My holiday card tradition on Thanksgiving day

Habits can be extremely rewarding.

One of mine is to write my holiday cards on Thanksgiving day. I have kept this tradition for more years than I can recall. No matter where I have lived or what happened on that day, I always found time to think about those in my life, including family and friends.

The act of writing and remembering reminds me of the bonds of connection I have with people far-flung across this country. Some of these connections help sustain me, good times and bad. Some have little impact in my life.

I went with an Oregon-themed card this year. In past years I have made my own. On each of the cards I create a personal message, written by hand and signed. A regular theme, if I can find one, is to share a positive wish of good fortune for the coming year. It is always preferable to be positive, even when we know some persons may be experiencing hard times, like some of my relations and friendships.

In my case, my card writing involves my circle of friends who seem to remain a part of my life as I age. They can be called my “chosen circle.” They are not family, for me at least. They matter a great deal in my life.

My “family card list” includes my step-family, my adoptive family, and my biological family. Because I am adoptee, and because that status is fraught with complexities about the meaning of “family,” my holiday card tradition has challenged me.

Having had a step-family since I was 18 years old, I can vouch first-hand that these relations are not easy. Step-family bonds are not blood-based or kinship-based.

Everyone in those dynamics knows the minefields, and to deny these tensions is to deny the critical role of genetic kinship in how all species, including humans, care for and help their close genetic relations succeed. This is equally if not truer of adoptive-family relationships.

I explore this in my greater detail in my adoptee memoir and critical exploration of the U.S. adoption system, in my chapter appropriately titled “Blood is thicker than water.”

Author and adoptee Rudy Owens gets ready to mail his 2022 holiday cards to his biological, step-, and adoptive family and friends on Thanksgiving day 2022.

In my book, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, I write about the meaning of relationships with non-biologically related step-family and other distal adoptive kin: “There simply is no bond that joins us, much the way I feel about my adoptive cousins, uncles, and aunts. For me, there is no blood that ties us, nor DNA to bind us. We are not true kin, both as I perceive it and as I have experienced this relation for decades now.”

Yet each year, on Thanksgiving I will still write letters of fellowship for the coming Christmas, or winter holidays if you prefer to call it that.

There is very little power I have to create relations where none are hardwired to exist by the determinant laws of biology and genetics. What I do control is my ability to offer a hopeful gesture. Whether that gesture is accepted or rejected, like so much in our lives, is not in our power to manage.

Because I was separated as a newborn baby from my biological family by laws and systems that erased my past and discriminated against me and millions of others by status of birth, I only began my biological family relations in my mid-20s. I explain all of this in my book for any reader seeking to understand what that means for me and other adoptees.

As someone who is now in my mid-50s and getting older, I remain clear-eyed how those relations will remain forever impacted by this system of separating families. And with my surviving biological family members who I do have contact with, again, I am not able to control how they respond. It has never been simple or easy to explain to anyone who is not adopted and separated from their biological family relations.

So with Thanksgiving now behind us, and my holiday cards on their way to my blended, adoptive, and biological family, I will celebrate what some may call our betters selves, to be the person I prefer to be.

Yes, adoption as a system forever made my holidays a mixed up time, but I have, for decades now, not let this define the meaning I give this time of year freely.

Planning for the inevitable is not a fearful thing

My mother’s misfortune of developing Alzheimer’s still shapes my way of navigating the world. She endured the horrible disease for more than seven years, before finally dying, with little left of her cognitive functions.

Roman artwork Memento Mori, in the Naples National Archaeological Museum

To deal with the illness as a family member, I had to readjust my way of navigating the world. I had to deal with stress. I had to deal with family conflict. I had to deal with helping someone who could never be cured.

Most of all I had to practice what philosophers did more than 2,000 ago, meditate on one’s mortality, or memento mori.

Death, as the ultimate end of my mother’s condition, became relentless as a nagging thought. I had to think about it because it was the way her suffering would end. This is simply an honest reflection, because that is what Alzheimer’s was truly like. It was worse for my step-father, who was her dutiful and loving caregiver.

