©Patrick McMahon 2011
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From Chapter 1
September 1990, Kansas City, Missouri.
“Mom, what can you tell me about my adoption?”
The question is out. For all my life, it’s been a hammer that could shatter a glass house with a tap. After approaching the brink many times during her visit from Chicago, after years of the relentless inner chant, Who am I? I’ve sat her down in my living room and finally spilled it out.
Her face registers little, maybe a hint of anxiety, or is that relief? She stands, sighs, and leaves the room. Surely she’s coming back. Surely the glass house was only in my mind, which now races out of control. Yes, the ground-breaking talks about Dad’s alcoholism and their divorce went well, but this is indeed new territory. Somewhere deep inside, I quiver. And yet, I know my mother is strong, a survivor. She’d do anything for her two sons. She’s accepted me as a gay man. All I’d written in the letter before her trip was, “There’s something I want to talk about when you visit.”
A clock ticks. A train whistles in the distance. After an endless minute or two, she emerges from the bedroom and slowly sits down in the chair next to the couch, her face calm, yet apprehensive. In her hand are some envelopes, and in an instant, I know what they are, even though I’ve never seen them. She leans forward to hand them to me, creating a moment of suspension and lake-bottom quiet as I look into her eyes and accept the bundle without a word.
Savoring this gift, yet wanting to rifle like a child in a Christmas-morning frenzy, I begin to sift with deliberation. Soon my world reduces to the emerging papers in my hands. I see letters from the State of Illinois Department of Public Welfare, a Notice of a Birth Registration with my name on it, and three typed pages on that thin, waxy, crinkly paper. The words “Petition to adopt” jump off the first page, but my eyes are pulled to the most official looking document, sheathed in a baby blue, thick paper cover with one typed word in the middle: “DECREE.”
My heart pounds as I unfold it to reveal five more legal-sized pages. My eyes try to take it all in at once, but soon words and phrases begin to jump out. Otto Kerner . . . Acting Judge . . . 1958 . . . Petitioners to adopt BABY BOY SHIELDS. Baby Boy Shields. Is that me?
I scan down. “That Richard Shields is the father, and Barbara Mizer a/k/a Barbara Shields is the mother of the said child.” My God! They have names! I silently mouth Richard and Barbara.
I flip the waxy page and read on. “That Richard Shields, the father, abandoned and deserted his said child . . . That Barbara Mizer a/k/a Barbara Shields, the mother, is unable to maintain her said child, and she abandoned and surrendered her said child to the petitioners herein.”
The floor drops from beneath me. Of course I’ve known that in order to be chosen, I had to be un-chosen. Surely every adopted child figures that out. But now here it is, all official. Two people with real names deserted, surrendered, and gave me away.
As sadness stirs in my gut and the word “abandoned” sinks into my bones, I read through to the final paragraph: “IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED, ADJUDGED and DECREED that from this date, Baby Boy Shields, a minor, shall be to all legal intents and purposes the child of the petitioners, Leonard Patrick McMahon and Joan Marie McMahon, his wife . . . and it shall be the same as if he had been born to them in lawful wedlock. IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the name of the said child shall be changed to Patrick James McMahon.”
Staring at this last phrase, I have to remind myself that this document pertains to me, not someone else. It is me, sitting here in my funky, antiquated apartment in the heart of Kansas City, Missouri, who was born in Chicago as a Shields, abandoned and re-forged as a McMahon.
My thumb bears into my temple as I stop and look up. My mother’s petite frame sags and her dark brown eyes are etched with worry. I see more clearly the tinges of gray in her short, jet-black hair. This alone causes me to realize just how terrified I’ve been of losing her, as if asking about my adoption might be a betrayal, might result in banishment or the loss of everything I’ve ever known as family. After all, it is Joan Marie McMahon who has raised me as her own, loved me, protected me, sacrificed for me. She is who I’ve always seen as Mother, while since age five knowing of another.
But now here I sit with that other mother’s name for the first time. A name that’s been sitting in a drawer or box for thirty-two years, that Mom has known and I have not. I can barely take a moment before asking the next question, the second tap against our glass house. “So Mom, how did it all happen?”
