Finally Finding Family

Me. Very little, but me.

I was told a pretty story, growing up. It went like this…

I was given up for adoption at birth. My birth mother was 19, and already had a 3 year old boy. She was a navy brat, living with her parents. Her mother, my birth grandmother, was sick with vaguely described “women’s issues.” She was not willing to take in a second grandchild (me), and was the one insisting on putting me up for adoption.

My birth father was a gaping black hole. It is unclear if he was even aware my birth mother was pregnant when he disappeared, or he might have left when he found out. He was only described, cryptically, as “dark.” My mom thought maybe that meant Hispanic or Indian, given this was in Texas.

The agency said they tried to match babies with families of a similar appearance and heritage. They said my birth mother was mostly Irish and British, just as my adoptive mother was.

It didn’t turn out to be a good match in appearance. I was short, and dark of eye and hair, in a family of towering green and blue eyed Texans.

How much of the pretty story was true? I’ve heard from other adoptees that “the story” was often made up. The potential adoptive parents were told what they would want to hear, to clinch the deal. So it could be entirely false, or totally true, or somewhere in between.

Why does it matter now?
Because I have a DNA test being processed at 23andMe. It sat here for a while, before I sent it in, as I pondered what the possible outcomes could be.

This will sound idiotic, but when I ordered it, I wasn’t thinking at all about how I might find my birth family through it. I really got it to find out my heritage. It matters to me, where I come from, geographically. And I got it to look for answers to my multitude of health problems.

The testing kit came, and suddenly I realised it could open a whole can of worms, or even two cans, and I didn’t know if I wanted to do that.

See, as near as I can tell, no one is looking for me. I’ve been registered at online adoption registries since the birth of the internet. They’re easy to search, reach out, and make contact.

But no one has.
In 20 years.

It’s likely I have more than one half sibling out there, but they might not even know I exist.

How will they feel if I show up on a DNA test? I have no idea how it would feel, growing up in a family, and then to find, as an adult, that you have an unexpected sibling. Would you feel betrayed? Let down? Angry?

Both my daughters already have their results from 23andMe, and I’ve been poking around in them. They have different fathers, so, in looking at the “DNA relatives” they matched, if they both matched to the same person, it’s because that person is related to me.

And, wow, are there matches. A lot. Some are as close as 2nd cousins to my girls. And more matches keep turning up.

I have blood relatives, other than my girls.

I doubt you can understand what that statement feels like, unless you’ve been where I am right now. It’s not something I can put into words. I stopped thinking I’d find my biological family quite a few years ago.

I’m actually terrified.

What if they didn’t know of my existence? What if they don’t believe it (it happens, from what I hear)? What if they want nothing to do with me? What if they do? Will they be able to answer my questions, about the circumstances of my birth and adoption? Can they tell me my birth parents’ names? And in a soft whisper… Could I see pictures, of my biological mom and dad? Is that too much to ask?

All the possible outcomes are terrifying. There are forums on 23andMe where folks like me talk about this exact situation. It often turns out badly, with rejection. There are a few good outcomes.

But I have to try.

The Weight

I told my daughter, Rhiannon, the other night, as she calmed me down, after I freaked out when I found my girls have even more matches, this thing called adoption has been a huge weight I’ve carried around my whole life.

In elementary school one year, we learned about genes and heredity, and were assigned a big genealogy project, to research and chart our family tree on posterboard, with the most pictures and details possible.

I’m an Aspie – person with Asperger’s syndrome – although we didn’t know that then.

I did the only thing that seemed right. I raised my hand and asked what I was supposed to do. I explained I was adopted, and I didn’t know my family tree.

My teacher was momentarily befuddled. She told me to use my adoptive family. “But that’s not right. It’s not my genetics,” I argued.

You have to understand. Aspies have an “unusually strong” attachment to the truth and what we perceive is right, true, and honorable. Making a family tree, to be displayed, using my adoptive family, was a charade, a huge lie, so much that it was anathema.

I had to do it anyway. I remember a lot of tears. Of feeling like I was cheating, feeling guilty.

Holding my hand up and asking that question had repercussions throughout my schooling years. Someone figured out that only bastards are given up for adoption.
They never let me forget it. Even in high school, I remember the taunting.

