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 and perspectives.
My Daughter, The Stranger
By John Brooks
I caught myself grinding my teeth, thinking of my dad’s mantra, “Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” as Erika and I left Warsaw Chopin International Airport in our rented Toyota. This was supposed to be a family trip, a reunion of sorts we’d fantasized about for years. Now it was a journey in search of answers.
Our last trip to Poland was twenty-seven years earlier, three years after Erika and I were married. We wanted a family, and assembled all the accoutrements – good job, move to the suburbs, a pink and green baby’s room with a thrift shop crib.
Fertility treatment was unsuccessful. Domestic adoptions were fraught with risk and long waits. International adoptions were complicated. We were at our lowest point, facing the distinct possibility that we’d never have children, when things changed.
Erika was of Polish descent and had family there. An adoption network introduced us to an attorney in Warsaw named Renata. In a late-night phone call, Erika made our case. Initially hesitant, Renata then thought of an orphanage in the Masurian lakeside town of Mrągowo where she’d met an infant girl. She was available. Within a few months, intrusive questioning, mountains of paperwork, on-again off-again timetables and wads of cash, we had gone from possibly being childless to prospective parents.
After our initial contact with Renata, we received a FedX envelope with a photograph – a young woman with a caring face holding what looked like a Michelin Man stuffed into two pairs of woolen footie pajamas. She had a pouty look as if she’d been woken from a nap. Her head was squarish with very little hair, and she had a cute little turned up nose that was beet red. We were love-struck and obsessed over her, desperate to know everything we could.
There was little available. She was only three pounds at birth. Her twin sister was stillborn. Her birth mother, Katarina, had two other children and lived at home with her parents. That’s it. Nothing about her birth father, ancestry, psyche or physiology. She spent three months in the hospital and eleven months in the orphanage in Mrągowo, which meant that she didn’t have nearly enough human touch.
As her first birthday came and went, I stood in the doorway of our baby’s room with the thrift shop crib, imagining her alone in a room like a sterile hospital ward with rows of other cribs. She was a one year old at the developmental level of a six-month old. The pediatricians we consulted were mixed in their assessments – she could have just been under-stimulated, have cerebral palsy or something in between.
Erika’s immigrant parents were skeptical. “These children have many problems,” Erika’s mother warned us in her heavily accented English. They were just trying to be protective.
Despite those doubts, we couldn’t escape the image of her alone in a crib in a hospital-like ward. After months that felt like years, our paperwork was complete and we were on a LOT flight to Warsaw. Five weeks later we returned home, elated but exhausted, with the family we thought we’d never have. We named her Casey, Gaelic for “brave.”
Once we got her home, Casey astonished everyone. By age two she’d caught up to her peers. In middle school, she developed a gift for writing revealing an unusual depth of thought. At sixteen, she changed her hair color from blond to medium brown, cut in a Cleopatra shag around her almond shaped hazel eyes and dimpled cheeks. Her musical tastes ranged from rap, reggae and Radiohead to the Grateful Dead. She was deeply compassionate, unfailingly loyal and ruthlessly honest. We did high fives when Casey was accepted at Bennington College.
But she had another side – mood swings, rage spirals, crying jags. Teenagers are moody, but Casey’s episodes left us emotionally spent. Locked in her room behind a door she battered with fists and feet, she’d cry out. Sometimes a primal moan, others profanity-laced tirades: “You suck!” “I hate you!” “You’re ruining my life!” She rejected most of our efforts to talk about her adoption, comfort her or get her help, retreating instead behind her battered door.
I found myself fantasizing about Katarina. She had to be a beauty just by the looks of her biological daughter. Perhaps she’d worked at one of the Masurian lakeside resorts, naïve and taken advantage of. According to her sun sign – Cancer – she might’ve been spontaneous, a flirt. Those thoughts gnawed at me for years.
The catalyst that made our trip possible was an online connection I’d made with a woman named Jolanta. She was the director of the Mrągowo facility that had long ago been re-purposed as a home for the disabled. She told me that she’d worked there for many years and remembered Casey as an infant. That was stunning.
In my emails to her I initially withheld something about Casey that had to come out. Ten years earlier, she leapt from the Golden Gate Bridge and disappeared. Our life, hopes and dreams went up in a mushroom cloud. One night I had an argument with my daughter, the next morning I woke up to a suicide note. I wanted to go to sleep and never wake up.
Erika and I scoured for answers, talking to Casey’s friends, teachers and therapists for insights. I published a book about my search for answers to her suicide, revealing the effects of separation about which we’d been completely oblivious when Casey was alive.
Her trauma and deprivation in infancy had a profound effect on us, but didn’t diminish our need to find more about her early life. The orphanage was our only remaining connection. We knew that adoption records were tightly sealed to protect the birth mother, but we had to try, hoping that Jolanta might have any scrap since we knew so little. When I emailed her about Casey’s suicide, she didn’t respond, but she did confirm our date and time to meet.
