Category Archives: Adoption

Baby Bodhas

The first Japanese temple I visited was a block from my hotel and was called Zojoji.  I didn’t have a sense at the time whether this was a “typical” temple or not.

As I wrote in a previous post, there are thousands of shrines, large and small, everywhere in Japan.  Zojoji, in retrospect, was an “average” sized temple, with a dozen buildings scattered over what seemed to be a couple acres, and Tokyo Tower looming in the background.

I just learned on Wikipedia—after making my annual very modest donation to support them—that Zojoji is the “head temple of the Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism in the Kanto Region.”  That’s kind of like saying I am “the greatest travel and prison blogger who lives on the east side of St. Paul.”  I would see a lot of descriptors like this in the weeks to come.

But it was still pretty cool, it being my first.

Most of Zojoji’s current buildings are recent reconstructions except for the main entrance gate, the Sangedatsumon, which has survived many fires, earthquakes and wars and dates from 1622.

1622!  Here’s the gate:

As I also wrote previously, I was in Japan in the off season.  This was thanks to school holidays not having yet commenced and to it being the rainy season.  The downside, of course: rain.  The upside: hardly any tourists.

It had just rained and the buildings were closed, so it was just me and a handful of other people in the complex.  Normally I would be snapping away with my phone, but I was phoneless for now.  I had wondered: would I be able to enjoy this atmospheric moment without capturing it?  (I took these photos later, once I’d got a new charger).

I was pleased to note I felt at peace.

I came across these “baby bodhisattvas”—hundreds of foot-tall stone statues of bodhisattvas.  I’ve found various definitions of bodhisattva online.  The most generic is something like: one who is on the path to nirvana and has compassion for all beings.  Kind of an apprentice Buddha.

I felt a physical urge to reach for my phone to take photos, then relaxed when I remembered my dead phone was back in my room.

This was the explanation of the bodhisattvas:

These are “care guardian deities of children.”  They are dedicated for the safety growth of children and grandchildren, as well as for the memorial service for still birth or miscarried children.  To protect and keep warm their heads, “red hat” “red apron” and “windmill”, were dedicated to the guardian deity of children image.  Please refrain from touching.

I felt a pang of sadness, knowing some of these must represent babies that died. I have four friends or relations whose babies died, and it’s got to be one of life’s worst experiences. I “lost” a baby through adoption, so I like to think I have strong empathy for how it would feel.

Just then a powerful gong sounded nearby and reverberated for 20 seconds before sounding again. It made me jump internally then a calm descended over me.

This was happening just the way it was meant to.  If my phone had still been functional, I might have been hunched on my hotel room bed scrolling though social media to learn that my second cousin’s oldest kid had just graduated from college in Nebraska, or how a guy I met in grad school 17 years ago will look when he’s 100, thanks to a hot new “aging” app.

I gave thanks for my phone being dead—at least for now.

Walking toward the sound I found a monk—yes, with a shaved head and long flowing robe—using a long, thick rope to propel an enormous weight forward into a bell the size of a Volkswagon Beetle.

Why he was doing this—was it a call to prayer?  The “closing” bell? Was he ushering in nightfall?  It didn’t matter.

I crossed back over the road and wondered about this little gem tucked in between hideous concrete high-rises.

I stopped at Family Mart, a ubiquitous convenience store, for some cheap eats before crashing for 10 hours—my first of 26 nights in Japan.

Despite

Life has been throwing a lot my way lately, or at least throwing a lot at people I love.  I debated whether to write about it, then remembered that the tagline of this blog is “Living well despite what life throws at you.”

It’s one thing to live large when everything is going well, it’s quite another to keep embracing life when things are not so great.

My life is fine, aside from the new upstairs neighbor, who I suspect of making wine late at night (stomp, stomp, stomp!). I have spoken to him and it is better, but I have to wear ear plugs a couple nights a week.  I worry that the people who are renting my condo while I’m in the UK/Europe/Ethiopia this summer will be bothered.

Work has been a pressure cooker; this week I submitted almost $5 million worth of funding applications for projects in Iraq and Ethiopia.  The teams were dispersed around the globe, from Kurdistan to The Gambia, which has only 14% Internet penetration. I do get a buzz out of pulling everything together to meet deadlines, and then I collapse in exhaustion.

