by Amanda Walsh
My mother woke up every day for forty-two years haunted by the fact that the woman who had given birth to her had signed her away. Questions floated around the back of her mind: Who am I, where did I come from, was I really that unlovable? I felt for her. My heart tightened in my chest at the thought of all the pain that never faded away from her after all these years. Although I felt bad I did not think the questions had anything to do with me, and they definitely had no relevance in my personal life. Knowing my mom and dad was enough for me; I knew where I came from. Or so I thought, until both my brother and I ended up in the hospital.
Sitting in the doctor’s conference room listening to my mother explain to the doctors why there was no family background to trace the tumors inside of me. We had no medical background to check the hereditary nature of any problem we had ever had. I realized then that I should have been asking the same questions as she had been: where did I come from, who am I? It was like hitting a wall, how many times had I over looked the family background box on forms? Why did I never question the fact that my brother and I did not even know our true nationality or ethnicity? My mother never knew why she had been given up, and now none of us knew what genes these familiar strangers may have passed along to us.
I felt like someone punched me in the stomach when I began to realize that I only knew half of who I was and what I was made of. Wondering made me paranoid of any and every person around me. I would inspect people so closely as they came through my checkout line at the grocery store that some people would ask what I was staring at. I could have had aunts, uncles, and cousins that shopped at the same grocery store I worked at, or lived in the same state, maybe even down the street. I wondered if I had ever walked by them, and if I ever did, would they look like me? I knew there had to be a whole separate family living a different life, and they were the ones holding the key to all my secrets. I wanted to be free from the lock they had left me with. I did not know how my mother dealt with this her entire life, but knew I could not handle the unanswered questions. After discussing it, we both decided that the search had to take on a new ferocity. She needed answers to the questions haunting her, and I needed to know who I was, where I had come from, was I going to be okay?
As I was preparing for surgery number two, for the removal of tumors two, three, or four from my ovaries, my brother hobbled around on crutches recovering from the removal of a mass from his knee. My mother had the same problems with benign tumors since she was a teenager, and the only thing the doctors could ever tell us was that these things were hereditary. Hearing this over and over was like constantly reading a flashing neon sign: WHO ARE YOU? As we were dealing with the chaos of getting everyone healthy and taken care of, my mom finally received a list of names that could have contained her potential biological mother’s. A good friend of hers who held a high position in the police office and had more access to confidential records had compiled a list of potential matches.
Taking the next step was like stepping off a cliff—if one of these women was her mother, would she reject her again, or would this woman be willing to give us the answer to all the things we needed to ask? My mother decided writing letters would be the safest way to contact the women—if one of them was her mother, and she called, then the opportunity would be open. More importantly, if none matched or if her mother decided she did not want to meet her daughter, then the rejection would not have to be so blunt. Her silence would be easier to handle than hearing a response we did not want hear.
Once the letters went out into the great unknown, we all tried to carry on with life. My surgery was minor and successful, and my brother was beginning to walk on his own again. Although things were looking up for our family, it was hard to be optimistic about anything when every time the phone rang our hearts stopped. It is hard to look on the bright side when it never holds the voice you are waiting for. It is ironic, to wait for the comfort of a voice you have never even heard before.
A few weeks went by of playing the hold your breath game. During weeks which were unending, we thought we would never get word from the woman on whom our whole world as we knew it depended. The waiting was torture, but the torture ended one afternoon in late fall. I was coming in from school, I remember looking in the front door as I pulled into the driveway and seeing my mom standing in the door frame waiting for me. My first response was that something was wrong and I jumped out of my car, bracing myself for bad news. But as I came closer to her I could see her smiling.
“She called, baby girl, and she is amazing!” My mother could barely get the words out of her mouth. I could not even respond. Nothing could describe the happiness and joy I felt for my mother in that moment. My fears had been quieted; my mother had not been rejected. I wrapped my arms around her and tears began to run down her cheeks and landed on her smile.
We eventually made our way into the kitchen where my mother told me the details of the conversation. They only lived thirty five minutes away, in Everett, MA, they had been that close all along. Most importantly she found out that she had a younger brother and sister, and two nieces and a nephew. The excitement of an only child finding out there are now siblings in her life is something indescribable to those who have not shared the experience. My mother was thrilled to find out about the large family she would finally be taking her place in, and I was equally excited to welcome them into my life.
