Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Ungratefully "Yours"

Just received a comment from Peter O'Connell in response to my first post. Perfect timing. Partial quote. "Perhaps there's an element of being worried about being accused of being ungrateful for having been adopted?"

Yes. I think we worry about it all the time. And even when someone doesn't actually come out and say we are ungrateful, that's often what they mean.

When I was a teenager, my adoptive mother used to say, "And after all I've done for you."

"Like what?" I once asked.

She went on to list the clothes she had bought, the rides she had given, the times she had taken me to the park, the cleaning, the laundry and all the other things parents buy and do for their children. Said to a biological child is one thing. Said in anger to an adopted child is another. How dare you be ungrateful? I rescued you. Of course, she never mentioned she liked doing any of these things. It was a duty she performed. Presumably resentfully.

Other family members have implied the same thing. Especially when my parents began to age and deterioriate. My adoptive mother was diagnosed with Alheimers in her early sixties. You need to move her in with you and take care of her, I was told. When I hired a full-time caretaker instead, there it was. And after all she's done for you.

But I wasn't a confused teenager anymore. I was a married woman with two children. And besides, I had already begun to think in columns. One column listed all the things my parents had done for me. The other column listed all the things I had done for them. And because my parents were self-centered and I became emotionally and financially self sufficient by 17, I figured I could pretty much be free and clear of my "debt" to my adoptive parents by the time I hit thirty five.

That's the trouble with the whole "be grateful for being adopted" message, intended or not. It pushes the adoptee to think like an indentured slave. Well, if I could just do the following, I will be free. Of course, this doesn't apply to all adoptees. Just those of us who didn't fare so well in the crap-shoot placement process. Those of us who never fit in with our adoptive families. The proverbial square peg in a round hole. The angry adoptees.

By the time my mother died, I calculated I had long repaid my debt. While I didn't love her, I did the best I could. I acted responsibly. I did the right thing. The ten years of her illness took its toll.

Now my adoptive father has been diagnosed with dementia. The trouble is, when it comes it him, the columns aren't balancing. Can't balance. They've always been out of whack. I' ve always been the parent. He the child. He's a walking classic case of The Narcissitic Wound. Physically and verbally abused by a drunkard father, he's incapable of acting like a real parent.

Today is another frustrating day. Hours spent trying to manage his most recent health care crisis. By ten o'clock in the morning, I am seething with resentment. This was supposed to be a writing day. Time set aside to work on my novel. Instead, I talk with nurses, calm my father, reorder prescriptions and try to get through to a human being at Kaiser. I am acting like the dutiful, grateful adopted daughter but I am busy adding up the columns again and I'm furious. How long will I have to pay on my debt? I can't just walk away. I am an only child. He has no one else in his life. He is my responsibility even if he never had much responsibility for me. This is a whole new kind of bondage. Angry adopted child tethered to aging adoptive father.

Ungratefully yours, Nina

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Erased: Memoir Part 1

Sometime Last Year:

We are navigating our way through the crowds at The San Francisco International Airport. I walk ahead, cringing, waiting for my father to say something embarrassing to the woman pushing his wheelchair. She is Filipina and works for the airport. He is Mexican-American and darker than she is, but that has never stopped him from making a racist remark. When he spots a Chinese person, he does a little sing-song that makes one think of rickshaws racing across cobblestones. I can’t wait to get him on the plane back to Los Angeles and check the monitors to make sure his flight is on time.

When I glance over my shoulder, the airport worker is looking a bit alarmed at my father’s non-stop conversation so I force myself to slow down and ask my dad how he is doing. He is seventy nine and his legs are bad. As it turns out, this is a big mistake. This unusual display of daughterly concern thrills him and unleashes our entire family history. Except it’s not historical. It’s some revisionist version that sounds vaguely familiar.

