The process of working through the fear, anxiety and lingering pain has been a long, winding road… with a lot of stop signs. There is just so much I don’t understand about what happened to me that at times, it’s easier to ignore it than to address it. But it eventually rears it’s head in the ugliest way.
I’ve written before about the horrible childhood my mom had, but I didn’t go into much detail. She was adopted when she was a baby. Her birth father served in the Vietnam War and had PTSD. One night, while her birth mother was holding my mom’s younger brother in her lap, her father had a flashback and shot her in the head. She survived, but was left with serious mental deficiencies. My mom and her sister were adopted together, while her brother was in and out of different foster homes most of his life.
The home my mom and aunt were adopted into should have been a peaceful, loving place where they could heal from the trauma. But it was anything but. My mom was sexually abused from a very young age until she moved out at 17. My mom took the brunt of the abuse to protect her sister. Her adopted mother and brother both knew what was going on, and would even set these situations up for her adopted father, telling her: “It’s time to go give Dad a massage.” But they knew what it really meant and did nothing about it. The abuse did not end when she moved out. He burnt down the tiny shack-like house she was living in. She eventually got married to my father and moved out of state to escape.
This past July, her birth mother, Judy, passed away. My mom did not have any contact with her birth family, except when we drove to St. Louis when I was in fourth grade to meet her birth brother and his wife and children. I made the 8 hour drive to Kentucky by myself to meet her birth family for the first time. I wasn’t sure if it would bring closure, bring more questions, deepen wounds, answer questions, etc. All I knew was that I had to go. Most of my family back home was not very supportive. And I understand, this was a huge deal. I was going out of state to meet strangers. I was uneasy, nervous and full of doubt about my decision to go. I tried not to have any expectations on how they might receive me or what they may be like. My mom’s sister decided not to go, so I was totally alone.
I stopped at my grandmother’s (on my dad’s side) for a couple nights on my way to Lexington. She told me stories of my mom from when I was a baby. I wish I could say they were happy stories. She spoke of my mom’s deep depression, which wasn’t news to me. But she told me of when she had to come to our state to help my mom with me because my mom was locked in her bedroom refusing to hold me. How she eventually went and placed me in her arms and walked away, forcing my mom to hold me as she cried for my grandma to come pick me up. She wanted me to understand that having a baby brought up a lot of pain for my mom. She wanted me to understand that these people may not be great people, that I need to proceed with caution, that I was stepping into a dark story and I was stepping in all by myself and how sad and scary that could be. I know she was trying to give me insight, but how I wish I could unhear the story of my mom refusing to hold her first born baby.
When I arrived in Lexington, I met with her brother and his family for ice cream. I felt like I fit right in. They are funny, sassy and humble. I went back to the hotel feeling more at ease and was ready for whatever the next day would hold.
We arrived at the funeral home the next morning and I was shaking as I walked through the double doors into the sanctuary. No one had told me that it would be an open casket. I walked in and saw the spitting image of my mother laying dead in a coffin. I immediately ran to the bathroom and fell to the floor, sobbing. It felt like a scene from a movie. Between sobs, I was choking out the words, “God, I can’t do this. You need to help me. This is too much for me to handle.”
When I had composed myself as best as I could, I returned to the sanctuary. Shortly after, Judy’s sister, Brenda, walked in, whom my mother was named after. Again, another person that could have passed for my mom, only she had died her hair pitch black. She looked back at me with disbelief, too. The resemblance runs so strong on that side of the family. We hugged and I broke down again as I apologized for my tears.
More and more family members showed up. Some knew I was coming and said, “You must be Brenda Ann’s daughter.” My mom went by Brenda her whole life. It felt weird that they were calling her Brenda Ann. Some family members who hadn’t heard that I would be there just stared at me for an uncomfortable amount of time, almost like they were seeing a ghost, until I awkwardly uttered, “I’m Brenda Ann’s daughter.” Each time I was met with a tight embrace.
It wasn’t until I got to the funeral home that I realized this was a big deal for them too. Judy’s children and her grandchildren are missing links in their family, who were taken because of a tragic situation, and here I was, on my own 800 miles from home to attend my grandmother’s funeral whom I’d never even met. I’ll never forget when my second cousin’s wife looked me in the eyes and said, “You are so brave for coming here. This means so much to us. I know this must be so hard.”
The second most meaningful conversation I had was when Judy’s two nurses from the nursing home came, where she lived the rest of her life after the incident. They made their way through the rows of family slowly, as I eavesdropped on their conversations. Even while talking to other people, their eyes kept meeting mine like they recognized me. I listened to them recount stories of Judy’s orneriness, her obsession with Mountain Dew and her love of coloring, which are really the only facts I learned about her during the trip. When they got to my row, one was too broken down to speak and just held on to the arm of the other nurse. Without waiting for her to speak, I said, “I’m Judy’s granddaughter. I’m Brenda Ann’s daughter.” They each let out audible sobs, followed by my own. I remember her following sentences word for word: “I remember when we got the call that your mom passed away. We were all trying to decide if we should tell Judy or not. We decided she needed to know. You could hear her crying down the hallway for days, saying ‘Oh, my baby. My baby is gone. My Brenda Ann.” This was both heart warming and heartbreaking. I previously had no idea of Judy’s mental or emotional state, nor her attachment to her children, and it didn’t feel right to ask under the circumstances of the trip. But here are these two nurses giving me the deepest insight into my mom’s mother who indeed did love her and lost her 3 children under tragic circumstances. That was her baby, her Brenda Ann.
I think it’s been hard for me to keep her birth family and her adopted family separate in my head. Both are tragic situations. Both caused so much heartbreak. But with this nurse’s words, it was cleared up in an instant. This family lost three children to this situation. And although her brother eventually got back in touch with Judy, the girls never did. Again, it hit me how big of a deal this was for this side of the family, not just for me.
The rest of the visitation, there were several questions about my mom. It was apparent that no one knew of the horrible abuse she went through. No one knew of her mental illness and resulting emotional and mental abuse to her children. No one knew she was adopted into pure hell. I kept my answers pretty vague, which felt inauthentic, but felt like the right thing to do. I wanted to protect my own story and my mom’s story.
After the funeral and burial, we went to Brenda’s house for food. Again, I saw that these people are so much like me and my brother. They’re sassy, sarcastic (in a good way), funny and seemingly genuine people. Several people offered to let me stay at their house instead of leaving to drive home right after the reception, but I just needed to be alone and process. I cried a good portion of the way to St. Louis where I stayed the night before returning home the next day. The tears changed back and forth from originating from pain, semi-closure, questions, aching, wondering if I’d ever see them again, and a lot of other emotions I probably will never find words for.
It was hands down the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, but I would never take it back.