Recently, when picking out a tie for a formal event, I was overcome with sadness. So many of the ties are gifts from my mom. She always knew what I might need to look professional, and she kept at that for decades. She was mostly right all of the time. She knew my taste—basic but proper. Now, she can’t even remember a conversation that happened five minutes ago. I wasn’t ready for that. I still feel that well of feeling when I see my ties hanging in my closet. It’s not just a tie. It’s a connection to a relationship that has been disappearing now for years, and that journey is not over.
Today is my sister’s birthday. She is celebrating it in a sick bed, in a large hospital in St. Louis. I am 1,800 miles away in Portland. I wish I could be there with her.
It must be scary to be alone in a hospital, not knowing what may happen tomorrow, knowing that your health is bad. Maybe there will be a respite, but things could get far worse. That is a heavy weight to carry for my older sibling.
My sister and I have now shared more than five decades of birthdays. This was the saddest I can remember. We perhaps had six happy years together, until that tumultuous time when my parents divorced and our worlds turned upside down.
After that things never were quite the same. There were good times, yes. But I never saw my sister smile the way she used to when we were young and far more innocent. She still smiled, but it was not a child’s carefree smile of joy. It was a little different. I changed a lot too. I don’t really talk about that stuff.
There were times in my life when she was the only person who had my back, particularly after the divorce. We were alone, in situations I refuse to share as stories with others. They are my secrets. They were terrifying moments, and not in a “make you stronger” way, but in a “wow, this is pretty damn bad” way. Because we were a team, we pulled through, many times. I can’t ever forget those days. I guard them as treasures.
Those memories have kept me invested in the bond we have shared over the years. It hasn’t been the gentlest of rides. In the end, the journey was not as easy on my sister, I think. A series of decisions led to forks in the road, and then other decisions, and then, finally, a visit to the hospital.
I wished her a happy birthday today. I had sent her a card. It probably didn’t arrive before she was admitted. It was a way I expressed love, as much as I can in a card. It was a strange feeling, wishing your sibling the best as they faced uncertainty over the days ahead.
While we were talking, I could still hear her laugh with the hospital staff. Machines and monitors attached to her made noises in the background. Nurses popped in her room to check on her. I asked if she was aware she could contact a hospital chaplain if needed. She said she was. That comforted me. I don’t know if she would do that.
I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, the day after, or the weeks ahead.
I tried to remember our youth, and all I could find were a few pictures of our innocence. That seemed like a different life. We are different now, and we lost our innocence a long time ago.
I realized that I too will one day face the end. I realized that I too may not be ready. I realized that I too need to change while there is still time. This felt like a paltry consolation prize, and nothing compared to my sister’s experience on a cold, February day.
Sometimes you have a to wait a long time before you find a good outcome.
In my case it took nearly a decade. It involved a woman, who I met in Alaska. She did not share what I felt for her. This is an old story. It has happened likely millions of times before, so it was nothing special.
In my case, the story was simple. She rejected my interest. This in turn inspired what I still think is a good set of poems. At this time, I also found Bob Dylan. I took long overdue guitar lessons. And, then, in 2010, I finally left the Great Land, Alaska, for Seattle.
I saw this person twice after, and very briefly in 2011. A few years later, I wrote to her with what I call my mindset of humility and said I could be have been a better person with the words we shared in private.
I had assumed that was that. But it was not quite over.
Because of perhaps fate, we reconnected online this week. I wrote: “I hope that my last words expressing my shortcomings to you mattered. I’ve been spending time the past few years contacting old contacts and sharing how I may have come up short.”
I told her about how my mindset of humility had enabled me to connect with an old college friend last winter. That reunion mattered a great deal. In fact, that friend just sent me a lovely holiday card with a picture of his new wife.
I wrote in my email that practicing honesty and humility provided opportunities I could not fully predict. Because life was short, I wrote, it was best to live each day as if truly mattered. That is something Stoics wrote more than 2,000 years ago, and I believe this in my bones.
I still have no idea what this person is doing with herself. She remains cryptic. She is now into meditation. To my surprise, she replied with a similar point of view. She wrote about no longer being that previous person I once tried to court in the north.
I am fairly certain I will not see this person again.
At this point it does not really matter. It simply took longer than I thought it would to find this point of repose. The experience reminded me of what the late writer and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl had written in his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning.
Frankl wrote that the meaning of events may change measured over years. What had once been a negative experience in our lives may later be remembered as an important event we grew from.
