Thursday, May 28, 2009

Real Parents: Adoptive Parents as Architects of Family Resolve SF,CA 2002

Resolve of Northern California
Holy Names of Jesus and Mary College
San Francisco
January 5, 2002

Real Parents: Adoptive Parents as Architects of Family
Rev. Thomas F. Brosnan

Many thanks to Resolve of Northern California for inviting me to speak with you today. Having known the work of Resolve through a number of friends I feel honored to be here today with you and only hope that I can offer something of value to you and your work. I would like to thank Melanie Weil for her kind invitation and help in preparing for the conference and a special word of thanks to Ellen Roseman, a member of Resolve’s Board of Directors, for her hospitality these past few days. I had met Ellen at adoption conferences over the years and consider her one of the great bridge builders among and between birth parents and adoptive parents and adopted people not only through her professional interests but through her lived experience as well.

As you know already I’m a Roman Catholic priest. At first it may seem incongruous for a priest to be speaking to a conference on infertility – at least when he does not come in the capacity to judge or condemn the many complicated advances of science in the field of reproductive technologies. Sure I have my opinions on a number of things but if I may say a quick tangential word to all of you who might be Catholic and who are troubled by certain church pronouncements of late concerning these technologies. I’d remind you that no one really has a handle on the complexities of these incredible technologies in order to make any kind of definitive statement as of yet regarding their morality. There are no easy answers because, I believe, these technologies raise new kinds of questions and challenge our long held philosophies on how to discern ethical and moral ways to act in this field of human endeavor.

Having said that, let me state the premise for my understanding of the relationship of infertility and adoption. Put simply: adoption is no cure for infertility. Adoption can be a wonderful blessing, it can even be the greatest of blessings -- but it can never cure infertility. Both adoption and infertility are life-long issues that will reemerge at different times in life: when the adoptee has a child of her own and the adoptive parents become grandparents.

Permit me to issue the following disclaimer – that I am neither psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, or adoption professional and offer my thoughts on the world of adoption from my perspective as a citizen of that world being an adopted person with all the baggage and advantage that that accompanies such citizenship. Having said that let me simply state that all of it – all of the intricacies of infertility treatments to plodding through relationships and legal maneuvers in adoption – all of it begins with sex.

Now I’m a reunited adoptee and discovered that I am only one-eighth Irish though I was brought up in a typical Brooklyn Irish household and learned early on that the Irish were the best story-tellers in the world. As a matter of fact did you know that many of the great Irish writers like Joyce and Yeats and Beckett got together in writers’ heaven and came up with a formula for writing a good story. They discerned that there are three ingredients in every good story: religion, sex, and mystery. This revelation filtered down into all the classrooms of Ireland and one day a tenth grade teacher sought to put it into practice. “Class,” she said, “I want you to write a story incorporating religion, sex, and mystery. I want you to write it now. Ready. Begin.” Well, not even five minutes have passed and the teacher sees Sean in the back row staring out the window. “What are you doing,” she asks Sean. “I’m finished,” he says. “Finished,” she says. “Finished writing a story about religion sex and mystery already. Stand up young man and read us what you wrote.” Sean stands, clears his throat and reads: “My God. She’s pregnant. Who did it?”

All interesting stories are usually about religion, sex, and mystery and how they connect and disconnect from each other. Adoption, being one of the most interesting stories of all, is also about religion, sex and mystery – big time. It’s about what happens when you do it. And what doesn’t happen when you do it. And, for many of you, how you do it, and when, and under what circumstances. Sometimes one of the very unfortunate things that happens in the world of adoption is that we all get disconnected from the sex part of the equation. Because the pain of relinquishment suffered by the infant is so great and mirrors the pain of the loss of one’s own biological child suffered by the infertile couple we want to think about adoption as the sex-free way to start a family. We mistake the notion that since our sexual relationship (that of the infertile couple) didn’t produce this child, that it is unimportant to acknowledge that someone’s sexual relationship did. We fall into a kind of modern Puritanism of sorts. A dualism that seeks to separate body and soul, matter and spirit. H. L. Menken aptly said Puritanism was “[that] haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” While governing Afghanistan the Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice banned “any equipment that produced the joy of music.” It’s not just music that’s forbidden, but the joy of music as well.

