It started as a conversation about colonoscopies and ended as a family reunion. My friend Lauren was facing the prospect of a medical test and emailed friends, interested to hear the experiences of others. It’s so important to encourage people to take this test; I emailed her, “Give me a call.” I’d known Lauren casually in a larger circle of friends for about a decade. It was only at this moment that Lauren shared she was nervous about the test because she had no family medical history. “I’m adopted.” I was surprised this had never come up in conversation as she knew what I did for work. “I don’t really talk about it,” she acknowledged. What I had known is that Lauren had lost members of her family (her sister, mother and father) in a short span of years and had no immediate family left. I hadn’t known that this was her adoptive family. I immediately offered that, if she wanted to make connections with her birth-family, a member of our staff, Meredith Davies JD, LSW, who is also a genealogist, might be willing to help her in a search. Lauren thought about this and called me back a few weeks later saying she’d like that help.
Meredith, indeed, was willing to help; she found a newspaper article about Lauren’s mother – apparently she’d been in a very serious car accident in Boston in her early twenties. Meredith also found her mother’s high school yearbook photo. I will always remember sitting with Lauren and handing her the first photo she would ever see of her biological mother; Lauren was age 51. The visual moment was compelling. As I shared more of what Meredith had found, Lauren also shared – many years ago, she’d actually gone to court and opened her records. As the court handed her the information she requested, a court officer also encouraged her not to “bother” her mother. This stopped her in her tracks. Fast forward, she’d had her mother’s name for years, but, found it hard to go further; then, sadly, she learned that her mother had died. As we sat there, photos and newspaper articles in hand, Lauren added, “But, my mother’s sister, Aunt Carol, is still alive. I have her number.” In fact, she’d had this phone number for years. “She’s 81,” I said to Lauren. “Let’s call her now, what do you say?” “Now?” she asked, eyes wide.
If I can freeze-frame that moment, I’d like to share one of the lessons this taught me. My friend was a middle-aged woman, not a child. And yet my experience was that the idea and process of trying to connect with birth-family was so “solo” for her and difficult, that it had injured her “capacity to want.” A child “wants” an ice cream cone, to play with friends, to explore the woods and to try a new musical instrument. But, if a child has an accumulation of messages that “that” is a zone not to walk in, they bury the “want.” When we ask children if they’re interested in connecting with birth-family, this is not an isolated moment, but often one occurring along a full spectrum of moments where neither their curiosity nor interest have been welcomed.
We sat and planned our strategy. With Lauren’s blessing, I dialed Aunt Carol’s number. “Hello?” I explained to Aunt Carol that I was a social worker and that a friend, sitting with me while I spoke with her, thought she might be a relative, could we meet somewhere for a coffee. “Just tell me who she is,” belted Carol, “I can handle this.” I had her on speaker phone. Lauren’s eyes went wide. “Uh, ok, uh, Carol, did you ever know that your sister Faith had a child?” “Oh sure, I knew that!” was Carol’s belted response. It turned out later that only their mother (now deceased), Carol and one brother knew. Everyone else in this large family did not know my friend even existed.
It bears mentioning that Lauren’s “story” of her early life was two-fold – her understanding was that, at the time of her birth, her mother was a single Irish working woman and that, in those days, it wasn’t as acceptable to be a single mother. The assumption was that she placed her for adoption because she was single. The other part of the story is that Lauren had been told her mother had been hospitalized for “nerves.” This was a part of the story that she didn’t really want to get too close to – what would it mean for her?
“Can we have breakfast together?” I asked Aunt Carol.
Aunt Carol replied, “How about tomorrow morning?”
If this were a movie, you would have seen two women in their 50’s sitting in a coffee shop in Boston and, then, a woman in her early 80’s, spry and walking well, strolling through the door. She turns and immediately knows which of the two of us resembles her late sister. She opens her arms and my friend, Lauren, shy, reticent, who never mentions to friends that she’s adopted, folds willingly into Carol’s body. Carol bore gifts. She had many family photos to share and some, in frames, she told Lauren to keep – “She’s your mother, here, these are for you.” She pointed to me, “Pull out some paper, I have things to say.” I was happy to be scribe, witness, and support for both of them. Carol immediately launched into family medical history. “Go get yourself a colonoscopy,” she said, “I’ve had colon cancer and it runs in our family.” Lauren and I shot each other a look and then shared why. Carol went on to detail more family history. I faithfully took notes so that Lauren could just take this all in.
I left Carol and Lauren after about two hours. I had to get to the office. They continued for another hour. Immediately after this breakfast, Aunt Carol called one of her older sisters and asked to come over. She had something to tell her. One by one, a huge Boston Irish family woke up to the news that there was a relative they’d never known existed. Lauren was lovely, articulate and would bring tears to their eyes.
One part of the story that is still unfinished is gaining a deeper understanding of Faith’s true story. Remember the car accident? The news story about it mentioned that Faith might not live, it was that serious. She was in the hospital for a long time, had brain surgery and installation of a metal plate to replace skull that was removed to literally save her life. In the years after this accident, she was in and out of psychiatric hospitals. A few bells go off here.
This was in the late 1950’s – the term “traumatic brain injury” (aka TBI) was not an available idea or term. There was no one else in this large family who had any serious psychiatric diagnoses and Lauren was fine. Could it be possible that the symptoms of what had been described as “nerves,” were in fact the symptoms of a TBI in the days before they knew that traumatic brain injury could cause behaviors that resembled psychiatric illnesses? A story that evoked shame and challenging feelings for the birth family was one that, instead, could evoke compassion with the additional information which time and medical research could reveal. Lauren was likely placed, not only because her mother was single – there was a large Irish family to help her if need be. But, rather, a significant reason was that Faith was still suffering, tremendously, from a TBI suffered four years earlier; she could barely care for herself, much less a baby.
About a month later, Lauren and I were invited to the house of one of the cousins. I’ve never seen so much food. Aunt Carol was dressed to the nines. Family photos covered the tables and everyone introduced themselves. They thanked me for connecting them. And I stood there witnessing my friend, like a plant watered, standing tall. I thought of Faith and how I wished she could have seen this moment, her love for her only child and her sacrifice for her child’s well-being, could now be better understood.
Marla Allisan, JD,LICSW
The author is the Founder and Director of AAA Full Circle Adoptions & Family Building Center, Inc,
in Northampton and Arlington, MA.