Braced, surely prepared, perhaps even rehearsed, she begins to release the story of my origins. “Well, we’d been married ten years and there was still no baby, so we filed for adoption. It wasn’t long after that Ann Einarson approached us saying she knew of a woman wanting to have a baby adopted. She asked if we were interested.”
“Ann Einarson? Our next-door neighbor?” Does she notice my rising pitch and eyebrows?
Mom clears her throat. “Yes. Well, anyway, the woman was a patient of her mother’s doctor. The doctor was quite reputable, well known, had even been on TV a couple of times.” She pauses as I note her emphasis on “reputable.” “We weren’t quite sure about doing this without an agency involved, but he told us private adoptions were really quite common. So we decided to go ahead with it. But then the woman changed her mind. She decided to keep the baby.”
“Wait, so that wasn’t Barbara? That wasn’t me?”
“No, but strangely enough it was only a few months later that Ann approached us again. This same doctor had another patient wanting to find a home for a baby. Naturally, we wondered about this doctor. You know, was he part of some sort of black market or something.”
I feel my jaw drop as she continues.
“So your dad and I met with the doctor again, and he assured us it was just a coincidence to have two patients wanting to find homes for their babies. We felt he was telling the truth, so we looked for an attorney. As it turned out, one of our neighbors down the street was a lawyer and agreed to handle all the legal work. Howard Parsons. I don’t think you ever knew him. They moved away when you were still a baby.”
My woozy head manages to acknowledge. As the phrases black market, telling the truth, changed her mind whirl in the air, I can’t help but register my mother’s casual tone of voice, as if this is a story she’s told on numerous occasions. And yet I can tell she’s nervous. She’s starting to say, “You know” more often.
“Anyway, he and Ann met with them a couple of times to sign some papers. I think Ann took them some things, you know, like blankets and baby clothes.”
Even with these scenes swirling, the question forms, “Why did Ann go?”
“Oh, there had to be a witness. You know, someone to verify that the right people were there when it was time to adopt you.”
Ann Einarson met my parents before I was born? My next-door neighbor? Who watched me grow up? I lean back with hands behind head, stare at Mom in disbelief, and try to resist the growing knot of agitation in my gut.
But she seems anxious to get it all out now, and anticipates my next inevitable question. “Ann said your mother and father seemed very nice. That they got along well, and had classical music playing when they were there. She also said they weren’t married. That when your mother got pregnant, your father had plans to move to New York. He was a musician and wanted to, you know, pursue a career there, but your mother didn’t want to move away. Apparently he left and then came back to be with her when you were born, so he must have cared about her.”
My heart wilts for a moment. My father cared about my mother, but apparently not about me. But he went to New York? He was a musician? I glance over at the music stand displaying Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Maybe that’s why the lessons began in second grade. For an instant, I love the idea of my father going off to New York. How exciting. How courageous. And then I’m disgusted. That he would leave after getting her pregnant. With me.
Dazed, I scramble for pen and paper, as these questionable events become my origins. “Mom, can you slow down a little? I think I need to write some of this down.” I can’t seem to shake this notion that I might not get up the nerve to ask about this again.
Like a reporter with pen poised, I go on the next question. A big question. “So what actually happened after I was born?” This may be the closest I ever get to my birth story. The story most everyone else takes for granted. The story I’ve never heard.
She pauses, one clenched hand covered by the other, and takes a deep breath. “Well, I was sick with the Asian flu that was going around then and wasn’t able to go to the hospital. Your Dad and Grandma and Ann went and picked you up. This was a few days after you were born. They brought you home; Grandma carried you in and then stayed to take care of you for a couple of weeks because I could barely get out of bed.” She pauses, stares off for a moment. “It was hard not to . . . ” Her voice cracks. “I didn’t get to see or hold you much. I just didn’t want to take a chance on getting you sick.”
When she turns back with watery eyes, I crumple a bit, unable to write, moved by her sorrow. It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen her upset, and the sight takes me back to the boy whose world was so easily shaken by it. How can I continue?
