All day, my stomach did somersaults. I couldn’t even go for a jog because my intestines would not allow it. A familiar, creeping, unnamed anxiety washed over me, and as usual, I tried to drown out its empty voice with wine later that night.
There is always a reason why our bodies protest our own existence like this.
I awoke the next morning with the news in an email from my uncle, the subject line reading, “Your Dad.” The body of the text, I hardly recall reading, except the first sentence, “Andy passed away yesterday.” The juxtaposition of the subject line indicating a person possessed by me — my father — and the first sentence, which referred to him as the stranger he had been to me for 39 years of my life, were all I could focus on in that moment. Andy, my biological father, whose last name I had only learned 11 months ago, whom I had only ever spoken to 10 months ago, and whom I had searched for my whole life, was gone. Again.
“Well, that explains my weird anxiety yesterday,” I thought.
As Bessel Van Der Kolk reminds us, The Body Keeps the Score.
Van Der Kolk forgot to mention in that book, however, that the body predicts the score, too.
Still lying in bed when I read my uncle’s message, I silently wept while my partner slept beside me. Two minutes later, I was up, preparing for the day, trying to shove it all down until it was an acceptable hour to drink more wine.
The façade only lasted so long. My partner and my children — even my 18-month-old — can see right through me when I’m sad. When I could no longer hold back the deep stabbing pain in my chest, I lost myself entirely for a good three days. It was a dark, tear-filled, and wine-drenched three days until I finally emerged and could begin processing. It’s now been nearly two months, and I suspect I shall be processing for the rest of my time on this planet.
Three days was incidentally the length of time between when my labor with my first child began and the time he was born. Like all the feelings I had bottled up my whole life and the true self I had hidden behind so many clever disguises, my son was stuck inside me and was not coming out without a fight. Once he did, it released the trauma that had lay dormant in my nervous system for 35 years.
“I don’t know my own birth story,” I remember saying out loud as I held and fed my newborn son one day. I wondered if I was as much of a pain in the ass coming out as he was. I don’t know what time I was born. In fact, I have no idea where I was for the first six weeks of my life, because before I was permanently adopted, I was in foster care, with someone, somewhere.
While I had always wanted to know about my biological family and had made several attempts to find them over the years, the urge was now unstoppable. It would not be until after the birth of my second child that I would finally locate the mysterious Andy I had heard about in snippets here and there. Because I took an extended maternity leave after my second pregnancy, I had a lot more time on my hands to really dig into the search. After several months of scouring the web, analyzing DNA results, reaching out to second, third, even fourth cousins, and stalking people on Facebook like I was some kind of criminal, I found my uncle, then found a picture of Andy, my dad, and saw his eyes — my eyes — and I immediately began crying uncontrollably.
There, staring back at me through this image, was half of my story. It was half of me. So full of so many emotions, I nearly threw up. Then I slept like I had not slept in, well, maybe my whole life? I slept…like a baby that night. A baby that was not terrified and sad and lonely and afraid and confused as to why she was plucked out of her family and placed among strangers.
As an aside, those strangers eventually became my family. They are the family I am socially and developmentally familiar with, but no matter how much love they gave me over the years, and no matter how close we might be, they could never be biologically familiar to me the way my mother was for the months she carried me, nor the way she and Andy were familiar with me in those few moments they held me before I was taken away.
My infant self did not consciously understand anything that was happening, but my little infant body sure did. I was transformed that day of my birth and my nervous system learned to be afraid, to never trust that people would not leave me, and to stay hyper-vigilant. I would grow up being a perfectionist who was never satisfied with her achievements, no matter how great. I struggled with anorexia. My anxiety has caused me to chip many of my teeth, and I developed ulcers at a very young age. Those are the truths I have buried under a veneer of beautiful blonde hair, impressive athletic feats, and a picture-perfect family, with two children, two dogs, two cats, and a very patient and loving partner.
As far as my infant self was concerned that day, I was dying. With no way to be assured that I would be safe, my body went into fight or flight mode and I can only imagine the panic that set in. My body remembers, even if my brain cannot consciously recall.
And my dad, on my birthday, he was dying too. It was one of several events in his life that would eat away at him, like his bad habits that slowly eroded the modicum of physiological health to which he was genetically predisposed.
This was the first death of my dad, on my birthday.
And until my second child was born, I truly believed I would never meet him. He might as well be dead, I always thought. He didn’t want me anyways.
