Sunday, May 6, 2012

Before and After

There are only a few things that leave such an indelible mark on your life that you think back on the past in terms of "before" and "after."

My parents and I only moved once, when I was seven, into an apartment across the street from the one we were in. I don't remember much about the old place except forcing my parents to play game after game of Sorry! with me, and being annoyed when we colored that my dad didn't press hard with crayons and my mom never colored outside the lines. All my childhood memories in my mind are categorized by that move and I always find myself saying, "Well, let's see. We moved when I was seven..." whenever I try to figure out how old I was when something happened.

When I was thirteen I watched The Wall with my best friend Diane. I wasn't a Pink Floyd fan and didn't understand anything about what I was seeing except that it was absolutely miserable. We were both very, very spooked.  That night we stayed up talking about all kinds of teenagey, angsty nonsense like what it meant to be a brick in the wall and maybe we were all characters in someone's dream or what if we're ants to a giant race we can't see. We were afraid to go to sleep. The next day I dug out every piece of black clothing I could find and topped my new ensemble off with one of my father's ratty old cardigans. I cut off half my hair and dyed the rest of it blue-black and pierced my ears a few times with a safety pin. My transformation was complete and I was never the same.

Getting into Harvard was another one of those moments. I'd been playing the cranky, sullen and misunderstood teenager for about eight or nine years when a unique and inspiring college professor took a shine to me and coaxed my inner geek out into the open. School had always come easy to me and I enjoyed learning just for learning's sake, but now I was out of the closet: a proud nerd. This teacher helped me figure out what my academic passions were. I developed a taste for the truly obscure and she convinced me to pursue my interests no matter what. Because of her, I believed I could do anything I wanted to. But when the acceptance letter came and I was in, I actually half-believed someone would ring my doorbell and ask for it back, having mixed up my name or Social Security number with one belonging to a truly deserving student, not me.

Years later, I watched Peaceable Kingdom on DVD one night with my roommates. I'd been vegetarian bordering on vegan for years, so nothing in this documentary was a surprise to me and yet I had such a visceral reaction that I promptly donated everything I owned that had even so much as a shred of animal product in it and went vegan. Within three weeks I'd landed a new job helping animals, joined the Park Slope Food Co-op, found vegan friends, and completely changed my life to a more vegan-centric existence.

When I was 26 years old I met my birth mother. I'd always known I was adopted and never planned to do anything about it until a coworker convinced me that I would be missing a big part of my life if I didn't at least try to find her. I relented and to my surprise it happened almost immediately. And really, it couldn't have come at a more inopportune time. I was newly separated from my first husband, a truly wonderful human being who did not deserve to get stuck with me as I was at that time. I was depressed and angry and making a real mess of my life. I expected her to fix everything, but she had two teenagers and didn't need a third. We had a lovely first reunion lunch in which she introduced me to random strangers in the restaurant as the daughter she gave up many years ago. Shortly thereafter, when I described the dark place I was in, hopeful that she would be the one to save me and drag me out, she said "All I ever wanted to know was that my first daughter was happy." I couldn't tell her that I was. I knew her words meant she was not going to rescue me. I had to do it myself, and it wasn't easy, but I did.

There are a number of other milestone events like those. Meeting my soulmate, looking in his eyes and knowing right away that he was meant to be mine. Getting the call from my doctor saying, "Yes, you're pregnant!" And then, losing my birth mother.

Yes, we got off to a rocky start. Adoption is riddled with guilt, anger and insecurity. But I grew up a lot in the next twelve years and so did she. We were in our second honeymoon phase. She delighted in my daughter as much as I did and by extension seemed to delight in me. Suddenly we were visiting all the time and texting or calling every day. She took an interest in my life and I in hers. We swapped books, cut out recipes, shared pictures and links. She wanted to hear about every little thing Thora did. We laughed a lot together and when we cried it was because we hadn't clicked like this sooner. And then one day, she was gone.