So I’m just trying to state an obvious fact that sometimes, quite a lot of the time actually, sex gets lost in the world of adoption – that the adopted child came into the world through an act of sex or at least through a technology that utilized sex to effect conception. Now there is, for Christians, the one exception to this universal law of sex and reproduction and that’s what Christians believed happened with Jesus. Jesus was conceived, Christians believe, by the power of the Holy Spirit, when the archangel Gabriel visited the young Mary and announced to her she would conceive and bear a son. ”How can this be,” she asks. “For I do not know man.” “The power of the Holy Spirit will overshadow you,” the angel tells her. And so follows the Christmas story. These days, thanks to that Puritan streak, we Christians don’t question how all this might have been effected. In the early days of Christianity they did ask and came up with some interesting answers. My favorite is the scenario proposed by St. Augustine. You might remember St. Augustine as the fifth century Bishop who is judged by us moderns to have had so many hang-ups about sex and what he called concupiscence. What’s not so well known is that Augustine struggled with sexuality for years, having lived with a mistress for many years and having a son by her whom he named Adeodatus – literally meaning given-by-God. Augustine proposed the theory that Mary conceived Jesus not in the normal way -- but through the ear. O God, you’re saying, no wonder people think he had a hang up about sex – really the ear. I like Augustine’s theory and I think he came up with the idea not because of an aversion to sex, but rather from a deep respect for the power of sex.

Years ago I came across an autobiography of a little-known audiologist, Dr. Alfred Tomatis (who I assume must now be dead but) whose life spanned most of the twentieth century. He began his career trying to help people with speech impediments, especially those suffering from stuttering. Dr. Tomatis was very successful. He discovered that their problem was not so much related to making sounds, but to hearing them. He wrote that, contrary to what he had been taught in medical school, the ear was not but a differentiated piece of skin, but the skin – the entire organ of the skin – was in fact the differentiated ear. He determined that it was not just the ear which admitted sound but every pore of skin had a part to play in the hearing and deciphering of sound into meaning. We are literally then -- all ear. Maybe Augustine was on to something way back, I’m thinking, when he suggested that Mary conceived through her ear. As if the power of the angel’s voice was what in fact surrounded and overshadowed her. Divinity, as it were, seeping through every pore. Mary listened with her whole body and, according to Christian myth, the Word became flesh in her womb. Mary is revered for many reasons but for her obedience most of all – not a popular view these days. But apropos I think when we realize that the Latin word obedience simply means to listen. Listening well implies an openness to a truth outside oneself that you invite in through your hearing so that the truth will become a part of you. Letting truth get under your skin, so to speak.

The title of this talk is Real Parents – Adoptive Parents as Architects of Family. My point is simple: I want to suggest that the work of building family, of becoming parents, of being real parents, is just that – work -- and can be accomplished by all kinds of people, whether they happen to be the biological parents of a child or not. The work begins with listening to what is true. And what is fundamentally true about the intricacies of adoption is that it is always – always -- founded on the experience of loss. H. David Kirk said it so well in his classic Shared Fate written some thirty years ago when, as a sociologist and adoptive dad, he wrote that adoptive families are not cemented together by biology but by their shared experience of loss. (The adopted child suffering the loss of birth family through relinquishment; and the infertile couple suffering the loss of the dream of producing their own biological children). Acknowledging the truth about loss is the beginning of mutual respect and love. Adoptive families are not the same as biological families – they are no better or worse, just different with respect to their origins -- a difference which needs to be acknowledged.

My story
Permit me to acknowledge then something of my loss – not untypical for adoptees of my generation. My story started in a boarding house on St. Paul Street in Baltimore, Maryland in the spring of 1952 after a young woman had come to Baltimore form her native Philadelphia leaving what she perceived as an oppressive situation with her mother. The young woman’s father had died young a few years previous and her mother had to become a domestic in order to support the family. She moved into the servants’ quarters in a physician’s house in suburban Philadelphia. The young girl finished high school and then went off to Baltimore to be closer to her older brother. The young woman gets a job and is introduced to Mrs. Kennerly’s boarding house connected with the Peabody Conservatory of Music. All the students are male save one and she needs a roommate. The young woman and her roommate Sophia become good friends and the young woman and her roommate become part of a group of friends who live under Mrs. Kennerly’s strict rules. The young woman falls in love with a music student from Toronto. As the semester ends after her boyfriend has gone back home, the young woman discovers she is pregnant. At first she tells only her roommate her secret. Later she travels to Toronto to ask, to plead, but the young man says, that for religious reasons, he cannot, he will not marry her. She returns, confides her dilemma to another music student from Virginia. This gallant young man offers to marry her. No doubt very confused and desperate, she says yes. The boarding house gang throws a bridal shower, though no one knows she is pregnant save Sophia and the gallant Virginian. For some unknown reason they call the wedding off. The young woman then confides her secret to her brother and he arranges for her acceptance at a Catholic Maternity Home in NYC. There on the tenth of January 1953 at the Misericordia Hospital then located in Manhattan the young woman gives birth to her first born and then relinquishes him to the closed adoption system through the Catholic Home Bureau of the Archdiocese of New York. Within a period of a little over a year, the young woman has left family, job and friends; she has given birth, surrendered to adoption, returned home, courted, married and become pregnant with her second of seven children.

