A Bit About Me
I was born in Canada, adopted by American parents, and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. It was there that I spent the first sixteen years of my life and had many of the foundational experiences that drive my writing. I now live in Sacramento and began working on a memoir in Spring 2016 when my daughter urged me to document my extraordinary and arduous past. (My memoir is still-in-progress.)
Family is one of the most important things in my life. I have strong relationships with my daughter, son, and grandson in addition to the daughter I was reunited with eighteen years after giving her up for adoption. I am also close to my brother and 94-year-old mother, who live nearby and have helped to fill in many of the blanks of my past. After being reunited with my biological family, I began traveling to Canada. I also make frequent visits to Anchorage, the land of my youth.
My writing focuses on identity, rebellion, self-doubt, and—most importantly—personal growth and overcoming difficult circumstances.
Thanks so much for taking this journey with me.
October 31, 2018
I know my birth father never held me before I was given up for adoption because he didn’t come to the hospital the day I was born, but I don’t know if my birth mother ever had the opportunity. I never got to ask her because she died when I was seven years old, long before I learned her identity. I’ve consulted psychics to find out. One said yes but the other said no—she wasn’t prepared to give me up and stood staring out an old hospital room window that day. The nuns and her mother made her do it.
At one point, years ago, I even tried age regression hypnosis. In my session, the hypnotist took me back to my birth. I felt her reach for me, but the hospital staff wouldn’t let her hold me. I was consumed with the most profound grief after that experience, the depths of which I knew must be real.
All the people who could have answered my questions are gone now. I was 23 years old when I found my birth family, and I met my granny only twice. She seemed sweet, but she was also quiet and stoic, and I felt she was holding back. I was so anxious to be accepted that I was afraid to ask too many questions. I didn’t want her to think I was rude, regret my return, and not want to be my granny anymore. She told me that I had lots of dark hair when I was born. This surprised me because I was completely bald and looked like a boy when I was adopted at 3½ months old.
I wish I had asked if she was in the room when I was born or if she had seen my dark hair through the nursery glass. I also wanted to know if my mother had hidden away when she was pregnant with me. Why didn’t she keep me? Did she even want to? Did she love me? But I feared that prying would bring up old wounds; after all, my granny had lost her only daughter to a brain aneurysm when she was just 30 years old. I would have done anything to feel a sense of belonging when I met Granny, even if it meant not fulfilling my deepest wish, which was to learn about my mother. That was 38 years ago, and I still regret not having enough courage to ask more questions.
A few weeks ago, my birth father passed away. It was unexpected, and I was on a plane to Canada within 11 hours of hearing he had been taken off the ventilator. It took two days to get there with delayed flights and lost bags. I was afraid I’d miss the chance to be with him. He was supposed to pass within three hours but lived an additional three-and-a-half days after my arrival. That was just like him. He didn’t want to put anyone out, was always taking care of everyone, and didn’t want to leave his wife. Who would tie her shoes and bring her food at the Senior Center? He was a good and honest man, a father I would have loved to grow up with.
When I had asked him about my birth years earlier, he didn’t offer many details other than that he wasn’t there. I wish I had tried to have the conversation a second time. I wanted to know why he didn’t come to see me at the hospital when Granny called him. All he’d ever said was that she wanted him to pay the hospital bill but didn’t want him to have anything to do with me.
I also wonder if Granny didn’t mention that I was being given up for adoption. Maybe my birth father thought he would have a chance to meet me some other day. But that still doesn’t explain why he didn’t want to see me right away when I was born. Wasn’t he curious? Didn’t he think I was worth paying the medical bill for? Had I possessed more courage, I would have asked those questions in hope of receiving a more detailed answer.
I will never understand his actions at the time of my birth, but I do know that he acted differently later on. Because he knew how important it was to me, he went through the red tape of providing my birth mother’s death certificate and giving his permission as my father to release my previously sealed adoption records. He also obtained my original birth certificate, which contained my real name, Gloria Debra Reed, and my birth mother’s real signature, Ida Celina Reed. It was he who told me that I was conceived on Halloween.
It was in 1980 when he stepped off the plane in Sacramento to meet me for the first time. His wife and I didn’t tell him that a camera crew was waiting for him at the airport to interview us for a series on adoption. She told him the secret just as he was standing up to depart the plane. He was already nervous even before that. He wasn’t like me; he was shy, soft-spoken, and humble.
He looked like Elvis in his younger years. Women swooned when they saw him. Some asked to take his picture, which always embarrassed him. Even in his 80s, he still looked youthful and was active. He was always busy fixing things and making sure everyone was taken care of. My siblings were lucky to have him for their father.
While I was with family during my birth father’s final days, I heard many wonderful stories about him—stories about events I hadn’t experienced. Sitting at his bedside with my siblings, holding his hand, praying and crying during those days, I realized that they were crying for all the memories they had with him. I was crying for the ones I’d missed.
