I don’t remember exactly who the first person was who asked me Didn’t you notice anything strange about your birth certificate? No. No, I did not. I was born in the U.K. I grew up from the age of two in the United States. I don’t think I had even seen my birth certificate until the day I needed to prove I was old enough to get a drivers license. How many sixteen year olds are familiar with official documents?
Even when I got married ( I was twenty. I know! Please don’t judge me) and had to hand over many,many documents in order to justify receiving the benefits of being married to a guy in the U.S. military, I sensed nothing amiss. His birth certificate was different from mine. When our children were born, their birth certificates were different from both of ours, and from each others. Different countries, different states….no suspicion.
What I had always wondered about, things like Why don’t I look like these people I call family? Why do I like different things and why do I think differently and why is my temperament so different from theirs? -those things I had ruthlessly sublimated over decades of being told You are imagining things. I don’t know where you come up with these ideas of yours! Questions felt dangerous. Feelings were unwelcome. Doubts were just me being ridiculous.
I was raised to believe that paperwork defines who you are and where you fit in the world. Paperwork provides legitimacy. From birth certificates to social security cards to work permits, to voter registration cards and marriage certificates and death certificates and on and on and on, official documents bookend our lives. How else do you prove who you are? Travel? Register for school, go to the doctor, get a job, pay your taxes, get married, buy a car, buy a house, get a security clearance, go to the doctor, sign a lease, a rental agreement, sign up for utilities, apply for a patent, enlist in the military, get a diploma, set a record, have a bank account……in other words, this paperwork shit is important!
I was also raised to believe that lying is wrong. Very, very wrong. Lying on an official document was an actual crime, and people in our family did not commit crimes. We were Good People. Why, then, would I have ever questioned the documents that defined my identity? I just, didn’t. I trusted the information on my birth certificate. Even when I learned that trusting people the people I trusted most was not in my best interests, I trusted that piece of paper to be honest. I didn’t consider that people were the ones who created that piece of paper.
So, here I am, sitting across from the woman who raised me. She has just confirmed my suspicions, my lifelong suspicions that I am different. My first question was not How could you do this to me?!, but Is the birthday on my birth certificate even my real birthday? I felt like my entire life I had been standing on the solid ground of my birth certificate and now the ground had disappeared from beneath my feet. If my name was not really my name, what else was a lie? My birth date, the location of my birth, my nationality..what the hell, mom?
Suddenly every single piece of paper that constituted my life history was suspect. I hated the feelings of insecurity and fear and betrayal that swept over me and threatened to drown me. I needed something to anchor me to this new reality I found myself inhabiting. I also found myself swallowed up by a grief so immense that my family feared for my sanity. My husband and I had known one another for almost twenty years. He had rarely seen me cry. Now I was sobbing from sun up to sun down. And a lot of the time in between, while they were sleeping.
in the midst of all of this, the envelope arrived. My mom (to make this easier, I will always refer to her as either mom or as my adoptive mom. the woman who gave birth to me will always be my mother.) had promised to send me whatever papers she still had pertaining to my adoption.
I set the envelope on the antique green sideboard in my dining room, and just stared at it. The papers weight was insubstantial. The weight of the contents potential threatened to flatten me. I was scared. I felt dread and anxiety wash over me, like that moment when your mouth fills with hot liquid, and you try in vain to keep from vomiting. So, I turned and walked away.
When I was a little girl, I had to pass the door to the basement on my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I would long jump past that door, because I was convinced that a vampire lived in the basement. At night I knew that, if I came within reach, a grey wiry arm would lash out from beneath the door, grab my ankle, and drag me down into the darkness. That envelope became my vampire.
I imagined so many scenarios. My mother was a drug addict, or a hippie or a hippie drug addict. She was a prostitute and my father was her John, or her pimp. She was a rape survivor, an incest victim, a felon who couldn’t raise a child in jail. My father was a Manson follower or a fan of Jim Jones or a convicted criminal.
I paced. I cried. I searched for a support network to help me find the courage to open the damn envelope. I didn’t find one. These were pre internet days. The only in person support groups talking about adoption were for Adoptive parents seeking support “dealing with” their adoptive children. My spouse and tween aged kids were completely baffled by my unmooring. They just wanted Me back. I had no idea who Me was anymore.
I opened the envelope.