The Loss

Some things you probably don’t know about adoption

Denise Clemen
Human Parts

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Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

A baby boy in a grubby t-shirt and a sodden diaper totters down a Los Angeles sidewalk. My husband and I are out for a walk on a Saturday morning, and there isn’t another person in sight. I pick the boy up. Wrap him in my arms.

The kid is maybe 18-months old, and his diaper leaks onto my sweatshirt as we ring the doorbell at the nearest house. “Probably one of theirs,” the woman who answers says, pointing to a house across the street. We knock. After several moments the door edges open, revealing a woman with a troop of children behind her. She plucks the boy from my arms, plops him onto her hip, and slams the door.

My son is older than this tiny boy. My son is seven now. Most likely, he can ride a bike, read, ask for help. My son is not this lost baby. But I reel from the primitive terror of finding a toddler alone on the sidewalk and knowing that if my son has ever gotten lost, if any harm has befallen him these years we’ve been apart, I was not there, and never will be there, to help him. My son was born in Iowa in 1970 when I was 17. These days, I don’t know where he is. I don’t know his name. I lost him to adoption.

As my husband and I walk silently back to our apartment, our quiet neighborhood feels beset with menace. Loss lurks behind hedges and waits in the shadows. On this sunny Saturday I don’t know that I will find other lost children and return them safely to their families. What I know is that my son is lost.

My son was six weeks old the afternoon I packed everything I owned into my father’s Oldsmobile. The trunk and back seat were crammed with the possessions of my teenage life, and I had seen my baby only once — at the adoption agency office. This meeting was an exception to the way adoption worked in 1970. These babies were normally whisked away in the delivery room, gone forever. But I insisted I would not sign the papers until I held my son. No one warned me that a single encounter would do nothing to ease the ache of leaving him behind.

The next morning before my parents drove me to college my boyfriend came over to say good-bye. He held and kissed, not a 17-year-old girl, but a dull husk of one. Only my memory remained sharp, stuck like a needle in the groove of my good-bye with our son, and I could not move ahead to the good-bye with the boy I’d dated nearly all of high school.

My father’s shiny 1970 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight was a luxury sedan. Air conditioning. Power windows. Plush upholstery. I sat between my parents in the roomy front seat, a soundproof chamber, insulated from the hum of the road. The new me awaited, a day’s drive away, while the present me was lost like the hour every spring when the clocks jump forward. Outside the rolling cornfields gave way to Minnesota’s birch trees and glistening lakes. Inside all of us hoped my past could be driven away from as easily as the Iowa countryside, receding in the rearview mirror. Mile after mile after mile, not one of us mentioned the baby.

My father parked near my dorm and handed me only the smaller suitcases in the red American Tourister set that my mother finagled as a graduation gift with cigarette coupons and trading stamps. As far as I knew, my parents, with their eighth-grade educations, had never before visited a college campus or seen a dormitory. The three of us threaded through the commons area past the buzz of parents and daughters and crowded into the elevator.

We piled my belongings on the bare bed and empty desktop. Here was the new beginning the adoption agency social worker had told me about. On the wall at the agency there’d been a poster — Today is the first day of the rest of your life, the caption proclaimed while a yellow hot air balloon rose into a perfect sky.

“Be a good girl,” my father said as he hugged me good-bye.

“That will be easy,” I said, wanting to tell him that I had been good — that there was only that one time in the backseat of my boyfriend’s car, and even then we didn’t go all the way. But I could barely understand how it had happened, much less explain the particulars to my father.

“Math major,” my roommate said as she rushed in, gushing her introduction. Five brothers and sisters! How fun it would be some weekend for her to drive me home to their farm up near the Canadian border! “I’ll take you snowmobiling!” she said. I saw myself flying over pristine snowdrifts under a bright winter sky. I saw myself lost in a blizzard, walking into the white. Gone.

Fall ticked by in a mush of soggy leaves. Other girls whirled through keggers, dances, and parties, but I planted myself at my desk, blinking into my textbooks. At night my secret past burdened my dreams, and some mornings I couldn’t pull myself out of bed. Other mornings I found myself on a path in the woods, the façade of the new me falling away to reveal a mother, grieving the loss of her child. Under a tree, I spread out a blanket and wrapped myself in it like a shroud.

Thanksgiving, then Christmas. Both times I went home to Iowa. Both times I had my wisdom teeth extracted. My mother slipped into my room with soup and ice cream, then tiptoed out. When my boyfriend came over we parked ourselves in front of the old black and white television in our basement. We did not mention the baby.