However, practicing memento mori was not a scary thing. It was and remains a pragmatic thing, as all human life ends, and avoiding thoughts about this is folly. All of us will die, regardless of our station in life or our deepest fears about the end.

Because of this knowledge, I continue to tidy up my plans. I have attended to my probate planning instead of putting off the boring but critical details.

I also realize that by living alone, I am at much greater risk of misfortune, mostly because no one will care for me. This is also a byproduct of being adopted, which is a related and complex story.

So I have started making plans for logical “what if” possibilities.

What if I am hit by a bus? What if I have a bike accident that goes tragically wrong if I am struck by a car? What if I get a serious illness that arrives suddenly?

Too many things have happened in my immediate world of family and friends lately to forestall such thinking and planning.

Tonight I took another small but practical step. In my apartment, I hung a very visible sheet of paper on a wall that could be seen and found in the event of an emergency. It is my cheat sheet who to contact if I am not there and there is a need to reach my emergency contacts. It is a small thing, but it was both easy to and logical. I will add this to my wallet too. And why not?

My mom and step-father had a similar list on their refrigerator door for years as she was sliding to her end. I know hundreds of thousands of others may have done the same thing. They are like the paintings Romans made of skulls and skeletons, reminding all of us our end will eventually come.

When a public school teacher retires from a life of service

I cannot remember if it was 21 or 22 years ago, but the timing was right around this time of year, as classes were ending for public schools. What I do remember well is that my mom officially retired from her career as a public school teacher with the University City Public Schools system.

Woman and her adult son
My mother poses with me shortly after her retirement from lifelong service as a public school teacher.

I joined her the day she turned in her paperwork at the district office. I happened to be traveling from my home in Seattle to the St. Louis area. I wanted to be there to congratulate her for her years of service to kids, many from families with many difficulties. She was mostly happy, and the staff were pleasant, but there was no big celebration for her many years with the University City Public Schools. I wish I had been more thoughtful and treated my mom that day. I let her down.

Today, as I think about the stresses facing kids and teachers over the last two years in particular, I recall the way my mom’s career of service ended. I now wish I had pictures of her in the classroom. Unfortunately, this was before the social media era. What I have is a photo is from that era, maybe two years after she left the classroom.

My mom’s post-retirement life went well for a while, until she succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, and then her life was hell for seven years, until her death in February 2020, just before the world experienced the COVID-19 pandemic.

At her funeral, the minister who led the sermon, and who I helped with some stories about my mom’s life, said these words: “She was one who devoted her life to teaching and encouraging little children. She was also ahead of the disciples, and on the same page with Jesus, as much of her career was teaching and nurturing those of differing communities. As the little bio notes, much, if not most, of her career was engaged in teaching young African American children. Jesus’ own teaching and ministry was inclusive. In fact that was a major point of his teaching — to teach and demonstrate that the community of faith, the community of God did not discriminate. This is a justice issue, but it is also a deeply spiritual issue, and faithful to the one who calls us to follow … . What the children recognized was a relationship, someone who cared for them, wanted them to learn, as she would want her own children to learn, to be cared for.”

It still saddens me that the school district, which I contacted repeatedly, never acknowledged my mom’s passing in their official communications. It was COVID-19 time, but this willful shunning of a public teacher still left me upset how even school districts remembered their own.

With June around the corner, millions of kids and families are getting ready to head into summer. It is an uncertain time too, with school safety foremost on the minds of many, along with so many other economic issues facing the kinds of families my mom served. So, if you can, please remember to thank a teacher before the school year ends, in person, if you know one. They will always remember that kindness.

Remember, mankind is our business

Nearly every year I catch a live or filmed version of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

With COVID-19 still a threat globally and the Omicron variant still the dominant strain in Oregon and the country, I will forego my normal Christmastime pilgrimage to the theater for a live show. I will miss it, because at these live shows of this timeless story, I am in the company of theatergoers who share in the many profoundly humanistic themes of this masterwork of literature.