On to the people I love: Vince broke up with his girlfriend, and for some reason it hit me hard.  I was so happy that Vince had, for a while, a fun relationship that didn’t involve drugs or alcohol.  But I realized my reaction was partly about me.  A few weeks after I turned 40, my serious boyfriend dumped me.  I wondered if that was it—I would never meet anyone again.  After all, I was 40!  Vince will be 39 this year.  I have no idea if he feels like it’s over—I hope not—but I did.

The thing that’s really thrown me is hearing from Son #2 after a four-year silence.

I wrote a series of seven posts about Vince’s brother, who I gave up for adoption. I’ve never written about how I found him after many attempts and despite Catholic Charities’ best efforts to thwart us both.

I hesitated to write about this, but then—catatonic on the couch after all my proposals were done—I caught an episode of Call the Midwife that had an adoption storyline and I was reminded that the silence and shame that surrounds adoption has got to be broken.

Vince and I met him once, over 15 years ago.  We met at a restaurant; I can’t remember exactly when or where because it was so surreal.

His name was the same as one of my brothers, but I will call him by the name I gave him, Isaac.  He looked a lot like Vince but with different coloring.  I asked if I could give him a hug and he said, “Of course!” and hugged me for a long time.  Several hours of talking passed like seconds.  We hugged goodbye and pledged to stay in touch.

It didn’t’ happen.  Isaac’s adoptive mother was opposed to him meeting me, and he was already going behind her back.  But he and Vince continued to meet up and developed a bond; Vince wrote about it here.  It wasn’t a happy ending, but there’s hope now that Vince is in recovery.

Isaac sent me an email out of the blue about five years ago, with photos of his wife and kids.  My grandchildren, who I’ve never met.  His wife has the same name as my mother.

He said he would like for me to meet them, but then he disappeared again.  I didn’t pursue it him because I didn’t want to be disappointed again.

Isaac wrote to me again last month.

His wife has Multiple Sclerosis.  Severe, aggressive MS that affects her vision, speech, and mobility. He and I have been writing for about a month now, and I am hopeful we can stay in touch this time, but it’s stirring up a lot of regret, resentment, love, and hope.

Why the Jews were Expelled from Spain

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Lynn and I were ensconced in the back of the Mercedes, well supplied with bottled water and potato chips in case the car broke down in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Our destination: the “white vilalges” Pampaniera and Capilera on the other side of the Sierra Nevada from Granada.

white-villages

We took two-lane roads through the mountains, winding around hairpin curves.  If you were prone to motion sickness, you would definitely want to take a Dramamine for this ride.

Lynn and I chatted with each other and I asked Juan questions now and then.  This was the area where Spain’s bottled water came from, he said, which made sense since it was mountains.  He was from a town we would pass through, Bubion, population 300.  His family still lived there.  We stopped for a shepherd with a flock of goats crossing the road.  That answered my question about what people did for a living here.  They kept goats and sheep and bees, but they mostly depended on tourism.

After a couple hours, Juan asked which village we wanted to stop in first. I don’t remember which one it was because they looked the same: tiny, white-washed towns of a couple dozen buildings clustered around a bend in the road.

“How much time do you want here?” he asked.  Ummm…we didn’t know, never having been “here” before, but we thought an hour would be enough.

Juan hung out with some friends while Lynn and I wandered around.  Now remember, it was the off season.  We appeared to be the only tourists, and a lot of businesses were shut, the owners probably off to Florida for the season.

Two shops were open.  They featured the local craft specialty—thick, heavy, woven rugs that you would pay 10€ to buy and 100€ to get home.  There was also much unremarkable pottery and fashionable women’s clothing made in China.  It was one of those places where you feel like you should buy something to support the local economy, but I couldn’t muster enough interest to pick anything out.  I think Lynn bought a pottery bowl.

We walked up the road to get a view of the mountains—which were spectacular—and found a B&B that served coffee.  We sat in the garden and drank coffee; not a bad way to kill a morning.

sierra-madre

After an hour we ambled down the hill, found Juan, and proceeded to the next village, which looked exactly like the first.  I probably sound like I’m complaining but I’m not, they were lovely and picturesque but they did look the same and I knew a limited number of Spanish superlatives so I didn’t know what I would tell Juan about this one when we reconnoitered.

white-village-2 white-village pampaniera balconies

We stepped into a tiny empty church and a man followed our every move.  “There’s a 2€ admission!” he informed us.  We paid it and beat it out of there.

