It is October of 1992. I am twenty-six-years-old and eight months pregnant with my daughter, my first child. My brown and gray tabby, Katie, has just given birth to a litter. The kittens have two mothers, Katie and me. I have never cared so much for other living things before. I have to prove to myself I will be a good mother. I make sure the den I carefully arranged in the corner of my closet with an old soft quilt is clean and fluffed. I make sure Katie’s water and food bowl stays filled so she’ll have the extra nourishment she needs to nurse. I’m convinced just by staring at Katie, I’m encouraging her to feed her babies, and she does, thanks to me. The house is just the right temperature for me and Momma Katie. I also have two dogs. One is Gertie, my doberman/hound mix, whom I adore. Then there is this long haired shaggy thing that my husband brought home one day that I tolerate. I make sure the dogs and the kittens are separated for the kitten’s safety. The dogs are not allowed in my room.
The day has come that I have to move the kittens’ den to the garage because they are walking more (albeit wobbly), exploring, and creating a bigger mess in my closet than I feel I can handle. In the garage, it’s harder to control the interaction between the dogs and cats. The shaggy dog is a little too friendly. He likes to play rough with the kittens. They are only a few weeks old and are curious and feisty. They jab at his paws and his nose as he nudges it against their bellies. I try my best only to let this happen when I can supervise.
The back door to the garage is open one day, and I panic. The kittens can get out to the backyard, and worse, the dogs can get in. I am too late. One of the little kittens, one with the same coloring as my Katie, is lying on the sun-baked rocks, just outside the backyard door. Her breathing is labored and something is wrong with her neck. Her tiny little head seems to be kinked in an unnatural position, and the kitty is not getting up. I’m crying before I even get to the little thing. I pick her up, find a towel and hold her and cry some more. My crying is pathetic, but I can’t stop. I put her in my car, and drive her to my friend’s house who loves animals and who I think can help me (my husband is not sympathetic – his attitude is there is now one less cat to find a home for).
I hold out the kitty towards my friend. Everytime I try to tell her what has happened, I sob. This acting like a complete baby is baffling to me and only adds to my frustration at myself. My girlfriend gets it, though, and takes the kitty from me, does a cursory examination then looks at me. “Her neck is broken. I don’t think we can do anything.” She tells me she’ll take care of the kitty for me so I don’t have to continue to be upset. “I’ll wash your towel and bring it back to you tomorrow,” she says.
The loss of the kitten stays with me for weeks. I am sure I am responsible for its death, and I can’t help associating what I did to it with a gripping fear that I would somehow, through death or otherwise, lose my daughter. Losing my daughter like I had lost my birth mother. It may have not made rational sense. After all, it was my birth mother who relinquished me, not the other way around, but these thoughts keep me up at night. The pillow between my legs that I use to relieve pressure on my back and to keep my belly from feeling too heavy, is too flat. I sweat. My back aches. I toss and turn.
My husband finally convinces me that I am being unreasonable and nothing will happen to my daughter. Through his gruffness, I hear truth. I try to believe him.
In one of those morning hours before the sun rises completely over the horizon, but there is still a glint of dawn gray in the air, I dream that I am in a kitchen, talking to my mother, my birth mother, the one I have never met. What she looks like is fuzzy, but our presence with each other feels real, and it is so familiar. I awake with the sense of purpose to recreate that scene in my real world. I roll out of bed, feeling heavy with baby, but light with this new sense of hope. I am determined to find her.
It’s not the first time I felt an urge to find her. I had tried a year ago. I was in touch with a woman who I was referred to by another adoptee friend. She lived in Arkansas and was a type of private investigator for adoptees. I paid her a large fee (I didn’t have a high paying job at that time, so 500.00 was a lot for me), and she procured my mother’s name, directed me to the Department of Social Services so that I could obtain non-identifying information about my birth family. These leads were good, but what she also did was steer me in the wrong direction to a woman in Texas. The woman had the right name, but the spelling seemed off. All this got me was a week long hosting of a non-cousin in my home who had the right last name, but was no relation. The woman to whom I paid money disappeared. I felt discouraged and tabled my search.
