I suppose I have three mothers, if you count my biological mother.
I never met her, at least not that I remember. She carried me to term and gave me up for adoption. This was in 1975, three years after the U.S. Supreme Court made abortion legal in the country.
So she could have chosen not to have me. I am thankful she did. I am very fond of being alive.
I grew up knowing I was adopted. My parents, whom I call Parents 1.0, were open about it. They explained it to me in a way I could understand it – I was their son because they picked me. That was good enough for me.
I rarely asked questions about my biological mother. I didn’t see the point. I had parents.
Family records show my biological mother was in trouble with the law for writing bad checks. Not long after she gave birth to me, she went to live in a halfway house in Kansas City, Mo.
About 25 years ago, I learned the name of my biological mother. I never bothered to look her up. I wasn’t even curious.
I’m a capable reporter. I could probably find this woman if I wanted to. She knew the family who had fostered me had adopted me. She even wrote a letter to the judge encouraging he approve their petition to make me their son.
So she knows my name. With the proliferation of the Internet, social media and whatnot, she could have found me if she wanted to. She made a choice nearly 40 years ago and has stuck with it. I respect it. I think it best to leave it be.
So that leaves two moms. They were very different women.
The first was in her late 50s when we met. I was a ward of the state at the county hospital. I was an infant, barely three and a half days old when the state placed me into the custody of Parents 1.0.
The story goes I was big baby who cried a lot. The nurses at the hospital were glad to see me go because I agitated the other newborns.
I don’t remember it, of course, but it would not be the last scornful mark on my report card from an authority figure.
Parents 1.0 had children of their own. They had four boys the old fashioned way. The adopted a daughter who was in her 20s when I came along. They were a foster home for more than 140 babies. I was the last. They decided to keep me.
Mom 1.0 and I were close when I was a child. She often said she put me on cereal very early. This ended my crying jags.
As a small boy, I felt very close to my mother. I used to feign illness in first grade because I did not want to spend the day away from my mom.
Some of my earliest memories are of us shopping at Target. Mom 1.0 never learned to drive. So we walked down the hill from our northwest Des Moines home to the store from time to time. She would usually let me pick out a couple of “Star Wars” guys.
Mom 1.0 was short, probably about 5-feet tall. She had hazel eyes with a glint in them. Sometimes the glint was cheerful. Other times it was menacing. Her skin always felt unnaturally oily because she constantly rubbed on beauty creams.
I can’t precisely pinpoint when I realized there was something wrong with Mom 1.0. Maybe it was when she had gallbladder surgery. While she was laid up in the hospital, Dad 1.0 tried to get a psychiatrist to visit her.
Mom 1.0 got very angry. And when she got very angry, everyone paid. She viewed it as betrayal. Dad 1.0 felt very guilty.
They were from a different generation. To them, seeing a psychiatrist was simply the first step that ended in straitjackets and padded cells. Only really crazy people saw psychiatrists.
Mom 1.0 got worse as the years went on. She slept most of the time. She was, I believe, addicted to prescription painkillers. When she died, she had scores of bottles of pills – opiate derivatives so addictive they’re banned by the government now.
She did the strangest things. She walked through the house naked or nearly naked. She said the meanest things. She wrought havoc in the marriages of my older brothers and sought to shame my youngest brother, who was gay.
Dad 1.0 protected me as much as he could. But he got sick and died. And I was alone with Mom 1.0. She got weirder. She used to make me wash her back. She would sit naked or nearly naked on the edge of the tub. I would scrub her back with a washrag and soap.
Sometimes it fell to me to scratch her back. Her skin had a rubbery texture and it always seemed to be covered in a strange grime from those damned creams.
I never scratched hard enough, according to Mom 1.0. I wasn’t trying. Sometimes I scratched until she bled. Still it was not enough.
This may seem innocent enough. But it did not feel innocent to me. It felt awkward and wrong. I felt uncomfortable. I wanted to fade away and fall through the floor and never be seen again.
To this day, I’m very uncomfortable with nudity and the touch of women.
I got older and more independent. Mom 1.0 took this as a sign of betrayal. I believed she thought when her children started doing things on their own that we didn’t need her anymore.