It was nearly 2pm so there was a restaurant open for lunch.  We climbed to the roof top patio and the waitress was clearly not happy to have customers.  The menu was limited to combinations of ham, eggs, and bacon.  I ordered “potatoes with bacon” sans bacon, Lynn ordered ham and eggs, and we both got a beer.  When the food arrived a half hour later, my potatoes were heaped with bacon—sarcastic bacon?—and Lynn’s plate had a pile of ham topped with a raw egg.

I gave Lynn my bacon and she fed it to a cat that was slinking nearby.  The waitress, forced to emerge from the interior by the arrival of more tourists, glared at us.

“I have a theory,” Lynn said, “that the Jews were expelled from Spain because they didn’t consume enough pork products.”  There was much laughter, which the waitress appeared to take as a personal affront.

Within a minute we were surrounded by a dozen cats who consumed all the bacon, raw-egg saturated ham, and the dry white bread in our bread basket.

Beer and potatoes in the sun made for lovely naps as we were driven back to the Alhambra Palace for our last night there.

From AA to LA

This is the eighth and final post in a series that begins here.

Vince went to live with my mother, and I attended outpatient chemical dependency treatment.  If you are in the “helping professions”—social work, psychotherapy—or if you even just have common sense and empathy, you won’t be surprised to learn that I wasn’t an alcoholic.

The expectation had been that I would go through pregnancy, birth, and adoption without any support, then go on as though nothing had happened.  People seemed surprised that I was sad and angry.  They were uncomfortable when I talked about it.

“You signed the papers; it’s over—why keep bringing it up?  Just don’t think about it.”

Alcohol is a time-honored stress reliever in such dissonant situations.

Sobriety—and a break from being a full-time mother and student—helped clear my head and face my emotions.  I spent the month working the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and reading piles of self help books, and doing all the other things people do to get back on track.

After a month Vince came home.  What–you were expecting some big drama?  Sorry.  In Minnesota we don’t like drama.  In fact we are all about avoidance of discomfort, or as I call it, “reality.”

I didn’t drink for a couple years.  I went to AA, where the members often listened to my story skeptically and said, “I don’t think you’re an alcoholic.”  I should have been referred to Alanon, which is for family members and friends of alcoholics.  People impacted by alcoholic behavior act just as crazy as their alcoholics, but there’s no rehab for them.  In fact I can recall my mother complaining that my dad got to go to “that country club”—Hazelden, a rehab center nestled on a lake with a pool, wooded walking trails, and tennis courts—while she stayed home with the four kids, the house, and the bills.

I got a job, moved out of the hi-rise, and started paying back my student loans.  Vince began school and, while his grades were never great, he was popular with teachers and students.   I made sure he brushed his teeth and washed behind his ears.  I took him to baseball practice, religious school, and family functions.  We watched Dr. Who together and went on little road trips to Lake Superior to hunt agates.  You know, normal life.

Every spring I would find myself feeling blue and wonder what was wrong with me.  Then it would hit me: Ah ha!  Isaac’s birthday is coming up.  On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, I would tear up when they read the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.  Every couple of years I would send a letter to be placed in his file, knowing it would probably never be read.  When my mother talked about how many grandchildren she had, didn’t count Isaac.  Intellectually, I knew this was the whole point—that it remain forever a secret—but to me he was always out there, somewhere.

When Vince was 10, I got entangled with an abusive guy and we ended up losing our home.  Three times in one year, we had to move and Vince had to change schools.  I chose this time to tell him about Isaac.  I thought it would comfort him to know he had a brother out there somewhere, assuming he was alive.  Clearly I am not a psychotherapist, or I would have known this would backfire.  Vince was devastated—it was a loss on top of losses.

He met his brother, eventually, and some day one or both of us will write about that.

Did these events have a permanent effect on Vince?  They deeply affected me, so why not him, since he was so much younger and couldn’t understand what was happening?  If they did affect him, it’s his job now to delve into them and resolve whatever leftover effects may be holding him back, which is what he seems to be doing in AA.

Thanks for reading this series.  Several people have commented offline that it’s been emotional to read.  I’m ready for a happier subject for the next post: my plans for a road trip to New Orleans!

Labeled

This is the seventh in a series of posts that starts here.

If you have read all these posts, thank you. They’ve been hard to write but at the same time it’s liberating to tell the story that’s mostly been kept secret for decades.

What I have described in this series of posts is a closed adoption. Once parental rights are terminated, the birth parent has no rights, period. Ironically, there was a massive change in adoption laws a year or two after Isaac was born which made open adoption the norm. This is where the birth mother can choose to maintain some level of contact with the child—everything from photos once a year to monthly visits—worked out in cooperation with the adoptive parents. But that didn’t help me, since my case was closed just before the laws changed.

