Belonging in Family as an Adoptee

I was in my mid-forties when I found out I was adopted. Except for when I was a teenager and wished I was adopted (who doesn’t?), I had no clue. I used to think it was a big secret that almost nobody knew but have discovered it was an unintentional conspiracy – so many people knew but nobody talked about it as if it was an unimportant detail. And, maybe it was. Until it became important. Important enough for my birth sisters to seek me out. Then the adventure of coming to terms with the fact there was a birth family different from my family – the family I grew up in – began.

A new friend and colleague of mine, who also has an adoption story, recently began reading my book Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to openheartedness. She sent me a note when she finished reading Chapter 8, the story of my birth mother, her disappearance as she ran away and her inability to acknowledge my sister (or me) as her daughter even when they met up again thirty years later. My friend, who has known forever that she was adopted and has also reconnected with her birth family, wrote to me to share her response, about how angry she was at my birth mother for this lack of acknowledgement. We unexpectedly opened a conversation about belonging, particularly about belonging in families.

Where do you belong when you are born to one set of parents and grow up with another? And how do you know where you belong? Does it even matter? Even if you don’t know you are adopted or that there are family secrets, the patterns of disruption play themselves out in your life in one way or another. That is what this question of belonging got me thinking about.

slide1What does it even mean to belong or have a sense of belonging? We know it is fundamentally important to a healthy society and healthy individuals – the people feel like they have a sense of belonging, a sense of having been accepted in a community, as part of a group that might also be family. It is a human need, important in seeing value in life and in coping with intense human experiences.

 

Belonging are the people you fit with, who you do not need to explain yourself to, who do not carry huge and unrealistic expectations of you or who you are or what you can or cannot fix by virtue of being you.

An opposite of belonging, for me, is abandonment. It shows up in my language and the language of many people who have an adoption story. “Given up, given away.” I carry threads of abandonment I didn’t know I had – my birth mother fled, my birth father and grandparents gave me up, even my sister left me behind. Granted, she was only three years old and could not operate with conscious intentionality. Later, my mother “abandoned” me too, in a way, through her journey with dementia.

The fact that decisions may have been a good and even wise does not matter to the cellular memory and sense of worth that is fuelled by memories not in conscious awareness. When I was working with an amazing coach during the period of this discovery – which I did not consciously go searching for but which found me – the journey and the coach, she listened to my language and then offered that part of our work together was for me to learn to adopt myself. It resonated.

My personal journey, once awakened to it, has always had a depth of self growth, self awareness and spiritual awakening. This part was natural to me (I was going to write easy but it was not easy and still has moments that are not easy or fun).

What was and still is more interesting in the journey related to my adoption and my birth family is that I still feel a bit dissociated from this part of my story. Intellectually I know it to be true. I have enjoyed meeting every person I am connected to and I have not met them all nor will I likely meet them all nor do I have a desire to meet them all and nor is it necessary – to me or them.

Knowing I am adopted expands my story of who I know myself to be but it doesn’t change the fundamental core of who I am. I am not more because I know more. I am not less because I didn’t know it before.

I have a relationship with my birth parents even though they have both passed on. I never did meet my birth mother as her death was the impetus for my sisters to find me. I did meet my birth father and his wife. I believe my birth parents had a soul contract to bring me into this world and then let me go and that they had this contract with my parents. I do not know the significance of this “departure” at birth but I do know that I feel I have multiple lineages – from by birth family and from my family I grew up in. While answers to some questions do not flow so easily anymore – where were you born? What is your ancestry? – I do feel connected to all the lineages.

I find my birth parents from time to time in the spirit world, just as I find my mother and other guides. Sometimes they appear unexpectedly in my meditation or in whatever query I am in at the time and sometimes I call upon them for help and understanding on whatever I am working through in the moment. It feels right.

And despite soul journey understanding, “One part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth, leaving me not really belonging to either.”

Your Truth Wants to Be Known

The times we are most challenged are when we are out of alignment with the truth of who we are, the truth of our own journeys. Because we are all a bit broken, it can be easy to lose our way. To forget who we are and what is at our core. To be blind to what is right in front of our eyes. To refuse to see what seems obvious later.

Our view of the world is shaped by the people around us, by events, by choices we make. In wanting and needing to fit in, we shape some of who we are for acceptance. This may mean we hide parts of who we are or we act differently than we think we are.

At times we find our selves acting “out of character”, making choices that seem contrary to our values. Sometimes we explain that away – I am not normally like this, but… And we may, at times, feel trapped. Trapped in relationship that does not and will not work. Trapped in a job we don’t like, that sucks us dry and makes us yearn for weekends and holidays. Trapped inside a shell of who we are wondering where we went, where we disappeared to and how to find our way back.