Back at college January inched by. My baby was six months old.

February. Frigid and white. March.

Then spring. Crocuses poked their heads through flowerbeds crusted with dirty snow. Trees blossomed, and the next day the blossoms were encased in ice. I walked and watched brown and white and gray transform to yellow and green. In the woods there was a lake where a great blue heron rose out of the rushes a mere six feet from where I lay on the ground. My baby was 10 months old.

Summer at home in Iowa I was like a child who had wandered into a cornfield. Everything looked familiar, but I was lost, my heart turning in circles. Only my parents and boyfriend knew about my baby. Not my boyfriend’s parents. Not my sister. Not my brothers. No trusted friend or teacher. I spent the last weeks of my pregnancy hidden deep in the countryside with a foster family. My carefully concocted cover story had held, and now I was alone with all of it.

My father pulled a midnight blue Chevy Malibu convertible from his used car lot and dropped the keys into my palm. Top down, my long dark hair snapping behind me, I drove, radio blaring, to summer classes at a college 20 miles away. I wanted to feel glamorous and good. I wanted release, but my hair wove itself into knots and Iowa’s dark grit stuck to my pale, sunburned skin.

Sophomore year. I needed the back surgery we’d put off for years. My pregnancy worsened the scoliosis I was diagnosed with when I was 12, and the curve in my spine twisted my rib cage, crowding my heart and left lung. After a six-hour surgery and a month in the hospital, I returned to college, encased from chin to hips in a heavy plaster cast. Two weeks later, having been persuaded to a party in a friend’s room, I missed a phone call from my mother. When I returned the dormitory monitor came to my door with a message. My father was dead of a heart attack.

After the funeral a friend shut his car door on my right hand and broke all my fingers. Lumbering around campus in my body cast with my hand now splinted and wrapped, I looked like the victim of a terrible accident. This is nothing, I wanted to tell the people with the pitying looks, it’s the hurt you can’t see that’s killing me.

It had been 18 months since I’d given up my son, and my body had taken on the job of representing my heart. My broken fingers throbbed; I limped from the bone graft that had been taken from my hip to form the spinal fusion; the scar that ran the length of my spine was still tender in a slow to heal spot between my shoulder blades. Bronchitis, tonsillitis, a red and runny nose. A wreck.

At the start of junior year I remained encased in plaster but by mid-November I lay on a gurney with a circular saw gnawing through my cast. I was free. I also freed myself from my relationship with my son’s father. All this while I’d clung to the idea that we’d marry after graduation and have children we could keep. The comfort I once felt from that idea had at some point turned itself upside down. Now it made me feel worse, and it felt good to let go.

During Christmas vacation the new guy I was dating drove 300 miles to visit me at my mother’s house. I took him to Sunday Mass, and he led us up the aisle to be near the front. I was a back of the church person, and now everyone could see me with this front of the church stranger. No one knew about my son, but any occasion that brought scrutiny felt like exposure. It was a relief to know I would soon leave for a semester abroad.

In Cannes, France the streets were full of fast cars. I lived in a small hotel, walking distance from the Mediterranean, with a dozen other students and a professor. The three old gentlemen and one old lady who lived in the hotel made conversation with les jeunes filles Americaines, and I tried to reply in French. Within a few weeks more and more French words slid from my tongue. Maybe this was my new beginning — a place where I spoke another language and would become someone else.

At the end of the semester, rather than return home, I became an au pair in Paris. With a nine-month-old baby to take care of, I woke with the June sky barely light, ready to bathe her, dress her, and feed her while her mother snatched a last bit of sleep. Valerie’s face was as round and pale as the moon, but it was my son’s dark hair and dark eyes that swam before me in the gray dawn. One morning faded into another. My son turned three years old.

Years later I have a baby girl of my own when I find a second lost child. I’m maneuvering into a parking spot at the supermarket, and there she is, standing between the white lines. Not fully pulled forward, I jerk my car into park. I’m afraid I’m somehow overlooking her mother in the crowded lot, but I position the girl on my lap as I ease the car forward another foot. Carrying a child that’s not my own into the supermarket, I feel like a criminal.

Inside the little girl pushes herself out of my arms, and runs down the aisle toward the dairy case. She’s maybe three years old, and without the slightest pause, she drags two quarts of milk, one in each hand, from the case. “You like milk?” I ask. She looks at me blankly, then lurches back down the aisle toward the door. Guiding her by the shoulders toward the checkout, I ask the cashier to call the manager.

