I like to joke that I owe my life, my very existence to Ronald Reagan. Then, I shudder at the irony that his failed legislation as governor of California ultimately shaped the circumstances under which I was brought into the world.. As it is outlined in The Insanity Offense by E. Fuller Torrey, major upheaval took place in California legislation that changed the face of mental health and ultimately sealed my destiny. In the early 1970s, during the era of my birth, Governor Ronald Reagan implemented legislation named for its authors Lanterman, Petris and Short. The LPS Act was a cost cutting measure in the guise of a human rights effort that sought to uphold the rights of the mentally ill by giving them authority over their own care. The act's authors ultimately succeeded in shutting the doors of all California asylums. The result was a virtual opening of the floodgates as thousands of under-medicated mental patients now roamed the streets freely. Half-way houses were opened to handle the onslaught. Because my mother had been a patient at the Agnew Insane Asylum, a castle-like fortress that predated the 1906 Earthquake, she was one of the masses who emigrated to local half way houses. It was there that she met and fostered an on again, off-again affair with the man who would become my sister’s and my father.
I was adopted at the age of 14 months. My name was Thomas Charles, the surnames were secret. I was rechristened with a new name and issued an amended birth certificate that would pass for my original. I was about to turn 11 the first time I held it in my hands. When I saw it, I couldn’t believe its discrepancies from the truth I knew. I knew the mom who was raising me hadn’t given birth to me like it said on the certificate. I felt like the truth had been glossed over and my identity along with it. When I brought the issue up to my mother, she told me not to worry about such matters. It was the first time I felt like a part of me was being denied the right to exist. In essence, I felt the government was saying that the person I was upon birth really didn't matter. I pondered this as much as I imagined myself being two separate identities, the pre and post adoption Tommys. It was the first time I would learn to define the age old nature vs nurture debate that continues to haunt me.
The pre-adoption Tommy existed somewhere in the murky depths of my subconscious. Tommy Angelo as I called myself was raised an only child by parents who divorced almost immediately upon adopting.
My adoptive mother couldn’t conceive children so I I was infused with a great deal of love from her and never felt anything less than the most incredible special gift that she esteemed me to be. Needless to say, I grew up feeling every bit of the "chosen child" story. My mother told me she hadn't felt it necessary to ask questions during the adoption process because "she was just so happy to get me". I always wished that she had been more curious for the sake of my growing curiosity. Due to her lack of inquiry, I grew up with virtually no information about my background.
My parents were initially extremely supportive of my identification as an adoptee who longed to search for his roots. I was always obsessed with the notion, so much that my mother opted to implement a waiver of confidentiality in my file when I turned 10. It would grant permission to anyone who searched for me to achieve contact although no one ever did.
It wasn't until my sophomore year of college that I finally took action to search. I contacted the Santa Clara County Office of Vital Records and received a curt letter in response basically explaining that I was placed for adoption due to my biological mother's diagnosis of schizophrenia and because my father was virtually missing. A face sheet was attached that had been whited--out in key places and Xeroxed to make sure I wouldn't be able to learn any identifiable facts. When I called to complain, the social worker mistakenly made me privy to my bio mother’s birth place. When I contacted a search organization that I found in the back of a book called Lost and Found, it wasn’t hard for them to track down my family based on that obscure piece of information.
Within a couple short weeks after I hired them, I was contacted with the surname of my mother's family along with a few phone numbers. I'll never forget the rainy Saturday morning in March of 1994 when I made those initial phone calls. I was given the number of a halfway house located in seedy downtown San Jose. When a woman finally picked up the line, I could tell immediately from the put-upon tone of her voice, that she had suffered many hardships. After I explained who I was, she said, "I've been thinking about you for a long time" and followed up the admission with a request for cigarettes and a little cash. I wasn't as thrown off guard by the request as much as I was by her reply when I declined. She said, "But I thought you went to a rich family."
