The woman who says she’s my birth sister is Blonde4Eva. This is her e-mail address. Blonde4Eva sends me a link to a family website. On the site, there are pictures, a family tree, a cartoon drawing of an actual tree. Lists of names. Family history. A list of famous Phelans. A few writers, musicians, career criminals.
“Bardic clan. Royal lineage,” the site explains.
“Phelan comes from O’Failain. It means ‘of the wolf,’” my friend Sinead, who’s from Galway, told me years ago.
Sinead is an accountant. When I lived in New York, we were housemates. There were seven of us in a house. Six Irish accountants and me. We took turns making dinner. My housemates knew how to make only one thing–spaghetti Bolognese. Ragu spaghetti sauce. Ground meat. So it was six days of spaghetti Bolognese, and one day of me making something no one else wanted to eat.
“It’s best to stick with what you know,” one of the housemates, Tony, told me once when I tried to serve them paella–shrimp, sausage, yellow rice.
I thought the paella was okay. Less greasy than what I’d get in Madrid, but almost authentic.
“I’m Irish, too,” I told my housemates when I first moved in.
“No,” Sinead said, “you’re American,” but she was gentle about it.
It’s easy to spot an American, Sinead said. It’s in the body language. “Americans take up so much space,” she said. She pointed out a man on the subway, his knees spread wide, a brown bag on the orange seat beside him. His Times was accordion-folded, proper subway etiquette, but his elbows flared out like peacock fans. “It’s like they’re trying to take in the world,” Sinead said, as if I weren’t one of them after all.
I don’t have the world inside me. I’m not Irish. I’m not German or Jewish, though my parents said my birth father was. I’m not Polish like my father, or Italian/Slovak like my mother. Until I married and had children, I was single, solitary, someone who most days wanted to take up no space at all.
Years ago, when I was working as a journalist, I met Alex Haley, the author of “Roots.” He was kind, gentle with a nervous young reporter sent to interview one of her idols. When I stumbled, he asked me questions, about my writing, about school, my own family history. I told him I didn’t have a family history, not really, and he said, “That’s its own kind of story, then.”
After she moved back to Galway, Sinead found an image of the Phelan family crest and sent it to me Air Mail. The crest was printed on a beer coaster. The crest was green and gold, a blue line of diamonds in a diagonal slash through the middle. A sticker on a cork circle.
The crest is on the website, too. I think it’s the same one from the coaster, but I’m not sure.
I think I should feel something, some deep connection to this crest, to Blonde4Eva, or both, but I don’t.
Blonde4Eva sends more e-mails–a cousin with breast cancer, a steelworker grandfather who lost a leg, her mother’s throat cancer and the hole in her neck she talks and breathes through.
“Froggy but she does alright.”
Blonde4Eva says her mother can’t give up smoking, even now, and holds a cigarette to the hole in her neck to let the smoke in.
My mother, the mother who raised me, smoked. Young, dark-haired, a Kool menthol seesawing between her fingers, glamorous as any movie star. She could blow smoke through her nose. She could blow smoke rings, tiny life preservers lifting off her pink-glossed lips .
“My magic trick,” she called it.
“Stubborn,” Blonde4Eva says about her mother. “Old school.”
Blonde4Eva says she herself was born cross-eyed. People thought she wasn’t smart. She says she’s never recovered from this.
“I am smart,” she says, “They don’t know.”
“This one’s smart,” my father told everyone about me when I was still a baby. “I can see it in her eyes. This one’s no dummy.”
He wanted me to go to college, made sure I went to college. “To meet a better class of men,” he said, but I didn’t.
My first word after daddy and hi was circus.
“I thought you’d never say mommy,” my mother said.
Blonde4Eva highlights her text in lime green. It’s hard to read. She uses a lot of capital letters.
“Don’t shout,” a guide to e-mail etiquette I read once said.
Blonde4Eva says she’s always had a feeling about me.
I was something missing.
“I KNEW,” she says, and repeats it.
All that green.
She says it was hard for her growing up. Poor. Rough neighborhood.
She says, “You should be grateful.”
Something I’ve heard all my life.
You should be grateful your parents took you out of that orphanage.
You wouldn’t be able to walk if your parents never took you out of that orphanage.
You should get down on your knees and thank God you have food and clothes and parents who took you out of that orphanage.
You should be grateful. Who knows how you would have ended up?
Blonde4Eva says, “Listen.”
She says, “Mum is very strange about strangers, if you want to ever meet the best would be through me. Forget Catholic Charities.”
