Tears From Cold Water

August 1, 2000.  That was the day my half-brother died.  I’d never met him, but since I’d learned about him in 1982, his 5th grade photo always had a prominent place  on my dresser (along with that of his younger brother, a half-brother I have met, though we don’t ‘do fractions’ very well… he’s my brother, and I’m “Hey, Sis.”).  Those photos are  still there. I remember looking at my e-mail at work for the last time  that day, and seeing the message from my cousin. (I didn’t have a computer at home).  She let me know that he was gone, and what we knew of the details at that time.  He’d drowned.  He was  a competitive swimmer as a child, and I couldn’t make sense of it.  I cried.  I went  up to the front office where the accounts person was still working.  I told her what I’d found out, and just sat there, numb, for a few minutes.  I stayed numb about much of his death for years.

My thoughts  immediately went to my birthmother.  She’d been through a lot in her life, and then her eldest son was gone.  I wanted to write to her, but I didn’t want to seem like I was being opportunistic in getting in contact with her during an unimaginably painful time.  I wanted her to know how much I was thinking about her, and that I wished I could do something.  What, I’m wasn’t sure.  But, I was horrified that she was having to go through the death of a child.  He was closing in on 30 years old, but as a nurse, I’d seen many parents face the deaths of their much-older children, and it was always a kind of grief that is unmatched.  But during that time, my bio-mom and I weren’t in contact.   I heard about her through other biological relatives, but it was a complicated situation.

Then I thought about the ‘what ifs’.  What if my bio-mom and I got back in contact, and the chance came about that I might meet my half-brothers?  I’d never know that with A.  What if I ended up with a relationship with my half-brothers, whatever it might be?   I’d never have that with A.  Had he known about me?  I later found out that he had.  But at the time of his death, all I knew was that possibility was gone in ever knowing A, face to face.  My hopes of some sort of  contact died that day.  It’s not a tangible loss.  It’s the loss of a dream.

In 2010, I ended up with leukemia.  I was expected to do well, but in case things ended poorly, I wanted to let my bio-mom know what was going on, and not just find out I’d died, if that should happen.  We hadn’t been on ‘bad terms’ by any means, it was just very complicated, and time was needed since our first contact by mail in 1982.  She did want to reconnect in 2010 and had been trying to find me (my name is pretty nondescript, and I’d moved from the last place she knew I’d been), and we’ve had an incredible relationship since then.

While I still have trouble talking about him, she told me what happened to A.  It was an incredibly hot day, and he’d gone out to the river to swim.  What he didn’t know was that the dam upstream had been released the day before, and much colder water than usual was flowing down the river.  When his body hit the water, that was so much colder than his core temperature, his heart just stopped.  Done.  Over. A life ended.  From cold water on a hot day.  He’d been used to going to the river.  He knew about water safety, and was an incredibly strong swimmer.  None of that mattered.

In some ways, that helped in easing some of the horrible images I had in my head of his last moments.  It’s unlikely he struggled, or couldn’t get his breath. He didn’t fight underwater.  He hadn’t suffered.  He may have felt an odd chest sensation for a few moments, not really long enough to register anything, but then…nothing.   That has been somewhat  comforting, to know that he wouldn’t have felt pain or the panic of final minutes.

But I still cry.  I have some CDs of his music sessions with friends, and it’s very hard to listen to them.  I’ve managed to at least hear his voice on a few songs, and I’m so thankful I have those CDs.  I’m sure I’ll get to the point that I can listen to them. But now, I still just cry when I think about the day I got that e-mail.   I can talk to my birth mom and brother about A.  I love hearing about when my two brothers were kids.  I have a bunch of photos of all of them, which are treasures, and I’ve got some of my bio-mom, brother, and myself together, which I’m also so thankful to have.  I think the three of us ‘kids’ could have been a nightmare together, in a good way 😉

When I see stories about drownings, I always think about A.  When I see those looney ‘polar bear’ ice water swims in the winter, or jumps into ice water after saunas,  I cringe.  When I think about how easy it is for life to be done, I am thankful for the days I have, and wish with indescribable intensity that A had had ‘his share’ of time on earth.  It took me about 12 years to be able to wash my face in the shower. I didn’t want to have to hold my breath in water when I thought my brother had drowned.  (I finally got the bright idea to look down when I rinse my face, so there was no need to hold my breath… :/ ).   Even though I never knew A personally, he was a part of my life for the 18 years prior to his death, in the form of ‘what ifs’, trying to guess what he looked like ,  and those precious photos on my dresser.   Now, I do have contact with my bio-mom and brother, and I’m  so incredibly thankful for the relationships with them. They really are special parts of my life, and knowing them has helped me know myself better.   I still think about A, though.

