HOW THE WORLD DIDN’T END AND NOBODY DIEDDenise Emanuel Clemen
Until I met Julie, I didn’t know the term birth mother existed. The world thought of me as a bad girl, a slut. And that was how I thought of myself. But Julie described herself as a birth mother, so I called myself a birth mother too.
We went to meetings. We wanted to find our children. My son was almost 21, but due to the sealed adoption records in Iowa, my case seemed hopeless. Then I met a woman who said she could help me.
My daughters were one and four years old when I was searching for their brother, and when I crawled under the covers each night, my eyes stayed open hours after I’d gone to bed. I watched the eucalyptus trees on my neighbor’s hillside, their leaves like slender fingers touching the air. My older daughter was in her room across the hall, her sister asleep in her crib a few feet from me. You have a brother, I would whisper. You don’t know it yet, but you have a brother.
I am stepping out of a taxicab in front of the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. My hands are trembling, and it’s difficult to unzip my purse to pay the driver. I feel as though I might do something strange, like give him my entire wallet without noticing. My legs wobble as I clutch my purse and walk to the door with self-consciously even steps, like a drunk laboring to pull off an impression of sobriety. I scan the lobby for young dark-haired men to see if my son is waiting for me.
Twenty years and eleven months earlier I handed him to a social worker and walked out the door to my mother’s car sweltering in the summer humidity.
On the mezzanine I spot a young man who resembles the picture I received a few weeks ago. Pale skin, cropped dark hair. I watch him as he surveys the people milling below. He steps onto the escalator. I feel like I am falling.
Rain splashes against the windshield. I’m behind the wheel of a rented car and my daughters are with me. Behind us, there’s a mini-van and inside are my son Cory, his wife Tammy, and their three kids, Katie, Sophia, and Jacob. We are, for the first time, going back to Iowa together.
It’s the culmination of our reunion. I’ve already gotten to know his parents. I’ve been to his wedding where my daughters were bridesmaids, his birth father’s sons were groomsmen, and his birth father performed the marriage.
That evening’s whirl of introductions begins as we sit at a long narrow restaurant table near my sister and brother-in-law’s farm. Afterwards we drive the gravel road and stand in the last hour of daylight watching their cows, capturing barnyard cats, and cornering a toad in the tall grass. If I’d kept Cory, maybe this is where we’d have hidden out. It might have been an awful choice that led to a childhood of pointing fingers. Or…maybe not. But if the past were to be so radically revised, this moment wouldn’t exist. This family of my son’s wouldn’t exist. My daughters wouldn’t exist.
Back at the motel, we take my grandkids to the pool. “Do you know how to float on your back?” I ask Katie, the oldest, as I coax her into my arms. There’s a glint of fear in her six-year-old eyes.
“My dad has two mothers,” she says, giving me her capsule version of the story that sometimes drops into our conversation out of nowhere. “You had him first, but you couldn’t keep him.” Now her body rests lightly on the surface of the water, and she doesn’t flinch.