Published on June 19th, 2023 | by Angela Tucker1
The “M” Word
The following is an excerpt from You Should Be Grateful”: Stories of Race, Identity, and Transracial Adoption.
An email notification popped up on my iPhone. I clicked the notification to find an email from Deborah. The subject line read, “My 1st Airplane ride!” Two years after visiting Chattanooga, I invited Deborah to Seattle. I was eager to show her my childhood bedroom, the high school I attended, and the track where I had won so many races, and I wanted to play a song for her on the piano. I was giving a keynote speech at an adoption fundraiser event and thought that would be the perfect finale to her trip. For her to see me up on stage, speaking confidently and with authority, would provide proof that I had turned out okay. I held hope that it would wipe away the pain of her decision.
“Angela, I am looking forward to my first airplane ride. Just let me know how to get on the airplane and when. Oh, and what will it feel like up in the air? What should I wear on the plane? Weather-wise, do I need special clothes for that, too? Just let me know what I should do!”
I spent the next few weeks preparing Deborah for the flight. Deborah told me that she’d only been outside the state of Tennessee once in her life. I taught her about the metal detectors and that she’d likely need to take her shoes off and empty her pockets. Deborah didn’t have a cell phone, so we walked through every step of the process before she left. “Where will my Baby Doll sit? Did you get a spot for her, too?” she asked one day.
“Nope. She’ll have to go in your suitcase. Maybe you could tell her it’s a nighttime roller coaster ride?” I suggested, having become somewhat accustomed to the important place Baby Doll held in Deborah’s life. It always hurt just a bit though, because I felt a strange jealousy for Baby Doll, which seemed too ridiculous to name, even to myself. I knew that Deborah’s ability to take care of an inanimate “baby” was not the same as a real baby, and I knew this did not mean she could have cared for me, but she was so thoughtful and tender when she spoke of the doll. It was a motherly sweetness that I’d desired to have directed at me.
Often, in our conversations and in person, Deborah felt distant, withdrawn. She didn’t always want to answer my tougher, deeper questions. I felt a sort of emotional wall between us. But then she’d go grab Baby Doll and demonstrate her ability to be present, noticing her “needs.” The oddity of this is still confusing to me, yet simultaneously beautifully humane. The human brain is miraculous and creative when finding ways to cope with heartache and pain.
I counted down to the day she’d arrive by my night sweats. I woke on the nights leading up to her trip around two in the morning, drenched in sweat, and perspiring through my sheets. Each time I woke in a panic, bolting upright, trying to catch my breath. Five more nights of the night sweats. Four more night sweats till she’s here. Three more nights to go. Two more nights of waking up dripping in sweat. One more night to wake up out of breath, and finally the day arrived.
Deborah walked toward us in the baggage claim area of Sea-Tac airport, wearing the Seattle Mariners T-shirt we had bought for her. She hugged me quickly. She held eye contact with my mom and Bryan while her eyes slid from mine after just a moment. She couldn’t wait to tell us about each detail of her flight. She told us about the helpful flight attendant who showed her to her seat, buckled her seat belt, and brought her snacks and drinks.
“You know what was confusing, though?” Deborah asked with a quizzical look on her face. “It never felt like I was flying once we were in the air. I just sat there for a long time and now I’m here. I was so excited to see how fast we’d go, but it didn’t feel like I was moving at all. I don’t know why I even needed a seatbelt.”
Deborah had a unique way with words. For the first few minutes of a conversation, she was reserved and detached, cautiously assessing the situation, deciding if it was safe to be honest or not. But if her depth sounding came back good, something would shift and suddenly, with an unexpected turn of phrase or a delightful anecdote, I’d find myself chuckling quietly. Feeding off my delight, Deborah would go in for more. Her laugh is fantastic. I remember the first time I heard it. It’s low and deep—almost guttural. It bubbles up somewhat unexpectedly and then takes over everything, sometimes even her lungs. If the joke is good enough, it sends her into a small coughing fit from which she quickly recovers to repeat the punchline.
It was as though Deborah were a child on her first trip to Disneyland, peeking around each corner with barely suppressed excitement.