With time, in this case, I had matured. I finally felt free from this burden of memory and could turn my energy to what truly matters in my life now, with all of my purpose and devotion.
In early June, I visited Michigan, my birth state. I made a four-day whirlwind visit to promote my new book and advocate for changes to Michigan’s outdated adoption laws that deny Michigan-born adoptees their original birth records.
During the two days I was in the Detroit and Ann Arbor area, I finally returned to the place of my birth: Crittenton General Hospital, the epicenter of adoption in Michigan for decades.
The building is now torn down. In its place is a large, boxy utilitarian set of buildings housing the Detroit Jobs Center and a nursing home, all surrounded by a gated steel fence. There is no plaque mentioning the hospital, how long it operated, and who it served. The surrounding area, just west of the John Lodge Freeway and at the intersections of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Tuxedo Street, is severely distressed.
Multiple houses a half a block from the old hospital site were in various states of collapsing. On Rosa Parks, by the rear entrance to the jobs center, a two-story apartment was slowly falling down—and no doubt would be destroyed one day or, sadly, torched by an arsonist.
The former Crittenton Maternity Home, in a three-story brick building next to the old hospital site, is still standing. It is now run by Cass Community Social Services. I saw a young and I’m sure poor mother with her child entering the building. I realized how the story of single mothers continues today, but with different issues and without the full-throated promotion of adoption by nearly all major groups involved in social work and the care of children. I took some photos of the home and then went to the hospital site.
I took out my sign that I had quickly made in my car using a fat Sharpie. It simply said: “I was born here.”
I took multiple pictures, on a hot, muggy, and sunny day, but I could not manage a smile. I could not make light of my origins at this place, where so many mothers said goodbye, forever, to their children. It is not a happy story.
Despite my stern appearance, I felt a sense of elation to have finally returned to my place of origin. It felt like closure. I accomplished what I set out to do decades earlier, for myself and on behalf of other adoptees denied knowledge of who they were and where they came from.
This time, I had controlled the story. This time, I was telling that to the world with my newly published book and public conversations that had been connecting with readers. This time, I owned the moment, unlike the one when I arrived as a nearly underweight baby, heading into the U.S. adoption system in Michigan and a new family.
And no one, not the state of Michigan or the groups who determined my life because of my status as an illegitimate child, could ever take that from me.
Yeah, it was worth it. That selfie and throwaway sign were my Trajan’s Column, as glorious as anything ever built by a conquering Roman emperor. The adoptee hero, as I frequently describe all adoptees searching for their past, had returned victorious to Rome (Detroit), even if there were no crowds throwing garlands upon me and no one to write poetry celebrating that victory. I had written that story already
Train stations are magical places. They are portals where we literally jump off to new destinations. They allow people with different lives and destinies to intersect. They are big. They are public. They are filled with promise, confusion, and noise. They can also be places of tragedy and sadness.
I have had many memorable train station moments in my life, in India, Singapore, Malaysia, Egypt, Thailand, the USA, Canada, Japan, and throughout Europe. I have almost been robbed, lost my money, found friends, and often sat around for hours waiting to escape a few terrible places and even countries.
When I think of trains, I always think of the great train scene, set in Paris on a rainy June 1940 evening, as two protagonists get ready to flee the advancing Nazis. One is Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, and the other is his best friend Sam, played by Dooley Wilson. The film is the Warner Bros. 1942 classic Casablanca.
Come on, you know the short scene. Sam shares the note from Rick’s lover, Ilsa, who is not seen in this sequence, but played by Ingrid Bergman. In her letter, she bids Rick what she thinks is her final farewell.
Rick is devastated and watches the words melt away on the sheet in the downpour and his heart breaks apart right at that very moment. The scene ends with Rick tossing the toxic rejection missive aside, as he and Sam steam away, fleeing for what we know will be North Africa and eventually the film’s namesake, Casablanca.
I thought about that memorable scene yesterday, when I found myself at Union Station in Portland.
It was raining. It also was colder than expected. I had dashed down to give a gift to a friend who was leaving town with a lot on her mind. The whole scene brought back a memory from about two years earlier, when another woman I knew had come to Portland, in the midst of a personal crisis, and I had dropped her at the station on a very rainy late fall day. I had listened to her story as well, and a few tears.
I will leave out other scenes from my first Union Station episode, but it was a terrible day for the person I was with. My job, whether I wanted it or not, was to help her out and then to be forgotten. I was disposable in some ways. The event yesterday was not quite on that scale, but it had eerie echoes from the one before.