There are too many scenes and themes to call out that speak to our common humanity, particularly this time of year, when we are asked to think of others less fortunate.

Patrick Stewart plays Ebenezer Scrooge in my favorite adaptation of A Christmas Carol, from 1999.

One of my favorites scenes is when the ghost of Jacob Marley visits the still hard-nosed and taciturn Ebenezer Scrooge to give him a chance to save his soul, while he is among the living. The ghostly apparition of his former friend and business partner warns of the three spirits who will visit him on Christmas Eve.

Marley’s ghost also reminds Scrooge of our purpose in life, to be of service to others.

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

The chills that one feels at a sprit giving us a chance for redemption never grow old for me. For me, this scene is among the best ever written telling us that we do in life, day in and day out, matters. The encouragement, spoken with the grim knowledge of death and the afterworld, reminds us all why our work matters in the here and now.

So with that holiday message, remember the importance of our “real business” in life, particularly this time of year.

The most expensive and fortunate car mishap of my life

A little more than a year ago, I experienced the most expensive car problem of my life. The final bill added up to more than $6,000, including towing charges.

Let’s not forget the several hundred more dollars in car rental fees and being without my car for nearly two weeks when I needed it for my job commuting 100 miles a day to and from my home to work.

The event happened in a blink of an eye, on one of the hottest days of the years, as I was about 15 miles into the return leg of my 50-mile commute back from my job in Salem, Oregon, to my home in Portland.

I never saw it coming. I just happened, though in retrospect, I long knew it would.

Hurtling down the highway at 65 mph in about 95 F heat in the late afternoon, the engine in my slightly aging Subaru Forester literally blew out.

The failure arrived without warning as I saw my dashboard gauges tell me the engine had failed. I quickly checked my surroundings and luckily found myself in a spot without vehicles or reckless semis around me. I coasted calmly to a stop on a safe spot on the Interstate 5 shoulder, next to a farm field and a tree.

In my mind I immediately recognized the unfolding event as a test my character and ability to handle bad luck even before I had put on the parking brake.

How would I choose to respond, I found myself thinking? Would I yell and curse? No. In fact, I immediately realized this was a profoundly fortunate moment.

Amor fati: embacing your fate

I was uninjured, and this happened at a safe place instead of a dangerous one. My car, an inanimate thing, was reparable. I was alive. I realized this could have happened anywhere at many more dangerous locations, and I could have been severely harmed. I smiled.

As for the car, I had no idea what had happened to the engine. The radiator was shot, but I didn’t know how badly the engine block may have been warped. Indeed, the mechanic later told me the block was destroyed, and I faced a decision to scrap the car for parts or install a new engine.

I got a tow after waiting more than an hour from a junkyard tow driver who proved highly knowledgeable about subjects we could freely discuss only as one can with a complete stranger in a strange place. The next day I got my second tow to a shop, where I faced the costly repair decisions.

Within 48 hours I had rented a car for a week, made the decision to replace my engine block, and worked out a plan with my manager to work at home. It was not really as serious as one might have thought it could be.

Ultimately, my life didn’t fall apart despite really bad luck, if you want to call it that.

The experience showed me the joy of not commuting a few days in a row. It confirmed I could not keep doing the job I was doing. In fact, the whole incident confirmed what I knew would happen, that my car would fail doing something that could not be sustained professionally and for my personal health. The job had to go or my health would.

Now, a year later, I have quit that job, I work at home, and I drive the car about once a week. I think it was a clear message from the heavens what to do.

Most importantly, I confirmed a lesson I long knew, as only experience can teach. I again found that bad luck could be the greatest of teachers.

Without bad luck, we can be foolishly tricked into deceiving ourselves that good luck is more desirable. In fact, good luck and the absence of bad luck can easily delude a person into lazy complacency  and being unready for when things change. And they always do. There is always a change in the wind, and those who deal with change have dealt with its fickle nature before. Luckily, I was ready and will not forget the lessons I learned last summer.