He’ll always be part of my life.

Finding Myself As I’ve Connected With My Biological Mother

I was placed for adoption at birth.  Growing up, I was told about the adoption as soon as I was old enough to grasp the concept of being a ‘chosen baby’ (name of a book my mom read to me).  It wasn’t a big deal, and I was accepted into both sides of the family like any other kid.  My parents (what I call my adoptive parents, since they’re the ones I knew growing up) made sure I had everything I needed, as well as a lot of ‘extras’ (music lessons, sports lessons, trips around the country, trip to Europe, etc).  And yet, there was the natural curiosity about where I came from, and who was ‘out there’ that was my biological family.  My parents were aware of this, and always told me that once I turned 18 or 21 (I forget which), they’d help me find my biological mom (or bio-mom as I refer to her on paper… sounds like some type of bio-fuel). :/   I call her by her first name in person, and with people who know me; I do respect her privacy by not naming her in posts.

I was encouraged to do a search when I was 19 by a psychiatrist I was seeing for eating disorders.  He thought that if I felt like I’d ‘come from somewhere’, I’d feel more secure in general.  I’m not so sure about that, but I did want to find her.   The adoption agency was contacted, and with two phone calls, the social worker had her on the phone. He explained that her wishes would be respected if she didn’t want contact, but she did.  We began writing and exchanging photos.  I was so excited to learn about her interests in photography, animals, and that she played the flute (I did, as well).  I was thrilled to hear that I had half-brothers.  She was still in contact with my bio-dad, and shared some information with him.   Both of their situations were complicated, and he didn’t feel comfortable writing, but he saw photos, and I found out I also had half-brothers on his side.  My bio-mom and I wrote for a while, but it was hard to just jump into a relationship (for both of us, actually).

She’d gone through hell during the pregnancy with me, mostly being shunned and shamed by her immediate family, and being sent across the country for the sole purpose of ‘giving me up’, staying with her aunt, uncle, and cousins (it was more complicated than that, but that will work for a blog post).  She wasn’t given a choice, and didn’t feel she had any options.  She never wanted to give me up, and back then, the biological fathers didn’t have any say.  She was almost out of high school when I was born, but for decades, having in illegitimate child was something that was dealt with in cruel ways.  It was felt that ‘it was for the best’, or (mostly) ‘what will the neighbors think?’ were more important than the impact that giving away a child would have on the two who created that baby.  My biological parents had dated for years.  They stayed really close friends until his death from cancer in the 90s, even with their own families.

Anyway, during the time we had  contact  when I was 19, things were  getting  more complicated, and she let me know she needed some time, but that if I had ANY questions, I was free to contact her.  She never cut me off completely, but I felt like giving her time and space was best.   If it meant that I wouldn’t have contact for years, and that it was best for her, that was gonna be  OK. I did have periods of time when I was frustrated with not having ‘general’ contact, but I understood that she had more people and situations to consider.  I had a lot of my own ‘stuff’ to work out, which became much more intense after I was raped a few months later, so I really wasn’t  in a great place to build a new relationship at that time.  It probably worked out for the best that we both took the time we needed to get some things ‘settled’.    I moved to Texas before and during this general period of time, and had contact with the aunt and uncle she’d stayed with during her pregnancy with me. The first Christmas in Texas, I got to meet the cousins in that family, which was amazing. There were times when we were talking, and I’d say something… they’d all get quiet, and finally one of them would say “You sound JUST like __  (bio-mom)!”. 🙂   I got close to one cousin in particular.   We’ve stayed in contact since  that Christmas in 1985, seeing each other whenever she was in Texas, talking on the phone, e-mails, and my visit out to her and her husband’s home in 1986.

