Tag Archives: grief and loss

what every adoptee wants to know

When I was growing up in Louisiana, one of the questions I was most often asked by others upon learning that I was adopted was, “so who are your ‘real’ parents?” It was fairly obvious that I was adopted, as I looked nothing like my white parents. I had straight black hair, almond shaped eyes and skin the color of my dad’s morning cup of coffee. I was usually annoyed by the question each and every time it was asked. My typical response was, “well my parents are my real parents.” My adoptive parents were the only parents I knew. The only parents I would ever know. I have no doubt that other adoptees encounter the same question and perhaps feel the same annoyance.

What baffles me is that I was never curious about my birthparents until about two years ago after finding my adoption papers, 40 years after my adoption. This ambivalence was perpetuated by the secrecy surrounding adoption at the time. My adoptive parents never ever talked about my birth heritage, including the family I was born into. When I was placed for adoption, it was the beginning of the end of any connection to my birth country, to my birthfamily. After my adoption, all cultural ties were severed. I would never know that my birthparents were from China, but forced to leave the country and build a new life in Taiwan, that I had two older sisters and an older brother. I believe that my adoptive parents did everything possible to keep my past hidden from me, and for years, it would remain so. Then one day, the truth came out, or at least part of it. And when it did, it was the beginning of a new chapter in my life.

This afternoon, I went with some friends who are visiting from California to see a movie, “Philomena,” starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. It was a heart wrenching experience, although there was some humor between the characters. It is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who, as a teenager, had a romantic fling with a boy at a carnival and became pregnant. Rejected by her own family, she is sent to a convent where she gives birth to a son, Anthony, and is forced to work with other young girls in order to work off the penance of their “sins.” The girls are allowed to see their children for only one hour a day. What is even more tragic is one day, Philomena watches helplessly as her three-year-old boy is taken away by a rich American couple without as much as a goodbye. The convent was in the business of selling babies to wealthy Americans and having the young mother’s sign contracts that they could never find out the whereabouts of their children. This abominable practice is historical, unfortunately. Fifty years later, Philomena is still tormented by the loss of her son and the desire to find him. She unwittingly connects with dejected political journalist, Martin Sixsmith, portrayed by Steve Coogan, who agrees to help her find her son, primarily for the tabloid possibilities of a human interest story. What follows is a tender story of loss, reconciliation, forgiveness and ultimately acceptance.

I know some adoptees hated this film, but it really resonated with me, despite the creative license that was taken to make it more dramatic. The story of grief and loss was what struck me. The depiction of such a tremendous loss experienced by a woman whose child was taken away from her was so real. I felt the loss as if it were my own. So often adoption is portrayed as a happy event, yet rarely do we see the other side of adoption from the perspective of the birth mother who is forced to relinquish her child. One of the most memorable lines comes when Philomena decides to go to America with Martin Sixsmith in hopes of finding her son. Philomena says, “I’d like to know if Anthony ever thought of me…I’ve thought of him everyday.”

Since learning about my birthparents in Taiwan, I’ve often wondered if my birth mother ever thought of me. How can it not be so? Philomena answered this question for me. The separation between a mother who is forced to give up her child and the child who is relinquished causes a wound that is easily re-opened again and again. I will never know my birth mother . She and my biological father died before I had the chance to meet them. I have often wondered about her, like what her favorite color was, what kind of music she liked, what kind of personality she had, was she happy, did we bond at all while I was still with her? I was told by my sisters in Taiwan that she was a teacher, she enjoyed learning and classical music. Unbeknownst to her,  my biological father, placed me for adoption without her consent. I often wonder how it all happened, if my biological father felt anything at all when he took me to the orphanage and left me there to languish. My sisters tell me that our mother never talked about what happened, but it deeply affected her, emotionally and psychologically. When we met for the first time since my adoption, they gave me photos of our mother and father. I felt that there was such sadness behind my birth mother’s eyes and wondered what she was thinking when the photo was taken.

