Bright light reflects off stainless steel surfaces. My faded, cherry red Keds squeak on freshly-mopped tiles as I slide a tray of square pizza and wrinkled corn down the serving line. No matter the menu, the hearty smell of beef gravy hangs in the air, mixing with the pungent, ever-present scent of bleach. My stomach grumbles anyway.
“Hey, is that your mom?” A classmate raises her voice over the buzz of lunchroom chatter, nudging me with a scrawny elbow. “She looks like you.”
Tiny hairs on the back of my neck raise as I realize I’ve never been asked this question before. Turning in the direction of the student’s pointed finger, I see a woman with wavy, waist-length, honey-colored hair, and my breath catches in my throat. It feels like I’ve seen a ghost.
Strands of hope and curiosity knit together in my chest as I study her face for a moment, finding flickers of my own features: navy eyes, a heart-shaped face, sun-kissed skin, and freckles on the bridge of her nose. This promising exploration quickly disintegrates. Digging my fingernails into my Styrofoam tray, I shake my head and swallow the lump in my throat.
“No,” I say, forcing a shrug and a smile. It can’t be.
Looking down to retrieve a wad of crumpled dollar bills from my light blue, high-waist Levi’s, I steal another glimpse of her from the corner of my eye. Or … can it? A rush of shame colors my cheeks. I quiet the questions in my head and reach for a box of chocolate milk, startled by my own wide-eyed reflection in the cold, polished metal.
“Your mom is here!” A friend shouts from across the courtyard.
I look up from my spot in the sidewalk pickup line to see familiar red, acrylic fingernails waving from the driver’s seat of a white sedan. Raspberry-tinted lips smile widely beneath a pair of dark, oversized sunglasses.
Opening the passenger door, I toss my purple canvas backpack and matching Beauty and the Beast lunch kit onto the floorboard and climb into the backseat next to my blond-haired baby sister.
My mom grins at me over her shoulder, bleached curls framing her face, complementing her fair skin.
“Hi, baby,” she says, her voice warm and comforting. “How was your day?”
I remember the lunchroom incident, the haunting feeling that swept over me when I saw pieces of myself in a stranger. I’m about to open my mouth when I recall the pained expression that crossed her face the last time I’d asked about the woman that carried me in her womb. She’d creased her forehead, pressed her lips, and shaken her head as if to say, “This topic hurts too much.”
“Uh … it was uneventful,” I fibbed.
Sister reaches a warm, sticky hand over the edge of her car seat, and I wrap my clammy fingers around hers.
I want to tell my mom how confused and conflicted I feel. I want to tell her how beautiful she is. I want to tell her she makes me feel safe. Instead, I sit in silence, comparing and contrasting our reflections in the rearview mirror as she turns to put the car in drive.
Despite the sound of my thirteen-year old heart thumping loudly in my ears, the house is quiet. Mid-morning sunlight streams through ivory lace curtains, collecting in a warm, golden puddle on the dark green carpet. Dropping to my knees, I push back the feeling I’m doing something wrong and lift a frilly, bleached bed skirt to retrieve the shoe box that lives under my mattress.
The smell of cardboard and ink greets me as I lift the lid and peer inside at familiar, Photoshopped faces. I’ve pieced together magazine clippings to create an imaginary birth family; a bizarre ritual of self-orchestrated play therapy.
Each smiling, polished clothing model has a spot on my makeshift family tree. There’s my biological father. My siblings. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Even a well-groomed Irish setter with soft, copper fur. I’ve memorized the names and stories I’ve given each of them. All that’s missing is her.
Here on my childhood bedroom floor, beneath a matte sky dotted with glittery, glow-in-the-dark stars, I’m free to ask the questions I carry inside of me: Who is she? What does she look like? Does her laugh sound like mine? Each punctuation mark takes up space in my chest; the crooked lines swell and throb until I can hardly breathe or focus on anything else.
Sifting through the contents, I retrieve my favorite treasure: A Polaroid of a pink, fuzzy-faced newborn with chubby cheeks and swollen eyelids. Flipping it over, I run my fingers over words scribbled in purple ink: “She is such a beautiful baby.” The loopy handwriting looks so much like mine it makes my chest ache. Intuitively, I know who it belongs to: my birth mother.
Flipping through the Land’s End magazine I rescued from the trash can, I scan faces for features similar to the ones I see in the mirror; I’ve been captivated by science class discussions and genetic traits. Pretending to search for my birth mother here feels like a perfectly natural, harmless thing to do, and yet at the same time it feels so … wrong.
I’m not sure how much time has passed. The sound of tires crunching over pine cones and fallen leaves startles me, and I see a flash of white through curtain pinholes as my mom’s Ford Explorer pulls into the driveway.