What I was really interested in finding out was my mother’s biggest fear throughout the years: was she simply just not loved, or was there an explanation? I did not broach the question, instead letting my mother approach the topic first. Her birth mother had loved her with all the love a new mother can give, but the love was not enough to overcome the torture a strongly Catholic family can produce. Her mother was nineteen and my mother’s biological father was in his thirties; my mother was born out of wedlock. When her parents found out about her pregnancy, she was sent away to live with an older sister a few towns over from her. Although her sister was sympathetic, there was no one to protect her or her unborn baby from the next step in their journey. When she was to give birth, she was taken to a convent, where the nuns served as midwives. When my mother was born there was no relief given for the pain, either physical or mental:
“Repent for your sins!”
“You should have thought of the consequences!”
“You do not deserve this child!”
The procedure if you were going through Catholic Charities stated that you could not even see the child you had just carried for nine months, let alone hold her. However by God’s grace there was a young nun who snuck my mother into the room so that she could be held by the woman who had given birth to her—she was promptly dismissed from her position. Although after holding her baby girl she could not imagine giving her up, she had no choice but to hand her over to a family that would take care of her.
Not even a year after my mother was born, her mother was quickly married and had two more children and loved them as much as possible; however, it was never a replacement for the pain she felt at losing my mother. My mother’s birth was never a secret in this new family, her new husband as well as her two children knew that there was another daughter who lived in her heart and somewhere out in the world. In my mother’s 18th year her biological family began to look for her. But the obstacles were large. Going through Catholic Charities guaranteed a closed record of the adoption, making it nearly impossible for anyone to find their birth families. They tried as hard as they could, testing every option because, they wanted to make sure my mother did not go the rest of her life with all the questions she must have had. With the gain of this knowledge, my mother questions had been answered—she had been loved plenty by the woman who had given birth to her, from the short moments she held her in her arms and for all forty-two years she had been away from her.
My mother went to meet her new family alone a week later, and when she returned, she came in smiling and with pictures of our biological but new family. It was exciting to notice things in my grandmother, my aunt, and my uncle that I had seen in my mother and myself. My mom promised my brother and me that we would be able to go for dinner the next Sunday, and that they could not wait to meet us.
The drive of thirty five minutes took a few hours, or so it seemed. My stomach was doing flip flops, and crazy thoughts were running through my mind. One moment I could not wait to meet my new family; it felt like Christmas and I half expected to see them wearing bows on their heads. Then the next minute I felt as if I was betraying my mother’s adoptive family, my first family. It occurred to me that maybe I would not be able to balance the two. During the ride these ideas ran through my head, making me apprehensive. We pulled up to a three family house, where I was told she lived on the second floor. I thought the doorstep looked pretty good and maybe I should stay right there. I stood for awhile biting my nails. I was hoping my mother would push me on, but her own excitement at seeing her family again made her overlook the fear written on my face. My brother, being younger than me and a boy, was less apprehensive at the idea of a new family—he thought only of more presents on his birthday.
Although I was still not sure about going upstairs, I knew I could not very well stand outside. I took a deep breath in, released, and began climbing the stairs, long behind the other two who had already been welcomed inside. As I rounded the curve of the stairs, I was surprised by a lady about 5’4 in her early sixties, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. She had the kindest eyes I had ever seen before, and with no explanation for why, I suddenly got the urge to cry. She recognized this change of emotion and took me in her arms. I held on to the woman that I now call Nana for a very long time before I could let go, and before I even had the chance to open my mouth, she got the first words in. In her soft voice:
“I’ve been waiting to meet you too precious one, my very first grandchild.”
And with this she took me by the hand and led me inside where I was welcomed by two small girls in matching dresses, my little cousins. These girls would become my shadows and two of my very favorite little people to be around. A woman who looked like a shorter slimmer version of my mother, now one of my most trusted confidants, also welcomed me. A tall balding man stood behind all of them; he would become my biggest fan and protector. This was the family I was being initiated into, embraced by a group of warm loving people who had been waiting for us as long as we had been awaiting them.
A year of memories has filled up the emptiness of eighteen years of wondering. That was a year full of firsts, a first Christmas where everyone in the family bought me a toy that was my favorite as a child, a first Mother’s Day where my mom did not cry, and first birthdays and chorus concerts where their faces are in all of the pictures.