No one comes forward to claim the girl. Should he call the police? the manager asks. What do I want to do?

I don’t know what I want to do. I have a daughter of my own, safe in our new house with her father, waiting for me to come home with our groceries. I lift the girl into a cart, one of the jugs of milk beside her. Opening the other jug, I tip it up to her mouth. “How about if I go to the stores next door and see if she belongs to someone there?” I ask. He shrugs, as if to say he doesn’t care what I do.

Neon signs flicker to life as my heart hammers. There’s an older couple in the drycleaners and two college-age guys in the Laundromat. The windows of the game store are covered with posters. Walking through the door with the girl in my arms, I see a teen-age girl and boy of eight or nine. Our eyes meet, and they look at the little girl and me as though we’re a puzzle they can’t begin to fathom.

“She was lost,” I say. “She was in the street.” I want them to envision speeding cars and bloodshed. The little boy’s jaw drops, and the teen-ager reaches out to the little girl who is now reaching for her. “Be careful with her,” I say, then turn and walk out the door.

I’m shaking as I drive home without buying groceries. My son is 16 years old and he has a sister, but doesn’t know he has a sister. Almost no one in my present-day life knows my son exists, and my husband and my mother, who do know, never mention him. Year after year I’ve plastered another layer of grief over my secret. Year after year I’ve remained silent. How can any of us go on like this?

More than a decade earlier, after I’d returned from my semester abroad and an odyssey that had taken me as far as Istanbul, the recession had frayed my shoestring budget to a thread. Taking a break from college while living at home with my mother, I went back to work at the factory where I’d had a part-time job during high school. On the assembly line, I snapped plastic blades onto toy manure-spreaders, or worked the foundry line, wielding a paint gun with only a bandana protecting my mouth and nose.

I was not particularly good at factory work. My mind wandered. My hands, too unsteady for applying decals, too awkward to keep a toy-sized wheel from rolling down the conveyor belt. After my mother finished her factory shift on the other side of town, we met to pick over the sale bin of aphid-infested produce at the supermarket or went to the bar at the bowling alley. I drank black Russians — pure booze and black as night. My mother drank Manhattans — pure booze with a cherry on top.

Pulled off the line one day and sent to make shipping cartons, my attention helicoptered away and I ran a three-inch staple through my thumb. But a bandaged thumb and an arm aching from a tetanus shot, felt like a win during winter’s dark monotony. There was darkness inside me too. I’d invented a parallel universe where I’d kept my son, and inside the gray factory walls, I didn’t know how to stop visiting it. One afternoon I raced home and packed the army-surplus backpack I’d carried with me all over Europe. I wrote my mother a note, asking her to call the factory and tell them I quit, then walked to the other side of town and boarded the bus to my small college town in Minnesota.

I crashed on my friend Julie’s dorm room floor. It was too late to register for classes, so I baked chocolate-chip cookies in the dorm kitchen and delivered them to the boyfriend I hadn’t seen since Europe. EJ stood in his doorway, smiling as he received the cookies, but didn’t invite me in.

I had no classes to attend so I read, job-hunted, wheedled my way into the cafeteria line, and drank or got high with friends. My mother had gotten married, and I didn’t want to go back home where her new husband sat in my father’s chair. My friend Karen had a job teaching at a “free school” in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she and her friends had an apartment in the upstairs of a ramshackle house. There were jobs, she said. And I could get a ride back to Tennessee with her and a friend in his old VW bus with a broken heater.

In Knoxville I had my own room in Karen’s apartment. It was February, but azaleas were exploding out of the landscape, bright and delicate as tissue paper. Everything would be perfect when I found a job. Knoxville would change everything.

“You can undress right here,” the professor said as he dropped into his desk chair, swiveling ever so slightly away from me. On the floor was a small mattress, covered with a plush zebra rug. I was two feet from the door in a university art professor’s office. Someone would hear me if I screamed. “Lie down,” the professor said. He got up from his chair and fiddled with the Venetian blinds until stripes of light and shadow cut across my body. He knelt beside me, adjusted my hair, then shook his head as he looked at my breasts. “For the photograph,” he said as he pinched my nipples. He touched his tongue to their tips, then crouched a few feet away, clicking photo after photo. “You’re hired,” he said.