Remembering and honoring the great Bill Withers

On March 30,  2020 the world lost one of its wisest voices, singer and songwriter Bill Withers.

Withers passed away from heart complications at the ripe age of 81, having lived a life that allowed his life’s wisdom to reach the entire world through the power of music and the magic of his soulful voice.

His memorable hits remembered by many include “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” “Use Me,” “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” and of course his timeless original “Lean on Me.” That timeless classic gave him the freedom to walk away from the music business and live a different life after 1980, after making nine studio albums in nine short years. His final hit, before he grew disillusioned with the music industry, was “Just the Two of Us.”

For me, the emotional depths Withers can find with the simplest chords on a guitar in “Hope She’ll Be Happier” is a testament to the power of music to touch someone’s soul.

And like so many, I am now turning to “Lean on Me,” from his second album, Still Bill. It provides an anchor as I search for light amid our global COVID-19 pandemic. The day I learned of his death, I played his masterpiece all night. I wrote to a friend, “Still chills. Decades go by, and it’s all I’ve got. I needed this song today more than ever. It carried me back to my humanity.”

Withers is an American original, shaped by his humble, poor beginnings and the knowledge of lived experience that he channeled into his music that found an audience the world over. “I could have done better, but I did alright,” is how he summed up his musical career, the perfect understatement of a true artist.

Born in 1938, Withers was the youngest of six children. During a 2014 interview, he said his mother actually had 13 kids, and high infant mortality took its toll. His family lived in a coal mining community called Slab Forks, West Virginia, which was literally racially segregated by railroad tracks.

Long after Withers had become successful and stopped performing, he said his early and impoverished years that he had little control over likely exposed him to health issues that caught up with him later. He said as a child, he and his family ate every part of the hog but the holler. That is a classic West Virgnia line.

Despite the inherent racism his family experienced during his formative years, his father became a respected United Mineworkers treasurer while working in the coal mines. His life as a miner, Withers later shared, led to his premature death when Withers turned 13.

Despite these hardships, Withers also saw a type of communal bond that later informed his world view and his songwriting. When interviewed by a West Virginia TV program in 2007 about historic racism in West Virginia, he responded, “When you’re coming out of a coal mine, everyone’s black”.

Withers later lived with his mother and grandmother, the latter became the inspiration for his hit “Grandma’s Hands.”

Withers was determined to leave his poor upbringing in Appalachia and escape the life in the mines that left many men unhealthy in their later years.

He joined the U.S. Navy and learned to become an aviation mechanic. He was discharged and then lived in California, working in factories, including for Ford and Weber Aircraft on assembly lines. Those years as an assembly worker taught him about working together and caring for his fellow worker, he would later tell reporters.

While working he bought a guitar at a pawn shop and taught himself to play, while songwriting. He began to share his tapes and pursue his dream of making it.

In interviews in his later years, after he left the business, he described “Lean on Me” as a product of a small, poor town, where you had to lean on others to get through hard times. He said that song could never have been written by someone from a big city, like London or New York. It’s a song from a smaller place.

When the news broke on Friday of his death, and I dug into his songs, I found there was far more to this man than I ever knew. And the more I knew, the more I realized how profoundly thoughtful he was about life. I realized how much of a Stoic he was, in a classical and advanced sense, and how there are people with whom you share spiritual and philosophical kinship, across time, space, race, and life experience.

One of my favorite lines I heard from his interviews was, ”We all become the composite of the places we’ve been and the people we’ve met.” So true, that.

He talked about the way we speak to others and our decorum come from the basic manners we learned from those who have raised us, regardless of where we’re from or our class. He also spoke about this simple stuff, and what camradarie was like in his home state.

