Monthly Archives: October 2013

Medical History Part II

As adopted adults, we all want to know about the diseases that run in our families. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about uncovering my medical history and learning about my family’s health problems.

Well, I’ve got to be honest. Digging up the truth about my mother, Lillian, has caused me pain. My heart sank when I first talked to my mother’s sister-in-law, Carolyn, a friendly woman who I called out of the blue over Labor Day weekend. Carolyn told me Lillian had a problem with alcohol and mental illness and she was not the only one in her large family to struggle with those demons.

Oh boy. Those are not the first things I wanted to hear about the woman who brought me into the world, a woman I never knew but my first mother all the same.  I felt like a heavy weight had just fallen on me. It really hurt.

But, I reasoned, Carolyn didn’t know Lillian all that well and didn’t really like her. What she remembered about Lillian was not flattering. I didn’t want to take Carolyn’s word for it so I called other people who were close to Lillian. They confirmed what Carolyn told me.

Lillian may have suffered from bipolar disorder. My mother’s best friend, Nancy, recalled the time she and Lillian were at Nancy’s home and they were peeling potatoes. My mother told Nancy, “those voices in my head are telling me to kill you.” Nancy replied, “tell those things to go to hell.” She took the knife away from Lillian, sat her down and offered her beer. Before long, Lillian was fast asleep.

You can’t pass judgments on someone with breast cancer, which is what killed my mother, but you react differently to mental illness and alcoholism. They carry a stigma. It would have hurt me less if I had learned those truths after learning other things about my mother – her hobbies, family background, religion, politics, favorite books or movie stars. When you go on this type of journey, you swallow hard and take the discoveries as they come.

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness characterized by sweeping mood swings During manic periods, people can become extremely talkative and behave recklessly. It lowers inhibitions and causes people to make bad decisions. The high periods can morph into dark periods in which people feel irritated or angry. During depressed periods, people can experience a loss of energy, feel sad or worthless, and have trouble sleeping. Many people who are bipolar also suffer from alcoholism.

whiskey photo in a glass
Image courtesy of
Suat Eman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of
David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

My mother ran around with guys. That’s how I came into the world, according to people I’ve talked to who were close to Lillian.

Lillian and her family lived modestly but one year, my mother spent an eye-popping $5,000 on Christmas. Lillian’s husband cut up the credit cards and Lillian proceeded to trash everything in the refrigerator.

If I didn’t know about her health problems, I would hold those shenanigans against her.  What kind of wife and mother goes out with other men? Why wasn’t she home with her family? How does a mom with four kids (five if you count me, the secret child) have the time or energy to run around? How could a responsible woman blow that kind of cash on Christmas? That was an astronomical sum of money for her family, as it would be for many families, mine included.

Risky sex and spending sprees are not uncommon for people with bipolar disorder.

Learning about Lillian’s problems with booze and mental illness help me understand and excuse her behavior. I think the voices in her head, mixed with too much beer and whiskey, explain why she did the things she did.

Alcoholism and bipolar disorder run in families. Lillian and I share genes but we never shared our lives together. We had very different childhoods. Lillian grew up poor in Depression-era Indiana. She was a “welfare child,” as the U.S. Census described her, and she lived with at least two foster families. I grew up in Chicago in a comfortable, lower-middle class home with my adoptive parents and sister, Melissa. We lived in the same house throughout our childhood.

I am one of the calmer people I know. I hate drama and try to keep my life on an even keel as much as possible. I’m not bipolar. I’m also not an alcoholic though I enjoy wine.

I wonder if mental illness, alcoholism and other forms of addiction were common problems for birth moms who gave their babies up for adoption.

On Monday: Medical History Part II

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about uncovering my medical history and the relief it gives me as an adoptee to know about the diseases that run in my family.

To be honest, though, it has not been easy to learn the truth about my mother, Lillian. My heart sank when I found out about her struggles with  alcohol and mental illness. She was not the only one in the family to fight those demons.