Fast forward (I’d been back in my hometown for 8 years, not in Texas) to the period of time I was on chemo for leukemia.  My prognosis was generally quite good, but being an RN, I know that things can go wrong.  Complications can change things in a heartbeat.  I decided that if something should go wrong, I didn’t want my bio-mom to get a call telling her I’d died without the option of reconnecting before that.  I wrote her a letter, deciding that whatever her decision, it was going to be what was right for her, and that was what I wanted. As it turns out, she was ready to reconnect.   I had been talking to the cousin I’d been close to for years (bio-mom’s first cousin) when the call waiting clicked , but I decided to finish the conversation with my cousin, and figure out who had called after that; I didn’t get a lot of phone calls.   When I hung up and checked the call log and saw my bio-mom’s name, I freaked (in a very good way !).  I immediately called my cousin back and told her who had called, and she told me to call her after I called my bio-mom back !  She was excited, too !

I was elated and nervous to talk to my bio-mom, but something that had never happened in 48 years happened. I  heard her voice.   It was on October 30, 2010… coincidentally on the last day I had the arsenic chemo.  When she answered the phone, it took about two seconds to feel comfortable talking with her.  I don’t remember how long we talked, but long enough to do some catching up, and some general interests type of stuff. We also agreed that we wanted to keep talking on a fairly regular basis.

The next Spring (2011), she came to visit.  We met for the first time, and had fun getting to SEE and hug each other, and taking photos (which I won’t post out of respect for her privacy… her friends and family all know about me, but throwing it all out there for the world is different 😉 ).   She and my dad met; my mom had died in 2003.  My mom would have loved to meet my bio-mom.

That summer, my cousin (bio-mom’s first cousin) and my bio-mom surprised me when they BOTH visited !   I’d known my cousin was coming (we hadn’t seen each other in about 13-15 years or so), but after she’d been inside for a few minutes there was another knock at the door (VERY unusual for me to have two people here in a MONTH, let alone a few minutes), and bio-mom was at the door !   We had a ball for the next few days.  They brought me a laptop and all of the accessories and a digital camera.  The laptop has been my primary source of social interaction; prior to that I had no way to interact besides the phone, as my other computer had croaked at least a year earlier.  The computer has been a life-changer, not only with social interaction but with the ability to have things delivered as it’s become more difficult to shop and drag things inside from the car.  They showed my YouTube, iTunes, and some other fun stuff, and I found Facebook a few weeks later.

With the computer, I’ve been able to have contact with my biological dad’s family, as well as extended family on my bio-mom’s side… I don’t have a family tree.  I have a family tree farm !  And it’s great.  (I’ve started doing genealogy stuff on Ancestry.com, and I literally have five trees going).  The next summer (2012), I got to meet my (half) brother, which was wonderful (and I really like him- not just care because we’re related- he’s a fun guy ! ).   I’ve messaged my paternal half-brothers (who are considerably younger), but so far no contact with them, and that’s OK.  They found out about me after their dad’s death (by many years), so I’m sure it’s all a little weird.

I’ve listened to my other maternal (half) brother’s recorded music sessions, though I haven’t been able to listen to all of them; he died in 2000 (I’d been told back then what had happened, and it destroyed any possibility of ever meeting him, even though I wasn’t in contact with my bio-mom at that time).  Since getting their elementary school photos in 1983, I’ve had them on my dresser (they’re still there).  They’ve always been close to my heart, and when A died, it was really hard, even though I didn’t even know if he knew I existed.  I later found out that he did.  But it’s still too hard to listen to his voice, knowing he’s gone.  I’m able to talk to my bio-mom and brother about him more now, but sometimes I still just cry, remembering the day I got the e-mail telling me he was gone.  I couldn’t stand the idea of my bio-mom going through that when she’d been through so much (more than I’m writing). I have some great photos of A, as well as the brother I’ve met.

Since that first phone call, my bio-mom and I speak at least weekly, and we sometimes have ‘marathon’ calls lasting for hours.  We have so much in common, and our general interests are very similar.  How we dress, our views on ‘dressing up’ (clean t-shirt, or if it’s really fancy, a woven top :p ), sense of humor, and other things are so, so similar.  It feels  great to know where I get some of my preferences and traits- even though I never knew what she liked/disliked until we started talking regularly (the letters had some general stuff).  There’s absolutely no awkwardness when we’re together.

We’re family.

