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. 

The Sigh of a Mother Who Loves Her Daughter
By Megan Hugel

At fifteen, I take handfuls of extra strength painkillers searching for the strength to end the pain that felt unending. In the hospital, the doctors ask my panicked parents, “Is there a history of depression and mental illness in the family?” and my mother screams, “No, no, that isn’t us!”

“I’m adopted,” I tell the doctor, “and there’s history of depression and suicide in my biological family.” I know this because I have an open adoption and a relationship with my birth mom.

“Is there stress at home?” the doctors ask, and my parents remain silent. I fill in the blanks; divorce, cancer, I’m a teenager.

Nature versus nurture, they wonder. What can explain this? Who is to blame? Could we have prevented it if we only knew?

The doctors prescribe me antidepressants as we leave the hospital and the pharmacist asks if anyone else in my family has ever taken them. They ask if anyone in my family has ever had side effects to the medications. “I don’t know,” we say. “No one in our family has taken them.”

At twenty-eight, I have emergency gallbladder removal surgery. I have been living in pain for over a year. I have told my doctors over and over that it’s my gallbladder and I know, because my mom had hers removed, and we have the same symptoms, but they say I’m too young and it’s probably something else.

In the emergency room the doctor asks me if I have a history of gallbladder removal in my family.

“Yes!” I say, “My mom just hers removed last year!” and then, “Oh wait. I’m adopted.”

“No, that’s important,” he says. “You and your mom probably have similar diets and lifestyles. You’re at higher risk for gallstones if you have a family history, but also with a certain diet and lifestyle.”

“So it’s nurture?” I ask him.

“Sometimes it’s both,” he says and shrugs. “Today it doesn’t matter, you just need to get yours out.” And he sends in a nurse to prep me for surgery.

A year later, my birth mom calls. “I just had my gallbladder removed,” she says. “I wanted to make sure Megan knew what symptoms to look out for because they said it’s hereditary.” My mom and I laugh. “Welcome to the club!” we say, our abdominal scars laid out in matching constellations.

At thirty-two, I spend months ignoring chest pain and shortness of breath when one day I am walking across a parking lot and suddenly can’t breathe. A frenzied urgent care and emergency room trip later, and they find out I have dozens of Pulmonary Embolisms, blood clots filling up my lungs. I am immediately admitted to the critical care unit and spend a week fighting for my life.

It takes me six hours from arriving at the emergency room to get settled into my hospital room. I wait to call my mom until I have more information. I practice over and over what I will say so I can get through it calmly without crying. I am 32; I am an adult. I can call my mom and explain to her what’s going on.

I call her at 9:10pm and as soon she answers, I sob hysterically. “I’ll tell your dad so you don’t have to make two calls,” she says, calm and organized even in fear. “We’ll be there as soon as you want us to be. What can I bring? What do you need?”

During my stay in the hospital, the endless amounts of doctors and nurses treating me keep saying, “You’re too young for this to happen; you’re too young. This makes no sense.”

They ask me if I have a family history of blood clots, heart disease, anything. I say, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m adopted. Please just fix me.”

They ask me a thousand questions and perform a thousand tests. Pulmonary embolisms are often fatal, and they want to make sure they don’t come back. They search for answers, for understanding. They study my blood for my lineage. They dissect my movements for a cause.

They come up empty-handed. Nature or nurture, they ask. What can explain this? Who is to blame? Could we have prevented it if we only knew?

All the test results come back inconclusive. The blame for the pulmonary embolisms lands on happenstance, on bad luck.

I have been home from the hospital for a few weeks, and my mom is updating my birth mom.

She is summarizing the last couple weeks, the multiple hospitalizations, all the tests, how happy we were when I was released, how she’s taking care of me and in charge of all my meals, how anxious I am to get back to my life.

She asks my birth mom questions, trying to fill in the banks in my familial medical history. She takes furious notes wanting to make sure I have answers not only for myself but for my future children if I choose to go the biological route.

I hear her pause as my birth mom asks her a question.

I hear my mom sigh.
the sigh of a mother
who knows what could have been
who knows what is
full of worry and love
the sigh of a mother who loves her daughter

I hear my birth mom sigh.
the sigh of a mother
who knows what could have been
who knows what is
full of worry and love
the sigh of a mother who loves her daughter

My birth mom inhales a breath and my mom exhales it.
“Yes,” my mom says. “Our girl is going to be okay.”

Bio: Megan continues to fight a medical battle with the endurance of her birth mom, the organizational skills and optimism of her mom and the ability to find the good and the humor in all situations which is uniquely her own. She also uses these traits in her job as the Operations Manager for an elementary school. She finds motivation to keep going from her family, friends, girlfriend and students. Read Megan’s previous piece for Portrait of an Adoption six years ago: http://www.chicagonow.com/portrait-of-an-adoption/2014/11/there-those-are-my-parents/

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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