I was placed in foster care with an Italian family named Vesciano in Queens NY. After six months I was placed in my Irish adoptive parents’ home in Brooklyn and adopted within a year. I grew up in Brooklyn, an only child, living in a row house with my parents and my mother’s parents. After thirty-three years I decided to search and was able to find my birth mother and her family in Baltimore. I met my birth father in Toronto though he still denies paternity. My mother died some seven years ago after I had known her for ten years. I am in reunion with my six other half siblings who live in Baltimore. My adoptive father died four years ago and my mother still lives in the same house in Brooklyn where she has lived some sixty of her eighty-two years. I should also mention that I am a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn New York. I was ordained in 1981 under the old Code of Canon Law, which forbade illegitimates from becoming priests without special dispensation. As a bastard I received that dispensation in the furtive manner which is indicative of all secretive bureaucracies and of closed adoption in particular. Mrs. Kennerly, the lady who ran the boarding house in Baltimore, wrote a book about her experience not too long ago, bragging about her strict rules regarding fraternization between the sexes. I was tempted to call or write, informing her that I was impressed with her diligent efforts at keeping the boarding house all above board, so to speak – but was very happy she wasn’t as successful as she would have liked to believe.

A sense of Loss
Here’s an example of what I mean by a sense of loss. Did you ever see that old movie classic, Come Back Little Sheba? Burt Lancaster plays Doc, a recovering alcoholic, married to Shirley Booth who’s cast as Lola. They are childless. Everyday Lola goes out on the front porch and calls for her missing dog, Little Sheba – but the dog never comes back. Meanwhile a young coed rents a room in their house, reminding Lola and Doc of what was missing. The sexy coed also reminds Doc of other things and he ends up drinking again. In a drunken rage Doc calls the young coed a tramp. “Just like Lola,” he says. And we get the idea that Doc had to marry Lola, though we don’t know what happened with her pregnancy. Aborted illegally perhaps, miscarried or relinquished? No matter: the loss has taken effect -- it has consequences. I first saw Come Back Little Sheba when I was fourteen years old on a New Year’s Eve alone at home. I couldn’t stop sobbing throughout the movie, though I didn’t consciously know why – mourning my own lost Little Shebas, I suppose, which I couldn’t as yet name or identify. It was one of the most memorable and best New Years’ Eves I’ve ever had.

Here’s another example of what I mean by a sense of loss. There’s a beautiful scene at the end of James Joyce’s short story, The Dead. Gabriel and his wife Gretta, married a number of years, have attended a dinner party. It’s time to leave and Gabriel is about to call his wife whom he sees at the top of the stairs. Her expression seems melancholy as she listens to the music coming from the next room. Gabriel knows that something profoundly important is taking place within Gretta at that moment. Observing her from the shadows kindles a renewed passion in Gabriel, for he assumes that he is the cause of her wistful look and tearful eye. Later in their hotel room Gabriel is keen on renewing that passion. He confidently asks Gretta what she was thinking about when he saw her as she listened to the old Irish ballad at the top of the stairs. It is then that Gretta breaks down and begins to sob uncontrollably. She tells her bewildered husband how long before she met him she was courted by a young man named Michael Fury who sang that same ballad to her beneath her window in the drenching rain the night before she was to leave for a convent school. Young Michael Fury caught his death that night, and she knew he died for love of her. This poignantly sad yet beautiful memory was Gretta’s -- but it was not Gabriel’s. The cold reality that Gretta had a history before him is like a slap in the face to the middle-aged Gabriel. It was the tune of the ancient ballad that triggered the memory, and Gabriel realized he had no right to transgress such a sacred place without Gretta’s invitation. Adoptees come into their adoptive families early on in life. But even if they are taken direct from their mother’s womb, they still will have had ninth moths’ history with another family.

