Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives. **This is a bonus piece being shared on the 29th day of the series.
Alexis, a teenager, has read and approved the publication of the following essay by her mom, Veronica.
The Complicated Process of Saying goodbye.
By Veronica Chenik
“Please take care of my babies.” The text message appeared in my filtered Face Book Messenger. I knew in an instant who sent the message. It was from my adopted children’s biological mother, LeeAnn.
We adopted a sibling group of four from Tennessee. The interstate adoption was finalized in 2012 — our children were older when we met them. As I revealed in my 2014 and 2016 essays – we felt it was important to reunite the kids with some of their biological family members. They were reunited to cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and one of the fathers.
In 2017, we finally reunited them with their biological mother at our son’s high school graduation. Lee Ann drove up from Tennessee for a short visit, with a cousin or two in tow for support. Although there weren’t enough available tickets for her to share in the official graduation auditorium, we decided to share a family meal at a local Mexican restaurant in town.
Recent delays in reunification had been difficult due to Lee Ann’s diagnosis of cervical cancer. She announced at the family dinner that she was officially cancer free.
Fast forward to October 2019. Sadly, I hadn’t spoke to her since that event. There didn’t seem to be a justifiable reason to reach out until now.
She was dying.
Lee Ann was now 39 years old and diagnosed with brain cancer. It was believed that the cervical cancer did not metastasize into the cranial area…but nevertheless, it was devastating diagnosis for her to share.
I struggled with the news of her diagnosis at first because of the absence of communication. I heard nothing from her family nor my kids to confirm the news. It seemed as if our adopted children — three of them adults and at college –had mixed feelings. They, too, had received her text messages with the news.
In their defense, this was a woman who neglected them, hurt them and, in the end, abandoned them. There was little sincerity to react empathetically – the only option for them was acceptance. For the older three, she was a part of past that they decided to move on from for their own well-being.
My youngest daughter, Alexis, had been in contact with Lee Ann, secretly. I only found out because she was in trouble, and, as all parents know – the cell phone is one of the first things to go.
Once I had her phone in my possession, a message via Instagram popped up on her phone. From there, I read all of their love notes. I was the other mother and reading very intimate chats between a mom recently diagnosed with brain cancer and her now 15-year-old daughter.
It was there I found an empathetic ear. There was a message about the secrecy of the communication – and I could have been angry or jealous. But, I chose not to be. I found the messages almost like two teenagers talking to each other…a lot of emojis and even a conversation about Jason Momoa; they both thought he was hot.
There were also a lot of conversations about the past, I could see this was a healthy way for Alexis to ask questions without her siblings around or the adoptive parents steering the conversation to avoid any pain. This was their time.
Lee Ann had never been a threat. In some ways, she became the other mother, as I was gifted with the opportunity to be a hands-on parent to them. She had no access to hold them, see them struggle or thrive.
Even though these conversations were happening under my nose, I never regret them. I had wondered if the same conversations happened privately with the other kids, I hope there was some closure, if it at all could be achieved.
A few days before Thanksgiving, Lee Ann Passed away, just three days before her 40th birthday.
The reactions from the kids were mostly relief. There were tears and disbelief but no one was shocked or surprised. After the tears, there was also some sarcasm, and anger. They were forever changed and pulled together in grief, in another similar loss they shared together. If only a paralyzing temporary break from their college finals. Now their story “fit in” with what most curious people think about adoption: “did your parents die?” Now they could say yes.
The following week, I decided to call Alexis’ school nurse and counselor. I knew the impact of Lee Ann’s death would affect her participation in school, I thought it was important that if Alexis shows up to school stating her mother died, she would find support.
“I wanted to give you a heads up — Alexis may be coming into the ward.” The nurse was already annoyed with Alexis. She was a frequent flyer, due to a recent concussion. “Her biological mother has passed away and she may need a quiet place to go. She might come to you for respite.”
The nurse on the other end of the phone quickly responded, “Did she even know her mother?”
