$4,035 all-in for this baby.
$3,200. Plus $800 “home study fee” and a $35 application fee. Add inflation and it’s almost 12k, today. The same as, say, a Sub-Zero refrigerator, a used Toyota, or a two-week trip to Europe.
I believe I should have been more expensive, <hard uncomfortable laughter>. I also believe Ma never meant for me to see this price tag. After the funeral in 2018, in a reflexive need to touch what still existed, I dug back through her office files. Amongst social security and draft cards, Israel Bonds and birth certificates, were my adoption papers.
They appeared to me as an unfinished conversation.
I had imagined, as a child, that I was picked out of something like a hardware store. Steel shelves with a row or two of human-size Barbie boxes. Me, slapping at the flimsy plastic. Pick me! Pick me! I’m fabulous. I pictured Ma running her fingers across the selection, her eyes settling on me, and joy overtaking her small face. This one. He seems fun.
Section 6: We agree to finalize the adoption within a year’s time after the child is placed in our home. In the event we decide not to continue our plan for adopting the child, [Michael], we will return the child to the care of The Alliance, who will have custody of him/her.
Of course, I cost a lot more than 4k. I had to be fed and clothed and taken to the doctor, eventually sent to college. 4k was the down payment. A non-refundable down payment, in the event circumstances changed.
In other words, there is a year of my life, the first year of my life, in fact, in which I belonged not to my biological mother, not to my adoptive parents, but rather, to something called “The Alliance.” I started my life as a corporate baby that cost 4k. If you ever question your worth . . . ask yourself how much you think you’d cost at the baby store. It’s a mind fuck.
I sat in the front row of the science lab of Pingree School in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, 1997. It smelled like wet mop. Morris Phippen sat beside me, staring at my face. He stared at my hairline. He stared at my eyes. The crown of his head showed as he bent down to scribble on a little piece of white paper. He glanced up. You have a widow’s peak, he said. Jotted it down on the paper. Paused. Scratched his neck. No, no widow’s peak. He squinted his eyes. Yes, widow’s peak. I shrugged my shoulders. I don’t think I have a widow’s peak. He’s mistaking my cowlick for a widow’s peak, maybe.
I stared at Morris Phippen. He had fish lips. He had a widow’s peak that pointed to his unblinking green eyes. Mr. Furnari hovered near the blackboard at the front of the class, twiddling a nub of chalk in his thick fingers. The overhead fluorescents painted a square onto the slick surface of his head. Good, he said to the class.
Now, what are you partner’s parents’ features?
A jolt of adrenaline raced through my teenage frame. Fight or flight response. In the millisecond between Mr. Furnari’s directive and Morris Phippen asking me the questions I didn’t want him to ask me, I considered scenarios that included: running from the room clutching my stomach, tearing up Morris Phippen’s little paper, begging Mr. Furnari to change the exercise while sobbing uncontrollably, and lying through my teeth. My mother has hazel eyes and curly brown hair and no widow’s peak. She is four-foot-ten and a half. My father had brown hair with tufts of silver sideburn we called his “earflaps” and large brown eyes and no widow’s peak. He was five-foot-ten. Morris wrote these lies on his little paper.
He didn’t blink.
I could pass, sometimes. My brown eyes to my father’s. The hair that flipped up opposite my cowlick, an echo of my mother’s curls. I have a dark brown birthmark on my back, two opposite arrows, one above the other, in the same spot and shape as my father had. But I don’t look like this family; not really. I don’t share their prominent cheekbones, cherubic faces, my brothers’ hazel eyes, the diminutive height of my mother.
I am an outlier. Growing up, acquaintances and strangers alike had no issue pointing this out. This is your son? He doesn’t look like you! But even when they were duped, it felt false: You look just like your brothers! No, I don’t. (You have a widow’s peak. No, you don’t.) People see what they want to see. What people want to see is homogeny, cohesion, the uniformity of a suburban family, a set of nesting dolls. I needed to feel I belonged in the set as much as anyone else did.
Our minds work differently. Both my brothers echoed my grandfather in his penchant for business ventures. They reveled in the idea of the intrepid entrepreneur. Greg started a car detailing business in our driveway. Dad funneled him customers from the Kenwood Country Club nearby, and on occasion, Greg would press me into soaping up the BMWs and Mercedes and squeegee-ing them down to Van Morrison.
