Really? Forty? Really. Forty.

Mom and Steph in Stevens Point, after Madrigal Dinner, December 1989

Not flesh of my flesh,

Not bone of my bone,

But still miraculously my own.

Never forget for a single minute

That you didn’t grow under my heart,

But in it.

Mom clipped this poem out of the newspaper when I was very young. She carried it in her purse for years, and then put it on her night stand, where it sat within my line of sight during the countless teenaged hours I spent on the bed while using her phone.  Hours. Days, most likely. What was it like to have that much free time? I no longer can recall. But in those hours, the poem was sealed into my psyche.

Adoption wasn’t a secret, or a stigma, or a whispered embarrassment in our home. It was a shouted-from-the-rooftops, blessed and beloved truth that made me special. Unique.  Chosen.  My parents wanted me so badly that they went and found me. How very cool is that? I don’t remember being ‘told’ that I had been adopted – it was just simply true. My story. A chosen child. All that I knew was that I was born in River Falls, WI,  and that my birth mom had green eyes and olive skin [which, by the way, totally blew my dreamy theory that I was Aretha Franklin’s secret love child]. Never once did I feel abandoned. Never once did I feel a sense of shame for being ‘given up’. I owe that completely to the culture that Mom and Dad created in our home. There was just no room for that kind of thinking. I was theirs. After the heartbreak of two miscarriages, they were ready to do whatever it took to become parents. They adopted Dave in 1967. After trying to conceive again, they endured the heartbreaking stillbirth of Timothy in 1970. Before Mom was even home from the hospital, she charged Dad to call Lutheran Social Services right away so that they could get back on ‘the list’ – they were both 38, and in those days, that was OLD to be adopting another infant.

Meanwhile, in River Falls, Elly was in the middle of her senior year of high school, bound and determined to finish school even though she was dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and a rather unsupportive birth father. [Jump ahead a couple of decades and he more than made up for it. He’s a wonderful man with a wonderful family.] Elly knew that the best thing for her to do was to carry her child to term and to give her up for adoption. She got to spend a few hours with me when I was born, and she snuck in her two best friends – David and Cheryl – and her mom. How does someone have that kind of courage? I will never, ever know. I’ve sat in that hospital bed with two home-grown babies of my own, and the thought – the excruciating thought – of that moment of surrender is one that I can’t fathom. But Elly was sure, and she stayed the course. Brave, brave Elly.

Elly with my daughter, 2004

Seven days later, Mom and Dad drove to Eau Claire, where the agency office was located, to pick me up from the foster care worker. Dave, who was 3 1/2, was charged with the enviable task of making the final choice as to whether I would be Susan or Stephanie. He decided that Stephanie was far more rife with possibility for torture in the years ahead. Stephanie it was, with Louise as a middle name for my Mom’s side of the family – Great Grandma Louisa, Grandma Emma Louise, Mom Carol Louise, and me. [Those of you in-the-know are aware that this name is not part of our daughter’s name. Scott said ‘Great tradition. AND, that’s the end of that.’ He was right.  ]

The next 18 years were spent in as traditional a family, really, as one could create in the 1970′s and 80′s. Adoption made us special – Dave and I looked NOTHING alike, though each of us favored one of our parents. Dave found his niche in science, model trains, and sports, and I found mine in music. On occasion, I wondered about my birth mom… ‘What is she like? Do I look like her? Does she sing?” but I really don’t remember ever wondering if she missed me or if she thought about me. Mom and I had our moments during my Junior High and High School years, but even then, I knew that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. This was my family.

Mom wrestled with depression, I think, for most of her adult life. She was impatient, and she was a little OCD around the house, and with laundry. She wasn’t a great cook – she had 3 or 4 recipes that she could do well. Because Dad traveled a lot, I remember many suppers that consisted of a can of spaghetti-o’s, a slice of bologna, and a pudding cup. If she asked me to vacuum, she’d do it over again just to do it right. I’m sure that to this day my disdain of cleaning and picking up has to do with the fact that I never lived up to her standards in that department. And then, after we’d fight about that, she’d drive me to ShopKo and I’d get something new. So see? We had it all worked out even then.

She was also at my school almost every day because of her commitment to the parent groups and volunteer opportunities. She was a rock star in this department.

In my college years, she was an encouraging voice who shared her car and her checkbook. She – and certainly Dad – lived sacrificially during those years so that I could have what I thought I needed. I took her – and her money – for granted, and so desperately wish that I hadn’t. But she and Dad made it possible for me to get out of school without any debt. What an accomplishment!

Mom turned the other cheek when I started a job for which I had to raise my own funds. She didn’t like it, but she let me do it without giving me a hard time. I was a Gen X’er being raised as a Baby Boomer, so I was on my own with this one. I had a charmed childhood and, with a few small exceptions, a pretty charmed adolescence, too. And Mom was a big reason why.

Nothing in this life has ever made me feel as anchor-less, as adrift, as living my life without my Mom. What a strange, unchosen, holy road.  The hardest day for me since losing Mom was actually New Years Eve. I woke up that morning not expecting it to be that big of a deal – we had made it through Thanksgiving, her birthday, Christmas – and I have to confess that the New Years Meltdown took me by surprise. As the day went on, I felt more and more… unsettled. Upset. But it was different than any of the grief stuff I had felt before. [Mom died on July 9th.] I finally realized at 8.00 that night when it seemed that I was crawling out of my skin that I did not have the capacity to process a calendar year in my life that didn’t include my mom. My body knew before my head and heart did that turning the calendar to 2011 meant that Mom was left behind in 2010. It was excruciating, and I was in bed by 8.30, unable to face the dropping of the ball and the moment the year would end. The next morning, there was a sense of relief, but even now the thought of that night is hard to bear.

The confluence of events this year – first birthday without mom being my 40th, Dad selling the house and moving down here, etc, etc – has led me only to my knees, and to a place of stillness before the Lord, which seems to be the only place where my grief is assuaged by knowing that Lord knows grief and pain deeper than I ever will, and that he cries by my side, too. This broken, broken world… crying for redemption.. cancer, the result of the fall. I hate it. [Mom received her final diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer – fully metastasized to her liver, lymph system, and bones – on a Wednesday. Moved to hospice on Thursday. Died on Friday. She was not strong, and not healthy. But the shock was still…. a shock. And it was still fast. And brutal.]

And for my 40th birthday today? Mom would have sent flowers and cards and would have laughed and celebrated with me like she did on my 39th. Just last year. How is it possible? I don’t know. But I’m learning to navigate these waters day by day, holiday by holiday. And my heart is full of the richest memories imaginable stemming from life with Mom. I’m grateful. And sad. And being refined. And learning to love more deeply. And to number my days.

Mom and my daughter, December 2002

Elly sent me flowers today. Big, gorgeous flowers. Because today I have turned 40. And that means that 40 years ago, she followed through and did the very hardest thing.

Mom hasn’t been off my mind and out of my heart today. I have wondered all day what she’d say and what she’d be thinking about my 40th. Dad and I talked several times, too, and he said all the right things and made me feel great.

Who gets the great blessing of having two real moms to love? Who gets that?? I do. What an unbelievable privilege to be in the lives of these two extraordinary women.

Love,

Your Forty Year Old Friend,

Steph

*** The song below, and the story behind it, also posted below, will help to shed light on the heart of an adopted child. I have been profoundly moved by Mark’s story below.***

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