It’s difficult for me to write about my mother because I grew up calling my aunt my mother, and I continue to do so to this day. But I always know that it’s not exactly accurate or true in a technical sense. It always feels like I’m trying to fool people when I say it and that, eventually, someone is going to catch me in this lie and I’ll have to take nearly twenty minutes to explain this to them. When most people say “mom,” they typically mean their biological mother. It can get confusing really fast. And while I love and appreciate everything my mom (aunt) did and continues to do, there is always a part of me that thinks, “You know, she raised me, but she didn’t give birth to me.” It’s weird growing up knowing that you are not a biological product of your parents. It’s weird growing up and calling your uncle “Dad,” especially since I’ve been seeing more of my biological father as he gets older and have recently started calling him “Dad” over the phone. For some reason, I can’t bring myself to call him “Dad” in person. So now there are two people in my life whom I call “Dad,” and I don’t mind.
I look at the paragraph above this one and think, “There is no way for me to write about my biological mother, or my biological father, or my aunt and uncle, or my six brothers and sisters (who are actually cousins), or the four half-siblings I didn’t grow up with, or the details of my adoption, without the page looking like someone fell in love with parentheses and other forms of digression. It’s hard. Everything about it is hard. Writing about it is hard emotionally. Writing about it is hard grammatically and mechanically. Reading it is hard. Understanding what I’m writing and editing is hard. I’m sure to a reader, understanding and empathizing with it is also hard. And the older I get, the more I realize that if a person hasn’t lived this kind of life, or if a person doesn’t have experience dealing with people who come from this kind of background, they’ll never understand it in the way I want them to. It’s a huge barrier to my writing. The events are also a huge barrier to a number of other things in my life. I’ve had quite a few close friends and family members ask me if I ever write about my adoption and what it was like growing up, as if it’s a story that has ended or something, or as if I’m not still living with it.
[For the sake of clarity, from here on, I’m going to call everyone by how they actually relate to me biologically.]
My mother gave me up a few weeks after I was born. Actually, I can’t remember if I was given up or taken away. But I know I went into foster care almost immediately. Shortly after, a four year custody battle and adoption process began. For some reason that I don’t fully understand or remember, I was given back to my mother for a brief time. My earliest memory is of a time when I was allowed to stay with my mother in her small studio apartment. She couldn’t drive, so she took the city bus everywhere. She was really poor and didn’t eat healthy and we visited McDonald’s every day.
One day while we were waiting for a bus outside of McDonald’s, a man sitting next to us threw up all over the ground. I can’t remember if any of it hit my shoes or not, but I vaguely remember my mother cleaning my OshKosh B’gosh shoes at some point while I stayed with her. I can remember the way the vomit looked on the ground and the terrible smell of hamburgers cooking and venting into the open air and the way the two smells mixed together outside. Tacoma was a different place in the early 90s. Thinking back on it, the guy was most likely either nodding-off from shooting heroin or he just drank too much. Either way, I don’t remember my mother getting up or moving farther away from him. It’s weird to think that my earliest memory is of a man throwing up next to me while waiting at a bus stop with my mother outside a McDonald’s in what was, at the time, a city with a higher crime rate and gang violence than Compton, California. But the most interesting thing about it is that I don’t have any recollection of ever riding the bus. I must have thought about the puking man the entire time and erased the bus from my memory. I don’t know.
I also remember that if my mother wasn’t taking me to McDonald’s to eat, she was cooking me oatmeal. After the oatmeal was boiled into a fine paste, she’d pour this strawberry Hershey’s syrup all over it in a zig-zag pattern. When I wasn’t eating McDonald’s or oatmeal, she would give me a carrot to chew on while she obsessed over the news. The news was always on. At one point in my life, I remember my aunt telling me how my mother watched the news and became obsessed with the Green River Killer and was convinced that she knew who it was and that the only way she could find him without getting caught by him was to sneak-up on him while wearing diapers on her feet to silence her steps. I have no clue how diapers on her feet would have silenced anything, but she wasn’t right in the head and still isn’t. So I don’t try to analyze it all that much. I also remember laying on the floor using a small plate full of chopped up carrots as a pillow to prop my head up while watching the news or whatever was on the TV. I remember wondering why my head was growing carrots when I started picking them out of my hair.