As I mused about his life, I wrote this passage on my Facebook feed, after listening to his wonderful 2014 interview with the radio show Death, Sex, and Money: “If I could go back in time right now, and speak to my 15-year-old and very immature self, I would give myself a recording of this amazing interview with the late Bill Withers about living a meaningful life, how to be a real man as he understood it (without toxic masculine swagger, but with love and compassion), and finding one’s place in the world. This may not be the wisdom others would need, but I probably could have benefited from it. One of the most important male figures in his life was a slightly crippled man named virgil, who was also a hunchback. It was Virgil’s wise words that helped Withers overcome his own disability when he was 30 (a stutter).”

Unlike many singer songwriters, Withers never needed the ego gratification performing on the stage. He described himself as the type of kid who might be in the corner, reading a comic book not the one dancing for attention the moment someone entered the room. You can see that in his performances, where he sits on a stool, closes his eyes, strums his simple chords, and then unleashes the ferocity of his voice that comes from the human soul.

 

Toward the end of his life, he never lost perspective. You could see that in his 2015 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His stage presence conveyed, “Sure, whatever, folks. There’s more important stuff than this stage spectacle. Have a good time. I’m all good.”

In his interviews, Withers also described the difference between music and the music business. Everyone should do music, he emphasized, because of what music brings to the world. He said, when the big fat lady gets up in church and sings from her soul, that’s music, but ain’t nobody gonna pay her a dime.

Amen, indeed.

I will miss you, Bill Withers. We have lost a poet, artist, and force for humanity. I assure you, your wisdom will help all of us through the dark days of ahead:

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on

Thank you, Bill Withers, for showing us the way.

Saying goodbye and finding meaning

The writer Robert Green, author of many books on human behavior, shared these words that make me think of Mom. Green wrote: “But despite what you may think, good luck is more dangerous than bad luck. Bad luck teaches valuable lessons in patience, timing, and the need to be prepared for the worst; good luck deludes you … making you think your brilliance will carry you through. Your fortune will inevitably turn, and when it does you will be completely unprepared.”

Mom at the Seattle Wooden Boat Festival, July 2004.

Like all of us, Mom had good and bad luck. Unlike many, she always learned from her misfortune and knew exactly when she finally found the tide turning. And she also knew good luck simply didn’t happen. She worked hard for it.

Mom was a child of the Depression and the daughter of an immigrant, who was fortunate to leave Germany before a much worse misfortune befell her homeland. Those immigrant lessons were passed down to Mom from her mother.

Being a child of that era, it shaped Mom and her generation. She spent her early years in a working class community of New Jersey—something that I think taught her about working hard and knowing that others around you could be less fortunate. She never forgot this her whole life.

Mom also grew up in the shadow of a great city, the epicenter of culture, and finance. The Big Apple’s glow could be a draw to anyone, particularly a woman like my mom who had an abundance of great looks. Those looks, however, never went to her head.

Mom attended Bronxville in NY (Concordia College, Bronxville, today) to pursue professional studies that the sexist workplace of the 1950s offered single women of lesser means. She made lifelong friends there. One became the godmother of one of her children (me). They were called the “Triple Threat.”

Mom, when she would turn heads during her college years in New York.

I don’t know the full story how Mom moved from greater New York to soggy Saginaw, MI in the mid-1950s. My guess is she needed work. When she had to work, she would always “crack on.” I learned this from her early on.

In 1958, she met her first husband. They moved to Detroit. They adopted my sister and I and raised a family. They moved to Boston for a spell in late 1965 and then to Clayton, Missouri, in late 1966. The pair divorced in 1973 and she re-entered the workforce as a teacher, eventually in the St. Louis Public School System and the University City Public Schools system.

She was a lifelong teacher, completing her career in University City Public Schools as a reading specialist. She devoted her professional life to the wellbeing of young people, many of whom were lower income, minority, and had higher needs.

Despite Mom’s great looks, she was remarkably grounded in the world around her, in people, her church, her community, and her family.

