One’s Origins: A Journey from Adoption to Identity – Part Twenty-One

“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.

Right to Left: Matt; Joe; Derek

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 three 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.

Grace Diane Vonarx circa 1967

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.

Hi Momma![1]

“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 ridicule 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.

Pickering Beach, where my mother’s ashes are scattered.

“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.

[1] 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.

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One’s Origins: A Journey from Adoption to Identity – Part Twenty

“The ultimate experiment in nature versus nurture is the one who is engaged with in a constant battle between what he was an what he wanted to be.”

― Larissa Ione

In Part Nineteen, I shared my musings on labor as a means of exchange with the world. Part Twenty is a discussion of what I have learned about not only nature versus nurture, but more profoundly, how the two seemingly have a relationship that is both dynamic and beautifully symbiotic.

As an infant adoptee raised in a nuclear family and reacquainting with biological relatives as an adult, I believe I meet any and all reasonable qualifications necessary to weigh in on the topic of nature versus nurture. I have made huge strides in emotionally processing my identity from these two most powerful forces. This was, after all, the initial primer for beginning the One’s Origins journey. From these, might the classical thinker in me find solace in understanding more clearly my own composition? In so doing, I will be left with little debate. My genetic makeup predates any influence my environment could have had on me so I shall begin with nature.

Nature

Who am I by nature and how does my nature shape how I interact with the environment that has always provided me nurture? In Part Seventeen, I introduced my biological uncle and cousins during our union/reunion in July 2019. Here, I began to learn of a few genetic predispositions. To start, my father’s mother, Elvira (nee Taylor) was a beautiful writer who poured her pained heart out on paper. Her first husband, my father’s father, from what I have learned, gave her plenty about which to write. That’s her environment but I suspect her ability to emote came by her naturally. She also had a very curious mind and enjoyed learning new things. She learned braille for no other reason than to help the blind read. Physical fitness was very important to my father and he was smitten with strumming the six-string from what I have learned from my one remaining biological uncle Bruce. More beautifully for me to learn is that my paternal lineage is also rich in other artistic creativity. My cousins, through the struggles they faced together as children got through things in no small part thanks to music, more specifically, singing and dancing. Based on several stories I have heard; we are also a resilient lot. There are a few other genetic medical dispositions that, for privacy reasons, I will not discuss. I will only say that some lesser asked questions are finding their own answers as well.

I very recently came in contact with my father’s stepbrother George who shared this true story. “Buddy [my father’s nickname] was a free spirit and we were both living in Tahoe in the early 60’s. I remember him walking to work playing a flute with a half dozen big huskies and malamute dogs following him enjoying the music!”

I think it is fair to say that by and large, emotional expressiveness is a genetic trait. My nature mandates expression. My nature sees the world through the eyes of the romantic. As I reflect on my career in a world dominated by classical thinkers, I now understand the conflict that was always at least on simmer and occasionally eruptive like an active volcano. Let’s now see what nurture has to say about things.

Nurture

Nurture has quite a bit to say about several things. This section on nurture is more content rich but that does not mean its contribution is any higher. I am merely able to provide more detail as I write from a life lived in my environment. Too start, when it comes to music, by my mom and dad’s own admission, any draw to musical instruments little, if any, credit goes to them. They did support my interest in music as I touched on in Part Four.

Very much like my biological grandmother, Elvira, my mom has always been drawn to journaling. In the years following her brain aneurysm, my mom would often write how she was feeling. Over the years, I would stumble over a few notebooks lying around and would thumb through them. The words I read were heart wrenching. Her prose and poetry would be short, rarely an entire page. The words left no doubt of her sometimes sense of both helplessness and hopelessness. I was aware that she battled challenges with depression in the aftermath of her aneurysm. Somehow and for some reason, which for both, I haven’t a clue, I compartmentalized what I read and never brought it up. I guess I figured that was then and this is now.

Because my mom and I were in sync on curiosity, we were often more candid in conversation than I was with my dad. I will get to that in a minute. My mom’s curiosity would sometimes be about the most mundane and trivial things, in my opinion, but I could always appreciate the heck out of it even while rolling my eyes.

My mom is also an extraordinarily compassionate human being. She is not vengeful in the least. I provide the background for this in the book version of One’s Origins but in 1974 an incident occurred to our family, specifically my brother (he was five), where awarded damages could have easily surpassed seven figures, but all we asked for was that the best of care and treatment be paid in full. Beyond that would be nothing more than revenge. More recently, her wallet was stolen while she was at an appointment. The thief was caught days later and arraigned. All my mom wanted were prayers for the person who stole her wallet. My mom was more saddened by the life one must live to have to resort to theft. She vehemently stood against going after the weaker and more disadvantaged among us. Is it any wonder that I never got beyond level one of office political games? I grew up learning that taking advantage of people who are less fortunate is simply wrong.

