There she stood about six steps off of the road at the end of a driveway. She was standing there waiting to meet me.
Is this really happening? Because if it is, it is more than wild.
All of my life I knew of this woman, Mary. Mary, my adoptive mother’s second cousin and my birth mother, only lived cities away—physically. In my mind, she may as well have lived across several oceans. If I had had my introverted way, I would’ve been invisible until the time I had taken in every detail about her into my memory. Before I could work it all out in my mind or hold onto one detail, I was in Mary’s embrace. Right there on the side of the street where the grass met the gravel was our meeting place. She had long hair rolled up in a bun but the rest of the details of those first few minutes are hard for me to recall.
That was the Saturday after Spring Break: the September before I had turned thirty-five. For reasons that still play out in my mind, I decided to reach out to Mary at this time. I sent a letter in the mail. She received it on my birthday, exactly thirty-five years after she gave birth to me in a hospital next to the Gulf of Mexico. I carefully, but quickly, wrote words on several pieces of 5×7 paper, stuffed them in a kraft paper envelope, and sent them off. I knew if it didn’t happen quickly I’d lose my nerve.
About a week later I received a letter back. Her words, written in cursive, made this person who had only lived in my imagination a real-live human being. Mary was real and she wrote real words to me which began with, My Dearest Debra.
The letter led to a phone call which then led to several more phone calls, most of which were about nothing in particular. She would ask questions about my kids and/or my parents. We would laugh at the way she and my parents came up with an adoption plan. Suffice it to say, it was unconventional. The phone calls led to requests to meet in person. And then, unexpectedly, right before she was having to relocate out of state, we met.
From our meeting place in the front yard of her oldest daughter’s—my biological big sister’s—home, we went into the living room. Cousins were meeting and hugging for the first time. Everyone was sizing each other up to see if we, in fact, were related. We never stared long enough to really know if we favored the other. However, I do recall a funny comment about how my cousins had, “Cleaned like The Queen was coming to visit.” I laughed because I would’ve done the same. That day, I only had a few precious minutes alone with Mary. We had gone to the beach and it was a bit chilly for both of us. We walked back to the parking lot and sat in my car. Me in the driver’s seat and her in the passenger seat. I asked her about a name she had tattooed on her arm. Other than that I don’t really recall what we spoke about. That fact alone is unreal. Remembering, taking in every detail, is kinda my thing. It’s how I make my way in the world. I see. I tell.
It was getting dark so everyone else made their way to the parking lot and it was time to say goodbye. We were all sandy and cold and saying the most awkward “see ya laters”. When it was mine and Mary’s time to say goodbye we hugged, but not like before. I vividly recall her locking me in her arms. Once the average hug time had passed something in me said to not pull away, but to let her hold onto me. And she held for a while. And then it was over. I piled in my car after, each of my four kids and husband, and then I looked straight ahead and sighed in relief. I felt happiness, awkwardness, joy and every other emotion.
Mary was soon on her way to her new state to live with her youngest daughter, and my biological little sister. While there she continued to call me during reading breaks and while sitting on the patio of her new apartment. She would tell me about the books, their characters, and what she liked about them. She would tell me stories of her grandkids and maybe a bit about her childhood. Honestly, I loved the calls, and I also hated them. It took so much energy to get to know this stranger that was my mother. I would giggle to my husband over the way she would say my name. The first syllable drawn out long and the second quick. Still, when she called I answered. And if I missed a call, I would call back the same day, or the next.
Then, there was a missed call alert sat on my phone. I will call tomorrow, I thought. Until, I got a call in the middle of the night. Mary had been rushed to the hospital and was on life support after an aneurysm in her brain. She would not be waking up. The family was being instructed to come.
The family: that now included me.
Should I go? I made a quick call to my mom who raised me and asked her what I should do. She gave me some of the wisest words I will ever know: You will never regret going, but you may regret not going. You should go.
The next day I stood at the end of her hospital bed, with my husband by my side, and said all the important things one thinks to say. Every once in a while her foot would move, but doctors said this was just a reflex. This time I was able to study her while she lay in that hospital bed. Ironically, the way I had imagined her all of my days. In a hospital bed, only not with tubes at her side, but with me as a baby.
Eighty-two days after I met her she unexpectedly passed away. My thirty-fifth birthday was the last birthday I had when she was living. It was also the one when I felt prompted to write to her. Doing so did not answer all of my questions, nor did it heal all of my wounds. It was, however, one of the most profound experiences of my days. And, I believe it was one of Mary’s as well.
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