There are other stories, but you get the idea. And there was a song that did a great deal of damage, too – it was worthy of its own blog post years ago: “Love Child”, “Bastard”, & Asperger’s

So, here I am, in my mid 50’s, and for my whole life I’ve known nothing of my biological family. I haven’t known where I come from, or who I am. It is such an odd, disconcerting, yet exciting, feeling, to know, in a week or so, that’s all going to change, when my results come in.

(And just like that, my phone went beep, to tell me there’s an email from 23andMe saying my reports are ready! I haven’t even finished editing this yet! Omg!)

Some adoptees don’t care about their birth family. I don’t know how much of that is because they “fit” into their adoptive family really well, like my (also adopted) brother did, tall and light eyed as our parents. Maybe it’s just personality.

No one has ever loved me as much as my mom did, who did everything she possibly could for me, up until the end. We didn’t become close, though, until I was an adult. I wasn’t lacking in love, growing up, but I just never felt that I belonged.

Like a lot of adoptees, there’s been this aching hole that’s been waiting to be filled. That’s as much about the countries my ancestors come from as anything.

Seeing my daughter’s list of cousins that had to have come from my side, that was a holy cow moment. I have family. Biological family. And there they are, a long list, with initials and a few names. It is both the lifting of the weight, of being without blood kin except for my daughters, and a new and great weight, not knowing how all these people will react.

Unless you are adopted, you cannot know how that feels, and I am failing at expressing it.

Figuring out who is who based on DNA tests can be very challenging, unless a very close relative (parent, sibling) has tested with the same company. Even then, they have to have opted in to finding DNA relatives. I can send messages, and hope to hear back.

It’s going to be interesting.
And exciting.
And terrifying.
And overwhelming.
And, hopefully, one day, fulfilling.
Hopefully.

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On Mourning

Veta Collins, beloved Mom

I was doing it wrong, and I knew it. It was one year ago today, my mom had just died, but I wasn’t crying.

“Something’s wrong with me,” I confided, oh so quietly, to those closest to me, a week later. They assured me there was no right way, no wrong way, to grieve. That it would come, when it was time, when I was ready.

Apparently, that time arrived at 9 PM last night. I was thinking about what state of mind I was in a year ago, waiting for The Call to tell me she had passed away.

The dam burst, and finally, the river of tears flowed. I wasn’t just missing her any more – I was mourning.

All day today, I’ve gone through it all again, remembering the sad details of the time between her stroke and her death, writing them out. If I don’t remember them, and acknowledge them, how can I let them go?

I was in a very precarious state, physically, by the time my mom died, two months after a hemorrhagic stroke. Those months were a nightmare, watching my strong, capable, and independent mom being broken into a mere shell of herself. I suspect the mourning got put on hold, subconsciously, so I could recover from the toll the physical, emotional, and mental stress had taken on my own fragile body. Those of us with ME, CFS, fibromyalgia, etc, have to carefully and frugally measure out our energy use, our spoons. (See Always Counting Spoons if you aren’t familiar with this concept).

But there was little I wouldn’t do for my mom. She had always been there for me, through my many mistakes in life, always ready to pick me up and help me out. We were best friends who spoke most every day, and had no secrets.

She was also a real rarity, because she believed in me despite my illness, and supported me both emotionally and financially.

You might think any mother would support a sick daughter, but that’s very sadly untrue when the illness is ME (myalgic encephalomylitis), CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome), fibromyalgia, chronic Lyme. They are not understood even by many doctors other than a few specialists, and family, well, most family members don’t take the time to try to understand. I have a lot of friends ill with the same things, and very few have the support of their families, or only part of the family.

I was so very lucky, to have my mom until she was 89. She was still telling me about any article or show she saw where my illnesses were mentioned, still reading articles about it that I posted on Facebook, trying to understand better. She still listened to me moan and groan and complain when I needed to.

I had her, and I have my youngest daughter, who has a milder version of these damn diseases. She’s my caregiver, my best friend, my defender, intelligent and brave, and with a bit of her grandmother’s iron spine. You don’t want to piss her off anymore than you did my mom – her grandmother taught her well. I have my son-in-law here, too, who very bravely accepted the weight of being part of our family. It’s not an easy thing, being a caregiver to someone like me, mostly bedbound. But such is the power of Love.