If I could’ve reached through the phone and bopped her on the head, I would have. Fortunately, I had enough patience that I spoke from the heart.
I replied, “I’m going to answer your question as best as I can because I think this is a great opportunity to educate you, so the best and most appropriate response would be, ‘I am really sorry for your loss,’ as a nurse, you should also express or offer a soft place for her.”
The nurse, quiet, listened as I continued. “First of all, she did know her mother, and the saddest part about this loss, is that she will never get to see her or get to know her as they both age – the promise of any future relationship is forever closed.”
The nurse apologized. I got off the phone and cried. I felt the loss deeply. I grieved, I felt a profound depth of compassion for her, for my kids, and for myself. I was recently divorced with seven kids, and the grief continued in ways I could not resolve. I remained to be strong and be the light.
There wasn’t an official funeral, but a gathering of family at Lee Ann’s sister’s, just days before Christmas. The trip consisted of a one-way 12-hour car ride from our home in Northern Virginia to just outside of Bristol Tennessee. Two of the kids live in Richmond and another in Williamsburg Virginia.
I tried to coordinate flights from Dulles to Bristol just a few days before hectic holiday traveling. This proved impossible with coordinating schedules and transportation to the airport. At the last minute, everyone was willing to fly but the flights were complicated with layovers and the easier less expensive routes were sold out. Because I purchased my flight with Alexis in advance, we flew out together, and the others drove down with their father for an overnight stay.
On the first day of Hanukkah, we shared an adventure that I will never forget. From our departure at Regan International in DC to our layover in Charlotte and arrival in Bristol Airport, it was a trip shadowed with uncertainty.
What kind of funeral were we attending? What should we wear? How could I be supportive to my kids, to her family? What was my role going to be? What were we going to learn about Lee Ann’s life, her death?
We arrived at the tiny Bristol airport early and went directly to the Hertz car rental desk. The car rental employee handed me the keys to my midsize rental. The keys seemed to have some weight, almost bulky. Curiously I asked, “What kind of car am I renting?”
“A Dodge Ram,” she said. Perplexed, I turned to Alexis and said, “What the heck is a Dodge Ram (car)?”
Thinking only about cars, a truck never entered my mind. When we walked out into the parking lot, it was evident that trucks were what most people drove. To our amazement, there were rows and rows of Dodge Rams, and very few cars.
We chuckled hand in hand as the two of us petite girls hopped into the oversized truck. I adjusted the seat so that I was practically sitting as close as the seat could go. My eyes just barely peered over the steering wheel, looking like a twelve-year-old barely able to maintain visual acuity.
I am woman, hear me roar, I thought as I inserted the key, I felt strong and a renewed sense of vitality. The engine purred powerfully as we headed out into Tennessee countryside.
“This is going to be an adventure,” I said to Alexis, as we both laughed accepting our new fondness of the rental truck. “Hold on.” I accelerated the truck with much surprise; it had a lot of power.
We checked into our room at The Bristol Hotel, a beautiful boutique hotel with a roof top bar with city views.
Alexis had a quick Facetime with her siblings. We changed and headed back into town. We had a lunch date with my kids’ foster parent fairy godmother, also lovingly known as Mama Marsha. Over the years, I kept in touch with Marsha, as did the kids through social media.
Marsha is an amazing, strong woman. The kids were lucky to have her throughout their transition from the removal of their biological mother’s (Lee Ann) home, transition into foster care and then ultimately the transition into our home to finalize our adoption.
Marsha knew Lee Ann and understood our visit more than anyone else. She was the one who made it all happen, with such grace and mercy. We are forever grateful for her support and love; without it, we wouldn’t be the family we are today.
Later that afternoon, we drove our Dodge Ram into the hills of Tennessee, bordering southern Virginia following the windy hilly roads, leading us eventually to Lee Ann’s sister’s house for the funeral. There was no cell signal for most of the ride, but we managed to get there without a hitch.
