you all the best, Kate

    • Thanks so much for your encouragement, Kate. I would love to hear your story. We went through a lot of pain during our adoption process and lost several children before we were successful. I think I cried more when I was writing this book than when I was living it, but it was so very therapeutic and I feel much better about the whole experience now. I think that putting it down on paper, organizing it, and working towards the conclusion helped me to put it all in perspective and to focus on the positive outcome. It may be hard, but I suspect that if you write down your experiences, you may feel better in the long term. Best wishes.

  4. I was drawn into your story and felt the shock/numbness of the diagnosis, the stress and the…angst of waiting to hear about your birth mother. I imagine it is cathartic to re-visit and explore your feelings and memories from that era. Thanks for sharing them.

  5. Nancy, this is terrific. If I had the whole book in my hands, I wouldn’t be able to put it down. It’s made me so emotional.


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