To Peter: Your life was denied you so that I could have mine. It has not been easy, and I have fallen down hard, and by grace, I have risen. For as long as my life goes on, I shall always strive to live a life you would have been proud to live.
I have lived a life in constant pursuit of approval from others. The term often thrown around in clinical circles is an external locus of identity, meaning that I identify myself based on external characteristics such as physical attributes, wealth, material possessions, and fame, to name a few. Nearly all of us either suffer or have suffered from an external locus of identity.
I was born with neurological abnormalities that impacted my ability to regulate emotion and manage behavior, which struck the ire of many well-meaning people in whose care I was placed. The result was a quiet but persistent humming of criticism for which I never fully developed appropriate mechanisms to process in a healthy manner. As a defense mechanism against criticism, I developed habitual self-denigration. ‘Beat them to it!’ became my way of fending off others’ criticism whenever I did anything wrong. While rarely cruel, the message from the world back to me was, “Just keep your head down, stay out of the way, and don’t expect too much of yourself, and you’ll do ok.” I still struggle with a damning self-image today.
When I failed at earning the approval of others, I began making life choices that landed me in situations where I was molested, expelled from high school without ever graduating, developed an addiction to methamphetamine fed intravenously, and spent a few months of homelessness. Through enormous grace, I physically survived it all, only to sit by helplessly and watch the first woman with whom I felt safe being vulnerable, who persistently encouraged me to not give up on myself, die a slow and, at times, painful death.
All of these emotionally traumatic events occurred in the ten years between my 13th and 23rd year. This is when we begin to exert our independence, and our sense of who we are in the world and our relationship with it takes shape. My trust in others, myself, and love itself were all nearly destroyed. Before I had time to even process, much less heal from any of it, I was given opportunity after opportunity to do better than just ‘ok’ – a lot better. But by whose standards?
I grew up in an environment that measured men by money, without which a man struggled to feel proud about himself vis-à-vis his peers. Success was a function of what we got from the world much more than what we gave to the world, and more importantly, showing off what we got earned more admiration than showing off what we gave. Whether it be big and/or shiny things or a big wad of cash in the pocket, a statement had to be made about how well one is making it. If I wanted to belong, I had to do things to belong. Getting (or perhaps more aptly, taking) from the world required drive and a fighting spirit to compete and engage in wars of wit, which sometimes were hostile. For those poorly adapted to criticism, this makes the entire world seem like a hostile place.
Rather than live life towards a desired future, I lived escaping a past that shrouded me in shame. Shame has been what has motivated me to soldier forward every day of my life. I was ashamed of being a social outsider; I was ashamed of being molested; I was ashamed of never graduating from high school; and I was ashamed of being a meth junkie. I was ashamed of giving up on myself, and I was ashamed of being ashamed.
My tribulations pale compared to the misfortunes that have befallen many others. (I am one of the luckiest people I know.) But life is relative, and I have only my orbit from which to compare and draw conclusions. That orbit grew in one direction, a direction which only magnified, rather than contextualized, the heinous choices I made, and I lived my life ashamed of myself, and since I am being honest, feeling sorry for myself.
By sheer luck of a birth and adoption lottery ticket, I was demographically and geographically privileged. Without knowing anything about me, the world at large made assumptions about me that were to my advantage. Indeed, I had to bust my ass and kiss a little ass along the way, but the asses were there for busting and kissing. I had a leg up before taking my first breath.
As I grew older, having given up on trusting my own gut for life choices, I concluded that mimicry, not genuineness, was the only way to survive in the world. I, a square peg, spent 30 years making every sacrifice necessary to fit into any round hole I confronted if, on the other side, I saw a crowd of round pegs. The choices I made in life from adolescence onward through the following three decades were based on the single criteria of fitting in. I eventually found my way to positive appraisal, but it was superficial and, at times, dishonest, but the world is not to blame. The blame falls on me. For the sake of belonging, I became superficial and, at times, dishonest. The reflections were fair and accurate.