Those feelings all flooded my heart when I saw his picture that November morning, just over a year ago. What followed was a massive upheaval of so many pillars of my identity. Nothing seemed real anymore, and I wondered if I would ever again feel like myself.
I have since come to realize that I never did feel like myself until I began locating my biological family. I could never fully embrace who I am because I didn’t even know where I came from. In the following months after finding my dad, I was indeed mourning myself, but I was mourning someone I thought I was. In this way, I was attending my own wake, both fully present and alive, while also dead at the same time.
“What has been seen cannot be unseen, what has been learned cannot be unknown. You cannot change the past, but you can learn from it. You can grow from it. You can be made stronger. You can use that strength to change your life, to change your future.” — Cynthia Woolf
Now I have answers to give my children about their biological roots. I have siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles that look like me and my children. For a short time, I could tell my four-year-old about yet another grandpa he had. He loved the idea of it. But he never got to meet Andy, my dad, his biological grandfather.
I made the snap decision to go visit Andy in early January. My uncle had warned me that Andy’s health was not great, but there was no reason to believe he would die within a few months. Something just told me this was a matter of urgency.
The body keeps and predicts the score.
After finally seeing my dad face-to-face, in the flesh, for the first time since the day of my birth, we continued our reunion and I made plans to visit again with the whole family in late March. That never happened, thanks to the pandemic.
We kept up over texts and video chats, though my dad was no technophile, so it was often challenging, to say the least. I did not prioritize talking to him over those people I had known my whole life — my adopted parents, close friends, etc. All the same, we chatted not infrequently. He always loved seeing his grandkids. I was the only child of the five he had created who was willing to speak to him in his last year of life. I’m still unsure of all the details of the four half-siblings I have from him, and one day, when I am ready, I will uncover more of those stories. I am getting to know two of my half-sisters right now and that has brought me a lot of joy. What I will always hold in my heart is that I was his first, and I was there with him last. I forgave him for letting me go. I loved him in all his complexity.
However, I sometimes wonder if I subconsciously kept him at arm’s length, because I fear being abandoned so deeply. This is something I do with a lot of people. I have to force myself to stay in touch with others, reach out and maintain contact, and I often find myself pushing people away as a sort of preemptive protective measure. Adoption really messes with your ability to trust. Anyhow, I carry with me some degree of guilt about not being more diligent about talking to my dad while I had the chance. I didn’t realize how little time we would have together. I know it’s not my fault. I know I owed him nothing. I know he was lucky to have me back in his life more than the other way around.
None of those truths ease the pain in my heart.
Because I found him, for the first time in my life, my biological dad and I were able to celebrate most of the major holidays during what was almost a year together. He wished me happy 40th birthday, the first birthday greetings I had ever received from anyone I am biologically related to, besides my 4-year-old son. A couple weeks after my birthday, he was gone.
How do you heal from one of the deepest wounds that can be inflicted on a human — being abandoned by their own parents? You don’t. You adapt. You survive. If you are lucky, you find those people you were severed from and piece your narrative together little by little. It won’t heal you, but it will make you feel more complete. Instead of feeling like a rose plucked from a garden sitting in someone’s home until it wilts away, you will start to feel rooted, part of the earth, connected, grounded.
The gaping hole in my heart that was left when my infant self witnessed the death of her parents was being repaired, not healed, by getting to know him. After all those years assuming it was impossible, but trying anyways, after all the time I spent daydreaming, asking random men I met named Andy if they had ever had a kid they relinquished for adoption, after my eyes, bloodshot with exhaustion from staring at my computer screen as I endlessly searched, finally rested upon a pair that looked like my own — I had found my origin story.
How do you adapt and survive when, after all that searching and yearning, you find who you were looking for, only to have him die, all over again?
I am not sure. But I am doing it anyways. Writing, as always, helps.
This is a piss poor excuse for a eulogy, I know. But it’s the most truthful one I can give at this time. Like for many families, a large, in-person wake is impossible right now. I don’t even know if I would be asked to speak on my father’s behalf anyways. I still feel like an interloper in my own family. Part of my continual attempt to feel whole is to just try to get over that and blast onto their scene whether they like it or not. That’s hard work for someone who often feels guilty for her own existence. But I’m also stubborn. Like my dad was. And I’m going to miss him.
I missed him my whole life. Now I have to start missing him all over again. At least he can never leave me again, again.