Latching the narrow gray locker, I slip the curly plastic band with its tiny key over my wrist. My hands shake as I retie the over-laundered smock with its opening in the front. In the waiting area, I join several women dressed in matching hospital gowns. They thumb through outdated magazines or stare at the overhead TV. Neither of which I do. Instead of being here, I wish that I were walking along Hinsdale’s streets bursting with purple magnolias and dainty redbuds.
Perching on a vinyl chair, I squeeze my eyes shut, not in a light dreamy way, but willfully to stem a spray of tears. I think about my twin sister and wonder why she’s escaped the threatening female health issues I face. For the first time in years, I consider my closed adoption and wonder how my biological background factors into the six areas of concern in my right breast. I pick up the chain of prayers that I began after last week’s suspicious mammogram.
When I return from Walgreens after the procedure, Steve’s sedan occupies the prime spot under the porte cochere by the side door. I park my Buick behind his car and skirt around both, being extra careful not to jostle my right side. The heavy wooden side door complains as I lean into it. Inside, I breathe in the smell of the old house—the lemony scent of furniture polish and the sweet mustiness of the drapes and carpets. It feels so good to be home. Steve calls out to me from the front of the house.
Kicking off my loafers, I avoid the creaky spots in the wood floor as I head toward his office. I expect to find my husband seated behind the antique desk. He’ll either be deep in thought, gazing out at the brick street, or sorting and paying bills on his computer. In the doorway, I finger the crinkly prescription bag in my hands.
His high-back desk chair swivels away from the computer screen. “How did it go?”
“Not my best day.” Lifting the sleeve of my red sweater, I swipe at a tear.
It’s a few seconds before I realize that my husband of twenty-three years is not rising out of his chair to offer me a careful hug. I can’t believe this. I need his compassion right now. After all I’ve been through today, and now this infuriating insensitivity. My anger flares, and I move closer to his desk. Gripping the edge of the big desk, I spare no detail as I fill him in on my breast biopsy.
“It was just me . . . alone . . . with the nurse and doctor in a cold, dark room . . . in the basement of La Grange Hospital. I bled each time the needle pierced my boob. Three tries to get it right.” I scowl at him over his computer.
Adrenaline from my rant courses through my system. Still he doesn’t get up. I’m shaking with indignation and hurt. I imagine there’s spittle forming on my lower lip. One benefit of being a twin is that you know what you look like when you laugh or let hell fly.
As I wind down, my voice whines. “Waiting five days for biopsy results is inhumane.”
Steve leans away from the desk, tilting his chair back. I read something in the dark eyebrows that lift into his receding
4 Julie Ryan McGue
hairline. I’m too spent to wonder about his expression. All I want is sympathy.
“Sounds like I should have gone with you then.” His chair twists ever so slightly.
“I should’ve insisted.” I head for the foyer. “I’m getting an icepack and going upstairs.”
Steve’s reply hits my back. “Are you ready to get at your medical history now?”
As I turn to face Steve, the staple on the prescription bag scratches my palm. “What are you saying?”
His eyes meet mine. “It’s time, Julie. You’ve been delaying this for years. Get your adoption records. Access your family medical history. We have four kids to consider.”
I blink. His ultimatum whipsaws me. We haven’t had a serious conversation about my closed adoption for a very long time. Not since I sent that letter to the adoption agency eighteen years ago. Since then, my “mystery genes” have become an inside joke, a good-natured riddle that has gifted three of our children with the skill to play college sports. I’ve been fine without knowing where all that talent came from. Well, sort of.
“You really want to talk about locating my birth parents now? After I’ve had a biopsy? You have terrible timing.”
My husband’s bent on honesty at all costs, a result of his military background, is a trait I usually respect and appreciate. Not today.
As I storm toward the stairs, a stream of silent, angry excuses ricochet in my head. I don’t need this stress right now. There are loads of people who don’t have a family medical history. It’s not like I haven’t tried to look into my adoption.
When I was thirty, my twin sister Jenny and I sent a letter to Catholic Charities in Chicago requesting information about our adoption that occurred in 1959. A month later, we received a one-page reply: Nothing can be shared at this time. When I wrote that letter back in the 1980s, Illinois adoption statutes favored the rights of birth and adoptive parents over those of adopted children and adults. Powerless to access personal information from my closed adoption file, I moved on. Eighteen years later and halfway through raising a family of four, I’ve grown content with the course of my life. Why invite uncertainty and trouble to dinner? To be honest, I haven’t been that hungry. Besides, I have my people, the ones who wanted me, me and my twin sister both.
I can’t recall when I first learned that I’m adopted. I seem always to have known. Yet my adoption wasn’t a topic tossed around the dinner table like the White Sox’s standings, or Grandma Mimi’s health. What I do remember is that on a handful of occasions, my parents pulled my sister and me into the living room for a private talk. By the second or third time this checking-in occurred, Jenny and I guessed what was in the offing. Our parents would sit stiffly next to one another on the sofa, avoiding our eyes and stealing looks at one another. In these chats, Mom and Dad professed their support should we ever want to look into our roots, but I had the sense that they were muttering a script given to them by a social worker.