I’ll tell you more on Monday.

whiskey photo in a glass
Image courtesy of
Suat Eman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

Who’s Your Daddy?

I will always think of Bob Miller as my real dad.

He did not pass his genes on to me but so what? Bob did all the things good fathers are supposed to do. He read stories to me before bedtime. He played tennis with me. He drove me and my sister, Melissa, to the piano teacher’s house for lessons. (He never covered his ears when we practiced.)

Me and Dad in Virginia Beach 1998
That’s me with Dad in Virginia Beach in 1998

When the fourth grade bully jumped on my back and knocked me down, Dad chased Maureen, grabbed her by the collar and hauled her into the principal’s office.

When I was in eighth grade, my parents wanted to get me into a high school in a better neighborhood. Dad talked to the principal. Tell the school your daughter wants to study cosmetology, the principal advised. Well what do you know? My make-believe interest in hair styling got me into a newer high school in a safer neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side. Way to go, Bob, and good tip from Mr. Mulcahey.

Born in 1910, Bob Miller grew up in a big family – he had something like 10 brothers and sisters. They lived in Menominee, a tiny town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “God’s country,” was how he described the area.

Bob moved south, lived in a boardinghouse when he was young and single and worked as a linotype operator. My mother, Claire, accused him of having that “boardinghouse reach” whenever he helped himself to seconds at dinner. Dad could really eat, especially dessert. For a man with a hearty appetite, Bob was always slender, skinny actually. I used to think I inherited his appetite and metabolism. When I was a girl, I could pack the food away and never gain an ounce. I also have slender fingers which I used to think I got from my father.

claire, bob and bobby
My parents, Bob and Claire, with their son, Bobby, in the 1940s

Bob was an unrefined gentleman. He cursed freely but the words didn’t mean much. He would have been a better dad if he had stood up to Claire occasionally. He always deferred to our high-strung, self-centered mother.

The last time I saw my father, he was flat on his back on a hospital bed. Even though he was dying, Bob gave me a smile when I said good-bye.

Bob Miller was not my biological father but I didn’t know that when he passed away in 1999, less than a year after Claire died. My loving but secretive parents never told Melissa and me we were adopted. We never found a single document related to our adoptions.  One of our cousins told us the truth in 2002.

My biological dad is “not legally known,” as the birth certificate puts it. That makes me some man’s love child. He’s a mystery to me whoever he is. As I wrote earlier, my bio dad liked to play golf but that’s all I know about him. He may know even less about me.

Do you know who your dad is? What do you think of him?

Medical History Part 1

Every time I go to the doctor’s office, the doctor asks me about my medical history. My answer is always the same: “I’m adopted. I don’t know anything about my medical history.”

Fortunately, that’s no longer true. I’m not completely in the dark about the medical issues that run in my family.

If I learn nothing more about my biological relatives, I will be grateful for the information I have about my birth mother’s health.

Lillian died of breast cancer at the age of 48. That’s what several family members told me and I confirmed it by obtaining a copy of Lillian’s death certificate from the state of Illinois.

Lillian and Howard, wedding day
Lillian with her husband, Howard, in 1971

Not knowing anything about our medical history is a common frustration among adoptees. Even those of us who are healthy want to know which diseases run in the family. Everyone should know their medical history, particularly information on their closest relatives. Having the knowledge means we can ask better questions of our doctors. The knowledge also gives us the power to make lifestyle changes or ask our doctors for specific screenings – whatever steps we can take to counter our genetic heritage.

I have a 13-year-old son, Jake, so my medical history could mean something to him.

jake on clinton rd
My son, Jake, in 2013. Below, little Jake and me in 2003

me and Jake at beach in 2003

It’s impossible to prepare for inherited risks you don’t know about. During an online search, I found these comments, written by an adoptee on Adoption.com:

“My brother…he was also adopted (we had different birth parents). His medical past was littered with mental and physical illness that our parents knew nothing about. It was only when he became a teenager that they could tell something was not right with him. They had his records unsealed by the court system and were shocked to see everything that had not been disclosed. They got him help but he is disabled to the point that he lives in an assisted living facility for the mentally disabled. Had they known earlier, maybe it could have helped, maybe not, but at least knowing about it could have made the situation different.

