By David Lintvedt
In a local library there is an interesting bit of folk-art: a model of a family tree made for a family reunion held about 140 years ago. It is made of carefully carved and polished pieces of wood, each branch representing a member of the family. Rather than a tree it looks more like a bush, with many branches springing from each other, to show children and grandchildren as they are added to the family tree. This model resonates with me, for it is a good metaphor for adoption, at least when it works well, as the new family member truly becomes a new branch of the family tree.
As an adoptee, I have often been asked about my “real family”, if I ever wonder about them: who they were, what they were like, and I tell them that I know exactly who my “real family” is: the family who raised me and cared about me and made me a part of their lives! While I have met my birth father, and even some half-brothers, they are not my family, and I never felt the need to stay in touch. After all, I am part of a good family already, and this is the story (as I know it) of how I became a branch of my family tree:
I was born in The Bronx, in May of 1963. Soon after, my biological parents moved to find a better life and wound up in Newark, New Jersey (not the first place that comes to mind when looking for a better life, but it worked out well for me), where they hoped to raise me as their son, as they had no intention of giving me up; however, things did not work out that way.
When I met my birth father as an adult, he described my mother as a “free spirit”, which is a nice way of telling me that she was unstable; he also told me that was also a classical dancer, and something of a spiritual seeker, which led her to become associated with many fringe groups in her search for enlightenment – of course some of these groups were rather questionable, and while he did not go into detail, it was clear that some of their beliefs were “unconventional” to say the least.
My birth father told me he worked long hours as a building manager in New York City, leaving me home alone with my mother (this was not a good choice). It’s clear that she could not handle the responsibility of having a child, because while we were alone together she would abuse me.
I have often wondered why did she did this to me, but I will never know as she’s no longer around to ask, so I can only speculate. Maybe it was because I cried (as infants will do) or did not sleep enough, maybe she was just overwhelmed, or it could be because she was just a sick person. Regardless of why, my birth father claimed that he did not know that there was anything wrong at home, as things seemed fine when he came back from work late at night.
In time, my birth mother probably would have killed me, but one day when I was about six months old, one of the neighbors had enough of the sounds coming from my parents’ apartment and the Police were called. Upon seeing how badly I was battered, they took me to local Emergency Room where I was attended to by a doctor named Henry Kessler.
Dr. Kessler, who was the founder of the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, was a well-known and respected doctor. When he found that every major bone in my body either was broken or had been broken, he recognized me as a victim of child abuse, so he immediately took custody of me and in doing so he saved my life. Although my birth parents tried to get me back, the doctor’s prestige enabled him to keep me safe, and I stayed in his care while he treated my injuries for free.
Many years later, when I was trying to learn more about my early life, I spoke with a woman who had been one Doctor Kessler’s former nurses. When I told her who I was, she became emotional and told me that I must have been one of the babies she used to buy clothes for. Then she told me that Dr. Kessler helped many abused children during his career, and this was when many people did not want to talk about child abuse, and when some doctors would ignore the signs of abuse in order to avoid causing trouble for themselves.
After a few months in the care of Dr. Kessler, I was placed with Newark Child Welfare, who began the task of finding a foster family for me to stay with while I continued to heal. One of the families they contacted were close friends of the people who were to become my parents. They had an adopted son, and had recently adopted a daughter, and were considering adopting again in the future. When asked if they were interested in taking me in, they wanted to say “yes” but felt it was too soon to add another child to the family…especially a child who was still recovering from numerous injuries.
While they could not take me in, they helped look for a family who could; and so they mentioned my case to some friends of theirs, a college professor and his wife. They told these friends that I needed a good foster family to stay with while I continued my medical treatments, which would include surgery on both of my shoulders and months of rehabilitation.
They had made friends with the professor and his wife, while they were students at Upsala College, in East Orange, NJ. After they graduated from Upsala, the couple settled in nearby West Orange, and remained close to the Lintvedts, they even joined the same church.
The Lintvedts had four children of their own, one girl and three boys. When they heard about me, they wanted to help, but they led busy lives, and with four kids already, money was tight. They were not sure if they could handle the responsibility of another child, not to mention one with medical issues like mine; however, after some thought, and much discussion they decided to take me in as a foster child…on a temporary basis.
Meetings were held, evaluations were done, and eventually Newark Child Welfare approved the Lintvedts as my new foster family. Just before I was brought into the family, in February of 1964, the man who would become my father took his teenaged children aside and prepared them for my arrival. He told them that due to my many injuries, I would probably be crying, unhappy and unsettled; so he told the kids to be ready for a rough time of adjustment. He also told them not to get too attached to me, as I probably would not be staying with them too long.
When I got home, instead of being the crying and cranky baby they expected, I was laughing, smiling and eating up all the attention I could get. Within a few hours of my arrival at the house, my father told the family, “We have to keep him!”
As far as I know, there was not much of a transition period; even though it would take about a year and a half for the adoption to become legal, for all intents and purposes, I became part of the family right away!
For the first time in my life I had parents who loved and cared for me, rather than beating and neglecting me. I also gained an older sister and three older brothers, who I would look up to and admire for the rest of my life!
At last, I had a real family!
Over the next few years I would have bouts of Pneumonia, surgery on my damaged shoulders, more time in the hospital, and I would spend many months in leg braces. It was a tough time, and I know was not always happy but my family was there for me, through it all…putting up with my crankiness, and supporting me; just like they still do today.
While my new family went through all of these hardships with me, they in turn were supported by many of their friends from the college and the church, including of course, the couple who had told my parents about me, who were a big part of my early life.
When I was two years old, it all became official. By order of judge Yancy, in a court room in Newark, New Jersey, I legally became “David Andrew Lintvedt”.
I always knew I was adopted, after all it was hardly a secret; with my red hair and fair skin, I stood out from the rest of my family, and when people would stop and ask me “Where did you get that red hair?” I would proudly tell them “Because I was adopted!”
I WAS proud of being adopted…proud that my family did not have to take me in, but that they choose to make me part of their family tree.
I have always seen being adopted as a blessing, and I was right, my adoptive family is my “real family”. As I grew up they continued to put up with me, teach me, support me, care for me and include me as they lived their lives.
I am still proud, and grateful for having been adopted, and to have be given the opportunity to become part of an amazing and loving (if not always perfect) family!
David Lintvedt was born in the Bronx, and raised by his adoptive family in suburban New Jersey. He holds a BA in English from Upsala College, in East Orange, New Jersey, and has also earned a Master of Divinity degree from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.