“Who am I? Who Am I? Who am I?”
At 13, I would stare in the mirror, each day, and face this question.
“Who is this awkward-faced, skinny-bodied person staring back at me? Where did she come from? Who IS she??”
For answers, most of us would look to family, but, for me, their faces were not reflected in mine. My narrow nose was nothing like their wide noses; my freakishly small jaw was comical to their square jaws; my fair skin burned easily, while their dark skin seemed to simply absorb the sun like a sponge; my sometimes-frizzy blonde hair looked white in contrast to their dark, curly hair. No, merely looking at my family did nothing other than further confuse the matter. Recognizing my struggle, my mom always left herself open to answering whatever questions I had, whenever I had them. So, I asked my mom, again, to read me “the description.”
Being adopted, I had generated my own creation story…Once upon a time there lived a boy and a girl, they must have loved each other….but their love couldn’t stop war, especially the longest war in our nation’s history- the Vietnam War. Yes, my mind’s eye created a scene like those found in any Nicholas Sparks novel- a clandestine affair then him being called to war while she was left behind. I created my own history like the Greeks created their mythology, one character, and image at a time. The difference? My entire life’s story stemmed from a few sentences, whereas the Greeks had hundreds of years and possibly more information.
Every so often when the “Who Am I” questions became too much to bear, I would ask mom to read the descriptions of my birth parents. The description was included among the papers that had been given to my parents at the time of my adoption from Michigan Child and Family Services. The papers were lovingly kept in a special box. We had two identical, fireproof boxes: one held all the information that parents kept for themselves and one held all the information about me. Each time I asked questions, mom would find MY box, carefully lower it to the counter, unlock it, and remove the papers. I remember this treasured ritual the way most children remember Christmas morning. The pages that held the sacred description had the adoption agency logo at the top.
My mom would flip through the pages until she found the one that held the same paragraph she had read countless times before. Patiently, she would read it, again. In her best, upbeat voice she would say:
“Birth mom is of small build with brown hair and blue eyes. She stands a little over 5 feet and is of medium build.”
“Mom, what’s ‘medium build?” I remember asking.
Every single time my mom read those sentences, I would try to commit them to memory. But each reading felt like my first time hearing it. I would get lost trying to build a visual out of those over-generalized, non-specific descriptions, like trying to put together furniture from IKEA. Searching the crevices of my mind, I would try to construct a vision of “brown hair and medium build.” Desperately trying to find the answer to “Who Am I” among those words. Those ordinary words held the key to my existence and yet, no matter how hard I tried, how many times I listened, I couldn’t “see” them, and I still didn’t “see” me… Once again, I couldn’t find myself in those sentences.
While my mom always remained upbeat in her reading of the description and shuffling of papers, I sighed. When would these words ever result in a definite picture? When would these words become a reflection of me? When would I get to look at someone and have someone like me looking back? When would I feel like I knew who I am and why I am? My answer: avoidance. Avoiding the mirror provided the easiest solution to handling these unending, impossible questions.
I just wish people would understand how much they take for granted when they are born to biological parents. My cousins are forever talking about their “family traits” including their wide noses and Dutch traditions, while my narrow nose and I just smile and laugh it off, trying to dodge the next mirror reflection.
There’s that sigh again. “Who Am I?” I guess I will determine that on my own, in my own time. Until next time, mirror, until next time.
Epilogue: This piece was written a few years ago when I was reflecting on what I felt at 13. Until a week ago, I would say that this was an accurate take on my life and identity.
However, last week, while I was home on a snow day, I was checking my email. While I had sent in a 23 and Me kit over a year ago, I was only hoping to find information on my ethnicity. For example, how Irish am I? In my email search, I noticed a message from the 23 and Me company saying that I had a first cousin match. The match had sent me a message. After a few conversations and by the end of the day, I was in tears, holding the first ever picture of my biological father. For the first time, I saw my face looking back at me. There are no words to describe how that feels.
A new chapter begins.