Friday, May 30, 2014

The First Heartbreak

Perhaps the story begins with falling in love, that madness the ancients warn  against, poets celebrate, and teenage girls dream of.  I met David my senior year in college.  He was from England, doing a post-bac year at  my university, and the thing I fell for first was his accent.  It was all very casual and friendly at first.  David told me about his fiance, a school teacher back in England, and I told him about the disastrous break up with my former boyfriend.
 When we began dating, my plan was still to go to graduate school the next year.  I figured I'd have a bittersweet romance before going on to other things.  I'd be sad to part from David, sure, but I'd had break ups before and always recovered pretty quickly.  This time was different.

In September, when the whole school year stretched out ahead of us, it seemed we had plenty of time.  By Christmas, however, I was deeply in love with this lanky Englishman with the Beatles haircut.  David was studying economics
 and was interested in politics, but we never discussed those topics at any length.  We talked about whether to have sex, something David knew way more about than I did, and I was eager to learn.  I'd been kissing boys since junior high and enjoying it too, but I'd never actually been to bed with anyone.  Of course, with hindsight everything is clearer.  David could have obtained condoms, even if there was no way I could get contraceptives.  We were in school in my home town.  My father was on the faculty, and my doctor had known my family since I was in elementary school.  There was no way I could ask him for a diaphragm, even if I'd had a clear idea of what one was.  We weren't entirely gormless; we decided to use the rhythm method and time our lovemaking with as much precision as we could muster and plenty of advance planning.      

It was the mid-sixties and interesting things were happening around the country: the Civil Rights movement, anti-war protests, youth rebellion and pot-smoking.  But my small-town,  idyllic little university wouldn't be swept up in the mayhem until after I graduated.  My life was still anchored by life in my sorority, curfews, and in loco parentis rules.  One of my sorority sisters got married before she graduated, and she was forced to move out into an apartment in town, even though her husband was still in school at a different campus.  It was thought unsuitable for a married student to live side-by-side with (presumed) virgins.

My son   was conceived a few days before David was set to return to England.  We had gone to a party at the apartment of some married friends who were graduating with me but were already married with a baby.  David had arranged for us to spend the night there and after everyone else went home that is what we did but not before having the single fight we ever had.  I was in a mood.  David was already packing to leave, and I could sense he was already half way to England in his head.  He had decided  to go home early, perhaps because he was missing Judy and growing anxious about leaving me.  At first he was going to make me a tape of his voice so I'd be able to hear him tell me he loved me even after he was gone, but he decided not to after all.  I loved him desperately, and I was trying to make the most of the time we had left together, but I also felt free.  I loved him yet  didn't feel permanently attached to him.  How could I?  When other guys asked me to dance, I was only too happy to join them and flirt a little.  David went ballistic.  He was furious, and we went outside to sit in my car and thrash it out.    
“I saw your face,” he snarled.  “I saw your bloody face!”  Clearly, I'd been having far too good a time.

I was shocked and devastated that things would end between us like this.  Through gulping sobs I apologized over and over.  When he said he couldn't spend the night with me after all, I was desperate to turn things around.  I must have been persuasive, because David relented at last, we smoothed things over and went back inside.  That  was  the night my son was conceived.  The next few days were filled with the old tenderness, but we decided there would be no point to staying in touch.  Better to make a clean break and each of us get on with our lives.  And so he was gone.

After graduation I moved home, and it  wasn't long before I began throwing up.  Suddenly cigarettes tasted foul, and I knew things were different with me.  This was 1967, a time when "girls like me  didn't have sex,” and if we did, we certainly didn't talk about it, even with our best friends.  Perhaps some girls had confidantes, but I didn't know anyone I could tell about my fear that I might be pregnant.   I went with my mother to secure an apartment in Miami,Ohio, where I'd been accepted into a graduate program, and thought about what courses I would presumably take in the fall.  I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do.

