When nurture counts way more than nature

Part 3 of ‘Mom and me,’ which ran in the The Coastal Star in 2010….

When I visited my mom at the nursing home the other day, I talked with the wife of another resident there.

In the dining room, with a crime drama on the TV in the background, she said something that I’ve heard a lot: ‘You look just like her.’

‘People tell me that, and it’s interesting,’ I said. ‘I’m adopted.’

Yes, I’m adopted. I was adopted when I was about a year old.

mom-crossings

I’ve written two essays for this paper about my mom and her advanced dementia — which officials with Hospice of Palm Beach County said last fall likely
meant she had a year or less to live — without mentioning the adoption.

A friend and writer who knows that I’m adopted — and who is adopted himself — told me he found it too interesting a nugget to have left it out of the
first essay.

Not mentioning it before doesn’t have to do with any awkwardness about being adopted. In fact, I think being adopted — picked — is really cool.

It’s just that being an adopted kid seemed far less important than how my mom’s life-threatening dementia had reshaped our relationship.

More than that, though, I think, at least in the back of my mind, that I wanted to tell people about my mom in a way similar to how I came to know her. I wanted
people to get to know her first, without knowing anything about the adoption.

My mother has always been my mother, with no prefixes attached. No ‘adoptive.’

She changed my diapers. She cooked dinner. She tucked me in. She came to my soccer games. She was always around. She loved me. It’s pretty simple — she’s my
mother.

And still is, even as it becomes more and more difficult for her to remember my name when I ask her to identify me in photographs (it’s been weeks
— months? — since I’ve heard her say, ‘Tom.’)

But now, at this point in my life, and in my mom’s, it is more fascinating than ever that I’m an adopted kid. My mom’s natural son, my brother, had problems
his whole life, mostly drug-fueled. He self-destructed and died last year. My
wife and I have adopted his daughter, who is great.

And I’m my mom’s legal guardian. Over the last three months, I’ve waged outright war with the nursing home administration to protect my mom and the other
residents at The Crossings, in Lake Worth.

My mom’s overall care there has been good, but a few months ago the air-conditioning was not working right and residents and nursing staff werecomplaining about being hot. The administrator said the problem was being fixed, but brought in only fans, not portable air-conditioners, saying they were somehow incompatible with the windows (my translation: too expensive).

She said a new unit was ‘in process’ (my translation: they were too lazy and too cheap to speed it up).

So I called the state, hoping to get an inspection with a temperature reading above 82 degrees, which would exceed the acceptable range and trigger
enforcement action. The state inspector responded within 24 hours, as required,
but took temperatures on a gray, rainy, cooler day. The temps checked out fine.

With my wife’s help and prodding, I berated the state inspectors for the stupidity of their timing and reached the supervisor. And, after promising lawsuits if
any heat-related illnesses arose and to be in touch with the state secretary of
health, I got a repeat inspection, which is not state-required.

They came on a hot day and found temperatures were above 82 degrees in parts of the nursing home. They opened a file, and a new air-conditioning unit has been
installed.

A month or so later, the hot-water boiler went out, I learned from another resident. After a few days of complaints to the administrator, it was fixed.

I sometimes think about what it must have been like for my mom, looking at a line-up of kids and deciding which one to take home, like picking a doggy in
the window. I’m sure I got picked for the curly-cue hair I had then, and my
blue eyes. I like to think that I had some kind of indefinable spark in my
toddler eyes that set my mom’s heart aflutter or something, but who knows.

But as it turns out, my mom was, at that moment, picking the person who would be standing up for her at the most vulnerable time of her life.

The fact is that there is a level of judgment that exists with an adoption that just doesn’t exist with a regular birth. There was a decision made, not just to
have a child, but to have a son. And not just to have a son, but to have me as
a son.

I hope that, if she could think about it clearly for a minute, my mom would agree with me: Adoption is pretty cool.

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