Mother’s Day, Two Ways

Today is Mother’s Day, 2014 (May 11- kind of early this year).  So much comes up whenever there is anything to do with moms and family.  I was put up for adoption at birth, though not at the wishes of my biological mother (by a long shot).  She was nearly 18 years old, but in the early 1960s, the ‘image’ of the family was one to be protected at all costs in most families, totally blowing off the wishes of the biological mother, AND biological father.  The fathers weren’t considered at all- his name isn’t even on my birth certificate, though I know much more about him now.

The mom who raised me, who I just call my ‘mom’ since she’s the one I knew the longest, and who raised me, died on March 13, 2003 after a brief illness (urosepsis that wasn’t treated properly at an ER near Phoenix, AZ).  She had become demented after radiation to her brain after a tumor was removed- that was the last cancer she had to deal with after breast, some suspicious pre-cancerous cells on the other breast, and lung metastasis.  She went through hell with cancer- and it didn’t kill her.  She survived cancer free for seventeen YEARS from the last cancer surgery when she died.

One of my favorite photos of my mom... Taken around 1988.

One of my favorite photos of my mom… Taken around 1988.

Our last Christmas, 2002... we had no idea she'd be gone less than 3 months later.

Our last Christmas, 2002… we had no idea she’d be gone less than 3 months later.

Cancer wasn’t the only thing my mom had to deal with, and that was much less emotionally painful than the death of two newborn sons about 2 years apart, by the time she was 26 years old.  She never got to see either of those babies.  They were a bit early from placental abruption (tearing away from the uterus – in her case, partially), and their lungs weren’t developed. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they didn’t have NICUs, so it was sort of a crapshoot who lived and who died.  They both succumbed to hyaline membrane disease.  Now, they would have had an outstanding chance of survival, especially since they both weighed enough that they had no weight to gain in order to be sent home.  Their little lungs just didn’t work.   My mom wanted kids (so did my dad, but mom was the one who ‘needed’ a baby).  She was the oldest of four siblings, and she wanted the same. I ended up being an only child.

But the deaths of those two babies changed her, understandably so especially considering how infant deaths were handled back then.  She never saw them, never had photos, couldn’t go to their burials (which my young dad had to take care of on his own), and was basically told that it was in the past, don’t bother with it.  She was in the hospital for at least a week, so she was there as long as both of them lived- and never saw them. She was basically told to move on.  It was cruel.  She never forgot those boys.  It made bonding with me difficult for her, but I never doubted that she loved me.  My guess is that she didn’t want to get ‘too’ attached, should something happen to me, especially in my early years.  Later on, beginning when the adoption was finalized in August of 1964, she knew I couldn’t be taken from her, which helped.  But she still had a lot of grief that never was dealt with in a way that was of much help.  Things like that just weren’t considered  an ‘issue’.   And she hurt from those losses.  When I finally understood that, it helped me see her with much more compassion.

My mom did the best she could.  She returned to college and became an elementary school teacher.  Her students loved her, which confused me, since they saw a side of her I didn’t .  They weren’t a ‘risk’ to get close to- they went home every night, and she knew her relationship with them was just distant enough to allow for more displays of warmth and ‘teacher affection’.  Many of her students came to her visitation after she died, and still remembered her very fondly.  She and I had a strained relationship for many years.  I never doubted her love for me, and knew she wanted me. From the beginning, she read stories to me about how adopted kids are ‘chosen’, and how she and dad waited a long time to get me (about 2 years).

She and I had our worst battles when clothes shopping. There were some epic fights that dad learned to listen for the number of slams from the garage door when we got home. One meant one of us was mad, two meant he needed to lie low for a while, since we were both seething.  😮  I’ve never been a frilly girl.  I loved dolls and dollhouses, and also chasing frogs and turtles and climbing trees.  I was NOT cut out for fancy smocked dresses (Polly Flinder’s was her favorite brand), and much preferred shorts and t-shirts, and loathed anything ‘girly’.  My favorite dress as a kid had monkeys on it- no lace or smocking or bows.   But, she and dad made sure I had everything I needed, and then some.  I took all sorts of lessons (ballet, tap, tumbling, figure skating- my favorite, flute, piano, swimming, tennis, horseback riding- at camp), and I got to go to camp for a week every summer before 4th-11th grades (and later worked on summer staff there).  I went to day camps in the summer before then.  They exposed me to all sorts of art (which annoyed me- I much preferred the natural history and geology museum next to the local art museum, where I could look at rocks and fossils). They traveled extensively, and when it was appropriate (like being gone ON Christmas for the Hawaii trip, or when I was older and in my teens for the month in Europe, or traveling throughout the US), I went with them. On several trips, dad made sure that we saw historical and/or National  Park sites, as well as stuff that was just fun (the Olympic Ice Rink in Innsbruk, Austria, where Dorothy Hamill had won her gold medal the year before we were there- he had hoped I’d be able to skate during a public session, but they were doing lessons).

