As an act of terrorism, on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 two planes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and a third plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania. This event killed thousands of people, including mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, colleagues, and so much more. The horror and magnitude of this event might have destroyed a less well-anchored country. Instead, this country grew together and reaffirmed, at least publicly, its faith and its belief in God.
On a personal level, ever since November 4, 1993– the day I found my birthmother’s grave– there have been times I have referred to my life as “before and after,” just like many of Americans have referred to the terrorist events as “before and after” September 11, 2001. Finding a grave is a reality that will always be there no matter how much time passes. Not only was there a difference in my world, but I was different as well.
Prior to November 4, 1993 I didn’t know the woman who gave me life. Having the adoption experience in my life has shaped who I have since become. I often feel that if a loved and needed parent can disappear forever, then nothing is safe, predictable, or secure anymore. Although I had a loving adoptive family, I felt as if I was making my way in a world that was, itself, filled with profound emptiness.
The feeling of being rootless, of having no solid ground, of being without an anchor was something that I had become uneasy with. I had no core sense of self and was realizing that something had been absolutely ripped out of me that could not be replaced. When I began my search I realized there was something completely missing for the rest of my life and it affected, to some degree, every decision I have made. Throughout the first 23 years of my life I felt like I did not measure up, in part because I was adopted.
On November 4, 1993, the world as I knew it and understood it ceased to exist. My natural order of life had been replaced by an unnatural order of death. No aspect of my life was untouched by the loss of my birthmother, Peggy. I realized that anything and everything I hoped for was swept away in an instant. I felt as if I would not be able to overcome it. I remember feeling like the world had ended. I felt as if my world was shattered, and like a small child who could barely control my own movement, let alone comprehend the enormity of the event of finding a grave.
I recall feeling numb, almost like a sleepwalker going through the motions of life, unable to comprehend what I had just learned. Finding a grave was totally unreal, and this could not really be happening. It could NOT be happening to me. It wasn’t until I saw Peggy’s picture that I knew it was true and that I had the right family. After November 4, 1993, I wasn’t able to get to know the woman who gave me life, and my birthmother’s death was probably the single event that determined who I have become: what I fear, and what I treasure. Today, some of what I love the most about myself grew not from my strengths, but from my vulnerabilities– vulnerabilities that were etched deep when I was relinquished to adoption. Relinquishment, search, and reunion are so big and so powerful that they cannot help but change everything they touch.
I felt guilty for a long time after finding a grave. It took some time, but I came to know that any action is the result of a complicated set of circumstances. I had what I call the “what if” quality. What if Peggy would have not relinquished me to adoption? I would have had a different life, I would have been a different person, and my pain would have been less. What if Peggy’s death did not disrupt my life? I would have had a special relationship and a wonderful connection. Maybe some of this is pure fantasy, but it is also an opportunity for recreating Peggy and that destroyed relationship. Peggy’s death robbed me of real experiences with her.
Reflecting back on the past 8 years, I have taken all that I have learned about Peggy and invented not only a perfect birthmother but also a birthmother who meets my particular needs, a birthmother perfectly matched to me. I not only idealized Peggy, but also the connection between the two of us. I know that we are linked or connected. The photographs show some visible sign that we are, in fact, linked. Part of this fantasy was fueled by members of my birth family, but some of it came from my own sense of absence and longing for what might have been. I know that I have done this in order to survive, and reflecting back surprises me how these borrowed memories have kept Peggy alive in my mind and in my heart. Through the years, this has brought me great comfort…
There is a hole in my heart that has been there ever since I found out my birthmother was deceased. This void has become a central part of who I am. It exists as an emptiness that remains, regardless of any happiness or any success I might achieve. However, I have accepted this void as a part of who I have become because of my adoption experience.
My birthfather is a face which does not appear in my life. I view this not only as a loss, but as an absence. I have built him up around an absent image. Finding Peggy deceased, I believed that I had paid my dues and that I would have my adoptive parents forever. Working with numbers for the past 5 years, the best analogy I can use to describe it is like a balance sheet in the sky. My debit column is full. I know this is silly, and of course no one can live forever; someday my mom and dad will die.
Now, watching my dad gradually withdraw from my life into the hands of doctors, nurses, chemotherapy, and insulin, it seems that our whole existence is changing into something alien. It is horrifying to look at him and see, again and again, how frail he is becoming, It is painful to see what is becoming of this once-strong man.
His illness is not openly spoken about in our family. In fact, my dad denies its very existence. However, finding a grave has helped me realize that living does not mean that we forget the dead. It does mean that we embrace life and move forward. So now, for myself I am faced with trying to find a strategy for how to love in a world where loss and abandonment are ever-present dangers. As I have weighed the risks of losing against the joys of loving, I know I have to find some compromise that allows me to move forward. I have attempted to have relationships despite my belief that love and loss are inevitable. I realize that people come in and out of our lives for a reason. I have always been surrounded by many people in my life and have been very fortunate to be blessed with so many friends and family who have been, and continue to be in my life, as well as new friendships that have been created along my journey in life.
There is a Chinese proverb that reads, “You cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying overhead, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.” Eleanor Roosevelt believed that the true measure of a person was not his or her achievements, but, rather, the way in which he or she adapted to life’s changes. Fate presents each of us with a set of circumstances, cards dealt at the beginning of the game, over which we have no control. However, one does have control in how one chooses to play the hand. As any seasoned card player knows, it is easy to play a hand when one has been dealt good cards. In fact, it takes a special effort to lose when one’s cards are certain winners. It is much more difficult to play wisely and skillfully when one has been dealt bad cards.
I feel as if I have created myself in the face of adversity. I did not deny that I had found a grave or that fate had dealt me a bad hand. I focused on ways I could live my life despite the outcome of my search for my birth mother. I knew I had a choice to make my life different, and I knew that anger and resentment would only lead to self destruction. I am the only one responsible for my own destiny and my own future.
I like the person I have become…an ability to be sensitive to the needs of others, a sense of independence and self-reliance, determination to persevere especially during difficult times. The fate of finding a grave has made me who I am. To anyone reading, I say: Don’t give up hope. Grief can feel like fear– I think the sensations are the same. When your search is completed, everything feels so changed, so unknown, so awful. Yet you will survive. You may struggle, hurt, cry– but you will go on to become courageous and strong. None of this means that you won’t continue to hurt from time to time. Some ache will be there forever– that is just the way it is. But you can survive. And like so many of us who have spoken out, you may come to feel stronger for what you have endured.