Although I knew that I was generally healthy, there are lots of things out there that can be carried, or can skip generations. I love the fact that my history is no longer unknown.”

Exactly. It is strangely comforting for me to have a name for the disease that killed my mother.

This week I called my gynecologist. In addition to an annual mammogram, should I do anything more as far as screenings for breast cancer? I asked. Should I be tested for the BRCA genes? (Mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are linked to breast and ovarian cancers. Angelina Jolie, after testing positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation, opted to have a double mastectomy.)

The office worker put me on hold to consult the staff. Minutes later, she returned to the phone. As long as you don’t notice any changes in your breasts, she said, you can wait until your annual exam, which is coming up in a couple of months, to discuss the options with your doctor. Ok, that settles that, I thought.

Thinking of Jake, I went online to find out about the risk factors for breast cancer in men. Male breast cancer is rare but, according to the Mayo Clinic, having a family history of breast cancer can increase a guy’s chance of developing the disease. I’m not going to lose sleep over this but it is something to keep in mind.

What have you done differently since you learned about your medical history or your child’s history? I’d love to hear from adoptees and adoptive parents.

 

 

 

 

Coming Monday: Uncovering Medical History

Every time I go to the doctor’s office, the doctor asks me about my medical history. My answer is always the same: “I’m adopted. I don’t know anything about my medical history.”

This is a common frustration for adoptees.

Fortunately, I’m no longer completely in the dark about the medical problems that run in my family.

If I learn nothing more about my biological kin, I will be grateful for the information I have about my birth mother’s health. Stay tuned. I’ll have more to say about medical history on Monday.

nice photo of Lillian and Howard
My birth mother, Lillian

Here’s to Adoptee Rights

A birth mother’s right to privacy should not trump an adoptee’s right to know where she came from, writes Natalie Turko-Norton in a letter published in the Montreal Gazette.

Turko-Norton eloquently argues that adoptees should not have to settle for incomplete information (or no information) about their origins.

full disclosure

“Their right should not be trumped by the birth mother’s right to anonymity,” writes Turko-Norton. “Her background is not a mystery. It is the child, now an adult, given up for adoption, whose life is a mystery. What gives society the right to condemn such a person to a life of ‘not-knowing’ because the birth mother wants to preserve her intact life and new family? This is not a level playing field by any means.”

Parallel Lives

For adoptees, it’s hard to resist family comparisons. I can’t help but compare my sheltered childhood on the southwest side of Chicago to what I know of my biological family’s life in the suburbs north of the city.

My family’s bungalow on South Sacramento Avenue and my birth mother Lillian’s home on Alice Drive are only 35 miles apart, but the two families might as well have lived on separate planets. That’s how different they were.

My mother, Claire, and father, Bob, didn’t work outside the home. Dad was a retired linotype operator and Mom was a homemaker. They were in their 50s when they adopted me days after I was born. A year later, they adopted my newborn sister, Melissa. This was in the 1960s. Mom and Dad were unlikely parents to two little school girls who never knew they were adopted. Were they our grandparents? Claire and Bob bristled every time they heard that question.

They had plenty of time to supervise Melissa and me. They were helicopter parents before anyone used that expression to describe annoying moms and dads who hover constantly over their kids. Claire and Bob were ahead of their time.

good photo of Claire + her sisters
My adoptive mother, Claire, center, with her sisters, El, left, and Marie

We didn’t get away with anything because our parents watched us like hawks. Dad drove us to and from school every day. We were not allowed to play with the kids across the street because Claire thought they were too “street-y.” Melissa and I were goody-goodies not because we wanted to be but because we didn’t have a choice. I read a lot of books because there was nothing better to do. In the summers, I rode my bike around Marquette Park over and over again. I went to the library for more books. I counted the days until school started. Time passed very slowly on South Sacramento. I dreamed about moving out of that boring prison and getting a taste of the real world.