I had a lot of time to reflect in that hospital room, and for the first time, I let myself indulge in “what if?” What if my father had gone to the hospital? What if his interest had made my mother want to keep me? What if she had brought me home and I had been her daughter for seven years? Would I have been a different woman, felt less insecure, made better choices? Would I have gone to live with my father after she passed away? Like my siblings, would I have gotten to experience having a dad who taught me to drive and fish? Would we have attended hockey games together and spent weekends at the cabin? Would my father have been a friend to my friends? Bought me my first home? I don’t know. I do know that I didn’t have any of that with Daddy, my adopted father.
At the funeral home, while we were making arrangements for the cremation, gathering death certificates, and collecting other documents, the director asked if my birth father had a will. He did. It had been made nine months earlier, when his dementia worsened and he needed surgery for a pacemaker. I don’t know why, but I asked to see it as it was being passed around. I didn’t expect to receive anything; it wasn’t about that. I just wanted to see his name, touch the last tangible thing belonging to my father. When I glanced at the first paragraph, it listed his name and the full names of all his children. But mine was missing. I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut and quickly handed the will back, pretending not to notice. I sat through the rest of the meeting in a daze. I wasn’t listed as his child in this final document. It crushed me.
All I have of him—besides my straight hair, thin legs, and youthful skin—are some photos, a few videos, the patient wristband he wore in his final days, and the blue file that his wife gave me the day I flew home.“Here, this is yours,” she said as she pushed it toward me. This felt so final, like I was being dismissed, handed the last of my belongings. To soften it, she said, “ I’ve been getting rid of things.” I nodded and flipped through it without seeing the contents. Trying to hide my shock, I said, “Oh, thank you.” In my hand I held the remnants of our life together. On the outside of the folder, he had written in black felt pen, “Monica’s Files.” Inside was a list of all my old addresses and phone numbers, along with my children’s names and birthdates. There were copies of the adoption papers he had obtained for me and all the letters I had sent him over the years, including one where I thanked him for the money I had used to buy a TV when I was a single mother. He even kept copies of the American funds money orders he sent for holidays and my children’s birthdays.
While spending those last days in the hospital with my birth father, I sought out the area where the old nursery wing had been. I wanted to experience the space where I had last been with my mother, hoping to feel some closeness to her. I also wanted to see what my birth father hadn’t. The old hospital had been expanded and modernized, so I didn’t know if the wing would still be there—or, if it were, whether it would be recognizable as a nursery ward. When I crossed the bridge connecting the buildings, I was surprised to find it abandoned and dim though mostly unchanged, illuminated by only a few fluorescent lights at the far end of the hall.
I was hoping to see the window my mother had looked from that day. I wondered what she saw and what she had been thinking. I also wondered if she had wanted my father to be there. I tried the doors to what had been the patient rooms, but they were locked. The nursery wing looked to have been turned into an office. The large baby-viewing window, with its 50s-style wire meshed glass, had since been frosted and was no longer see-through. A single nursery sign still hung above a door where I may have once slept: Nursery 37.
As I looked down the empty hall, I imagined the day my mother left me there, her soft footsteps on the speckled mosaic floor as she passed, blue eyes avoiding the patient rooms with their bright windows and new mothers feeding bundles of joy while the fathers sat at the bedside to admire their new families. I pictured busy nurses rushing by, ogling visitors who stood at the nursery glass, a kaleidoscope of life moving all around my mother, people unaware of her sacrifice as she made her way to the elevator and her life without me. It was both the furthest I’ve ever been from her and the closest I have ever felt to her.
My father and I came full circle at the hospital that week. Even though he wasn’t there at the beginning of my life, I was there at the end of his. It felt complete somehow. I am grateful for those sleep-deprived days because I was able to make peace with my mother, too. I learned that grief is a shapeshifter. It changes based on the circumstances, but never really goes away.
September 21, 2018
When I hung up the phone after my 40-minute radio interview with Valerie Okunami, host of KCOR’s Bizi Yogi show (listen here), I had a sinking feeling. I had talked about my shame on the air. I knew what I’d be discussing when I agreed to be a guest—the day’s topic was healing from toxic shame. So why did I feel bad? Had I confessed too much? What would people think of me? Then it hit me. I was ashamed, the very feeling that had been at the heart of the interview.
A week later, I listened to a recording of the show. To my surprise, I didn’t cringe at all. I’ve listened twice now and felt the same way both times. I shouldn’t have doubted myself—before the interview, I had set the intention to leave my ego behind and speak words that would be of the highest good for all who listened. I planned nothing and went with the flow while talking to the show host, and it worked.
I’m not sure if my interview inspired others, but it certainly inspired me. While listening to my own voice, I was reminded of the many gifts that arose from my most painful “failures.” An old friend once told me that he records himself speaking inspirationally. He said that listening to his own voice is powerfully uplifting I didn’t believe him then, but I do now.