Like the truths of journey we do not know – separated families, adoption, family secrets – our own internal truths want to be known. This internal separation – of you from you – seeks wholeness and integration. Your truth will find ways to make itself known, offer to you opportunities to accept it, act on it, live it. If you do not accept at the first invitation, another invitation will come along. And another. And another. The longer you wait, the more insistent the invitation. Instead of a tap on the shoulder, or a sense of knowing or an intuitive hunch, the force of the invitation ramps up, becomes a hammer, explodes or implodes, accidents or illness come along. You run away until exhausted and still the truth haunts your very being.

You cannot hide from it, you cannot hide from you. You must turn and face that which you fear to see. It takes courage. For some it takes reaching the end of the rope, no longer willing to traverse a path of illusion and disillusion, ready to clear the smoke and mirrors to illuminate the core – the core of your being where love, compassion, curiosity, joy and light reside. Yes. In every single one of us. We just need to embrace all that is there and learn that the journey to openheartedness makes us stronger.

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The Truth Wants to Be Known

Stories of separated families, secret adoptions, long lost relatives have always caught my attention, even before I found out such a secret in my family when I was 46 years old – that I had been adopted. For a long time, the forces seemed to have lined up to keep it secret from me. But the clues were there all along. My birth certificate revealing where I was born – different than what I believed but I thought the administrators had made a mistake. There were no stories of my birth. I had recollections of my birth grandmother and sister, although I did not know they were my relatives. I thought they were friends of the family. Eventually it was a phone conversation between my two sisters and a curious bystander, a family friend who took to the internet as he listened, to proactively pursue a truth that wanted to be known.

I have read accounts of adoptions, twins mixed up at birth and more, and always, always events conspire even across great distances to enact chance meetings, new revelations of information, someone who can no longer stay quiet about what they know.

It happened again this week. My sister (who I met in 2008) arrived from British Columbia for a memorial for her father (my birth father) who died last fall. When his obituary was published in the paper, a long-lost cousin – the daughter of my birth father’s brother – contacted my sister. This cousin and her sister live here in the Halifax area. And she put my sister in touch with a great aunt (sister to my birth grandfather) who is now 88 years old and lives an hour away from me.

Sisters and Cousins Meeting for the First Time

Lots of excited visits and conversations. And different endings to stories. When I wrote Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to Openheartedness, my sisters and I had been under the impression that our grandfather had died derelict as an alcoholic on the streets of Halifax. None of us knew what had happened to him. But our cousins – also his granddaughters – did know what happened to him – a story in and of itself that I might share one day. He did not die derelict on the streets of Halifax. Somehow he ended up in Northwood Manor, a leg had been amputated, I assume he sobered up, he was a model and favourite resident who spoke often about his loving family.

This story has been, is being, re-written. Like so many. As more truth shows up. Truth that wants to be known. And there are still mysteries to be unravelled in this crazy family, for sure. Especially about my birth mother’s side of the family.

My sister and I went to visit our great-aunt who is gifted in similar ways to us, participates in spiritual and meditation circles and paints. She paints many things but one painting in particular is very striking and one of a kind amongst her collection – a picture of a medicine woman, rising up from a big cat, a leopard. Painted directly on the wall in her basement at exactly the same time very similar artwork was being channelled for me for a tattoo and the cover of my book. And my great-aunt did not even know I existed.

It is not only in spiritual matters that the truth wants to be known. I have experienced it happening over and over again in work situations. People try to hide things, be secretive or are out of alignment with their own integrity or the integrity of an initiative. It is discovered or revealed in one way or another because the truth wants to be known and forces will continually offer ways to make it so if we have the eyes and the will to see.

The Passing of an Era

It was the end of January 2008. I was driving down the highway on my way from Halifax to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia on a beautiful sunny winter’s day. I wasn’t just on a road trip for the day, I was on a journey to another era – a past I knew very little about, to visit a man I knew very little about. I was on my way to meet Fred Hanson. A few brief weeks before this I had found out he existed, that he was my birth father, that I had a birth family of which I had had no conscious awareness. Yet he – and the whole family – knew about me for all of my life.

On Wednesday, October 21, 2015, Fred died with his wife Doris, her son Corey and my sister Debbie van Soest present, bringing to a close another chapter of my own life, the passing of an era.