She says, “Are you paranoid we get that from mommy.”
She says everything will be better now that she’s found me.
Before I knew any of this, I named my daughter Phelan, my birth name. Blonde4Eva says we pronounce it wrong.
We say Fay-Lynn.
“It’s Fee-lin,” Blonde4Eva says, like feeling.
Phelan, my daughter, has to wear a leg brace. She has problems with her hip. The brace keeps her legs apart, divided into two parentheses, like she’s always on a horse. It’s hard to hold her close. When I rock her before bed, I take her out of the brace, even though I’m not supposed to do this. I rub her legs and feel her skin on my skin. I think the brace hurts her, but she’s such a happy baby, always smiling.
I worry that the problem will spread, that she’ll be like me, with my two clubbed feet, my crooked legs, in casts to her waist for years. All those surgeries. This is what I told the counselor at Catholic Charities when I started my adoption search. “I need a medical history,” I said. “For my kids.”
“Hereditary, yes,” the doctor said about the hip, “but don’t worry, mom. She’s not like you.”
The doctor is Polish. He has the same accent my father worked hard to hide. He wears gold chains, big rings. A gold pendant of an eagle peeks out from under his scrubs. His scrubs are blue, the same color as his eyes. He wears clogs, white ones, expensive and European-looking.
The day he diagnosed Phelan, the doctor flirted with the pretty nurse who came in to strap my daughter into the brace. “Ah, here she is, my beautiful assistant,” he said, and the nurse blushed. Phelan cried. Wailed. The nurse wore pink scrubs with smiley faces poxed all over them. She didn’t seem to notice Phelan’s crying. She stuffed Phelan’s legs into the brace, one, then the other, two bread loaves, and pulled the Velcro straps tight, the sound of tearing.
The nurse said, “Oh doctor,” like she was a character on TV.
It’s Halloween. My son Locklin, named for the poet Gerry Locklin, is dressed up as Spiderman. His costume has built-in muscles, all padded abs and biceps. “Twip,” he says as he swings by, shooting invisible webs between us.
“How does it feel?” my friend Jan, the adopted one with the birth mother who loved butterfly stationery, asked once.
She’d run into Locklin and me at the mall. I didn’t know what she meant at first. Locklin had been grumpy. He was very small then, and I carried him in a Baby Bjorn pack across my chest. He’d finally drifted off to sleep when Jan saw us. We must have looked peaceful, but there was dried milk on my clothes, baby spit in my hair, what felt like a dampening diaper against my belly, and, underneath the Baby Bjorn, Locklin’s hands were balled up tight as rocks. I was terrified he’d wake up.
“To have, you know, that connection,” she said. “Blood.”
It sounded romantic. Magical. A blood connection. My first. My only.
And it was.
And it wasn’t.
“Good,” I said, “I’m tired a lot.”
Jan is a poet, too. I know she wanted something better than that. But even now, I can’t think of the right, more profound thing to say.
I love my children.
My children have so many needs, all of them bigger than my own.
“I know I could never do it,” Jan said, about children. It’s almost a boast.
When Jan talks about her adoption, she calls it the severing. She calls blood red sugar.
“Twip,” Locklin says. He holds both hands palm out to shoot his webs, like he’s offering me everything he has.
All those threads between us can’t be cut.
Lately, even out of costume, Locklin’s taken on an alter-ego. He calls himself HS. The Human Spider. We let him draw the letters on a red turtleneck. When he wears it, he pulls the turtleneck up over his nose, with only his eyes showing.
On the fridge, there’s a self-portrait he’s made of himself as HS. Beneath the drawing–a good likeness, all wide-eyed and spike-haired–he’s written the word Helps.
My husband spelled it out, but Locklin wrote it himself. The letters shaky, but insistent.
“I’ll save you,” he says, and swoops into the room.
Phelan can’t wear the Halloween costume I bought her, a fuzzy Winnie-the-Pooh. It won’t fit over her brace. I bought it because of the mobile that spirals over her crib, tiny Pooh bears chasing jars of honey, a kind of baby Grecian Urn thing. She reaches for the bears, giggles, tries to kick her legs up and out of the brace to get at them. The mobile is the first thing she’s ever loved.
It’s ridiculous, but I cry over the costume. I save it in a box in Phelan’s closet, I don’t know why, and cry the whole way to Target, where I’ll buy her another costume, a lady bug.