Except, to me, we were at the drab airport, filled with germs, luggage, stress, and my new mother. My biological mother. My kin. Seattle showed off for Deborah’s arrival. Mount Rainier was visible, Puget Sound sparkled, and the enormous evergreen trees that lined Interstate 5 shone in the sun. Flying from Tennessee to the Pacific Northwest will involve some level of culture shock for anyone. I know Nay-Nay experienced this during her trip. Sentences don’t end with “yes ma’am” or “no ma’am,” and instead of churches on every corner there are Starbucks.
We drove along scenic Chukanut Drive for the last thirty minutes before arriving in Bellingham. The narrow highway curves along a mountain with picturesque seascapes below where on a clear day you can see all the San Juan islands. We passed an oyster bar that garnered Deborah’s attention, given that she’d only ever lived in a landlocked state. Even though Bellingham is a city where although less than 2 percent of the population is Black, you’ll see Black Lives Matter signs on nearly half of people’s yards.
I wasn’t sure if she’d be comfortable in a town so different from hers. I also wasn’t sure if I was ready to see my biological mother in my environment that I’d adapted and assimilated to so well. Would it feel like a split screen where I was seeing both my birth mom in a foreign environment and a foreign person in my environment?
“Do you know how many white people I knew before your family stood outside my house on the street?” Deborah asked and then paused. I didn’t dare guess. “I could count them on one hand,” she announced.
Deborah told me that she wasn’t scared of all of the white people in Bellingham because the five white people she had known in her life were all very kind to her.
When we stopped at coffee shops, hearing her accent, the baristas would ask Deborah where she was from and what brought her to the Pacific Northwest. It was always an awkward moment for me. Deborah would often offer more than seemed politically correct. She’d say things like, “I’m from Tennessee and am here to see this girl. She’s mine, but not really. You see, I’m not like Angela’s mother. I can’t sew.”
The barista would nod and smile but look confused. Another time someone asked Deborah about her trip, she responded by saying, “Angela’s foster parents wanted to keep her, but they couldn’t because of all of her medical issues, and they’re white people! So if they couldn’t do it, what chance would I stand in getting her the help she needed?”
I would glance at her quickly, wanting to rush into the conversation and provide context, but typically ended up letting it go, primarily because I was more focused on how I’d never heard Deborah refer to herself as my mother. She never used the words “she’s my daughter” or “I’m her mother.”
She referred to my adoptive mom as my mother. There was no hesitancy or sense of sadness in Deborah’s voice or body language. It was just a matter of fact. I wondered what it would take for Deborah to use the M-word. Did she view that word as a verb? An action? Was it an attempt to trick herself and protect her from remembering that she gave birth to me? I didn’t refer to Deborah as my mother either; I called her my birth mom, but that was primarily out of habit.
The term “birth mother” was first created in 1972 by an adoptive mother who was uncomfortable sharing the title of “mom” and found a way to differentiate. Birth parents, however, have advocated to change the term to “first mother” to recognize the primacy of the relationship that these parents have in the lives of their children. Rickie Solinger, author of Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe v. Wade, writes, “Language is a way for a powerless group to reclaim power and fight exploitation and oppression.”
When Deborah and I met, I immediately recognized her as a member of this powerless group. Her weathered body revealed the depth of poverty. But perhaps a part of me expected this dynamic to shift as we started to get to know each other. Would Deborah ever feel it right to call herself my mother? My birth mother? My first mother?
While Deborah was in town, I was preparing for my speech at the gala. I was also telling everyone that Deborah was going to be in attendance and that I wanted them to meet her. I prepped Deborah for the event by letting her know this was a fundraiser for adoption and foster care. I let her know that she would hear stories from others who were in foster care and that I would be speaking about life as a transracial adoptee. I wanted to warn her that some of the information might trigger her into thoughts about that time in her life. I also wanted her to be aware that the three hundred guests would be primarily white, wealthy people wearing fancy outfits. I recognized it might be a challenging experience for her in some ways but also wanted her to see me and feel pride about who I’d become. I wanted to roll out the red carpet for her, both metaphorically and literally.
I was standing in the ballroom peeking through the hundreds of guests, trying to see if my mom and birth mom had ascended the escalator yet. My view was blocked by a stranger who saw my name on the program and wanted to talk to me.
“I’m looking forward to hearing your speech!” the man said. “Adoption is such a blessing! Where do you think you’d be now if you hadn’t been adopted?” He paused with a look of quizzical wonder. “Who knows if you would’ve even gotten a college degree?”
