Dear Ms. Feverfew,
So, what do you think of the working title for the memoir I am writing about the this whole adoption thing? I think it pretty much sums up my entire experience with adoption. I was pushed in to adoption and eventually pushed in to an adoption healing crisis by Penelope’s birth.
Anyhooooo, I am taking another memoir writing class and each week we have to submit 6-10 pages of new writing for critique. These are the pages I submitted for tonight’s class. They still need some work and I don’t know where it will fit within the overall structure of the memoir I have been working on, but here it is, anyway.
It is January 10, 2008 and my class just got out. I am walking home in the darkened winter night through the Logan City Cemetery, which is adjacent to the campus of Utah State University. A walk down the cemetery’s long, straight, ordered lanes is a convenient way for me to get home from the Eccles Education Building to my two-bedroom family student housing apartment that overlooks the football stadium. There is another path, one that goes just out side the cemetery, but when the gates to the cemetery are open, I always walk home through here.
I don’t know why I have always been so drawn to this place, but it has become a refuge during my long years of schooling. I did my undergraduate work here at Utah State University, then my Master’s. After a few years of marriage, I decided to go back and get my Ph.D. in Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences and Utah State University was the natural choice. It has the one of the best programs in my field, it is close to my family, and the university offered me the largest financial package.
I have walked this same road home during each of my degrees from this university. How long has it been now? Nine years? Ten? I have lost count at this point. Eventually I will finish, but not this semester. Not this year.
The cemetery is perched on a hill overlooking Cache Valley, snuggled up next to the land-grant university at the mouth of the canyon. Old-time locals tell me it was put it there because it would have been a waste of the fertile farmland to situate it on the broad valley floor below. I like that version of the story because it is practical, just like me. The towering pines and sycamores shelter the final resting places of saints and sinners alike. It is immaculately groomed in the warmer seasons, the lawns carefully clipped and edged around the old marble headstones. In the depth of winter, like it is tonight, the twelve inches of new snow is plowed and piled high on the corners where the long lanes meet.
I keep my chin tucked into the upturned collar of my NorthFace jacket, shouldering my heavy bag full of thick books against the evening winds blowing down the canyon. My breath rises in a halo of ghostly warmth against the crystalline winter night. It circles and disappears into the branches of the Blue Spruce, and gets trapped among the heavy scent of pine and deep winter.
It doesn’t bother me to walk through this cemetery at night. The practical side of me knows is the shortest way home. Plus, I have come to know its occupants over the past many years walking the shaded lanes. They are old friends of sorts. I have stood in front of their headstones and done the strange math that equals the sum of a person’s life. I have imagined lives full of family and laughter. I have imagined lives cut short by war or disease or accident. I have imagined friends, lovers, and family left behind. I have imagined friends, lovers and family waiting on the other side of eternity.
Well, most of the cemetery doesn’t bother me. However, there is a section I always avoid. It is the section where full sized graves are divided into smaller ones. Graves small enough to fit tiny caskets. In that section, grief is crammed shoulder-to-shoulder, head to toe with little room to breathe. Sorrow presses down, much heavier than the granite headstones that mark these graves.
The graves are decorated with elaborate displays of dreams not realized. A fluffy pink teddy bear on that one. A Mylar balloon floats above that one which reads, “Happy 1st Birthday.” A toy truck and a golf club lean on a basket of frozen poinsettias on that one. When I stop and look at the inscriptions on the headstones, it is difficult yet easy to do the math. One day. One week. One month. Not quite a year.
Eight months and 27 days.
There is no need to imagine in this section of the cemetery. I know what it is like for a mother to crawl on her hands and knees, gathering up the shards of her soul in an attempt to put a life back together after losing a child. I know what it is like to lay in bed at night, clutching an empty stomach criss-crossed by stretch marks that bear witness the she was once there. I know what it is like to plead with God to help me understand. I know what it is like to grow a child in my belly for nine months but not feel the weight of her warmth in my life.