Yet the rush of the story floods and pushes me on. I realize I’ve always assumed she was there and could tell me what happened. Now the missing details seem important. What happened at the hospital? How will I ever find out? Grandma is gone. Dad is distant.
Composed again, and as if she can hear my thoughts, Mom continues, “You may want to talk to Ann. I had lunch with her a while back and mentioned that you might be calling to ask about this.”
“You did?” My mind bends into new shapes as I imagine her preparing for this from the moment she received my letter. It’s both comforting and unnerving. I slowly spin out, “Well, yeah, I probably will want to talk with her.”
This revelation transforms me into an eager interviewer. “Mom, when did Ann meet them? Where did they live? What else did they tell her?” It doesn’t seem possible I’ve lived thirty-two years without asking so many basic questions. How did they come to the decision to adopt? How did they feel about finding a baby by word of mouth? How did the rest of the family feel about this? These queries fire like cannonballs, and I can see she’s uncomfortable, rearranging herself in the chair once in a while, but she answers everything with no sign of feeling pummeled. That’s all I need to keep at it.
“So you had to go to court to finalize the adoption, right?”
“Yes. That was about six months after you were born. Otto Kerner was the judge. You know, the one that was later convicted of corruption and spent some time in jail.” I cringe as she takes on an air of fond memory. “I remember sitting in his huge office and holding you in my arms. Even your dad seemed in awe of him. I remember the judge leaning forward and saying, ‘Now remember, this is not a toy. You must take good care of him.’”
Astounded by his patronizing tone, I want to ask more about it, but Mom looks so nostalgic, so I simmer down and move on. “Tell me about those first few months. Was I easy or did I cry a lot?”
Mom sits back, relaxes a bit, and seems to enjoy sharing how thrilled they were to finally have a baby, how she read Dr. Spock’s books, how I was an easy child, especially compared to my little brother, adopted five years later. I’m not surprised. My brother and I could not be any more different. With warmth and pride, she tells me, “I used to put your crib by the living room picture window.” I’m grateful to know this, to feel loved and cared for, even as that scene begins to look like being on exhibit.
I sit back, stretch out my legs, and stare at the bookcase across the room, housing hundreds of my albums and books. I want to touch all of them and study each one to see if it still feels like me.
As the first lull ensues, my mother, drained of the tale she has held all these years, looks tired, unburdened, expectant. Part of me wants to forge ahead, or else hear everything she’s said over and over, like it’s a new bedtime story. But I know we’re done for now.
“Well Mom, this is a lot. It’s going to take some time to think about all this.” Then I feel compelled to say, “But I am glad you brought it all. I’m glad you told me everything.” As I sit up, I wonder if she’s glad.
She smiles slightly. “Yes. Well, I guess you have a right to know.” But then she sighs, and I can’t tell if it’s from relief or worry. “I think it’s time I go to bed.”
“Yeah, it’s getting late.” We both stand and fumble for a way to simply say good night. I lean over a little and give her a hug. “I guess I just wasn’t ready to ask until now.”
She holds on tight, then pulls away and gives me another small smile.
Neither of us finds words for our feelings, perhaps the most normal aspect of the entire evening.
This excerpt takes place three months after meeting my mother for the first time, ten months after finding her and making the first call. The setting is Costa Mesa, California, where my first mother Barb and sister Lori live. I am at this point staying with friends in West Hollywood for a few months, stopping in LA during my move from Kansas City to San Francisco to meet all these new family members.
Do I buy a gift or not buy a gift? Of course I buy a gift. Nobody goes to a birthday party without a gift, especially if it’s a surprise party, especially if it’s your mother’s, and especially if it’s your first birthday party with your first mother.
A new, taunting voice responds in my head, or is it leaking out with the Pier One Imports world-beat shopping music? But if you buy a gift, you’ll be saying, “I forgive you, everything is okay, all is normal now.” And you know you don’t feel that way yet.