Jenny and I were happy kids, and we knew we had a good situation. Strict but kind, our folks weren’t shy about telling us how much we meant to them. They encouraged us to take on challenges, and often they had to make sacrifices to make opportunities available to us. I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t praised for an achievement or a good deed. Throughout my forty-eight years, whenever I’ve contemplated looking into my adoption, the little voice inside has wagged its finger: You’ll be sorry. They’ll think they haven’t been good parents.
Trudging into the master bedroom, I avoid Steve’s side of the bed and slip under the king-sized comforter. My temples throb from the spat, and the icepack on my chest does little to dull the ache there. Despite my desire to drift off and postpone thinking about all that the day has ushered in, I reach for the phone. When my call goes to voice mail, I figure that my twin sister is caught up on a work call.
I lie still for several more minutes, debating, and then dial my mother. “Hey, Mom. How’s Dad doing today?” I listen to her answer. “I’m glad. He looked better to me the other day. Do you have a second?” I take a big painful breath. “So . . . to solve a disagreement I’m having with Steve. You know how you’ve always said you’d help Jenny and me if we wanted to look into our adoption. Well, I’d like to get a hold of my medical background. To do that, I need whatever information you and Dad have in your files.”
I blurt all this out, hoping I’ve muted the stuffiness in my voice.
“Oh . . . my.” In Mom’s two-word reply, I hear a chasm open. The deep crevice that is my adoption splits the common ground on which we’ve stood for forty-eight years.
Mom clears her throat, but her voice catches. “Of course.” Pause. “I’ll talk to your dad when he gets back from physical therapy.” She swallows hard. “Is everything all right?”
While I may not have my mother’s genes, she’s schooled me well in the fine art of pretending. Mom doesn’t let on that she knows I’ve been crying or that I’ve just pulled the proverbial rug out from under her. In turn, I haven’t mentioned today’s biopsy—something I plan to reveal later on, if necessary. These matters aside, I can no longer pretend that being adopted is no big deal.
“I’m okay. Steve’s point is that I’ll be fifty in a few years, so I shouldn’t delay.” The pain in my chest is building, and I can’t wait to get off the phone.
Mom’s sigh is heavy. “We’ll pull out what we have. It’s been here for the asking, you know.” With these words, I become that shy, anxious-to-please lanky girl who traded looks with her twin through veils of light brown bangs.
“Thanks, Mom. I’ll stop by later in the week. Love you.” As I hang up, I hope my heartfelt “Love you” is enough to temper the shock of what I’ve just asked for.
Next to the phone, I grab the prescription bottle and force down a pain pill. As I sink into the pillows, my mother’s final comment hits me like a shattering gust of February wind. Damn. My fist slams into the down comforter, sending shock waves of fluff bounding toward my feet. What a setup. By having me ask for my adoption papers, my folks would know exactly when it was I planned to launch an adoption search. Oh, man! Why couldn’t they have turned them over to me when I turned twenty-one, or when I got married at twenty-five? I picture my parents later this evening, sharing a glass of wine, disappointment and unrest souring their day. I tell myself, None of this is your fault.
The hallway clock strikes three as a welcome lightness descends from the crown of my head and crawls the length of my spine. Two tough conversations have followed a breast biopsy. Even though I’m battling to keep my eyes open, I detect a heavy tread on the stairs. I twist toward the bedroom door that never seems to stay shut. Steve peeks through the crack.
I smile benignly at him. “I’ll have the adoption records later this week.”
He steps around to my side of the bed. Looking up at him, I reposition the ice pack on my breast and pull the comforter to my chin. “Can you order Chinese for dinner?”
Steve’s fingers enveloping mine are a truce. “Sure thing. You’ll be glad you did this, you know.”
A tear sneaks out from my closed eyes.
The kiss he plants on my brow is gentle, tender. “Get some rest. I got the kids covered. Dinner, too.”
Steve retreats around the stubborn bedroom door, and I think about my families. I grew up in a household where pretending was the prevailing wind, yet I married a man whose core has room only for honesty. Pretending as a way of managing life is in sharp contrast with the tone that we foster in our busy household of six. Honesty can be difficult to face, and it’s often ill-timed like today. There is one good thing about being candid, though; it doesn’t leave any room for second-guessing.
Glancing around the bedroom I love, I take in the ceiling medallion that looks like whipped cream, the egg-and-dart moldings that edge the plaster walls, and the painted pine fireplace surround. This is the second vintage house in the same Chicago suburb that we’ve renovated and restored. I reflect on my obsession with old homes, their history and furnishings—things that possess a rich provenance. As I lie here, it occurs to me that perhaps my obsession is not simply with old houses, but a subconscious yearning to own things that have a concrete pedigree. Because of my closed adoption, I have no sense of my personal history. For the second time today, anger sparks. Why have I put up with this? Every person deserves to know all they can about who they are.
I toss the lukewarm ice pack to the carpet and squeeze my eyes shut, determined to rest, but my mind snarls with questions. Why did it take a breast biopsy for me to get serious about challenging my adoption, and how will my adoptive parents deal with the search as it rolls out? I wonder too if my husband is right. Will I be glad one day that I set all this in motion?