Sunday, May 14, 2023

The Mother I Called Mom


Since learning I was adopted at the age of 43, I've lost, then found, two mothers. One, my birth mother, was a woman I never knew except through pictures and a few stories, having died before I had a chance to meet her. That grief is a hard one to explain, even to myself, and I have written much about her here.

The other was the one I called Mom. My relationship with her was, in many ways, just as complicated and hard to explain. This Mother’s Day is the fifth since she passed, and it is Mom that I choose to remember today after a long hiatus from writing on this blog. 

What I recall today are the flowers. For a long time before Mom began to lose her mind to dementia, I would send her flowers, something she always told me not to do, but which I knew she secretly loved. Gifts were a tricky thing with Mom. Sometimes she would get angry if you got her one. Sometimes she would get angry if you didn't. Her anger was a thing you could rarely predict, coming like a dark and violent storm across her face seconds before the explosion. But somehow, the flowers were always a safe bet.  

My mother had a hard time receiving. She learned to give and to sacrifice, as many women of her generation did, but she was also armored and ready for battle. It was a contradiction that she lived with for as long as I could remember. The flowers, I think, made her forget, for a moment, about the struggle. The sight and smell of them changed the air for her. And of course, they gave her something to do. Change the water. Pick up fallen leaves. Move the basket from here to there, then back here again. She needed, always, to be busy. Later, when she was bound to a wheelchair and her mind was leaving her, she would forget and try to get up to walk around, keeping her nurses busy trying in vain to make sure she didn't fall. 

For a while into her progressing dementia, I continued sending the flowers, even after I'd learned she'd started throwing them away because they scared her. "Where did these come from?" she'd ask. So I finally stopped. 


On one of my last visits to see Mom on the memory care unit, she had no idea who I was. "Why won't you people leave me alone!" she snapped. She was sitting in the common room near the television, slowly tearing paper into even strips and arranging them on a table. When she was done, I got up, found more paper for her to tear and gave it to her. Only then did she smile and warm to me. Her caregiver believed that for her they were coupons, but I have a different theory: She was at work. 

Before quitting to raise two children Mom worked for years at the Cleveland Press, and her stories about it always brought a smile to her face. She would tell us about going to lunch with the girls, laughing and sitting by the window looking out on the busy street, pretending to smoke cigarettes. I believe that, in her mind, those strips of paper were the layout for next morning's edition. 

After my sister and I were older and in school, Mom took a part-time job at the Neighborhood News, a small community paper in Garfield Heights, OH. In our house, this was a cataclysm, an existential threat to my father. His wife, after all, did not need to work, and it shamed him for her to do it. There were long screaming fights followed by long silences. These fights were nothing new in our house, but these latest battles threatened to shake things apart for real. Dad was used to winning, and he was losing ground every day. 

"I forbid you to take this job!" he bellowed one night before leaving the room, believing that the matter had been settled. But the next morning, all he could do was stand in the kitchen and watch helplessly as she dressed up and walked out the door to her first day at work.

Later, Mom would come home smiling and excited, with stories about the people who called and stopped in the office. She had her favorites, along with the ones who drove her nuts. Dad would dismiss these stories and walk out of the room as soon as she started. This went on for a long time.

One day, though, Dad got the idea to write a column for the Neighborhood News called Browns Beat, full of highlights, commentary, and trivia about his favorite football team. He gave it to Mom, and it ran in the paper every week for years. I remember the first time the office threw a holiday party and Dad went as Mom's date. I remember them both telling me about the event, Dad chiming in with his jokes and impressions of the same people Mom had been talking about for years. He made her laugh hard that night, something he was good at, and which I learned, sometimes, to do too.

I can barely fathom the persistence it must have taken for Mom to drag him, fingers digging into the ground, to that moment, how many daily acts of rebellion it had taken, her walking calmly out that door.  I know that working made her happy. I believe it was in her nature to work - something she was meant to do, and I am glad she got to do it again. 


One of the first documents I discovered post-adoption discovery was this single mimeographed sheet of paper that Mom received from the De Paul Infant Home titled YOUR BABY, describing my feeding schedule and what I was used to.  

It was 1972 when she and Dad brought a little baby home from the DePaul Infant Home. They had lived many years with no children, a period of their lives about which I know almost nothing. I was already six months old, having been raised until that time by nuns and nurses. The adoption report claimed that I was a quiet little boy who rarely cried. In my new home, I would content myself to play alone for hours in my room with my books and records and toys. 