A few days later I contacted her brother who acted as the family patriarch. Being a criminal attorney and judge made him seem intimidating and especially guarded about disclosing specifics about my mother’s condition. He wanted to know why I had called. My mother had mentioned that I had an older sister she called Sally and a half brother named David. Both were given up to different families although my younger brother’s adoption was handled openly while my sister and I were part of the closed system of secrecy. The difference in our cases was the seal on our records. Our brother grew up knowing our family name as our mother actually visited him in the foster home several times until he was 4 years old. On the polar opposite spectrum, my sister and I knew nothing.
I didn't bother asking my searcher to consider looking for Sally because I deemed it futile. I didn’t think it would be remotely possible for me to locate her. But somehow, the searchers called one day to tell me they had found her with a new name and were closing in on her whereabouts. The process to locate her was harder than the one I went through to find my mother. We constantly came up on dead ends until one magical night, I found myself on the phone with her. Growing up as an only child, I had fantasized about an older sister my entire life. Like me, she had grown up knowing nothing about her adoption circumstances. Our lives couldn’t have been more different in the way we were raised but we had that in common. I flew to meet her a couple months later and vacillated between joy for what I had accomplished and guilt now that I was actually about to meet my birth mother. Was I doing the right thing? I pushed thoughts of my adoptive mother out of my mind maintaining that this wasn’t about her.
My sister and I didn’t know what to expect when we found a decaying half way house and asked the attendant for our mother’s name. After a few minutes, my sister gasped as we noticed a caricature of a woman appear on the porch. “What do you want? Who are you here for?”, she inquired with a twinge of paranoia. She had an overly processed mop of bleach blond hair that I later learned had turned white from its brunette beginnings as the result of ECT shock therapy. My sister and I were taken off guard and told her we had made a mistake as she slammed the screen door while we drove away bewildered.
We pulled over on the next block and burst into tears as we tried to decide what to do and come to terms with what we had just seen. Could that person have really been our mother? She had been wearing tattered green sweat pants and a plain white T-shirt with a silk screen logo. It looked disheveled and thrown together.
After regaining our composure, we made our way back to the halfway house to meet our mother in shifts. My sister entered the house first because I was too frightened. Ironically, after making all of the arrangements of which none of this would have been possible, I got cold feet at the last minute and opted to observe. When my mother finally emerged and I saw her face to face for the first time, I felt like my knees would buckle. The woman I had wondered about my entire life stood in front of me. For years, teachers and guidance counselors had cautioned me about the consequences of what I might uncover should I search. What I discovered wasn’t ideal nor pretty but it was my history. It was a piece of the fabric that made up my life.
Later when I met my uncle, I peppered him with questions about what he knew of my father but was stonewalled. He growled at me from across the table in a tone that I knew meant there was more to the story than was being revealed. I didn’t understand why there still seemed to be as much mystery as there were discoveries. Didn’t I have a right to know everything, I wondered.
Later, as I spoke to my uncle’s wife she explained that my mother's identification as schizophrenic had first appeared while she was still in high school. She described the first time she noticed something was awry with our mother. "Kathy just seemed a little weird,” in reference to her mental state. Upon returning home from a trip abroad where she studied painting, my teenage mother slowly lapsed into unmanageable behavior that led to her institutionalization. A couple years later after finally meeting our bio father he explained that he had come upon the downtown San Jose board and care by accident in search for a place to crash off a drug run. He was an eccentric, nomadic drifter from the East Coast who hustled his way into a few nights stay at the house only to discover he was the only male inhabitant. He fostered a casual relationship with my mother that led to my sister being conceived. There was talk of marriage but he said he just couldn’t go through with it when evidence of her mental illness was too great to ignore. His job took him out of town for long jags but he was able to return the day my sister was born. Due to his high rate of absenteeism and alcoholic behavior, he was shunned at the hospital and denied custody. He would reappear in Kathy's life on holiday breaks, the last of which led to my conception. Because he had kept in touch with Kathy over the course of the two passing decades since my adoption, he was able to learn of my existence and contact me shortly after I discovered everything. My sister and I had DNA tests analyzed to confirm his paternity.