The lady bug costume is okay–a sack, open at the bottom, enough room for her brace and spread legs. It comes with fuzzy red and black socks, and a pair of pompom antennae strapped to a headband. I’ll carry Phelan door-to-door for trick-or-treating. I’ll carry her past the judges’ stand at the town Halloween parade, where she’ll win $5 for cutest costume.
“Cute as a bug,” one judge will say.
I’ll carry her the way my parents carried me, though they did it for years, with both my legs in casts to my hips. They talked about the bruises they had, strings of them around their waists and thighs, from where I bounced and banged the casts against them, eager to get down and walk.
Back home, my husband snaps pictures, Phelan flat on her back in the lady bug sack. Her eyes cross when she tries to focus on the antennae that flop just over her forehead.
She looks confused.
“Forget Catholic Charities,” Blonde4Eva told me. I think about this when the Catholic Charities counselor calls to say she has been in touch with the birth mother. This is what the counselor calls her: the birth mother.
The birth mother refuses everything–a meeting, a medical history, correspondence of any kind.
The birth mother wants no contact.
The birth mother believed the records were permanently sealed. The birth mother wants the records permanently sealed.
The birth mother is immoveable on these points.
This is the word the counselor uses, immoveable.
The counselor does not say “your birth mother.” She does not use the birth mother’s name, which, unspoken, feels forbidden, as if I should forget everything I already know, as if this phone call has the power to make that happen.
I am standing in my real mother’s kitchen when this call comes in. I am leaning over my mother’s sink, where she once leaned and did dishes and filled my father’s coffee pot with water. I am looking out at my mother’s lilacs again, and at her flowering dogwood, her most prized tree, grown from a sapling, kept safe from my father’s mower for years.
The dogwood is blooming, its white petals spotted with red, another cluster of deeper red in the center. My mother, Catholic, believed the stories–that Christ was crucified on a cross made from the wood of a dogwood tree, that the tree’s growth was stunted–retribution for eternity–and that the flowers symbolize his wounds, the red center the crown of thorns.
“Dogwoods are hard to grow,” my mother always said, proud of her care and skill, proud this one survived.
I don’t think it’s true–dogwoods are everywhere–but belief is its own truth, maybe.
“The birth mother has health issues,” the counselor says, and mentions throat cancer, a voice box partially removed. “Still,” the counselor says, “she was quite spirited. ”
And then the counselor does something I didn’t think possible. This woman, with her bone-colored shoes and clothes, her office full of files and clipboards, her dog with its bone-shaped birthday cake, laughs. She laughs so hard she has to pull the phone back for few seconds–I hear it, the distance–to try to get her balance, but it doesn’t help.
“I have to say, she really gave me a go,” the counselor says. “Swore at me up and down. She screamed at me, I mean screamed. No voice box and all. Imagine!”
The counselor says, “That’s never happened to me.”
The counselor says, “Not in all my years of doing this.”
The counselor says, “Sometimes it doesn’t go well, but never like this.”
She stops finally, catches herself, pulls her laugh back in. She says, “Well then.” She clears her throat, says, “I wish I had better news.”
She says, “I’m here if you need to talk.”
She says I should let it go. There’s no reasoning with my birth mother on any of it.
I mention Blonde4Eva, and she says, “I can’t discuss that per the birth mother’s wishes.”
She says, “We have to honor the birth mother’s wishes. I’m sure you understand.”
She says, “I really am sorry.”
I say thank you. I say I know. I say I understand.
None of this is true.
When I hang up the phone, I get down on the floor and wedge myself between the kitchen cabinets. I’m alone in the house, no one to scare, and so I let it out.
Then I cry so hard I scare myself.
The sounds coming out of me feel distant, foreign, like the time at the dentist when, out of nowhere, he snapped my front tooth in half. The dentist had been drilling, scraping off bonding on the tooth, and the tooth cracked off.
“Oh dear,” the dentist said, and held up a mirror to show me what happened. A black space where my tooth had been. A jagged edge sticking out from the gum line. Blood starting to pool in the edges.
I didn’t recognize my face. I felt sick. I made a sound I couldn’t duplicate again, even if I tried very hard. It was an animal sound. Loss. Revulsion.
What I feel now–grief for my dead mother, the mother who raised me. Grief for my dead father, for everything and everyone I’ve lost.
About the birth mother: I had no idea I cared so much.
A few days pass and we’re out of batteries. Locklin drags a toy cash register and drops it at my feet. It won’t light. The cash drawer won’t open. The tiny microphone that Locklin uses to shout “Clean up in aisle seven!” won’t work.
