Thursday, March 18, 2010

Adoption

Preface: I was adopted by my parents in 1965 as a six week-old infant. I’ve always known I was adopted, as have my two eldest sisters. There are six kids in our family, three of us adopted, three of us natural-born. I’ve never had any sort of a complex about being adopted; I deeply love my parents and my brothers & sisters. I’ve never been interested in finding my “birth parents;” I’ve never thought of my Mom and Dad and family as anything else but my family. Life goes by for forty-four years. And then...

There I was at work in my ICU, doing my little nursing thing, minding my own business. I get a new patient admitted from the emergency room. He’s had a stroke and is intubated and on a ventilator. He’s awake but the bleeding inside his head makes it impossible to communicate or recognize what’s going on. We’ll call him John (not his real name).

Anyway, I admit John and do my thing. I tried to find his family in the waiting room to find out more about his medical history, medicines, allergies, that sort of thing, but his wife had already gone home. No big deal. A while later the wife calls up on the phone to ask how he is, what are the visiting hours and so on. Before hanging up I say, “All right ma’am, my name is Sean, I’ll be taking care of him.”

“How do you spell your name?” she asks.

A lot of people ask me that. I’m very happy to spell it. “S-E-A-N. Spelled the right way,” I joke.

She continues: “This may sound strange, but how old are you?”

I raise my eyebrows, though this is a pointless action since I’m in a phone conversation. “Well, I’m forty-four,” I reply. “Why do you ask?”

She answers with what I interpret as a wistful tone, “It’s just that I had a son named Sean that I gave up for adoption. His birthday was 11/11.”

I stopped typing on the computer charting her husband’s assessment. “What did you say?” I asked.

“I had a son with John (the patient) named Sean. We gave him up for adoption. His birthday was November 11th.”

I said with a somewhat incredulous voice. “November 11th? Um, that’s MY birthday. What year?”

“November 11th, 1977.”

I breathed a sigh of relief, though I wasn’t entirely sure what exactly I was relieved of. I explained “That’s pretty wild, but it couldn’t be me. I was born in 1965.”

“1965? You know, it was so long ago, I may not be remembering right, and I’ve been so worried and tired with John in the hospital. It might have been 1965. We gave him up to Catholic Charities. Were you adopted, Sean?”

“Yes, I was. From St. Vincent’s.”

“St. Vincent’s? On Magazine Street? That’s who we gave him to!”

“Holy crap!” we both said simultaneously. She continued “Were you raised in a big Irish family?”

“Yes,” came my stunned reply.

“Did you grow up in Louisiana?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Do you have blue eyes and dimples in your cheeks?”

“Um, yes.” I felt as faint as her husband must have.

“Do you have a full head of blond hair?”

“Y-y-yes,” I stuttered.

“Oh, my God!” she exclaimed.

I sat back in my chair, unable to move or speak. After a while, I collected my jaw off the floor and managed to bark out “Will you be here in the morning?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’d like to meet you.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “I want to meet you too. I’ll be here late after my shift for a class in the morning and I’ll come back to the ICU to meet you.”

“OK. I really want to meet you to,” she said, not saying the words we were both thinking, and hung up.

Could this be my birth mother? Could the guy in the hospital bed be my birth father? Is it possible?

I got up to take a closer look at my patient. Are there any resemblances? Does he look like me? As I examined him, I found frustration. I looked at his face and body. But he had been in a fire some time ago and was heavily scarred. His fingers had been burned off then and they were mostly nubs. He had pale, featureless skin grafts over most of his body and face. It was difficult to imagine a resemblance to anyone. He was sleeping. With my fingers I opened his eyes and gasped. The were the exact same blue as mine! I had explained my lengthy phone conversation to the other nurses. Two of them joined me in the room.

One of them said “You two have exactly the same nose.”

I looked closely. We did. And neither of them could deny the similarities in our eyes. A little while later I got him into a hospital gown, as the emergency room had stripped him naked. I noticed the pattern of the hair on his chest was the same as mine.

I needed some air. I had to take a few minutes to breathe, to sort out the storm of thoughts raging in my head. I went downstairs to have a cigarette.

I checked my own memory. I was born in 1965, right? I remembered the house on Chapelle Street we lived in till I was three. I remembered Vietnam, Watergate, the Apollo moon landing, Elvis and disco. I remembered the birth of all my brothers & sisters, all born before 1977. Yes, I couldn’t question my own memory. But I could question hers. Even she questioned hers.

I tried a different line of reasoning. What did I know about my birth parents? I had seldom asked, uninterested as I was in the subject. The only thing I know was that my birth mother was fifteen or sixteen and my birth father was seventeen. How old was my patient? When I admitted him, I had glanced at his hospital armband to verify his identity. It had said he was sixty-one. OK, so his age in 1965 he would have been... what? I couldn’t think enough to do the simple math. I pulled up the calculator on my phone. His age minus my age. Sixty-one minus forty-four. I punched in the digits and looked at the result. I blinked. I punched in the equation again. Seventeen.

Holy shit.

When I arrived back on the floor upstairs the phone was ringing. “ICU; this is Sean.”

“Hi Sean, it’s me again,” came the now-familiar voice of the wife. “I have to ask you, were you a blond baby but bald-headed? Did you used to walk around in a sort of circular stroller thing? With a round plastic thing around it that had toys attached to it?”

