This is not a Redemption Story
On Saturday, July 21st of this year, I went out to my mailbox like any normal day. My dog Lou followed me and did his usual business on the neighbor’s side of the mailbox structure. Although I didn’t train him to do this, I might have, after I got to know them. Among the bills and mailers and usual junk, was a small card in a pretty pink envelope. At first glance I thought, baby shower invitation, birth announcement, thank you card. Then I looked at the return address. It was from the adoptive mother of the child I put up for adoption in 1979. That familiar feeling of anxiety swept over me, starting at the top of my head and filling every cell in my body as it swept down to the tips of my toes. That feeling that all pores are open and flat and aware.
My stomach tightened. There would only be one reason why she would track me down. But maybe he and his partner had a baby and she wanted to let me know that I was a grandmother. It was a ray of hope and about as far-fetched as snow on a July pavement in Phoenix. Pink says something happy lies within. An invitation perhaps. I or we, invite you to a new chapter in the life of this beautiful and complicated child.
Lou and I walked in the house and I put the card on the counter. I opened the water bill and threw away the coupons, the ads, and the flyer for the Potter’s House, who wanted me to know that Jesus saves, and they would show me how, if I would just come to the big-tent Revival out on 89A, Sunday after next.
I paced around the house. I started laundry, loaded the dishwasher, fed Lou, took out the trash, and all the while that pink envelope sat there looming larger than its 2×3 frame. It had a life of its own now. Heavy-laden and ominous in its pretty in pink envelope. A phone call of bad news is unavoidable once you pick up the phone to talk to a sibling you haven’t heard from in a while. But here my own fate and tragedy lay just beyond the glued-down flap. The Universe had been trying to kill off my family for the last two years, some attempts successful, others not. Deep down I knew this was one more shot across the bow.
The inevitableness of the situation finally won out and after about an hour, I picked it up, tore open the envelope and pulled out a card with a pretty gold and green dragonfly on the front.
“Dragonfly,” I said out loud. A symbol of change and transformation. Flipping up the cover, I read the first paragraph.
I have some sad news to share with you. Jonathan recently passed away from diabetic complications.
I felt gut punched and doubled over. I screamed “no” so many times, I thought a neighbor might alert the police. I paced frantically back and forth throughout the house, as if I was going somewhere with great purpose. I called my Dad, a sister and a brother. It was a long night by myself. There was fretting, tears, wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. I eventually told my mother, but I guess sometimes having dementia makes tragedy bearable.
And that is how I found out that my oldest child had passed from this earth…and I didn’t even know it. I didn’t feel it. I didn’t suddenly start thinking about him. He wasn’t in a dream. Not one clue did I have that this child had passed. I would come to find out in the following days that he had died on February 5th. Five months and 16 days before I found out.
I don’t blame the adopted family for not reaching out sooner. They were dealing with their own grief. I do admit, I had a terrible reaction to that card. She went on to say how grateful they all were that I had selflessly given up my child, who they had been so beautifully blessed by for 38 years. And, although I am sure those words were sincere, they fell flat. And for the following 24 hours, I felt like I had received a “thank you for your baby,” card. Pretty in pink, dragonflies and polka dots, nice words carefully chosen.
Even as I write this, I continually stifle tears buried in incredible sadness, grief, longing and the pain that has been there since June 3rd, 1979. I was able to have a brief relationship with Jonathan. It lasted about one year. I think he didn’t want to forgive me for putting him up for adoption, and I don’t blame him. He met me and my other 3 children and saw how closely we are connected. I think he was happy that he had found the people he was most like in the world, in manner, in looks and in how we all felt about each other. But it wasn’t to last and I hadn’t seen him in about 10 years when I heard of his passing.
I was 18 when I got pregnant by a guy that I had known for less than a year. I ended up hating him and trying to walk out on him late one night, in a trailer court on highway 85 in Avondale, Arizona. I wasn’t dressed and grabbed my shoes, jeans and t-shirt on my way out the door. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Call my parents. Call a friend. Sit on the porch. As the argument escalated, I decided to put those clothes on out on the porch. It was well-past midnight and I knew the people in this sleepy trailer park wouldn’t be up, or at least outside. I am sure they heard this argument and many others in the short few months we had lived there.
As I turned to open the door, Lyle grabbed my clothes and shoes from me. The only thing I was able to hold onto was a t shirt. I quickly threw it on and ran outside. He didn’t think I had the guts to leave in a t shirt and underwear. I heard the snap of the lock behind me. Just a few weeks earlier he was holding me down and forcing himself on me. I had decided that day to leave but was still working on the logistics. Since I ran away at age 15, I had come and gone from my parent’s house so many times, I think I was now the girl who cried wolf. Not to diminish the times I genuinely needed them, and they tried in their own way to help.
