Monday, May 11, 2009

Baby Girl McGuigan

I look like my mom and dad. I have her weak chin, his bad gums, bad temper and, I am happy to say, his lack of grey hair. I am clearly of northern European descent. They don't come much paler than me unless their name is Edgar Winter, so to envision my ancestors wandering the Scottish Highlands as part of the Davidson clan or goose stepping in rigid Prussian efficiency is no big stretch. So, it was without any suspicion at all that I rooted through Mother's lock box in early November looking for a Power of Attorney document she told me would be there in order for me to be able to handle her affairs while she was in the hospital. There was no such document. What I found instead pretty close to the top was a letter from the Department of Public Welfare for the State of New Mexico informing my parents how to obtain a new birth certificate for me in my adoptive name. Enclosed was the stub from the money order she sent to get a certified copy of the certificate, which I have had with my records for years, and a little adoption announcement. I read the letter, which opened with the statement, "We have received the Orders of Adoption indicating that you have completed legal adoption for the above-named child." It went on to detail what steps had been taken to alter the birth certificate with my adopted name and that any records referencing the birth parents had been sealed.

My shock was palpable. For a minute the world stood stock still while the blood thundered in my head and my vision narrowed to a pin prick. When my senses cleared enough to think, I realized that the world had suddenly shifted in its entirety. For me, everything had just changed. Everything I thought I knew about myself was no longer true. I was not who I thought I was, but worse still, I didn't know who I really was.

I had seen a copy of that announcement before. I recognized it immediately. When I was 11 or 12, I was rummaging through my baby book, which Mother kept in the bottom of my chest of drawers and it had fallen out. This was right at the time when I was starting to realize that my parents were not perfect, and some natural rebellious tendencies were surfacing. I confronted Mother with the little announcement, but she denied it. I didn't let it go. I am not sure how long I kept at it, badgering my parents to fess up until finally the mother of a friend of mine pulled me aside and reasoned with me. Very calmly she explained that it was natural for kids my age to begin to see differences in themselves and their parents, and most go through a period of believing they must come from another family as a result. She pointed out how much I looked like my mother and father and assured me they were my real parents. I don't think anyone ever bothered to explain why the announcement specifically referenced adoption, but I accepted her explanation with some disappointment, and more or less decided the announcement was just meant to be funny, since I was already well aware that they were older when I came along and guessed that most of their friends had long given up on them ever joining the parenting ranks. In the meantime, I did notice that the baby book disappeared.

Over the next three plus decades there were plenty of times I wished I could claim some sort of genetic distance from my parents, but never again doubted that I was really their issue. If I thought about that incident at all, it was to marvel at the hell I dished out to my poor parents over things they had no control over (I hated being an only child from an early age, and bugged them incessantly to give me a brother or sister, as if they could simply go to the corner store and pick one up). Until that day in early November, that is.

That evening, sitting in Mother's empty bedroom, I felt rudderless, so I tried calling my husband I think just to be able to reconnect to something that I knew to be real, but he was in a meeting and could not talk to me. So I called my daughter at her college in North Carolina and told her. That perhaps wasn't fair to lay at her feet, but somehow being able to verbalize it helped to get the world kick started again and make my brain try and begin wrapping around this. In the meantime, I still had to try and find the document I was looking for and get back to the hospital. I didn't have time to let it sink in properly. But, as I tried to get myself moving, I continued to feel as though I was slogging through a fog. Nothing seemed right. Maybe my reaction would baffle some people, but for me, a lonely only child of older parents who had been raised across the country from either parents' respective families, my belief in my lineage gave me the little sense of belonging I had. Even my allegiance to my beloved Steelers was built on a foundation of my western Pennsylvania roots. Now, suddenly, I find that I have no real Pennsylvania roots! (My husband later calmed me down by assuring me no one would question the legitimacy of me belonging to the Steeler Nation. Thank God!)

As I tried to get my head wrapped around all of that, anger sunk in. For the last eight years, my two daughters had struggled with a series of issues, some psychological, some organic, but all requiring each specialist to have a detailed family history. Everything I had told all of those people in order for them to try and help my girls had been a lie, at least as it pertained to my side of the family. I had never told Mother all the gory details of the kids' struggles. I didn't want her to pass judgment on them unfairly, but she knew enough. As a trained nurse, she certainly should have known that keeping this tidbit of information from me was stopping us from having accurate histories.

So, now I had to somehow pull myself back together with all of this new knowledge bouncing around in my head and go back to the hospital. Do I confront her? Ask her about it nicely? Or let it go?

I'll tell you my decision tomorrow...

(This is me the day the adoption became final.)

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