“Of all the jazz joints in all the towns in all the world, he walks into mine.”*
This post may be surprising to my regular readers since I usually tell my story and my views on adoption in more general terms. But the reason I haven’t been writing as much of late is because I have been brokenhearted. Something happened to me this past summer which was a trigger for memories of an event that happened 30 plus years ago, and the best way to describe myself these days is as a ‘discombobulated emotional mess.’ I alluded to some of these issues in my last post where I wrote about how adoption made me averse to risk and fearful of rejection.
Well, this post describes a love story that happened in my early twenties and how I can now see how very much adoption impacted it. Adoption and its effects seem to have been in the driver’s seat without my even being aware of it.
What were the chances that K and I would ever even meet? We had been born as far apart from one another as two people could be and still be in the continental United States. And then there was the even more remote chance of meeting when I was only on vacation (or, so I thought) to visit a good friend who lived in the same city. My friend and I went out one evening to a jazz club, and there you were. You saw me sitting with my friends and came over to ask me to dance. You dominated my attention that night until we invited you and your friends to pull up some chairs and join us. We listened to the music, drank our wine and talked, and you asked for my number. Then, surprisingly, you called me before lunch the next day to ask for a date. You must have been smitten since I told you I was only there for a few weeks on vacation. I remember that I had been staying with my friend for such a short time (less than 48 hours) that I didn’t even know where the phone was when you called (this was in the days of corded landlines, people 🙂 ). But call you did, and repeatedly, while my friend was also on a campaign to get me to move there.
Once I decided to stay and got settled in my own place, you drove across one of the country’s most well-known bridges on a regular basis to see me. Of course, I could be cynical and ask, “What healthy young man wouldn’t drive 15 miles across a bridge to be with a pretty young thing (moi) when he knew what was likely to happen at the end of the trip?” Ho ho ho. But I know our relationship meant more than that. And I’m sure you do, too. What we had was real. It was movies and making dinner at home. It was going out with friends and it was lying in bed looking at pictures from my family vacation in New England. It was drinking wine and dancing. It was reality–it wasn’t only hopes and dreams. I have a nearly eidetic memory of what happened between us, as experiences that are the most significant in our lives impress themselves on our memories and often don’t fade.
But I couldn’t let you into my heart. I had too much fear of rejection and too much pain to risk being so vulnerable. You had the uncanny ability to read me like a book and could often see right through me. And I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, let anyone get too close. I could not let anyone into that painful place, so only a few people, and not even you, could ever really know me. It was hard, sometimes nearly impossible, for me to trust. But my reserve would never be enough for you. I could never get away with not sharing my real self with you. But my heart wasn’t open. My heart wasn’t free. My heart was closely guarded. I couldn’t let you in. I couldn’t allow myself to be vulnerable to rejection again. And now I can see how badly I shortchanged myself and that you underestimated me.
Being with you would have meant being far away from my family. The family that I felt such a fragile connection to I was afraid it might rip entirely if I didn’t maintain it in person. This, I might add, was not something I was consciously aware of, but I do see it now. And I can see how I learned in my adoptive family that it was my responsibility to do the work to keep relationships afloat. Our different backgrounds gave me concern, thoroughly unfounded, that you wouldn’t have fit in, which might have been cause for a further rift with my family. As I wrote before, the insecure attachment to my family made me afraid to take chances, and that looking back there were many opportunities that crossed my path which I didn’t take solely out of fear. So it was I who left. At that time, you weren’t going anywhere. This wasn’t the only time I had done something like that, but with the clarity of hindsight, it’s turned out to be one of the times with the most difficult and long-lasting consequences.
I sometimes have a devious thought, “What would have happened if I’d ever thrown caution to the wind and had ‘accidentally’ become pregnant?” What were the chances you would have married me?…60/40, 70/30? By now, of course, all of this is only speculation. I know you would have wanted to become a father intentionally, as I would have wanted our child to be planned as well. And I also know that the mid-1980’s time period being well after Roe v. Wade had become the law of the land would have meant that I most likely would have had an abortion. It horrifies me now to think about what a casual attitude I had about that option back then. But giving up a child up for adoption would never have been possible for me and, unfortunately, I knew I couldn’t have counted on my adoptive family for the help I would have needed.
It’s hard to understand how adoption had such a strong effect on me when my family did not speak about adoption. I remember discovering an article** from the 1960s giving advice to adoptive parents which instructed them to tell the child of his adoptee status one time somewhere between the ages of three and four, and that would be it. Apparently, my adoptive parents thought that was good advice. The thinking seemed to be: “The adoptive parents love the child as much as any natural parents would and s/he is fully a member of this new family now. So, what is there to discuss?” Adoptive parents were at least advised to tell the child, which I guess is an improvement over earlier thinking since it was finally considered wrong to hold back this piece of information, despite its seeming insignificance. But some of what adoption counselor and theoretician Nancy Verrier has written comes to mind. When she discussed the various ideas on when and how to tell a child that he or she is adopted in her 1991 address to the American Adoption Congress International Convention***, she reminded us, “The problem with all of this rhetoric is that everyone is forgetting something: the adoptee was there. The fact that the experience was preverbal does not diminish its impact, it only makes it more difficult to treat.” She further stated, “For these babies and their mothers relinquishment and adoption are not concepts, they are experiences from which neither fully recovers.”
Psychological theory says that a person’s childhood strongly influences what kind of relationships he or she forms as an adult. Despite all the pain adoption has caused, one thing I have often noticed when reading adoptee blogs and adoptee comments is how many of us, and first mothers, too, are in great marriages and romantic relationships with supportive partners. Adoption can be such an isolating experience. We know what we feel and how it has affected us, yet everyone else tells us we should think differently. So it’s wonderful to see that the harmful effects from being given up for adoption seem to have worked in reverse from many other types of childhood trauma and dysfunction. As research scientist Emma Seppala, Ph.D. wrote, “Vulnerability … does not mean the act of being weak or submissive. To the contrary, it implies the courage to be yourself. It involves uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. And that is why it might seem scary.” I only wish I had been able to let myself be vulnerable, opened my heart, and allowed K to give that kind of support to me.
So, what is the takeaway?
Grieve! Grieve your losses. Let yourself feel the pain of the loss of your parent(s) or child. Mourn their loss. Don’t bottle up your feelings and deny them. And don’t underestimate the effect adoption has had on you. I hope you won’t be like the male adoptee in the Indiana adoptee rights video who decided to never have children solely because he was adopted– a story that brought me to tears to because it felt like he was punishing himself for being adopted. Because I know this: If you don’t work through your pain, you may find yourself like I have with a grief so strong it could no longer be contained until it burst forth like Niagara Falls. And that’s an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
I loved you, K. Still do; although I don’t know if I ever told you. You know that I wish you nothing but happiness and a great life, which I think you’ve found. I only wish you could have found that happiness with me. It may sound as if I am rewriting history, but I know my heart. Only you can speak for your heart. As I sit at my desk working, the tears will come unbidden. I’m aware of them when I notice the splotches on the papers in front of me and on my shirt. So many decades have gone by, so much life has been lived, and there is so much that can never be recouped.
And if I never did tell you I loved you, know it now.
*Poetic license taken of Rick Blaine speaking to Sam the piano player about his ex, Ilsa, in the movie Casablanca.
** Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to relocate that source.
***Verrier, Nancy. The Primal Wound: Legacy of the Adopted Child. Originally presented at the American Adoption Congress International Convention, April 11-14, 1991, Garden Grove, California