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I Am NOT the Adoptive Daughter Of...

My Parents

My uncle and I stood awkwardly across from one another in the nursing home room.

In between us, my mother lay dead in her bed; her mouth agape and the left side of her face blackened from a violent fall a few days prior. Her final expression was one of fear and discomfort and not one of the peaceful relief my father had conveyed when he passed away from cancer 26 years earlier.

After a few minutes, my uncle broke the silence.

“Sherri is worried that she’ll get Alzheimer’s,” he said. Sherri is my cousin. A few months older than me, she has been as long as I can remember, a fidgety and obsessively needless worrier.

I just nodded my head in reply. He had uttered the same words four years earlier, shortly after my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Knowing this, I anticipated and braced myself for what would be said next.

“You don’t have to worry because you’re not family,” he continued. “You’re not blood-related. Look at your hands. You don’t even have the large ‘Fryer’ knuckles.”

After gently arguing that it hadn’t been categorically proven that late-onset Alzheimer’s disease had a familial component, I softly said: “All of us have a genetic unknown when it comes to health. We just have to live while we live.”

And with that, I left him alone with his deceased sister and went outside to smoke a cigarette in an attempt to quell a lifetime of anger.

I’m going to be 50 years old in December. That translates into nearly 50 years of being referred to as the adopted daughter. Like somehow that makes me less than a real daughter.

I was Len and Norma’s daughter. Full stop.

I am a complete mix of the two of the most wonderful people I have ever known in my life. In disposition, I’m one-third my mother, one-third my father, and one-third my quirky self.

My Mom and Dad may not have sired me, but they gave me life — a wonderful life. And every success I’ve had in life, I owe to them. As for my failures — and there are many — they are all on me.

Some people believe that after a person passes their spirit lingers for a brief time, allowing them to hear and see all that is happening shortly after their death.

If there is any truth to this, then my mother suffered a great injustice upon her death. Her role as a loving and wonderful mother was diminished at best, if not wiped out completely by her brother’s words. She became childless in that sentence, basically becoming nothing more or less than a caretaker of someone else’s offspring, someone else’s family.

I pray each day that she simply drifted peacefully away into my father’s awaiting arms and heard none of that conversation. I pray too that my late-father was not privy to the derogatory drivel that spilled over my mother’s remains. Then again, he’d too had heard it all before.

After my older brother was born and adopted in 1964, my father’s mother would refer to him as “the boy”. When I was born in late 1967 and adopted seven months later, I became “the girl”.

When and if she’d acknowledge us at all, her question would be: “How are the boy and girl?”

In the years to come, there would be no birthday cards, Christmas presents, or grandmotherly interaction. None whatsoever. Over time, my father broke all ties to his mother. If she couldn’t nor wouldn’t accept us as his children, then she had no place in his life.

My Dad was a wise and protective husband and father until his death in 1991.

Shortly after his passing, I found out that his mother had given up a son for adoption prior to marrying my Dad’s father.

It was a secret his mother kept hidden for well over six decades, until the early ‘80s when I strange man contacted my father and told him that he was his half-brother. That relationship never worked out. I’m not sure why as I never asked my Mom, but I’d guess it had a lot to do with his bitterness toward his mother and I can’t blame him. Perhaps, that was the root of her resentment toward us. None of us will ever know.

My paternal grandfather passed away of a heart attack before either my brother or me were born. My maternal grandfather was killed in an accident prior to my conception and while my brother was still a toddler.

Although we didn’t have quantity in terms of grandparents, we were blessed with quality. Our maternal Nana, aptly named Rose, was as externally and internally radiantly beautiful as her name implied.

My Mom and her mother were as close as sisters. And when my Mom would confide in Rose, her heartbreak over society’s adoption attitudes, Nana used to tell my mother:

“Anyone can give birth to a child, but not everyone can be a mother.”

Nana showered my me and my brother with the same love any non-adoptive grandmother would shower their grandchild. Blood ties did not matter. They were irrelevant and unnecessary. We were family. Never in our four short years together did I feel like, nor get treated like, an adopted granddaughter.

To this day, I can still smell my Nana’s perfume and hear her say in her wonderful Scottish brogue — “I love you, lassie” — before kissing me gently on the forehead as she lay me down to sleep.

I loved my Nana.

On the other hand, unlike Nana, her son (my uncle) and his wife, along with many acquaintances, made it painfully clear to my parents that they found the notion of adoption very difficult to understand or accept.

My Mom used to tell me that, time and time again, my uncle’s wife would say in reference to my brother and I — “Aren’t you concerned because you never know who’s blood runs through them?”

Having run out of patience and discretion, my father put a swift end to that discussion one Christmas Day, succinctly reminding my aunt that my cousin had been born ill and all her blood had been removed and replaced by donor blood.

“But you don’t know who’s blood runs through your daughter’s body either,” he asserted.

People have a tendency to ask adoptive children when they first found out that they were adopted. I can’t say for me that it was an unnatural question given the fact that I was adopted in the 60s and during a time when adoption was still relatively taboo. But in today’s world, I find the question of and the reference to adoption redundant and unnecessary.

I don’t remember being told I was adopted. I don’t believe my brother remembers it either. It’s not something he and I have ever discussed, likely because neither of us found it to be a worthy topic.

Obviously, somewhere in our early years, it must have been explained to both us and, clearly, we didn’t care. Neither of us regarded our parents as adoptive. They were our parents. We loved them passionately and unconditionally.

On the same hand, I never regarded my brother as any less of a brother because we were adoptive siblings. Granted my brother and I have never been particularly close, but that’s simply to do with the fact that we are entirely different individuals. That’s not a unique outcome of non-adoptive siblings, and lack of closeness does not in way negate our sibling love or loyalty.

In today’s world of foreign adoption and same-sex adoption — even sperm donation — we need to take the spotlight off blood ties and refocus it on the true meaning of parents and family — unconditional love.

Being adopted was undoubtedly the greatest gift I have ever received. I’m proud to have been adopted. I have never been embarrassed or ashamed to reveal that I was adopted. I’ve been quite vocal about the fact, as I’ve always been proud and grateful that two of the most beautiful people who ever graced this earth chose me.

No one should be told while grieving at 50 — or at any age for that matter — they aren’t really family due to a lack of blood ties.

Len and Norma were my parents. Full stop.

We were a family and as is written on their headstone, we will be “together forever,” if only in my heart.

Christine O'Reilly
Christine O'Reilly
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Christine O'Reilly

A Toronto-based scribbler who spends most days dreaming of being elsewhere.

See all posts by Christine O'Reilly

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