I pop open the Emergency Preparedness Kit I bought in a post-9/11 panic and keep stashed under the sink. I take out two pocket flashlights and pop the batteries, then load them into the cash register.
“That should hold you,” I tell my son, as he pings the cash register door open and closed.
We’re out of other things, too–toilet paper, coffee and soda. We’re out of baby wipes. We’re down to two diapers. Locklin needs new socks. When I realize there’s no way around it, I change Phelan’s diaper and bundle her in a plush pink baby sack– a hoodie dress with elastic at the bottom to fit over her brace. I grab her blanket and squeaky caterpillar, her bottle and pacifier, her diaper bag and hippo rattle, an extra change of clothes.
There’s so much gear to gather for even the smallest errand, some days I can’t face it, but today it will be good to get out of the house, away from the phone, the computer, the mailbox.
“We’ll forward a full report,” the Catholic Charities counselor said. “The report will include all non-identifying information from your file.”
Locklin leans over the cash register’s tiny microphone. “Mom,” he says, all giggles and static. “Mommy. Mum-mum-mum-mum.”
I imagine my file, a redacted document released by the CIA, all those thick black lines blotting out essential things–names, dates, facts, acts to be accounted for, people to be held accountable. I can’t imagine what all there is left to know.
“Are you okay with this?” my husband asks, and I say I’m fine, no worries.
My husband has two blue mugs of tea, one in each hand, and a bagel on a plate balanced over one of the mugs. He’s dressed for his basement office–knit cap, slippers, cut-off sweatpants with a book tucked into the waistband. My husband’s a writer, like me, when the world will let him work. Today he’s supposed to be writing. I’m supposed to keep the kids away. Tomorrow he’ll do the same for me. This is how we love each other.
Locklin blows into the cash register microphone. He says, “Dad. Daddy. DaDaDaDa.” He says, “Cha-ching.”
“She could at least have given a medical history,” I say, adjusting Phelan’s brace under the dress. Phelan squirms and giggles and tries to grab my necklace, a silver heart locket that I’d given my mother years ago for Mother’s Day. When my mother wore it, there were pictures of me inside. Now there are pictures of Locklin and Phelan taken right after they were born. He’s wrapped in a blue blanket with teddy bears on it. She’s wrapped in a pink blanket covered with flowers. Otherwise, they look exactly the same.
“What kind of person won’t give a medical history?” I say, and rub my daughter’s chubby calves between my hands. “What would that hurt?”
The pictures in the locket are the size of my pinkie nails. Locklin loves for me to open the heart to show them to him.
“You’re always in my heart,” I tell him, and he laughs. It’s what my mother used to say to me when she’d snap the heart open. “Get it?” she’d say.
Since the Catholic Charities call, I think about my mother a lot. I think about Hemingway a lot, too, all that grace under pressure. “It’s awfully easy to be hardboiled about things during the daytime,” Hemingway said, “but at night it’s another matter.”
At night I lie on my back and wait for my husband to go to sleep. We sleep close, his left leg clamped over both of my legs, my right arm over his chest. I like to sleep like this because I want to make sure he’s breathing. He snores and sometimes his breath catches and I nudge him to get it going again.
Some nights I stay up late just listening to him breathe. Then I go in and check Locklin and Phelan and make sure they’re breathing, too. I check the smoke detectors. I check the dials on the stove. I check the door locks, the window locks. I do this over and over again.
“I’m tired a lot,” I’d told my friend Jan about motherhood.
When I was very young, I told my parents I loved them all the time. “Pass the salt please, I love you. May I have an extra roll, please, I love you.” Once my father asked me why I did this and I said, “Because I want it to be the last thing you hear before you die.” He wouldn’t talk to me for days after that, and I knew somehow I’d given him the wrong answer.
The right answer was “Because I love you so much.”
In bed with my husband, I have to be gentle and slip free so I won’t wake him. I roll onto my back, pull the blankets up, and stare at the ceiling until the tears stop. I lean my head right, then left to get the water out of my ears.
“What did you want to happen?” my husband asks.
“I want a medical history,” I say. “For the kids.”
What I don’t say:
I want this woman, this stranger, this mother to love me.
I want her to worry for me.
I want her to make up for the mother I lost.
At Target, I keep Phelan in her stroller and try to get Locklin to stick with me. I make him keep one hand on the stroller at all times, like something I picked up from a cop show. I used to think parents who put their kids on leashes were crazy or cruel, but now I’m not sure. Exhaustion and fear make a lot of things seem reasonable.