I spoke about my shame and guilt when I was on the radio, but I didn’t talk about the underlying disenfranchised grief. Dr. Ken Doka defines it as “grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.” Disenfranchised grief can be caused by anything—abortion, death from AIDS, death from suicide, death of the partner in an extra-marital affair, loss of one’s home, loss of a pet, grief that other people think has gone on for “too long,” having a child in prison…
My grief began at birth when I was given up for adoption. In my interview, I touched on the shame I felt from being abused as a child, being sexually assaulted, being adopted, and giving up my own baby for adoption. All of these experiences caused disenfranchised grief and, subsequently, feelings of deep shame and unworthiness that took decades to access and heal.
When I hung up the phone after my interview, I sat silently for a moment and looked onto my deck. I noticed the soft melody of the chime, the bluebirds hopping on and off the feeder, and the shadows cast by the beams of morning sunlight. Just outside my window was a metaphor for my life: shadows amidst melody and light. In that moment, I let go of feeling bad about my shame, my disenfranchised grief. It’s part of who I am. Like the shadows on my deck, it will continue to ebb and flow, and that’s okay.
June 24, 2018
Forty-five years ago today, I gave birth to the first person in the whole wide world who I knew to be a flesh-and-blood part of me. (I was adopted, so this was a huge deal.) Like today, it was a Sunday. The labor was long, and I was exhausted but elated to know that I would soon get to hold my baby, examine her to see if she looked like me, and love on the human I had been growing and praying for throughout my whole pregnancy. It was the happiest I’d been in my fifteen years of life.
But the day after her birth, I awoke with the crushing weight of dread pushing down on my chest. I didn’t know what it was right away because I was barely awake. When I opened my eyes and saw the sterile white of the hospital room, I remembered: I’m going to have to give my baby away. It never occurred to me that anything else was possible; everyone assumed that I would give my baby up. I accepted it as inevitable. After all, that’s what my birth mother had done.
I had been adopted when I was a baby, and my earliest memories are of my origin story. Mama used to tell me bedtime stories, and my favorite was of how she and Daddy flew far away to get me. Mama would say, “You’re special because we got to pick you out for our very own, and your mother loved you so much that she wanted you to have a mama and a daddy.”
As a child, I often wondered about the woman who gave me up. But I didn’t miss her or long for her because I already had a mom. My birth mother was simply the woman who loved me enough to give me two parents.
As I got older, I noticed that my friends resembled their parents and siblings, and I began to wonder who I looked like. When I hit adolescence, the feeling that I didn’t fit in intensified and I began acting out. For years, I thought my fighting, vandalism, and delinquency were a result of my sick and abusive father, but my eyes widened as I read about the research that had been conducted on adopted people.
I read in Adoption and Loss by Evelyn Burns Robinson that bonding begins in the womb and that during the period immediately following birth, newborn babies recognize their mothers through their smell, heartbeat, voice, and eye contact. When this doesn’t happen, the baby can feel “hopeless, helpless, empty, and alone.”
I also read that many adopted people “demonstrated a high incidence of juvenile delinquency and…consistently showed symptoms which were impulsive, provocative, and aggressive.”
Check, check, check.
Intellectually, I knew that I was special because Mama had told me so, but I’d never felt it. Instead, I felt a deep sense of unworthiness. How could I have value if I was discarded at birth?
When my daughter and I reunited eighteen years after I gave her up, I learned that she, too, had suffered from similar feelings and symptoms. She told me that she had been depressed on her birthdays for as long as she could remember. After celebrating with family and presents and cake, she would sit by the window waiting for me to come for her.
When I Facetimed her this morning to wish her a happy 45th birthday, I asked if she was sad. She said she was okay now but had woken up crying. I didn’t mention it, but I, too, am sad and have been crying on and off all day.
I said, “I wish I could just stop over to see you.” Unfortunately, she lives in the Midwest and I live in California. We are fifteen years apart in age, yet I relate to her more than I relate to anyone else on the planet. We are almost like one person. We look and think alike, and we have the same furniture, clothes, glasses, and hairstyle. We even bleach our brown hair blonde.
I hate how adoption makes me feel—the sadness I experience when I scroll through my social media feed and see my birth sister and other family members together at events I am missing from. I also hate how much I miss being with my daughter—going shopping, cooking together, decorating. And I miss watching my granddaughters grow up, attending their recitals, and just being their grandmother.
I read, “It is unnatural for members of the human species to grow up separated from their natural clan.”
Today is a sad day.
June 20, 2018
Not long ago, I wrote a piece for Women Writers, Woman’s Books, an online literary magazine. This request coincided with the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the emerging #metoo movement. It was perfect timing because I had recently finished writing the rape chapter in my memoir (still in progress). I have included an excerpt and a link to read the full essay.
Once I began writing, I couldn’t stop. It was as if my wounded teenage self—who yearned for healing—guided my fingers like a magical puppeteer. I began writing the hardest material first: the rape I experienced as a 15-year-old virgin. Then I tackled the knifepoint abduction that occurred a month after the sexual assault.