Liam‘s Christmas Letter
About ten years ago a good friend of mine and his wife adopted a baby boy from Korea. This year, as their Christmas card, they sent a story their son Liam wrote in school about Christmas.
“My name is Liam and I am the son of an innkeeper. My father owns a large inn and a tiny stable in the town of Bethlehem. Everyday I have chores to complete, cleaning the stable feeding the animals and bringing the water back from the well. My life is a simple and happy one…Later that night I saw shepherds coming to the stable. I heard singing and saw the largest star in the sky. I crept into the stable and saw a newborn baby boy…I felt happy to be a part of this holy night.”

I read Liam’s story with both joy and sadness and wonder at Liam’s wondering about if he really is the son of an innkeeper. These fantasies, common in childhood, are always remotely real possibilities for an adoptee who does not have factual information about his birth family. I wonder if Liam looks on life as a chore. I wonder if he isn’t on some primordial level giving testimony to his own birth as he looks on the birth of Jesus in his literary fantasy – fantasy as both prince and pauper. I’m reminded of Ken Watson (someone who is so admired within the adoption reform community) who said once in a presentation that “fantasies flourish when facts are unknown.” I admire my friends, Liam’s parents, so much for letting him wonder. I admire my friend, Liam’s real father, who lets his son publicly wonder if he is really the son of an innkeeper. Not unlike I’d like to suggest when Jesus at age twelve, in Luke’s gospel, told everyone in the presence of Joseph that he must be about his father’s business -- obviously not referring to Joseph.

As a kid I would fantasize about Superman, waiting, before the invention of VCRs for that first episode to be replayed when Superman drops from the starry sky into the field and is picked up by the kindly Kents. I once started to unbutton my white school uniform shirt on the way to school on a windy day when I was in third grade. What are you doing, my mother yells. I want to see if I’m wearing my Superman uniform, I say. No more Superman for you, she said. Did she know about me and Superman sharing that adoptee bond – or was she just concerned about the cold. Perhaps a little of both, I think.

Something’s missing and must be addressed. It may never be found. But the loss must be acknowledged and respected, even honored, or we end up like Lola always calling for Little Sheba but never realizing what Little Sheba really stands for. Acknowledge that our adopted children have had other lives with other families, even though it might have been only for a few months. Acknowledgment can lead to action and healing. Penny Partridge, an adoptee, an adoptive mom, a poet and a good friend, tells the story of the day when, as an adult, she told her adoptive parents that she wanted to search for her birth father. Her adoptive dad responded in a way many people do. “You can’t do that,” he said. “After all, he might have become a senator or something and you could ruin his career.” Penny writes that she looked at her adoptive father and told him: “Daddy, you’re my father. You should be worrying about me and not some man you’ve never met.” “Then,” she said, “his eyes filled with tears and he walked across the room embracing her. “Oh my dear,” he said. “What can I do to help?” Penny says that’s how she likes to say the search for her birthfather gave her her adoptive father. How sad that it took him so long to realize that he was always her father. Acknowledging the truth is always wholesome and salutary – words cognate with holy and salvific, I might point out. As the husband of the infertile couple in the wonderful film Secrets and Lies says to his wife “You really can miss what you’ve never had.” An adoptee can miss the birth family he has never known just as the infertile couple will always miss the children they dreamed of having by birth.

When things are not accepted as such and the adopted child is understood as cure for infertility -- to make things seem what they are not -- then problems arise and deep-seated animosities can grow into long-term problems. I cite now a true story which is not about adoption or infertility per se but serves to warn of the dangers of deceptions and treating children as property, as commodities, rather than as individuals.

In 1858 Pope Pius IX (whom the present pope has recently beatified), when he was still the temporal ruler of the Papal States, sent the papal police to the Jewish home of the Mortara Family in Bologna and took their six-year old son Edgardo from them -- never to return him. A Catholic servant girl had secretly baptized the boy when he had been deathly ill and later told the papal inquisitor. Pius IX, believing that no baptized child could be raised by Jewish parents (pone wonders how he evaluated Jesus’ upbringing) insisted on his right to raise the boy himself, and Edgardo grew up in the papal household. Many historians believe this action – of forcibly taking Edgardo from his parents, an action which enraged the European community -- eventually caused the fall of the Papal States. Some ten years after the event, with Edgardo at his side, Pius IX met with representatives of the Jewish community. The pope addressed Edgardo: “My son,” he said, “you have cost me dearly, and I have suffered a great deal because of you.” And then turning to the Jewish community he added: “both the powerful and the powerless tried to steal this boy from me, and accused me of being barbarous and pitiless. They cried for his parents, but they failed to recognize that I too am his father.” I believe Pius IX had so deceived himself concerning the cruelty of his action that he truly believed what he was saying.