As my emotions thawed after terminating my parental rights, my predominant feeling was rage. True, no one had forced me to place Isaac for adoption, but I hadn’t felt I had any other option. All the forces of society had been arrayed against me keeping him.

I thought about Charlie Brown, the doctor who had offered to find me a baby buyer; about Judy, the Catholic Charities social worker who had made light of my concerns; the perverts who had hit on me—a pregnant girl at the bus stop with a baby in a stroller; the mugger who assaulted me; Ronald Reagan, who ensured I would start my career with student loan debt; Dr. G., who invited a dozen strangers to observe me go through one of the most excruciating moments of my life; and the judge, who had asked me pityingly if I understood what I was doing.

I wasn’t angry with The Creep; he would soon go on to father three more children. Vince and I have joked that they could form their own support group, “Adult Children of The Creep.” The guy had dug himself into such a deep hole that I figured the rest of his life would be his punishment.

A few weeks after I signed the final papers, it occurred to me that I should have a photo of Isaac. I told myself this was for Vince—when I told him some day. I called Judy and there was a long pause after I said my name, as though she had already forgotten who I was.

“Why didn’t you ask for a photo before the papers were signed?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I stammered, feeling stupid and ashamed. I hated her but I knew I was at her mercy. “I would really, really appreciate it if you would ask the parents.”

She told me I would have to put my request in writing, which I did. Six weeks later she called to say that the parents had denied my request.

“Since you didn’t request a photo before you signed the papers, they’re under no legal obligation to give you one now. They’re concerned you might see the baby in a shopping mall or something … they wouldn’t want any scenes. It’s for the best.

“They want you to know that they love him very much and they gave him a beautiful name. Of course, I can’t tell you what it is.”

Wow, she was really enjoying herself. I added Isaac’s adoptive parents to my hate list.

I had lost control with Vince, screamed at him, and shoved him to the floor. I called the county and asked to speak with a child protection worker. She asked a bunch of questions then pronounced, “Based on your family history and your recent drinking behavior, I think it’s clear that you’re an alcoholic.”  She recommended I place Vince in foster care so I could go to rehab.  “You can say no, but there may be repercussions,” she said ominously.

I didn’t think I was an alcoholic but I placed Vince in foster care and got ready to go to treatment.  The next day my mother demanded that I sign Vince over to her, so I did. This time it was only temporary, right?

Unfrozen

This post is the sixth in a series that starts here.

It was 1980, I was 20 years old and had just given birth to my second son, who was in foster care until his adoption was finalized.  I had kept the pregnancy and birth Top Secret except from my mother and sister.

Now I moved forward with my life as if nothing had ever happened, and I never gave it a second thought.

Haha!  Just kidding!  That was never going to happen.

Six weeks had to pass before the adoption would be finalized.  I suppose that was to ensure I wouldn’t change my mind.  I didn’t.  I gave birth on a Sunday and walked out of the hospital that afternoon.  Finals started the following week, so I was back in school studying for and taking exams the next day.

Once I finished exams I had to study for the big test that would make me a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant.  There were lots of other distractions to keep me busy and keep my mind off of Isaac.  I would think of him as “Isaac” for the next 20 years.

I got the highest scores in my class, so I won an all-expenses paid trip to the National Occupational Therapy convention in San Antonio, Texas.  This was a big deal for someone who lived in public housing, took the bus everywhere, and washed laundry by hand in the bathtub.

Six weeks passed.  I went to the courthouse.  In the courtroom it was just me, The Creep, the judge, and about 50 strangers who were there for other cases.  The Creep and I didn’t speak.  This would be the last time we would ever see each other.  He was pleased, I was sure, that he’d be off the hook for child support—not that he paid any for Vince.

There’s a psychological phenomenon called dissociation in which you seem to separate from your own body because you are under so much stress.  This must be what happened to me, because it was like I was a spectator to myself.  It was like I was sitting in the jury box, watching the judge lean forward and ask, “Do you know what you’re doing, miss?”

“Yes,” I replied.

Again, like when I signed the papers in the hospital, it was as if I was watching a mannequin hand sign my name at the bottom of the forms.

It was over in 10 minutes.  I stumbled, dazed, out of the courtroom with the official-looking order that said Termination of Parental Rights at the top and my signature at the bottom.