The gentleman was right; I certainly wouldn’t be where I am now. But he was wrong in his assumption about my education. We simply cannot know what life would’ve been. It’s so tempting to simplify the complex. But when we do that, someone gets hurt. Hiding the complexity of the results of my adoption asks me to pay a high price: the price of filtering my beliefs about Deborah and her abilities to parent. Does he believe that education is more important than biological connection? In that split second, I filtered out his sweeping, painful generalizations and prioritized his good intentions over the negative impact it had on me.
I looked at him with kindness and grace, while offering a bit of a different perspective. “Adoption does provide a different life,” I said, erasing the judgment about it being good or bad, better or worse. He gave me a perfunctory pat on the back and walked away.
I turned to go find some respite by looking busy at the cocktail bar when I saw Deborah, holding her baby doll, and my mom ascending the escalator. They were immediately greeted by an impromptu receiving line welcoming them into the ballroom. I imagined they felt like celebrities. It filled me with me surprising pride. I watched Deborah as she shook hands and greeted the line of guests. I watched her mannerisms, her facial expressions, her choice of clothing, her stature, her height. Deborah looked lovely. Before arriving, she and my mom must have gone to Nordstrom’s to get a complimentary makeover. I’d never seen her with lipstick or a dewy shine on her forehead.
She stayed close to my mom, taking cues from her about how to interact with people in this setting. She was even shorter than I remembered. I couldn’t help but reflect, again, on how different Deborah and I were. Speaking to large crowds, meet and greets, and such are my bread and butter. I feel at ease in a big crowd, happy to glitter amid an admiring and enthusiastic audience. This receiving line did not seem to put Deborah at ease. Quite the opposite. Her hand looked firm as the donors gripped it with the excitement that I’d desired. But her eyes seemed to dart away from their faces. I noticed my mom’s hand on her back, as though to steady her.
Oh no, I thought. This is too much for her. I didn’t realize the reason that she looked zoned out was because she was having an aura: a warning sign of the onset of a seizure. I was staring at her when I noticed spit foaming at her mouth. Suddenly, her limbs stiffened and jerked; one side of her mouth went limp, drool escaping to her bottom lip. I jumped up from the bar stool as Deborah slumped to the ground, my mom catching her head to keep it from hitting the floor. She began convulsing. Her legs, arms, eyes were erratic. I could see only the whites of her eyeballs for what seemed like forever.
As I watched in horror, someone called the EMTs who arrived within minutes. “She had a tonic-clonic seizure,” a doctor reported to the medic. The doctor was an attendee of the event who happened to be standing right next to her when she began to seize. “She was unconscious for two minutes and thirteen seconds. Her pulse is 116.”
The medic thanked the doctor and let him know that they’d take over from here. I was sitting on the floor on one side of Deborah at this point with my mom on the other side. We’d rolled Deborah on her side to make sure she didn’t choke on her tongue.
“How do you know the patient?” the medic asked, looking in my direction.
“She is my mom!” I surprised myself by using those words.
“Does your mom have a history of seizures?” I recalled Deborah telling me that she had experienced a seizure or two in her past, so I told them that she did. They asked when her last seizure was. I didn’t know. They followed up by asking about the frequency of her seizures. I didn’t know that either.
“I don’t really know her very well,” I mumbled quietly.
The EMTs continued to ask questions about her health and her medication use and tried to establish a timeline and a better understanding of what occurred. My body grew hot with embarrassment at how little I knew about this woman who birthed me.
I stared at Deborah as she was put on the stretcher and wheeled into the ambulance, my mind racing with thoughts I couldn’t stop. I shouldn’t have brought her here. I pushed her too much. I asked too many questions and put her in this overwhelming, foreign environment.
We arrived at the hospital and sat in the waiting room for an hour. One of Deborah’s eyes would not fully open, and the other eye wandered around, unable to focus on anything. Her body slumped over as though none of her muscles were available to support her body. My mom held her body upright, gently rubbed her back, and placed Deborah’s baby doll in her lap. While I trusted the doctors that she was fine to wait, I couldn’t just sit there helplessly. I paced and wandered. Going to the drinking fountain and looking out the window. I couldn’t bring myself to quietly sit with Deborah as my mom was doing.