Examined Every Detail
Completing the rape chapter took a whole winter and multiple revisions. I examined every buried detail from that night: my rapist’s smell and threats, the way the room looked, the physical pain, his shaming comments when he felt he’d been cheated because I didn’t bleed. It also took a long time for me to realize that I had been raped—my definition of “rape” had always involved being jumped and beaten by a stranger in a dark alley, but I had known my 19-year-old abuser.
It Wasn’t my Fault
My shift in perception—realizing that I’d been raped and it wasn’t my fault—didn’t begin until my 92-year-old mother helped me relive the experience. It was as if she was leading a blind person through a minefield. Once the details were on the page, I realized I wouldn’t hesitate to call it rape if the scenario involved my own daughter. In fact, I would have delighted in stringing the perpetrator up by his balls and beating the crap out of him. For over forty years, I had recalled the abuse with my naïve 15-year-old memories of guilt and shame. It took my mother’s guidance, much reflection, and many revisions to stop blaming myself.
I Blamed the Victim
After reading about the recent scandal involving Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, I was amazed (almost vindicated) that one of his accusers internalized her experience in the same way that I had. Lucia Evans told The New Yorker, “I just put it in a part of my brain and closed the door. It was always my fault for not stopping him. I had an eating problem for years. I was disgusted with myself. It’s funny, all these unrelated things I did to hurt myself because of this one thing.” Like Evans, I blamed myself, the victim, instead of blaming the perpetrator—probably like millions of women all over the world who have been assaulted. Evans opened her door by coming forward. I opened mine by writing.
As do many sexual abuse victims, I silently blamed myself for my rape. I now realize that the subconscious guilt and shame I felt colored many of my life choices and decisions. I wonder what the years may have looked like had my rape not occurred. Would I have picked different partners? Would I be in a long-term loving relationship today? I’ll never know.
June 19, 2018
Article & Essay
“Narcissistic Underbelly“ (25-minute read) first appeared in the August 17, 2017 edition of the Anchorage Press.The essay appears beneath an article about my experiences. This is part of my memoir-in-progress.
To read the full essay click HERE and scroll down the page past the article.
The man who gave us a ride home from the party never revealed his name. He seemed polite but I was distracted by his bulging yellow eyeballs, fluorescent against his black skin. They looked like they would pop out of their sockets with a sneeze. I had never seen the whites of eyes that were yellow, the color of dark urine.
I assumed Rick knew the man and figured he was a friend or relative of one of the school’s basketball players. He was in his thirties, at least 6’ 4”, and huge—not fat, but strong, like a body builder. His extremely short hair stuck to his head, the opposite of the round Afros that were in style. There were no other options for a ride and we thought he was a friend of Rick’s, so we felt reasonably comfortable going with this creepy-looking man.
As we left the party, clumps of damp, fluffy flakes fell from the sky and blankets of pristine snow covered sidewalks and cars. I selected my steps carefully, planting my feet inside the impressions left by the man’s large shoes. My unease grew with every step into his massive footprints, but the certainty that my parents would restrict my freedoms when they learned that I’d lied again was more concerning than getting into the car with this yellow-eyed man. As we approached the car, I shivered and pulled my unbuttoned coat tighter around me.
The yellow Chevy with the black top was well kept and fairly new. It was parked up a slight hill, along with other partygoers’ cars. The man opened the front passenger side door for me and I slid across the black bench seat; Debbie soon joined me on the cold Naugahyde. He cleaned snow off the windows before getting behind the wheel.
I sat in the middle, squished between him and Debbie. I was uncomfortable with his body pressed so close to mine. The heat from his leg seeped through my wool slacks, and his breath stunk like an empty stomach. I was way too close to this man.
As we pulled onto the street, the car wouldn’t make it up the small incline because the tires spun in the snow. He got out and said, “Hold on, I’ll be right back.” I watched in the rearview mirror as he pushed the car. His large, wide nostrils flared and his yellow eyes popped as he strained, making him look like an enraged bull charging a matador. I shivered and thought that he must be strong to push the car up the incline, especially with us in it. Just then he looked through the back window and into the mirror. He knew I had been watching him. I quickly looked away.
It was a short, awkward ride to Debbie’s house. The man was silent as we gave him directions, only acknowledging them with a nod. Debbie couldn’t say anything as she exited the car, but her eyes sent a clear message: “Are you going to be okay?”
Mine said, “I think so.”
June 15, 2018
This May I was a guest on “Alaska Public Radio”, an affiliate of National Public Radio (NPR). They connected me live from the NPR Studio in Sacramento where I told my story of being an adoptee who also gave up a baby up for adoption. (Listen below.)
The Weight of Grief
My baby was born in 1973, the year Roe v. Wade made abortion legal, but that was never an option in my Catholic family. No one ever asked me if I wanted to keep my baby, and because I was fifteen, it was assumed that I would give it up for adoption.
I got to hold my daughter just a few times during the three days I was in the hospital. They let me because I, too, was adopted and my baby was the only blood relative I had ever known. As we drove away from the hospital, I looked over my shoulder as a life with my daughter melted from view. I couldn’t breathe; the weight of my grief was crushing. Out of desperation, I turned my eyes back to the road and said to myself, “I just won’t think about it right now, I just won’t think about it right now, I just won’t think about it right now.”