I am familiar with the intimate dance done every year on a child’s birthday – a child who has been lost – the dance of avoiding calendars and clocks, a solitary dance as a mother just waits for it to be over. I know all too well the lies a mother is forced to tell when asked, “How many children do you have?” Does she tell them two because those are the children has with her now, or does she tell them three? If she tells them three, does she have to explain where the third one is? Should she explain what happened? And how does one explain what happened to my daughter and me?
Eight months and 27 days. That’s how long she was with me but she isn’t buried in the frozen ground of a dark cemetery. There is no grave for me to visit, no marker with her name etched on it with the words “Beloved Daughter” below.
There are no hot casseroles from caring friends or cards of sympathy on her birthday. There is precious little tolerance for my grief over the years as people have told me I should be grateful and told me what a hero I am and how they could never do that to one of their children and I should just move on. My precious daughter, my darling Boo, Claire Rosalie, the child that first unlocked my mother-heart is very much alive. She would have been15 years and seven months old that January night as I walked home.
At least I thought she might have been. I didn’t know for certain though because her adoptive parents and I had lost contact over the past years. I had sent letters only to be rewarded with empty mailboxes.
The last letter I sent them was in May 2006, just before I moved back to Utah to start my PhD but I had not heard back from them. I had always tried to keep in contact, just in case. During those first years after I relinquished my daughter for adoption, they sent a letter and a few pictures every year or so. I have those letters tucked away, a private talisman to remind me she exists. I keep them next to her original birth certificate, the one that has her original name on it. The one that lists me as her mother. She exists.
When she was about five-years old, those letters stopped and I had not heard from them since. I was not angry. Hurt, yes, deeply hurt, but not angry. Certainly they were busy with their own lives – I know I get busy in my life at times and forget to maintain relationships with those who are not right in front of me.
That night, I didn’t know if she was alive or not. This concern for her and my other children is something I carry with me daily. Perhaps it stems from the death of my older sister, Carolyn, who passed away in a car accident on I-15 in 1989. My mother didn’t know for hours and hours and hours afterwards, not until the Utah Highway Patrol officer knocked on her door one late summer evening and asked her, “Mrs. Bernhard, are you the mother of Carolyn June Bernhard?” I have witnessed her wrestle with the added grief of not knowing the moment her child had died and I am frequently worried I will have the same experience, too, that one of my children will die and I will not know for hours or days.
I often wonder if I would be told if Claire were to pass away. I hope so, but I know it is not always the case. If it did happen, I certainly would not be the first natural mother who was denied the privilege of knowing my child had passed on.
I have heard of other natural mothers who search for their child, only to find a grave with a headstone bearing a name they did not give them. I had long feared I would be one of those mothers, too. Because of this, I have always let her adoptive parents know my address and how to get in contact with me just in case…but still, I wonder.
That night in January, I had no way to ask that question and no way of getting a direct answer. The best I could do was occasionally search for her on the Internet and scour local papers for an announcement of her death. It all sounds so macabre looking back on it now, searching for my daughter’s obituary, but what else was a mother to do? As long as I did not find it, I knew she was alive.
I arrive home at about 7:00 p.m. I slip in to the quiet apartment and dump my backpack and coat by the front door. I need to go get my two boys from the babysitter but I also need a few minutes to sit with my thoughts in the silent room. Balancing opposing needs has become second nature to me as a doctoral candidate and a sort-of-single mother. I don’t call myself a single mom, even though I was living like one. And trust me, I know what being a single mother is all about.
My husband’s job keeps him chronically overseas and so I am the “Chief Parent in Charge,” as he likes to tease. About two years ago, in the spring of 2006, I had decided earning a Ph.D. would be a good way to spend my “free” time. After all, hadn’t I earned a Bachelors and a Masters degree as a truly single mom, unmarried and parenting my son Matthew on my own? After completing those first two degrees without a partner, I thought doing Ph.D. with a husband supporting me emotionally and financially would be easy. I am coming to the realization I was wrong.
