Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences.
By Lisa Coppola
I met my birthmother, Margaret, on her sixty-ninth birthday, November 24th 2012. I was thirty-one years old, two and a half years into recovery from drugs and alcohol. I asked my new — also sober — friend to tag along. On the crisp clear ride from Boston up to the Concord New Hampshire nursing home, I gave her the full backstory and talked through my hopes and fears.
I explained how apprehensive I was to meet Margaret in person. Symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia had kept her in treatment most of her adult life. Her mental illness did not cause my apprehension, however. Since I was five weeks old I had been raised in a loving but dysfunctional adoptive home with an abundance of mental illness.
My two adoptive (non-blood related) brothers suffered trauma before coming into our family at the older ages of three and seven. I spent many nights as a child kneeling at the top of the stairs outside my bedroom, listening to the fighting and the chaos and feeling incredibly responsible for others. My brothers had such obvious struggles in life and I felt their pain deeply.
Worrying consumed my late teens and twenties. Alcohol and cocaine fended off the constant feelings of doom at least temporarily. Clean and sober, I worried that taking the next step into Margaret’s life would bring me new overwhelming feelings of responsibility for her.
My desire to meet her eventually overpowered my fear. I fantasized, like most adoptees, of finding someone who really “got me”, who understood everything no one else ever could. When I was nineteen and first learned of Margaret’s condition, I held on to the idea that maybe she “was crazy like me.” My active imagination had always run wild, I remembered my dreams every morning in vivid detail and held onto my imaginary friends well into my early teens. “Maybe”, I thought, “Margaret was the same way.”
Margaret had started writing me letters ten years prior. Sometimes I would receive two or three a week. I kept them all packed together in special boxes in special drawers. They beckoned me like a cryptic and confusing map to the truth of my existence and roots. I could barely understand the writing, the tight letters clumped too close together formed by anxiously written scribbles.
During the isolated depth of my drinking years, I anxiously and compulsively tried to decipher the scribbles and then poured over the passages I could make out. Sometimes I highlighted people’s names, towns and addresses. I understood that she was trying to tell me where I came from.
Margaret’s spirit shone through the scribbles; she was sweet and childlike, imaginative and very loving. She so badly wanted connection. She was also heartbroken for many reasons and relied upon her Catholic faith for comfort.
Most of her letters included a paragraph describing the day of my birth; how I smiled at her and held her finger, and then the wrenching moment six days later when “the nurses had to take you away.” I wondered, with the occasional letters I wrote back, could she even begin to understand who I am now, or would I forever be that newborn to her?
Years into our communications Margaret told me something awful. She had been raped in 1980, and this was how I had been conceived. I had been told this vaguely in a clinical report by her caseworker in the days when I first requested contact, and I had been strongly encouraged not to bring it up.
Eventually Margaret told me; one day she and her friend were picked up while walking alongside the psychiatric hospital. Two men lured them to an apartment on the hospital grounds. One of them drunkenly smashed a bottle on the back of Margaret’s head and raped her.
Knowing that I exist because a woman was raped confuses me, enrages me and deep inside, although I know better, I continue to struggle with feeling ashamed of my very existence.
Part of me needs to know; who were these men? Did they work at the hospital? In later years, I discovered her family had been kept in the dark about her pregnancy. No one in her family had been alerted to her pain or trauma. Margaret wrote her her family about “An operation.”
Why was I kept a secret? I also had been given up to the state, not a planned private adoption agency like most newborns. A healthy newborn through a state agency is a rare thing.
I told Margaret’s nursing home I would visit around noon on her birthday. The nurses sounded ecstatic for her. They knew her and her story well. They knew she hung pictures up of me around her room and how she would go to sleep every night with a doll she named after me.
We entered the building that day and my legs grew heavy in the elevator. The unsteadiness grew as I walked down the bright white hallway and made my way past many identical sanatorium rooms. Finally I reached hers.
I had to emotionally distance myself from what was about to happen or my anxiety would rise up like a heart attack. I told myself; I was doing this for Margaret, a very nice women who gave birth to me 30 years ago. My brain’s old tricks came in handy; this idea of helping rather than experiencing, I thought this could protect me; leave me less vulnerable.
We reached her small, white room. When I entered, I saw Margaret sitting upright in bed with two men standing by her side. They moved to the end of her bed and let me approach her. Her face was distant. I got close, and it felt strange. She had light skin and light blue eyes like me, but her reddish hair was lighter than my brown. She looked frail and was shaking from Parkinson’s disease.
She stared at me with intensity, reached out with her small hands and touched my face. We hugged until I pulled back. I studied her face and I could see the general shape of it was like mine, high cheekbones, and medium sized nose. I focused on these similarities but I could not grasp the truth of who she was to me. Despite my own numbness, I knew she grasped it.
Her face remained flat, a few tears rolled down her cheeks. She spoke so softly that I could barely hear her. She told me she loved me. She told me about the day I was born; how I held her finger and smiled at her.
Her twin brother Mike and her long-term boyfriend Patrick stood at the edge of her bed. In a thick Bronx accent, Patrick explained Margaret to us. He told us, “Margie is like nature, truly her inner self” — meaning, he explained; she was as authentic as a person could possibly be. Thoughts flowed out of her like water, I recognized this well from her letters.
At one point, the only time we were alone in the hallway, her eyes drifted off, and she told me in scattered sentences about the rape. She told me I was “the best thing that came from the worst thing.” I felt like I was on a journey with her, within her. She only communicated in sporadic sentences sometimes intermixed with song. Feelings would arise and she would tear up or repeat her words. She sang a song she wrote about God and a river and also sang me a familiar sounding lullaby, which I later found out was a song my adoptive mother sang to me as well.
We spent three hours with her, eating pizza and cake, and then she needed her rest. Before we left we all surrounded her in her bed and tucked her in. As I walked down the hallway in departure, I could hear her softly singing, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
As I stepped into the now dusky gray night, I felt confident in what we had done that day. I knew it was going to be difficult; the best things are. Something had been healed despite the bleak white-walled surroundings. I now belonged, it was as though I had found the proof that I actually really existed in the world. I had met the witness of my birth. The experience was heavy, sad, jumbled and yet -perfect.
I believe it was perfect because after years of contemplation and investigation, I mostly let go of expectations for the experience. Mostly, that is. How can an adoptee really ever totally let go of the fantasy or the fears? I glimpsed the different worlds we had both been living in for the past thirty years. While I had been out in the world, learning, growing and making decisions, she had been on heavy psychiatric medications, struggling to keep some sense of independence.
Margaret passed away a few months after we met from complications of influenza and Parkinson’s disease on February 6th 2013, the 32nd anniversary of my “Coming Home Day”, the day I was adopted. I’d like to think she was ready to go, that some wound had also healed in her that day during our visit and she was able to let go and fade into her faith.
Although so many more tough questions remain for me, about her life, her pain and the system that may have kept me a secret, I feel so grateful I was able to meet her this one time and feel the genuine and loving person she was. Finally I was able to see how, in the best parts of myself I am like Margaret. At long last, I belong.
Lisa Coppola is a Mental Health Clinician specializing in Addictions work and Adoptee issues, living in the Boston area with her husband, three cats and puppy.
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