In addition to selling my skin, I also sold my blood in Knoxville. “$$$ for Blood Plasma!” the sign said. The pay was 30 dollars, and a person could donate every two weeks. After two pints of blood were extracted, they were processed through a machine that spun out the plasma, and the remains were returned to the donor. It took only an hour or so, and it was more money than I’d ever made doing anything. But after only a few sessions my veins protested. The streetlights flickered on while the technician tried first one arm, then the other. Frowning, she propped me up with pillows and plied me with cans of 7 UP and a package of cheese and peanut butter crackers. So many parts of my body were uncooperative. Spine, hands, nipples, veins. Finally, the needle slid in. “Don’t come back,” the technician said.

I registered by phone for the next semester at my college in Minnesota. On one of the first days of February, I plodded to the bus depot and bought a ticket.

Back at college motherhood clung to me like a caul. In Antigone I played the nurse and spent my time on stage, fretting over a lost child. Channeling my own motherly grief, I wept as though crying on cue was my superpower. After the performances I wept into a glass of wine. In the morning I cried walking in the woods. My basement apartment sunk deeper and deeper into the thawing earth.

Graduation was an anticlimax. I tried to remember why I’d switched majors. Hadn’t I planned to be a high school English teacher? Instead, I had a B.A. in theater and another in humanities. Rather than go home and work in the factory, I opted for a summer apprenticeship at a professional theater company in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Apprentices got free classes and room and board in exchange for building sets, sewing costumes, and working on the tech crews — all while hoping for the possibility of being cast in a small role alongside the big-name Broadway stars that played to the packed theater every night. This had to be my lucky summer — a big break, a love affair, a new self. Something. Anything.

The director and the costumer of The Threepenny Opera sat at a folding table in the rehearsal studio as we filed by. Each member in our chorus of beggars would be assigned a characteristic that would mark each of us as individuals as we swarmed through the streets of London. “Scrofula. Lobotomy. Blind,” the director said as apprentices paused in front of him. When it was my turn he gave me the same cursory glance he’d given everyone. “Pregnant,” he said. I stood stunned and scarlet-cheeked as he waved his pencil to send me on my way.

At the fitting the costumer gave me an apron-like smock to put on. There was a pouch in the belly area, and she stuffed a pillow into it. “You make a lovely pregnant girl,” she said, pulling a gray tweed skirt off the rack. She added a mud-colored blouse, a sweater, and a boy’s hat. Standing on a box in front of a mirror while she pinned up the hem of my skirt, I stared at the forlorn girl staring back. I’d kept my pregnancy secret all though high school, and even now I’d told no one. But the belly of the ragged beggar in the mirror was so swollen she could barely button her sweater.

My son was four years old.

When summer finished, I was out of ideas for a new beginning, so I enrolled in a continuing education program at my college. Credits were cheap and grades were pass/fail. My mother’s husband Duke drove me to Minnesota, and for the second time in as many years, I arrived at college without a place to live. As Duke drove down Main Street in my small college town, I recognized a popular student rental house. “This is my place right here,” I lied. Duke dragged my trunk onto the porch, extravagantly peeled off a couple of twenties, then sped away.

Scanning the notices on a bulletin board, I caught a mane of red hair out of the corner of my eye. It was my roommate from sophomore year and she needed a place to live too. Liz was married now though her husband would remain in Minneapolis. Last year she had given birth to a baby who was stillborn. “It was a little boy,” she said as we walked to the apartment we’d end up sharing, “but he suffocated with the umbilical cord around his neck.” I longed for her to know I’d lost a baby too — that we were meant to live together because of what we’d both been through, but I couldn’t make myself say it.

A few miles from campus at a supper club on the Mississippi River, I wore a red mini-skirt and hauled around 30-pound trays, heaped with surf ‘n turf, barely managing to get them to the table without dumping them into my customers’ laps. The end of every shift required a hot bath to ease the pain between my shoulder blades, but there was no remedy to cure my wounded sense of self.

Later that semester after a leading role in the fall play that required more than one scene with tears, I began to imagine myself, not as a waitress or a factory worker, but as a capable actress, blessed with an endless ability to cry on cue. Meanwhile, the mercy tips from the supper club were adding up, and California was the perfect place for a new beginning. Stage names and aliases. People on the run.

Cast in a summer commedia dell’arte, I performed all around San Diego, portraying a character that was a pregnant woman masquerading as a man. Audiences howled at my extravagant false mustache and my bouncing fake belly. The universe seemed to be telling me something, but I had no idea what.

My boyfriend, EJ — the guy who had once relieved me of a plate of cookies — came with me to California, and after our San Diego summer we moved north to Los Angeles. That winter we married. My husband knew my secret, but my new conservative Catholic in-laws did not. I knew he would be happy to never tell them. And another thing was certain. We weren’t going to have kids.

