Having been adopted in New Jersey, I was never able to obtain my original birth certificate. Growing up I begged my adoptive mother over and over for any possible information she might have about my birth mother until one day, shooting her foot through the kitchen wall she screamed, “Don’t ever ask me that again.” I guess that was the end of the story. For years I would go on believing I must have been the product of rape, incest or my birth mother just wanted to get rid of me. I never fantasized about being the daughter of famous celebrities who were unable to raise me fearing an illegitimate birth might ruin their careers. This was a few (?) years ago. At least I thought this was the end of the story until my mother was on her death bed. Literally.
Mom put much effort into apologizing to me during those weeks I sat at her bedside trying to comfort her after we realized the end to her two year battle with cancer was near. “I know I was a bitch you,” came as a surprise to me. I smiled, figuring it was probably the morphine talking, allowing her the freedom to let go of her pride for once in her life. “You were a lovable bitch”, I responded, with a wink and a smile, while my heart was breaking inside. Why couldn’t she have apologized years ago? Why do they always wait until their deathbed? It’s like the parents who know their children are struggling financially, but refuse them monetary help when they need it saving it instead for “the inheritance.” By the time the will is read, the family is bitter and torn apart.
We both laughed. For the first time in years, maybe ever, we talked. Opened up. In this dreary hospital room, with its green walls, threadbare divider curtains, IV drip, heartbeat monitor, this same hospital where my son was born, for the first time in my memory my Mom wasn’t judgmental. Telling me she was proud of me I could only think, why did she wait until she was dying? No one knew the pain I felt growing up. I couldn’t tell her how she had hurt me. Not now. She was dying. I let her talk.
A week before she died she told me about a “lock box” that was hidden in the back of the top shelf in her bedroom closet. “There are important papers in there.” She said. Then she gave me the secret code. “Your daddy’s birthday”.
For the first time I was nervous being alone in her house, my childhood home. Before this trip my only concerns involved the safety of my children as I had left both of them with their alcoholic father, trusting in God to watch over the three of them while I visited my dying mother, and how much longer my mother had to live, praying at this point that her pain would end soon. As I prepared myself to open “the box, the secret hidden box,” I felt my heart pounding in my throat.
Balancing on a chair pulled up to the bedroom closet, reaching past the stacks of hat boxes, the silk scarves and leather gloves, my hand touched the metal of a small box, like a buried treasure. I pulled the box down from the closet, placed it on her quilted bedspread and stared at it as I got comfortable in my usual position, legs tucked beneath me. Memories started flooding into my head like the waters crushing back together after Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea. Like it was yesterday I pictured my Koko, surrounded by her litter of eight poodles, resting on the blood stained blanket right there, in front of this same mirrored closet door.
I looked at the box. After taking a deep breath I rotated the first cylinder to “6”. The second was already in the correct position. After easing the third cylinder into place I could feel the lid release and slowly open. Although I had no idea what was in this treasure chest, I knew it contained something important. I rifled through lots of papers. Mostly insurance docs. Itemized lists assigning values to the jewelry, furs, monogrammed silverware and the China my father shipped over from Hungary during the war. “My inheritance”.
My parents weren’t wealthy by any means, but they liked their trinkets.
As I worked my way through the documents I came to a sudden halt. My heart stopped. “Adoption Papers”. Oh my God. It listed my birth name. My eyes burned as hot tears flowed down my cheeks into my mouth. I could hardly read the documents my eyes were so filled. After removing my fogged over contact lenses, I was able to examine the hand typed court documents drafted so many years ago. While I studied the pages, one memory came to mind.
“Don’t ever ask me that again”. Was she telling me where this box was so I’d find the adoption papers and open a dialog? Did she want me to ask her about this now? Was she ready to talk? She had apologized for being so mean to me all my life. She realized she had been unfair. But was she ready to talk? Is this why she told me about the box?
I returned to the hospital the next morning expecting her to ask me about the box. Did you find the box, do you have any questions? I’m ready now to answer anything. But no. She never mentioned the lock box and I didn’t have the heart, or guts, to bring it up at this time. She was dying. I wasn’t going to do or say anything that would upset her now. She had to be the one to broach the subject. I waited. Nothing.
No matter how many disappointments my mother had in her life, she could never bring herself to talk to me about her greatest disappointment of all – that she could not give birth. She said nothing and I said nothing.
She died the following week. Her secret intact.