‘Nan went missing on a Tuesday in 1985. I didn’t know she was lost until an uncle called my mother to report the event. The phone was in the hall on a white shelf. Each time the phone rang, mother would come running out of the kitchen looking very important, a stripy tea towel flapping in the air. I think someone telephoning her made her feel wanted, needed, indispensable, kept in the loop. Secrets and catastrophes passed down the wire into her excited pink ear drum
My brother sat opposite me at the table, spooning cornflakes into his mouth. I sat opposite him eating toast and slurping a mug of tea. When mother started to wail behind the closed glass door, we both gasped in disbelief and sat up very tall and straight in our neat school uniforms.
When the door opened, Mother fell out of the hall in her pink fury slippers. She used the tea towel as a handkerchief, mopping up the tears that dribbled down her face. She used the back of a chair to keep her legs from collapsing. My brother sprang up wide-eyed. He patted the seat next to him, before graciously offering her a sip of his lemon squash. She mouthed something to him, but he couldn’t quite make out the words. I just stared at her. Mother, small and fragile in her flowery blouse, patting her face with the Isle Of Wight’.
This is an extract from a book I’m writing about being an adoptee. I’m still drafting, so it could be this piece never makes it into the finished product, but I wanted to use it today.
My nan stood at just 5ft tall, miniature and birdlike. When she vanished, I believed she’d climbed into a cupboard, sat in shadow, crocheting a new blanket for one of my many dolls or making herself another peach coloured jumper so her bones didn’t fall out. When we arrived at my nan’s house later that day, I sprinted off to check all the cupboards, while mother sat in a chair with her tears and a hot cup of tea.
I checked all the cupboards. I checked wardrobes, wall units, long teak sideboards and looked inside wooden drawers. I ransacked the kitchen and tangled with shovels and hoes in the coalhouse. I checked behind sofas and high-backed chairs. I crept through the rhubarb patch, squeezed around tomato plants, skirted spring onions. I trawled through long green grass.
After my Sherlock Holmes inspired hunt, I rushed back into the living room, red faced and indignant. How could my nan hide from me? Only a few days earlier, I’d sang her a song upstairs in her bed, where she spent most of her day looking out of the window but being so small, she could only glimpse the clouds. Her legs were broken, and she had a busy chest, wheezing and rasping until sometimes she needed a quiet moment with an oxygen mask. She’d listened intently to the song, before folding me into her starched white sheets where we watched a film on her 14 inch black and white television and sipped warm lemonade from plastic Tupperware cups.
No one had spoken of death, and like most children, I found it hard to understand, and harder still to articulate my thoughts in a straight line. The finality of death frightened me terribly, but it felt ambiguous too. Where did people go to die, and where are they now? More perturbing, a different sort of death had occurred in my own life a few years before. The death of self and all I once represented, a life rubbed out on page, in name and in family, so a new mother could come along and slip into a hole shaped by loss, dusting me down to make me bright and brand new.
My nan leaving was an ending I’d not been prepared for. As an adult, I’ve always thought life grows in size comparative to how much we love and who we share our lives with and similarly shrinks in its dimensions if these connections are lost or do not exist to begin with. I felt lost after nan died, alone, desperate, unbelievably sad, almost like the lifeline I’d used to anchor myself to life had been aggressively pulled away and now all I could do was float aimlessly and wait for the tide to change.
I struggled to form an attachment to my adoptive parents primarily because we were simply a bad fit. Some of this is generational and perfectly normal. They were practical natured, stoic, not prone to emotion, but running alongside this, a sort of antagonism existed, an unspoken anger, a poker hot feeling of betrayal for how I had failed to assimilate into their family and adopt those traits which would have helped us all fit together just a tiny bit better.
How we are supposed to do this and even the expectation we should is misguided I feel. People shouldn’t adopt to see themselves reflected in their non- biological children. It is not what adoptions inherently about. Adoptive children need to be given the opportunity to discover who they really are rather than being pressurized by unrealistic expectations.
This is not to conclude I didn’t try. Often in families, when there is more than one adopted child, the children will take up directly opposing behaviour styles. In our family, my adopted brother (non-bio), three years older, took up the naughty role. It felt as if so terrified of being abandoned, he thought it a good idea to be utterly wretched and badly behaved all the time to see when our parents would snap and finally return him to the children’s home.
On the other hand, I felt it imperative to be good, so good in fact, I became invisible, and if no one could see me, then annihilation moved a little further away. There is safety in not being seen, in hiding in plain sight, in removing yourself from the everyday currency of love and family and stifled expectation. I hid in books. I hid in words. I hid in dreams. I hid in thoughts and ideas. I stowed myself away in my imagination and in worlds I constructed myself, worlds where I made the rules; worlds where love and friendship were not commodities anyone had to beg for.
It’s something I still do. I hide. I hide now in the fictions I create for others to enjoy, and the wonderful thing about this is through the narrative form we use to construct stories, we often, unconsciously, find we shape a little bit more of our own story, find a little bit more of ourselves.
Voice is important and adoptees, often feeling silenced, need the space to untangle their plot. To tell their own story. To speak their truth.