Adopted or Abducted?
The recent podcast, Snap Judgment #202: Abducted, prompted me to write this essay about my experience of being adopted.
Adoption is perfectly legal, so why-or how-could it be compared to the experience of being abducted?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not entirely opposed to adoption-so long as it’s kept honest and open. But, what’s honest? What’s legal? What's being given, and taken away?
Does a child automatically own the rights to the name given to him at birth-or does a legal guardian have the prerogative to change it, so long as he or she files the proper papers with the courts?
Do I own my own life?
The winter before my 8th birthday, my sister and I were living in a foster home with “Grandma.” We understood that our mother was sick and couldn’t take care of us, and we were okay with waiting there till she got better. There were two other sets of brothers and sisters under similar circumstances living with us, and we were a boisterous clan.
Eventually, one at a time, the other siblings were reunited with their moms and dads, leaving just my sister and me. We had mostly forgotten that we were waiting for my mother to get better, and over time settled in to life-I started school, learning exciting new things like spelling and reading, and made friends. Grandma doted on my five year old sister, the “baby” of us all. Grandma worked hard, and I was too young-and too busy with life-to understand how her efforts created a cozy cocoon for her foster children.
Occasionally a nice man named George would come to visit-we didn’t know who he was, or why he was interested in us. He kept his visits friendly and fun, and never stayed past asking a few questions-not long enough to get in the way or leave us considering him for long.
One day he took us to a big plain office-type building we’d never been to before, and introduced us to two strangers. The lady seemed very happy to meet us and asked lots of questions. The man sat quietly and watched with a slight smile. Then we went home, and didn’t trouble ourselves much beyond a quizzical shrug as to what that was all about.
Not long after that George came back to announce that in ten days we would be “adopted”! He was excited, and seemed to think we should be excited too, though Grandma was oddly quiet, and I had no idea what ‘adopted’ meant. We would live on a farm, he said-wouldn’t that be great?- and though we peppered him for details, he didn’t seem to know much. Were there chickens? Pigs? Cows? How many? How big? Were there other kids?
I didn’t think to ask where this farm was, nor could my seven year old brain consider the full implication of this announcement. A child’s world is only as big as his normal routine. It was December, I was busy at school every day, playing with my first best friend, and excited that Christmas was coming. I couldn’t have imagined anything more.
I announced this curious news to my bus driver, trying out this new concept to see how it felt: ten days and I would be adopted! He expressed happiness for me, though his smile belied it. At home, Grandma was quiet.
Without knowing why, I began to feel a sense of unease as we counted down the days. Ten, nine, eight…
The morning came. I didn’t go to school that day. With a strange sense of dread, I noticed several suitcases sitting by the front door. Grandma seemed preoccupied and distant.
This was it. Something momentous was happening-I wasn’t sure what-but I knew I couldn’t stop it. I wasn’t sure it would be as fun as George wanted me to believe.
The next thing I remember, my sister and I were tumbling into the back of George’s car along with the suitcases, and Grandma was crying as if her heart would break.
“Remember me in your prayers,” were her parting words before she allowed George to drive off. I glanced sideways at my sister who sat stiffly, wearing a look of shock and fright. I wanted to reassure her. I didn’t dare think. It all seemed so surreal.
It was the lady and man that we’d met that one time who were waiting to take us from George. They all seemed very pleased, and not at all aware of the surreal nature of the events.
Then, we were alone with the strangers.
“I’m your new mommy, and I’m going to be your mommy now forever and ever,” the lady said sweetly. The man seemed to go along with her, but it was the lady who was clearly in charge. These strangers sat in the front seat, and we sat stiffly in the back. We drove, farther and farther away from home. Farther than we’d ever been before. Farther than I thought the world even existed.
It was almost dark by the time we arrived at the farm. We drove up a long driveway to a house set atop a knoll. Across the open drive were two great cement block barns sitting perpendicular to each other.
The back door swung open to reveal two quintessential grandparent-types, excitedly waiting with open arms to envelope us in warm hugs. Two more siblings sat sleepily on the upstairs steps waiting to be reunited with us. I remembered them-just toddlers-they had gone somewhere different than my sister and me, to wait for my mother to get better.
The next day these strangers ceremoniously bestowed on us our new middle and last names. Secretly, I wondered about our real names- the ones we had up until yesterday-what happened to them and why we couldn’t keep them.
Everyone began calling me by this new name, and each time a small voice in the back of my head whispered, that’s not your real name.
In the following days, neighbors stopped by to welcome us. We met more new family. “This is your aunt,” we were told excitedly, or “This is your cousin.” I wondered why no one spoke up and said, “Well, not your real aunt or real cousin.” I had to begin calling these strangers ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’. Each time, a small voice in my head whispered, that’s not your real mommy, not your real daddy.
Even the pastor of the church stopped in to offer his blessing. It seemed that the world itself was in on this sudden and fantastically odd twist of events-and that it approved.
We spent Christmas with this strange new family, and when vacation ended I went to a new school, wearing this new identity like a scratchy new sweater. No one seemed to notice. Life got under way again, one day rolling into the next, in this alternate reality.
But I didn’t forget about home. If I had a spare moment, I’d sneak out to the back yard and climb into the willow tree-climb as high as I could-and sit there for hours desperately trying to keep the memories alive of the life I used to know. In my mind, I’d push aside the day’s current events, delving deeper and deeper into myself to dredge up anything I could possibly remember. I gathered together every scrap of memory I could, etching each and every tiny detail of my home and my people, of special places and experiences, retelling them to myself over and over so that I would never forget-so that they would never die.
Gradually, I realized that no one here knew of our life back there-somewhere-our real life with real relatives and real friends who called us by our real names. No one here knew my real identity. No one said anything about going home-to my real home. They didn’t even seem to know that I-as I knew myself to be-existed.
One day I stood at the top of the driveway and strained to see beyond the farm, beyond the neighbor’s trees, farther down the road-desperately wanting it to connect to the life I longed to recover.
I stared down the road for a long time. Suddenly I knew the truth.