She was profoundly spiritual. She didn’t need to tell the world about her faith. It resided in her. She was devoted in the fullest Christian sense to her Christian identity and the congregations she belonged to. She dragged me and my sister to church. She knew better than we did why our nearby Lutheran church would be good for us. She was right. Her faith stayed with her to her last days.

Mom always had style. I never saw my mom look shabby. It’s the style the world saw on the show Mad Men, of women of that era. Mom always carried herself this way.

Mom had style, always

Mom also had an artistic side. Her creative outlets included fixing furniture, making beautiful outfits with her hands by sewing. She could throw herself into project and be unmoved by distractions. The house she purchased together with her second husband became an art gallery. They both loved great art and had impeccable taste.

Mom was very smart—like all her family members. She loved crossword puzzles, which she did for decades. I could never keep up with her when she’d work them out on the kitchen table.

Mom managed the impossible: navigating a divorce, reinventing herself, raising two kids, switching jobs, buying a home on a teacher’s salary without any help. And then, with two kids in tow, she found her lifelong soul mate, who she married in 1983.

Mom may have felt she didn’t see the world, but she did.

With her second husband, they travelled nearly everywhere in the United States and Canada. She even travelled nearly 50 miles up a dirt road outside of Cordova, Alaska, in the pouring rain, just to see a glacier and laugh at how beautiful and crazy that was.

Mom and her second husband lived for a short spell in England, where he had a position for a short term. They also travelled to multiple destinations in Europe together: England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Belgium, Italy, Greece (I believe a couple of times).  They always looked like there were glowing in their holiday pictures. Snap, here we are in Paris. Snap, here we are in in Florence. Snap, here we are in in Rhodes. Wait, here’s Thurso, Scotland and Bruges, Belgium.

Author, Rudy Owens, and Mom, about four months before she finally succombed to Alzheimer’s disease.

She was a great cook. I loved her Christmas stollen and cookies. She taught me this art. She kept learning new recipes and growing with her expanding love of food outside of her St. Louis world.

Through thick and thin, Mom was devoted to my sister and remained generous to her. Mom was always about doing.

Mom was tough. Her friend from college shared some stories about that with me, and I can see that throughout her long life. I call it grit. It’s the virtue I respect the most in people who matter.

I think all that she confronted in life–stuff that might bend or break others–did not push my mom down.

She could weather storms because she always knew something good was ahead.

Mom during one her several moves in the mid-1960s

Mom was right, of course, and her marriage to her second husband was the highlight of her life.

The thing she said the most to me, for the last seven years of her life, when her illness took hold, was, “I have the best husband in the whole world.” I would always say: “I know mom. He’s a great guy.” She was would always laugh and smile. We had this conversation literally hundreds of times. She last said it to me on Thanksgiving Day, on the phone. I said, “Yup, mom. You are a lucky woman.”

Mom was the best friend and loving wife of her second husband for 37 years. She welcomed his family as her own and devoted herself to their shared relations. In the end, her marriage was the enduring happiness and the good luck that came in her life. She earned it and knew how to live it well, only the way those who know the fickleness of fortuna can.

Mom, I salute your memory. Thanks for making us richer.

Letting go of the living

During the last six years, I have been forced to confront the collapsing health of my family. Not by coincidence, my reflections on these changes and death itself led me to writers like Viktor Frankl and branches of thinking such as Existentialism and the Greek and Roman school of philosophy known as Stoicism.

The Stoic philosophers from ancient Greece and Rome provide a roadmap that remains remarkably relevant today. The most famous ancient stoics—Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius—did not focus on abstractions. Rather, they wrote about the most pressing realities of life and issues of what define us and how we live each day.

At this point in my own life’s journey, I found comfort in old ideas that embraced questions about death. As Seneca wrote, “A man cannot live well if he knows not how to die well.” Stoic ideas helped me think about how all of us can prepare ourselves for misfortune and navigate through the worst possible events, in order to confront what inevitably lies ahead.

My journey, with my family, was now one confronting inevitable loss. This chapter of my life story, with my family, will perhaps soon end in the death of the remaining two members of my nuclear family—my mother and sister.