My son was 6 years old.

Tick.

1979. A theater job in Indiana and Wisconsin. Fields of corn and soybeans, narrow roads winding past red barns. It looked like Iowa.

When I was a child, my sister and I used to close our eyes, our fingers resting lightly on her globe. Giving it a spin, we’d ask, where will I live when I grow up? Where will I fall in love and get married? — our fingers tracked above the globe as if it were a Ouija board. My son was nine years old. Where was he?

Tock

Siblings were having babies. Friends were having babies. Our friends Tom and Sandy, while planning a romantic getaway to Hawaii, asked if we would keep their one-year-old son for a week.

Tick.

Ian had brown hair and enormous dark eyes, and in the supermarket, the dry cleaners and the pharmacy, people told me he looked just like me. By the second day as I stood at the stove, frying bacon, Ian called me mama. I was mama for the rest of the week.

When Tom and Sandy returned my husband and I met them at the airport, but instead of reaching out to his beaming parents, Ian clung to me. At Tom and Sandy’s house, he burrowed into my neck and wailed. When he finally reached for his mother, I was the one in tears.

Tock.

EJ and I never lay in the dark, discussing the pros and cons of having a baby. We sidled into this new land individually, but simultaneously. Maybe we should stop using birth control someone said. Yes, maybe we could the other person said. Nearly fifteen years had passed since I lost my son. EJ never asked why I was reconsidering motherhood. Maybe I thought I had suffered enough. When we returned from a vacation to France in June of 1985, I was pregnant.

At my first obstetrician appointment I glossed over the relinquishment of my son, insisting that I was over it. The doctor asked about an HIV test and if I’d ever had an abortion. He asked if I planned to breastfeed. My husband asked if I was sure about natural childbirth. My mother wanted to know where the baby would sleep in our one-bedroom apartment. Not one of them asked how I was feeling about having given my first child away to strangers. My feelings rested inside me, whole and silent as a stillborn child. I would not breathe life into them by thinking.

As our daughter Colette was propelled into this world on a full-mooned February night, the Santa Ana winds pushed themselves through the canyons and into the city. The next morning we were released from the hospital after a breakfast of steak and eggs, having spent just 12 hours there. Everything went perfectly, we said. But the hot winds howled, pushing the temperature to over 100 degrees, while our new baby cried, and cried, and cried.

At home, even when Colette slept, I could not. In our narrow room, the cradle sat at the foot of our bed, and I was too far from the baby. “I need to watch her breathing,” I told my husband. EJ re-made the bed so our heads were at the bottom. If I craned my neck, I could watch my daughter’s every breath.

One afternoon I woke from a nap on the couch, craving orange juice. I pulled a glass from the cupboard above the sink, and when I turned around, my long-dead father was sitting at the table. “I just wanted to see your daughter,” he said. “I didn’t get to meet your son.” Colette was napping, just over the threshold, in the living room. My father looked down into her cradle, and then, with the smell of his Chesterfields lingering in the air, he was gone.

I don’t remember who I told about the apparition of my father, but my siblings sent my mother to California, and for a week she slept on a rented rollaway bed in our living room. My mother had experience watching over new mothers, and I needed watching. She had her first full-time job at the age of 14, living with a doctor, his wife, and their newborn. Never leave the mother alone with the baby, she was cautioned. One night she awoke to a commotion. The mother had tried to kill the baby even though the husband had been right there with them. In the morning the wife was packed off to an asylum, the baby went to live with relatives, and my mother was out of a job.

I worried that I would be packed off. I was not a danger to my daughter, but I was a danger to myself. I’d handed my son over to strangers. Was he even alive? Should a mother, guilty of such a crime, be allowed to live? Should I be trusted to raise this baby girl?

When Colette is a year or so old I find a little boy at the mall. It’s early and the stores are just pulling up their security grates when the toddler comes careening toward us in front of Haagen-Dazs. When I bend down to him he leaps into my arms. Maneuvering Colette in her stroller one-handedly, I ask the woman tending a popcorn kiosk to call security. The officer instructs me to bring the child and follow him.

As the four of us walk away, a woman’s voice arches into panic. “Dios!” she wails, emerging from an upscale boutique an expensive purse clutched in her arms and a man at her side. When they see the boy, they reach out to him, crying and kissing, first him and then each other. “Thank you, Missus!” The man says in accented English as he reaches out to shake my trembling hand.