I went to San Antonio, which was my introduction to the concept of “open bars” at conventions.  Free drinks!  I drank all night, then slept by the pool all day until the bar opened again.  What a great professional opportunity!

I came home and kept drinking.  School was over so I had all the time in the world to spend with Vince.  Except that my relationship with him had changed.  I had gone from doting, passionately-engaged mother to detached, emotionally-absent caretaker.  I escaped by cleaning the bathroom, applying for jobs, reading thick novels, scouring the kitchen sink, making lists of things, and drinking.

I kept busy, in part, to blot out the fact that I kept hearing the sounds and smelling the smells of a hospital delivery room.  I knew from psych classes that sometimes the mind reacted like this under severe stress—I wasn’t psychotic—but it worried me.  What next—would Dr. G and her residents show up in my bedside?

Vince had never been needy before but now he started whining and hanging on me and it really got on my nerves.  He was 18 months old; was this some kind of annoying phase?  I tried to gently put him off but that only seemed to make him want more attention.  Finally, I lost it.  I shoved him and yelled, “Get away from me!”  He tumbled to the floor, whimpering.

I was horrified and rushed to comfort him, pulled him onto my lap and rocking him.  Was this the future we had to look forward to?

It’s a Boy!

This is the fifth post in a series which starts here

I was 20 years old and eight months pregnant with my second child, which I planned to place for adoption.  This plan included avoiding my family and friends so that it could be kept a secret.

But in early April I ran into my aunt and cousin Mary, who was 14, at the grocery.  My aunt chatted about the weather, not dropping her gaze below my neck.  Mary gawped at my belly but didn’t ask any questions.

The pains came early in the morning.  I woke up and tears came, silently, so as not to wake Vince.  I had been able to freeze my emotions for six months but now, on the precipice of saying good-bye, they came.

I flung myself out of bed and called my mother, who dropped my sister off to stay with Vince and drove me to the hospital.  The pains continued, fast and strong.  As I laid writhing on a gurney a doctor I’d never seen loomed over me and said, “Good morning, I’m doctor G___, and I’ll be with you during your labor and delivery.”

The labor went fast.  My mother sat by the bed while I panted.  They wheeled me into the delivery room and Dr. G appeared again.  “You don’t mind if a couple of residents observe, do you?” she asked—more of a statement than a question.  I consented with a grunt, not really caring or understanding.

A line of residents in gowns and masks filed into the room and stood against the wall—there must have been eight or 10 of them.  “Do you want a girl or a boy?” asked Dr. G, obviously trying to show off her people skills to the residents.  “I don’t care!” I groaned, “I’m giving it up for adoption!”  She recoiled.  A nurse leaned in and whispered something to her, maybe my instructions that I didn’t want the baby handed to me.  I couldn’t hold it or I might change my mind.

“It’s a boy!” Dr. G exclaimed, holding him up for the residents to see.  She stepped forward and held him up to show me.  I saw that he had all his fingers and toes and was plump and healthy.  She handed him to the nurse, who took him out of the room.

I'm a Boy

They wheeled me down to the geriatric ward.  It was for my own good, the orderly said.  This way I wouldn’t be surrounded by happy mothers and fathers with their babies, or tempted to go find him in the nursery.

My roommate was an old woman who was moaning in agony.  “The pain!” she kept shouting.

It couldn’t have been more than an hour after the birth that Judy, the Catholic Charities social worker, showed up.  Had they called her?  She didn’t ask how I felt or if I had any second thoughts, but thrust a clipboard toward me and started flipping forms and pointing to where I should sign.

Just then my sister walked in, carrying the baby.  “He’s so beautiful!” she said.  “Just hold him once!”

Judy looked horrified.

“Take him away,” I pleaded.  She moved forward an inch, hesitated, then turned and walked out of the room.

Judy laughed when she saw the name I had put on the form.  “Isaac?”

I tried to explain that, in the bible, Isaac was sacrificed, and that was how I saw what I was doing.  I thought it was odd I had to explain this to someone from Catholic Charities.

“I should have told you not to give him a name.  His parents will change it.  You have to admit that Isaac is kind of a weird name”

I said I’d be happy to write and explain why I’d chosen the name, how meaningful it was.

“That wouldn’t be a good idea.  They want to know as little about you as possible.  A clean start, you know.  It’s for the best.”

I signed the forms.  I watched my hand moving across the paper like a mannequin hand.

After Judy left I got dressed, walked out, and caught the bus home.