It's been a long time since I shared a Sunday Story, but it's been a long time since I have had one to write. This one. This one really needed to be written and very much needs to be read. Every story does. But this one too!
I hold the photo in my hands and I look at our faces, the way we were on the day my mom gave my sister away.
I am crying, arms raised up over my head, tiny fists, just a few months old. It is as if I know. I know what is happening. Maybe I had heard. Maybe when I was forming in my mother’s fragile and too young body, I had heard my father, only eighteen himself, telling her that she would need to choose. She would need to choose between him and my sister, the child she had before she knew him, before he said that he could not be the father of two children, only one.
And so she chose.
She chose a couple from the church they belonged to. They would take my three year old sister because my mother had chosen more than just them. Not for the first time and not for the last, she had chosen a man over everything else.
And so in the photo on the day my mom gave my sister away, I am crying, arms raised up over my head, tiny fists, maybe because I don’t want to lose my sister.
And maybe, because I don’t want to be next.
I grip the edges more tightly now, looking for answers and forgiveness and a way to move out of this pain, but all I can see is my sister’s blue dress and the easy look on her face, because she doesn’t know what I know.
She doesn’t know that the little clips in her hair are so that she will look nice for her new family, that our mother is taking the last photo we will have together until we find each other again when we are teenagers. She doesn’t know that the people in our house that day were there to take her away from us because my father is not her father and he said that my mother had to choose and so she did.
Slow tears stream down my face now as I look at one of my own sleeping sons, the same age as my sister was when she was given away, and I understand even less now than I ever did.
I cannot imagine what happened in my sister’s tiny heart, in her young soul and in every cell in her small body when she realized that these people were not bringing her back, that they were taking her away. That she had been given.
I think of my son walking out the door like she did that day, waving back at a family that will never be hers again and that will forever be broken and that I will always try to put back together.
Because I knew about her. I knew about my sister who went away to live with another family. And so I drew her. In all of my pictures as a young child I drew a family with her in it, what I thought we would look like together even though we could not be.
I turn the photo over now, look at the date on the back, only one year before my mother divorced my father. Only a year later. After she’d let another family take my sister so that she could keep my father, a man who did not want two children, she divorced him. I was just twelve months old.
There was a custody battle then and what happened still sits heavy on my heart, a weight that has left it’s mark no matter how many years have gone by and no matter how much I have lifted it off, moved it over to make room for lighter things.
My father gained primary physical custody of me and my mother let me go.
When I was only a year old, she let me go.
Another child given away or taken away. In the end those are the same things anyway and I wonder if my little arms were raised up over my head when it happened, tiny fists flailing like in the photo on the day my sister left.
And I wonder now, thirty years later, how a mother lets her children go.
I wonder and I don’t understand.
But then again I do.
I understand that people can be so broken. They can be shattered into damaged parts that they try desperately to reattach, but as they grasp wildly at those jagged pieces of themselves, their sharp edges are cutting into others.
Their sharp edges are cutting into others and everyone is bleeding and so they have to let go.
I saw my mother after that, but there were long periods when I did not see her, when she was following around a boyfriend who didn’t have time for me, like my father didn’t have time for my sister.
I continue to look at this photo of us on the day that she left and suddenly I remember another day, the first time the police came to my house because my father would not let me go with my mother and because for a change she wanted me. She called the cops then and they made him let me go and we went to her new boyfriend’s house. I remember the Big M he lived next to and how when we got there we found glass all over the bed in the room they had set aside for me. Someone had broken in while they were at my dad’s calling the police, while they were desperately trying to reattach all of their damaged parts.
Jagged pieces. Sharp edges. Everyone is bleeding.
My teenage son comes in the door then and suddenly takes up so much space. In the room and in my life and in my heart too, he takes up so much space and I am grateful for him. I am grateful that he came along when he did so that in being his mother I could find out that I am made of more than this picture would have me believe.
I am made of so much more.
He asks then what I’m looking at. “What’s that picture?” he says, and I think this picture is of little girls who didn’t get what they deserved and who grew up not expecting anything more.
This picture, I want to say, is of me when I lost my sister and when I lost myself too, and why I was pregnant with you when I was only sixteen, when I wasn’t ready, or when maybe I was. This picture is full of so much that I have never told you, that I cannot seem to find words to express.
I simply cannot.
I cannot tell you that when you were born my aunt offered to adopt you and that my father, the man who would not have my sister, wanted me to let you go. I cannot tell you that our family does this, that our family juggles children around and shifts love and desperately tries to reattach damaged parts.
I do not want you to know about all of these jagged pieces, the sharp edges, the way that everyone is bleeding.
But I think you know.
You know because when I was carrying you I was like my mother, fragile and too young, and that baked into you. My fear and and pain helped shape your little being and not long after you were born I was scared and confused and I wasn’t sure how to be a mother yet and I did things and didn’t do things that I know are etched onto your heart, your soul, into every cell of your body.
I wonder if somehow you remember that a counselor told me I would lose you if I did not live with your grandfather and his new wife, if we did not stop sleeping on couches. Do you remember that? The couches? I think you do.
I think you remember that I lived there then, with my father and his new wife, but that your grandfather said you could not. Just like with my sister, he could have only one child and not two, and so you stayed with our cousin and I was with you every day, but we slept apart.
We slept apart and history was beginning to repeat itself. I could feel it happening but I could not stop it and then I got pregnant again and on the day that I ended it my boyfriend dropped me off at home and went to work and I didn’t tell anyone and I tried to recover all by myself.
But I couldn’t. I could not recover alone. Not from this or from anything else.
No one can.
“Mom?” my son says again now and I remember the CPS worker who stepped in and treated me like I was more than maybe I thought I was, and I think of my father’s wife too. My father’s wife and this woman from CPS showed me something different, something that didn’t feel like all the jagged pieces and sharp edges I’d come to expect, that I thought I was made of too. They were softer, and I felt my corners soften around them, around their words and their gestures, around the idea that I could be more than this.
“It’s a picture of me and your aunt,” I tell him, and I think somewhere deep down in his knowing he remembers that Easter when he was a year old. He remembers arms raised up over his head, tiny fists, when we lived in the only place I could afford and we had almost nothing. I believe he remembers that the CPS worker left an Easter basket for him on our front porch and when I found it my heart was filled and broken all at the same time.
He remembers that, but then again he doesn’t, not in the way that we remember what happened yesterday or good friends when we see them years and years later. He remembers it in another way, a memory that is flowing through his veins, soaked in the blood that is his and mine and my sister’s and my mother’s and that belongs to generations of people who juggle children around and shift love and desperately try to reattach damaged parts.
“Can I see it?” he asks, this boy who was born to me when I was far too young and I’m glad, because he has helped me to keep softening the jagged pieces and sharp edges, to stop so much of the bleeding.
And he has helped me to choose. Like my own mother had to choose, I have had to as well.
And I have always chosen him.
“Sure,” I say.
And I hand him the photo of the way we were on the day my mom gave my sister away.