I had always wanted to go to England and had even toyed with the idea of going to university there, knowing  my mother would never agree to it.  I found out about a study abroad program with Indiana University, the perfect excuse to spend the summer in London, the opportunity I needed to reconnect with David, and I begged my parents to send me.  I could write a paper on Thomas Hardy and earn some credit for grad. school.  I'm sure it was my dad who persuaded my mother to let me go.  She'd been less than thrilled when I spent five weeks one summer at the University of Colorado, my consolation prize for not being allowed to study abroad my junior year.

In many ways that summer was glorious.  I was still slim, and though I vomited from time to time, I otherwise felt terrific.  London in the swinging 'sixties was a grand place to be, and to this day whenever I smell bus fumes I am transported back to its streets.  I joined up with three other young women in our group and we found lodging with an MP and his wife and two small sons in Hampstead. It was easy for four young women to meet people, and we went out most nights.  Our host  took us to the Inns of Court and to a trial at the Old Bailey, which was great fun for us if not for the fellow being tried for espionage.  We went to Kenwood House for an outdoor concert and visited the Tate and Corcoran art museums.  A day trip took us to Summerhill School, the experimental school where the kids made their own rules and did whatever they wanted to.  A.S. Neill, the guru of avant garde educational theory, lived in a charming brick house on the grounds.  With American gumption, we knocked on his door, which he opened himself.  My friend Bert told him she was doing research on the school and wondered if he could talk to us.  He patted her on the head, told her to read his books, and closed the door.  It had been worth a try.

 All I knew about Gordonstoun School was that Prince Charles went there and it was where David was teaching.  I also learned it was at the uppermost tip of  Scotland it took an all-night train ride to get to Inverness, from whence I would have to take a bus.  I was getting used to making solitary trips under fraught circumstances, and though I am normally a reluctant traveler I believe I would have hiked the length and breadth of the country to reach David.  

I'll never forget the train conductor who patrolled the cars and seemed very official in his uniform.  He didn't speak to me when he took my ticket, but an hour or so later he returned and asked me to follow him, which I did without question.  God must indeed look out for fools, for that summer I did any number of what seem now like very foolish things.  I should have had at least some misgivings, but I followed this stranger as if I were a friendly puppy.  He took me to a private car where tea was laid out on a small table, invited me to sit down and offered me a biscuit.  I felt as if I were two people, one doing and one watching, and I remember wondering just what this gentleman had in mind for me.  I had the feeling I should be alarmed or at least wary, but I sipped my tea and politely answered his few questions about my destination.  At length, he rose to leave, but before he went, he told me I was welcome to spend the night in this sleeping car.  It wasn't what I had paid for, but he wanted me to have it.  I  thought he might have nefarious designs on me, but I accepted gratefully and fell asleep.  He left, and I never saw him again.

The landscape around Gordonstoun was harsh,  bleak, and seemed all one color, a monotonous light brown.  That far north the sun barely set at all, but I remember grey skies and brisk breezes.    I got off the bus, hoisted my suitcase, and made my way down the High Street  to the pub David had directed me to, where I would rent a room upstairs from the bar.  I can only imagine what the villagers must have thought of me, a strange American girl, showing up for no apparent reason  with eyes red from weeping.  David met me in the pub and bought me a whisky, something I'd never had before.  It burned my throat and seemed entirely appropriate for the occasion.  He seemed tense, not unhappy to see me but obviously uncomfortable.  At length we went upstairs and were at last alone.  I had been crying steadily for some time, and I sat on his lap and wept into his shoulder.  I told him that if he married me, we could get divorced after a year, but that way I'd be able to keep the baby.  I knew already what my parents' reaction would be.   

When I was still in high school, an old friend of my dad's had written to tell him that his adopted daughter had gotten herself pregnant at the age of 16.  She was going to marry the father, but my dad's friend, a minister, had offered to resign his position in his church, such was his chagrin.  My parents showed me the letter, and I knew they intended it as a warning.   These were good people,   and I knew from this experience how devastated my own parents would be if I were, God forbid, ever in a comparable situation.  At least my old friend was going to marry her child's father.  I figured that if David married me, I'd be able to keep my baby with less fuss.  I was, after all, already out of college and ostensibly grown up.

