Beginning of Book: I’ll Always Carry You: A Mother’s Story of Adoption Loss, Grief, and Healing, by Linda L Franklin

Acknowledgments:

Among those who have contributed to this book, I count friends and members of valuable organizations, including Concerned United Birthparents, Post-Adoption Center for Education and Research (PACER), and American Adoption Congress, whose voices have informed, educated, and given me courage and motivation to share my own story. In addition, I have “met” dozens of first mothers and adoptees on Facebook and Twitter and learned from each of you.

I have benefitted from friendships and participation in my local Gold Country Writers’ Group. Shelley Buck, Paul Comiskey, and Marianne Barisonek generously read and offered criticism on manuscript excerpts, as did numerous members of Gold Country Writers’ weekly critique groups. Margie Yee Webb offered support in technology, helping me reach a wider audience. Friends, including Linda Ankeney, Janie Evans, Rose Kraft-Bo, Julia Mullen, Barbara Tellman, Marcia Martin, and JoAnne Jones donated their hours reading and giving feedback on my story, as did other first mother authors, Carol Schaefer and Janet Mason Ellerby.

My book could not have begun without the searcher, Marilyn, who reached out to me. It may never have progressed without the support of the caring post-adoption social worker, Cathy. They have generously allowed me to share portions of their emails, as have my sons. Letters and email messages have been lightly edited for punctuation, clarity, and brevity.

I cannot overlook the value of my two editors, Rachel Howard and Margaret C. Murray. In Rachel’s capable hands, my story became the right one to tell. My work with Margaret has been more in the nature of a needed knife to carve excess from my creative endeavor and reveal the essential story. While at times I’ve wished her knife to be less sharp, I believe she has made my story pop.

Most especially, I must thank my discovered son, Lee Yates, who both read and commented on my progress and who has allowed me to reveal some of his story in telling my own. My husband, Dave Judd, read and gave more positive feedback, on multiple manuscript versions, than I could possibly deserve. I am indebted to all of my family members whose stories are featured in this book – Chad, Jared, Lee, Terra, Maddie, Gwen, Marcia, Ellen Kaye, Judy Ellen, Stephen, and Dave.

Other than the use of names with permission, all other names have been changed or restricted to non-identifying first names. Any similarity to other persons is coincidental and unintentional.

Preface:

Almost two decades ago, I began writing to help me release the overwhelming feelings I experienced upon discovering that my son I’d given up for adoption thirty-five years before was alive. That discovery opened a deep well of feelings I had buried in order to survive his loss. The journal I began then transformed into this story.

I became driven to reconnect with him. I opened to the world of what is known as the adoption triad – the birth family, adoptee, and adoptive family. I became aware that the voices of original mothers such as myself are rarely heard. Our pain is easy to ignore and discount. I hope my readers, within and out of the adoption triad, will gain appreciation for the perspectives of mothers like myself, many of whom still do not know if their children are dead or alive.

Many women of my era faced pregnancy crises, though not all lost their children to adoption. Many hurriedly married and raised their children. Some pursued then illegal abortions. Yet they also faced painful choices within the then unbending expectations of family, culture, and society.

Younger women today may know little about the limits of that earlier time. Yet they too are caught in a maelstrom of differing views and opportunities for women. I hope my story may inform them to protect their rights, hard-fought and gained.

My title, I’ll Always Carry You, contains multiple levels of meaning. We mothers are said to carry our babies during pregnancy. We parents carry our children in our hearts forever. A client once shared a beautiful proverb with me: “When our children are little, they sit on our laps. When they’re grown, they sit on our hearts.” How much more this is true for first/birth mothers whose adoption loss is wrapped in grief and often carried in secret.

But connections between mother and child are even deeper than we know. Scientists now know that mother and child are linked at the cellular level[1].[2] Fetal cells cross the placenta, allowing our babies’ DNA to become part of our bodies. These fetal cells are not only circulating in our blood; they are embedded in our brains, often for a lifetime. They can migrate to various areas in our bodies needing help to repair tissues, heal heart damage, stem cancer tumor growth, and even reduce the likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease. In other circumstances, these cells may set off undesired autoimmune reactions as well.

Now we know that even when our babies leave our bodies, we mothers carry their traces. Is it any wonder we never forget them or completely recover from their loss?

What should we call a mother like myself? Since I first discovered support through Concerned United Birthparents, I applied their label of “birthmother” to myself. I have since learned that many others prefer to call themselves “first mothers,” “natural mothers,” “real mothers,” “mothers of loss,” or simply “mothers.” It appears to me that there are no labels that will not be felt as an affront to someone in the adoption triad. The public recognizes the term “birthmother” to describe a woman who gave birth to and did not raise her child. The fact that I did not raise the child I gave birth to is the source of deep sorrow for me, but the use of the term “birthmother” neither causes nor worsens that pain. It is also true that I am my son’s first mother, so I have decided as much as possible to refer to myself and others in this story as first/birth mother or simply birthmother when needed.