I laughed at myself walking away from Union Station after I bid my friend farewell. So was I just the sap, getting caught in the rain, like Bogie, whose love interest left him for another man without saying goodbye in person? In both cases I was not the love interest, but I was barely a secondary character in the film unfolding for these two leads in their complicated lives.
Clearly there are elements of an archetypal modern story at play when man and woman cross fates in railway stations: The man, feeling sappy and sorry for himself. The woman, crying over another man. The station as the stage, where the drama unfolds. And of course the beating rain, soaking the characters to their skin.
On some days, you have to be Bogie’s Blaine, and stop thinking about yourself. That is OK. I have no regrets. It is fine to play the part of a tragic but complex character.
But having lived this scene, I advise any future Ricks who are left behind, avoid the habit of being the one who leaves the station alone, drenched by rain and feeling nothing but regret. There are much better ways to end your stories. And don’t wait until the bad guys like the Nazis are practically knocking at the city gates. Leave town a lot earlier.
Note: Use of images from the film Casablanca are solely for the purposes of comment and criticism.
I was moving my photo albums around this week, when by accident a picture of my best friend in high school, Matt, fell out.
I must have taken the picture sometime in 1982 or 1983. He finished high school early, with a GED, to immediately pursue an auto mechanics program in St. Louis. When I las saw him at his wedding in the mid-1980s, he had gone on to a career in that field.
The picture shows the guy I remember well and still respect. He was looking macho, wearing a smile.
Matt never seemed mad. He always had a positive attitude. He was born cool and did not need to have his badass status affirmed by the limited social world of my high school. Let’s face it, some people simply are born to be a little wild, and stand out from a crowd.
Matt worked his ass off at a tire retailer, making more money than me. With his savings, he paid for a 1969 black and red Camaro Z, a V8 hot rod he fixed up for speed and show. You cannot be more cool when you are 17 than having one of these cars. When Matt hit the gas in neutral, the engine roared and heads turned. He also paid for his own Triumph motorcycle with a beautiful blue trim. Both the car and bike could fly, and he loved speed.
The more mature and beautiful young women our age fell for Matt—something they told me years laters—but he didn’t pay attention to them. He had been dating his sweetheart from a different city since he was in the seventh grade.
Matt and I played soccer together on our high school’s soccer team our junior and senior years. He was stronger, more athletic than me, playing a center fullback position, holding up our defense with grit, speed, and power.
Matt learned how to play in Brazil, where his mother took him kicking and screaming when he was in the seventh grade. She saw him going wild at that age. As a teacher committed to social causes, she wanted to expose her only son to the third world and a life outside of urban St. Louis and clean him up from the many influences of drugs that surrounded all of us then. It worked. I wish I could have done the same.
He told me about clearing fields of sugar cane in the blazing sun at a village near Brasilia, where he and some other Americans were living and helping residents for a year.
After Brazil, Matt totally changed. I have never seen anything like it up to that point. Most young men, like me, at that age are immature. Matt had already become a man, he was clear about what he wanted to do (auto mechanics), and he achieved his goals with hard work.
Matt could deal with anyone from any race or culture. I never once saw any of the bad boys at our majority black high school try to test and taunt him with threats of violence—something that happened a lot. Some of that was racially motivated, and a good part was about establishing the male pecking order. Matt had street cred, and in that world, it was the currency that mattered. Matt was a different kind of dude. He had respect.
I never knew why Matt spent time with me. He was a shop guy, a genius at auto mechanics, and I was trying to be a serious, nerdy student going to college. Maybe we got along well because both of us had divorced single mothers as parents who had fathers who had left our families in bad circumstances. And we both had cleaned up from the dope scene at the same time too, when many of our peers were just starting to do drugs. We had replaced those vices with soccer and jobs. Maybe we had moved on already before we had left that school.
Sadly, I lost touch with him midway through my college degree. I left for Portland in 1983. He was married by the time he was 21. I never came back to St. Louis, except for occasional holidays. None of the few people I stayed in touch with from my high school knew where he went. I think Matt left that world behind, bought an auto garage, and became a business owner while raising a family.
Every year or two I try to find him. He has stayed off the grid or has already passed away. I don’t know.