Unfortunately, the closeness my mom and I share, has not always been a walk in the park, especially for her. My mom was as many times too often the receiver of the brunt of some of my flare-ups. Too often, it was my patience that would be too quickly exhausted, and if she was in the room, I did not hold back my frustrations. I am ashamed to admit that if nearly anyone else was present, I would have held back. What a crappy way for a grown man to treat anyone but for the love we all hold dear, certainly not his own mother who is in her 80s; who, with his dad, chose him as their first adopted child.

Allowing myself to be more conscious of how I feel I am becoming actively vigilant against such things happening ever again. I still often stumble, and sometimes hard. But this vigilance I must keep practicing.

What about a boy and his dad? That’s no less instructive, I assure you. My dad grew up with his own issues as we all have. Self-esteem was often a challenge for him due in large part to the environment in which he was raised. He was the youngest of five in a family that was often too busy operating the family dairy home delivery business to address his childhood emotional needs. On Father’s Day a few years ago, I called him in the morning to wish him a happy Father’s Day and apologized that other events that weekend precluded me from making the two-and-a-half-hour one-way trip to visit him. He was weeping, which is something I haven’t heard him do since our family dog died when I was five years old. I asked him what was wrong, and he shared with me that he had no recollection of hearing either of his parents tell him they loved him. For the first time in my life I heard my dad speak a word of anything he was missing from his childhood. It was beautiful and I was not prepared for it. Nor was I prepared for what happened next. He told me how much he loved me, my brother Andrew and my mom. It was the first time I recall hearing him utter the words, “I love you.” With all my might I was holding myself together long enough to tell him I know he loves me and that I love him too. We hung up and I just sat there and immediately began to cry.

My dad was born in 1930 the year after the world fell into The Great Depression. His most formative years that would cement his world view for his entire life were spent in a decade where everything material was scarce, very scarce. Conservationism was, for all intents and purposes, his religion. As a child, this conservationist mentality was difficult for me to understand because I did not witness it much in other families. As a child, I internalized this as a shortcoming for which I somehow felt ashamed. As I got older, I began feel ashamed for feeling ashamed. Somebody stop the shame train! I gotta get off this thing. There is nothing at all to be ashamed about. In fact, I am both proud and grateful for “inheriting” a conservationist mindset from my dad. He was never a man of many resources, but he was resourceful. To borrow from the oft told fable, my dad never had many fish at once, but he knew how to fish, and he knew how to get the most out of each fish he did catch. Much more importantly however, he was grounded in understanding which fish were necessary and which were not. The lesson I learned was a catch of 10 fish was just as respectable as a catch of 100 fish or even 1,000 fish, as long as you knew that 10 fish is all you needed to provide the necessities in life. To this day I find myself conserving resource so they last as long as possible. In Part Twenty-one I will explain further how this has been critical for One Origins. For now, let me just say, “Thanks Dad!”

My mom and I have always been able to chat about many things but my dad and I rarely, if ever, got below the surface of anything when I was younger. This journey has helped shepherd me to a place where I can stand with him and love him for the man he is and all he sacrificed for me and not stand against him as the man whose dream I felt obligated to fulfill.

My relationship with my parents is not the only one benefiting from this experience. My relationship with Andrew is growing richer, at least through my eyes. He and I drifted down along the river in the same boat together as children and young adults. He came into a home with three inhabitants. He was hit from three sides with environmental influences, not the least of which was me who, early on, predictably saw him as a competitor for my Mom and Dad’s attention and affection. I squandered some opportunities to step up and be the best big brother I could have been for him when I was living recklessly many years ago. This means nothing at all for the opportunities to be there for him in the years ahead.

My conclusion as to who I am by nature and who am I by nurture is less complex than I might have imagined. In my paternal bloodline is an affinity for creative expression. I am an emotional being. By nurture, I am also an emotional being but one who pursued paths where artistic expressiveness was not particularly valued. My nurture put me on my life’s path. I am product of my past experiences as much as I am a product of my genetics.

“In the real world there is no nature vs. nurture argument, only an infinitely complex and moment-by-moment interaction between genetic and environmental effects.”

― Gabor Maté

I have been winding down One’s Origins examining my relationships with the world at large, followed by my most immediate influences. In Part Twenty-One, I will conclude One’s Origins with a fresh examination of the relationship I now have with myself. It is this relationship alone that defines every other relationship I have with all other beings. See you there!

 

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A Son’s Early Christmas Gift

Less than three weeks to go before Christmas and I have been given one of the greatest Christmas gifts any adult child of living parents could ever hope for. My dad suffered a mild heart attack. Yes, you read that correctly and yes, I love my dad and I shudder the thought of ever losing him. I say that his heart attack was a gift because he did not succumb to it. It did not take him away from us.