There is probably a lot of important sociological and psychological stuff going on in and around Mom 1.0 about a woman from her generation and her perceived role in society and her identity and value being tied into her role as mother.
All I know is the strange behavior continued.
One day, I would come home from school to a steak dinner. The next day I forgot my baseball glove at school and went back to retrieve it. I was late by 10 minutes.
Mom 1.0 had already called the family lawyer and was threatening to call the police. I did this, as she always claimed, to hurt her. I was a hateful child.
I wasn’t, but that is the kind of message that sticks around. I began to think of myself as a terrible person. That thinking sticks around today.
On the night before my algebra final my freshman year in high school, Mom 1.0 fell downstairs at our home. My room was in the basement.
I awoke in the middle of the night to hear a strange moaning sound. I thought it was our air conditioner malfunctioning again.
I saw the light was in the stairway. I would get yelled at for that. Leaving the light on was the kind of thing bad children did to hurt their mothers.
I turned the corner to see Mom 1.0 splayed at the bottom of the stairs in a pool of her own blood. She had fallen and split her head open. I don’t know how long she had been there. The blood had coagulated on the floor in big, lumpy clumps on the brown tile floor.
I called for an ambulance. I called one of my brothers in Ankeny. The best friend’s mom, a nurse at the local hospital, took me home with her. Mom died a few weeks later.
I did not learn until years later that the pills my mother took so regularly caused memory loss. She always denied the things she did. This made me question my own reality. I knew what I saw. But this was my mother. And she was telling me it didn’t happen. Was I crazy?
It turns out she really did not remember. But sometimes I still doubt myself and my sense of reality.
Eventually, I made my peace with the memories of Mom 1.0. I choose to believe that she meant no harm. She was very sick. Her addiction superseded her head and her heart.
After Mom 1.0 died, I eventually ended up living with Parents 2.0. Dad 2.0 was a printer for a bank. Mom 2.0 was a hairdresser, in particular, she was Mom 1.0’s hairdresser.
I bonded quickly with Dad 2.0. I was close with Dad 1.0. Both men had a quiet grace. They liked to work outside. They laughed at my jokes.
When I moved into Parents 2.0’s home, I brought with me a cardboard mockup of K-9, the robot dog from “Doctor Who.” Dad 2.0 asked me if that was K-9. I knew we were going to get along fine.
I was tougher on Mom 2.0. She loved easily and fully, but I rejected her. I didn’t trust her. This was all going to end badly and she was probably going to cause it.
This was faulty logic, of course. I was blaming Mom 2.0 for the sins of Mom 1.0. It’s unfair. But teenagers do unfair things.
I saw a therapist during the time. Parents 2.0 met with him separately. He cautioned Mom 2.0 that she had the toughest job of all: making me like a woman.
I don’t remember the precise moment I started to believe it was all going to be OK. Maybe it was the day Parents 2.0 confronted me about my attitude toward Mom 2.0 and women in general. I broke down into tears that day and they both hugged me hard.
Or maybe it was the basketball hoop they erected on the edge of their beloved yard on the very first weekend I lived there: a strong and sturdy monument to my new permanence.
I doubt it was one thing, though. It was a cumulative effect of a warm, safe home where I was never threatened always welcome and eternally loved.
There was a home-cooked meal on the table every night. We talked as we did the dishes. Clothes were freshly laundered.
They were in the stands for every game I ever played in – or more accurately, sat on the bench during. I lost count of how many professional baseball games they sat through. The only reason they went to baseball games was because I liked baseball.
They encouraged me to write and be creative.
And Mom 2.0 will remind anyone who will listen that she forced me to take a typing class in high school when I wanted to give it up.
For years, they clipped out every story I wrote and pasted it into a book. Mom 2.0 took it to work where she bragged on me to her customers about them.
I still don’t think too highly of myself sometimes. As child and adult, I’ve caused Parents 2.0 some heartache.
We are not a family of huggers or great greeting card declarations of love. But none of that stuff really matters.
Mom 2.0 taught me about unconditional love. No matter how badly I’ve goofed up or how much I twist my every thought against myself, she will always be there for me with a hug, a plate of something tasty and a tall, cool glass of common sense.
That is true love, a mother’s love.
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