After my short stay with my mother, I went to stay at my dad’s house. I remember getting him beers out of the fridge and occasionally lighting his cigarettes. He was always smoking and he was sometimes reading. But mostly just sat and smoked and drank. He had stubble on his face and when he’d let me sit on his lap he’d put his chin on the top of my head and it would feel like he was combing my hair.
I remember my father yelling at me before violently throwing me across the room. And I remember not knowing what I did wrong.
I remember not finishing something made out of squash and being forced to either finish it right then or sit at the table until I was hungry enough to finish it. I tried as hard as I could to finish it all before vomiting all over the kitchen floor. It was the first time I remember vomiting. He made me clean it up. Just a few weeks ago, I watched a movie called Boyhood for the first time and there’s what is supposed to be an intensely disturbing scene where the dad is drunk and on a rampage and eventually screams at the family, “I hate squash!” I knew I was supposed to be disturbed by that scene, but instead I laughed because I really and truly do hate squash.
One day my father attempted to pick me up from daycare, but for some reason I couldn’t leave with him and I had to stay there overnight after all of the other kids left. Years later I learned he was drunk when he was supposed to be sober and completing some AA program which was one of the conditions of me staying with him in the first place. I didn’t know what was going on but I can remember thinking, “If it’s called daycare, why is it night time?”
At some point about a year later, I was in a courthouse in Olympia standing in front of a judge with my aunt and uncle. The judge made a joke that went something like, “So, who’s getting adopted?” I don’t remember laughing.
After the judge made his joke, my aunt, uncle, and I went into a small room that was still somehow big enough for a playhouse. I was playing in it with my cousin when I heard the door open and I saw my mother’s long, straight, black hair. She probably said something like, “Hi” in her soft voice which she still has. I can’t remember how many times growing up, after being tossed around to family member to stranger to family member, that I was asked, “Don’t you want to stay here, David? Wouldn’t you want to stay here forever?” At one point, a strange family I was staying with bought me a basketball hoop from Costco. When I left to go stay with another family member, I asked if I could take the hoop with me. They told me it could be mine if I stayed. I didn’t stay. Anyway, it got to the point where I couldn’t take people asking me those questions because I didn’t know whose feelings I was going to hurt if I stayed with someone else. I not only could never answer the questions, but I began anticipating them and literally running away from anyone who might ask them. So when I saw my mother come through the door, I hid between the room’s actual wall and the playhouse’s wall. It’s kind of symbolic, if you think about it. I was stuck between a real structure and a scale model. I didn’t come out when my mother called for me. I didn’t see her again for fifteen years.
I finally contacted my mother over the phone when I was about nineteen years old and found out that she lived less than fifteen minutes away from me with one of my half-brothers. She never visited or called during those fifteen years. Fifteen years and she lived fifteen minutes away.
I drove to her apartment with my car’s gaslight on. When I got there, her windows were covered in cardboard. I’m not even joking or trying to be funny or clever when I say it, but I got there fifteen minutes early. Fifteen years, fifteen minutes away, and I arrived fifteen minutes early. She wouldn’t let me into her apartment until it was the exact time I told her I would be there. We talked for a little bit and she offered me a can of soda and some food. I knew that if I ate or drank anything she offered me, I’d throw up. So I told her that I wasn’t hungry because I ate some McDonald’s on the way over. It just happened to be the same McDonald’s on 72nd Street and Pacific that we’d sat outside of while waiting for the bus fifteen years earlier.
I don’t harbor any resentment for my mother, but I haven’t seen or spoken to her in ten years. As far as I know, she still lives fifteen minutes away.