Philomena eventually learns that the life her son attains after his adoption is much more affluent than anything she could have ever provided for him. She recognizes this fact and is happy that he grew up having opportunities that he would not have had otherwise. This is the reason why many adoptees are placed for adoption, including me. It’s quite the phenomenon when you are given everything you could possibly need and want, yet still feel a hole somewhere deep inside you, like there is a part of you that’s missing. It’s still there to this day. I’ve learned to accept it, or perhaps even ignore it so I can deal with life.

I think that many adoptees wonder why they were given up or abandoned. Questions like, “was it because I was unwanted, was it forced, was I ever thought of afterwards?” are not uncommon. Unfortunately, many adoptees will never know the answers because of a lack of documentation, abandonment or falsification of documents. Finding my birthfamily brought me one step closer to the truth and to answering some of those questions. Yet, the whole truth is still so elusive. I will always have questions about my birthparents and my birthfamily. Answers are not so easy to come by.

In the movie, Martin Sixsmith quotes T.S. Eliot toward the end of Philomena’s journey, 

“The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” 

I thought how very apt this quote was. Philemona started her journey at the convent and, in the end, returns to it. My journey began in an orphanage in Taiwan. Two years ago, I returned to the city of my birth to be reunited with my birth/first family. I arrived at the place where it all started, yet only just began to know the place for the first time. Though I will never be able to meet my birth mother, I believe that she thought about me. There is no longer any doubt in my mind.

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

book review: not only the things that have happened

“If it is real, you can remember not only the things that have happened, but also the things that are going to happen.”  —Annakutty Verghese

Harper Collins (India, 2012)

Mridula Koshy’s debut novel, Not Only the Things That Have Happened, is not a tale for the faint-hearted. It is a story that explores the impact of adoption, oppression, loss and identity. Koshy’s prose and storytelling is hauntingly beautiful and speaks directly to the heart. It is not a quick read, but one that invokes thought, and as such, is an important and compelling work.

At the center of the story is Annakutty Verghese, an aged, dying woman who desperately clings to life as thoughts of the son she relinquished 30 years ago linger within her memory. Annakutty was coerced into giving up her beloved son and regrets this decision the rest of her life. She constantly relives her brief time with him by telling stories to her niece, Nina. Annakutty’s greatest hope is that her Lost Boy, Madhu, will return to her, a hope that never diminishes even until her death.

Divided into two halves, the story takes place in Kerala, India and in the Midwestern U.S. and spans a period of 36-hours. The story of Annakutty is featured in the first half and that of Annakutty’s son, renamed Asa Gardner by his adoptive parents, in the second. We transition back and forth between the present and the past as the memories of various characters whose lives intersect are recollected. This can be a bit confusing, yet it is through this interweaving of past and present that Koshy so masterfully creates a multi-layered story of memories, loss and longing.

In Part 1, we travel back to Annakutty’s life as an adolescent. The sixteen-year old Annakutty falls in love with a young man from her stepmother’s village. Her family, particularly her stepmother, disapproves and Annakutty is sent away to a convent, but not without first suffering much degradation and scorn. At the convent, she has a child out of wedlock with a priest, which brings more shame upon the young Annakutty. Eventually, she is convinced to give up her son when he is four years old. She later takes in her niece, Nina, and even marries, which brings a certain happiness back into Annakutty’s life, though she never gives up hope of finding her Madhu.

In Part 2, we travel a world away to meet Asa Gardner, formerly Madhu, who is now a grown man. We learn that Asa’s life has been characterized by instability. After his relinquishment to a German couple visiting India, he becomes lost at the train station where he and his new family are to depart. We are led to believe, however, that this was not an accident. The young Asa soon joins a group of homeless boys, his “brothers,” who live on the railroad platform until he is rescued by agency workers. He is eventually adopted by an American couple. Asa’s struggles continue even after his adoption, and he has great difficulty assimilating to his new life. After a devastating family tragedy, Asa leaves home for good only to return to what is familiar- living on the streets and begging. Time passes and Asa marries, but becomes estranged from his wife and has a disconnected relationship with their young daughter. At the root of Asa’s turmoil is the lack of any tangible history, in essence, a lack of true identity. With only fragmented memories of his past, Asa wanders like a lost soul, searching for missing pieces and reinventing stories to fill in the gaps.