Scraping my sweaty palms against the carpet, I toss my delicate paper family into the shoe box and shove it under the bed. Catching my breath, I wrap my arms around my knees, and the weight of guilt settles into my stomach.
Two years later, I stumble upon another box of secrets; only this time, they aren’t mine to keep.
I am hand-stitching my first pillow case. The deep blue fabric is sprinkled with glittery gold stars. It reminds me of my favorite Van Gogh painting. Humming to myself, I climb a step stool to retrieve the bag of polyester filling, which sits atop a cupboard in my mom’s craft room.
Reaching for the white fluff, my wrist collides with a small cardboard container, knocking it off the ledge. A shower of dust, faded stationary, and Kodak paper rains over me in slow motion.
My pulse races as I stare at my discovery in disbelief. With shaking legs, I climb back down to the carpet and kneel among the clutter.
As my eyes begin to focus, I sift through letters addressed to me in the familiar loopy handwriting; legal documents with harsh black censor marks where last names used to be; photographs of a young woman I have never seen before and yet recognize somehow.
My birth mother.
For a moment, I feel … numb. Then, I crumple to the carpet, hot tears mixing with ink as I am overcome by waves of incommunicable grief, inexplicable joy, confusion, gratitude (somehow), and anger.
My legs shake from the contractions taking over my body. Responding to abstract words of encouragement, I work to locate muscles I’ve never used before to coax my baby boy out of my womb and into the world. I look up at the ceiling and focus on the bright, metallic fixtures flooding the room with white light. I feel exhausted and sharp at the same time.
Then, soothing weight settles onto my chest as my newborn son is placed on my skin. The umbilical cord is snipped, and yet we are still connected by a bond that transcends flesh and blood: we are mother and child.
As I catch a glimpse of myself in his wrinkled face, a wild mix of hormones and emotion, agonizing pain contrasting with intoxicating joy, forces the lid off the box I’ve kept hidden inside of me for decades. Troubled waters spill out, filling every corner of my being; dark, raging waters that will take me several years to learn how to navigate properly.
I’m angry at the circumstances that require babies to be separated from their mothers; angry that the contents of the cardboard box I shove under my bed to keep pain at bay often spills over, hurting those I intend to protect; angry that I often feel like I can’t talk about the questions and memories that eat away at me; angry at myself for feeling this way.
In the same breath, I am both angry at God for broken circumstances and so deeply grateful for His redemptive love, provision, and mercy.
I’m grateful for my birth mother’s brave choice; grateful for my adoptive mother’s willingness to open her arms and heart; grateful for my loving parents and siblings, and the life they’ve given me; grateful for the new family my husband and I are creating together.
I am both grateful for sacrificial love and reeling from its deep wound.
I am both/and.
Ripping the tape off the last moving box, I carefully peel away the packing paper protecting my favorite treasures: our family photographs.
I no longer have to imagine what my birth family looks like. It has been thirteen years since I re-connected with both sides of my biological family. I no longer have to hide the truth of their existence under my bed; their faces stare back at me from a collection of mismatched picture frames on the vintage vanity table my husband and I repurposed as an entryway table. It is both a privilege and a daily reminder of all I’ve lost and gained. I feel simultaneously thankful and guilty.
Scanning the photographs, my eyes settle on two women. I see myself in both of them. We are connected by a bond that transcends flesh and blood: we are mothers and child. As I study their features, so different and yet so familiar, I am filled with a similar sense of love, wonder, and gratitude for who they are and what they have done—all they have sacrificed—for me. They are both beautiful, painful, necessary parts of who I am, and I love them with every fiber of my being.
In the years following the birth of my first baby boy, I’ve learned we are allowed to be both angry something happened to us and grateful that it did. I take comfort in knowing anger and gratitude, sadness and joy, pain and relief are not mutually exclusive. They co-exist.
When we put each of these forceful human emotions in their rightful place and give them the respect, attention, and care they deserve, they have the power to point us to each other and weave us together; even anger. Holy rage turns our pain inside out and inspires us to serve others who may be hurting, too.
Flattening the cardboard box, I set the photos of my mothers side by side and choose to live a life of both/and.
Guest essay written by Courtney Woodruff. Courtney lives in the Pacific Northwest with her military husband, their two boys, and a long-haired Dachshund. She has a heart for babies and those who love them - especially birth, foster and adoptive mamas. She serves as web content strategist for a local university and reads and writes in the margins of her days to better understand the human experience. She gets by with the help of scripture, prayer and re-heated coffee, and she believes stories teach, inspire, and bring us together. You can follow along on Instagram.
Photo by Lottie Caiella