“Do you guys smoke pot?”
Those were the first words my birth mother (let’s call her Betty) said to me when we met for the first time at the airport. I had just flown quite literally from one coast to the other.
“Umm..no, no, we don’t.”
“Oh, well, if you change your mind, we’ve got some white widow. It’s the good shit.”
Oh…the good shit. Right. Too bad for her I had never smoked pot in my entire life (cue the lame teenager jokes), and wasn’t planning on beginning then, in that monumental moment. In my green cashmere LL Bean zip-up over a Gap crew neck long sleeve and some Levi’s jeans, I couldn’t play the stoner part even if I’d tried.
We had spoken on the phone for the first time six months prior. I remember crying from the bottom of my stomach, guttural and breathless, at the sound of her voice. It was raspy, a smoker’s cadence, and somehow simultaneously warm and distant.
My adopted parents adopted my brother and I (and had their own girl -- my younger sister), in their late 30s/early 40s, and pretty much threw in the towel when I was around 10. I found myself rides to soccer practice, had a part-time job and spent as many nights as possible with friends. My dad was emotionally abusive, occasionally threw things at me, and we fought incessantly. I longed for some semblance of family, of parents being understanding just because we were all connected by blood, so I searched for my birth parents painstakingly and without avail.
When my mom handed me a blue piece of paper with my birth parents’ names when I was 22, after having lied my entire life about “not knowing anything about them,” I was both livid and elated. But I didn’t have time to stay mad at my mom and searched instead.
My first conversation with Betty lasted an hour; we told each other about our lives. She was 23 when she had me. I was nameless for a few months, so the nurses finally called my premature baby body “April”, and it stuck. She told me she gave me up because her family had all been alcoholics, she and her boyfriend were financially unstable and she wasn’t ready to be a mother. These are all reasons I understood and I wasn’t mad at her for giving me up. I was mad that I was adopted into the wrong family. But how could she know?
My boyfriend, Kevin, had accompanied me on the trip to meet her and thank the baby he did because I was awkward as hell. The entire plane ride I was silently chanting, “No, no, we won’t go!” But Kevin was perfect. He told me that we could just hop on a reverse plane and go home. Betty never had to know we had come at all.
But I had just flown across the U.S., spent money I didn’t have, and would regret not sucking it up to fulfill a dream I’d had forever. Betty had her boyfriend, Fred, with her, and the four of us drove in two separate cars to a beach house about two hours away from the airport. Betty had wanted us to stay there, in a room two feet away from theirs, but I couldn’t muster it. After all, she was a stranger, and there were too many bong hits going on for my liking.
The more we talked, the more I wanted to go home. I had always assumed I must be a miniature version of her, because I was so wholly unlike my adopted parents. I used to write essays in school about nature vs. nurture, and argued nature to the core. But that was all unraveling in front of me in the form of Betty: a chain-smoker, horribly unhealthy, almost unable to stand for more than a few minutes, a woman who failed at living her life.
The first day I was there I wanted to ask her if she needed money. I was working in marketing and discovered she had never had a stable job. Fred showed us his “rock space” where his heavy metal band practiced weekly. It was as though Kevin and I were the parents and Betty and Fred were the children.
I tried to steer my negative thoughts; it really wasn’t fair for me to judge her so harshly because I didn’t know that much about her. But my expectations had been crushed. I wanted her to be a beautiful, sporty, successful woman -- all of the things I believe I am (most of the time).
We spent three days walking the beach, being tourists, cooking dinners. Betty and I talked about our mutual love of dogs, looked at pictures of her family (some resemblances stark and overwhelming), and waded through awkward moments of silence. Kevin filled in the spaces with his dry humor.
He and I would go to our hotel early and order Pizza Hut, trying to come up with excuses to get out of seeing Betty and Fred the next day. Betty is brunette to my dirty blonde, and old pictures of her around age 30 are essentially me in a horrible Rick James-style wig. Her eyes are bright, blue, shining. They are sullen now, sad, missing a piece. She is riddled with a disease associated with her smoking, but she hasn’t quit. I’ve never smoked a cigarette either.
When Kevin and I landed home, I cried for three days straight. I was the most confused I’d ever been. If I couldn’t connect with Betty, and I couldn’t connect with my parents, who the hell was I supposed to connect with? Who the hell was going to understand me JUST BECAUSE?
I was feeling outrageously low. My birthday came and went. Everyone and their mother asked me how the trip was and I lied saying I was happy I went. I was not happy I went. I was mad.
Over the next few months, Betty and I talked sporadically, our last conversation around the beginning of June 2010. In July, Kevin called me around midnight to tell me that Fred had sent him a Facebook message: “Kevin, can you please call me immediately. My number is blah, blah, blah…” Kevin asked me what to do and I thought something horrible had happened to Betty.
“Hi Fred, it’s Kevin.”
“Do you have any more information?”
“About the accident…”
“What are you talking about?”
“Dude, I am so sorry to hear about April’s car accident. Betty told me last week. I hope you’re doing okay.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Betty told me that April died in a car accident a few weeks ago. She said April’s mom called her.”
“No. April is fine. She’s in Newport. There was never an accident.”
“Are you serious? April’s alive?”
“Yes, she’s alive. That’s fucked up.” Kevin called me five seconds later to tell me this.
I started crying right there, in the middle of the bar, in front of the ‘80s cover band we’d been jamming to. Random strangers were asking me if I was okay. NO, I’M NOT OKAY. MY BIRTH MOM JUST FAKED MY DEATH.
I called my mom. Despite our problems, I knew she would never have done that. She was rightfully appalled. Everyone I told was appalled. Even Fred had voiced his disgust to Kevin on the phone the previous night.
“I just made an album of pictures for Betty of the trip.”
Adoption is a difficult thing to stomach for both parties. I cannot pretend to understand how she feels, how I was never supposed to open the wound. But she can never know, truly, my longing for a link. Was I not open enough with her? Was I so scared that I built a wall? Did not letting her fully in during those three days cause her to shut me out? I will probably never know because I haven’t talked to Betty in nearly two years.
I got a letter from her about a year ago, her thinking I was mad that she gave me up. No, Betty, I am not mad that you gave me up. I am mad that you didn’t want me in your life so much that you told everyone I died. DIED.
To end on an uplifting note, I am the mother to an awesome dog, Callie, who I rescued from the pound. Gotta love something, right?