In the ancient and beautiful port of La Coruna, Spain, I recently had my first tattoo. There’s an age-old tradition among sailors to ink their skin as a way of warding off bad luck, celebrating a safe journey or recalling a loved one far away across the sea. I have now joined this fraternity. When I was growing up, a rite of passage for children was to scratch a crude tattoo onto each others’ arms and anoint it with a bit of ink from a fountain pen. Fortunately, those childish scratchings faded away, but my feeling of connection with this ancient custom has lingered on. I still hold my breath when I see Maori faces, etched in blue…
So, why now? What was it that motivated me to mark my skin with this permanent emblem? What needed to be expressed in something deeper and more visceral than words?
I found my adopted daughter.
I had been a fifteen year old Catholic schoolgirl living in rural Ireland in the 1970s, transplanted from inner city Birmingham after my mother remarried and sentenced us to a maze of unpleasant family dramas. I rebelled against the unfairness of my new life and became prey for older, smarter men. When my pregnancy was discovered after seven months of keeping it hidden under an oversized school jumper and my mother’s girdle, I was secretly ferried away to an unmarried mothers’ hostel in war torn Belfast and then not allowed to return home with my newborn baby girl. Lies had been told, reputations had been protected and my feelings were irrelevant. I was young. I would get over it – or so I was told. But I didn’t. Year in and year out, I grieved for the daughter I had lost and the mother I had not been allowed to become. Her April birthday became the focus of annual depressions worse than any spring weather and eventually, when I experienced the bitter-sweet arrival of my second daughter, Eve, sixteen years later, manic depression set in. Thankfully, I survived to tell the tale and learned to cope with my erratic moodswings, or what now would be called ‘bipolar affective disorder’, but the feelings of loss and grief continued to cast a shadow over my life.
With the arrival of Eve in 1991 I was granted the opportunity to learn what it really meant to be a mother. Wanting to take care of her properly forced me to take better care of myself. I tried to do everything right this time. I was happily married to fellow musician Gary; I had a home birth supported by my husband and a midwife (with relaxation music written by my dear friend, Pete); I breast fed my new baby girl around the clock, expressing milk for her to have in a bottle while I was teaching in a prison, and then weaned her onto wholesome, home produced vegetarian food. While I was I was over the moon to have my very own baby girl to care for, the acute pain of losing my firstborn was rekindled, and if anything, I tried too hard to be the perfect mother. When Eve was nine months old I suffered a complete breakdown and ended up in hospital, delusional and distraught. I recovered, but each spring around the time of my firstborn’s birthday I continued to suffer depressions and swings in mood. After three roller-coaster years, I was stabilized on Lithium and the episodes became less disruptive and more manageable. I had been back in touch with the agency in Belfast who had arranged the adoption and made repeated requests for news of my first daughter’s welfare, leaving reams of lonesome letters on file for her. At one point, the possibility that I might be allowed to make actual contact with my first daughter’s adoptive family triggered a terrible and final relapse in my mental health and I decided I had to withdraw from the process while I focused on looking after myself and Eve. Pining for the child I had lost was destabilising me and I had a precious little girl in the here and now that needed me to be well. I could only hope and pray that somewhere, my adopted daughter was being taken care of, loved and was happy, and that one day, we would be reunited.
Last summer, after too many years of tentative enquiries, fearful withdrawals, visits to the agency in Belfast and numerous failed attempts at contact, I finally found my long lost daughter, Jo.
It is so strange to meet someone I don’t know at all yet who is achingly familiar, who shares my laugh and who gazes back at me with an echo of my own eyes. The sense of relief and joy is immense. But we are both a little afraid too, I feel, of the enormity of the task of bridging the gap of all those lost years. We dance a weirdly disjointed foxtrot around one another – two steps forward, one step back, tiptoeing on eggshells. Sometimes we forget about the gulf and fall, laughing, through the cracks beneath our feet, dizzy with the heady delight of our new found reality. We’ve shared photographs and memories and met a few times, but our story is only just beginning.
