Technically I suppose every mother is a birth mother, since she gives birth. The term birth mother, however, is reserved for those women, usually unmarried, who relinquish their children to be raised by others. Typically, relinquishment is shortly after birth; some birth mothers don't even get the opportunity to see and hold their babies. In some instances, under difficult personal circumstances or by court order, a woman may relinquish a child past infancy.

The reasons women give up their children are varied. Some women are able to take an altruistic view with respect to their own abilities to care for a child. Other women are pressured or coerced into signing relinquishment papers. The circumstances have varied over the years as society's attitude and approach to out-of-wedlock pregnancy has changed.

I 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.

It 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 or cruel.

And 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.

That was their special power.

 __________

 

Loneliness 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.

I 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.

We 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.

One 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 me.

The 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.

Until my mom and the school custodian found me. Ground control, it turned out, was very upset.

 

 __________

 

I 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 with an IQ typical of that position. 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.

I 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.

One 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.

Gee, what fun, and no thanks.

So 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.

Instinct, 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.

So 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.

How 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.

And 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.

Think 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 stranger.

The quiet, dark box seemed so much safer, really.

 

 __________

 

I 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.

I 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.

Then 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 in touch.

I wrote her back. Time passed. The new year came around. No new letter arrived. Was that it?

That 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.

We both kept getting cold feet.

One 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.

She called a week later to say that maybe we should wait a bit more.

Fortunately 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.

 

 __________

 

My mother and I couldn't go into the restaurant for breakfast yet. Not until we dealt with the dead cat.

She 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.

It 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.

After 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.

Over 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 that mattered.

 

 __________

 

I 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.

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