By Brook Biggs
It is dark, the world has gone to sleep. Midnight passed and the dawn is still several hours away. In her crib, a little girl sleeps soundly. Who knows what dreams flicker through her mind’s eye; her thin eyelids quiver rapidly in sleep. All throughout the tiny house, the noises that create day have been silenced to paint night. A soft tread is heard in the hall just outside the sleeping child’s room. The door opens silently, a mere whisper against the old carpet on the floor. A woman enters, the weight and exhaustion of multiple jobs pull at her shoulders. She creeps towards the crib, towards the child she has not seen since the night before, and when her eyes find the outline of her child through the darkness, a mixture of grief and happiness collide in her eyes. This is her baby, her youngest, her daughter whom she loves but cannot keep. This is the child she will soon give away.
Reaching into the crib, unable to stop herself, the mother carefully scoops the child up into her arms. The little girl stirs but continues to sleep, resting her head in the nook of her mother’s neck, cradled into the arms created for comfort. Using her feet to find her way, the mother shuffles forward until she finds what she is looking for. The rocking chair is old but it is sturdy and it rocked the mother’s first child. Now it will rock this second child, the motion undulating a rhythm that defies the turmoil in the woman’s heart. She has gone back and forth on this. She has berated her mind, her absent spouse, her lot in life and still, the moment comes back, always, to the day she will walk away from her child. The sway of the chair, the breath of her sleeping child on her neck, the tears running down her cheeks, and the guilt tearing holes in her heart will not let her forget the despair of choice.
“I don’t think I can do this anymore, Mark. The other day, do you know what I found? I found my child, so hungry, that she had climbed from her bed in the middle of the night and gone to the refrigerator – she was standing there, eating raw hamburger meat!”
Her older brother, Mark, looks at her sympathetically. He sees the torment in his sister’s eyes. “You have to make a decision, Faye,” he says, not unkindly. “You can’t keep going like this. It isn’t fair to any of you.”
The woman knows he is right. She knows she must decide. She cannot keep both her children. Her husband is not coming back and the prison that holds him is the final sentence for her. She has to decide now.
“Make the call,” she says, hurrying away before the tears can overwhelm her movement.
On the other side of the country, the phone rings. From one sunshine state to another, Florida reaches out to California. Mark stands in Florida, waiting for his brother to pick up. He finally does.
“Hey, Tim,” says Mark. “She’s giving her up for adoption. Her youngest one – Brook. I thought of you and Susan. Something told me to tell you two.”
The man in California listens to his older brother talking. Tim is an Officer in the Marine Corps, he is married with two small children. This is his baby sister that Mark is talking about. This is his niece that he does not know that is being given away.
According to Mark, Brook will be placed up for adoption and Faye has asked Mark to make the calls to the legal system to begin the process. Mark wanted to call within the family first.
Tim listens, and he thinks. This is his niece. Family is very important to him. As Mark talks, Tim looks across the room where his pregnant wife stands in the kitchen, preparing lunch for their two children. “Let me call you back,” he tells his brother, but before he hangs up the phone fully he already knows.
The little girl is only two and a half years old. She has been with her new family for three months now. She is in the backyard of her small, California home, climbing up a small jungle gym with her two siblings while her new mom sits on the porch, holding her new baby, and watching them all play. Next door, the back door of the house opens and the little girl looks up from her play. A woman walks out of the house to throw out a bag of trash. The woman has dark brown hair and is medium height and slender. The little girl thinks it is her mother. She looks to the woman and baby on the porch and points at the woman next door.
“That’s my mom,” Brook says in a matter-of-fact tone. “That’s her over there.”
Susan’s face falls in shock as she realizes the mistake the little girl has made and that the neighbor does indeed look like Faye. She waits for Brook to begin crying as the woman walks away. She waits for Brook to jump down from her play and rush to the woman calling “Mom!” She waits for any of these. None of them happen. Having announced her sighting of her mistaken mother, Brook promptly goes back to her play. Shouldn’t she have shown more than passing bored interest in seeing who she believed to be her mother? Susan wonders. She realizes that this little girl she and her husband have taken into their home has never, not once, asked for her mom.