Our first meeting was held in the adoption agency premises in Belfast, a building better suited to housing an order of monks or nuns than the fragile hopes and fears of families affected by adoption. The feeling when Jo and I saw each other for the very first time since the day I held her in my arms as a tiny newborn is indescribable. For Jo, our meeting also meant she was encountering the first person in her whole life who was actually genetically related to her. We couldn’t take our eyes off each other. When the social worker who had introduced us rudely decided to settle herself down and watch us as we stumbled towards comprehending that we were really mother and daughter, Jo politely but firmly asked her to please leave us alone as previously agreed. I had to smother a laugh. This assertive young woman sounded just like me!
There have been tears, especially when we discovered that each of us had been in touch with the agency for ten years or more and there had been mistakes made and opportunities lost for us to have found each other sooner. There have been hysterical giggles when we find the looking-in-a-mirror aspect of our eyes and chins and smiles too surprising to contain. There have also been moments of profound humility when we have realised that life has finally given both of us the gift of something we have so often wished and hoped for. For many others, the heartbreaking reality is that those wishes will never come true.
Since that first meeting Jo and I have had a kind of whirlwind romance, with both of us making every effort to see or be in communication with one another. Jo has met Eve, spent a weekend with me in Bristol and I’ve spent one with her in Dublin. I’ve met her lovely husband, Paul, and my three incredible grandchildren! It’s so much to take in, but all of it a huge blessing. I’m so pleased that I managed to take Jo to see my mother – her grandmother – just a few short months before she passed away. Although my mother had been instrumental in Jo’s adoption, I know that she had felt a lot of guilt over the years. It meant the world to her to actually meet Jo and discover that she had been raised well by good people and was happy. I like to think it made my mother’s passing easier. I’m grateful that Jo has her own mother and father in Belfast who have done all the things for her that I could not – change her nappies, care for her when she was ill, help her to take her first step, but it’s important to me for her to learn that I have loved her too, waiting hopefully on the sidelines.
Some days, I’ve felt so overwhelmed by this astonishing turn of events I’ve wept tears of joy mingled with residual sadness. I think I’ve grieved for so long and carried the burden of my loss so heavily that it’s almost impossible to put it down – a bit like an amputee who still feels their missing limb. Old style adoptions are a lot like the old Berlin Wall, separating families with a barrier that can feel insurmountable. But walls fall, and the past is past. The bleak memories of being a frightened schoolgirl giving birth in Belfast and the feelings of sorrow at having to part with my beautiful firstborn daughter are beginning to recede. I’ve been fortunate to have a very close and fun-fulfilled relationship with my second daughter, Eve, and at last, I now have the chance to get to know my first daughter. I’m also learning say, “my daughters“, and to enjoy this strange, wonderful, new relationship with Jo and her family – our family. The future starts here.
PS. Since completing this, I’ve managed to return from the Caribbean (quietly!), travel to Dublin and surprise Jo on her birthday – the first one we’ve spent together since she was born. Huge thanks to Jo’s hubby, Paul, who helped me to plot and scheme and keep it secret, despite extreme provocation! 🙂
[The following short piece of writing predates finding Jo by many years…]
‘Reunification’ by Dawn Kelly
The hostel where they hid me away is on Belfast’s notorious Falls road, a refuge for fallen girls with swollen bellies and shrunken dreams. Nightly we hear the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire, rioting youths, British Army patrols, monster-grind of tanks and rumble of armoured cars, so unlike the cries of lambs or the bawl of a lonesome heifer in the lakeside fields back home.
The night the ambulance comes for me, the streets are eerily quiet. I want my mother, but she has washed her hands of me. God seems to have forsaken me too; I pray to him anyway, and Mary and all the saints, to save me from the pain. The real pain has yet to set in. Next day, I ignore nurses who insist on calling me Mrs, unable to escape their sharp, pitying glances or my lack of visitors and flowers in a ward full of doting husbands and relations.
Stroking my daughter’s apricot cheek, I tuck her downy head under my chin, revelling in the absolute trust of her slumbering body against mine. But I am not to be trusted. Sweet sixteen and, yes, I have been more than kissed. Sly, Catholic nuns conspire with my shame-faced family to cajole me out of my foolish notions. I must kiss her goodbye.
One signature and ten thousand tears later, I still pray she is safe – but how will I know? The girl killed by a plastic bullet in 1981? The teenager torn apart by remote control bomb in Shankill Road, 1986? The Good Friday Agreement brings some relief, but I cannot turn back the clock. So long as I believe she is still alive, so is the hope that, one day, she might find me.