It only took a few moments to gather myself. I would not go back inside. This was the end of it. I ran out of the trailer court in the dead of night and out to the highway. There was a car here and there, so I waited till it was clear. I knew I had to get across the wide, four lane highway, get over the train tracks, through a field, across another street and down into a neighborhood. It was about a two-mile walk…and I didn’t have shoes on. Or pants.
The road was still warm from the daytime sun, but I managed to run across without incident. Now came the tricky part, going up over the rocky train tracks. I stepped lightly with my toes curled under…less surface to cut from the rocks. Between the moon and the lights on the highway I could somewhat see my way forward. I was almost up to the top of the tracks, when I looked back to see him following me. I thought if I could make it to the field, I might be able to outrun him. I walked faster up the rocky slope that led to the tracks. The rocks jabbed into my feet as I picked up speed. I made it to the tracks just as he caught up behind me.
He grabbed a handful of my long brown hair. His face was close to mine and he said, “where do you think you’re going?”
“Away! Let go of me!” I yelled. I twisted trying to get him to lose his grip, which he did, but now with a free hand, he punched me in the face. I lost my balance and fell. He was beside me, kicking me in the side. I stumbled to my feet and raced towards him, arms flailing. If I was going down, I was going to fight the whole way. For a second, we fought like two men, but it only took seconds for him to take me down again.
“You fucking cunt! Go back to the trailer!” Were the last words he ever spoke to me.
I cried and cried as I watched him walk away. I thought he would go to the trailer, but he went to the A&W Root Beer stand just down the street. I saw him light a cigarette and knew that he was watching me. I had the advantage of darkness, but he was illuminated by streetlamps and neon signs. I felt confident that I could outrun him now if he made a move to come back. I could easily disappear into the darkness of the field.
The sting of his blows began to settle in. I clutched my stomach as I crawled down onto the other side of the tracks and stooped down into a crouching position. He was still sitting there. Once off the rocky tracks and sure that he hadn’t moved, I took off running into the field. I cried some more, mouth gaping open, and stunned at the situation I had put myself in, again. I was 18 and my life was a complete mess. I quit high school at 15 and had now been with two abusive men.
I slowed down to catch my breath. Looking back, I could no longer see the root beer stand, but I was sure he hadn’t followed me. There was another trailer court on the east side of the field. I needed to make strategic moves now. I decided to skirt the edge of the trailer court where there was some light and I would be able to see my way around the post office and over to the next road, my next big obstacle.
Headlights suddenly appeared coming down one of the narrow roads of the trailer park. I quickly ducked behind a big trash can. Not making big moves seemed right. The car stopped right by the trash can. My heart was thumping wildly in my chest. The driver put the car in park and all sorts of weird thoughts ran through my head. Was it him? We didn’t have a car, but he knew people with cars. I snuck to the edge of the trash can and peeked around at the back of the car. It was an Avondale policeman.
I had two choices. Approach the cop and ask for help getting to my parent’s house or wait him out and continue on when he was gone. I knew the odds of getting to my parent’s house without being seen were slim. My t shirt barely came down to the top of my underwear. It wouldn’t take much to be spotted by some pervert. I had already been in one fight tonight, I didn’t know if I had the energy to fend off another attack. Let alone if Lyle had followed me after all, he would have been close and waiting for the car to pull away.
I approached the police car on the driver’s side and as soon as the officer saw me, he jumped out.
“What are you doing, young lady…and why aren’t you wearing pants?” He looked at me completely puzzled. He looked behind the trash can, then in it, like maybe I had popped up like a jack in the box. To him, I had appeared out of the darkness and was to be treated with great suspicion.
Officer Rescue-me-from-my-horrible-life, took me to the trunk of his car and pulled a blanket out. He wrapped it around me and put me in the back of his car.
“If you could just take me to my parent’s house, I would be so grateful.”
“I’m sorry, Miss, but you’ll have to come to the station with me and fill out a report.”
Okay…I didn’t see that coming. I would have just about been home if I would have kept running. I was now in the back of a cop car and had no control over what happened next, which was me sitting in a jail cell with a blanket around me. I decided that protecting him was the worst thing I could do. It was a sandwich decision. A good decision preceded by many bad ones and followed by another set of really bad ones.
Since he was still sitting at the A&W, he was picked up and arrested. I was allowed to call my parents and my stepdad bailed me out of a bad situation again.
I never told anyone this, but I knew he had a warrant out for him in North Carolina. I knew that by turning him into the cops that he would get taken back and that is exactly what happened. I never saw him again but found out through a genealogy website that he died in an accident in 2004. One year after I met Jonathan.
In the coming months, I found out I was pregnant. I desperately wanted out of the situation. For the first time ever, I felt like I could straighten my life out and do something meaningful. I decided to have an abortion. This decision was not entered into lightly. First of all, I didn’t have any money, and my mother was not going to lend it, since abortion was not on her list of things to help a child with. I get it. I have a grandchild now. Let the eye rolling begin. I messed up again, just when we all thought it was over.