So, before. The week before it happened, I was at a conference, which was at Disney, so I, like many of my colleagues with small children, took advantage and brought the family along. I had some vacation days to use so we came early and left late, and every second we had we spent in the theme parks, watching Thora's eyes light up with every step. I was so happy. Work was great. My family was growing: I was halfway through my second pregnancy. I was loving being a new mother to a bright and inquisitive toddler, and life was just really, really good. I sent one picture after the next to my birth mother: Thora coloring with crayons for the first time, Thora meeting Mickey and Minnie for the first time, the three of us in front of the castle for the first time, Thora squealing with delight on a ride for the first time. So many firsts. She shared my excitement through the phone. I tried to convince her to fly down and join us, but she wasn't feeling well. "I'm tempted," she texted back. "Next time."

Next time, next time, next time. There is so much promise in those two little words. They made me feel like a little kid on Christmas Eve. I could see all the presents under the tree and in my mind, they were all for me and none of them were socks or underwear. Every single one of them was full of magic: one incredible surprise after the next, each exactly what I longed for, even if I didn't yet know it. Next time made me feel like we were just getting started. Those days were full of offers of next time. It was like we were falling in love all of a sudden, though I think we were just both in love with Thora. We tossed around a million plans, ideas, ways to be together. Next visit - planned for just three weeks later - was Johnny's birthday and she'd take the baby so Johnny and I could get a hotel room and sleep through the night, just the two of us. In the summer we'd do some shopping for the new baby. In the fall she'd be there when the new baby came. Next winter we'd fly to Florida together and play with the babies on the beach. Next time meant my girls would grow up with a Grandma. Next time meant she was going to be a presence in our lives for years to come. In my mind I planned our trip to Disney together. Though we'd only done it together once, in my mind we went apple picking and pumpkin picking together every year. We celebrated holidays together, no birthday went unforgotten, and even unexciting days were exciting knowing she was there.

So, before. It was Mother's Day, and Mother's Day was always a strange day for me. My mom, never one to celebrate a holiday, shrugged at the gifts I tried to please her with: slippers, bathrobes, flowers, perfumes. I once bought her a gift basket from the Body Shop that I found years later in a closet, still shrink-wrapped. I was devastated. As a teenager, I wondered vaguely if there was a person out there who wanted to receive the gifts I so badly wanted to send. I kept sending my mom cards though because it was important to me to acknowledge the day. When my birth mother and I began to connect, I bought her a card too. At first I think this was awkward for both of us, but I kept sending them. And as I got to know her better, I sent little gifts too. And then I was a mom too, and Mother's Day was for me. It was a day to spend with my family, to think about how at times in my life I didn't trust myself to become a mother even though deep down there was nothing I wanted more. Last year Johnny found a compilation of New Yorker cartoons that were mom-themed. He said "Get this for her!" so I did, and she got it while we were away. We were just leaving the hotel when she texted to say thank you and to wish me a happy day too. She told me I was a wonderful mother and said that she loved me. I wished her a great day again, and we signed off. We were headed to Epcot, and I threw myself into the Disney-mom experience. I loved that day. And I kept checking my phone, looking at those texts and emails many times. Somehow having her tell me I was a wonderful mother meant everything, and I was on top of the world. Life really couldn't get any better.

We never spoke again. The next time I saw her was later that week in the hospital. She'd suffered a stroke, never to wake. And a year later I can still hardly believe it.

So now, after. In many ways, it's been a wonderful year. We had our second baby, Freyja, a healthy and beautiful girl named for her Grandma. I went back to work and then back to school. Thora, now two, speaks in full sentences and is bossy and opinionated like her mama and grandma before her. We were welcomed by my birth mother's family and in the process, Thora gained a Poppa, aunts, cousins and an uncle. This tragedy connected my beautiful, smart and caring sister and me in a way I can't be sure would have happened had things been different. But this loss. It's so hard.

Time stands still for me sometimes, and in my mind's eye I am at Disney with a happy baby, pregnant and so excited about all that is before me. And then I remember. So I am dreading this Mother's Day. This week has already been so hard. I am so thankful that I will be with my family and hers. It will be reassuring not to be alone.

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