Those eight words became my mantra.
Click here to listen to my 8-minute interview
Click here, for the hour-long show, Talk of Alaska, Host Anne Hillman speaks with birth moms and adoptive moms about their experiences with adoption, how adoption has changed over time, and misconceptions about the process.
Mother’s Day weekend
If you read my journal entry on November 25, 2017 titled, “Unfinished Business,” then you might remember the life-changing experience I had when visiting the adoption agency in Anchorage last summer, 26 years after giving my baby up in a closed adoption.
As a result of that visit, I participated in, Passage Writes: Alaska Birth-Moms’ Stories, a project devoted to enabling birth-moms (women who made adoption plans for their children) to tell their stories in their own words. The organizer had read my blog and invited me to help facilitate the workshop, which took place on Mother’s Day weekend. There were six birth mothers in attendance, all with different situations and who had relinquished their babies at different times. To be in a room sharing stories with other birth mothers felt like a reunion with survivors of the Titanic.
“My participation in the workshop led to my appearance on Talk of Alaska.“
April 11, 2018
Change sometimes happens when I’m not paying attention. For example: What triggered the writing slump I’ve been in for the last few months? When, exactly, did my shins turn to lizard skin? And when was I appointed as the matriarch of my family to host all the holidays and events?
I delight in entertaining my loved ones, and my 33-year-old daughter, Becca, always attends. She is a bright, creative soul with an altruistic nature. She also has a healthy self-esteem, which I lacked as a young woman. Her friends refer to her as “The Golden Child.” And, truth be told, this nickname isn’t entirely off base. I indulged her a bit when I was a guilty single mother.
I think it goes back to one of my favorite childhood movies, Swiss Family Robinson. The film is about a family that, after being shipwrecked on a desert island, works together to build the coolest elaborate tree house. I suspect my fascination with this movie was rooted in its fairytale family environment, which was one of total security and trust. I wanted to be part of a family like that—and I so deeply wanted that type of environment for my own daughter.
Throughout my childhood, I had longed for Daddy to build me my very own fort or playhouse. He wasn’t that kind of dad, but I decided to be that kind of mom. For Becca’s third birthday, she became the mildly impressed recipient of an adorable cottage-style, Pepto-Bismol-pink playhouse. I also painted the trim, shutters, and Dutch door white as an accent, and I made the sweetest white eyelet curtains for the windows. (A seamstress I am not—but I tried.) When Becca was little, I wanted more than anything for her to have the kind of family life I lacked growing up and hadn’t provided for Mary Claire, the daughter I gave up for adoption when I was 15 years old. Becca was my second chance, and in my mind, I had failed her by being a single parent.
Becca’s friends call me “Momnica.” It’s probably because I have an open door where they can dump their troubles and get unsolicited advice. With all the crap I’ve gotten myself into over the years, I can match just about anything they’re going through with a similar experience. In my twenties, my life decisions were a field of domino rows in a windstorm. One problem caused another, which caused yet another, and I was always picking up the pieces. I like to think that my destiny was to transcend my trauma so I could be the sounding board and mentor I never had. The more love I give, the greater my capacity grows to give more.
Getting out of my own head and working with others has helped me so much during these last two years of writing. I feel that I have finally emerged from a swamp. I didn’t realize it, but I had been in a funk. It crept up on me—a lot like my lizard legs did. (I’ve since started exfoliating and moisturizing.) “Depressed” is not a label one would use to describe me, but it might look that way. I gained a shit-ton of weight while I was working on my memoir (half of which I have now taken off), and the once-outgoing Monica turned inward like a roly-poly bug that curls into a ball when poked. Introspection was never really my deal, and neither was writing. I have always been a talker and a doer, not a thinker. But I have had to turn inward in the process of writing my memoir, and it’s dark in there.
In the days following the recent Easter holiday, I have turned inward in a not-so-dark way to reflect on the occasional friction that I have had with my “Golden Child.” I also remembered the confusion I felt when I found out that I was pregnant with her. I was 26 and, as they say, I was not wrapped too tightly. I had been clean and sober for about 60 days and had known her father for a whole six weeks. In my naivety, I assumed that sobriety would be a magic wand. I thought life would be perfect since I wasn’t drinking and hanging around with lowlifes. I would have a white picket fence with my handsome prince, and we would ride off into the sunset with our sweet baby angel.
That’s not what happened.
I held a shotgun wedding and married Becca’s father, Kenny, in 1984 when I was six months pregnant. We drove to Reno, home of the quickie wedding chapel. As we parked in front of a tacky storefront chapel, I saw our blurred reflection in the filmy window and thought, “I gotta get him in there before he changes his mind.” A little gold bell rang as we entered.
