I don’t get overly emotional or sentimental.
In my career—education, teaching, school leadership—there is little benefit in wearing your emotions. Level-headed is baseline; anything else—get too high or low—and things tend to go wrong. Except when I am riffing (because I am hilarious) or really comfortable with a group of acquaintances, I tend to hide my emotions.
I was once told, upon receiving the assignment of delivering a eulogy, I was the only one in the family who could do it without breaking down. True, perhaps.
But I do have emotions.
I’ve written and delivered three eulogies, and while I’ve got through each of them, I did feel that lump forming during each. I had to take a momentary pause before continuing. I’m not a sociopath, I know.
I’m not terribly sentimental about anything other than the hockey cards of my youth, and near-every record and CD I’ve purchased.
I have been known to have my eyes leak at the conclusion of a television series I’ve especially respected. NYPD Blue. 19-2. Hell, I’ve cried during more episodes of The Waltons than I will ever admit.
This week I listened to “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” a song I’ve heard several hundred times. But this time, when Bruce sang, “The big man joined the band…” my eyes watered.
I have cried reading novels. In my third year of university, I sobbed reading Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Bottle Neck.”
And I love. My wife. My family. The cats. Friends.
I have had my emotions get the better of me. I am passionate about bluegrass music, and have more than once engaged in spirited debate over the role of resonator guitars in the music. For the record, I could do without them.
I know where I stand politically, and can get as fired up as the next guy when scrolling through my Twitter feed as I read hateful and misinformed, xenophobic, racist, homophobic, right-wing lies and twisted truths.
But this week when I saw a picture of the person I believe is my birth mother, I felt nothing.
No sense of fulfillment.
No joy or satisfaction.
Not even rancour or anger.
I was adopted at birth, and as far as I know I am about as well-adjusted as I’m ever going to be. My adoption was never a secret, and I was raised believing I had been chosen—other families got whomever they got. I was chosen.
As charming as that sentiment was supposed to be, my childhood wasn’t easy. My parents separated when I was eight, and the home before that time was a fairly strange and violent place. My mom’s second husband supported us, and over time I’ve come to appreciate more what he did as my father. [I’ve never used the qualifier ‘step-‘ in relation to my father or brothers. For that matter, never used the term ‘adopted’ in relation to my mom.] Still, dad was an alcoholic given to mood swings and violent outbursts, and wasn’t always a nice person.
I knew my life was likely better in the situations I was raised than that which I might have lived.
At least I wasn’t aborted.
I’ve always been thankful for my birth mother’s decision to give me up for adoption. Life hasn’t been perfect, but it has turned out pretty fine. I’ve been successful in my chosen career, made a difference, I like to think. Made mistakes, lots of them, but likely not as many as some. Have regrets. I fret and worry.
But I’ve done things I couldn’t have imagined doing when I was a kid on the river-flat farm. I’ve seen The David and The Birth of Venus. I heard Doc Watson, Hazel Dickens, and Ralph Stanley sing from this close.
I’ve shaken Del McCoury’s hand, and I once startled Emmylou Harris outside a porta-potty. I’ve bungee-jumped. I got a university education, the first in the family to do so. I even managed to earn a Master’s degree. A real one, not one of those American kinds. I’ve swam in the Caribbean. I’ve had a near-death experience. Like, real close!
My adoption records were sealed, so I had no information available to me about my birth circumstances. That’s just how things were done in 1964.
Wrong. My mother lied to me.
I only found this out about twelve years ago, maybe a few more. Sometime in the last twenty or so years, my mom gave me my baby book. I glanced through it, found a poem my grandmother had written—it felt pretty cool to have a poem written about me—read the entries, and put it away in the white stationary box in which it had sat for more than forty years.
And forgot about it.
While I was cleaning and sorting a dozen years ago, I rediscovered my baby book, and found—tucked into the back—a yellowed, folded, typewritten government document. My official adoption papers and birth certificate. The papers my mother claimed didn’t exist. I wasn’t even angry: it just felt natural that she wouldn’t tell me about them.
On these documents were my birth name and detailed biographical information about my birth mother—her ethnic background, her physical features and hobbies, and life circumstance. Less was revealed about my birth father, leading me to believe that theirs’ may have been a short-lived relationship.
But from these I learned more than I ever thought I would know about my birth mother, and me.
And I filed the book and box away again. It was neat information to have, filled in a few gaps, provided me with a source of a new password. But it didn’t really impact me beyond I now kept my eye open for the surname in the obituaries in the city newspaper.
I wasn’t even mad at my mom for lying to me, if indeed she was lying. She could have been, or she may have simply forgotten the information was there.
And then 23andMe came along. My wife wanted me to spit into the tube so that I could find out health information that may be important as I head into my twilight years. It would be good to know if my genetics hinted at heart problems, diabetes, rickets, and the like.
I knew there was the possibility of birth family connections being revealed, and I was okay with that, too.