Edgardo would become a priest. He would spend his priesthood traveling throughout Europe preaching for the conversion of the Jews. He met his family again when he was eighteen years old and offered the choice to return to them or not. By then issues of loyalty must have loomed large in his adoptive mind. He chose the Church. He would take the religious name Pius in honor of the pope. He would be the first to testify in favor of Pius IX’s beatification. He died in a Belgian monastery in 1940 two months before the Nazis invaded. He died a natural death, which thankfully saved him from the horror of being gassed in a concentration camp – a certain fate because, despite his baptism, Jewish blood still ran through his veins. Psychological possession of a human being is a powerful thing. The American Jesuit John Courtney Murray would say that “the complete loss of one’s identity is, with all propriety of theological definition, hell. In diminished forms it is insanity.” No one can gauge the genuineness of Edgardo Mortara’s faith, but one can question the path that led him to it, a path filled with religious arrogance and misplaced compassion. Closed adoption has placed many of us on that same path, firmly insisting that nurture is all important and nature means nothing. Or, like Rosie O’Donnell, telling the world that she told her adopted child that God made a mistake and placed her in the wrong womb, oblivious to the sure fact that such a theology can only lead to the conclusion that we adopted are also mistakes.

That primordial sense of loss is akin to the Christian concept of Original Sin. I remember reading the following lines from John Henry Newman who described Original Sin – the loss of Eden – by an analogy to orphanhood. “Did I see a boy of good make and mind,” Newman writes in that nineteenth century stilted English, ”with tokens on him of a refined nature, cast upon the world without provision, unable to say whence he came, his birth-place or his family connexions, I should conclude that there was some mystery connected with his history, and that he was one of whom, for one cause or other, his parents were ashamed. Thus only should be able to account for the contrast between the promise and the condition of his being.”

Acknowledgment of Loss Experience of Anger and its constructive possibilities
My mother has been in a wheelchair for the past six years and had been diagnosed with terminal cancer last year. After a stay in the hospital I, as her only remaining family, had to make a decision whether to keep her in a nursing home where she was convalescing or bring her back to her home of nearly seventy of her eighty-two years and care for her there. I decided to bring her home and it has been more than a little difficult keeping round-the-clock care which includes myself spending four nights a week with her. A rather blunt friend of my mother says my mother must have made a good choice when she picked me out of the proverbial and mythical baby line-up at the adoption agency. I must admit to fantasizing over the past few years what life would have been like if someone else picked me first someone. But, first through my father’s illness and death from Alzheimer’s four years ago, and now through my mother’s long illness and incapacities, I have come to see them as ordinary human beings doing the best they could, trying in their own way despite the failings of the closed adoption system to make whole a life attacked by the illness of infertility. These feelings came back to me, as they must have for others on September 11th as I was driving back from Washington to New York and crossed the Verrazano Bridge looking at the smoke billowing from lower Manhattan where the Twin Towers once majestically stood. Like someone punched me in the stomach, the feelings of loss and anger were all intertwined. The next week I had the opportunity of being at the makeshift morgue for a couple of nights at Ground Zero and imagined my father who had been a proud NYC fireman for many years. As the firemen brought in the body bags with remains of victims I blessed the remains as the firemen and medical examiners stood in silent attention out of respect for their fallen comrades who had been their real families as well – not born of blood but of common purpose and camaraderie. There were precious few body parts to recover those first few weeks and remnants of once young and vibrant men were handled so reverently as to make you think of how the faithful revere the relics of martyrs and saints. I thought of my father then amid these firemen and understood a bit better that families are born, not only of blood, but of sacrificial love.

That doesn’t take away from stating that the decision to search for my birth family was one of the most important decisions I ever made. I didn’t make it, though, until I was thirty-two. I had long thought about it but didn’t firmly decide till I spent my first summer in Korea studying language and culture. My feelings of homesickness, I began to realize, were not simply for my family in Brooklyn but for the family I had lost at birth. I decided that upon my return to America I would start to search seriously. I found my birth mother within six months and had been reunited with her for ten years before she died. She had had six other children after she relinquished me for adoption and knowing those six half-siblings has been a great unexpected blessing in my life.