Losing my Mom

My father died in 1985, when I was 20, and I can scarcely remember him as a person. He was an alcoholic and unimportant in my life. I unfortunately lost my mother more than six years ago, but this loss is ongoing.

In 2013, she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The illness has been especially cruel to her husband, my stepfather, who saw his intimate partner and best friend of 30 years slowly lose her mental abilities and her ability to function as an independent adult. I have observed her slow decay, mostly during short visits and on phone calls that always got worse with each week, month, and then year.

My mother changed from being someone with a razor-sharp mind and who loved crosswords to a woman who could no longer remember the names or even faces of her neighbors and family.

On this last trip to St. Louis in September 2019, we were alone. I asked her, “Who am I?” She gave me a long look with that blank stare, created by the destruction of her neurons and the accumulation of amyloid plaques in her brain. She replied with my stepfather’s name. I said, “No, mom, it’s your son, Rudy.” She didn’t reply. She then asked me a question she had asked half a dozen times earlier in the last 15 minutes.

I have spent these last six years flying back and forth from Seattle and then Portland to her home in the St. Louis area. My trips were motivated by personal concern for her and her husband caregiver and a sense of duty to help as her son.

I have shed tears. I have felt anguish. I have gnashed my teeth. I have cursed scores of times to myself as I walked alone after work, daylight or dark. I have felt powerless. I have felt my desires for my own dreams bend and be extinguished, just so I could be there for her, albeit from afar.

When I read about my friends’ lives, involving travel or a life where the future is filled with promise, I compare it to my stepdad’s world. His involves non-stop and constant care for my mom.

I have, in the end, simply abandoned thoughts of vacation and time alone that don’t involve flying halfway across the continent, so I can spend time with her. On past trips we have held hands and took walks. We could even squeeze in visits to the St. Louis Art Museum and Missouri Botanical Garden. Even those stopped on my last trip.

On this trip, like the ones before, she asked me questions she had asked dozens of times before: Where do you live? Why do you live n Portland? Why won’t you live here? Do you have a girlfriend?

My mom often chastised me, saying, that’s too far away, you should be closer, even when she has no idea who I am or that she even had a son.

Losing my Sister

During these last six years, and for at least a decade earlier, I have also watched my sister slowly spiral out of control.

She has battled addiction, obesity, mental health issues, a long spell of homelessness, and finally the collapse of her body. Her obesity finally made it nearly impossible for her to walk. After living on the mean streets of St. Louis for months, and then in an unsanitary drug house in a very unsafe St. Louis neighborhood, she rebounded with the help of my mom and stepdad. My sister found a low-paying but stable job with Missouri’s welfare office.

Yet each visit, from 2000 on, turned into a portrait in loss. By the last time I saw her in January 2019, just before she had a heart-attack, she was out of her job, living in squalid conditions alone, and having no contact with anyone or any person except a former drug addict neighbor in a poor south St. Louis suburb.

Each time I came, her apartment looked dirtier and more cluttered and chaotic. I am choosing not to share the details. They are too depressing and also private.

Finally, in July 2019, she called for first responders who discovered her collapsed on her apartment floor, unable to walk. She had deep and open pressure ulcers and was immediately taken the emergency room at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. From there the hospital managers and social workers placed her in skilled nursing facility in the city that accepted Medicaid eligible patients. She moved into the facility that month and has been bedbound and no longer able to walk.

Her new home is a facility for indigent patients, all eligible for Medicaid-paid care. The population is a mix of mostly older African Americans and fewer whites. When I visited in September 2019, more than half appeared bedbound. Patients with mental illnesses wandered the halls, without interference from staff. The front door was coded, and no one but staff could get out without the punch key.

To me, it felt like a madhouse from the Victorian era, with staff unconcerned with the patient wards in their care or visitors from the streets who could walk in the facility without even signing in.