This morning, after my dream, I review the paperwork I have that reveals my non-identifying information. What stands out to me this time is that when I was born, my mother was in a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Little Rock. I remember a friend whom I had discussed my situation with tell me that the Catholic Diocese tended to be sympathetic to adoptees. She also told me that they kept copies of original baptismal records. I didn’t really know what she meant by sympathetic, but it seemed like a good place to start this new search. If nothing else, I hoped I could find out the correct spelling of my mother’s name. I call the Catholic Diocese in Little Rock. I tell the sister who answers the phone my birth name — my adopted father had told me years before that my birth name was Kelly and my last name, Smith. I give her my place of birth, my birthdate, my birth mother’s name, as I knew it, and ask her to verify my information. She puts me on hold. I try to sit up straight on my bed so I can breathe properly. The baby regularly pushes on my diaphragm, and when I’m nervous, I get dizzy, and I am extremely nervous. The sister is back on the phone, and her kind voice tells me she has my baptismal record. I white-knuckle the phone. It is my life-support. If I lose a grip on it, my connection to truth is gone and I die. I stand, because there is too much pressure on my diaphragm. The baby kicks me hard in my pelvis. I try to avoid yelling out. I straighten my torso and try to breathe.
“Hello?” A tinge of impatience comes through the line from the sister.
“What does it say?”
She verifies what I know to be my mother’s name and also verifies the spelling with two r’s. This confirms why I got it wrong the first time (there was always the possibility in my mind that the woman I had tried to contact before really was my birth mother but didn’t want to talk to me and therefore lied about the spelling of her name). The sister promises to send me my baptismal record. I thank her from the bottom of my heart.
My husband is home in the late evening, and I tell him what has happened. I also tell him that I feel my mother went to the home in Little Rock to deliver me, but my guess is she didn’t live there. My guess is she lived in a town east of there, Pine Bluff, because there is a black college in the town, and it just makes sense that she’d lived there, met my father at school, got pregnant and was shamed into leaving. I make up this scenario as I talk, but I know it’s mostly true. I feel it.
The scene in my dream returns, and I feel the tenor of our conversation. It was something mundane, the kind of talk you have with someone you’ve known for a lifetime.
We decide to call the information line in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. My husband does the calling because I am so afraid of the possibility of getting closer to the truth, as well as the possibility of disappointment.
“Yes, can you give me the number to Charles Smith.” We decide to make up any first name, in hopes that the operator would give us more. She does.
“There is no Charles Smith, but there is a Betty and a Margaret Smith. Here are the numbers.”
My husband looks over at me and repeats what the operator is saying, and I am quite sure I’ll be going into labor a month early. He calls the first name on the list. An older woman answers, and he tells her who he is and why he is calling. The lady is rude, but tells him she is familiar with my mother’s name!
“Yes, I can talk to her,” my husband says.
My husband is now talking to someone else.
“Oh, you know something about the situation?” He looks at me, and I am speechless and stuck to the kitchen chair, staring at him.
The first woman my husband talks to is my maternal grandmother. The second woman is her daughter, my aunt, who was visiting her at the time of the call. We have found my family.
“Is Joe there?”
The voice is new, but in a strange way it is an old voice that is as familiar as the lines in the palms of my hands. Its register is high, but something in its tone is like my own.
“No, who’s calling.” I have a feeling I know who it is. She’s asking for Joe because he’s the one who spoke to her mother the day before.
“I’m calling about an adoption in Arkansas in 1965.” She says it like it’s a question.
“Are you my mother?” The baby kicks me. My heart is racing, and I feel stinging in my armpits.
“Yes.” There is a pause. “I’m sorry that happened to you.” I’m sorry that happened to you?
The passive voice is a problem for me, but I understand and quickly forgive her.
My mother and I talk. She answers questions before I can really ask them. My birth father is in Chicago. He is a Viet Nam Vet. He has had problems because of that experience. They haven’t been together in years. Before they separated, they had two other children, a boy and a girl.
I am quiet, internalizing all these missing parts of my heritage, my identity.
“I am remarried and have two other boys from my current husband.”
I start writing it all down. I write names, underline them, draw arrows that only lead right back to her. All the boys have African names. I ponder over my sisters name as I write it, trying to find a possible African link, but there is none that I can see. I have more thoughts and more questions I want to ask, but I’m too caught up in my new reality. There are no fuzzy images, no longer just feelings of her presence. For the first time in twenty-six years, I am really talking to my mother.
We both live in California. As I feel the conversation come to a close, I hold my breath, waiting for her to question how we will meet. She asks about my schedule and if it is possible to get together. I am over the moon excited. Three weeks later, my husband and I get in my little Hyundai, me, with the passenger seat fully reclined, hardly able to breathe, and drive the three hour trip west to meet my mother.