On the evening of December 5, I received a text from my mom sent to me and my brother informing us that our dad was in the ER with chest pains. After a couple hours and several back and forth texts, we learned that he was in fact in the middle of a heart attack, clinically referred to as a myocardial infarction. He would be kept overnight for more tests and a cardiac catheterization first thing in the morning. Against my mother’s wishes that we not act impulsively, I had an overnight bag packed and was out the door rather quickly to make the three-hour drive to Sussex County in Delaware where they have been living for the past 17 years.

I went straight to the hospital. He was still in the ER and my mom was with him. She had driven him to the hospital that afternoon and had been there ever since. I did not arrive until 11:00 PM. I won’t belabor the details but suffice it to say that his diagnosis of a heart attack was no joke. As I sat with my mom next to his bed in the ER, the nurse began to ask several questions and two of them I found rather jarring. “Do you have a living will?” and “Would you like a minister to visit with you?” Hearing her ask that last question was like a bucket of ice thrown in my face. My immediate thought was “Excuse me! What are you implying?” In that moment, I began to process the notion of the family’s first Christmas without Dad. Every unsaid word between us that I ever wish had been said came rushing through my head and all tomorrows with him began to dissolve before my eyes. For a moment I allowed myself to turn my focus away from how I was responding to all this and look for clues about how he was feeling. We Gorman men never achieved any measurable degree of mastery in talking about how we feel. Nonetheless, I was sensing that he was very frightened and despite the physical presence of my mom and me, he felt alone in his mortality.

Later, my mom and I prepared to leave for the night. She walked out of the room ahead of me. Every unsaid word was stampeding through my mind and I refused to walk out of the room without giving life to the most important amongst them. I turned back to face my dad and took one step towards the side of his bed and I got down on one knee. I took his hand, looked him in the eye and I said, “I love you Dad. You are stubborn and sometimes I think you’re bone-headed, but you’ve always had my back.” It only took about eight or nine seconds for me to say these words to him while we looked into each other’s eyes. But that was plenty of time for both of us to get choked up. In no more than a whisper, he said while holding back tears, “I love you too.” I put my other hand on the back of his head and kissed him right above his forehead. By now I was incapable of speaking through my own tears. The last sentence that I said only to myself is “I am not ready to lose you.” As I walked my mom out to my car, I refused to entertain any outcome that did not include him returning home soon.

The follow morning, corrective procedures were performed to alleviate that which triggered the heart attack. All went as well as we could have hoped. My mom and I arrived back at the hospital and Dad was recovering from the morning’s procedure. The doctor who performed the procedure stopped by to provide us with the post-procedure summary. After explaining things in ways that made it easy for us to understand, he took on a more serious tone and said exactly what I was beginning to conclude on my own. He looked at my mom then at me and said, “Your husband/father is very lucky he got here when he did.”  Yes, we are very lucky. We are very blessed. We are very grateful. And that was only part of my early Christmas gift.

Not only did I receive the gift of the opportunity to say those three little words man-to-man; son-to-dad while he is alive, but the door has also been opened to organize the scores of so many other thoughts and words that flooded my head when I heard the nurse ask if there was denomination preference for clergy. I had been given the chance to use that moment when I knelt by his bedside to explore further what our relationship means to each other and what it has meant throughout the years. Far too often are loved ones lost while their survivors agonize over all that is left unsaid.

In a most surprising way, I shall also be grateful that my, shall I say ‘quiet’, employment situation allowed me to drop everything and be by their side through this.

After my mom and I went home on day two, we had dinner and I returned to the hospital for a one-hour night visit alone. As we sat there, my dad told me something of which I am very aware if even at times only subconsciously. He pointed out that my brother Andrew and I, both in our fifties, are fortunate to enjoy the longevity of both our parents. He is right. But we are more than fortunate. We are truly blessed. Thanks in no small part to social media, I am very aware of so many of my contemporaries who have lost one or both parents. At best I could only ever imagine how such pain could possibly feel. That imagination had become quite vivid.

The following day, my mom and I, along with their dog Latte, headed to the hospital to pick up Dad who was being discharged. Once home, I backed into their driveway to make sure his side of the car was near the front path to the door. I opened the door to help him along and told him I had two things to say. First, “Welcome home!” and second, “I am sure happy it is me saying that and not Saint Peter.”

If I may offer this to all – and I doubt anyone will be hearing this for the first time. Tell you your loved ones you love them. If this is not something you find comfortable, you are not alone. Do it anyway. You will be very happy you did. Trust me on this. Grief, it is said, is nothing more than unexpressed love.

God bless you all! For all who share in the faith and tradition in which I was raised, I wish you a very Merry Christmas. For all others, I wish you a very joyous Holiday Season.

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