Frankly, it’s not too late.
Last weekend my son MM graduated high school. While not my oldest child, he is the person who made me a mom. His order in the family shuffled when he was three and we adopted an older sibling group of three from foster care. Overnight my world tipped upside down -- his did too.
For many years I have held a profound sense of grief over what my son has lost. Not just his birth order in the family, but also the privilege of a home life that was safe. The trauma my adopted children brought with them when they moved home was profound and relentless. The impact was not a subtle shift -- it’s been a fifteen year tsunami that left us devastated. It has taken years to rebuild what we lost -- the collective we. Because it wasn’t just MM who lost things. Adoption is born from loss, and God, did we lose.
For a long time I was a mommy blogger on blogspot. I had chronicled my journey into motherhood, then the adoption process, and then, well, I stopped. Not because I was no longer a mother, but because the story became too complicated to tell, too private to reveal, too much.
My entire life felt like too much. Everything was a balancing act, a cost analysis, a choice. I learned very quickly, with six children twelve and under, everyone traumatized in one way or another, that I could not have it all.
I lost so many friends over the next several years. My new life didn’t fit with theirs. I was not just doing toddler swim lessons at the YMCA where I could visit with another mom of one or two -- I was now sitting on the metal bench at the chlorinated pool for hours as one kid went to the guppies class, the next dolphins, the next sharks -- half of them screaming for what I was putting them through, the other half pleading to just get this over with.
It was no longer possible to go to mommy-and-me story time at the library because my older son was getting pulled from school for throwing chairs at his teacher. My older daughter was refusing to eat meals or speak. The hierarchy of needs meant I needed to deal with the most urgent ones first. Story time could come later, when my husband got home from work, when I could go into MM’s room -- alone. Then, I would pull out the big blue copy of The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Their Child to Read. Savoring our moment, we repeated the lines three times, “A is the first vowel we will say, å is the short vowel sound for A.”
After he learned to read I got him this big red Usborne copy of the History of the World and he devoured it. Every week he became a Roman soldier or a Native American or an early human, in the backyard making tools out of rocks. When he was five I made a wish that one day I would take him to Manhattan so he could visit the American Museum of Natural History -- knowing the dioramas would light up his mind in a way these illustrations couldn’t.
But then time passed. So fast. That mommy blog I had all those years ago was called The Lovely Messy, and it was ironic because that became the summation of my life. There was so much beauty, so much good, along with the mess. My kids -- all of them were growing up and our table was loud with laughter, the laundry was always in a heap and we folded it while listening to a book on tape. We found new friends, ones who understood the fragility of our lives.The lovely messy, indeed.
And somehow, during one of the messes, I became a writer. Lost in my heartbreak of what motherhood had become for me, I turned to words. And they saved me.
Really, they saved us all.
With the money I began earning as a romance writer I sent my three children who I had adopted to residential treatment centers over the course of several years when needs fell beyond my scope of ability. It was my motivation to begin “writing to market”. I needed salvation in the form of outside help and miraculously I began making money to afford it.
Life never calmed down. In many ways it still hasn’t. My youngest daughter who I brought home nearly fifteen years ago, currently has four therapists and a doctor she sees regularly. The mess is not gone. I am not naive to think it ever will be.
But god, the loveliness has not left, either.
After all that time, my little wish to take MM to the museum stayed with me. It was not about the museum anymore. It was about what it symbolized. So much of his life revolved around other people’s pain. And I’ve held so much sorrow over what he had lost.
Knowing his graduation was approaching, I booked us tickets to NYC.
Because frankly, it’s not too late.
We went a few days before he put on a royal blue robe and accepted his high school diploma (and his AA to boot!). We went to the museum. We saw the dioramas and the big blue whale and I cried while I walked those halls. Silent tears for what we hadn’t had because of choices I had made, and tears too, for all that we had gained.
For so long I have feared that my choice to upend his life when he was just out of diapers was going to ruin him. That it would make him jaded and angry. That my choice to do what I wanted when he was too young to speak up, would shape him into something I couldn't recognize as my own. But that isn’t what happened. MM is bright and sees the good in things, is curious, devoted. He has a strong work ethic, he volunteers at a food bank and is saving for tuition. He picked a college an hour from home so he could still make it to some family dinners. It didn’t all get fucked up.
And he saw the museum with childlike eyes, with wonder. And in seeing him there, I found a salve to wounds that were long buried. Wounds that were unnameable because a mother can’t say she would have chosen differently, a mother can only say a heart expands in immeasurable ways. She says it even if it is not true.
This is a newsletter about writing. And the thing is, writing is our life in the shape of twenty-six letters formed into words translating our truths into something that is nearly real. Ourselves, imprinted on the pages. Our messy lives turned into something lovely.
Embrace the life you have been given -- our writing can be improved when we lean into the pain and celebrations life has offered. In doing that, our words have a purpose beyond the audience we are trying to reach ... they reach deep down and begin the work of mending our own hearts.