“And what were the next 24 hours like?” my therapist asks.
I draw a blank but the feeling in my belly of drifting apart in a million directions at once returns. Mary Ann, our adoptive mother, has just told me and my sister Robyn that she will soon no longer be our mother, that we are going to a new family. One hour has already past. What are the next 24 hours like?
I am still glued to the sofa. I don’t know if this was literally true but I feel that kind of paralysis in my body, like being swallowed into a vast black hole inside myself. I want to scream. I want to explode. But I can’t. The black hole is like an echo chamber—my thoughts, my feelings, are deafening, overwhelming, but I can’t get them out, can’t express them. And yet somehow, at some point, I manage to become a little boy again. Or at least I learn to act like one, and that is what terrifies me the most.
Soon thereafter the cogs of the adoption machine leap into motion. We are taken by a social worker multiple times to meet our prospective new family. I feel awed by the large red two-story mother daughter house at the end of a cul-de-sac, compared to our dark, cramped basement apartment. I am thrilled by a whole room filled with toys. I tune out the people—mother, father, and their adoptive son slightly younger than me. Too much to bear! Much safer to stay focused on house and toys.
One day I come home to Mary Ann and excitedly tell her about the large house and all the toys, as if this is a natural response to such unnatural and tragic circumstances. She is angered by my enthusiasm, but what do I know? I am untethered from any semblance of normalcy. Nothing makes sense but I have to make sense of it. I have to pretend. I have to pretend that it is normal for life to go on like this, in these last days with Mary Ann, with the prospect of soon not being able to see her again, of having her erased from my life, with the looming monstrosity of suddenly becoming some strangers’ child. I feel the conviction grow and harden inside my belly that I am disgusting, despicable, that it is my fault that two mothers looked at me, saw who I am, heard my voice, my cry, my need, my want, and said, ‘No!’ I desperately put on a mask, an act, to hold this fragile, unbearable, disintegrating world together. I sink deep inside myself and hide away.
So I think back to those first 24 hours. I think of how hard I must have had to work to adapt to the new normal of no more clear rules or norms, without help, continuing to live for a time with a mother who had already abandoned and rejected us, anticipating the inconceivable. I think of how quickly I had to hide away all my thoughts, feelings, and confusion that were clearly not welcome, that were too much for my slight frame and child’s mind to bear, that only threatened to make matters worse. I think of the black hole pulling me inside itself and my powerlessness to resist its relentless gravity. I think of what a terrible, annihilating metamorphosis I must have endured that day, a transformation no doubt already grounded in first having to adapt to the primal trauma of being separated from my biological mother and family at birth.
I don’t remember saying goodbye to Mary Ann. I don’t remember leaving our home for the last time. What I do remember is being dropped off for good at the house of our new adopters by the social worker. The memory of sitting in the front seat of the car with my pet hamster Squeaky in a cage on my lap is strangely vivid, amid a sea of forgetting. As I remember, I feel an overwhelming wave of sadness. I am swollen with heartache at my utter aloneness and helplessness. I want to welcome this child into my arms, hold him tight, give him my strength. And my grief knows no bounds because I know that worse is yet to come.