No staff member required me to present my ID or sign in. So I could wander the facility without interference, startled that no one cared who I was. In one of the community rooms, I saw silent, elderly, and sick patients gaze blankly at their television. Others sat in the courtyard, silent and hunched over. Still others in their rooms lay silent, with their televisions blaring reality shows and their faces staring blankly at the blue light. I imagined this was like hundreds of others similar facilities nationwide.

My sister looked like she had aged 10 years. She had lost one of her front top teeth. She had a bad rash and dirty, unkempt hair. She remained unable to walk.

The hardest part of my trip was visiting my sister’s cluttered, dirty apartment that had long gone to hell. Amid the clutter that littered each room, I found evidence of her past life. I located her diaries she had kept from the time she was in her 20s, still with dreams of living a good life, even as it was slowly going sideways from her substance-abuse problems. I found her jewelry she made as a hobby for years, as her mobility began to decline and her world closed in on her.

I spent about two hours finding all of her legal documents and her writings. That was my plan from the start. I put those in a pink plastic tub and filled another with her nicest dresses, pants, and shirts, even though I knew she likely would never wear them again.

We had a falling out when I refused to help her rent a storage locker to put her stuff. She cried, feeling betrayed. I knew from all I had seen she would not leave this place or another. She still believed she could walk again and live on her own with her public assistance.

On my last morning in St. Louis, I visited her room again. Her roommate, who is in her 30s and likely had a mental health disorder, was there. I held my sister’s hand and said I was happy I had come to see her. She looked at me, and said, “I love you.” I responded the way I always had in the past, with a smile.

I then left her room and found one of the young, African-American nurses dressed in purple scrubs. She smiled, punched the code, and the door opened. I walked out into the fresh-smelling fall morning and the sunshine on a beautiful St. Louis day. It was time to catch my flight and leave behind this warehouse for the infirmed.

Why We Embrace Traditions of Denial and Sacrifice

Tonight is Ash Wednesday. It is an important date on the traditional Catholic and Protestant church calendar. It marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period before Easter. The period mirrors the reported 40 days Jesus of Nazareth spent  fasting in the desert.

Observant Christians mark the season attending Ash Wednesday services. There, they will have a cross marked on their head with the ashes made from palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. The marking of an ashen cross on the forehead is often accompanied with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Catholics will practice fasting, repentance, and abstaining from some foods, like meat. Protestants, like the Lutherans I grew up with, would focus on self-denial or charity work. Most Christians are supposed to contemplate on the coming of Easter and its meaning.

Tonight I attended my first Ash Wednesday service in more than 35 years. I needed the quiet time, in a quiet place, with quiet and thoughtful people, to contemplate my life and sacrifices that some people I know are making for others.

The sermon by the Rector at the Episcopal Church I attended focused on the importance of not running from our grief and contemplating on the world’s problems and the individual’s relation with God. Though I am not a true believer in any faith, I found these words comforting, and I had a few tears because of all that is happening with those close to me.

For those of us who have far more than we need, the idea of purposefully sacrificing something and denying one’s self pleasure seems incongruous. What would you do if you had to give up your smart phone? Your email account? Your morning coffee? What about something more radical, like running water or medicine?

We live in a world where many don’t have these luxuries, and yet we who have them are even afraid to consider life without them. So let those thoughts stay with you as we head into this period of Lent. It is one of many religious traditions that demands sacrifice. There is a good reason to practice this to think of others and not ourselves.

Back to where it all began

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.

Crittenton General Hospital in Detroit, taken in 1930 (from the National Florence Crittenton Mission).

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.

Decay was visible everywhere near the old Crittenton General Hospital site, off of Rose Parks Boulevard.

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 on Woodrow Wilson is now the home of Cass Community Social Services. The former home used to house single mothers before they gave birth next door at the former Crittenton General Hospital, from the the 1950s through the 1970s.

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.

Rudy Owens at the site of the former Crittenton General Hospital, where he was born and relinquished into foster care in the mid-1960s, and then adopted at five and a half weeks after his birth.

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