I was a child the first time I attempted to contact the Mothership, requesting to return home. My distress calls had to be made at night when my host family wouldn’t detect my efforts. With eyes squeezed shut, I sent an SOS into space: “Hello? Are you there?” I beckoned.
“Please,” I begged. “I don’t belong here.”
Night after night, my thoughts drifted toward the stars, waiting for an answer. But there was no whirring of engines, no wind in the trees or dogs barking in alarm. No beam of light coming through my window, shining across the floor, confirming my calls had been answered. Were they out of range? Had they forgotten me?
I imagined my mother shaking her head, reminding me to finish my mission. I was sent to Earth as part of a delegation of alien babies whose objective was to assimilate, flourish, and return to share our knowledge with the rest of the species. Through a process called adoption, I was inserted into a human family with a mother; a father; and a brother, another alien baby who arrived two years before me. The theory was that children were malleable, making them prime candidates to assume the culture and customs of their host families with little difficulty. Despite being separated from my family, the rest of my kind, and my mother planet, my host parents assumed I would be grateful to become part of their family, their world. But we were too different.
By the time I was twenty-one, I had completed my mission. I was married and living in the suburbs, working in an office by day and at a horse stable on the weekends. It was time to find the Mothership.
Instead of telepathy, I phoned Catholic Charities, who brokered the transaction between the Mothership and my host parents. Somewhere within this agency’s building, there had to be a file containing the top-secret information that would get me home.
There were forms to complete and fees to pay before a search for my parents could be initiated, after which I was asked to write a letter about myself to pass on to whomever Catholic Charities found. I thought of the accomplishments my host parents had been most pleased with, like belonging to the National Honor Society and my music awards.
I didn’t write that my host father was an alcoholic, or how my host mother was so exhausted and withdrawn that I knew her primarily as the woman who served dinner. I didn’t write that no one taught me how love was supposed to be, or that my abusive childhood gave way to an abusive marriage. I didn’t write that I’d discovered the mission, at its core, was to morph into the person everyone else wanted me to be. I only hoped my words painted a picture the Mothership would be proud of. Most of all, I hoped they’d see how well I turned out and regret ever sending me away.
On my first visit to Catholic Charities, they gave me non-identifying information about my parents. The one-page summary told me father was wiry and mother was a brunette—physical traits you could apply to any number of strangers you pass on the street.
When Mother was located and informed of my request for information, she asked for time to consider, then never called the agency back. Over the phone, a social worker told me there was nothing more Catholic Charities could do. I slid onto the floor, unable to breathe. My stomach tightened as I tried to suppress the rejection, the frustration, the disappointment bubbling to the surface. I swallowed them like stones.
The first time my mother left me, I believed it was due to circumstance. But now, twenty-one years later, it felt personal. She wanted nothing to do with me.
Five years after my failed search, I found myself divorced, remarried, and pregnant. Having a child meant many things, but the most prominent feelings were joy over having someone in my life who mirrored me and the fear of passing down whatever was wrong with me—the thing that made people leave.
When the nurse placed my baby in my arms, I counted fingers and toes, ran my hand through his hair until it stood in downy tufts, then smoothed it down again. He wasn’t covered with sadness, nor was he green. I searched my child’s face for an answer, unsure of the question I was asking. Most parents marvel over the miracle of birth, but this was something else. For the first time in my life, I was touching someone related to me, and I thought, “I’m finally real.”
And then the question came, “How could my mother have ever let me go?”
At forty-one, I no longer wanted to return to the Mothership or know the people there. However, my doctor encouraged me to get updated medical information. I contacted Catholic Charities and was told the process, forms, and fees would be the same. I quickly responded, “No thanks,” as the rejection from my first search came rushing back. I didn’t want to go through that again.
A month later, Catholic Charities called and asked if my decision might change if I knew my mother was open to communication.
“Why now?” I asked.
The social worker said things had changed for my mother. She was seventy-two, and age can affect how people feel about things.
At first, I was ecstatic. Not only would I receive identifying information and history, but Mother had shown an interest in meeting me. But the statement that things had changed for my mother nipped at me—what about all the years I needed her?
I could have said no, the time was no longer right for me—a rare moment I had the power to open or close communication. But I wanted answers.
The information I received was surprising—I wasn’t Mother’s first child. My host family had led me to believe my parents were in their teens and too young and poor to care for me. But my mother had been married, given birth to two daughters, and then divorced before she met my father. My sisters were six and eight when I was born.
About a year after my birth and subsequent departure from the Mothership, my brother was born, relinquished, and also adopted. After that, my parents settled in Arizona and had two more babies. My younger sister and brother were not sent on mission but stayed with our mother and father.
Eight months after finding my family, my son and I flew to the Arizona desert for a meet and greet before Thanksgiving. When I first spotted Mother at the airport, she was standing next to my eldest sister, wearing leggings that made her legs look like toothpicks. I had imagined someone more robust, the type of mother who baked chocolate chip cookies and had a hearty laugh.
Neither Mother nor I made a move toward each other. Growing up around an alcoholic, I was sensitive to the rise and fall of atmospheric pressure. All my neurons screamed, “Not safe!”
From the airport, we went to Mother’s home—a double-wide trailer where my youngest sister, my son, and I would be staying. Mother scurried around making sandwiches and iced tea no one wanted. She couldn’t sit still. I’d been waiting for this reunion, this homecoming, my whole life but felt no connection to this woman beyond our shared fear of one another.
When we gathered for Thanksgiving at my sister’s house, Father quietly walked in wearing his cowboy hat and a pair of Wrangler jeans. I’d already met him once out at his ranch, where we talked about our shared love of horses and how unexpected it was that one could inherit an interest in these beautiful animals. As he spoke, I noticed we had the same slow, spacious rhythm of speech. I began studying the rest of my family, looking for more similarities.
At dinner, I enjoyed being part of a large family and listening to the stories being told around the table. I was taught how to make cowboy coffee (use the sweaty kerchief tied around your neck as a filter), and my youngest sister told me how Father had tried scuba diving to recover a boat motor that had sunk in a muddy pond because he was too cheap to buy a new one. I especially enjoyed the tale of my sister packing her saddlebag and running away from home on her horse. It turned into a round, each sibling adding to the family lore.
I wished I’d been part of these stories and wondered if I would be part of new tales. No one in my host family had understood my sense of humor or thought my stories were funny, but with this family, I made sense.
The clattering of mother’s silverware against her plate stopped the laughter and conversation. She pushed her chair back, complained about being excluded, and headed out the front door. I looked around the table for an explanation. There were shrugs before everyone returned to eating and talking.
My brother and I asked if we should go after her. We were told Mother was hard of hearing and got frustrated when she couldn’t follow conversations. “She’ll come back after she cools off.”
That was the first outburst I’d witnessed. There would be more, with me always wondering if she would really come back.
I was able to visit Mother and Father a few times a year until they passed away. Each trip was awkward. By the time we met, I’d lived too much of my life not knowing. Nothing repaired that loss. I spent years trying to make myself more like them, but I didn’t quite fit, just as I didn’t fit with my host family.
One day, I realized I didn’t have to reject everything that was different about me. I took pieces of myself—from the life I lived and the life I lost—and knit them together into someone neither alien nor human . . . simply me.
Rumpus original art by Ian MacAllen