My brother Scott inherited the business in his high school years, but when the reins were in my hands, the summer after senior year, I dropped them in favor of interning at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. I did genealogical research. For hours on end, I sat in a stiff chair inside the Phillips Library and ran my finger over columns of names like Putnam, Winthrop, and Peabody. No, no widow’s peak. Yes, widow’s peak. It felt like important work, connecting the underground roots of Massachusetts. Suddenly, street names made more sense, as did the buildings so named at Salem State, the historic homes in the downtown center I’d walked by a hundred times, clustered about the library like scrub grass.
If my finger slid over my biological family’s name, I didn’t know it. Still, even looking at those colonial bloodlines—generations cascading down the page—showed me something of the shape belonging could take, in ink. My name always felt penciled when written next to my family’s.
When I reached my full height of five-foot-eleven, my mother standing next to me became something of a spectacle. Acquaintances at the supermarket, other mothers at school, and neighbors would remark on the disparity: How did someone so big come out of someone so small? I can’t remember exactly how she answered these casually invasive questions, only that she’d imply she’d survived it somehow and was the luckier for it. As we’d walk away, I’d remind my mother she didn’t give birth to me:
“Oh! I forget,” she says. “It feels like I gave birth to you.”
As I wondered at my origins, my mother discovered pencil and traced it over again and again in ink.
What is the seed inside us that wants for children? I’ve never known it. People have biological children by design or by accident. The accident is obvious, the design a means to carry on a genetic line. A hybrid creation, like Mendel’s plants, to reflect the sum of its parts well after those parts, those parents, have perished. This planning does not preclude love, though it is no guarantee, either. Nor are accidents always unhappy. But what about adoption? What drove my mother and father for more when they’d already had two?
My mother writes in her application letter to the adoption agency:
I first thought of adoption when I didn’t get pregnant seven years ago after trying for four years. Then, after another four years of not conceiving, we decided we would adopt since we love children and thought three children would be great.
Born in 1943, the influence of the nuclear family of the fifties would have been lodged in Ma’s mind—the drive for a picture that could reflect at least some fragment of the American Dream and its 2.5 children. The problem with this scenario, of course, is that I became the .5. This is not how Ma saw things, but it is still hard for me to read the formal words of an application letter, not because it questions my mother’s love, which was clear, but because it shows the underpinnings of a process that for most is inherent: your parents procreate, you are born, you exist within your family. To my mind, trying to describe why one wants children in an application letter is a similar struggle to trying to describe why anyone writes a book—when confronted with the question, careful articulation becomes muddy: because it would be great. Not untrue, but neither is it elegant.
My father, even less so:
This is my first experience with adoption … I am hoping for a Caucasian male, but I will take a Caucasian girl also.
In these cringe-worthy specifications, I see myself back on that imaginary hardware store shelf, slapping at the plastic of my gift box from the inside, waiting for a parent to purchase me. My parents never expected I’d see these words, yet I’ve read them dozens of times, looking for a specific why to map motive to their actions. I only ever find a loss—the child they tried for and weren’t able to have. This child was to complete a picture, a tryptic, and without it a gap was keenly felt; one that both my parents were compelled to fill.
In the sum of $4,035, I see Pip’s Benefactor in “Great Expectations,” the deep-pockets of Daddy Warbucks. In America, early adoption contracts were little more than indenturing agreements in which destitute parents surrendered their children to keep them housed and fed; orphanages sprung up. Too many children languished or were worked near-to-death in hostile, unfamiliar homes. In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the attitude towards this arrangement began to shift as middle and upper-class families saw a moral imperative to scoop up comely orphans to display as a counter to garish prosperity, a testament to piety and grace. The adopted are implicitly asked to play the part of the grateful saved; debtors to a mercy we never begged for.
Yet, cost is different than value. My parents used their privilege to pluck me from an untenable situation. To give me a life of opportunity I would otherwise not have had and one for which I am, in the end, grateful. When I look at the words in the application letter I see two people in the stride of their lives, with ample fortune and abundant love. I can crush myself under the weight of cost, or I can see two parents who transcended the grief of an unconceived child to trust their hopes for wholeness to an act of faith—that a child they had not created could complete their idea of family.