“Does she know she is not coming back?” The whispered question comes from Cecelia, Faye’s older sister. Behind the two women, Brook stands on the sidewalk holding her bag, bouncing from foot to foot, excited to be going to stay at her Aunt Cece’s house for a whole week.
Faye swallows hard, determined not to cry, determined to give her daughter smiles and not tears as her parting gift. “I’ve told her she is going to go live with her Uncle Tim and Aunt Susan but I don’t know how much she understands. She’s only two.”
Cecelia puts an arm around her younger sister. “You’re doing the right thing, Faye. Tim and Susan told you on the phone they will never pretend you aren’t her true mom. They’re not going to keep you from seeing her.” Cecelia glances at Brook then back to Faye. “She doesn’t seem upset at all.”
“Why would she be?” remarks Faye bitterly. “She has grown up in the care of babysitters and daycares. The only time I see her is at night and one day a week. I have to work three jobs just to keep food on the table and clothes on both the girls’ bodies.”
“You’ve been doing the best you can,” reassures Cecelia. “It isn’t your fault that Mason turned out to be an absolute worthless excuse for a human being and left you with two girls. This is the right choice. She’ll thank you for it someday.”
Maybe the child will, maybe the child won’t. Faye only knows that the guilt is threatening to destroy her in that very moment. She kisses her young daughter, clings to the small body, hands her off to her sister, smiles bravely, and waves as the car drives off down the road. Cecelia will keep Brook for a week and then the two will board a plane and fly to California where her new family waits for her. The car disappears around the corner. Tears should be coming now, Faye thinks, but then she realizes that all she feels is numb.
“I promise, you don’t have to feel guilty.” I am sitting with my biological mother, Faye, in a small diner in Bradenton, Florida and it is fourteen years since she watched me walk away from her. I have visited her several times since then. Once by myself when I was eight and three other times when I came to Florida with my family to visit cousins and other relatives.
I have had this conversation with Faye before – on the phone and in person. Guilt consumes her when she looks at me. I can see it gnawing away at her in the way she constantly reaches out to touch me but pulls back just before, as if she has no right to reach out to me anymore. I wish the guilt would ease. I wish she would accept that I don’t think badly of her, I hold her no ill will and I love the family I have been given too.
She does not accept it. Fourteen years is not enough to wipe away her guilt. She was numb when I walked away but gradually, that numbness evolved into guilt, a guilt that she could never quite escape. The guilt is worse when she looks at me, sitting across from her in that diner, happy, loved, nourished, and secure in my place in life and compares me to her first born daughter, Lace. Lace is four years older than me and has run away from home six times since the age of eleven. Lace delved into promiscuous sex at the age of thirteen, went to Juvenile Detention at the age of fourteen and discovered recreational drugs at the age of fifteen. Lace is wild and uncontrollable.
This may be the result of Lace’s early life and the turmoil and insecurity she felt constantly at being shuffled from sitter to sitter, watching our biological dad steal from Faye and leave us destitute, and so many other things. Lace and I were the daughters of disruption and when I was flown safely away to a land of plenty, she was left behind to battle the chaos the best a child of six years old could. She did not handle it
I am eighteen now and unhappy with my life. I have started the process of joining the Navy. But one last time, a family trip, and I am back in Florida, and Faye and I are walking through an outdoor mall. She places a hand on my shoulder, still uncertain, but more confidently than in the past.
“You know I never, ever wanted to give you up,” she tells me. “I loved you so much but I couldn’t take care of you. And Lace, she was out of control. There were times I was genuinely worried she would hurt you. I hope you know that I wish there had been another way.” She clears her throat and adds; “Tim and Susan were your best option. They have been amazing parents. Better, even, than I ever could have been. I just hope you understand.”
She is always explaining to me. She wants forgiveness for something I do not hold against her. She wants atonement for a choice she was forced to make when her life situations spiraled out of control before she could grasp the deceitful ends and tie things together again. I am tired of hearing the reasons, the excuses, and the guilt. I do not care anymore. I wish she would understand that. I don’t care. I never cared. I want her to just let it all go because what we can’t get back, the things we cannot change, are not worth talking about.