I lost faith in my ability to decide what was right for me as a young adult, so I looked to others to advise me on how to live my life. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself on a conveyor belt hustling me through the rigor of higher education, despite never graduating from high school, to prepare me for acquiring all the spoils of a socio-economic class far above any that I grew up believing would ever be available to me. Soon, I was traveling the world for work and pleasure, providing me an abundance of opportunities to meet and work with people from all over the globe.
Once I began receiving the adulation I craved, I was hooked. I was sure I had found the formula for being relevant. I finally mattered. Cheers replaced jeers, and my life became, quite simply, charmed and perhaps even enviable. I faked the hell out of it for the sake of belonging, forfeiting authenticity and losing humility in the process. I traded in what used to fill my heart for what filled my pockets. I learned to covet and chase materiality, and, in the end, it cost me almost everything, including self-respect, peace, and my soul. I earned admiration from many but never from the man I saw in the mirror.
I am human, so feedback from others will always remain essential to my survival. But I can survive no longer with feedback based on a façade for which I tormented myself by propping up for decades. If I want an honest appraisal, I must be honest. If I want raw, I must be raw. If I want truth, I must be true – to others and myself. My emotional development was arrested by adolescent trauma, and One’s Origins is my attempt to get things back on track.
For all who have ever struggled with feeling worthy of love and belonging, One’s Origins is my compassionate embrace of you as much as it is, for the first time in a long time, a compassionate embrace of myself. I wish for us all that we learn to love and embrace ourselves with all the self-compassion we crave. We all deserve that much.
 If I had pleaded for mercy, I have no doubt I would have been welcomed back home if I had met reasonable conditions. But I was too obstinate at the time to do so.
Recently after a 23-mile bicycle ride at a respectable clip I reclined sun-drenched in a lounge chair on my backyard deck and a cold beer sat in the shade a half an arm’s length away. My imagination shifts to images of the rich and famous relaxing pool or sea side at some of the poshest resorts ever constructed on earth. (I’ve been to several over the years and have amassed a drawer full of t-shirts for bragging privileges.) I also do this very same thing (lying in the sun) often on a beach three hours south of home. Naturally the eye candy quotient shoots into a much higher stratosphere on the beach compared to my backyard. No offense meant to my neighbors.
I’m doing the same thing that others are doing at swankier outposts. The only difference is location. I can think of nothing other than ego-driven coveting that would even consider that important. Is life nothing not but a collection of experiences? What lies inside the boundaries of the experience and what remains outside when assessing the value of an experience? Locally, I can do this any time I want. Any desire to be somewhere other than where I am is fed by something on which I place little value.
If we could focus on what’s important and ONLY what’s important, we’d be amazed with how easily we would find contentment. The courage it takes to draw that line correctly is not to be minimized.
I stopped by a convenience store recently to grab a sandwich on the way to spend a few hours on the beach. In one of the parking spaces sat a motorcycle with a sidecar. Not unusual but for the paint job and decal. Oh, and more than that, the rider, and passengers.
Meet David, a 42 year-old autistic motorcycling enthusiast who was king of the road when he sat in the sidecar of this Harley Davidson Ultra Classic touring motorcycle equipped with a wheelchair carrier on the back. His parents, Dave and Pat, ride on the bike on the front and back seats respectively.
I was drawn first to the bike and once I met David, I was drawn to their story. The three of them were not too far from their home in Maryland. They had ridden together to destinations all across our great nation hitting some of the must-visits for motorcyclists such as Sturgis in South Dakota, etc. David’s parents told me how much he is in all his glory cruising in the sidecar with his parents. Because of David’s condition, his parents communicate with him using some basic sign language. He cannot communicate back that way but he understands what they are saying to him and he communicates his understanding, agreement, approval, etc, or lack thereof, in his own way.
I was so moved by their story I felt that somebody should write about this. So, I did, if even only a vignette, of a three-wheeling family of three who cruise across this land from sea to shining sea.
I have found a new beach that I now call home since home is, after all, where the heart resides. I am no further away from my family’s home in Sussex Country, Delaware than any beach I have ever visited since I was a child. This beach is off the beaten path away from where the tourists commune with sand and sea and remains a gem for the locals.