Many familiar faces were there to greet us, and a few new ones too. What seemed like a small family reunion of sorts including mostly aunts, an uncle (Lee Ann had four sisters and a brother), and cousins. These folks became a part of my extended family via adoption. It was nice to be recognized as family and embrace these cheerful faces.
The hardest part about meeting new family is that every unit has its quirks, or quirky people. My adopted children have a few family members that were diagnosed with schizophrenia. These two members, twin sisters, (my kids’ aunts) were present.
The sisters were fun. One identified herself to me by pointing to her T-shirt. She wore a red shirt that proudly read “WARNING: Don’t annoy the crazy person.” The other sister wore colorful tie-dyed leggings and a hat that read, “No limit REDNECK.”
And here I was wondering what I was going to wear to this gathering. I believe come as you are was perfectly acceptable.
What seemed to be a cautionary, perhaps anxious situation for the other family members was an opportunity for me. I didn’t mind the constant pestering by one of the sisters, and instead of being indifferent, I decided to embrace the situation as a friend. The friendship acted as a buffer in which allowed the family to socialize and embrace the recent loss of Lee Ann.
When my other three children arrived, it was at first a bit unsettling. They arrived from a long car trip, interrupting college finals and stressed by anxious and happy faces greeting them. Everyone was happy to see them.
One of my kids, put off by the intensity of a family member’s hearty salutations and howling comments, left the entrance of the house and said, “This isn’t my tribe,” and temporarily retreated to the car they arrived in. The rejection was understood. I sat back waiting and watching. After a brief disappearance, my child re-appeared in the doorway, a little shaken but cooperative.
In adoption or any family, there is period of rejection in order to allow growth. Rejection in forming identity comes in all kinds of forms, rejecting our true selves, rejection of others, rejection of ideas, and rejection or truth or lies.
A rejection is a dirty moment or even a time period where one needs to find themselves, to reinvent, to be independent to become whomever it is they are meant to be. This is one of the most rewarding and most challenging times in parenting young adults. Acceptance is the only solution, even if it isn’t negotiated as your choice. Distance can sometimes equal freedom.
After everyone settled in, I stayed a bit more to capture some pictures of everyone together. After a few hours, I decided it was best to leave. I got inside my rented truck and drove back to The Bristol Hotel for the evening.
I wasn’t a part of Lee Ann’s impromptu funeral. And I was okay with that. Lee Ann’s funeral was composed of a family circle around a backyard bonfire. The family had her ashes separated into small capsule pendants that could be worn as necklaces. The kids also each received some of her personal mementoes.
Before we arrived, I was more than a little apprehensive. I wasn’t sure if I felt comfortable leaving Alexis, and she wasn’t sure if she felt comfortable staying. It was decided that her cousin would drop her off at the hotel with me when they were done visiting, while her siblings stayed the night.
There were many unanswered questions about Lee Ann’s illness leading to Lee Ann’s death. I believe the shared experience benefited my children. During the short stay, they were able to ask questions providing a closure that they didn’t have had they not visited.
I’ve learned a lot about families in the past 20 years, and I realize that we are alike more than we are different. I’ve learned that the ability to share our stories is powerful, if not magical. It takes an imagination to have a family and survive the entanglements. These stories are priceless.
That evening, I walked around downtown Bristol, Tennessee – known as a good place to live. I sat with many vibrant Tennesseans wanting to share stories and asking to know about mine. Instead of indifference, I found some hearty, genuine caring people in Bristol.
We came from different places, had different experiences, different politics and religious expressions. We shared authentic stories about where we’re from and where we’re going.
Even though I was unsure about fitting in or what my role was going to be for my adopted children, I found that we all continue to be the light if we allow it in. If you have difficulty finding it, be patient, for even a spark will do.
Veronica Chenik is an adoptive parent and writer/advocate. Veronica draws from her personal experiences regarding humanist values, adoption and stories of identity and parenthood. Find her blog at Chronicles for Social Change.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter
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