I couldn’t get through this life without them, and I don’t know how my friends who have no family support do it.

I’ve been blessed, that’s for sure, and I’m so very thankful for my mom’s steadfast love and support. I will always love her, and I know she’s watching over me, loving me still.

Love never dies.

Shores of Avalon

Reflecting…
In some ways, I was relieved when my mom finally passed away. Seeing her the way she was, two months after a hemorrhagic stroke, ripped my heart out every day. She’d had the stroke in early September, and the months since had been filled with far too few ups, far too many downs, and devastating punches to the gut.

She was only affected physically a little, and that mostly passed. But her mind… That bore the brunt of the bleeding in her brain. That is what haunts me.

Dementia was just a word, without real meaning, until I watched, from a distance, as she slid further and further away. I wanted to go to her, in Houston, but I’m homebound with my own illnesses, and there was no way I could travel.

There were endless phone calls, trying to talk to her, and talking to her doctors, nurses, and my brother and sister-in-law, who were there. Hours spent researching, trying to understand the possibilities for recovery.

More hours went into hacking into her patient record at the hospital, pouring over the flood of lab and test results, learning a whole new area of medical terminology, translating that for family, and relaying it all to my eldest, who was deployed to the middle east.

I’d already spent 4 years being my mom’s patient advocate from a distance, intervening with doctors, calling, faxing, emailing, tracking her labs, researching her meds and demanding changes from doctors who were too busy to spend the time I was.

She was 89 years old. Every problem was written off as “just getting older.” How angry that still makes me. If they’d paid more attention, they’d worked harder to control her blood pressure, and sent her to the ER when her BP was incredibly high and she had a headache, the outcome could have been different.

After the stroke, my brother would bring the iPad to the hospital, so we could do video chats. They were difficult from the start, seeing my mom’s confusion, anxiety, distress, and fear. She didn’t understand that she’d had a stroke, where she was, or what was happening. Sometimes she knew me, sometimes she didn’t. The nurses said she was often combative, angry and afraid, cussing them out while they tried to help.

As the days turned to weeks, getting her to eat, drink, and take her meds, became nearly impossible. She went from hospital to nursing facility and back numerous times, with new issues cropping up, one after the other. She often would wander around, and had many falls.

The last video chat we had haunts me. My brother propped the iPad up on the table, so I felt like I was there, but I don’t think she even looked at me. Her face was gaunt, and her always beautiful skin was marred by large deep purple and green bruises, with more on her arms and legs, from her falls. Her eyes stared blankly, empty except for anger when my brother tried to get her to eat her meds-laced ice cream.

She wasn’t there. The spark of Love and Life that animated my mother, spilled from her over me for my whole life, was gone. I knew she would be appalled at her condition, and would never have wanted to go through all this. I cried that day, to see her so diminished, bruised and battered, who had always been so strong and imposing.

Making the decision to put her in the gentle hands of hospice care that day was easy. The doctors now said she had terminal dementia. Hospice would see that she was comfortable, allowed to slip away naturally.

The day after hospice took over, she went to sleep, and became unresponsive. My brother showed me her nice room on chat, with all her furniture, as she laid still, on the bed. No more IV’s, no more prodding her to eat, no more distress. Resting gently, she slipped deeper and deeper into a coma.

I thought she would pass away quickly after that, but she was stubborn to the end. Every night I went to sleep, so lightly, in case The Call came in. A kind-hearted hospice nurse told me it could “be a while,” and he had one patient who went 33 days in a coma, in what is basically a hibernation state. I had no idea someone could linger that long without water or an IV.

The waiting was hard, and very busy, helping to arrange a funeral in her tiny home town of Loop, TX, and keeping folks aware of developments.

My ill body was not taking all this well, and I was having some major physical issues. Too little sleep, too much laying in bed wondering how she was in the middle of the night, too little eating… I tried desperately to stabilize my own system.

My mom lasted 6 days. The Call I’d been expecting came moments after I woke up on my own, alarmed. We’d both always known when the other was going to call, and this final call was no exception.

Gazing over the mountains my mom had loved so much, I watched the dawn light creep into the day, as I had just enough time to say a final goodbye.