The air temperature is 80º F with just enough clouds to stimulate visual imagination. The breeze is just enough to keep from feeling overheated. Nature’s radiator is in perfect working order. The tide is receding so I can get close to the water knowing I am not likely to get wet. When I want to get wet, I can simply jump in – and I do!
The waves are perfect. Not too violent but amply providing the gentle thunderous acoustics heard only by the seas. Time slows down. In my ears rest earbuds piping into my skull piano music from the likes of Kevin Kern, Brian Crain, Paul Cardall and others.
This is the very beach where my biological mother sat and reflected on the pain and sorrow of having to give me up for adoption. I too have spent many a day sitting on many sands, within a few miles of this very spot reflecting on my own pain and sorrows completely unaware of this beach or its significance until very recently. My mother sat by the sea and mourned for what she wanted but had to give away, me. I sit by the sea and mourn for what I had and threw away, also me. For she and I, having lost the same person, me, we both chose to seek atonement by the sea.
“Remember that sometimes not not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.”
― Dalai Lama
ONE DAY IN MARCH not long ago, I embarked on what was expected to be a four-hour, 200-mile motorcycle ride to the Chesapeake Bay. I had the good fortune to exploit the day’s beautiful weather. The task of the day was to take photographs for One’s Origins of a place that is dear to my childhood memories and enjoy some time on my motorcycle. (I share more details in the book.)
Because of a GPS faux pas that was only user error to the extent that I might have not completely double checked something that should almost never need double checking, I got lost. Twice! Using early 21st century level technology! How do things like this happen? I was livid. The day wound up being 300 miles over six hours. Each of the two recalibrations sent me in two different directions, each time tacking on nearly an hour to the round trip.
When I stopped the second time I was lost, I realized I was low on gas. I had plenty of gas when I left the house. “This is not happening. This is a nightmare.”, I thought to myself. “I might not have enough daylight to take the pictures I want to take as it is, and now I have to find a gas station in the middle of nowhere?!” I was facing the real possibility that I had blown a gorgeous late winter day for a motorcycle ride (I mean sleeveless t-shirt gorgeous!) and would have to come back another day. I had with me a professional camera on loan for the day from a friend who owns a film production company. I entertained the thought of scrapping it, licking my wounds and going home. I would have to find another sun-drenched afternoon to borrow the camera again and that could be who knows when. Once I found a gas station, I recalibrated for yet a new set of directions and now my ETA was 10 minutes before sunset. Originally, it had been nearly two hours before sunset. I allowed my frustration to channel its way to social media with a profane rant lambasting the team responsible for the mapping software.
I figured I might as well continue on and take my chances. What I was now sure were the correct directions from the gas station was also in the direction of home, so I had little to lose timewise. To add insult to injury, the right place was not all that far from where I had been an hour earlier. In addition to my fear of losing daylight for taking pictures was my concern about falling temperatures riding home after dark. Warm days in March can quickly turn chilly after nightfall, especially on a motorcycle at highway speeds.
For nearly a third of my miles I pulled maneuvers on a touring motorcycle built for comfort for which such bikes are not designed. Nor are they maneuvers attempted by any rational person with a modicum of life-preserving instincts. I was riding as if my life depended on me taking these pictures on this day. I hope I never again believe for a minute that riding that way on this or any bike ever again is necessary, unless it is matter of life or death, which this was not.
I arrived 20 minutes before sunset. I dismounted the bike and grabbed the camera. I walked towards the edge of a steep decline to a narrow beach more than 30 feet below and gazed west by southwest across the bay to see a sun that was minutes away from tucking itself in for the night, and for the first time that evening my breath was taken away. Of all infinite possibilities for the sun’s location when I arrived, it could not have been in any better place than where it was. I knew the beach faced in the westerly direction towards sunset, but I did not know precisely where it set with respect to the place I wanted to photograph.
