Sunday, December 11, 2005

Daniel Part One - The All American Smile

(This is my biological brother Dan. We were adopted together in 1964.)

You had the all American smile. You were blonde haired, blue eyed, and offered all the opportunities any man would hope to have in their young life. The future held such grand potential. You were the son our parents wanted. They chose you from the line up. They peered through that glass window into the great room and you lit up their faces. Adoption had become our mantra and here it was for both of us. I was happy to be on your coattails.

In a whirlwind we were on East River Road in a blue mansion of a house and people to call mom and dad. We were ragamuffins, the pictures proved that. Those black and white dog eared photos of the day we were adopted standing in the entrance hall with raggedy suitcases. Your hair was wispy and you had a shy smile spread across your face and we both had dirty little secrets in our pockets. It was time to forget them, push them as deeply inside the linings of our memory and begin a new day, a new life for these people who wanted to love us.

My mission as a little girl was to be your shadow. Any glance my way would grant you a cross eyed look or goofy action given your way in the hopes of a smile from you. That big, straight toothed grin that meant the world to me. I suppose I was driven to be just two steps behind you because I didn’t want to lose you again like we had so many times before we joined the Sampson family.

My first memory of losing you was when I was so little I could barely see over the top of the mattresses of the beds in the children’s ward. They had separated us. I went looking for you with Miss Lee, a large black woman who held me ‘til I fell asleep many nights, chasing me around with concern trying to keep me under wraps. I was looking for you to find any sign of you, but within the walls of that orphanage you were no where to be found.

Being adopted meant that we were not going to be separated again. That I wouldn’t wake in the morning and pack my bags again and watch through the back window of a station wagon as they drove me away from where I knew you were. Being adopted meant that we could breathe again and that nothing big was lurking around the corner anymore. I was wrong though, wasn’t I?

It wasn’t surprising to me when mom told me that you were going away to Franklin Academy and 6 months later that I was going to Palmer House. We had become too much for them. Our needs were bigger than what they had expected. They had already raised three perfect daughters. We were ragamuffins trying to keep the secrets down; trying to be perfect, too.
Drugs helped for you. Horrible migraines helped me and the tantrums and the tears that just kept everyone around me exasperated. You, however, began to disappear. Still we never talked about the past or our lost sister. We hardly ever talked because we rarely saw each other. We’d have two weeks at Christmas and two weeks in the summer before we headed off to our assigned camps. There were those rare conversations when you shared your recurring hallucinations left over from an acid trip you had taken. There was evidence that there was something not quite right when I noticed you couldn’t remember the last time we had spent time together. The marijuana was taking its toll or so I thought. The petty thieving, the running away from school, and finally being kicked out of the house and family when you were 18 seemed to be the ticket that sent you fully on the road that you would never seem to exit from. I was away at school, no windows to watch through as you walked away, but empty bitterness towards the parents who said that they would love us forever. The deep hurt of it still echoes inside of me.

You were 33 when you got your first official diagnosis: Manic Depressive with a Schizophrenic Affect. Did you tell the doctor that you had become a Navy Seal? That you had gone through the most grueling training a man can withstand and made it through with honor? Did I ever tell you how much I admire you? How proud I am of you? Do the policemen who find you wandering the streets at 3:00am know that they are looking at a Navy Seal? Or do they simply see a man confused and wandering sleepless in the night?

Statistics tell us that 10-15% of those who are in mental hospitals and prisons are adoptees; children who have grown into adults who were abandoned and abused as children. Those statistics, those numbers, those totals each have names and faces. We are two of those. What is it to have been held captive by a mentally ill mother who passed this on to her offspring? I know in your struggle you have attempted, like me, to shake it off. To forget that our pockets are full of things best left alone. But they do indeed come back to haunt us and so as we grow older we are forced to pull them out one at a time and look them in the face or they shall overcome us and direct our lives without our permission.

If I could have taken all of your pain away I would gladly have done so. If I could take away your prison sentence and the years that you will be locked away like an animal in a cage I would in a heartbeat. But I am left in the position that I have always been in and that is in this place where all I can do is watch you go, or leave, or fall, or find torment. I have listened to your ranting of your mission as "god’s soldier" while you sell drugs on the street for six months and then are homeless with nothing for the other six months of the year as you fall victim to hopelessness. Your spiral up and your spiral down brought you to an underworld I know nothing about. I know of your inner sadness from that night when we were teenagers and you got slam drunk and talked about how sad you were until you passed out. I felt so lost by your sense of sadness and so powerless.

Here I am at 43 and still as helpless as that little girl looking for you in the children’s ward. I have sent out my love to you for forever. It is all I have to do. I have tried to reach you and you are unreachable. Mental illness takes all of that from the individual: connection, family, love, and stability. It has taken part of my heart as well.

In my mind I will always remember my brother Danny and that wide, perfect all American smile and the potential that life had to offer. I will try not to swallow the bitterness of how life played out the hands we were dealt and our pocket full of dreams. I will forever hold the hope that life can change and shift and move like the sands of the desert and that even from a wasteland like a desert or broken hearts, miracles can always happen.
(Note: This was written in 2003 when my brother was in prison. He has since served his sentence and has been drug free for three years. We are in constant contact even though I am on the east coast and he is in New Mexico. Things are vastly different now. More on this in another post.)

Love Emerges in Memory

It is the little things that bring us to our hearts. We search for the answer to our longings in big feelings and big events, as if the sky would open and out would pour the liquid that would heal all of our wounds. I know, as sure as I breathe, that the little things; those small images and inklings can be passed over so easily. If we can but recognize them and risk the holding of them for just one moment that this is what opens up vast understandings, can become liquid pouring from the sky and change our paradyme completely.

My daddy was not a tall man. He was never a hero. He made choices that I could easily condemn him for if my mind was made up to do so. I didn’t know what he gave me in my life until my children were grown. The love of mattress ticking lead me to my daddy’s goodness. It was the sight of mattress ticking that opened up this feeling in me of love, of safety, of hope.

When I met my sister, after our 25 year separation, she told me stories about him from our childhood, things that I could not remember. He was poor in those years of the 1960s. Three children were beyond what he could fathom dealing with or supporting. But when we three were with him he mustered up his heart. There was no food to speak of unless saltine crackers and water fit into this category. He had us sit at the kitchen table and mind our manners as we crumbled crispy crackers and washed them down with water. He made a bed for us on a large mattress by the window with blue and white ticking and buttons all over. It didn’t matter that there were no sheets or that our stomachs were rumbling, for when we were with our Dad the sustenance that fed us was his wide grin, large hands, and the safety in his gaze. In his face we found love.

Blue mattress ticking is my little reminder of what love is and the power of its longevity. It tells me that somewhere inside of me I chose to hang on to this rightness in my father instead of the wrongness that raged around me when I was a child. Somewhere in this child’s choice is god.
The first time I remember seeing blue and white mattress ticking as an adult a feeling of great love rushed through me. Not having been reunited with my sister yet, I had no idea why this would have happened, this feeling of love washing over me from the sight of an old mattress covered in stripes and lined up buttons.

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