Words have always poured - unfiltered - out of my father’s mouth. Whenever a thought pops into his brain, nanoseconds later it makes its public debut. When I was ten, we were at a wedding and he told a young couple that their big, bald baby looked like Nikita Kruschev. I can still remember their startled faces. It didn’t stop there. He told a high school boyfriend about my latest bowel movement. He informed a nurse that she had a big butt. He once told a woman he’d just met all about my mother’s "Oldtimers." Except now he is not making some flippant remark or sharing a sad tale of woe. He’s telling our story. My story. To a complete stranger.

She’s my only daughter, he says. The only family I have left in the world. He sighs.

You don’t have any other children?, the airport worker asks.

My father shakes his head sadly. Oh no, he replies wistfully. After my wife had little Nina the doctor told her she couldn’t have any more children. So that was it. No more kids for us. Just our one little girl.

He says this in his loud voice. Not a quiet, just-between-us voice. I stop and stare at him. He continues with his story. She looks exactly her mother, he explains. My father has warmed to his subject and he’s waving his arms around. She has her mother’s light skin, he says, not like me, dark. And she’s stubborn like her mother, too.

I stand, frozen. The airport has faded away and I am transported to another plane where I am suddenly two dimensional. A giant pink eraser appears and begins to rub me out. I am there but not there. In several sentences, my father has managed to make me disappear.

I am adopted. I am not my mother’s biological child. She did not give birth to me. It was never dangerous for her to bear a second child because conceiving the first was medically impossible. I look nothing like my mother. I do not have my mother’s temperament, her so-called stubbornness.

When I am able to breathe again and the third dimension is restored, I glare at my father. He has a large, egg shaped head that I have always found both funny and slightly repulsive. It wobbles on his neck and I resist the urge to knock it off its stalk. An elevator door opens in front of us. I imagine shoving him inside and running away. But I do none of these things. I wait with him to be wheeled onto the airplane. A good daughter would have bought a ticket and traveled with him back to Los Angeles, but I am not a good daughter.

I don’t miss him when he’s gone.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Blogging Irresistible to Adoptees?

Could blogging be the perfect vehicle for adoptees?

If psychologist, researcher and adoptive father William Reynolds is right, then...yes.

"The adoptee is inclined to be rather shy and personally wary individual who is ill at ease in dealing with others. Impulsive in decision making style, whose self-image tends to be remote and untrusting, who has real difficulty persisting at tasks without immediate rewards, and whose tolerance for frustration and delay is minimal."

Reynolds (along with two colleagues) presented that profile of adoptees back in 1977, long before blogging.

Reading that quote in Betty Jean's Lifton book, Lost & Found, made me sit up, blink and shake my head in wonder. For the last week, I'd been puzzling over my persistent state of writer's block. I had stopped - cold - in the middle of rewriting 250 pages of a ghost story for young adults. The second draft was a big improvement over what author Anne Lamott calls, the "Shitty First Draft" in her wonderful book, Bird by Bird. There was no obvious reason to bail. The writing was going well. I just...gave up. And it wasn't the first time. A bookshelf in my basement is stacked with unfinished manuscripts. And then there's the ten draft chapters of a novel which probably falls into the "Latina Chick Lit" genre filling up the desktop on my computer.

Writing a fiction novel requires persistence. The reward is uncertain. There is no guarantee that it will be published. Fiction writing is frustrating. There are many unforseen delays and hurdles to cross, like getting an agent to actually read your work.

Is finishing a novel harder because I'm an adoptee? I used to produce daily newscasts. Roll in, work all day and then...airtime. Immediate gratification. And then the switch to radio reporting/producing. Similar routine. Pitch story, sell story, produce story, airtime., paycheck. No wondering if all my hard work was going to pay off.

Could sticking with a task with an uncertain outcome be especially challenging for some of us adoptees? If so, why? I asked my (adoption issue educated) therapist and she didn't know. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Until I figure out what's really behind my writer's block, I'll blog. It's perfect! Immediate reward: check; frustration: minimal; delay: none.

As for the other attributes listed by Reynolds: ill at ease in dealing with others? You'd never guess it to meet me, but absolutely. Impulsive? Dangerously so. Remote self-image? In the process of putting it into focus...now that the adoptee has finally awoken.