Unsealing the Records
When you were born blue
eyes owl round, dark downed
there was no one to ask if loss
too was passed through placenta and blood.
Sixteen now, when you meet my gaze, looking
glass familiar, no relative
wonders who you take after. Born
on your grandmother's birthday, one more
gift for a woman terrified of too much
fortune. I was far younger than you
when I learned some questions were weapons
even in the right hands. How words
could be strung on a necklace
or garrote. I swear there is nothing
you could say as sharp or shameful
as silence. I am here.
Ask me anything.
LJ Cohen, 2010
How’s this for irony?
In 2010, I was finally ready to locate and contact my birth parents after years of struggling with what was right and if my own need to know superseded both my adoptive family’s feelings and the chance of exposing old secrets in my birth family.
I wrote this poem in the fall of that year. It helped me realize it was time to dig out the records I had received years earlier. I was going to do what it took: search on the internet, hire an adoption detective. But life got busy, as it always does, and I figured I’d have time during the kid’s winter school vacation.
On December 1, 2010, we were woken up by the smoke detectors blaring. Our house was on fire. And we fled barefoot and in our pajamas. Dealing with the emotional impact of the fire, being displaced from our home for almost a year, and the overwhelming amount of administrative work that followed drove my adoption search to the bottom of my priority list.
In hindsight, 2010 was a really awful year, and not just because of our housefire: It was also the year my birth mother died. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The following year - 2011 - when we moved back into our rebuilt house, I believed that the large envelop with my handwritten adoption paperwork had burned in the fire. With the lawyer who handled the adoption now long dead, his office closed, I knew there was no way to recreate the files. I only had what I remembered from them, which was incomplete.
In the years that followed, I would occasionally search for my birth mother’s and birth father’s names on google, but wasn’t able to find anyone either on the internet or on social media who matched what I knew of them. I had registered my information on several adoption matching sites, but with incomplete information, I wasn’t very hopeful.
And it was during those years that my parents were becoming ill and their safety and medical needs occupied so much of my time and focus. There were other family crises during those years, too, and my own “curiosity” (such an incomplete word to describe my deep, primal need to know about my past and my history) took a back seat to everything else.
Parents. Adoptive parents. Birth parents. We just don’t have enough precise language to describe all these relationships.
|Me, Mom, and Dad, Florida Vacation, 1969|
When I say parents, I mean the mom and dad who adopted me and raised me. Hanford and Bea Cohen, both now of blessed memory. They embraced me into my new family when I was just 5 days old, never hiding the fact that they had adopted – chosen – wanted me. And there was no one in the extended family on either side who didn’t embrace me as family.
I grew up surrounded by love, encouragement, emotional security.
And yet. . .
And yet, there were always unspoken questions. Questions I knew would make my mother sad if I asked them. Which didn’t make the questions go away, it only buried them deep in my psyche.
Why was I given up?
To a young child, the unspoken, terrifying answer to that question had to be that something was wrong with me, or that I had done something wrong to not have been wanted.
It didn’t matter that my rational brain knew that wasn’t the case. As I’ve said many times: humans are not primarily rational creatures. We are emotional creatures who justify our feelings with a coating of rationality.
So my need to search wasn’t really a need to find a new family, but a need to find myself and release a hurt I didn’t really know I was holding.
And it was completely serendipitous that one day, in October of 2017, I found myself in our attic looking for the old clock radio I knew my husband had put up there because he doesn’t throw things away.
Next to the radio, were several banker’s boxes of papers we had rescued from the house and tossed in the attic when we returned after the fire, six years earlier. Boxes I had never looked through.
Until I did that day.
And inside one of the last boxes was my adoption file.
To be continued. . .
(Read on to part 2)