My aunt had been dating my mother's brother since their high school days and had produced one daughter in their epic marriage, a girl 10 years my senior born the day after my birthday. I longed to meet my older cousin the first time I heard about her. When we finally did meet face to face, I was accompanied by my sister and brother at a large Domino family gathering complete with extended loved ones.The effect of noticing my sister stand side by side next to our cousin was magical. They had the same build, the same hair, the same shared genes from the Domino pool. It was hard not to notice the effects that their extremely different lifestyles had contributed to their countenance. Whereas Dawn, our cousin was appropriately coiffed and manicured as suitable for someone who has lived in privilege my sister had noticeably grown up with less opportunities. Like I had on so many occasions, I took the opportunity to wonder what our lives would have been like if my sister and were never adopted out.
Sometimes I feel like the bastard backwoods kin shirking around for something I have no right to consider my own, i.e. affiliation with this clan that shares my genes. Since I discovered my mother's family, there has been a nagging feeling in the back of my head that I oughtn't to snoop or press for details. Now that I'm a little older and able to place things in proper perspective, I've begun to gain the strength to forge ahead with my search of family facts. The right to realize my identity is innate. Accepting the truth as fact leaves no reason for me to feel like an intruding interloper.
Had I the chance to do it over again, I would have stood up to my misgivings and fear upon meeting my parents. I didn’t know it at the time but I underwent a definite grieving process that experts compare to the one experienced after a death. I was angry that I had trouble relating to my bio parents who seemed too kooky to fit comfortably into my life. I felt overwhelmed at my bio father’s request that I start calling him Pop. I had never met a diagnosed mentally il person and didn’t know the first thing about how to relate to my bio mother. Plus, through all this, I felt incredibly guilty for the effect I thought my reunion was having on my adoptive mother. Finally, I just shut down and Iett 15 years pass with bare to minimal contact between the birth parents. More than anything I wanted to reach out and relate to my new bio sister but we had vast differences in our upbringing that made it difficult for us to connect as siblings. Eventually we settled into a comfortable groove and found common ground in what we were both going through with our newly found birth parents.
In evidence that there is a purpose in the workings of the universe, I finally took it upon myself to rekindle contact with my bio mother in the Spring of 2007. Over the course of several months, every other Sunday, she took the bus from where she lived in San Jose to my apartment in downtown San Francisco. She always had a cart full of knickknacks in tow that she had painstakingly gift wrapped as if they were presents for a special occasion.
Mother's Day of 2007 would be a watershed moment but I never guessed at the time how sacred it would become. Our visit felt more natural and conversation was less forced. I had so many questions for her but answers were difficult to understand because she would lose focus. As we meandered around the Civic Center plaza, I was overcome with a tremendous sense of appreciation for the memories we were creating right there in that very moment. She had no qualms about sidling up to anyone sitting on the curb and asking for a cigarette which I found endearing. She fit right in with the colorful transients and homeless characters in the plaza. I couldn’t have been prouder. In my heart, I too was an off balance eccentric with a flair for the dramatics. She was nothing short of a novelty in my life. Because her presence never dulled near ordinary, I always observed the nuances of her personality. For example, the tenacity she displayed in many fruitless attempts to light a cigarette in the wind was priceless.
The sun set on Mother's Day 2007 with a promising outlook for getting to know each other. I felt like we were beginning to really connect and gnaw the edges away from our awkward first starts.
But when the phone rang before dawn the next day, I had a sinking sixth sense feeling. And then my sister's voice on the other end confirmed my worst fear. Our mother was gone, having passed away in her sleep from congestive heart failure.
A memorial services was hastily planned at a San Jose chapel and I was taken aback when I was unquestionably ushered towards the Dominos as if I was one of them. I almost felt like I didn’t belong there with all her extended family and longtime neighbors. It would take years for me to quit feeling as if I didn’t belong as part of my birth family. I still struggle with incorporating my birth identity into the one I grew up with. They don’t have to be two separate entities anymore.
There was a beautiful picture of her on the altar that was taken in the 1960s before illness had set in. She was breathtakingly beautiful and it brought to mind a world of questions and wondering about what life would have been like if only....
I will never understand the grand scheme of universal order that dictated my fate as an adoptee. I love my adoptive mother more than life itself and am content that I ended up where I am supposed to be. But I still wonder what life would have been like if my sister and I were raised together by our bio parents. Would I still be me? That's the billion dollar question. It always goes back to nature vs nurture.