used to imagine, when I was maybe six or seven years old, a safe place, the safest
place, and what it would be like. Underground, a kind of fort. It wouldn't be large,
just big enough to lie down in comfortably. I imagined being able to touch all the
walls and ceiling at once from a reclining position. And no light. Snug, dark, and quiet. That would be perfect. No one could reach me there. It
would be in no way marked and so then impossible for anyone else to find. That was
my fondest fantasy.
wasn't until I was fully grown up and thought back on this that
I realized what I had been envisioning was something like a coffin in an anonymous
grave. But it felt comforting then.
It might help to understand that I wasn't looking for a place that was safe from monsters,
or from more natural threats like fires or tornados. I just wanted
a place to be alone. To be safe from people.
My little underground hideaway seemed ideal for that. No one around me appeared
to know it, but people were often worse than monsters anyway. And they were certainly
worse than disasters, which were at least impersonal and not in any sense malevolent
monsters, of course, looked like monsters. They had scales, or slime, and often
an odd, not an even number of eyes. It was a dead giveaway. Easy to spot and run
from ordinary monsters. Human monsters, on the other hand, were insidiously normal
in their appearance.
was their special power.
was the great enemy of the astronaut. I had heard this somewhere, maybe on a television
news story about the US space program. To cross great distances in empty space in
tiny metal cans with no company to cheer them up or help keep them occupied--this,
I had somehow come to understand, was the great obstacle in space exploration. This
immense psychological barrier stood out among all those other mundane technological
challenges like oxygen supply, and food, and propellant, and not being fried by Van Allen Belt radiation. To be alone, all alone, in a cramped, dark box in the silent
vacuum of space. That was the real challenge.
seemed exquisitely suited for the job. I didn't need people.
In my first grade class at Mary E. Silvera grade school, we
built--or rather my teacher and someone's dad built--a mockup of a Mercury space capsule. It was made
of plywood and festooned inside with dials and knobs and rows of toggle switches.
children took turns sitting in it, quietly and alone. How long could you endure it? was really the big question as far as I was concerned. Were you one of the special
few who could stand the isolation without cracking up? Did you have what it takes
to cross the vast emptiness to another planet? I thought I did.
recess I crept into the mock capsule instead of out with the other children onto
the playground. And I sat. I sat still and quiet with only my imagination to comfort
school day ended. Somehow I was not missed when class was dismissed and the other
children went home. I sat still and quiet. The minutes turned to hours. And in my
mind the hours turned to days, and weeks and months. The stoic astronaut soldiered
on in the dark reaches of space. Further than any human had ever been.
my mom and the school custodian found me. Ground control, it turned out, was very upset.
have never been inclined to close and extended contact with a lot of other humans--none
really, outside of a small clique I bonded with in my teens. This by now should
be clear. I've been diagnosed as ranking fairly high on the positive end of the Aspergers spectrum. And so it was an action in contradiction to my deeper nature that put
me face to face with my birth mother out in Connecticut last week. This was an exploratory
expedition more psychologically dangerous than the imaginary trip to mars I'd made
in first grade. And more frightening by a long shot.
was given up for adoption by her at age three days. I never felt slighted by that.
I knew that many children were unplanned, for one thing, so they were in no sense
chosen by their own biological parents. They had, quite literally, been thrust upon
those two people. I, on the other hand, had been fervently wanted by my adopted
parents. They've both been gone for some years now.
more reason I didn't resent my birth mother for not keeping me: the whole
idea of not wanting to be or not feeling capable of being a parent didn't seem at
all unreasonable. No, I could very easily relate to that sensibility. Having children
always seemed to me like having extra sets of arms and legs that you couldn't control,
but through which you could still feel pain. All the pain, from a tiny scratch to
an amputation without anesthesia.
what fun, and no thanks.
again, I was not exactly what you'd call a people person looking to expand my vast
circle of acquaintances. Why I eventually sought out my birth mother then is something
of a mystery even to me. I can take some educated guesses at it, though.
I suppose, was the main drive. A salmon probably couldn't tell you, if it could
speak, why it leaves the freedom of the great ocean and feels compelled to battle
upstream to the confines of some narrow shallows where it was conceived. It just
must go, and that's all. At some point I simply had to do this. We humans don't
like to think of ourselves as being driven by instinct; we're not mere animals,
after all. We're separated from the beasts, we like to tell ourselves, by intellect
and powers of conceptualization, by language, by humor, by a sense of morality and
compassion and on and on and on the list goes. But as one comic I knew once put
it, the thing that really separates man from the animals is simply a fence.
yes, instinct probably explains much of it. And plain ego likely explains the rest.