I  have few memories of being touched, held, hugged or kissed. The family from which Mom came did not display affection. Even now, when I see other families hugging and kissing, I still find it strange and sometimes I need to look away. Mom provided me with food and toys and lots of things. She bought me what I needed and welcomed my friends into our house. No one ever left hungry. She joined the PTA, volunteered as recess monitor, and even as a lunch server. Did I know what I missing? Not then. She was never close to me. But she was never, ever, very far.

I have written before on this blog about the day, well into my own adulthood, when I asked Mom if I was adopted, how she froze in terror at the question, not giving me an answer. I remember later that day, feeling ashamed of what I had done, and coming back to see her standing alone in the middle of the living room, looking lost and unsure of what to do next. I tried to put my arms around her, but her own arms hung rigid at her side, neither hugging me back nor pulling away.

Much later, after the truth had come out, we asked her why she never told us. Her reply: "I wasn't allowed to say anything." 

My mother suffered inside, more than most people ever knew, from wounds she would not speak of. And I was terrified of her, even to the end. She carried something that I may never fully understand, a weight that she could not set down. Equipped with nothing more than a one-page instruction manual, she became Mom. Her life was sacrifice, and I know that I would not be where I am now if it hadn't been for those sacrifices. But I still wish she could have stopped to rest and to heal. 


I have always struggled with the word "trauma," believing that it could never apply to someone like me. As a family, we weren't wealthy, but we always had more than enough. And when Dad quit being a paramedic and started wearing ties and jackets to a job with a desk and an office, we had a more. Friends and relatives sometimes called me spoiled. Mom did too. "I'm going to take you back where you came from" was a frequent threat I heard when something I’d done had tripped her rage wire, or I was seen as being ungrateful. I did not understand what she meant until much later, but it always scared me more than anything. 

As a young adult, I would intone self help platitudes about the need for people to stop whining and being a victim. People need to just "get over things and move on," I'd say. But then the panic attacks started, dissociative episodes in which I thought I was losing my mind, and I could no longer ignore what I was pushing down, no longer pretend I was "fine." or "just tired." 

I began to get help and to learn about trauma’s effects on the mind and body. I learned that growing up in constant fear of unpredictable rage leaves one with a lifetime of fight-or-flight readiness. I learned that being lied to repeatedly about who I was, learning to deny the truth that was right in front of my eyes, was also a form of trauma. It was a wound to the mind and its ability trust itself. 

I know it is possible to get better, because I have. But, but like grief, I'm not sure it ever completely goes away. Even now, my default setting is to scan others’ faces for signs of anger or disapproval, suppressing my own until I explode, or until I am sick with symptoms that doctors cannot explain. I have had to learn how to consciously relax and to live my life without tense muscles, stepping lightly around places where I imagine landmines.  

I have spent much of my life pretending to be whatever I believed you needed me to be, quick to hide what I feel, believing always that I am wrong. I have read that the these tactics are common adaptive measures for adoptees, not just those who discovered late. They certainly worked well for me when I was very small. Later, as an actor they helped me get parts, though never the kind that required real courage to play. I was funny and nice, eager to please, but only half-there. I still like making people laugh, but I can’t be that person all the time. Not anymore.

Like Mom, I have my own storehouse of rage, though mine is buried deep under layers of denial. Recently, though, in my own healing process, I found a small window for my child-self to crawl through to meet her halfway. It's a photograph, a small relic that has somehow, inexplicably, brought me much joy.

Here she is, impish and playful, dressed for Halloween. The camera has captured a moment of… happiness? I’m not sure. What do you see? Whoever took this picture could have no idea  that so many years later it would find its way here to me, like an anonymous gift of flowers. But I’m glad it has. 

On this fifth Mother’s Day since Mom finally sat down to rest, I still work to set down the weight of what she and I both carried, but I am glad that now at least I know how. I want to tell her that I am ok, that I am eating well and have enough money. 

Like Mom, I sometimes still find myself standing in a room, frozen in fear, afraid to speak the truth. "I'm not allowed to say anything," I think to myself.  But I am. And when I do, I feel better, I feel more me

It is my way of walking out the door and going to work.