On the beach below is where I spent long summer hours during many family vacations when I was a child. Not far away from me on my right was an older couple sitting in their golf-cart watching the sunset together. They told me that they do this every evening on nice days. The woman further told me that this is the time of year the sun sets in the best place over the water. She explained that in the winter the sun sets slightly more south favoring the left side of the horizon, while in the summer the sun sets slightly more towards the west favoring the right side of the horizon. But this time of year, she said, is when the sun sets over the center of the bay. I conveyed my sincere appreciation of her telling me this and smiled in appreciation for being where I was at that time.
I climbed down the slightly zig-zag concrete staircase built into the steep hill to the narrow beach at the bottom. From down below, I stepped as close as I could to the water line without my boots sinking into the sand and took a photograph of the hill. The orange glow of the sunset rested on the hill with an indescribably brilliant hue.
I ascended back up the stairs and walked back to where my visual admiration had begun when I first arrived. The couple was still there, and I told them I was taking pictures for a memoir about adoption. The woman told me she too had given up a son for adoption when she was eighteen, the same age as my mother. My breath was taken away for the second time that evening. She continued to tell me that her son had found her many years ago and they have a relationship today. My heart jumped for joy for the both of them and it also broke in two for me. The woman with whom I was speaking had been in southern California when she gave birth to her son and that is where he was adopted, raised and still lives. Her son had found her using mechanisms that were available to me at the same time – several years before my mother had passed away.
I stood in silence for a moment as I realized that all my directional challenges that led me to arrive over an hour and a half later than I had planned were presented to me on purpose. I was not to arrive when I first thought I was to arrive. Instead, I was to arrive precisely when I did.
There was a long narrow horizontal cloud filling the thin space between the sun and the horizon of the bay that would soon block the view of the sun touching the water. But the sun dipping behind that cloud was awe-striking in its own right. The woman pointed across the bay in the direction of the setting sun and said, “That’s Aberdeen over there.” My breath was taken away for the third time. Aberdeen is where my mother grew up. I raised the camera up to take a picture of what not only my eye saw through camera’s lens, but also my heart.
I might never learn the circumstances around my conception, or how my mother and father met, but I have every reason to believe that across the bay from where I stood and vacationed many years ago is possibly where I was conceived. If I was not conceived there, I have learned that my mother spent the first part of her pregnancy with me living at home on the other side of the bay across from which I gazed. She was also likely living there for the first few years of my life, possibly including during the early years of my family vacations there.
After several minutes lost in stillness, I bid farewell to the couple and thanked them for making my visit more special. I walked back to my bike to prepare for the 93-mile ride home. I shook my head in shame for my earlier rant on social media. I pulled my phone from my pocket to delete it and to my greater shame, the platform’s gatekeepers had beaten me to it, and I received a warning about violating community standards. I was truly ashamed of myself in spite of the fact that the evening could not have been more perfect. Every mistake made in finding this place were not mistakes at all. They were gifts. Garth Brooks is not at all wrong. Some of God’s greatest gifts truly are our prayers left unanswered. This day I thought to be destroyed by navigational issues could not have happened on a better day. The weather was picture perfect midnight to midnight and I took pictures that would never have turned out as well at any other hour on this or any other day. Wearing my sweatshirt and leather riding jacket, which I had packed, the ride home was very pleasant.
Riding home I reflected on so many things I observed over the past couple hours. There was of course the shame of my undignified rant on social media. I have to live with that so there is no point in dwelling on it and allowing it to ruin the ride home. What dominated my thoughts was this. I had gone there to take pictures from a place of my childhood memories, but I had no idea I was going to be taking pictures of a place I had been months prior to my birth. I found my origins lying across the bay just beneath the setting sun.
“A birthmother puts the needs of her child above the wants of her heart.”
― Skye Hardwick
Writing Part Twenty-One has been a challenge that at times seemed insurmountable. On no less than two occasions I deeply questioned my emotional stamina to continue on this journey. Ladened with this was a simmering frustration that I was letting myself down. In the latter part of summer this year, I learned information that put me on a hot trail to learning about my biological mother. As a result, two things became evident. First, I saw purpose for my months long writer’s block. There was a reason I was to hold off writing this part. My journey was not to end before its time. Second, Part Twenty-One was not going to be the last part but rather the penultimate part. Part Twenty-Two will be where my journey becomes consummate.
