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.

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.

My Mom Was Complicated

I’m guessing that most mother-daughter relationships are complicated unless the whole family is smoking something funny. This is just my version based on my mom and me.  It was complicated.  She was complicated…

I was adopted as a newborn a few years after she and my dad had two baby boys, just 2 years apart.  Each died from hyaline membrane disease before they were 2 days and 6 days old.  My dad had to do all of the funeral planning as moms were kept in the hospital for quite a while after C-sections, and then ‘grounded’ at home while they recovered. She never saw the babies at all. She would have been no older than 25 years old when the second baby died.   That does something to a mom.  Regardless of age- but that adds a component to how someone sees life in general. Looking back, I think it was a huge factor in our relationship.  It was broken before it got started.  I firmly believe she wanted me, loved me,  and sought out the adoption with a near life-or-death urgency.

But then she got me, and was terrified I’d either be taken back, or something would happen. She couldn’t really form the sort of mother-child attachment that a young child needs. For decades I never knew if she even liked me.  I know she loved me in the only ways she knew how- but none of that included anything that showed me that love in a way a little kid needs.  She wasn’t a cuddly, reassuring mom.   She was hurting, and needed comforting that she could never express ‘enough’ to get her own needs met- as her own mother never visited her in the hospital (though took care of her after she was discharged, as dad was working after the worst was over). She had no example from the woman who gave birth to her- she’d tell me that the idea of going up to see mom made her “sick at her stomach”.  Great support there.   Mom worked SO hard to be a good mom.  Nobody was warm and fuzzy back in the early 60s from what I can figure out.  Dad loved her, and they were together for almost 46 years…but he was young, too- and nobody figures on two babies dying. Nobody has a guidebook for how to get through that.  They did the best they could.  And dad was able to see the babies.  He had faces to grieve. Mom was pregnant twice-and back then the deaths of the babies were treated as if they never existed.

She ended up going to college to become a teacher, starting with night school when I was three years old. I’d end up being sent to my playroom so she could study.  Now that doesn’t seem like any big deal.  At the time, I thought she wanted me out of the way on a much deeper level.  Later on, I’d hear how her students loved her, and thought she was a wonderful teacher. Some still look back at their second grade year, and call her their favorite teacher ever.  I didn’t get it.  She wasn’t a demonstrative sort, but evidently she communicated something as a teacher .  She told her students about me all the time...I found that out at her visitation after she died.  She really did the best job she could in being a mom- and I’m thankful that teaching was a source of happiness for her.  She also worked at a school that was kind (not public), where she met some lifelong friends.

I remember feeling more like a guinea pig while she was in school as she read books to me that she intended to read to her class.  She’d try out various testing methods on me, and even took me to one of her child psychology classes to be the ‘test subject’ for her professor.  The experiment was supposed to show how a kid will keep doing what they need in order to get a reward (in this case, M & Ms).  I didn’t want to be rude, so I avoided the ‘magic number’ that would send an M & M down a little chute, and make a light go on.  I was six.  And worried about being rude.  I got the whole box of  M & Ms anyway…maybe for being a fluke.

Manners, and the importance of the feelings of others were driven into me from a very young age.  Some of that is fine, but in other ways, I felt like it was my job to ‘make’ mom happy.  Her emotional state was my responsibility, and I had to please others.  That is wrong.  NO kid should ever have that saddled on them so early on.  I was also taught never to ask anybody for anything, and as a four year old, I remember dissolving into tears at a neighbor’s home when I’d asked for a piece of paper and a pencil to play tic-tac-toe with the kid who lived there…I felt I’d been horribly rude.