Kathy (2 years old) and Deb (5 years old) visiting in 1964 at Nanny and Grampy Hanson's house in Digby

Kathy (2 years old) and Deb (5 years old) visiting in 1964 at Nanny and Grampy Hanson’s house in Digby

I did not know Fred well. Most of his life had been lived by the time I met him. There are three things that stand out. When he, at the age of twenty-three, and his little family – me as an infant and my sister as a three year old – were abandoned by my birth mother, he did what he could to make sure we were looked after. This meant uprooting us from Halifax to Digby NS where he had grown up and where his parents still lived. Because my grandmother was already ill with brain cancer and my grandfather was already well on his way to alcoholism, they searched for help. Help arrived in the form of my parents, Mary and Hector Jourdain, married a few years, living in Digby at the time and still childless. An agreement was reached for my parents to adopt me and for me to know my birth family. Which I did until my grandmother died when I was still very young. Fred knew where I was and for all the years my adoption was a secret (from me and my brother at any rate), he kept his word and he did not seek me out.

Fred and Kathy

Me and Fred – March 2008

The second thing that stands out is how nervous he was to meet and how welcoming when I walked in the door. He’d been pacing from the front window to the kitchen window to the door in anticipation of my arrival. The door was opened before I even had a chance to get out of the car. He hugged me and we found our way through the awkwardness of first meeting. He gave me pictures from when I was baby.

The third thing that stands out was his agreeing to let me interview him for my memoir: Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to Openheartedness. As I asked him questions and took him back through memories he had not thought of for decades, he forgot for a moment that I was interviewing him. He reflected on the moment my birth mother left and his incomprehension, still all these years later, that she could leave two babies behind.

Doris and Fred 2006

Doris and Fred Hanson, 2006

Fred had a sociable side that enabled him to fit in many places – like the Red Knight in Yarmouth where he and Doris often when for a beer and to hang out with friends. And he had a sarcastic wit that made him a great sparring partner. I didn’t know his second wife who raised my sister Debbie and brought my half sister Robyn into the world. I did however have a chance to meet Doris and experience the warmth and hospitality of their beautiful home. They were together for 28 years.

I am blessed to have known him, filling in some blanks of life story for both him and me. There are many stories that will not be known and many that will not be written now. I do know his brother Bill, his parents and others greeted him as he passed over. My mother and my birth mother had a pact together with Fred and my dad that has gifted me with multiple lineages that are important and relevant to my own life journey and in many ways I am only at the beginning of that exploration. And for now, it is grieving and celebrating the passing of an era.

For Who’s Benefit Are You Telling Your Story?

When I first came back from Gold Lake, Colorado, after spending a day and a half on the land, in a mystical experience that took place outside of my normal understanding of time, I had to integrate this spiritual experience with the regular, ongoing experiences of my physical existence, of my life journey.

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My sanctuary site at Gold Lake, 2009

One of the ways of doing this was through sharing the story of my experience with others. There were a few people who knew I was embarking on that sojourn. Some, not all, also knew that prior to going I already had experiences with non-physical guardians and guides. I had been learning to connect with my guides in healing work. And I could, when asked, help other people connect with their own guides, learn to access them and to work with them in their own journeys. I was not, am not, the messenger as much as the connector.

Story at workWhen I arrived home, I began to share the story of what happened at Gold Lake with people, tuning into what they wanted to hear. For some, to hear I went to Gold Lake and came home again was enough. For others, to hear the high level overview was enough. And for some, they wanted full details of as many moments as I could offer. And it was surprising at times who wanted what. It was discernible by the questions they asked and the attentiveness of their listening.

Slide1It was important for me to discern why I might be telling the story to any given individual. Was I telling the story because of my own need to share it, to understand it, to integrate it? Or was I telling the story because for some reason, the other person needed to hear it? If it was just about me, I would have babbled on to anyone in hearing distance all the time. But I had enough people willing to hear and witness my story, I did not need to visit it on people unwilling or unable to hear. And it is a sacred story to be shared in the right moments. Stories hold “medicine” and healing for others when they are ready to hear them so it is a gift to also share experiences, which is what I am relearning now as I have hesitated to share more of the mystical/spiritual stories in my blog. One friend, who wanted to hear the whole story, at the end shook his head and said, “Well, whatever happened, it is clear it was real to you.” It was real to me, although I cannot tell you how many times I have asked myself the question, “Is this real or am I making it up?”