What I was looking for in my mother was, of course, more of me. I recall clearly
when I first saw a picture of her thinking, ah,
that's where my nose and chin came from. That might sound ridiculously
obvious to someone who grew up in a biological family sharing genes and genome like
bread and butter at the dinner table. But for a person who had not once in his entire
lifetime ever even seen a blood relative? It was something of a revelation.
much more of me was really just her, I wondered? And that naturally led to another
question: how much of her was simply a familial trait from farther up the line?
A trait being instantiated, being in the original sense incorporated, once again in an individual?
I wanted very much to know that. It might explain a lot.
so when I found my mother's full name inadvertently included on a medical release
among the adoption papers that came in to my possession over a decade ago, I was
thrilled. That is until I thought about actually contacting her. Because that would
mean getting closer than close to someone I didn't even know.
about it, what closer bond is there really than mother and child? That was truly
Intimate with that capital "I". Now imagine sharing that bond with a complete
quiet, dark box seemed so much safer, really.
wrote my birth mother a letter in February, three years ago. In it I said in essence:
hello, I'm doing well. I'm here. And if this is also goodbye, I wish you well and
no hard feelings.
Then I waited. A week. A month. Two months. Six months.
gave up on hearing from her. She obviously wanted to leave the past in the past.
I accepted that, knowing all along that it was one of several possible outcomes
of my reaching out. And secretly I was relieved.
late that same year the Christmas card arrived with a letter. A nice lady, intelligent
and kind, apologized for not writing sooner. She told me she was practically phobic
regarding record keeping and most paper work. Oddly, or not so oddly, so am I. She had lost the letter I sent her
with my return address. She might have ADHD, she thought. She invited me to stay
wrote her back. Time passed. The new year came around. No new letter arrived. Was
second year she called me in December on my birthday. We talked about my coming
out to Connecticut to meet her. And ... another year went by. We spoke a couple more
times on the phone. We talked again about my coming out
to meet her.
both kept getting cold feet.
day I simply realized that I would never forgive myself for not finding the courage to fly out there. I set the date with her blessing and bought the ticket.
called a week later to say that maybe we should wait a bit more.
it was a non-refundable ticket, so there was nothing really to discuss. I was coming
out there. Whatever would happen would happen. There was no hiding in the dark,
close space from this. This connection was going to be completed.
mother and I couldn't go into the restaurant for breakfast yet. Not until we dealt
with the dead cat.
had passed it in the road on her way to the little Greek diner where I was to meet her. It might belong to someone, that dead cat, and if it continued to lie in the
road it would get mangled beyond recognition. Its owners would not recognize its body at the pound. I asked the restaurant owner for a garbage bag and we set out to move
the cat off the road.
We relocated the cat. She
was businesslike about getting it over to the roadside, not squeamish. But it saddened her. She loved cats. She
kept twenty-six of them at home as part of a stray cat no-kill shelter she runs. She cared for many more in surrounding neighborhoods
too. She had live trapped and fixed most of them, to keep the population down. My
wife and I did the same ourselves around our own neighborhood. Catch, fix, release
programs are the best, most humane way to deal with wild cat populations. I'd done
this before I ever learned my mother did it as well.
was not the only thing we had in common. She'd aspired to be in showbiz. I was in
it. She'd fought debilitating depression. So had I. And we were both left handed and red-headed.
a day of making rounds with her, feeding cats and talking for hours, we said goodnight.
I kissed her on the cheek and asked if I could call her "mom." She had been calling
me "dear" for some time already. She was okay with that.
the next three days we traded histories. We could have talked about the weather
and it would have been as lovely, I'm sure. I was there with her and that's all
called her a few days after the visit. Heavy snows had fallen, and the road to the
back of the Stratford Inn had not been plowed. Seventy-five years old, and she had just trudged
through three foot drifts to reach the cats back there who depended on her.
I love my mother. I love being connected to this warm and caring person. I don't worry now about the inevitable pain that comes along with this joy, the pain that comes with any human connection. As Bob Marley once said, you just have to find the ones worth suffering for.