Missing Pieces

Missing Pieces

From A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Missing Pieces

When I got pregnant at seventeen, the circumstances could not have been worse. The father was a thirty-eight-year-old police officer. He was furious at the news of “my” problem. Life at home with an alcoholic parent and abusive stepparent was lonely and precarious.

Childishly, I tried to ignore these facts. I crocheted small pink blankets (I knew the baby was a girl) and scoured yard sales for tiny dresses and parenting books, determined to be a “good” mother. My daughter would be loved, and I, at last, would have someone to love me.

Reality reared its ugly head. Nights I didn’t work were spent in my car or at a movie to avoid my parents’ drinking and the fighting that ensued. Finally, I could no longer push away the thought that tormented me: My child could not live like that. The mere thought of bringing her into that house made me physically ill; the idea of losing her broke my heart. My only other family was a grandmother who refused to have anything to do with me once she found out I was pregnant. There was no way to escape with the baby. There was no place to go.

But there was a way out for her.

Not surprisingly, my OB/GYN knew an attorney with clients waiting for a baby. His clients had enough money to smooth out any obstacles in a child’s life. He met me at a pie shop, carrying a sheaf of papers for me to sign. I had no idea what they said, tears blinded me and I was sure I was going to throw up. Obediently, I signed every place I was told to. He paid for my pie and left.

Hours after I delivered, the new parents arrived at the hospital. “No need for you to hold her,” said the nurse, whisking the baby from me.

Alone in the hospital room, I called my mother. Angry at being deprived of the welfare check the baby would have “entitled” us to, she told me never to come home and hung up. Somewhere in the plastic hospital bag that contained my clothes was my worldly fortune of thirteen dollars and twenty-eight cents.

The parents stopped by my room the next day. They were smiling and happy, just popping in for a quick visit to let me know they were grateful and in a hurry. Then they were gone, taking my daughter to a better life.

In desperation, I called a coworker who took me in. That night, I stood in the shower, watching the water, blood, milk and tears swirl down the drain and wishing the rest of me would go, too.

But the heart lives on hope. No matter what those papers had said, I was convinced I would see her again. Clinging to that, I let time propel me forward. The bleeding stopped, the milk dried up, the tears slowed and hardened into a lump that settled in my chest.

The loving logic that forced the “right” decisions for my child did nothing to heal the shambles of my heart. The loss remained with me, a discreet open wound that bled quietly, steadily through the years.

Life went on. I went to work, married, had five more children and, eventually, divorced.

The children have always known they have an older sister. Although they watched me send out information to reunion organizations and conduct searches on the Internet for her, they never knew that I choked inside whenever someone asked how many children I had. The socially acceptable lie, “I have five,” brought a wave of grief every time it left my lips.

“My” children are seventeen, twelve, eleven, ten and eight. At thirty-seven, my life appeared rich and full. So, how do I make sense of the fact that I have lived with a hole in my heart these many years, that nineteen and a half years ago I swallowed my screams and they still echo inside?

Since the birth of my first child, a shadow person accompanied me, an infant that grew through the years, a blurry outline with a face that I could not see, a face I was sure I would recognize if given the chance. She stood just out of sight at every birthday or holiday and as I dried dishes or washed my face. And she took from me any sense of completeness, for she held a piece of my heart.

Every year on November 27, her birthday, I wrote her a letter and then threw it away. I wondered and grieved. Before she turned eighteen, I registered with every adoption reunion service. Perhaps she would not want to find me; maybe she didn’t know she was adopted. Maybe she knew and would hate me forever. So I waited, with the knowledge that any phone call, any knock on the door could heal my heart or break it again. Worst was the thought that I might wait forever.

On April 19, we were leaving for church. The flag on the mailbox was raised, which was odd for a Sunday. Inside lay a small piece of lined paper torn from a notebook.

“Lizanne S.: The daughter you gave up for adoption, Aaron [sic], is looking hard for you. Her number is . . .” A North Carolina phone number followed. Below that was printed a man’s name and a local phone number.

Sure that this was a cruel hoax my first reaction was grief and fury. In tears, I called the local number. The writer lived on the same country road as we do. All he could tell me was that a young woman had called him from North Carolina, saying she was my daughter and that she could not find my phone number. So she pulled up listings for all numbers on the same road and began calling them to ask for help in contacting me.

I was stunned. My stomach knotted as hope and fear battled within. The six of us continued on to our church in complete silence.

Our service had guest musicians that day. We sat down as a woman’s clear voice began the first song: “I will never forget thee, I will never forsake thee.” In the instant her words hung in the air, my fear and doubt vanished.

There was no answer at the Charlotte number, so I left a message on the answering machine. I waited for two long hours before the telephone rang. “Mom . . . ,” the voice said hesitantly, “Mom,” and she began to cry. My daughter had found me.

Over the next hours, we boosted profits for AT&T and the makers of Kleenex. Her summer break was four days away, and she would leave for a monthlong internship in Central America in nine days. Unable to wait so long to meet her, I was on a plane from Portland to Charlotte the following day.

During the interminable flights and layovers, I sifted through years and memories, searching for the pieces she would care about, weaving a chain of my life to give her.

Erin stood, tall and blond, at the gate, holding a teddy bear and balloon. Hugging and crying, we held on to each other, trying to make up for almost twenty years in one fierce embrace. Over the next few days, we talked, laughed, hugged, stared at each other and cried more. Piece by piece, we filled in details of the shadowy picture we had of each other.

We share the same coloring, fierce competitive drive and anger at any injustice. Both of us have cold hands and feet, skin that burns at the first ray of sun, and an addiction to caffeine. Given an option, neither of us believes in mornings that start before ten. Currently, each of us is enrolled in a Spanish class, studying law and spending time weight training. However, the saddest commonality is the core of hurt, the sense of incompleteness and the “missing piece” in our hearts.

For the last month that I carried her, when I knew I would lose her, I grieved. And that was part of the legacy she carried away. No legal paper could sever that tie.

Erin has a good life with parents who love her and have given her everything money could buy. She is happy and healthy. For that, I am grateful.

This summer she is spending time with me and her newly found siblings. Her five brothers and sisters are ecstatic, stunned, confused and sometimes, I suspect, a bit jealous. So they talk about it, ask questions and adapt, throwing open their hearts to a stranger who has always held a place in mine. I watch them play and wrestle together, a jumble of arms, legs and giggles. Late at night, I creep down the hall and watch her sleep.

As she fills out the application to transfer from college in Charlotte to Oregon State, I can feel my heart relax. For nineteen and a half years, I have held my breath, held my loss, held my tears. Now, I can let it all go.

All our lives are better now that we can share them with each other. The core of heartache is gone. Our shadows have faces—familiar, tear-streaked, laughing faces. The search for the missing part of us is over.

Lizanne Southgate

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