The thing about Morris Phippen writing down characteristics on his little paper during biology is that he was someone used to looking at reflections in the world around him. He, but another road on an existing map, a green and budding branch on a tree adorned with blossoms. I had no such reference. Without a reference, it is hard to know which direction to grow in. Everything feels off. I had love. I had affirmation. But affirmation is not confirmation. There was no You’re just like your father or You have your mothers’ hands or the Cohen boys and their businesses; apple . . . fall . . . tree. . . .
My adoption, as were most adoptions in 1981, was closed. This meant that my birth family and adoptive family knew little to nothing of each other. They had never met. Legally, my biological family couldn’t contact me until I was eighteen years old, and only then through the intermediary of the adoption agency. I didn’t think about it all the time. I was consumed with teenage angst and navigating the complexities of queerness in a world terrified of AIDS, but it remained a question mark below the surface, a root system to which I held no map.
I do not know the exact day Ma received the letter from my biological mother. She hid it. I had been accepted that year into the acting conservatory at Boston University. While the letter sat wherever she stowed it—her secretary desk in the upstairs office; between the covers of an encyclopedia in the sunroom; the bottom drawer of her nightstand—I spent ten hours a day becoming other people. When relatives ribbed me about the perils of a precarious acting career, I said, Why would I want to be anything else? As an actor I can have every job. I can be everything. While they supported me, acting was anathema to my adoptive family. For me, it was my gateway to becoming all the possibilities I couldn’t see.
The letter is dated July 4, 1999, which means that the summer before college, while I sat in the dusty annals of the Phillips Library pouring over the bloodlines of Massachusetts Bay, my biological mother was at the same time typing out the first words I’d ever read from her. It’s not a stretch to imagine that while I stared at the neat typeset columns of Putnams, Winthrops, and Peabodys and struggled with the idea that my identity was written in pencil, she was signing her name in pen.
The cover note from the adoption counselor to Ma is dated December 8, 1999, five months after the letter was originally written:
I left for Russia shortly after we spoke and left word you were to receive this. I am now not certain you did receive it, and so I am re-sending it (the original this time). As we discussed, we did tell her of your intention to respond.
Your intention to respond. I hear in that phrase an ellipsis below the surface. It meant that Ma considered it. She didn’t dismiss it out of hand. She didn’t hang up the phone. She didn’t say no. Yet, she hid the letter.
Freshman year, I returned home often from classes in Boston. I piled dirty laundry into the back of Drew, my putty-colored Chevy Blazer, and wound my way through the narrow Boston streets out onto Route 1A, where city turned to long stalks of sea grass bordering murky estuaries and inlets and finally broke open into Nahant Bay and the deep blue of the Atlantic. Then, Ma still lived in Marblehead on Gerald Road, tucked in among the other ticky-tacky suburban houses.
Though I did it often, coming home was complicated. Ma kept the house as a mausoleum to the night my father died: His clothes still hung behind large wooden closet doors. The CDs I hadn’t pilfered were still in the armoire’s lower drawer. There was still an indent on the left side of the California King bed from where my father had lay dying and, many years before that, where he lay waiting in the early hours of the morning for me to pad in and tuck myself into the curl of his bulbous body, to watch cartoons on the small television on his nightstand. Each time I returned home, I begged Ma to move. To sweep away the dust-covered trappings of someone who was no longer there. To free us both from remembering my father’s last fearful struggle. Ma did not like change.
Taken in this light, it is not a surprise she hid the letter. She must have, in the back of her mind, known that contact was a possibility once I turned eighteen in March of 1999. Then again, Ma had a special talent for burying herself. Matters of money, confrontation, change, were most often met with a wide-eyed stare. She went underground.
The words my biological mother’s letter contained would change everything.
Why can’t I remember the conversation? The only thing I can think of is the shame I feel for the rage I showed. I remember it tearing through me—causing tremors—as I tried to parse the betrayal of a hidden letter. I didn’t have the capacity then to think of the fear Ma must have felt, that sinking sensation when we love someone, and feel they might suddenly leave us.
All love risks loss.
The snatches of memory that do come: Standing in my childhood bedroom, the same one I stood in four years prior, stared into the mirror and said, I’m gay. The same one I stood in four years prior, turned up the volume on the radio to drown out my father’s vomiting in the next room. Suddenly, it felt so small. Like a room in a doll’s house with its tiny wooden desk, twin bed, brightly colored nightstand. The expanding universe of college—people from every conceivable corner of the world met together—meant this suburban world no longer fit. The letter was part of that expanding universe. Too big to fit in that dollhouse. It tore the roof off.
Writing this letter is so very difficult. I imagine it may be even more difficult for you to receive.
Where was Ma when I read these words? I want to say I was sitting cross-legged, open-mouthed on the carpet of my bedroom. I want to say she was no longer there, had left me alone to read what she’d already read. For as many months as she’d buried it, so too she must have buried the feeling that this was opening a door she would not be able to close. Did she, even briefly, consider destroying it? I might never have asked, but she’d know. It was not a secret she was willing to keep from me. I did tell her of your intention to respond. The courage it took to pull her head from the dirt. To show me an open door I could walk through and never come back.
Being told you are adopted is different from the reality of seeing your biological mother’s name in ink. It is different than reading this sentence:
I would not be honest if I didn’t say that I would like the opportunity to introduce myself and my family, and to experience my birth child.
Up to that point, being adopted was theoretical. On grasping for reasons why we write, a friend once invoked Virginia Woolf to me: “Nothing has really happened until it has been recorded.” Yet, nothing about this letter felt past tense. It didn’t happen, it was happening with each word I read. The ink pouring over the pencil lines of identity:
I am living in North Carolina with my son, Dan, who is 16 ½ years old. My family consists of my younger brother Michael and his wife Pui, my mother, Barbara and my step-father Sheldon (we call him Teddy).
I read the words over and over and over again. I mouthed their names to speak them into existence inside my little room with its roof ripped off. In a single paragraph, I had become an older brother, a nephew, a grandson, a son to people I’d never met but had somehow known.
In fourth grade, during the Gulf War, our teacher asked each of us to send a letter to a soldier overseas. When I tore open the Air Mail response to my first letter, from a soldier named Gary, I remember I felt relief. It was dangerous there, we were told. Thousands of miles away, men and women were dying. I felt that though I’d never met him, I knew Gary because I knew what it was to be afraid. Maybe, I thought, my letter could be the thing to make him less afraid.
While reading their names—Dan, Michael, Pui, Barbara, Teddy—I knew them because I knew what it was to be incomplete. They knew me. Their letter could be the thing to make me whole. Therein though, was the sour feeling, the impossible reality of having to admit that the life I’d been given, full of love, not without hardship, full of kindness, not without discomfort, was incomplete. My adoptive family was not enough. Not because they were less than, but because there was more to know.
Home is not an absolute. I think an adoptee carries home on their back, like a garden snail. Or, more like a hermit crab, we redefine home as we receive more information, as our curiosity expands, as the meaning of family moves beyond the bounds of any four walls; any one container. Family we find and family we choose for ourselves. No, home is not as simple as the heart-shaped sandwiches Ma placed into my lunch bag on Valentine’s Day or the way my father confessed to listening to me sing shower showtunes or washing a car beside my brother as the summer sun beat down. It is more. It cannot be contained.
Once, while walking hand-in-hand with my then-boyfriend, Freckle, past the tired strip malls of downtown Swampscott, a large black truck idled by and sounded the horn. When I turned, eye-wild and ready to jump, the burly men inside shouted: We’re family! We’re family! I think I must have only then noticed a Pride flag stuck to the tinted back window or maybe it’s only in my imagination, now. But the result was the same, a sudden feeling family could be larger than any one unit. That family is everywhere.
I did not know this then, at eighteen, as I held the little paper in my hands. I knew who my family was, and I didn’t think I had room for another. Yet, I wanted to know more about them because they held parts of me long ago lost. It was hard to separate the who-am-I of adolescence from the who-am-I of an adoptee. They would have answers but not all the answers. Was it worth it to pry open my life just as I was making it my own? I looked at the neatly typeset lines so long the words began to lose their meaning. I might have smelled the paper for my biological mother’s perfume, any trace of the home she lived in. It had no scent I remember, not rose water or vetiver or chicken soup or garden soil.
As a scared teenager, I didn’t see mercy or the ever-expanding definition of family; I saw a stranger with answers to questions I’d asked my whole life, in a jumble in my mind: Do I look like you? Move like you? Do you sing like I do? Like the same foods I do? Why did you let me go? I traced her signature with my finger, the only thing on the paper written in her hand and imagined for a brief instant same-skin touching same-skin, same-blood beating beneath same-blood.
Very Sincerely, your birth mother,
I slid the cover letter back on top—We did tell her of your intention to respond—and tucked them both neatly into the envelope.
Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.