I thought back to my toddler days. I have an extraordinary memory for such things dating back to even before I could talk. It’s not quite a photographic memory; it’s called an eidetic memory. Images, the place of words in a book, the exact words of a conversation - all rattle around in my head with nowhere to go. I cross-referenced my own memory with the memories of photos I had seen of my own childhood. I clearly remembered my round walker/stroller thing. Some of my siblings had used it too.

“Yes, I did,” I answered. “How did you know?”

“Catholic Charities sent me a picture of Sean after his family had adopted him. I’m trying to find it now; I’m tearing up my house,” she said.

“That’s unbelievable!” I exclaimed.

“I know!” she said, also in disbelief. “I can’t believe I just called to see how John was doing and this happens!”

“Yes!” I replied. “I feel the same way!” I thought back to some of the information I didn’t have in my medical assessment to ask her, trying to seem a little bit professional, though all my emotions and thoughts were long gone. I could have asked about his immunizations, his prescriptions, his family medical history, social habits, anything. Instead I asked, “How tall is John? What’s his height?”

“He’s six foot one,” she answered.

It took a moment before I could say anything. “That’s my height.” I took a deep breath. “Ma’am, tell me your name again.”

(Again, not her real name) “My name is Beth. Beth Green Smith Brown.”

I insisted “Miss Beth, I know it’s four a.m., but would you be able to come down here to the hospital right now? I need to meet you.”

“I’ll be there in a few minutes,” she asserted.

Ten minutes later, the nurse I had informed of my experience told me, “Mr. John’s wife is in the waiting room. Are you nervous?”

“Yes, I’m very nervous,” I confided.

I met Beth. I won't go into a description of her so as to protect her privacy. I guided her to John’s room, holding her hand. It felt... I don’t know how it felt. Once in his room, I stalled. I tried to explain John’s medical condition to her. I stammered and choked. She said to him “It’s me John! And look who’s here! it’s Sean! Sean’s here!” John, with his swollen, bleeding brain, couldn’t comprehend.

Finally I decided I had to get down to brass tacks. “Tell me about this birth you gave up for adoption,” I instructed her.

She dug in her purse and pulled out an assortment of photographs. The first one was of a man in his thirties and a woman. His girlfriend or wife, I assumed. “That’s Brendan (not his real name). He’s my son. Or maybe, your... I don’t know, maybe he’s your... stepbrother?” she suggested. “I tore my house apart trying to find the pictures I have of Sean but I couldn’t find them.”

“Well, before we have a family reunion, let’s dig a little deeper. How long have you and John been together? I inquired.

“Since 1964,” she said.

The math fit perfectly. Crap.

“How old were you when you had this baby?”

“Twenty-four. I’m fifty-eight now.”

“And when did you have this baby you gave for adoption?” I pursued.

“1966,” she answered.

I paused. “I was born in 1965.”

She took a deep breath, sadness in her eyes. “Oh. I thought you had told me 1966.”

The math no longer worked.

“When was Brendan born?” I asked.

“He was born in 1971. He’s 38.” she answered.

“And was he your first child?”

“Yes,” she said. “It was my second child I gave up for adoption.” She went on to describe a conversation she had with Brendan in 1977 when he was very young, along the lines of Brendan asking her ‘why so-and-so’s mom can keep their baby, but you can’t.’ She gathered her thoughts. She knew that I had found the truth, that her second baby had indeed been born in 1977, not 1965. I suppose she had altered her story, errantly changing the year to 1966, having mistaken what I had said over the phone, in the hopeful desperation of locating her other son, and in her sad pursuit had altered the year to fit with my own life, though it would have made her pregnant at seven years old at the time of my birth. “I gave him up because I wasn’t going to be a welfare mom!” she asserted with a degree of pride in herself. I silently admired her desire for independence and self-sufficiency, even though her perception of time was somewhat… deluded.

“Do you think they might have lied to you about when you were born?” she asked with a shred of hope.

I pitied her for her husband’s illness and her lifelong desperation to find her lost child. I silently prayed that she would find some peace in her life, or at least that John would adequately recover from his stroke. I said to her, “No. I vividly remember being alive between 1965 and 1977. I’m sorry, but there’s no way I can be that son.”

We had little conversation after that. I was still distracted by the notion that I might have accidentally found my birth parents. After all, there was the incredibly identical story she had told me and there was the uncanny, unsolicited description of a child who sounded just like me. And there were John’s eyes.

I’m still not interested in finding out who my “birth parents” are. I’ll always have only one set of parents. But for the rest of my shift, I took care of John with, well, the kind of attention I’d take care of my Dad with. Good luck, John. And good luck, Beth. I’ll always remember you.

2 comments:

Just Me said...

Wow, what a story. I'm adopted as well and whenever I go to the city I was adopted from I'm always looking over my shoulder thinking, I could meet her here! I'm sorry things didn't work out but I'm sure Beth appreciates all you did for John when he was under your care.

richard said...

That's a truly amazing story -- and a freakish set of coincidences. I'm sorry it didn't work out.

You say that you're not interested in finding your birth parents, but it doesn't sound as if you'd be displeased if you did. Frankly, I wasn't that interested either, but I'm glad I went through with it.

I know I'm one of the lucky ones, as far as the reconnecting thing goes. I have some friends who've tried to track down their bio-moms and dads, but the parents haven't wanted to participate. Still, you might contact St. Vincent's to look into the process. I mean, you of all people probably understand the value of at least getting your family medical history...