I finally found a doctor in Phoenix who would take payments. That seems like such an odd thing now. The clinic was on Thomas Road and a friend drove me in. The doctor was very callous and said if after taking the prescribed pills, anything “comes out” on the way back into Phoenix, to be sure to bring everything in. Those were the magic words that led to Jonathan’s 38 years of living. A pretty good run I guess, since I was going to cut it down to a couple of months pre-birth.
In the coming months I vacillated between adoption and keeping him. Adoption won out and thank God that it did. My life was still a mess as I slid into abusive relationship number 3.
I am thankful to the woman who sent me the pretty pink card with the dragonfly. As she is to me. I brought him into the world and she helped him out. For 38 years, it took two of us.
The moment I put Jonathan up for adoption I regretted it. I didn’t regret that he went to a good home. I regret that I was too young and dumb to take care of him. I regret that I didn’t use birth control. I regret that his father decided to force himself on me at the very end of our relationship. I regret that I didn’t see him before he died. I regret that addiction seems to run in my family and he was also touched by it.
I took two days off of work because that was all I thought I could get away with, without faking an illness. I did tell my boss but no one else. When I came back coworkers asked me if I had a nice time off. And, I smiled and nodded. Because that’s what we do. We just swallow it all down while smiling and making jokes.
Adoption is something we mothers hold in all our lives and if something bad should happen like this, it still has to be held in. No one brings a casserole. They don’t send flowers. There aren’t any nice cards with sympathetic words. Mostly no one knows, except close family members. We have to sit on our own, throughout the night and wonder why a gift of joy, can cause a lifetime of sorrow and grief.
Doka, 1989, defined disenfranchised grief as “grief that is experienced when a loss cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly mourned.” In short, while a person has experienced a loss, the person does not have a “right” to grieve that loss since no one else recognizes a legitimate cause of grief.
It’s been almost a year since I found out and I haven’t been able to go to the grave. I can’t go because I am afraid of the torrent of grief that I know will come out. A grief that began the day he was born. When I sat in a hospital bed alone for three days. Friends and family don’t bring flowers and booties to an adoption birth. I found out much later in life that my parents had come to the hospital to see him. They never came to my room and it would be years before I knew they were there. Every subsequent birthday and holiday, I mourned his loss. It was a profound, gut-wrenching grief. I would say, “I just need to get out of this day.” But it was more than a day. There was the time spent in depression and sadness before his birthday and days after. In the first 5 – 10 years, there was a solid two weeks leading up to his birthday where I just couldn’t stand to breathe. I had a recurring dream about being in London and walking along a path by The Thames. An old woman who looked like an English nanny, would walk toward me with a young boy of about four or five years old. She would hold out his hand to me and say, “here…you can have him back…you’ve suffered enough.” Relief would flood over me like I had a tourniquet around my chest and it was finally cut off. Before I could snatch him from her grasp, I would wake up, back into the nightmare of not having my oldest child.
That one year we had together was glorious. The night I met him, when we hugged, I felt electricity course up through my body and out my fingertips into him. Delayed love and mothering. It never went away, it was just laying in wait. I could tell he had a hole in his heart. I could tell that he needed love. We met at his adoptive parent’s house. The father had recently died, from diabetic complications. Foreshadowing of Jonathan’s own death.
Unfortunately, our story didn’t have a happy ending. Jonathan got into an argument with my now deceased boyfriend. He did some things he couldn’t take back, but I wanted to forgive him and get him into AA. He saw my backing David as a direct betrayal. I wanted to mother him, but by this time he was a grown man. He wanted to make me pay for abandoning him. I know it wasn’t abandonment in the true sense, but I understood that he felt that way. He saw the bond between me and his siblings. He knew he had missed something special. We tried to make up from time to time, and several times, I thought that we had, but he always went back to being angry and hurt. And, who can blame him? This is not a redemption story. This is a story about how people make hard choices and then have to live with them forever.
When I met him in 2003, I knew he had alcoholic tendencies. Before he died, he had been in and out of rehabs and sober living houses. His heart stopped 5 times in the emergency room before they finally called it on number 6. He died from diabetic ketoacidosis.
And so, it goes on. And on. And on.
There is a process to a family death. It happens. Grieving begins. A funeral ensues where everyone talks about the deceased.
“Hey wasn’t it funny that time he jumped off diving board and…”
“That was one of the funniest guys I ever…”
“Heart of gold..that one…”
“Can’t believe he’s gone.”
In our story, there was no funeral. No kind words. No flowers, nor baked-with-love, casserole dishes. There wasn’t a period of mourning. No well-wishers nor shirts to bury my face in trying to find a scent of him.
It was all just gone. And it’s never coming back.