On Alice Drive, my sister and her three brothers had fun and freedom. They went on family outings and played with little supervision. Their parents, Lillian and Dick, both worked and were not around enough to watch the kids closely. Sometimes my siblings got into mischief.

 

Lillian when she graduated bigger
My birth mother, Lillian, in 1953

Lillian’s pregnancy with me may have been the last straw for the marriage. I was not Dick’s child. She and Dick divorced not long after I was born. Their breakup hurt the family. My sister’s grades dropped. There was more pain for the children when Lillian got angry and lashed out at them. As teenagers, my brothers and sister got into drugs and sex and no doubt rock and roll. One of my brothers, a brainy boy who got good grades, took his life. Lillian was never the same after her boy died.

That’s one thing Lillian and Claire had in common. My adoptive parents had a biological son, Bobby, who also died young – of a kidney ailment. Claire and Bob were devastated. They withdrew from their family and the world. They never left the house, not even to buy food. They had somebody deliver the groceries. Adopting me and Melissa brought my parents back to diapers, baby food and the real world. It helped them heal.

I resented having parents who smothered me but maybe having a child die is what made Mom and Dad so protective of their daughters.

I didn’t have any boyfriends in high school and didn’t have a drink until my senior year. Melissa and I graduated and went to college. We never got to go away to school – Mom and Dad wouldn’t allow that – but we graduated from college, something neither of our parents had done. Claire and Bob were proud.

My life never intersected with Lillian’s. She was only 48 when she died in 1983. Not long after her death, another one of her sons died after a long struggle with injuries he suffered in an auto accident.

I wonder how different my life would have been if I had grown up with Lillian and her family. Would I be the person I am today with different parents and siblings?

All I know for sure is I am grateful to Lillian for giving me life and extremely grateful to Claire and Bob for adopting me. Maybe their overly protective but loving style of parenting was just what I needed.

 

Coming on Monday: “Parallel Lives”

I grew up in a modest bungalow on the Southwest Side of Chicago. My biological family  lived in an unassuming home in the suburbs  north of Chicago. The houses are only 35 miles apart, but the two families might as well have lived on separate planets. That’s how different they were.

Read more about our parallel lives on Monday.

good photo of Claire + her sisters
My mother, Claire, center, with her sisters, El, left, and Marie
Lillian when she graduated bigger
My first mother, Lillian

Who is Bio Dad?

When you don’t know who your biological parents are, you jump on any little scrap of information you can get.

I’ve talked to several people who knew my mother, including her best friend, Nancy. During our first conversation, she assured me she had no idea who my bio father could be. The second time we talked, she told me she never knew my father but very casually mentioned he was a golfer. A golfer?  A professional golfer? A suburban guy who liked to putt around on the golf course for fun? Nancy didn’t know. How long did he and my mother go out? I asked. Just a couple times, Nancy said. Hmmm. Very interesting.

good golfing photo
Courtesy of Flickr/Sean MacEntee

That’s all I know about my father. My mother was married and had four kids when she met him. She worked as a waitress and cook at a number of bars, restaurants and a very nice private club with a golf course in the suburbs north of Chicago. Did she meet my father at one of those places? Possibly. I don’t know where she was working in the summer of 1963, which is when I was conceived.

I hope a DNA test will move my search in the right direction. Using Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test kit, I scraped samples of DNA from the insides of my cheeks and sent the results back to the company. Family Tree DNA will contact me if my sample matches any samples in the company’s database.

I know where my mother came from and what her childhood and adult life were like. I have a picture of her in my head and several photos of her on my desk.

Dad is a mystery man. Unless I find someone who knew him, someone who can tell me what he was like, I’ll always picture my father as some featureless guy in a golf shirt toting a cart full of clubs and flirting with married waitresses.