Joel Agee wrote a wonderful piece in Harpers last year entitled German Lessons which was a short memoir of sorts about his understanding of the meaning of home. Agee was born in the U.S. but raised, until he was seven, in Mexico. He then moved to what would become East Germany until young adulthood. He introduces us to the German word heimat which he says cannot be adequately translated. Homeland comes close, he says, but relies too much on geography. Agee is not an adoptee but sees himself as the exile who feels a stranger in places with which he is so familiar. He cites another great writer Elias Canetti who was born of Sephardic Jewish parents in Bulgaria and who spoke Ladino growing up. Ladino was to Sephardic Jews what Yiddish was to the Ashkenazim. Canetti then studied in Zurich, lived in London, but always wrote in German. When asked what he considered his heimat, Canetti responded that his feeling of being at home was not a place -- but the German Language itself.

Homer wrote of this phenomenon too and coined the word nostalgia when writing about Odysseus, long separated from wife and country by the Trojan War. His Odyssey is the return of the exile home again. But does Homer simply mean a return to his native Ithaca? Nostalgia, in Greek, means the pain for home. Nostos or home is cognate with the other Greek word Homer uses frequently - noos meaning mind or consciousness. Do you remember the dramatic end of the Odyssey? Odysseus has already landed on Ithaca but still must reclaim the affections of his wife who has been ardently pursued for her beauty and wealth by suitors ever since Odysseus left to fight the Trojans. The chief suitor was a man named Antinous – Homer’s play on words here – the name Antinous (anti-noos) literally means the one-against- consciousness. It is only when Odysseus slays Antinous that he has truly come home. Only when he is victorious over the forces that seek to obliterate his desire for home that he is truly at home. Odysseus comes home when he comes to conscious awareness – when he sees the truth.

Not unlike I might suggest a recent film which I loved. Did you see The Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis? It is really the story of coming to conscious awareness of the truth. Only when Bruce Willis realizes the situation can he be at peace. Incidentally the term “sixth sense” was a term not only used for what we call extra-sensory perception, but was used in nineteenth century England by Sir Charles Sherrington to describe a person’s innate ability to perceive himself in time and space. The sixth sense is what we now mean by proprioception. Here’s an example: you take a sip of coffee while reading your newspaper – your hand instinctively knows where your mouth is without you, as the subject of consciousness, having to avert your attention. Proprioception is a physical ability. But it is also a spiritual necessity in the pursuit of wholeness – knowing where we stand is both an external challenge and an interior disposition. “First you have to be one with your soul,” Gandhi said. “Then you will be one with others.”

Nostos is cognate with noos and perhaps even with onoma – name, suggesting that consciousness and home and name are all intertwined. I believe names are extremely important in our lives and especially so in the lives of the adopted. A policeman once told an interesting story of when he was applying to become a cop and had to submit to a lie detector test. He successfully answered the entire barrage of questions, and then came the final question. It was the standard ending to each test: the interrogator asks: What is your name? The policeman said his first name and the needle went erratic across the chart.

In 1988 I had the good fortune to be studying in Korea during the Olympics. It was a great moment for Korea – the Olympics became Korea’s debut, so to speak, onto the world scene. The feelings of national pride were palpable as you walked through the streets. That was made clear during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics when an elderly Korean gentleman lit the Olympic flame and the entire nation, it seemed, began to chant his name. He had been chosen to light the flame because he was the first Korean to have won a gold medal many years previous. But there was more to this than simply a man who ran fast. It had been the 1936 Olympics. At that time Korea was a colony of Japan. Korea remained annexed to Japan by force of arms from 1910 through 1945. Japan subjugated Korea, not only through military force, but through a psychological possession of sorts. All Koreans had to learn Japanese. School was conducted in Japanese. If a group of Korean men were found conversing in Korean on the street they were arrested and imprisoned. And then the ultimate subjugation – every Korean had to take a Japanese name. This was especially humiliating. Remember, that as a Confucian people, Koreans venerate their deceased by reverencing the nameplate representing the ancestor. And so when this Korean man won the gold medal in 1936 he had to receive his award while standing under the Japanese flag. And it was his adopted Japanese name, not his given Korean name that was broadcast throughout the world as the gold medal winner. In 1988 the memory of Japanese oppression was still very much alive in middle-aged and elderly Koreans. And so, as if to right a terrible injustice, a nation chanted their hero’s Korean name (Son Ki-chong) as he lit the Olympic flame – as if they were righting a terrible injustice, reclaiming what was stole -- testimony to the importance and power of names.