“Are you paranoid?” Blonde4Eva wanted to know. “We get that from mommy.”
I don’t know the line between paranoia and worry. What I know are lists–to do, to remember, what to let go of, what to buy.
When I try to explain motherhood to my friends who don’t have children, I tell them sometimes my brain feels like a radio stuck between stations, a TV with the cable blown out. When I talk about motherhood with people who have children, we just make the sound of static, our shared password.
There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend Gerry says. People with kids and people without kids. When I talk about my kids to friends who don’t have children, my friends talk about their own childhoods. “I was just like that!” they say. They talk about their cats.
I bend down and tuck Phelan’s blanket so it doesn’t drag. Locklin points with his one free hand. “Toys,” he says, and I point at the list balanced on top of the stroller canopy. “Errands,” I say, “then you can look.”
It’s easy to get distracted. Target confuses me the way Vegas casinos confuse me. There’s something about the lights. In Vegas, I go into casinos at night and when I come out it’s morning. In Target, I go in with a list that says batteries, socks and diapers and come out with a bookshelf, a lava lamp and 30 rolls of toilet paper.
Remember what you’re here for, I tell myself, and check the list again.
It’s years later. We’re back in Target, and Phelan is yelling “I love you!” at a woman in the bath aisle.
It’s February. Phelan’s four. Outside, it’s snowing. The snow caught in her hair makes her blonde pigtails curl. She’s bundled in her pink down jacket, and one fluffed-up arm dangles over the cart. She waves like a beauty queen.
“I love you!” she yells again, and this time the woman looks up from the bathmats she’s holding, two slices of lime green shag.
I half-smile and say “sorry.”
Earlier, Phelan and I stopped in the card section, a Valentine’s Day display. Phelan loves the musical cards. She thinks they’re magic and has to open every one. Today her favorite was a card that looked like a half-eaten box of chocolates. She plucked it from the rack, opened it.
“I love you!” it yelled.
Phelan laughed, squealed. She closed the card. She opened it. “I love you!” it yelled. She held the card over her head and waved it. She brought it back down and kissed it. She shook it, like she was waiting for something, fairies maybe, to fall out. She closed the card and opened it again and this time, she yelled back, “I love you!”
The rest of our shopping trip went like this: “I love you!” she yelled to the security guard checking receipts, to a sad couple with a basket of air fresheners, to a flop-haired kid in Digital Cameras. “I love you!” she yelled to the woman making popcorn at the concession stand, to a red-vested manager price-checking tennis shoes.
And now, “I love you!” Phelan says to this woman in a brown tweed coat, her arms laden down with bathmats.
Everyone else had been at a distance, but this woman is close. I’m afraid Phelan might reach out and try to touch her. The woman stares as we push past. She doesn’t smile or laugh. She seems horrified, maybe, that I’ve let my daughter act out like this, and maybe she’s right. Maybe I should have stopped this.
I push Phelan faster and we turn into the next aisle. Plastic shower curtains covered with superheroes and angelfish. Toothbrush holders shaped like cities. All around us, there are so many towels, lots of greens and blues. I reach into my pocket for my list and can’t find it.
All these years of the same thing–lists full of batteries, socks, toothpaste. Years wheeling into this same store, where I’ve watched my children and myself grow older in grainy black-and-white pictures on the security cameras, our faces upturned, our hands waving like famous somebodies on TV.
My daughter saying I love you to all these strangers was cute at first. Now it’s something else. I scan Phelan’s face for a sign of disappointment, regret, but those are my feelings, not hers.
“Be grateful for what you have,” the Catholic Charities counselor said.
It was a practiced phrase, a cliché I’ve heard and hated all my life.
Still, I am grateful. I exist. I am grateful for my family. I am grateful for my daughter, all smiling, pink-cheeked. She likes the angelfish curtains. She likes a soap dish shaped like a duck. I am grateful for the security cameras, the way they keep records.
We were here, are here. The cameras prove it.
I get distracted by the towels, all those soft blues, until I hear what I hoped would happen. She doesn’t quite yell, but this stranger one aisle over, says it loud enough.
“Love you, too.”
How a stranger feels shouldn’t matter to me, but it does.
Phelan, distracted by the buzzing of the overhead lights, her own way of seeing, her singular beautiful life, doesn’t seem to notice.
Photo Source: Little Urbanities