As I pass the infinite varieties of candles and their holders from all over the planet, I silently counter, Yeah, but isn’t that my stuff? Not hers? And if I don’t buy a gift, she might be offended and think I hate her and not want to continue a relationship. I don’t hate her.
The voice answers, But don’t you want a relationship built on truth and honesty?
I finger the letter openers from Bali, squeeze the voodoo dolls from Haiti. So what should I do, walk in the door, slap her in the face and scream, “Goddammit, do you have any idea how much pain you have caused me?” then hug her and present a birthday gift?
If you buy her a gift, you’re being the good boy you’ve always been. And you know how much you’re growing to hate that.
I imagine chugging from the Irish coffee mugs, nesting in the pillows from Thailand. Yeah, but I also know deep down there is something really important about having a relationship with her, so buying her a gift is a step in that direction.
What about your other mother? You’ve bought her dozens of birthday gifts, flown from Kansas City to Chicago to be with her on her birthday, successfully executed a surprise sixty-fifth for her. Aren’t you betraying her if you buy a gift for Barb?
I wander the store in full silent chatter. Of course not. And I’m glad I did all those things. It’s true there was a tiny element of obligation, and a tiny feeling that her birthday gifts could never be enough for what she did for me.
You mean taking you in because this mother here would not keep you.
No. I mean because Mom devoted herself to being a mother. She made a wonderful home, and yes, Dad’s drinking caused lots of grief, but there were lots of great times too. And she’s grown to support me in whatever I do. I love her for that.
Yes, but again, all that happened because this mother here would not keep you.
Okay, yes. But maybe it was for the best. Who knows? Who cares? Look, I feel so many different ways, I can’t possibly sort it all out. All I can do is keep going from here. I can buy this silver photo frame, have it gift-wrapped, walk down to the Hallmark store, hope you don’t follow me, pass over every mother’s birthday card making some reference to having a past together, probably get a generic card, and continue on my way to the party. It’s her party. This is not about me.
Oh, I see. Not about you. Right. If you say so.
As I park and approach Apartment C2 for the sixth time in three months, I realize I’ve missed the surprise. Her car is here. Between putting in some Saturday morning overtime, dallying in the stores, and musing in my truck, I’m too late. Oh well. No big deal. I’ve already created enough surprises for her.
Feeling like I’m blending into a Salvador Dali painting, I make a subtle entrance this time, and receive warm hugs from Barb, Lori, Aunt Augie, and Aunt Pat. There are many others in the living room, kitchen and backyard. Cousins I’ve met. Others I haven’t. Lots of new faces.
Barb introduces me to the youngest and prettiest of the Shields cousins. “Patrick, this is Kim.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“You too.” She looks me over. “Another long lost cousin, eh?”
I chuckle, “Yeah,” and move on, wondering what she meant by “another.”
Barb takes me around, holding onto my arm, leaning in and confiding, “I had no idea. They really surprised me.” Some people like surprises. Some pretend to. Barb seems to have genuinely enjoyed this one.
She introduces me to the new faces, husbands, friends, and kids, and then I’m off on my own to mingle, something I can appear to be good at while trembling inside. I mingle amongst all these relatives, alternately feeling invisible, coated in neon, and somewhat normal. There is, however, nothing about this mingling that feels in any way casual.
I place my gift and card with all the others, grab a Calistoga, and meander outside to join “the men” gathered by the barbecue. Unable to muster any conversation much beyond how good that chicken smells, I wander back inside and mingle some more, casually smiling at people as I drift by. With a second Calistoga in hand, I notice an open chair next to Barb’s friends, settle in, and chat with them for a while. Women not related to me seem easier to relax around at this point.
One of them asks, “So Patrick, how long will you be in L.A.?”
“Oh, probably another month or two. I’m house-sitting a condo till early June. And then I’ll head up north to San Francisco.”
Barb has joined us. “I’ll wait for you to get settled up there and then come visit.”
“Yeah, that’ll be nice.” I don’t know why my heart both jumps with glee and hides behind the couch when I hear this. Of course I would like her to visit. But already I’m projecting that scene. Her actually staying with me. Spending lots of time together while that melting pot of feelings rests calmly, or simmers, or boils over.