Part Twenty-One had been teed up to explore healing the relationship I have with myself. In ways that I could never have imaged, this healing found me – not the other way around. It almost feels as though all I had to do is stand still for a minute. I begin this part as I began One’s Origins in March 2019, with news of the existence of not one, but two additional biological half-brothers. This time however, it is our mother we share. This addition to the journey was not due to matching DNA segments but rather by digging through publicly available records. In addition to the brother with whom I was raised, I share a biological father with two men, each of us with a different mother, and I share a biological mother with two other men, each of us with a different father.
Among myself and my two maternal half-brothers, Joe and Derek, I am the oldest. My mother was 18 years old when I was born. Six years later, Joe was born and nine years after that, Derek. Unlike my paternal half-brothers, Dan and Scott, who grew up apart from one another, Joe and Derek were raised by our mother. They came along after our mother was in the position to raise a child. Also, unlike Dan and Scott who were both born in California, Joe and Derek are east-coasters and remarkably, the three of us grew up within 75 miles of one another. With Joe and Derek, I also now have two new sisters-in-law and three new nieces. Just as with biological family on my father’s side, we have committed to remaining part of each other’s lives for as long as we live.
From Joe and Derek, I learned a little more about the circumstances and most probable motivations for my mother making the very difficult choice of adoption. Answers to many questions surrounding the circumstances of my adoption have immeasurably helped me find solace. As to how I came to be, I do not yet know all the details – and some details might well remain forever unknown. This is what I do know. On September 5, 1948, my mother, Grace Diane Vonarx was born in Fort Benning, Georgia to Floyd “Louie” Eugene Vonarx (1911 – 1991) and Evelyn Starner (1917 – 2009) who married in June of 1936. My grandfather was in the army during World War II and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He retired from the Army in Aberdeen, MD. Grace, who would grow up and spend much of her life in Aberdeen, MD and Dover, DE, was more commonly known by her middle name Diane and often called Dandy by her mother. My mother had one sister named Karen who was seven years older and had two daughters. My aunt Karen passed away in 1978 from leukemia at the age of 37. In her early fifties, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. On December 27, 2003 at the age of 55, my mother passed away surrounded by family including Joe and Derek. I was 36 years old and I was still yet an unknown. My mother died never knowing what became of her first child.
Shortly after the summer solstice of 1966, my mother, Diane and my father, Lawrence crossed paths. She, a 17-year-old self-effacing young woman who cherished solitude and being at the beach with nothing more than a book and her deepest thoughts, and he a 20-year-old ramblin’ rebel with a restless heart and an affinity for fitness and musical instruments. Nine months later a beach loving, freedom chasing rebel with a thirst for knowledge and a restless heart, partial to fitness, music and solitude was born.
At the time of my birth, the circumstances were not favorable for my mother to raise me on her own as much as she may have wanted to. I learned that she even had a name selected for me. She would use that name when she spoke about me to those in whom she confided her anguish. Giving me up for adoption was something that weighed on my mother’s heart for the rest of her life. On occasion, thinking about me would bring her to tears. I have no doubt that she would be very pleased to know that I would quickly find a loving home with a man and his wife who both longed to and could provide a stable home and a nuclear family.
On Mother’s Day 2004, Joe and Derek scattered our mother’s ashes into the waters of the Delaware Bay at Pickering Beach in Kent County, Delaware. This was one of our mother’s favorite spots to enjoy her cherished alone time. The beach is quite secluded nestled two miles east of Dover Air Force Base. The beach faces east across the Delaware Bay towards the southern tip of New Jersey. Throughout my entire life I have driven past Dover Air Force Base countless times going back and forth between home and the beaches of lower Delaware, never knowing that each time I was driving within minutes of where my mother either resided or enjoyed her peace and solitude.
