I Google her name, just to see what will come up. I know the search results by memory; I’ve seen them too many times to count. But I type her name in anyway, figuring there might be something new.
I am right, unfortunately.
My dad calls the county the next day, gets the confirmation. She has, in fact, passed away. The woman in the one-line obituary is my birth mother.
The Saturday before, I had a therapy session. I remember saying to my therapist, “I also sometimes worry that something might happen to her before I can meet her… But that’s a pretty irrational fear, right? I mean, she’s only 55.”
When I first find out, I wonder how it happened. Was it an accident no one could have prevented? A disease I might have inherited? Did she take her own life, struggling with the same depression I have?
It was cancer, after all. The county told my dad on the phone. Acute myeloid leukemia. Most commonly found in every demographic of which she was not a part: males, the very old and the very young, those with preexisting genetic disorders. Exposure to some chemicals used in cleaning products and factories may also be a contributing factor. Maybe that was it.
I Google her name again a few weeks later to see the obituary again. It isn’t there.
I wonder if maybe I dreamed this whole thing up. It feels like the pain comes from a distance, yet radiates from the very center of my broken soul. It renders me speechless. When the tears do rush in, I’m not even sure what I’m mourning. Sometimes it’s the sickening truth that I was just a little too late to find her, to meet her, to tell her what needed to be said. Sometimes it’s every memory I didn’t have because I didn’t grow up in her world. Sometimes it’s the fear that she was not who I hoped she was, that perhaps if I had made it in time, I would have been hurt even more.
My body feels tired and empty, yet so clunky and imposing it makes me want to disappear. I think about death, for myself. Would it bring me close enough to see her, to speak to her, to find some kind of closure? I feel guilty for thinking about dying again.
I feel foolish, in some sense. Caught up in semantics. What will people think if I say “mother” versus “birth mother”? I imagine two versions of a conversation with some random acquaintance or coworker, neither of which will ever transpire. Still, they play in my head again and again.
“I’m sorry to hear about your loss. Were you close?”
“It was my mother.”
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry! What are you even doing here? You should be at home sleeping, being with family-I’m so sorry.”
Then, the alternate version.
“I’m sorry to hear about your loss. Were you close?”
“It was my birth mother.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Did you know her well?”
“No, we never met.”
“Oh… I see.”
Is the death of a stranger insignificant to those who don’t understand adoption?
“No one would ever say that to you,” my friend tells me. “And if they did, fuck them, because that’s rude.” But I still fear that they might think it. I fear that the loss of a woman I never met, the knowledge that the human who brought me into this world left before we even got to say a word to each other-I somehow fear that people won’t see that as significant. Significant is the death of the parent who raised you, all the memories, all the nostalgia. Is the death of a stranger significant to those who don’t understand adoption?
I avoid talking about it openly with nearly everyone, save one friend who lost a parent when we were young. But when I talk to others about it, a stoic wall seems to rise between us. I quietly accept their condolences, try to explain how I supposedly feel, and field their questions about what I will do next. I run through a script each time.
“I know, I can’t blame myself for not sending my letter in time. Yes, I will reach out to other relatives soon. Yes, I think I found some of them on Facebook. No, I don’t think it has fully hit me yet.”
I do this because I don’t want to burden them with the truth.
I sent my letter on September 8. She died on August 28. Is that some kind of fucked up punishment for me not having the courage to send it sooner? Is it a bullshit lesson for me to learn about taking risks and living life more fully?
Her relatives on Facebook hardly have any personal information available to confirm their identities, and none of them have any posts acknowledging her death. Is that a sign that they hated her, or that she pushed them away? Was she alone when she died?
It has fully hit me that I will never get closure. No amount of messages with relatives, familial bonds rekindled, or old photographs will grant me closure. I can get close, maybe. But I will be on my own deathbed one day, be it tomorrow or decades from now, still nursing this open wound.
I thought that even though I grew up without her, I might get a chance to see the woman who created me. I thought I might get to feel her arms around me, hear her voice. I was healing from the reality that I missed out on those things with the knowledge that I might get to experience them in the context of reunion.
When I want to scream, when I want to let out the raging sobs trapped inside my chest, I can only think of one way to explain it to you.
Remember your mother’s hugs. Remember the smell of her shampoo, her perfume. Remember her voice as she reassures you after a nightmare, a bad breakup, a major loss. Remember the smell of her cooking wafting over to you as you enter the kitchen. Remember looking into her face and seeing yourself reflected in her features. Remember her laugh, and what makes her laugh. Remember arguing with her, that building frustration that dissipates when you talk to her again and remember why she is the way she is sometimes. Remember your mother’s hugs again.
I realize this might seem romanticized, but can there be any other way to imagine something that I don’t know?
Of course, I am not an orphan. I will remember many of these things about my adoptive mother, and those memories will rise in waves of anguish when she passes away one day. I hold those memories in the core of my being and they keep me going in the darkest times. But this is not about her.
I will never have any of those memories with the woman who brought me into this world.
The biological connection between birth mother and child is undeniably unique. The things a mother eats, says and feels while her child is in the womb will leave an imprint on that child when it is born. That is why you may feel such a strong sense of belonging and safety in the presence of your mother. She is an extension of your soul, a necessary component of your existence by design. She is so fundamental that it is difficult to fathom a reality without her.
That is my reality. Unfortunately, it always will be.
Originally published at workingtowardokay.com on October 11, 2020.