I felt her then, and I’ve felt her presence many times since then. And I always will.
She was truly my guardian angel in life, and nothing’s going to stop her from continuing to look out for me.

This, I know.

A Good Death

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“Veterinarians deal with death the most out of any medical profession.”

“Does it ever really get any easier, euthanization?” asked the first year student.

“Every euthanization is difficult, but some hit harder than others…”
– from “Vet School” (TV show, NatGeo Wild)

Is there any such thing as a good death? A beautiful, peaceful, passing?

Is there a right way and a wrong way for the owners, scratch that, the human family of a beloved companion animal to act, when they have to free a well loved furry family member from life, because of illness or injury? When the vet is there, administering the fatal meds, is there a proper or expected or normal way to act? Or do they see a whole range of responses?

Strange questions to ask, I know, but you ought to be used to strange questions from me by now.

Our vet cried, along with Rhiannon and I, when we put dear Kasha to sleep, on Nov 2. I’m pretty sure it was my actions that caused that.

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Let me back up, and set the scene… Kasha was 12 or 13 years old, quite old for a giant of a dog, weighing over 100#. She was a shelter dog, rescued from the ASPCA when less than a year old. She had been a member of the family a long, long, time.

Kasha had developed multiple issues, including deafness, a heart condition, gallbladder problems, and then, canine degenerative disc disease began taking a huge toll on her, worsening dramatically in August. She had muscle spasms in her rear thighs and legs, and stiffness, then finally started having a hard time getting her rear legs up, standing or walking. She just couldn’t coordinate her back legs properly.

I watched her those last two weeks with her spinal issues weighing heavily on my mind. I had just been told that my own back pain wasn’t just scoliosis or a slipped disc.

No, nothing is ever that simple with me. Instead, I have “severe multilevel degenerative disc disease” of pretty much my whole spine. And Kasha had the canine equivalent.

So the question on my mind that last few weeks was, “is she in as much pain as I am?” Because I was in a lot of pain, with sharp pains in my spine, feeling discs moving around, sciatica in my hips making it hard to get comfortable, no matter what position I tried.

Did she feel that way? I don’t think so, at least not until the last few days, and I dosed her with pain meds then, while we waited for it to be Monday, and the vet able to come…

Books on grieving pet loss all say when you have to be the one to make the call, that so-dreaded and very final decision, that everyone feels guilty to some extent.

I didn’t. It couldn’t have been any clearer, watching this beautiful, still so-very-loving, old friend, drag herself around with her front legs, unable to stand her rear up without assistance. How affectionate she was those last few weeks, relishing all the extra attention she was getting…

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We were lucky, and a local vet has just started doing house calls. She had known we were almost there, and was waiting to get the call… and then it was clearly, so clearly, time.

The vet was running late that day, but it turned out to be for the best, I think. We had moved Kasha out into the yard, and as the sun fell and the light began to die, we brought candles, many candles, outside.

For an hour or so, Rhiannon and I sat beside Kasha, lavishing her with Love, expensive treats, and cheese. We told her how much she meant to us, swapped stories about what a good dog she’d been, shared the funny stories, and commemorated her life.

We were ready, when the vet arrived. She quietly asked questions, to understand the situation better. We managed to stop crying long enough to answer them. I suspect our tear-streaked faces told her more than enough.

The vet was gentle and patient, and Kasha was soon sedated, nearly asleep, her head in my lap… the vet waited until we were ready, to give that final injection.

My forehead rested on Kasha’s, one hand cradling her head, the other in Rhiannon’s tight grip, as tears streamed like a river over Kasha’s head. I whispered to her that it was okay, that she should fly free, my beautiful girl, away from the pain, and that we’d be okay.

Kasha’s nose against my leg told me when her breathing slowed, and stopped.

I don’t know how it is for other people in the same situation.

But as deaths go, this one was peaceful, reverential, sacred. An act of mercy, a setting free, done with so very much Love. I can only hope my own passing, when it comes, is such a gentle one.

And maybe that’s why the vet cried. I don’t suppose it’s every day she sees a sacred passing, a silently sobbing owner, forehead to forehead, eye to eye, with her beloved companion, as their soul takes flight.
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You’re in the arms of the angels, now, Kasha.
We Love you.
Now, forever, and always.