We were a pair of plastic wedding cake figurines, Big-as-a-House Barbie and her handsome Ken perched beneath a rickety arbor, draped with a dusty vine of white plastic roses. My keen pregnant nostrils didn’t miss much. All this elegance was punctuated by the faint scent of stale beer wafting from the red carpet. I stood alongside Kenny, my hand in his, with a smile plastered on my face in an effort to trick myself into believing this wedding was the joyous event I had dreamed of. It had seemed like just yesterday when I said goodbye to Mary Claire at the hospital, and this was my do-over. I felt the vibration of Kenny’s toe tapping through his clammy palm. I knew he loved me, but he was clearly terrified by the responsibility the day represented.
While a rotund man in a preacher getup read the vows, I realized the stale beer smell might be coming from under his ’stache. Each of his embellished words further emphasized that this was a cheap and tacky union to a man who didn’t want to be there. The only thing I truly heard was Kenny’s “I do.” I was a girl with unrealistic dreams, trying to make right her sins from 12 years ago.
I internalized a huge sigh of relief when Kenny squished the 10-karat gold band onto my fat finger. I had purchased it at a discount store the day before with the last few dollars in my bank account. I remember how disappointed I was that I couldn’t afford the 14-karat band and how humiliated I felt looking into the glass case as I tried to hide my girth, hoping the other couple looking at rings didn’t notice that I was buying my own.
A few years later, after the divorce, I had a jeweler cut a slit in the band and pull it apart to set a mate-less ruby earring inside. It’s not a great ring. It looks pieced together to me, but even so, Becca has worn it on and off over the years. I guess it symbolizes what she, too, always longed for—the security of a complete family with a daddy and a mommy. Daddy moved out for the final time when she was only one year old.
Thirty-two years after Kenny left, I am still trying to create that rich sense of family for my daughter—most recently, I did this by hosting an Easter celebration. I had been asking for a few weeks if Becca and her two-year-old son, Miles, would be coming over on Easter Sunday, and if so, when. They were recovering from a virus, as were my mother and brother, and I hadn’t heard whether any of them were planning to celebrate the holiday. Easter was on pause. There were no baskets with chocolate bunnies; no plastic eggs filled with lotto tickets, cash, and candy for the adults; no food and goodies for Miles.
Then, on Saturday night at 10:00 p.m., Becca told me she would be coming over at noon the next day. I was literally the last person out of the grocery store at 11:00 p.m. as I frantically loaded up on supplies for the family celebration. The manager had the look of a lost child longing for home as she followed me around while I threw the last few items into my cart. She eagerly locked the door behind me, and I had to make a second trip in the morning.
I was relieved when my mother picked up the phone at 9:00 a.m. and also agreed to come to my house for the Easter celebration. Unfortunately, my exceedingly brilliant and handsome son—who lives two hours away—couldn’t make it.
When Becca and Miles arrived, she was tired and hungry. She felt crappy because her allergies were bothering her. She also had PMS and very little patience. (Her visits always seem to coincide with her time of the month.) She wanted to know why the food wasn’t ready right away at noon. When Miles could search for eggs. Why they had to wait for me before they did so. Never mind that she and Miles are the only vegetarians in the family and, because she is the “Golden Child,” I made her and Miles a special pasta salad. All of this while preparing the rest of the food, arranging appetizers in spring splendor on my pink and green depression glass, and setting out a vase of bright yellow tulips (my favorite flower).
I had bought plastic eggs for my grandson that were patterned like an assortment of baseballs, basketballs, and soccer balls. Early on Easter morning, I hid them with delight for his first formal egg hunt—all in plain sight inside of plant-less, dirt-filled flower pots, atop blooming pink azalea bushes, and nestled inside the crags on the trunk of my huge sycamore tree.
While preparing the meal, I quickly stuffed the “adult” eggs with cash and lotto tickets. Some I hid so well that they will likely become gifts for the gardener. I did this while cognizant that Becca would arrive early and be outside with Miles, scoping out the hiding places. And indeed, while Miles ran around the backyard, Becca asked. “Did you get a chance to hide our eggs?” I knew she would start her hunt early if I told the truth. “No, I’m sorry honey. I didn’t have enough time to do that, too. It was all I could do to get the food prepared.” I had just finished with my lie when she bent over and brushed some leaves out the of the hose basket to discover a pink plastic egg. Guess who got most of the cash and lotto tickets.
At day’s end, after everyone had gone home, I was cleaning the dishes and putting things back in their places. It was around 6:00 p.m., the time when the setting sun cuts above the fence and my patio. I turned in its direction as it shined warm, golden light, which was filtered through my patterned curtain sheers. It created a soft glow that illuminated my living room. I stopped what I was doing to breathe in the light and take in the melody from my porch fountain, which sounds like rain falling on a pond. That moment brought forward remnants of conversation and laughter from a few hours before, and I realized that I felt wonderful. It wasn’t the kind of wonderful I feel when I get a new pair of shoes, lose weight, receive praise, or win an argument. It wasn’t a worldly feeling—it was different than that. There was no pitter-patter of my heart, and there was no sense of the peace and gratitude I feel when praying or meditating. It was a completely new feeling.
