A Family Photo Without Me

A couple of years after we first met, I went to visit my birth mother, Peggy, at the St. Cabrini nursing home where she worked. We had visited with each other several times prior, but always with my wife, Margaret, and Peggy’s husband, Ray, and I thought it would be nice if we could spend some time one-on-one.

When I arrived, she asked me if I would like to meet her mother, who was a patient at the nursing home. She was suffering from the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and needed around-the-clock care. “Of course,” I said.

We entered my biological grandmother’s room, and it was clear right away that she would not be able to understand who I was, even upon explanation. I said hello and shook her hand, and she seemed to nod in acknowledgment. I had never encountered someone with this terrible disease, and it was sad to see. I didn’t quite know what to say to Peggy or how to react in the room.

Then I glanced up at the wall near the bed. There was a photo with dozens of people in it, and a nice message was written that said something like “To Grandma, with love.” It took me a second to realize just what the picture was, and then followed the thoughts about what it symbolized to me.

These were dozens of my biological cousins. They were my biological grandmother’s grandchildren. And I felt a little bit of a sting, a little bit of numbness. “Where do I fit in here?” I wondered, as the flood of emotions started to come over me during the next few minutes. It was a subtle reminder of where I had come from, and where I ended up.

And then came the feelings of guilt. I knew I had been given a chance for a good life through the adoption process, and loved my parents and what they had provided for me over the course of my life, but I still found myself with this feeling of abandonment and neglect as I looked up at the photo. It made me feel as if I didn’t exist, and I had a confused sense of belonging. I felt a sense of bitterness about not having been in that photo.

We were only in the room for a few minutes, but to me it seemed like a long time, and I was glad to get out of there. We ended up going to a little café for lunch and had a very nice time. I didn’t mention to Peggy my thoughts about the photo. It just wasn’t something I was comfortable sharing at the time.

For that matter, I have always tended to keep uncomfortable feelings to myself, especially in a face-to-face situation like that one. Over the years, I have become more willing to open up, to face my fears and embrace my feelings as valid. It is what makes me who I am, and what makes all of us who we are. Ultimately, there is nothing to be ashamed about for feeling a certain way about something that is impactful in our lives. There is no need to apologize or feel guilty about feelings that emerge as we are faced with life’s events that unfold before us, just as long as we keep that in mind as we experience the emotions of others when we may not ourselves completely understand.