In Helen Fremont’s recent memoir of her family, entitled After Long Silence, the importance of names and what they mean when they are lost takes on poignant meaning. After Long Silence is Helen Fremont’s memoir of discovering as an adult, after having been raised Catholic, that her parents were really Jewish. And how she uncovered the story of their terrible ordeal before and after the war in Poland. How they kept their lives and history a secret from their daughters and their neighbors and friends. How her parents, on moving to America became Catholic, brought their children up Catholic, kept Gentile friends. Helen Fremont realizes that there were hints and signs all along the way – feelings that things didn’t quite fit. But it’s only in hindsight -- after you know the truth -- that things fall into place, that they finally make sense. One poignant episode is about the author’s mother and her aunt – her mother’s sister. During the Nazi occupation of their town, Ukrainian Nazi sympathizers massacred a large number of Jews in the town square. Both the author’s mother and aunt survived the massacre, protected from detection by the murdered dead who covered their bodies. Her aunt told her the story fifty years after the event – after the author confronted her parents and aunt about their history. Her aunt confessed in shame that since the day of the massacre fifty years previous, she could not remember her own sister’s name. For the rest of their lives, she called her sister by the nickname she used that day during the massacre. She was too ashamed to tell her sister she could not remember. The author goes on to say: “What I didn’t realize was that all our names had been recently invented. My mother had survived the war using a false name and papers; she had escaped from the Nazis dressed as an Italian soldier, under yet another name and false papers. My parents had changed our family name upon applying for citizenship in the United States. To this day,” Fremont confesses, “I (too) don’t even know what my mother’s real name is.”

My adoptive parents kept my name Thomas, which my birthmother had already given me, because my adoptive mother’s father’s name was Thomas. Years later, when I met my birthmother, she told me that she named me for her brother Tom who had become a Jesuit priest and whose grave I had visited at Georgetown during my search for her. Names, I believe, should be honored.
When the Pope traveled to Ukraine a few months ago he visited Babi Yar, the site of horrendous Nazi atrocities against Jews and was addressed by the American born Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, Rabbi Bleich. Rabbi Bleich wondered why a Polish bishop was elected pope. Perhaps it had something to do with making things right. During the war in order to save their children Jewish parents placed them in the homes of their Catholic neighbors before they were murdered in the concentration camps. After the war Jewish leaders tried to reclaim those children but met with little success. It was different in one town however. There the priest was a vigorous young man who said the orphaned children do not belong to the church, but to the Jewish people and should be returned. The priest was Karol Wojtyla who became Pope John Paul II. Turning to the pope the rabbi said there are still today many Jewish people who as children were saved by righteous Catholics. He pleaded with the pope to open baptismal registers and enable these people to know their heritage before they die. The theologian von Balthasar would redefine religion, claiming that the word itself does not come from the Latin religio, but from the Latin word religare. Thus true religion is all about the reuniting of previously separated parts.

Resolve is a word that I believe could come from the same Latin word that we derive the word salvation from –“salus”. Salvation simply means health. Health is interpreted as wholeness, phonemically cognate with the word holiness. You do important work, you could even be said to be doing religious work, you are definitely doing spiritual work through Resolve because Resolve’s aim is to seek wholeness despite a seeming lack of wholeness. For the adopted, knowing one’s origins and heritage is a most important aspect of self-understanding and wholeness.

I saw the romantic comedy Serendipity on the flight here. Serendipity means, of course, a fortuitous happenstance, an unexpected coincidence. The movie made a good point about fate. Fate in Greek can mean the impersonal unraveling of preordained events. But in Latin, like in Vergil’s Aeneid, fate is more complicated. It calls for our response to the events and situations it presents us with. Did you know that the Old German word for fate is “wurt” meaning spindle? Our word “spider” comes from the Old English “spinthron,” meaning the spinner. Boethius in Late Antiquity wrote that God turns “heaven like a spindle.” The Virgin Mary is often pictured spinning as the Archangel Gabriel comes to her to announce the extraordinary event that she has conceived divinity in her womb. Sleeping Beauty received the prediction that she would die at 16 when she would prick her finger while spinning. Some say that the fate that was thought of by the ancients as spun has now turned into the wheel of fortune where we take our chance with destiny. We cast off fate in order to make ourselves new. Leaving home is a casting-off, a re-creation, an escape from social class and destiny – we become spiders spinning our own webs. If you think that these archetypes of consciousness are lost to us today, think again every time you go on-line and type in www, entering into the World Wide Web.