It dawned on me that I was experiencing joy.
I once read that most people spend their lives regretting the past and fearing the future; therefore, they are unable to experience joy in the present. I suffer when I live in my head, like I did when I was newly pregnant with Becca—I created my own suffering by reliving the humiliation I felt when I was a child who was pregnant with a child. And how isolated and alone I felt keeping the secret of my virgin rape. On the rare occasion that I was seen in public during my first pregnancy, I shrank from each look of shock, pity, and disgust because they reaffirmed what I knew people thought of me…and what I thought of myself. My belly was proof of my low self worth and poor choices. This was a humiliation that I couldn’t repeat. When I was pregnant with Becca 12 years later, my mind vacillated between two opposites: (1) my vision of walking hand in hand with my handsome husband and protector, Kenny, as our daughter’s laughter filled me with absolution for my past and (2) my fear that this secure, happy family wouldn’t become reality.
I can see now that my long-time fear of life and circumstances has really been a fear of my emotions. It’s not the facts themselves that I have feared but my feelings about them. While writing my memoir during these past two years, I have dug out and swept away many of the painful remnants by naming, feeling, and releasing my emotions.
My compulsion to purge and write my wrongs had lessened. I have cleared away much of the shame and guilt in my subconscious that used to filter out the light of my joy—joy which, I realized, has been there all along, patiently waiting to reveal itself. Perhaps this is my destiny. Whether it is or isn’t, I am committed to writing and I’m eager to find the gifts that it will bring to me, still waiting to be uncovered—like pink plastic Easter eggs—whether I’m ready or not.
February 16, 2018
When I met a former English professor in Seattle last summer, she said to me, “Why are you writing your memoir? What has caused you to take this journey?” I didn’t have an immediate answer. Initially, I’d started writing to share my story of being adopted, meeting my biological family decades later, giving up my own child for adoption when I was 15 years old, and then being reunited with her 18 years later. When I was confronted by the professor’s question, I realized my motivation for writing had changed, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly how. I just knew that my reasons were deeper than a desire to tell my life story. I suspected it had something to do with my pain.
When I was in my early 20s, I found comfort in Johnnie Walker Black and cocaine. I told myself that I was just partying, but I was really numbing my pain. I couldn’t stop thinking about my little girl, but I never cried for her—I drank and used drugs instead. I wondered, What does Mary Monica look like? Does she have straight brown hair, and will she be short like me? Mary Monica will be starting third grade this week. Mary Monica is eight years old today. Mary Monica will blow out candles at her birthday party this afternoon. I wish I could watch her open her presents. I also wondered what would happen if she died. I was her mother, but I would never know.
I named her after myself—my full name is Mary Monica Hall. I thought it might help when she began searching for me. She was sure to receive non-identifying information containing her original name, just like the information that appeared on my own adoption order. I thought she might wonder if I’d given her my name so she could find me more easily.
She was always so close, but also just out of my reach. For almost two decades, I counted the years, months, and days till I could find her. When people asked how many children I had, she was always included in my answer. As her 18th birthday approached, I began sharing my excitement with those around me. It was then that I started getting pushback from some of my friends. “What if she doesn’t want to meet you? Maybe you should wait and see if she wants to find you first.” I was angry that they weren’t more supportive. I responded indignantly and even considered purging the doubters from my Christmas card list. “No! I know she’s just like me,” I’d say. “She’ll want to find me just as much as I want to meet her. There’s not a doubt in my mind.”
I had been sober for seven years in early 1991, and my daughter would turn 18 in six months. Waiting another half a year to begin my search felt like an eternity and I couldn’t wait, so I called the adoption agency from my office cubicle. My arm shook and my heart was pounding as I brought the phone to my ear. What if they turned me down or blocked my search? I took a deep breath and explained that I wanted to get in touch with the daughter I’d given up for adoption 17½ years earlier. I was told to wait the six months and write a letter, which they would forward to her parents. If the parents approved, the agency would facilitate a reunification. What I heard was that it was all up to her parents. They might let me meet their daughter, but only if they were open to a reunification and liked what I wrote.
While I was pregnant, the nun who organized the adoption, Sister Mary Clare, told me I could write my baby a letter that her parents would keep for her, but I never did. I knew it would mean the world to her, just as it would have for me if my birthmother had written me a letter, but what could I say? I love you and I’m sorry, but I can’t keep you because I’m only 15? Everything I thought to write sounded trite and shallow. I felt powerless. My mother even gave me an example written on notebook paper to get me started, but it, too, sounded empty. In fact, I still have it, along with the pretty pink floral stationery she bought for me to write on. I kept it in the box of keepsakes from Mary Monica’s birth, right next to the pen with which I signed the adoption papers. Sadly, I never wrote that letter. It is a regret I carry to this day.
I resigned myself to waiting another six months. Then, about four weeks later, I was at work when my phone rang. It was the adoption agency. This surprised me because I hadn’t expected a call back. I was just planning to wait for six months until I had to agonize over writing yet another letter. The woman said, “I’m sorry. We’ve been so busy that we haven’t had time to get back to you, but we have a picture here.”