David and I talked, I cried, and it seemed when we got into bed that he was trying to rekindle what we'd had back in Indiana.  I was happy to be with David, happy to have sex with him, but my paramount concern was for the baby.  “Don't hurt him, don't hurt him,” I said over and over.  

It was games day at the school, and David had to help oversee the activities, so I went along to the playing fields where boys of various ages were put through their paces.  I have always found English schoolboys appealing, with their floppy hair, shorts, and chapped knees.  In those days Gordonstoun had a reputation for being Spartan and “character-building,” and it was clear that these games were serious business.  There was one boy, who looked about eleven or twelve, who had a grossly misshapen face.  His lower jaw was greatly enlarged, giving him a painfully elongated appearance.  He had a face you couldn't help but notice but felt obliged to make the effort not to stare at.  One of the masters barked an order at this kid, telling him to get in line or move along or some such thing, and David immediately jumped in and said, “It's OK.  He's with me.”  
The worst hours were the ones I spent alone in David's room in the house of another school master.  David had gone off to meet with his mother and his  girlfriend, who had come up from London to see David and figure out what to do.  I was to wait for him to return, at which point he would give me his decision about whether to marry me or not.  The previous day we had walked along the North Sea and lain together in the long sea grass, like two nestlings huddling together for warmth.  It was a moment of peace with nothing but sea and sky and  wind.  The rest of the world seemed very far away.  David  said, “I love Judy, but I'm going to marry you.”  If we divorced a year later, I told him, I would be fine with that, but I needed to be married in order to keep my baby.  That was all I was concerned with.  I   loved David, but I could let him go.  I wanted my baby.  That was all that mattered.  We went to a jewelry store and bought a ring, intending to get married  the next day, Monday, but first David was going to meet with his mother.

Since David's mother had borne him out-of-wedlock herself and raised him alone, it would be interesting to know what she said to him.  While he was gone I violated one of the rules of conduct I hold sacrosanct:
 I read all the letters from Judy that I found in his desk.   The bond between them was obvious, as was David's conflict about what to do with me.   Time slowed to a standstill.  I lay on the bed, waiting as I had that day when
my brother had promised to return and play with me, and cried until I was exhausted. When he returned, I knew that my hours of waiting had been in vain.  There was to be no wedding, but I kept the ring—until I lost it a few years later.

The last time I saw David was at the small airport where I caught the  plane back to London.  I couldn't face another long train ride; wherever I was going, I needed to get there quickly.  I stood at the edge of the tarmac, feeling as grey and cold as the sky.  “It's a good thing I'm so exhausted,” I told David, “or I'd be in hysterics.”  I hadn't stopped crying for three days.


Thursday, May 29, 2014

Introduction--Some thoughts on adoption

Nancy Verrier’s The Primal Wound is crucial to understanding the effects of separation upon mother and most especially upon baby that occur when Nature’s essential dyad is sundered.  We have long known that the experiences of earliest childhood, even though not remembered in later life, do in fact profoundly affect the human adult.  We humans are tangled in our social arrangements and messy in our attempts at order, and throughout history we have failed to listen to what our biological nature tells us.  An essential fact of life is that a mother and her baby are one unit--until birth.  It takes several months for the baby to realize he is a separate being, and he relinquishes his connection to his mother reluctantly.  His wellbeing, his very survival, depends on staying as close to her as possible.  It is as natural for a new mother to suckle her baby immediately at birth as it is for a cat to lick her newly born kittens.  This, then, provides a strong argument from nature for preserving the maternal-infant bond, even in the face of difficult circumstances, such as the youth or poverty of the mother.  

What happens when the bond is broken, whether by adoption, death or illness of the mother, or medical interventions necessary for the baby to survive?  I am not a social scientist nor a statistician, and while a quantitative analysis of the effects of adoption is useful, it is the human angle that is ultimately most persuasive.  The story is all.  I have only my own story to tell, and I’ve revised it many times over the course of my life.  Whether this will be the final version remains to be seen, but, based on my own life experience, this is how I see things.