This realization was part of why I wrote my memoir: Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to Openheartedness – not just to share the spiritual journey but to share my own ambivalence with my spiritual journey and the on again off again nature of my relationship with it. And it is also the story of grief, resilience, perseverance and joy – of embracing all the strangeness of who I thought I was (or think I am) and the vulnerability that comes from openheartedness. The stories of being fired from a job, marrying and divorcing, not once but twice, finding out later in life I was adopted, becoming the health care advocate for both my parents and my mother’s journey with dementia, in long term care and her eventual death in 2012.

Life is full of the bitter-sweetness of discovery – sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet and more often both at the same time. We are not in bliss the whole time, neither are we in grief or sorrow the whole time, if we choose. When we meet life with the expansiveness of the soul journey lens, our stories become healing for us and others who are inspired by how we meet the path that rises up to greet us.

Love at First Sight

My dad, Hector Jourdain, and me during a toast at a mine celebration of my parents' 50th Wedding Anniversary.

My dad, Hector Jourdain, and me during a toast at a mine celebration of my parents’ 50th Wedding Anniversary.

On January 11, 2008, the day of my parents’ 50th Wedding Anniversary, I turned to my father to ask him to tell me the truth. “I’ve received emails this week from two women who seem to think I might be their sister.” I was 46 years old and never suspected I might be adopted.

I already knew the answer before I posed the query. And I could see it in his face before I finished talking. There was, what seemed like, a long pause and finally he said to me, “Well, that’s another long story.”

A long story, yes. And it began with a very simple and clear declaration I might not have heard otherwise, “It was love at first sight!” he told me. Love at first sight. I always knew that my father and I had a special connection. And I always knew that he loved me/loves me as unconditionally as it is possible to love a child, although it hasn’t always been an easy path or relationship, but showing up most significantly, most unconditionally, in the times I have been most challenged – in job loss and divorces.

In the early moments following that conversation about what had been a family secret, dad was worried that my knowing would change our relationship. But, as I told him, we had a lot of history together so I didn’t see any reason it would change. And, I knew both my parents loved me and only wanted the best for me. The journey was undertaken in the spirit of openheartedness.

Dad is now 82 years old. Much to my surprise, not only did he outlive my mother, he became her personal care giver before she went into long term care with dementia – the same year as their 50th wedding anniversary. She died in 2012. Dad still lives home, alone, in the house they shared for many years.

Mom and dad in 2007 for his birthday.

Mom and dad in 2007 for his birthday with a 4 year old Shasta helping out.

He has had, over the years, a myriad of health issues that makes it a miracle he is still alive. He had his first open heart by-pass surgery when he was 45 years old. His second one about 30 years later and it took him almost 2 weeks to wake up from that surgery, partly because, in the end, it was emergency surgery and partly because he was exhausted from taking care of my mother. Then there was the time he became delirious with dehydration during the final week of radiation therapy for prostate cancer and it was the synchronicity of a call to him by my brother that resulted in contacting family friends who immediately took him to the ER, just short of having his organs shut down because of the dehydration. In the hospital so long, his legs weakened and he was in a wheelchair. Even his family physician thought he wouldn’t walk again. That was a few years ago now. Then, he was diagnosed with lung disease and told he would be on oxygen for the rest of his days. A few months later the oxygen was taken out of his home because he was doing fine. (And that’s just a snapshot of his health issues over the years.)

Quality workmanship - one of dad's projects.

Quality workmanship – one of dad’s projects.

This past winter, a hard one here in Nova Scotia, he was out with his snowblower clearing his driveway. Over the last couple of years he renovated his upstairs bathroom to put in a shower. And he built a row boat in his basement. He still has marine engines in his garage that he works on from time to time and he has a long list of projects to tend to. He complains that it takes him longer to do anything, but he has time and he has motivation. And he’s taken a few road trips to Quebec – his home province – to visit with my cousin (who graciously hosts him in her home) in the last couple of years. These things – things to look forward to, to get out of bed for – they keep him not just alive, but living. And just recently, he bought his first tablet and got internet at his home (thanks to some persuasion from my cousin Jacqueline) and this Father’s Day I will try to help him sort it all out. Wish us luck.

In Rimouski, Quebec - dad, me, my cousins Julie and Jacqueline (who we stayed with) and Julie's husband.

In Rimouski, Quebec – dad, me, my cousins Julie and Jacqueline (who we stayed with) and Julie’s husband. 2013 Road Trip

I’m proud of my dad. I’ve learned, am learning, a lot from him. About quality workmanship. About independence. About sheer will power. About love. About just keeping on keeping on. And, I’m glad it was love at first sight or who knows where I would be today.

Dad, Shasta and Spencer, watching me cook. April 2015

Dad, Shasta and Spencer, watching me cook. April 2015