On a much deeper level, the story of Annakutty and Asa speaks to a larger issue, the social institution of adoption, and begs the question, is adoption really the best option for children from disadvantaged backgrounds? I have conflicted feelings on this issue. The point of contention for me begins with the separation of a mother and her child due to coercion, or because an unwed mother feels that she has no other options. Furthermore, that such exorbitant fees are required to adopt a child from another country is difficult for me to grasp. I cannot undo my own past and recognize that I had privileges growing up that I would not have had otherwise. On the flip side, I will never know my birth parents, nor ever feel fully integrated into my culture of origin. It is an emotional injury that rears its ugly head now and again. Although adopted children flourish in adoptive homes, the disparity between losses and gains is traumatic. Often the only picture one gets of adoption is a romanticized one. Some adoptees are Ok with this disconnect. For me, it is not that black and white.

In the end, my heart broke for Annakutty and Asa. They both lived on the hope that one day they would reconnect, and there is something to be said of Annakutty’s unwavering hope that her son would return, though this never occurs. I could relate to Asa in many way- his losses and struggle to put a narrative to his unknown past. An element of grief seeps heavily into much of the story, as most of the characters experience a great loss. I didn’t mind the sadness, quite the opposite. There was an underlying rawness that pulled me deeper into the story and gave it a true sense of realism. I encourage you to read Not Only the Things That Have Happened. It is a powerful read and one that will leave a lasting impression.

Not Only the Things That Have Happened may be purchased on Amazon.com.

Mridula Koshy is an Indian writer and lives in New Delhi, India and Portland, Oregon with her poet-school teacher partner and three children. She is also an adoptive mother. Please visit her website at http://mridulakoshy.blogspot.com/.

Koshy’s short-story collection, If It Is Sweet, won the 2009 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and was shortlisted for the 2009 Vodafone Crossword Book Award, an Indian literary award.

Next post, an interview with Mridula Koshy! 

those shoes

My first pair of shoes. I found them in the box, the one my adoptive mom hid in the attic with the rest of my adoption stuff. They are so small. A few scuff marks are visible where creases have worn into the toes. Amazingly, the laces are still a pristine white. The shoes smell faintly of mustiness after all these years having been buried in an old attic for who knows how long. On the soles of each shoe, my mom wrote, “Mari, 1st Shoes, Taiwan.” My family and close friends back home in Louisiana called me Mari, except for my dad. He always called me by my full name.

I will never know for sure why my mom hid so many things about my adoption. I suspect that she was being protective. When she died, I truly believe that she felt she had unfinished business. I’ll tell you why. She appeared to me shortly after her death, during a music therapy workshop, of all places. I was in a training class, along with some of my classmates, for The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM), which is a music-oriented exploration of consciousness intended to awaken a deeper understanding of self. Basically, it’s music-assisted psychotherapy.