Americans are great believers in the second--and third and fourth--chance, despite Fitzgerald’s claim that there are no second acts in American life.  We are a people of possibilities, futurities, not fatalistic acceptance, which is perhaps why it is so difficult for many people to accept and admit the damage caused by adoption.  After all, the mother, who may be young and poor, gets a second chance at getting an education or a stable marriage and her own independence.  The adoptive parents, who are most likely infertile, get a second chance at having a family.  Broaden it out, and you could say that a Chinese baby girl gets a second chance for a successful life when she is adopted by financially comfortable Americans parents.  I adopted my own son from Vietnam with the conviction that I was  saving his life and giving him a future free from destitution and social ostracism.  There can be no counter-factual narrative.  All we can know is what in fact happened, and I think I have a better understanding now of what transpired between Dabbs and rest of our family.  

When you have a baby, your body and mind prepare with the release of chemicals and hormones that facilitate bonding between mother and baby.  A father who spends time with the pregnant mother of his child also experiences hormonal changes.  Men become less aggressive, more nurturing,  less interested in sex and more interested in other kinds of touch.  When a baby is adopted, these physical triggers are lacking.  The adopted infant experiences the loss of his whole world and is confused by the strangeness he encounters.  The smells, the sounds, and the heartbeat of his mother vanish, to be replaced by an alien being.  The current thinking among many pro-adoption advocates is that the earlier the baby is placed with the adoptive mother, the better for both the baby and the adoptive parent.  This is a bait and switch that cuts no ice with the infant, because mother and baby are already bonded AT BIRTH.  Every adoption, no matter how young the infant, is a traumatic loss for the baby, as well as for the natural mother, who at least, unlike her baby, knows what is happening.

David was three weeks old when he was moved from a foster home to his adoptive parents.  Dabbs was apparently abandoned (details are lacking), then taken to an orphanage at two months of age.  He was severely malnourished and had to spend weeks in a hospital getting stabilized.  From there he went to a foster home, then at nine months, he came to us.  At the very least, he suffered four major disruptions before he was a year old.  Did that have an effect?  You bet it did.

Picture a Fourth of July, with the whole neighborhood outdoors, kids playing, dads grilling hamburgers, everyone waiting for nightfall and the fireworks that would be visible from the hill where David’s house was located.  Then imagine David, sent to his room for God knows what reason, forbidden even to open the curtains on his window to look out.  He sat alone in that room, listening to the shouts of his brothers and the other kids  and finally the whistle and thunder of the fireworks that bloomed and fell in his imagination.  Such utter loneliness for a child.  I don’t want to tell David’s story.  He can and should tell it himself, but I can offer my response, my own version of what I believe happened to him, based on what he’s told me.  My judgments may be predicated on untruths or semi-truths or the skewed memories of a miserable boy, but the pain I have witnessed  David go through is true enough, real enough, reason enough to search out its roots, causes, and effects.  Since finding David and learning more about the aftermath of adoption, I think I understand my adopted son Dabbs better, why my efforts to be a good mother to him so often fell short, and why he was an angry child.  We are each responsible for who we are and what we become, but we are also shaped by our genes and our experiences.  When I look at David, Tanner and Saskia, I see a genetic mirror.  Dabbs has that with his children, but he can never have it with me.



Where does the story begin?  Perhaps it starts with my happy childhood with loving, attentive parents.  Dad was a coach at a small Christian college in western Pennsylvania; Mother stayed home and took care of my older brother and me, sewed clothes for me and my dolls, and  baked the best pies I've ever eaten .  Tolstoy famously said, Happy families are all alike.  I certainly agree with the second part of his observation—every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way—but I'm not sure I agree that happiness is as bland and uniform as his comment suggests.  Even as a child, I recognized that my happiness was not universal, that there were many people all over the world who suffered.  We used to go on shopping trips to the big department stores in Youngstown, Ohio, where we would pass through black neighborhoods.  From the cocoon of my father's car I would peer out the window at people who seemed to inhabit a different world from mine and my heart would lurch with sympathy.  

Yes, I was happy, but there were constraints.  Sunday was the bleakest day of the week because I was made to stay in my church clothes and not allowed to play with my friends because of something called “Blue Laws” that closed the movie theaters and the swimming pool in the park on Sundays.  It was decades before I was able to enjoy a Sunday and not feel the gloom of repression and guilt.  There was no anger in our home; it was simply not permitted.  My dad, the football and basketball coach, was a gentle man, so  I was astonished when I'd see him pacing the sidelines at  games, shouting at the referees or scowling at
 his players.    