At four and a half years old, I got in trouble because I’d cried when the kindergarten bus came (regular school bus), and I was so cold I hurt.  The bus driver took me back, screaming, to my door, and asked mom to  get me some warmer hats or mittens or whatever.  I’d been dressed well- it was just that cold. It’s not that she hadn’t considered the weather; the weather was just beyond the standard winter gear that year- and she didn’t do anything deliberately wrong; it was embarrassing for her- and her need to be viewed as a good mom, almost to a fault.  And I was a little four and a half year old kid, out in front of the apartment (out of sight of my mom) waiting for the bus. Back then, nobody thought about that being odd- we were all outside in front of our apartments scattered up and down the street.  She got mad at me for making a scene.  But I don’t think she was a ‘bad’ mom…she was just unable to move past the deaths of those babies, and needed me to be OK at all times. She couldn’t put herself in my position, and understand anything from my point of view- yet she was a very successful teacher.  I felt lost in the various ‘jobs’ she had…it seemed that ‘mother’ wasn’t at the top of the list.  At least from my perspective.  But I know she did care deeply about me.  She did love me.  That became very clear as I got older, and saw her from an adult perspective.  She ‘needed’ me to not be sick (or lose me), and never wanted me to show anything wrong (dad was much more intense with that).

Mom couldn’t stand anything that didn’t ‘look’ good.  That was definitely an issue with my weight.  She primed me for my later eating disorders (those weren’t her ‘fault’, but the seeds had been planted that how I looked was much more important than health or self-worth).  I was always being told how overweight I was, and as I look back, I don’t see a fat kid (and I’m super-critical of my appearance now).  In this photo, I’m not fat by a long shot- yet that’s when the restrictions started.

She had to have me look like my world was completely intact- and it wasn’t.  I needed a mom who let me be me, within set boundaries.  Our shopping trips were legendary for all of the wrong reasons; they were battles. I was to be dressed like a perfect little kid.  I wanted jeans and shorts.  She wanted Marshall Fields & Co.  I wanted K-mart (back before K-mart upgraded in the 80s).  She wanted something that could be pulled from a catalog layout.  I wanted something that looked good in mud.  I wasn’t a frilly kid by a long shot.  I didn’t fit the image she wanted. I was happy with frogs- not tea sets (though I did take my dolls into climbing trees!).  Our wills collided constantly. I felt like my individuality was being crushed (and it was); she just wanted things to look good.  Poor dad would wait to listen if it was a one or two door slam kind of shopping trip (right out in the kitchen of this house).

Now, I believe that she was trying to mask her own pain from deep, unresolved  (and understandable) grief. I understand a bit better what it may have been like for her- so the years of being mad are over. I can’t imagine losing two babies, and not having ‘real’ support to grieve (it just wasn’t something that was adequately addressed in the late 50s/early 60s). Now, I just try to make sense of what I need to get from other sources (my faith in God has helped-  and that was the single most important thing she and my dad gave me- being brought up in a solid church).  There were also adults at church  that helped my sense of being an OK kid when I played with their kids.

Mom later developed breast cancer, then pre-cancerous tumors in the other breast, metastatic lung and brain cancers.  She went through the wringer.  The radiation from the brain cancer resulted in dementia that stole her last 10-12 years in a progressive manner.  She didn’t die from cancer when she eventually left this earth 17 years after her last cancer diagnosis (brain tumor).  My dad was amazing with her.  She was something else, and I’ll blog about her dementia at some other time; this is about her and me.  She didn’t complain about her various physical problems. I never heard her whine about the chemo or radiation, or surgeries.  She just did what she had to do.  But she never said what SHE needed. ‘Needs’ weren’t addressed, or really even allowed. She never wanted to be a ‘burden’ and dad certainly never felt she was one, telling me that even if he’d known what was coming, he would have married her anyway.

I miss the mom I knew before the dementia, even though it was a rickety relationship.  We did love each other.  I couldn’t express MY feelings towards her very well either.  I paid a lot of money for therapy to figure out a bunch of things about myself, and in return, figured out things about important relationships.  I learned that everyone does the best they can (unless they are psychopaths).  They give what they have gotten, and a lot of that was determined by the way things were done at the time, and the ability of important people in their lives to supply those needs. Mom didn’t get much mothering.   It’s passed down.  All of those folks did the best they could, too.

In the end, we all have to figure it out for ourselves, and fill in the blanks based on what we do know  We become responsible for what we need, or needed.  At some point, it’s no longer about what mom didn’t do, but what I need to do for myself.  For me, that involves looking to God as the only true constant in my life.  Yes, I need relationships with other people, but no human can supply  what He can.  I also need to forgive humans for what felt ‘wrong’…and look at what they have endured. Nothing happens in a vacuum.

My life isn’t always about me.

Updated: 2/10/21