I was confused. “A picture of who?” I asked.
“Of a young girl…your daughter.”
When she spoke those six words, the dam broke. I lost it.
The woman told me that she would mail the photo right away. She also explained that within a few weeks of my call, my daughter and her mother had contacted the agency to start the reunification process. My daughter later told me that she wanted to get an early start in case I was hard to find and locating me took longer than six months. Just as I expected, she couldn’t wait either. (My daughter’s need for instant gratification doesn’t fall far from the tree.) For her 18th birthday, her parents sent her out to meet me. I cannot describe the joy I felt at hearing that news. I was finally going to meet my daughter.
When the adoption agency called to tell me about the photo, I was blindsided and speechless for the first time in my life. Between the sobs and snot bubbles, I managed to get out a barely audible “thank you.” Beneath the sheet of tears, I couldn’t even see the phone to hang it up. My coworkers rushed to my cubicle wondering what was wrong and who had died.
For 18 years, I hadn’t been able to cry for my daughter. The pain was too great. I had shut it off so that I could survive. When my mom and I drove away from the hospital, after we’d said goodbye to my daughter for the last time, I looked over my shoulder at the grey-and-ocean-blue walls of Providence Hospital. I had never felt such tremendous pain and grief. Eighteen years was an eternity, and the void in my chest was more than I could bear. Out of desperation, I began repeating to myself what would become my mantra: “I just won’t think about it right now, I just won’t think about it right now, I just won’t think about it right now.”
Before the birth, I told Sister Mary Clare that my baby was going to be the only person in the whole wide world who was a part of me. Just as a sunflower reaches for the sun, I needed to see her. Sister Mary Clare kindly made arrangements for me to spend time with my baby even though other birth mothers weren’t allowed that luxury. Of course, her middle toes were long, just like mine. I fought back tears and tried to be brave during those three days that I got to hold her, count her toes, smell the innocence in her warm tiny neck, and stroke her velvety soft cheeks with the back of my finger. She cooed and smiled at me. She knew I was her mother.
On the day I expected my daughter’s picture to arrive, I rushed home from work during my lunch break. I pulled the envelope from the mailbox and settled into a chair on my sunlit porch among the baskets of pink begonias and rose bushes. My heart was pounding. I felt queasy and held my breath. I paused in reverence as I held the envelope in my trembling hand, absorbing the warm spring air and the sweet fragrance of blooming roses. I carefully took the photo from the envelope and gazed at my daughter’s full-grown face for the first time. She sat leaning to one side, posing in a professional full-length photograph taken to commemorate her high school graduation. It was the weirdest feeling. I felt like I was looking at someone familiar—someone I knew. I felt like I was looking at myself. I was flooded with relief and elation to finally see her face and was awed at how much she looked like me. It was surreal. I raced inside to call my mom and share my excitement.
After waiting for what felt like a lifetime, I finally met my daughter in person a few months later. She was close to my spitting image, same height, potty-mouth, crooked teeth and all. Like me, she grew up in a very conservative Catholic family—and like me, she is anything but conservative. Her mother once told me that she’d always thought nurture triumphed over nature—that people’s development is determined 80% by their environment and 20% by genetics. That was before all three of her adopted daughters were reunited with their birth moms. Now, she’s convinced it’s the other way around.
Initially, I thought my memoir was about my adoption stories, reunifications, and crazy years growing up in Alaska. But after writing for more than a year, I realized that I might be writing to find myself and heal my pain. If I were to write it all down and dissect every little piece of my seemingly screwed-up life, maybe I would understand why. Why what? Why all this crazy shit happened? What it all meant?
While writing my memoir, I tried to remind myself of the things I have heard over the years, like “everything happens for a reason” and “there are no mistakes.” For decades, I have had the sense that the seemingly bad things in my life were preparing me for something. I just didn’t know what. When I began writing two years ago, the call to investigate my past bordered on obsession. Once I began scraping the bottom of my memories, I couldn’t stop. I kept with it even when I considered giving up writing altogether because I questioned my sanity at dredging up so many painful experiences. Through writing it all out and investigating the torrid details, which triggered depression and weight gain, I have arrived at a place where I can forgive my younger self. My guilt and shame has been replaced with compassion and gratitude.
My daughter’s parents named her Mary Claire after the nun who handled her adoption, so she shares my first name. She is now approaching 45. That tiny olive-toned baby girl has blossomed into a beautiful woman and a loving mother. She gratefully accepts the kindred relationship we have and the wisdom I am able to share. This brings my life full circle. Had I not gone through all that pain, I wouldn’t be able to experience the immense joy of knowing her and watching her life unfold. As a fifteen-year-old girl, I couldn’t have realized that my sacrifice and pain would lead to strength, character, and wisdom. I did the right thing. I gave my daughter a better life, just as my birth mother had done for me. Because of this, I know in my bones that the cliché is true—everything does happen for a reason.