The truth is, I wanted to find my birth family. When you are adopted—my experience only—something is missing. A connection. There is a concave wound that isn’t near filled, no matter how much you pretend it is. Your family is your family, and you love them. But…there is something missing. A disconnect. “You are them, but you are not of them,” is the best I’ve come to define it.
My mom could not have handled me finding my birth mother. She just couldn’t. She was too…well, she was too many things, but she was definitely too insecure to have me find my birth mother. I’m not being unfair. She requested, no— more demanded—that I not look for my birth mother. I was fifteen, or twelve, when that happened. She was hysterically crying.
So I told mom I wasn’t interested and would never look for her. The crying stopped, and I convinced myself I wasn’t interested. I was curious, sure—but that is different from wanting to pursue something, tracking down my family. I actually registered on one of those sites that were made available to the adopted twenty or thirty years ago, but I never heard anything.
But now that mom is dead, there is nothing stopping me from looking. So—what the heck—I spit. And spit.
I was amazed at how few meaningful matches I received. Not surprised. Why would it work out any differently? I apparently have hundreds of fourth-, fifth,- and further cousins, but no one close popped up.
I had my heritage confirmed—eastern European (Romanian) and French Canadian—but no close family relations appeared. Fairly typical. Rejected at birth, rejected by spit and DNA.
Months passed. Maybe a year.
And then a first-cousin connection came in. She contacted me, or maybe I contacted her. We exchanged a few messages, and she promised to gently poke around in the family secrets to see what she could discover for me.
And silence. Didn’t hear from her again.
And then another cousin, actually the spouse of a second cousin. Again, exchanged some emails, shared a bit of black humour. Some descriptions of the possible family from which I had sprung—the province, the area, the family circumstance. Another promise to see what she could shake out of the family tree.
In the ensuing months I wondered, What did they find out? Why go silent? How bad could it be?
People get busy, and maybe they just went onto other things.
Then a third relative contacted me, the mother-in-law of the second woman and a cousin to me. I imagine she and her daughter-in-law had shared notes, and decided to continue the contact.
Again, I shared information from my baby book and she promised to do some searching. She had her own adoption story, and was able to tell me more about my possible family and our shared connection.
Maybe this is how these things have to go. People need to find the time and maybe even strength to talk about their families’ hidden stories. I understand that. For me, it’s easy. I’m the dispassionate outsider unconnected to these people. They have the skin in this game, not me. Ask the wrong person the wrong question, and all of a sudden, the biggest problem with Thanksgiving dinner isn’t forgetting to open the can of cranberries.
Last week, an email arrived. My DNA cousin had the goods. If all was as it appeared, she was confident she had identified my mother. She didn’t ‘know’ her, but by speaking with an older relative had learned my birth grandparents names, all my birth uncles and aunts names, and where they lived. She couldn’t be sure my birth mother was still alive, but she had the name.
Google is your friend when someone drops your birth mother’s name on you. A few searches, and I found the name in my birth grandmother’s obituary; that led to a couple old newspaper articles. Nothing else.
A couple more emails, a corrected spelling of a married name, a shortening of a first name and—sitting at my desk at work on a no-bus day—suddenly, there she was on Facebook.
My mom. Staring off toward the right of the camera, smiling and leaning into her husband.
And I felt nothing.
I had been jazzed by the search, the DNA contacts, the back-and-forth emails, tenuous connections with passing cousins, tracking down of the obituary, matching of the names to what I had been provided, the newspaper stories (nothing sensational, just small-town news)—the search was exhilarating. The ‘could I do it?’ sensation.
But, now staring at her, I felt nothing.
Over the years, as a teen, a young adult, now, I had thought that when I saw her face, something would drop. Or warm. Flutter. A connection would be made.
Truly, the feeling was like looking at a menu. Or a solicitation letter from a company you once dealt with. I wasn’t even intrigued.
She’s my mom.
It has nothing to do with her. I hold no ill-will toward my birth mother, and I hope she has had a good life since giving me up.
No, it isn’t her; it’s me. I don’t know if I want to go further and make contact. Not sure how I would make contact. Do I have the right to drop her a letter and say, “Hey-does my birth date mean anything to you? If so, you might be my mother? Do you want to know me?”
I studied her face—didn’t really see any similarities between us, but that isn’t a big deal.
Do I need another family connection? I’ve got family, I’ve got in-laws. Do I need more?
I’ve witnessed two birth-family reunions. Neither went perfectly, and one went quite poorly. I’ve heard ‘Third Times the Charm’ all my life—it was one of my mom’s favourite sayings. Should I?
I have no idea if I even want to, and I suppose as long as I’m not sure, I have my answer.
She’s seventy-five this year, if she’s my mother. Neither of us are getting younger, and we may only have a few more years to even make the attempt.
As far as I know, she hasn’t reached out to me in fifty-five years, and there may be reasons.
Does her husband know she had a child at twenty? Do her kids know?
What is the impact if I reach out?
What is the impact if I don’t?
Addendum: My birth name is Jack Gordon Onofrechuk, and I was born in Edmonton in 1964. If that sounds familiar, drop me an email; I would love to chat.