My mom drove me to Texas when  I moved there after getting my RN license in late 1985 (back in the days when they came by mail).  We had a GREAT time going down there.  Whenever she and dad visited, we had wonderful holidays together (usually they came at Christmas, but sometimes in the Spring- either going to or from their winters away from the cold Midwest).  I loved when they came.  The memories I have are mostly good, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become so much more aware at how much pain she must have had when those babies died.  She never had any image to remember them by- just that she had two babies that never got to come home.

My biological mother and I have a great relationship.  Out of respect for her wishes, I don’t post photos of her.  We had a brief connection back when I was 19 years old, but it turned out both of us needed some time to get it all figured out- suddenly connecting after 19 years of wondering about each other was hard.    Then we had many years of no contact, except via word through  an aunt and uncle, and cousins that I got to know during our initial contact and several months of letter writing.  She had wanted me.  Giving me up wasn’t her idea.  She went through a lot, and also had no image of me to ‘know’ after I was born.    We now talk about all of that stuff, and it’s been amazing to find out how much we’re alike in so many ways.  It’s been good to know where I came from, and where I get some of my personality traits and other characteristics.  While I was always accepted by my adoptive family, there’s a gap that can only be filled by knowing about origins- at least for me.  I understand myself a bit better by getting to know her.

It’s been awkward with all of the ‘labels’.  My mom is the one who raised me, yet without my biological mother, I wouldn’t exist.  I call her by her first name, or ‘bio-mom’ when writing.  When looking for Mother’s Day cards, this is the first year I’ve seen a ‘real’ one from Hallmark for birth-mothers. There are some  through some specialty online sites, which are fine- but it’s nice to be able to choose one… and one it was.  :/   They had one to ‘choose’ from.  I had to make a couple of adjustments, since adoptive situations aren’t one-size-fits-all.  And the ‘regular’ ones talk about years spent together from infancy on, and those aren’t appropriate.  For her, I’m her daughter- that’s the only term that’s appropriate.  For me, it’s a little more complicated.  But I’m so thankful for both of them.  I wish my mom could have met my biological mom.  She knew when we were writing when I was 19, and also wrote to her during that time.  But my mom died almost 7 years before my bio-mom and I reconnected.

When I was going through chemo for leukemia, I wrote to her- and wanted to give us a chance to reconnect should the leukemia stuff not go well.  I didn’t want her to hear that I’d been sick from someone else, especially since she’d already buried one son (I still have a very alive half-brother that I’ve met and had some contact with- he’s a hoot, and I really enjoy talking to him on some holidays, and whenever he is en route to see  his dad’s family – who have also ‘readopted’ me; there are also two half-brothers on my biological father’s side).  Turns out, it was the right time for both of us, and we have been in regular contact since then, sometimes spending 3-4 hours on a single phone call !  I love when she visits 🙂

I’ve been blessed.  I was wanted from before my birth, by two mothers. On the day I was born, my mom told my dad that she knew that ‘their’ baby had been born that day (this was in the day of closed adoptions, where there was never any contact with anyone in the biological family at all).   One was forced to give me up, and the other was doing her best to grieve the loss of two newborns of her own while becoming a mom to me.  One wondered about me for decades, while the other created memories for as long as she could.  I love them both.  One gave me life, and the other taught me how to live.  I was able to hug one throughout my childhood and until I was thirty-nine years old, and the other has been in my heart and thoughts since I was old enough to understand what it meant to be adopted- and now I have the personal relationship with her.

I’ll never know what it’s like to be a mom… but I have ( or had) two amazing women in my life in that role- however it’s described.