I watched the two of them from across the waiting room. One mom I knew very well, the other I hardly knew at all. The mom I knew was a caretaker, confident in chaotic or scary situations, comfortable with medical crises, and entirely unflappable, calm under duress. The other mom was completely unrecognizable to me, a little frightening even. I’d watched similar scenes many times growing up when a brother or sister needed care. Except Deborah wasn’t my mom’s daughter. She was my mom. Looking at both of them felt like listening to two songs at the same time, overlapping melodies being sung in different keys and rhythms. Each song beautiful on its own, but overwhelming when juxtaposed with one another.
“Deborah, who is the president of the United States?” the nurse asked Deborah in the small hospital room. Deborah mouthed something, but no sound came out. “What city are you in?” the nurse tried again.
“Tennessee,” Deborah mumbled.
“Deborah, you’re in Seattle, Washington, right now. You are in the hospital,” the nurse spoke clearly, leaning close to Deborah’s ear. “Do you remember what happened?”
Deborah shook her head.
The nurse looked at me and my mom, who were sitting just a couple feet away in the cramped room. She explained what the postictal phase looks like after a seizure and how it typically includes a period of confusion and memory loss. She said she’d ask Deborah a series of questions now and then would come back in a half hour to ask those same questions again to measure her recovery and clarity.
“Deborah, can you tell me the names of your kids?” she asked as she took Deborah’s wrist to take her pulse.
“Timothy, James, and Nay-Nay,” Deborah responded.
She didn’t mention me.
Deborah forgot about me and her other adopted daughter.
I realized I was holding my breath when my mom reached out and patted my back. I let the breath out. Deborah’s seizure started somewhere in her temporal lobe, which is the place in the brain responsible for creating memories. The hippocampus receives new information and stores it, however only for a short period of time. If the hippocampus decides it’s important information, it’ll ship it to a different part of the brain for long-term storage. Perhaps since I had been out of Deborah’s life for so long, I never made it past her short-term memory. I reached to hold her hand and she looked at me as though she had no clue who I was. I wondered if she had received the photos and updates about me throughout her life, would I be encoded into her long-term memory?
Deborah stayed in the hospital for four hours. We learned that she had a history of epilepsy but did not take her medication regularly. I wondered if she had brought her medication on this trip. As Deborah returned to her baseline, she became increasingly impatient, threatening to leave the hospital before they discharged her.
My mom spoke to her with an aching tenderness, “Deborah, we’ll head to our house as soon as they say we can go. David is home getting your bed ready for you right now. I bet you’re exhausted.”
I got the sense that Deborah doesn’t like to waste time on negative emotions if she can help it. Things are bad, uncomfortable, unjust, unfair, unpleasant—that’s just the way life is. Neither tears nor sadness will change the outcome. This certainly doesn’t mean she has no feeling or that feelings don’t overwhelm her. Indeed, I learned that she’s battled depression and at certain times has been homebound. But she doesn’t tend to spend time worrying or fearing other people’s opinions or being scared or sad.
Deborah mustered up strength to respond to my mom, albeit with slurred speech. “I’m all worn out from being nice,” she said. “I’m ready to go home.” My mom and I exchanged a look, unsure if she was speaking metaphorically.
We left the hospital after the doctors cleared her to go. She was still experiencing delirium, but the nurses advised us that Deborah would likely fall asleep quite soon and stay asleep until her body had recovered somewhat. Indeed, she fell asleep the minute we helped her into the front seat of the car and barely woke up to transition to the bedroom. We guided her up the stairs and my mom tucked her in, just as she did for so many of her kids.
After Deborah was situated in the bedroom, I beelined to the dark-wood spruce, seven-foot-long grand piano. The regal piece of furniture took up a quarter of the living room, and the notes I played echoed off the vaulted ceilings. I laid my back on the piano bench and lowered my head underneath the piano, so it hung down near the foot pedals. This position was comforting when I was young. It was a way that I escaped the chaos of all my siblings running around, bickering, fighting, or trying to get my attention. The world became just me and the piano.
I put my hands up on the keys and played Canon in D. Since I was upside down, I needed to cross my hands so that my left hand played the bassline, and my right the soprano. The musical pattern that repeats over and over until the end of the song sounds soothingly like a game of follow the leader. I repeated the notes, while keeping my eyes closed. When I played the piano, everything else melted away.