[1] Laura Grace Weldon, “Mother & Child are Linked at the Cellular Level”, June 12, 2012, lauragraceweldon.com, https://lauragraceweldon.com/2012/06/12/mother-child-are-linked-at-the-cellular-level/.

[2]  Robert Martone, “Scientists Discover Children’s Cells Living in Mothers’ Brains,” Scientific American, December 4, 2012, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/scientists-discover-childrens-cells-living-in-mothers-brain/.

Your heart knows the way. Run in that direction.

Rumi

Chapter 1: Jared Started It

These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them. Rumi

April 7th, 2000

 My son, Jared, and I cram into our American Airline seats. The stewardesses scurry up the aisles, adjusting luggage in the overhead compartments and snapping them closed. Jared buckles his 300 pound, 5’ 9” heft into the window seat while I squeeze into the middle seat. I’ll have to struggle over the woman on the aisle to make my way to the bathroom.

Jared will probably doze and not want to chat a lot; so, I’ve decided to write the letter I’ll bring to the post-adoption social worker during our five-hour flight to Texas. Under my eyelids, I sneak a peek at my aisle mate. She is at least twenty-five years younger than my five-and-a-half decades, with a face that appears untroubled. I make a quick decision not to strike up a conversation. My abdomen tightens at the thought of her peeking over my shoulder while I write. This young woman can’t imagine the world I felt trapped in before she was born or the shame that still keeps me locked in its grip.

I turn and look past Jared out the tiny window. There’s the Northern Sierra Nevada mountain range rising 7,000 feet to rim the Central California Valley. I’ve loved trekking up and down many of the challenging trails, often washing away dust and sweat at the trail’s end in a frigid lake. But today the craggy peaks show rough and sharp-edged.

What am I getting myself into?

A memory, the loneliness of lying flat on the hard labor table staring up at the dark ceiling, trembles through me.

 I glance toward Jared and notice him smiling. His characteristic sweet smile curves like a crescent moon. He’s happy I invited him to accompany me on this rare trip to Texas. The sun coming in behind him on the plane makes his curly brown hair gleam. He was always sensitive, but now there’s an innocence engendered by his disease that slowed his thoughts and words yet made his heart more visible. Despite or maybe because of his chronic disability, Jared has the facility seen in children that points to the essence of truth. Only Jared would have encouraged me to come back home to Texas to begin this search.

 It was January 2000, only a few months ago, and Jared and I were at home in Davis, California when he asked me, his olive-skinned face immobile, “Why don’t you look for my brother?”

With his flat expression, he might almost have been inquiring about the weather. I’d stood frozen, staring at his penetrating green eyes. There was only one time I’d told him and his older brother Chad about my firstborn, and that was twenty years ago.

Jared, always slow to speak, just waited and watched me. My special, most vulnerable son had just dropped a bombshell. A faint image of the baby I’d seen only once, decades before, burst into memory, while my mouth clamped tight like a rusted hinge on a tiny coffin.

Adrenaline rushed through my body. Had I failed Jared by not searching for his brother? Had I let myself down as well? Maybe I’d done more than conceal my lost son. Maybe I’d buried a vital part of myself along with him.

I looked at the clock. Four-thirty, it said. I decided it wasn’t too early to pour myself a screwdriver cocktail. When I returned from the kitchen, Jared hadn’t moved.

“Why should I look for him?” I asked at last, holding my drink and my breath.

Jared’s voice came back clear and definite. “Because you’d be a good mother for him to know.”

Tears sprang to my eyes. Tears of gratitude at his praise choked me. The loss of his brother must have been on Jared’s mind all these years. All of the dedication and support Dave and I gave Jared had paid off. Serious, intense, his expression pinned me on a knife’s edge.

“Maybe he wouldn’t want to know me,” I finally replied. “Maybe he wouldn’t like me. I don’t know. Maybe I’d just upset his life.”  I didn’t relay my other, worse fear. Maybe he inherited schizophrenia like you.What if I found another disabled son? Could Dave and I handle that?

Yet Jared’s question pushed open the door to my past, just enough for me to squeeze through. I can’t let it slam shut again. I have to dare. I have to find out if my son still lives. What is his name? Where is he? How can I reach him? Maybe I could meet him. Maybe I could get to know him.

I can’t stop until I find what I lost.

The plane lurches into turbulence and the ‘Fasten Seat Belt’ light blinks on. I grip the armrests and reach beneath my feet to pull out the packet of paper I’ve brought with me. The seatbelt digs into my stomach. I had better write the best letter of my lifetime.