 “Why do you get so mad?” I asked him once.  “It gets the players fired up,” was his answer.  

Anger, then, was not something natural or inevitable, it was a tool to be applied for a purpose when nothing else was working.  I learned from my parents that expressing anger was a  failure, a regrettable lapse, almost always inappropriate.  I knew this because my mother never got angry.  Never in my entire life did I ever hear her raise her voice, not even to call the dog.  If I misbehaved, she went coldly silent.  Her look of disappointment was more potent than any spanking.   

I loved my parents and when they went out for the evening I couldn't fall asleep until they were safely home.  I adored my big brother and craved his attention.  I must have been about five when Jim once told me he was going out and would be back in an hour to play with me.  I sat on a kitchen chair and stared at the clock on the wall for a solid hour, watching the minutes tick by, waiting.  As much as I loved my parents, I perhaps loved my brother even more.  He was eleven years older than I, so he always seemed to me to belong to a different generation, not quite my parents' but not mine either.  His age, even when he was still a teenager, seemed to confer wisdom and worldliness,
so when he teased me I took his attentions as compliments.  The day his draft card arrived in the mail—this was in those long-ago days of a military draft—I was sure it meant he was about to go off to war and be killed , and I was too frightened to mention it to anyone.  Later, when we were both older, he became my confidant, the person I'd turn to first if I had a
problem.  By the time I found myself pregnant with David, I had a long history of looking to my brother as a kind of hero, as someone who would help me without judging.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

I'm baaaaack.

A lot has happened to me since I last posted on this blog, but I have not been idle.  In fact, I have been writing about the dramatic turn in my life that occurred on January 26, 2012, and the events that followed.  I want to share my story because for 46 years I have needed to tell it and because I hope it will shed light on a very serious subject: adoption.

“Secrecy is the wellspring of fear.”  Laurie White

“...the present rearranges the past.  We never tell the story whole because a life isn't a story; it's a whole Milky Way of events and we are forever picking out constellations from it to fit who and where we are.”  Rebecca Solnit, quoted in Harper's Magazine Feb, 2014

When I was in graduate school in the 1980s, studying for an MFA in creative writing,  I wrote a story with the line, "It's possible to live with half your heart and no one will ever know."    For years I had  lived with a hidden vein of grief and loss and at that point had told only one other person about the most important event in my emotional history.   The first person I told about losing my son was Cherry, another young mother whom  I had  met at a neighborhood park near our homes in Guelph, Ontario.  Her daughter was about the same age as my adopted son Dabbs, and as young mothers will do, we began chatting.  Cherry asked me about my baby, and when I told her about having adopted him from Vietnam, she wanted to know more.  We began getting together a couple of times a week for tea, either at her house or at mine.  One afternoon we were   at my house, and she began nursing her baby.  I was so envious, because I had tried and failed to breastfeed my older son, and I shared my disappointment.  

Intimate details of one's life are the currency of female friendship, and Cherry and I were on our way to becoming best friends.  Both our husbands taught at Guelph University, we both loved to read, and she introduced me to Canadian fiction, which became a life-long interest.  She told me about her struggles with mental illness and the four years she had spent in a psychiatric hospital as a teenager.  That she was now a trained nurse, married with a child, seemed nothing short of miraculous.  She seemed, in fact, incredibly grounded and was a wonderful mother.
I thought if anyone would understand my story she would, so I told her about giving up my infant son for adoption six years earlier.  I felt as if I had handed her a chunk of my heart, and  for   a moment my burden seemed just a bit lighter.


When I retired from teaching to care for my youngest grandson, I left a fulfilling career at a university I had come to love.  I was finally in a happy marriage, my third, and after many years of struggle, it seemed like smooth sailing ahead, but something was missing, something that had been missing for virtually my entire adult life.   I've thought of my life as a series of chapters, and I felt there was another chapter waiting.  I just didn't know what it would be.