The characters in the movie Serendipity work very hard to engage fate, making things happen it seemed almost despite fate. It reminded me of a serendipitous event I once read about concerning the writer Flannery O’Connor, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his daughter. In the deep south, in some remote part of rural Alabama, an obscure religious order of nuns for some unknown reason decided to build a monastery and nursing home dedicated to the care of the sick poor. One day a young couple came to the doors of the monastery with their very sick infant daughter. They begged the nuns to take their daughter since the doctors said she would die within months of cancer and they could not take care of her and their other children. The nuns said they only cared for old people and wouldn’t know how to care for an infant. Finally the couple convinced them to take Mary Ann. The nuns cared for Mary Ann for fourteen years until she finally died of the cancer that was supposed to have killed her as an infant. Mary Ann had so touched their lives, and the lives of the terminally ill for whom they cared, that the nuns wrote a book about her, simply titled Memoir of MaryAnn. They knew very few would read it so they asked the famous Flannery O’Connor to write the preface, which she did. It was an extraordinary preface detailing a history of events that could only be described as serendipitous. At first you don’t know what to make of Flannery O’Connor’s description of a certain section of a novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne where he describes a fastidious American visiting a poor house in nineteenth century London where the terminally ill were housed with the insane and gave rise to the word Bedlam itself. The character in the novel says that while touring the poor house a little girl came and stood before him with arms outstretched waiting to be picked up. He described the revulsion he felt at looking at her horrible face marred by a cancer and the terrible smell that came from her small body. Against every fiber in my being, the novels’ protagonist said, I stooped down and picked up the little girl and held her close to my heart for what seemed an eternity.

Flannery O’Connor then tells us that years after Nathaniel Hawthorne’s death his daughter Rose was going through his things and found his diary in which he confessed that the character in the novel was he himself and how the experience he related was quite real. Then his daughter Rose read the words written by her very shy, fastidious father: “picking up that little girl,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his diary, “was the single greatest thing I have ever done in my life.” Rose would write about herself years later, saying how reading her father’s words inspired her not only to convert to Catholicism but to found an order of nuns dedicated to the care of the sick poor, an order of nuns who would for some unknown reason build a monastery in the sticks of Alabama to which Mary Ann’s parents would bring her. One simple act of human kindness, one simple act of true charity, Flannery O’Connor wrote in her remarkable preface, would have unimaginable and wonderful consequences.

To listen to the truth about our lives might not always be easy or pleasant but it is to engage fate -- or divine providence -- depending on your perspective. Listening, remember, means to obey. It is the first and most important step in the process of becoming whole -- or holy, depending on your perspective. It is the foundation for all healthy families and the stuff of which all real parents are made, be they biological or not. It is the most humble thing we as human beings can do – to listen and accept the truth. We gather here in Oakland near San Francisco, a city named in honor of the humble St. Francis, who began a journey that would not only reform the church but change the politics of Europe. A journey which began in the falling-down chapel of San Damiano where he listened to the voice he heard come from him from the crucifix above the altar. “Rebuild my church,” the voice tells Francis. And Francis obeyed, literally rebuilding the small country chapel, brick by brick. Only later understanding that it wasn’t brick and mortar that the voice referred to but to the souls of all whom he encountered.

Building families is not just about providing comfort and security but about respecting the dignity of each individual in the family – a respect for the dignity that is founded in biology and expressed through culture – the culture that is the environment of each family. We invoke St. Francis’s help in this most important endeavor – as St. Francis rebuilt the church, so you are to build and rebuild families, nurturing children in ways respectful of their particular natures.

Forgive me one last Catholic reference. The great Spanish mystic of sixteenth century Spain, Teresa of Avila, received ecstatic visions in prayer (often evaluated by moderns as erotic in nature). Her nuns begged her to tell them how she achieved such heights of ecstasy – most of them probably felt a bit robbed of pleasures. But Teresa was a wise woman, and responded to their request with these words that I believe are also the best advice for all members of the triad, for all of us involved in the world of adoption. “For never, never, no matter how exalted the soul may be,” Teresa said, “is anything else more fitting than self knowledge.”

Thank you for your kind attention.

1 comment:

  1. Very true and moving.

    My name, I recently realized, is quite possibly a double fiction.

    It appears two infertile couples got together and artificially produced me. I was then given the name of the infertile wife and the surname of the infertile husband. Both lies. A different, truer, more beautiful name was my birthright.