As my Calistoga-soaked, trigger-sensitive bladder calls for attention once again, I excuse myself and head for the bathroom, recalling that Barb has done very little traveling. I wonder if she’d visit if I were moving to Seattle or New York. Surely. Probably. Maybe not. Stop thinking so damn much!
Cutting through the kitchen past the growing collection of potluck contributions, I mosey outside again, wishing I could get down on the ground and play with the kids. After another brief attempt to jaw with the guys, I glance down when one of the kids zooms past and am aghast to discover I have not zipped up my fly.
Horror of horrors, I’ve made a ridiculous faux pas. My eyes dart around to see if anyone’s noticed. Here I am, barely maintaining some sense of social decorum, and I’ve been walking around with my fly open. What will they think? Wow, that’s some new cousin. Where’d he come from? How was he raised? Immediately, I become the shy, self-conscious kid who often found himself embarrassed by confounding faux pas, not the least of which occurred at the eighth grade Halloween party, when after reluctantly eating sloppy joes, which always made me nauseous, the bottle spun to me, I kissed Peggy Karl and then threw up all over her. Back then, whenever I did something a little off-kilter, I took Mom’s perplexed look as disapproval. Now I wonder if it was also saying, “Where’d that come from? Where’d that really come from?”
I turn toward the fence, discreetly zip up, and slip back into the house vowing to cut down on Calistoga and make no more sojourns outside for a while.
“Uncle Patrick, can you load the film in my camera?” When I met my niece, she was called Nikki. Now she prefers Nicole. A lot can change in three months.
Loading film is something I can do. In fact, cameras have become a regular reference. Before I came down to visit last Sunday, Barb had asked me to bring mine to take pictures of her blooming cactus and other backyard plants because she can’t get close enough with hers. I was glad to do so, although surprising thoughts also floated through. Maybe she expects me to provide whatever talents and experience I have to offer, so often viewed as normal family behavior. Maybe I don’t feel we’re quite there yet, and therefore it feels like taking advantage. Maybe I should risk being viewed as petty, and bring it up. Maybe nothing in this dance will ever escape endless analysis.
I have my camera today. I always bring it here. It allows me to become a detached documenter, an artist on a shoot, a portrait photographer. But loaded with precious black-and-white film, I will shoot only three photos during this gathering. One of Barb, forgetting she’s fifty-five, jumping rope with one of the kids, and two posed group portraits, the kind that make the artist in me cringe, but are just begging to be taken.
While sitting next to Lori for a bit, a friend of hers looks us over. “You know, if I saw you two on the street, I’d definitely think you were related. You look so much alike.”
This pleases me. I love hearing this. If I had a megaphone, I’d be shouting into it, “Okay everybody, did you hear that? Someone says Lori and I look alike.”
Lori, however, says, “Really?” She almost seems surprised. Is it possible she doesn’t see it? Or is it possible that looking like this new brother is somehow unsettling? Maybe she hasn’t been wondering about this for decades like I have.
The chicken legs and wings are flying off the barbecue and onto the kitchen table to join the baked beans, corn on the cob, chips, and Bud’s seven-layer bean dip. All my life, beans of the baked or refried variety have made me almost as queasy as sloppy joes, but I dig in anyway. I don’t want to offend. I want to fit in.
Realizing I have talked with no one for any length of time, I remind myself that parties are like that. Not every gathering has to result in long, personal, one-on-one conversations. But another part of me is screaming, This is my first birth-family party. I want to have long, personal, one-on-one conversations with every single person here. I want to ask them all about the family, and especially the father I’ll never meet.
As the cake’s single large candle is lit, this voice is drowned out by the energetic chorus of “Happy Birthday,” which I join through to the last line. “Happy birthday dear . . . ” For a split-second I don’t know what to call her, “Barbara,” the woman who gradually took on an identity during the search, or “Barb,” the woman who is now making every effort to deal with the past and include me in this family, or “Mom,” the woman who couldn’t remember the day of my birth. She is someone to everyone here. Sister, sister-in-law, aunt, great-aunt, grandma, friend, mother. At this moment, I don’t know who she is to me. “Happy birthday dear Barb, Happy birthday to you.”