I slip my boots off and sink into the chocolate-brown suede couch that is pushed up against the only long wall in small living room. The buttery suede is the same dark shade as my eyes. As Claire ’s. I pull a creamy knit blanket across my lap and reach over and turn on a lamp, its warm yellow light spills across the small living room. A painting hangs above the couch, framed in a pickled wood that probably came from reclaimed barn wood. It is a large oil painting of the Lehi Roller Mills in Lehi, Utah, painted by my mother-in-law. In the bottom right hand corner her name is written in strong, upright letters, “P. Jones 1982.” I was ten at the time she took up her brush and boldly signed this piece. I realize my husband would have been twenty-two.
This particular painting is coveted by all eight of my mother-in-law’s children. For many years, it resided at my sister-in-law Maryanne’s house. I fell in love with it and one night after a long Sunday dinner at Maryann’s, Jeff took it off her wall and took it home with us. Penny, my mother-in-law had been there that evening, too. She had heard me remarking of how much I loved the painting. She pulled Jeff aside and told him that as the oldest son, he was entitled to it, especially since MaryAnn had most of her other large paintings.
I imagine there may have been another reason why my Penny let me have the painting.
After my marriage to Jeff in 2002, she had welcomed me into her home, allowing me to live with her during the first year of our marriage. I know it wasn’t easy for her to accommodate a new daughter-in-law with her 6-year old son in tow, especially when Jeff left for a 6-month tour overseas. During those six months when he was gone, Penny and I would frequently take walks in the evenings. She would tell me of her 33-year marriage and why it came apart and I would tell her of my life before Jeff and I got married. We talked like old girlfriends catching up on years of being apart.
It was during these walks that I poured out my heart about Claire, my oldest child. She was one of the first people in my life who cried with me and for me and allowed me to grieve without telling me how I should feel or what I should do. She just listened. And in that listening she learned that my daughter grew up less than a half of a mile from the grain mill in the painting that now hung above my couch. Penny knew why that painting was important to me. Even without me saying it out loud, her mother’s heart knew it reminded me of my sweet baby girl.
Leaning back onto the overstuffed arm of the couch, I study the grain mill in the painting. It is a fairly prominent and historic landmark in the community in which my daughter grew up. It has even been featured in a movie, Footloose, rendering it recognizable to countless numbers of people around the world. There has been more than one visitor to my home who has remarked on it, recognizing it from their time in Utah County or from the movie.
Penny’s rendition of it was one of the finest I have seen, done in brush strokes echoing Van Gogh. A few years ago, the owners of the mill held a contest for the grain mill’s 100th anniversary. I had thought about entering it for her, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to share the painting with the world because it felt like I would be exposing too much of my soul. Perhaps this is why paintings of the masters end up in private collections, never shown to the public. I can imagine others getting attached to a painting because it reminds them of someone, much like I was attached to this one.
I inhaled and held my breath, staring up at the brush-strokes on the canvas. I know what I want to do but I also know what I need to do. I want to flip open my laptop, power it up, and search for my daughter. I haven’t done it in nearly a month and what if something had happened?
But I need to go get my two boys from my friend’s house who had watched them while I was in my evening class. I need to hug them close before they buckle into their car seats. I need to get my three and a half year old into the tub and let him steam his little cares away. I need to help my eleven-year old with his homework. Then I need to sit with them on the couch, their warm bodies pressed close to me on each side as I read The Silver Chair to them. As I think through the evening’s plans. I realize I need to be their mother as much as they need me to mother them.
Another long and difficult day at school, followed up by a full evening of mothering and studies, and no call from Jeff has left me antsy. I look at the date in the upper right corner of my laptop sitting on the couch next to me: 1/10/08. Five more months until her birthday. I grab it, put my feet up on the coffee table in front of me, nestle the warm computer onto my lap, and launch a new Internet browser. My wants from earlier in the evening come rushing back, this time in the form of a need.
I need to search for her, to make sure she is still alive. I hesitate, type her name in the search bar, and hit “enter.” In all the times I have searched for her, I have never found anything on a general Google search. It was the same tonight.
Nothing. No death notices. No obituaries.
My mind could rest easy for the next few months knowing she was still alive and hadn’t died in a car accident on I-15 like my older sister.