The universe has been sending me lost children for nearly two decades. Directors have repeatedly cast me as a pregnant person. But I am still not ready to acknowledge that a desperate high school girl still resides inside me. I’m not willing to consider the lost children as a sign directing me to find my son. Adoption records are still permanently sealed in the state of Iowa. I wouldn’t know where to begin.

My son is 18 years old.

The following year as I prepared for the birth of another child, my mother and I spoke on the phone. We have a distant relative, she told me, who tried to cook her baby. “Luckily, her husband came in just as she’d turned on the flame under the pot.” We had never spoken of my son or how losing him had affected me, but she surmised that I would need help after the birth of the new baby. Divorced now, my mom had been living in Baltimore with her twin sister so the two of them made plans to travel from the east coast to my house in L.A. during the final weeks of my pregnancy.

My mother stayed for only two weeks since she had to return to work, but Aunt Millie was retired and spent six weeks with us. Before my aunt returned home I made arrangements for Colette to go to pre-school. The school was a co-op, and I’d be allowed to bring the baby on my workday. “You need to be around other people. You need to see other mothers,” my mom and my aunt told me.

One morning the mothers clustered around the sign-in sheet, buzzing and bristling. “I don’t see how anyone could do that,” the woman with the perfect blond hair said. “Leaving a helpless baby in a trash bin.”

“She never even told anyone she was pregnant, never went to the doctor or anything,” said another mother. The rest of the group echoed their horror over the young woman who’d been in the morning news.

“What is wrong with these girls?” yet another mother asked.

These are the things that happen, I wanted to say, when you are in denial. If I’d managed to run away from home as I’d planned when I was a pregnant 16-year-old, maybe my son would have perished. Maybe I’d be in prison now instead of at a preschool. But I didn’t have the courage to defend the young woman who abandoned her baby. I didn’t have the courage to say I believe good people do bad things; that each and every one of us had the capacity for actions we wouldn’t want to ponder.

A year later, after a second post-partum depression, I will decide to search for my son. Through a chance encounter someone will offer to help me. There will be intrigue, a plain brown bag filled with cash, and people whose identity I will never know. One of these people will find my son six months before his twenty-first birthday. Another will call me and tell me his name, and I will feel that everything that has happened has led me to this one phone call. This is my new beginning.

Six months after the phone call I’ll meet my son in person in the bar of a downtown Los Angeles hotel.

When I get into my car to drive there, I’ll find that I’m shaking so violently I must take a taxi. My daughters will be delighted to have a big brother. Some months later we will all have dinner at my son’s parents’ house and watch old family videos and page through photo albums. When my son gets married in 2001, my daughters and his birth father’s sons will all be in the wedding party. Over the years, I will tell everyone — siblings, friends, acquaintances, total strangers on airplanes and in supermarket lines — the story of losing and finding my son, but this is just one sliver of the story.

My son and I are part of an immense saga — the story of sealed record adoption. Between 1945 and 1973, the era known in adoption history as the Baby Scoop, four million American mothers, many of them teenagers like myself, placed babies for adoption. In keeping with the standard practices of sealed-record adoption, new altered birth certificates for our babies were issued, expunging all original information.

Survivors of the Baby Scoop Era live in a world where records are held in secret by state governments. Citizens have no knowledge of their genetic or cultural identities. Doctors request medical histories to no avail. In this world mothers deny the existence of their children and siblings have no idea that one another exists. This is the world into which I gave birth to my son, and the world in which millions of adult adoptees living in the U.S. still reside due to the laws that, in all but 10 states, preserve sealed adoption records. Forty U.S. states, including the state of Iowa, continue to keep families apart. The hundreds of children seized at the border during the Trump administration have added to the tally. Reunited or not, not one of us will emerge from any of this unscathed.

In the United States we have knitted a cozy myth about adoption. How it saves girls like me. How it’s salvation for a baby whose mother is deemed too young, too poor, too uneducated, too black or too brown. And yes, there are necessary adoptions. Adoptions that work out well. Adoptions that can boast of their own new beginnings. I know this. All of this is true. But the myth still deserves unraveling. There is much that is wrong in the practice of adoption. I will tell you all of it.

Here is how I will start. Every adoption begins with loss. A loss so wide and so deep that, no matter what, it never goes away.

The Loss was originally published in Under the Sun Literary Magazine in 2022.

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Denise Clemen
Human Parts

Birth/first mother, recovering wife, retired caregiver, traveler, collage artist. Advocate of #adopteerights and #reproductiverights and other good things.