But how to write this “message in a bottle” and how long will it float after I leave it in the murky ocean of the Gladney Center for Adoption, which I knew back then as an unwed mothers’ home? It will probably be yellow with age if my firstborn son ever sees it. Still, my shaky hand poised over the paper, I begin.

“Dear Biological Son,

It is very hard to know how to begin this letter or even how to address you. After all, I saw you only one time and that was thirty-five years ago.”

I look down at the nearly blank paper on my tray. My throat aches and a tense emptiness fills me. Still, I continue.

“I held you in my arms for only fifteen minutes.”

I turn to stare out the tiny airplane window. Beside me, Jared’s eyes are closed. He’d been a cuddly baby, quick to nestle his warm body into the curve of my arm. Would his brother have been the same? The nurse had brought him to me wrapped in blue flannel. His eyes were closed that morning, too.

I lean back in my plane seat and close my own eyes, remembering how the nurse had leaned over and gently rubbed his cheek. My baby opened his eyes. “He’s just been fed,” she told me. Wisps of dark hair stole from beneath his blanket.

I stare down at my empty hands, then pick up my pen with heavy fingers and write two more lines.

“You were sleepy, and I remember you finally opened your eyes briefly. I looked down into the deepest blue eyes imaginable and you seemed to peer up into my hazel eyes.”

Did that instant of eye contact create some unconscious connection for my baby as well as me? I doubt it. I am flying to leave a letter for a grown man who, as far as I know, may not even still exist. How strange that he may be carrying on a fully formed life somewhere while I, his mother, don’t even know if he’s alive.

Out the plane window, dark clouds scud across a gray sky, mirroring my recollection of the nurse reaching down to remove him from my arms.

“It’s time to take him back to the nursery,” she’d said. It was the only time I held my baby.

I watched as she carried him through the heavy wooden doors. They swung shut and he vanished, lost to me.

My throat squeezes the sob that threatens to escape. I cast a glimpse towards my seatmate, engrossed in reading a tattered copy of Redbook. With my sleeve, I rub away a tear and return to writing.

 “That is all the time we had together and perhaps it’s all we ever will have. I am writing this letter not knowing if you will ever read it. I don’t know if you will ever want to…or even if you are still out there somewhere. By the time you read it, if you do, perhaps I’ll be gone.”

Outside the airplane window, leaden clouds threaten an early-spring rain. We’ll probably have a bumpy landing. Thinking of these memories I’ve closed off till now, I bite my knuckle. My stomach reels. What do I know of this lost son? Only those days inside me when he performed acrobatic feats beneath the coffee cup I held on my swollen belly, never knocking the hot liquid onto the carpet. We played Bridge together with the other girls in the Gladney apartment while their unborn babies tumbled too in their huge stomachs and Diana Ross crooned “Where Did Our Love Go?” from the little brown Philco radio. The Supremes harmonized behind her, singing our song as I hummed along.

Don’t leave me, I begged my baby. Could he hear? Did he already know what I wouldn’t admit, that I was going to let him go? Could some remnant of that 60’s music reside in his subconscious?  Did the accumulated, unspoken sorrow we four abandoned girls brought to the game permeate his cellular memory? 

Perhaps he likes to play Bridge, I wonder?

I twist my legs in the cramped airplane seat, unable to get comfortable, as I imagine how my son, now grown, may feel. Maybe he thinks I abandoned him. What if he blames me?

Maybe if he hears how things were back then, he won’t be angry at me.

I write more about myself, how I was only nineteen, a sophomore in college, grieving my mother’s tragic death only a few months before, my grandmother’s death shortly after. I was unable to turn to my father, always mentally unstable, and diagnosed after my mother’s death with paranoid schizophrenia. I tell him of my lack of confidence in myself and in marriage. My parents had been so miserable together.

I don’t mention that my baby’s biological father abandoned me and encouraged me to give him up for adoption. I remember how impossible it seemed to consider bringing home my baby, how the shame of my unmarried pregnancy would have branded me, almost like the letter “A” the adulterer, Hester Prynne, was forced to wear for the rest of her life after having a baby out of wedlock in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

“It seemed unimaginable to present my father with a baby born ‘out of wedlock,’ as we said in those days.”

I lean back in the airplane seat. My shoulders and chest feel weighed down like the lead-lined apron used when I have mouth X-rays at the dentist. I hear the Fasten Seat Belt sign coming on with a ping.

 “Mom!”

Jared is pointing toward the aisle where the flight stewardess approaches. A red scarf tied around her neck, she leans over me to ask, “What would you like to drink?” 

Did I not hear her the first time? “Oh, coffee,” I say.

“Cream and sugar?” she asks.

“Yes, please. Sweetener if you have it.”

“The yellow packet or the pink one?”

“Yellow.”