After several hours on the road we pulled into the parking lot of a cluster of buildings. I remembered it as a boarding school of gray stucco with a red tile roof. There’d been a play structure and basketball hoop out front along with bikes and soccer balls. Now it had a bright new peach and cream paint scheme. The garden had been landscaped with flowerbeds and benches along a winding footpath. The play structure was gone.
We followed a sign marked “Biuro” – Office – where we met a young staffer and waited for Jolanta. I jangled the change in my pocket, trying to remain focused, sucking in a deep breath and letting it out gradually as Erika made small talk in Polish with the staffer.
After a minute Jolanta stepped out of her office. I was a bit surprised, expecting someone older. Instead she was youthful, with short-cropped brown hair, skinny jeans and stylish t-shirt. Her face was a composite of warmth and sadness, welcoming yet mournful. She and Erika lingered in a hug.
Jolanta took us on a short tour, proud to show off the extensive remodeling job she’d supervised. We followed her to a residence area where she motioned us to a small bedroom. This was the room that Casey slept in.
It was not the hospital ward I’d imagined, but tidy and cozy with a large window overlooking a courtyard. Two neatly made beds were separated by a nightstand. The opposite wall had a row of cabinets and flat screen TV. Erika and I stood in the middle of the room, imagining Casey with a couple of other babies in their cribs. My heaviness began to ease.
Jolanta led us back to her office where we sat at a small conference table, passing up her offer of tea and chocolates. Erika laid out photos of Casey and served as translator. My eyes darted between Erika and Jolanta chatting in Polish as I listened for familiar tones, words and inflections. I assumed Erika was painting a picture of Casey’s life.
Jolanta’s expression was solemn as she nodded with an occasional “Tak” – Yes – when she picked up her cellphone and showed us a photograph she’d downloaded from the Internet. I squinted as I recognized a young Jolanta holding an infant girl stuffed into two pairs of woolen footy pajamas. She was the young aide in the white lab coat with Casey in that first photo from 1991!
I fell back in my chair. Casey’s infancy was coming into focus – the young aide now sitting across from us, the cozy room she slept in. We fell silent.
“Did Casey ever want to come here, or did she ask about Poland or her mother?”
I shook my head. Erika explained in Polish. “We were always very open with her, but she avoided the subject.”
I pressed Erika to ask about Katarina. As if anticipating our question, Jolanta had the handwritten notes from Casey’s intake at the orphanage years before. Scanning them, she read something that floored us.
Katarina was described as an “invalid of the second group,” a term used to describe a serious disability. We thought of her as a simple country girl living with her parents. Instead, Katarina was probably incapable of attending school, holding a job, managing a household or taking care of children without the help of an aide, or in her case, her parents.
The reality that we’d shared with Casey crumbled to pieces. Jolanta and Erika chattered in Polish as I looked out a large window at the garden below. A young man made his way to the bench by the flowerbeds in a spasmic way, sitting down with his iPod, rocking back and forth awkwardly to his music. I imagined Katarina in an entirely different and unsettling way; there was more to her story.
Jolanta turned back to the photographs of Casey that Erika had laid out on the conference table. She picked up Casey’s senior portrait, lingering over the shot of her in the off the shoulder black dress that all the girls wore, the Cleopatra shag, the captivating smile framed by those dimples. Perhaps thinking about the frail infant she’d held for the camera and her disabled mother, she admitted to Erika that she never expected Casey to come so far.
“You clearly gave her a good life,” she said.
Erika sighed and I drew a deep breath and winced.
I had my doubts about what we’d find in Mrągowo, accustomed as I was to disappointment. Jolanta filled in more fragments of Casey’s life, but every new scrap prompted more questions. I could never know enough. What I did learn left me awestruck. As proud as I was for what Casey had made of her short life, she far exceeded the expectations of those who knew her before we did. That said something about her resilience (and bravery), to come so far with so many obstacles when she was her most vulnerable.
So now I obsess about Katarina and Casey’s siblings. They must think of her. Maybe we should’ve visited the Mrągowo town hall, hospital or police while we were there. Maybe they’re looking for us.
I hope some day we find each other, even if we don’t know what to say.
John Brooks was a successful financial executive specializing in media and communications until his daughter Casey leapt from the Golden Gate Bridge and disappeared early one blustery morning in January, 2008. Since then he’s devoted himself to suicide awareness and prevention advocacy as well as educating adoptive parents about the mental health issues faced by adopted children. His award-winning memoir, The Girl Behind the Door, about his search for answers to Casey’s suicide was published by Scribner in 2016. He maintains a blog, www.parentingandattachment.com.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter