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Opening the Box

February 10, 2010

In the late summer of 2008, I decided to write an essay for NPR’s This I Believe program. I had been chewing on this essay for some time, on this belief I held that had grown out of my life experience as an adoptee. I titled my essay, “Leaving the Blanks Unfilled,” and I wrote about how I had learned to live with the mystery that was my past. “I didn’t know” much about that past, I wrote, and “I will never know.” I submitted my essay to NPR, happy that I was able to articulate something so close to the core of who I was at 37 years old. I meant every word of it. I still do. I know other people involved in adoption have different stories, different journeys, different beliefs. I uncovered some of those stories in the course of research for my essay. But that’s where mine dropped me, in early June 2008, at peace with the unknown.

Except, after writing that essay, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Except, after writing that essay, life didn’t remain within the essay’s margins. My twin sister, who was diagnosed with PTSD after returning from Iraq where she had worked as a reporter, was teetering on the edge of death. I was desperate to save her, and in that desperation, I convinced myself that the only stone let unturned was the one covering our past. I knelt before it; I studied it for a long time; I talked to my mom about it, asking for her blessing; I told my sister as much as I could, when I could, knowing she was not well enough to join me on the journey. I also was keenly aware that I was about to break a pact that we had made long before: if we ever decided to track down our birth family, we would do it together or not at all. As twins, there was no separating the story of our birth, even though, as I later found out, in court records, we existed without mention of the other. One Christmas break, when I was home from graduate school in Pennsylvania, I ran into a childhood friend who worked for the adoption agency that handled our adoption. “I’ve looked at your file,” she told me over drinks in a crowded, dark bar. “What do you want to know?” I went to the back of the bar and picked up a pay phone to call my sister. “Do we want to know?” I asked her. There was a long pause on the other end of the phone before her voice came back in a whisper. “No,” she said. “Not now. Not like this.” And that was that–we closed the door together and walked away. And kept on walking for almost two decades more.

At the end of July 2008, I contacted the Confidential Intermediary Service of Illinois to find out what my options were. I had come across mention of the program in my research for my NPR essay. Illinois’ confidential intermediary program had become law in 1990, but only adult adoptees and adoptive parents could use the service and only if there was a compelling medical reason. In 2004, the program was extended to others impacted by adoption and there no longer needed to be a medical reason to do a search. You needed cash–at least $400–but you didn’t need a reason.

I had a reason, and also, fortunately, at that time in my life, I had the cash. In truth, I’m not sure I would have ever initiated a search had I not had that urgent medical reason. In the forms I filled out over the next few months, I often stumbled over choices I didn’t know how to make. Did I want a relationship? Was I seeking something beyond medical information? I wasn’t opposed to it, but I also didn’t know how to imagine it, so sure was I that I would never know my birth family. The word relationship implied a person on the other end, and when I tried to imagine that person, I saw nothing but darkness. I couldn’t wrap my arms around the very idea, let alone a human being. And once I acknowledged a human being on the other end, suddenly, it got complicated. My over-riding principle, guiding my every move, was, is, “do no harm.” I wanted the medical information; I needed it. I was well aware that to get that information, somebody had to be contacted, somebody who might not want to hear from me, somebody for whom the very mention of me might open a well of grief that had long been sealed over. After having my own children, I agonized over the decision my birth mother made when she decided she could not raise my sister and me. My body ached for her when my milk came in hard and fast, when my uterus cramped and contracted for days after giving birth and the blood still ran. My heart ached for her in those moments when I first held my children in my arms, and in the days after, when I looked into their eyes and fell in love with them so deep that I knew for the first time what it meant to feel vulnerable because you love so much and so hard.

I knew that, when she heard from me, the pain of her decision almost 40 years ago would wash over her. I did not want to open that wound unless I had to. I felt I had to. A year later, I have wrapped my arms around the woman who gave birth to me. I have stood on one side of her, and my sister on the other. Moments before the photo was snapped, she said, “This is the first time since you were born that I have held both of you in my arms again.”

Opening the wound, I have since understood, opened more than just pain. It opened a pathway to release grief and shame. It opened a place where relief and joy could enter, too.

Once my birth family began to take shape from the darkness, once they had faces and names, I knew there was no turning back. My birth mother told me that at first, she was reluctant to share her medical history, worrying that, once I had what I came for, I would disappear. Her words made me sad for I realized that she didn’t know me at all; I’m not the kind of person who would ever do that. Yes, I do have what I came for: there is diabetes and gout and high blood pressure and alcoholism in my genes. That isn’t insignificant as I grow older. That isn’t insignificant for my own children. But I opened this Pandora’s Box. I lifted the lid myself. It is my responsibility–and my desire–to see the process through, to wade through the complexities that make up an adoption reunion, to keep reaching out, to settle disagreements, to reassure, to ask questions, to puzzle through my own reactions and feelings.

Sometimes, it is exhausting. I don’t always know what the right thing is to do. Some days I feel like, no matter what I do, my decision leaves a wake of pain and trouble, especially for my sister and my birth brother, two of the innocents in this journey, two of the people who had the least choice, the least power, to control any part of their destiny.

But here we are. In the legend of Pandora, it is hardly her fault for opening the jar that released the world’s troubles. It was the gods who had made her so curious in the first place. The mother of all troubles has become the daughter, set on a path that she both did not create and did–now running after the troubles, trying to stuff them back into the jar, while letting the joys that also escaped remain free.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Jason DeVaux permalink
    February 20, 2010 7:43 am


    After reading your blog posts here I feel humbled and ashamed. I am humbled to read the words of a person so gifted in the art of prose. I wish that my expressions of my feelings could be translated so easily onto a blog posting. Unfortunately, my best work is in a Courtroom =) I feel shame that I may have caused you any of the pain that you describe in your life recently. For anyone else reading this blog, I am Jason, and proud to be the brother (biological, but more importantly just “brother”) that Jenny has mentioned in her posts. Jenny, I will not deny that our respective family members have made this relationship journey we have embarked on more complicated. However, from the beginning, you and I have shared a bond that cannot be defined by the environments we grew up in. I am so very blessed by the fact that you decided to open the pages of your biological past and that you found me. In many ways, I was a person in desperate need of being found! You opened your heart and your family to me, and for that I will be forever grateful. Know that your brother out here in Colorado loves you and your wonderful family more than you can know. I sympathize with the “anonymous” post in that sometimes only a hug will suffice. Right now, I wish I could hug you and let you know how much I care. As we have lamented often over past year; there is no blueprint for any of this. All we can rely on are each other, and the trust and desire to have an open and honest relationship with each other, Sometimes, external circumstances make that a difficult proposition. I, for one, am not willing to be dissuaded. You are worth the effort! Thank you for being such a wonderful sister, and thank you for being a part of my life. I will not let you go either =)

    Your Loving Brother,


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