Jared orders his favorite, Diet Coke.

I try not to spill the coffee when it arrives in its little white Styrofoam cup with the yellow Splenda packet. How complicated just to order a cup of coffee! How many ways can there be to imbibe carcinogenic chemicals while attempting to control my middle-aged waistline? If all of these diet drinks cause cancer, then I’ll be gone if, or when, this letter I’m agonizing over ever reaches its intended recipient. I chuckle to myself in dark humor. Then, sighing, I return to my letter.

“Both my parents had very conservative ideas about premarital sex.”

In case my son receives this, I need to write a compelling reason for him to return to my life. Our evangelical ministers told us Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead after four days. Can I unearth him like Lazarus? Should I? If my child grew up in a strict religious environment as I had, maybe he’ll judge me. Maybe his parents told him bad things about me.

Before stopping at Gladney, Jared and I are visiting my father again. No doubt he will welcome his favorite grandson. Instead of his usual endless criticisms and judgments, he shows a rare sweetness and even occasional light-hearted teasing with Jared. It’s an affection he doesn’t display with me, my sister, or brother.

 A stewardess passes by, holding out the plastic bag for trash. I toss in my empty paper cup. These secrets I’ve been keeping for thirty-five years and the shame I’ve hidden behind are my trash. Aren’t they the detritus of my painful past? I pick up my pen to tell my son how I released him for adoption as an “act of love,” because I felt he needed something better than I could offer him then.

Maybe if the Supremes had warbled “Mommy, mommy, mommy; mommy, don’t leave me,” I could have found the strength to question if I must give up my baby. All those months in the unwed mothers’ home, I’d ignored my inner voice trying to tell me this path was a mistake. Instead, I hoped somehow the moment of separation would never come. Plaintive feelings like an Irish blessing pour out in my next paragraph.

“I hope you have had a good and happy life. I hope the parents who raised you were good to you and that you felt at home with them. I wish I knew more about you and that we could discover what we have in common. Perhaps someday we will.”

 I hope, I hope, I hope, I wish, I wish, I wish. I hope and wish so much for this stranger son. Will I ever find out the truth? My seatmate gets up to go to the restroom and I decide to do the same. Walking up the aisle, I glance at the other passengers dozing, reading, or watching a movie. No one else seems to be struggling.

How to describe the person I’ve become, how to convince my son I’d be someone worth knowing. Back in my seat, buckled up again, I take up my paper and pen. I tell him I now am married to a wonderful man who is an attorney and plays classical guitar and the violin. How I now have a happy life. How I became a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, have a job I enjoy at Kaiser in outpatient psychiatry, and always think of him when a client tells me they’re adopted. 

“After a lot of struggles and mistakes, I have recovered from my own anxiety and depression.”

Do I sound like someone he’d like?  Could he understand those struggles and mistakes?  I describe his two half-brothers, both of whom would like to meet him. Chad, thirty-one, who didn’t go to college after high school, but has been one of his company’s leading salesmen for several years and is the father of our darling five-year-old granddaughter, Terra Linda. Jared, twenty-nine, single, who works in construction labor and is a talented acrylics painter

I pull out the pictures I’ve brought on the airplane to enclose in my letter. Jared’s shows his full face like mine, green eyes close to my hazel ones. The curly ringlets that circle his face came from his father, as does his artistic temperament. His serious eyes fixed on the camera, he gazes out with his mysterious jumbled thoughts. It’s Jared who seeks out family, calls every day, reports his latest activities, therapy groups, doctor appointments, medications, and painting projects. 

Resting next to me, Jared opens his eyes, turns to look at his photo. “Are you giving my picture to my brother?” he asks.

“Yes, assuming he gets the letter. Is that okay?”

“Sure.”

I pull out the photo of Chad, tall and slim, whose logical mind I can always count on to make sense of my emotional tangles. Chad stares directly at the camera with gray eyes, his blond hair falling all the way down to his shoulders. With his narrow face and strong triangular jaw line, he resembles his father, though he has my thick wavy hair and, when we’re both in good moods, a wide smile. Chad wraps his arm around Terra with her blue eyes, red hair, and bright smile. Though Chad loves his partner, Marcia, it’s his daughter who has captured his heart. 

Then there’s a picture of me and Dave with his short-trimmed beard and mustache, our arms around each other. Dave’s ruffle of wavy hair curls on his neck and around his ears, circling his bald head. My dark wavy hair, maintained through Clairol, is not much longer than his. If these pictures reach my first son, will he recognize himself in my round face and the high cheekbones bequeathed by our Choctaw Indian great-grandfather?

I release a silent prayer and let my son know if he ever wants to meet us, we would all welcome him and his family members.

“If that never happens, please believe that I have always loved you and treasured your memory in my heart.

Love, Linda.” 

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