Ten years ago this month, the phone rang at 7 a.m. That was my first indication that it was bad news—nobody ever calls that early with good news.
“Are you sitting down? You better sit down,” said Jenifer, my sister-in-law. “There’s been an accident. Cristi is dead.”
My predominant reaction to the news was confusion. Cristi was my 36-year-old full biological sister, 14 months younger than me, and a sister I’d only known for 15 years.
I was adopted in 1966 as an infant, in a closed adoption. I met Cristi when I reunited with my birth family in 1988. A year-and-a-half after we had met, we were both surprised to learn that we were full sisters.
Apparently, my birth mother met my birth father secretly six months after my birth, and as a result of that encounter, Cristi was born. Our birth mother went on to marry another man, one her family approved of, and he raised Cristi as his own. She grew up believing he was her father, that is, until I came into the picture.
I should be really sad about losing Cristi, I thought when the news of her passing settled in. I pretended that I was. Don’t get me wrong, on one level I was sad. Christi was young, she had two small children, and this was a tragedy. I had had little history in common with her—no shared memories of growing up together—only our genes. We were not close.
Like many adoptees, I spent my life denying, repressing, and stuffing my feelings, and even medicating them when all else failed. Expressing my feelings, I thought, might destroy me.
I had received society’s message to be grateful because I was special and chosen. I was supposed to feel lucky that my parents had adopted me. Other children, in an attempt to be sympathetic, would remark that their parents were “stuck” with them. Being adopted made me special and chosen? Who wouldn’t be grateful for that?
But in my heart and in my gut, I knew that something terrible had happened to me, even though no one spoke of it. No one ever said: “I am sorry you couldn’t stay with your mother.”
If I had allowed myself to grieve that loss, it would have overwhelmed me. I believed that had I protested or expressed my feelings openly, then my adoptive parents might’ve rejected me and left too. That would have destroyed me.
In time, however, my denial mechanism became a hindrance. From the beginning, the setup was for me to fit what others needed, not for me to discover what fit me.
Therefore, I had developed no internal radar, and very little clarity on who I was or how I truly felt. When I was younger, I accepted jobs that I didn’t care for only because they were offered, and I ended up in too many relationships with men that were not right for me, simply because they had expressed an interest in me.
So there I was with a dead biological sister and great uncertainty about how to grieve.
I went to the funeral home, along with my birth family and pretended to be devastated. I cried. I hugged my family as they grieved my sister’s death. I tried to be one of them just like I had since my reunion.
I sat around a table at the funeral home with my birth mother, my brother, and Cristi’s husband, and helped with the obituary wording.
What the hell am I doing here? Why did they include me? I don’t belong—I hardly even knew her.
I kept those thoughts inside, ignored my feelings and tried, as always, to fit in. And part of me felt grateful to be included. I felt privileged to finally be in this family that I had been banished from decades earlier.
Three days later, after I had returned home from Cristi’s funeral, my then-husband met me at the door. “You better sit down. Your brother just called. Your father died.”
My adoptive father, whom I had been to Arizona to visit two weeks prior, had dropped dead from a stroke at the age of 79.
The feelings came fast and hard. I felt clear—no ambiguity this time, and it tore right through me. I dropped to the floor and sobbed.
The truth is though; I was not close to my adoptive father, either. He was a good person, well liked, but not a very good father. He was aloof, distant, unengaged, and often, he didn’t seem to care much about me, yet the pain I felt was real and genuine.
Ironically, one of the things I remember most about his funeral was when my adoptive mother told me not to cry.
I was about to board a plane back to Michigan and I was worried about leaving her alone, without my father. My tears would not stop. She patted me on the shoulder and said, “Oh now, don’t cry.”
I thought Jesus Christ, if I’m not even allowed to cry now, when my father has died, will there ever be a time when it is okay for me to cry? But, good little adoptee that I was—I denied my feelings and I stopped crying.
That was a pivotal time in my life, and a very complicated one. Many things were changing, most of all me. I had two young daughters, my marriage was falling apart, and I was transitioning from an agency job to begin a private practice as a clinical social worker. It was a time I learned about choices.
A year later, I ended contact with my birth family. I was tired of pretending. I had already spent a lifetime doing that with my adoptive family, and that added stress had become too much to bear. The realization that I could never be privy to the memories that they shared was excruciating.
I had always felt sad after being with them for holidays and birthdays. After one visit in particular, my husband asked, “If you were not biologically related to these people, would you have anything to do with them?”
“Absolutely not,” I replied with certainty.
“Then don’t,” he said.
“That’s really an option?” I asked.
“Of course it is.”
In my mind, choosing my family relationships was never an option. Being adopted had meant that others decide whom I call family.
I had an epiphany last year when I read someone’s post in an online adoptee support group that I participate in. It said: “I did not ask to be adopted, nor did I want to be adopted. The whole thing did not work out very well for me at all. I do not owe anybody anything.”
It was as though my blinders had been removed. I realized that I no longer had to try to navigate my very complicated relationship with my adoptive mother. I have always felt like I owed her something because she had taken me in and raised me.
All of my life, I had desperately struggled to fit with her, despite her callousness and emotional abuse, and I beat the hell out of myself when I did not. I would’ve never chosen to have a casual friendship with a person like my adoptive mother— much less have chosen her as a parent. Given the choice, I would have remained with my birth family—my clan.
I once read a quote by the Reverend Keith C. Griffith, MBE that said: “Adoption is the only trauma in the world where the victim is expected by the whole of society to be grateful.”
Today, after years of grappling with that trauma, I carefully choose who is part of my family—they are a select and exclusive few. The requirements for membership are simple: you must truly love, appreciate and unconditionally accept me for exactly who I am— and not who you need me to be; authenticity and genuineness are required; and trust is a must.
Thanks for visiting our online community. In addition to stories like this one, you can find valuable resources, discover your rights to your original birth certificate, meet other adoptees, and join the discussion by commenting (below) or on our Facebook page.