However, Matt’s memory lives on. On a list I made of all of the mentors who influenced me, my old friend sits near the top of the list. His year in Brazil made me want to find places outside of the United States where life was more raw and more real than suburban St. Louis. Most of all he showed me that authenticity can never be faked. When you show up real, people will treat you accordingly.
Matt, wherever you are, if you are still with us, I wish you the best.
(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)
Regret is not an emotion that we like to speak of. Speaking of it is an admission of failure and lost chances. By saying one regrets something, we diminish our standing in the eyes of others and ourselves.
But I do have regrets. They are sharp as hornet bites on a hot, muggy day. For me they stemmed from my foolish pride and my familial disagreements I should have risen above.
These thoughts accompany me now whenever I visit and speak with my mother.
Because of her illness, she cannot remember the past in its full richness. There are fleeting, diaphanous moments that she can recall good and bad moments. But these are fragments, not fully formed memories.
I feel this loss especially now, as I get older, and I want to hunt down stories of my past that only my mom would have. But they are now lost forever, because she cannot recall them.
Me and Mum, the Good Days:
My mom and I have had our fierce challenges. I do not intend to share them here. I always did my best to not let them cloud the possibilities for the future, even if the bargain may not have been a fair one, from my perpective. But as we both grew older, so did our friendship.
Between 2010 and 2012, when I was in graduate school earning my MPH, we hit an impasse. We once went more than six months without talking. The rifts between me and my stepfamily and my mom widened during the rough time, when I was not in a good place.
When we did talk, it was not pleasant. I was, in essence, estranged from my “unique” family when I probably needed them the most. It was not until I finished my imperfect masters program at the University of Washington—quite drained fiscally and likely spiritually—that we made amends.
My mom flew out to see me in July 2012, and we found our old routine.
At that time I was living in Seattle, and I was doing contract work while still looking for full-time employment right out of graduate school.
So we had time. We visited the Ballard Locks, where I took one of the best pictures ever of my mom. I brought her to Discovery Park on a glorious sunset, where we could see the sun slip behind the Olympic Mountains and light up Puget Sound in the soft summer light. We rubbed our toes in the sand at Golden Gardens Beach. We ate out for dinner and laughed. We saw Shakespeare in the Park, outdoors, in Seward Park at Lake Washington.
These reminded me of our other precious times we spent together, without my step-dad or others around. We could confide in each other. I could hear stories about her first husband, my father, that she seemed to hide inside for years, and for good reason. That 2012 trip was a lot like one she made in 2004, the summer before I went to Alaska.
She also flew out in July that year, and we spent great days walking around Greenlake Park, attending a Wooden Boat Festival, and being happy-go-lucky tourists in Seattle. Both times were transition periods for me. In 2004, I was getting ready to leave Seattle for a job in Alaska, unsure what living in the True North would be like. I needed to know we were still connected.
On the last day of her 2012 trip, I realized something was not right. She was having trouble remembering things and feeling more anxious than normal. I was still able to get her safely to the airport and on her plane. Not long after I learned that the issues I let slide by were more pronounced. She was not going to be the same person when I saw her again.
I would no longer be able to have a conversations with someone who could listen to me and knew me. That new person would never be the confidant I once could share my stories with, in confidence.
Facing Tomorrow, Today
The loss from a half decade ago is more pronounced today. It is July. I think of our past summer walks, in Seattle, in the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, and in Forest Park in St Louis, where we spent many great hours together.
Today, my foolish pride for two years from 2010 through 2012 seems like my greatest squandered opportunity. Why did I allow that?
Perhaps the stress of doing my degree and spending my savings on an expensive and imperfect professional program clouded my thinking. They likely did. Now, at a more calm place in life, I can fool myself and say, I could have done better.
Maybe I really would not have been able to do things differently. But I still wish I could have those days back. I wish I could have spent my precious dollars and flown from Seattle to St. Louis on a short trip to have conversations that would have been more important than my money in my bank today.
I will fly off to St. Louis to see my mom again in two weeks.
When I visit her, I won’t be able to ask her about our brief time spent in Detroit, when I was a baby and we lived as a model middle-class American family, in a city just before it started sputtering to economic decline.
I can’t ask her about her life in college, when she struck out on her own and left New Jersey as a beautiful, smart young woman.
I can’t ask her how she and my father decided to adopt two children, or what it was like for my father and her to move from Saginaw to Detroit in the early 1960s.
I wish we could have back those past Julys, walking and talking and sharing stories about our lives. They were some of the best times I ever had. I wish I had known that when I was living those moments.