The little girl did not care when she thought she saw her mother three months after the adoption. The little girl never asked for her sister, Lace, or her mother. She never displayed signs of sadness or longing. When her new dad tried to hold her, to rock her close and give her some measure of physical bonding she had been denied as a baby, the little girl would go stiff. She would clench her fists at her side at the end of locked arms, she would kick her feet out and bow her back. “Don’t touch me! Don’t coddle me!” seemed to be the silent words screaming out from her posture. Tim and Susan implemented discipline to all of their children. There were times when the child would receive spankings as did her siblings. When her siblings were punished, they would run to their punisher and hug and apologize. When the little girl was punished she would lock her jaw, dry her eyes, and walk silently, coldly, from the room. She did not want the closeness. She did not want the comfort. She did not need reassurance.
Adoption saved the little girl from a life that could have gone terribly wrong. Brook could have been Lace. Brook could have been lost forever. But adoption and two willing, loving people came in. Still, something broke inside that little girl early on in her life and it was never fixed. She does not want you to know about who she is. She does not want you to enter her mind or feel bad for her. She wants to tell you to go to hell if she sees even an ounce of sympathy in your eyes. She does not know how to bond. She has friends but she can leave them or lose them and it will not affect her beyond the moment. For years, before she realized moral conscious was something one should have, she could lie to you and you would never know, and she would do so just to watch you fall for the lie.
The part of a human that causes them to care, to love, to grieve, to rejoice and to hang on broke somewhere inside a two year old. Twenty-nine years later she is perfectly okay with that. She knows that if is hasn’t come yet then it never will. She isn’t looking for it anymore. She knows she got the better life and that is enough for her.
Faye senses this; this boredom with her guilt and the detachment from any feelings of longing. She must sense it because she looks suddenly sad and her hand slips away from my shoulder. I love her but that is all. Love is all, for me. I love or I do not. I do not hate, and I do not exuberantly love. I simply love. That will have to be enough for her or we will have nothing more to say. It is not her fault that I am the way I am. She was young and she was abandoned by the husband who was supposed to love and cherish her. She did the best she could and made the best decision she knew how. I wish she would just accept that I love her and let it go.
Sometimes, people just break. Sometimes it is the circumstances that cause the fissure that leads to the ultimate break and sometimes it is the way they are born and sometimes it is an irrevocable hurt. Either way, every break inside a person has a pinpointed source. Certainly my break was not yours. It was not your fault. You tried and you gave and you lost the fight with fate. I became better and went farther, and did more than I ever would have been had I stayed with you. I do not say that maliciously I say that with honesty. You felt guilt for so many years and then one year you stopped and for the longest time I could not figure out what had changed. Then I went back and I was able to find the moment you stopped. I called you one year on Mother’s Day – I was twenty-two – and I told you “Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.” I called and I said this to you because you gave birth to me and because, in a very rare moment in my life, a wave of sentimentality washed over me. So I made the phone call and what you don’t know is that the moment the words came out they tasted bitter in my mouth and I could not get off the phone fast enough. But I wish I had said them sooner. I think that you watched me from letters and pictures and brief visits and you wanted to be mom again. You wanted me and because I never missed you or acknowledged the word mom to you, you must have felt guilty, as if it was a failing on your part because what child does not miss their mother. But it wasn’t a failing on your part. What you did was an epic and triumphant victory. You sent me to a place where the crack inside me would not become so wide that it could destroy me. I am better for it. The break is still in me but I can laugh and I can cry if the occasion calls for it. I can be happy for someone. I can do all the things I should. They may not always be sincere but that is just part of who I am. I used to think I was broken, now I think I am favorably worn. I am sorry you needed to hear me say mom for your guilt to go away. I am glad that you were my mom for a time and I am glad that time ended when it did.
I have never sent Faye that letter. Perhaps someday I will feel the need. For now I am simply glad that I do not look into her guilt anymore. I am glad she is happy, and that she eventually found a husband who cherishes her very existence. I am happy that Lace has turned her life around. I am glad I have the nine siblings that I do and the parents that I was given. Without them, the break inside of me would have been devastating; it would have destroyed me from the inside out. With them, the break is bearable and manageable and I do not mind it being there. Broken does not mean we do not function. Broken just means we have more control and choice over how we function.
Brook Briggs is a mom, student, writer, and adrenaline chaser. She spends her days chasing four children, taking classes at Arkansas State University, and looking for the next great adventure. She will graduate with a Master’s degree in English Literature in the fall.