During the training, we practiced facilitating sessions with each other, one student facilitating, the other playing the role of client. During my session, the imagery that emerged was of my adoptive mom and another unknown figure. I sensed that my adoptive mom wanted to tell me something important. I saw her face so clearly; it was how I remembered her before she got sick. Her eyes beamed radiantly at me the way they always did when she was happy. I felt such warmth and gentleness emanating from her presence and wanted so desperately to reach out to her. She was nudging me toward something, or someone. A figure appeared before me in the distance wearing a cloak similar to the one we all recognize from the fairy tale, Red Riding Hood, except, this cloak was dark. At first, I felt afraid. The figure was kind of creepy looking and ominous, and I wasn’t sure why it was there. It seemed to be waiting. As the music changed, the figure became less imposing, it took on the stature of a slender female figure. I noticed a pair of long gray gloves adorning her hands and forearms, like those long white gloves that women wore back in the 50’s. It slowly dawned on me that the figure was my birth mother. I’m not sure how I knew it was my birth mother, her face was hidden behind the hood of the cloak,  but I just knew it was her. What’s interesting to me is that before this experience, I had never consciously thought about my birth mother. Of course, I’d never met or seen her before either. At the time of the workshop, I didn’t know that she had passed away several years previous. My birth mother came closer and then embraced me. We stood like that for a long time. She was so elegant and lovely. She told me that she hadn’t wanted to give me up and that my musicality was a gift from her. She affirmed her love for me, not only through her words, but through an unspoken understanding. Much later when I reunited with my biological sisters in Taiwan, I learned that my birth mother loved and listened to classical music, which I also love and studied for many years, and that my biological father had placed me for adoption without telling her. So it was true, she hadn’t consented to relinquish me. She, nor my 2 biological sisters, had any idea what our father was up to.

The imagery was intensely vivid and powerful. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it before. It’s like you’re in a dream-like state, but are aware at all times of your surroundings and what’s going on around you. At the end of that session, I was sobbing and in quite a state of shock. That is the only contact I’ve ever had with my birth mother as an adult, in the subconscious recesses of my mind. We processed with the workshop facilitators afterwards, who assured me that many clients have reported similar spiritual experiences in which loved ones who have passed on appear during their sessions. Was it my way of working through my adoptive mother’s death and the loss of being separated from my birth mother, or was it somehow a real connection spiritually between me, both my adoptive and biological mothers? I struggled to believe the latter, that my two mothers had come back to visit me through some transcendent experience. But in the end, I came to accept it and believed it was true.

When I first found the shoes, I felt a deep pang of loss all over again. The loss of my mom, the loss of my dad, discussions I would never have about my adoption. A disparity between what I thought to be my true identity and the evidence that stated otherwise surfaced in a mere instant leaving me not only grief-stricken, but dumbfounded. Grieving leaves such a huge gaping hole in your heart, a heaviness that weighs down on you as though you’re suffocating. In addition to the grief, I struggled with feelings of guilt over my long absence from home as my mom became more and more demented from Alzheimer’s. Simultaneously, those moments of sifting through the items in that box were empowering. It was as though my mom was telling me it was OK for me to know about my past. I was in a daze for a long time after that discovery as the realization that I was not who I thought I was sunk in.

As I’ve gone back through all the photo albums my mom made, I’ve noticed those shoes in several pictures. My mom dressed me in them often. I found another pair of white shoes similar to my first pair, just a little bigger to accommodate my growing feet. Obviously, it was important for my mom to keep these items. She could have given them to Goodwill, or passed them on to my niece, but she didn’t. She had to have known that one day I’d find everything, my adoption contract, the shoes, the picture of her holding me in the orphanage, the diaper pins and baby shower cards. It pains me to imagine the relationship my mom and I could have had if she hadn’t gotten Alzheimer’s. Would we have been more open with each other? Would she have confessed that she’d hidden my adoption papers and eventually given them to me? Would I have become curious about my biological family on my own and questioned my adoption story without the discovery of  my adoption papers? Would I have had the desire to connect with my birth culture and search for my birth family, or would I have remained ignorant?

I’m glad my mom kept the shoes. I’ve had them setting out for a couple of weeks, wanting to write about them, but not really having the inspiration, or time. They bring back a flood of memories. They remind me of the shy little girl I once was and of a mostly happy childhood with my adoptive family before the turmoil of my teen years. They remind me of growing up in Louisiana. I’m not the least bit bitter or angry towards my deceased parents, adoptive nor biological. There are days when I still question, when I still want more answers, but mostly, I feel at peace knowing that I was loved by my adoptive parents and that they sacrificed in many ways to raise me as their own child. I realize that everything that’s occurred has made me who I am. I’m doing my best to accept what I cannot change about the past and striving to work through my sense of loss and the unknown answers to so many of my questions.