On November 10, 2020 I visited Pickering Beach for the first time in my life. With about five parking spaces available for nonresident vehicles, it is not for public use. The entire beach serves as the backyard for about three dozen old small fisherman houses, some of which are occupied while others appeared to be in disrepair. There was indeed an unmistakable feeling of solitude here. I parked in one of the four remaining spots, grabbed my notebook to journal my visit and set out for the short trek to visit my mother for the very first time since the day I was born.
As I walked southward along the shorelines, I extended my left arm out over the water so she and I could hold hands and I began to speak.
“It’s me, your first son. I have dreamed of this day for longer than I can remember. I actually was not certain this day would ever arrive. What kind of life did you dream and imagine for me? What was Lawrence like? How did the two of you meet?
“I’ve missed you and have thought about you often Momma. I wish I could see you, hear you and feel you the way an infant lies in its mother’s arms just as you longed that I could have from the day you had to say goodbye to me”.
In the sounds of the small waves rolling up on this secluded beach I heard my mother crying from both the pain of loss and the joy of reuniting. At this point I lost my focus for a few minutes as these waves knocked me a bit off emotional balance.
“Sorry Momma, I got distracted. I grew up with learning and behavioral challenges and it agonized me. I felt no escape from it ever. Outside the home where I grew up, I often felt like an outsider, like I was not being accepted. I didn’t know where to turn or who to trust so I turned inward and stayed there. It was a real struggle for me . Still is today. It damaged the way I viewed myself. I had big dreams when I was little, but I was too afraid to follow them. I still fear rejection more than anything. It still hurts today.”
“Damn this is hard.” I said to myself. “But this is damn good.” At this point a levee was about to break. Nope. Too late. I began to cry like a child seeking his mother’s comfort. I did do this very thing in my life with my mom countless times as a child, but never with my mother before now, and cry I did.
Ok. Recomposed for now, I continued to speak.
“I certainly did not make things easy for my mom and dad who adopted me. As my joys were their joys, so too did my suffering become their suffering. My pain got the better of me and I lashed out and nearly destroyed myself in the process. My mom and dad made every sacrifice you could ever ask of them to honor the gift you gave them. You placed me into the most loving four hands you could ever have hoped for. I really wish you had known what a beautiful life my mom and dad worked so hard together to build for me. They raised me in a safe and secure environment. Every fall I’ve ever had they’ve been there to see to it that I got back up. I love them both very much Momma. They mean the world to me; I owe them all that I am. You would love them too. They love you very much.
“You would be proud of me Momma. I did the best I could, and I think I turned out ok. My damaged self-esteem still hurts today but I am getting better. I am going to be ok. I really am. I AM going to be ok.”
Second levee about to burst.
“I want to share something else with you Momma. I am realizing that being given away damaged my ability to trust and attach to others. I was angry throughout my life for being rejected. I was angry at the world; I was angry with myself and I am ashamed to admit that I was angry with you. I am so sorry Momma. I had no idea how much you wanted me. I now know much more of why you gave me up for adoption. It wasn’t your choice. I forgive you Momma and I am working on forgiving myself.”
Levee number two collapsed and I simply wept and wept. That evening as the setting sun filled the sky with the most serene blend of blue, orange and pink I sat down and grieved for the loss of my mother who I never knew until now and who passed away nearly 17 years earlier.
With twilight at hand, darkness was soon to follow. It was time to go. I was going to meet Joe’s family for the first time. As I stood back up I wiped as many tears away as I could from both sides of my face and then reached down to grab a fist full of sand. Since I had nothing to put the sand in, I simply filled the right front pocket of my jeans.
“Goodbye for now Momma. I love you. I promise to visit often.”
As I turned towards my car, I heard the bay breeze whisper,
“I love you Peter”
I hope to see you in Part Twenty-Two.
 To provide continuity, I have, throughout One’s Origins, endeavored to vigilantly refer to the two who raised me as Mom and Dad and to those from whom I am born as Mother and Father. In this conversation between a boy and his mother, the term mother seems a tad formal so here I use Momma.