She takes a deep breath with her secret wish behind momentarily distant eyes and blows out the candle to the cheers of everyone gathered around. The homemade cheesecake is sliced and distributed as Barb settles on to the couch next to her cards and gifts. In between pieces of cake, she opens them gradually. My fork begins to fidget.
She chooses card after card, gift after gift, and mine sit. It seems every card being passed around is of the kidding-about-old-age type, the kind that to me do little to make someone feel good about aging. I had almost purchased one because it seemed like Barb’s style, then passed over it for my style, a serious card wearing a quote from Goethe about the essence of happiness.
She could not have intentionally saved my card and gift for last. I know she didn’t see me put them in the pile. Finally, she opens the envelope, reads the card and looks at me, her face relaxing into a small, warm smile. She must like it. But then she puts it down, decidedly not passing it around with the others. I wonder if it’s because it’s too different, or if it’s too personal.
By the time she’s unwrapping the gift, I’m just about holding my breath. Such a simple, common event, and I’m as nervous as a suitor making a first attempt at a pleasing gesture. She holds it up. “Oh, thank you. That’s sooooo great. It’s so nice and solid.” Every word is emphasized. “I can use it for a family photo.” Breathing again, I wonder if maybe her secret wish was the same photo I fantasize about: Barb Shields with all her five children.
When Lori sees the frame, she says, “Oh, perfect,” as if she’d been wondering what this new family member would buy for a first birthday gift.
Barb looks at me again with gratitude, her eyes beginning to well up.
“You’re welcome,” is all I can say, as my heart opens a little more.
As she holds the frame to her chest, her face and eyes tell me she understands what I’m really saying: With this gift, I’m beginning to forgive, understand, and heal.
By six o’clock, the party is winding down, and I’m ready to leave. I had planned to avoid staying late, and I am sticking to my plan. So often, I am the last to leave, hanging on and on. At this event, I want to be a guest who arrives and leaves like everyone else.
Hands are shaken, hugs are exchanged, and as Barb walks me out to my truck, that notion of being like everyone else evaporates. Instantly I am aware of the difference in being alone with her, so rare thus far. It’s as if the shy little boy, the confused teenager, and muddling adult I am all want to blurt out a lifetime of unspoken words but have no idea how to begin. When I’m alone with her, I feel bowled over inside, in a trance state, edgy, yet at the same time, as serene as the surface of a lake on a windless spring day.
She shakes her head. “Man, what a surprise. I never expected this. And for you to come down. That made it so special.” Her right arm wraps around my left.
We are strolling along a paved driveway at dusk with the Newport Freeway buzzing in the background, but might as well be alone in a quiet, wooded park. “So will you be coming for Easter?”
“Let’s see, that’s in two weeks. Yeah, I think I can make it.”
She squeezes my arm. “Oh good. That’ll be nice.”
I glance at her. “You know, your birthday is also kind of a special day for me, too.” She raises her eyebrows a hair. “It was on your birthday one year ago that I got what turned out to be your birth certificate. That coincidence made me feel like I was on the right track. And now, here I am.”
She smiles and sighs. “It’s strange, all the dates. You calling on the anniversary of my mother’s death. Did I tell you that earlier that day, I had a little ritual?”
“You mentioned thinking about her, but not a ritual.”
“Yeah, after so many years of hating my mother for dying when I was a kid, I finally let go of her. I kinda look at it like coming to terms with her death made room for a birth.”
“That’s really amazing.” By now we have reached my truck and she is facing me, both of us beginning to linger. “It’s almost impossible to go through all this and not believe in some sort of spirit world.”
She grabs my hands. “Thank you again for the gift. It’s just really special.”
I give her a hug, a long one, as long as I can handle, because I’m accepting the fact that no matter how I feel about her now or what happened in the past, I truly need this as much as food and water. Ahhh. Home. I can rest now.
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