Saturday, April 26, 2008

Missing the point

My family is so used to me writing about other people, even when I write about myself, that they completely miss the point when a story is about me. In this case, the story is Love is Enough from Chicken Soup for the Adopted Soul on sale now at bookstores all around the world, and online. (Yes, it's a plug for the book even though I don't get royalties.) Not to give too much away, but the story is about being adopted and giving a child up for adoption.

I spoke with my sister, Carol, this morning and asked what she found inaccurate about the story. "Well, you knew who adopted Jaime and you knew where he was."

"Actually, I didn't know where he was and that's not the point of the story. The point is giving up a child and how that feels. It's about me."

"Oh." Okay, the "Oh," came after much more conversation and repeating the mantra, "It's about me and giving up a child not about who adopted him or what happened later. It's about me."

My family is so used to me being out of the spotlight and giving up center stage the few times I get there as soon as one of them, or anyone else, bumps me off. I feel like I've perpetually had the hook around my neck and I've been dragged to the wings because everyone else is more important, especially in my family. And I gave way, not willingly but because I really don't like bloodshed . . . if it's mine. I've shed enough blood, voluntarily and involuntarily, for vampires and blood suckers of all kinds. I've always been the family's Uncle Tom, smiling and nodding and moving to the side to let them promenade past me -- and more often over me -- while I continue smiling and nodding. It happens a little less now that more of my work is getting published, but that's only because of the reflected light, such as it is, that shines on them. They are quick, however, to point out where I made a mistake or misrepresented something despite the fact that they were not present during the events I write about or were so busy focusing on themselves that what happened to me wasn't important or even notable. I am quick to remind them these days that they weren't there and couldn't possibly know what did or did not happen and that it's not about them: it is about me, my views, my experience.

I could -- and probably should -- go on to remind them of situations in their lives that they have either pushed aside or remember in a way that's not accurate, but it wouldn't solve the problem or change anything. It definitely wouldn't change them.

That's the thing about memory, it's a very personal thing and we remember what is important to us regardless of how someone else sees it. We are often like blind men describing an elephant with no real experience of having seen an elephant or even the things we touch and use as examples. A blind man who has never seen a rope and only felt its texture would be reminded of a rope when feeling the elephant's tail, etc., but he has no real experience of what a rope is, what it looks like, how strong or weak it is, or what it really is. We are all blind men when it comes to memory and experience. We cannot see things as another sees them, even when we can sympathize, because we do not live in their skin and have not had their experiences or been changed in the same way.

The Christians and gypsies who lost family in the Holocaust cannot understand the Jewish experience of losing family in the Holocaust even though the experience is similar because Christians and gypsies do not share the same identity or history as Jews, do not feel the same isolation or exclusion. Gypsies come close, but they are not Jews and Jews are not Christians. Religion does not define the gypsy or the Christian in the same way religion defines Jews; it is not as culturally or even sociologically ingrained. Gypsies and Christians may share deep ties to their religious beliefs but they are more than their religion, and in some ways less. And yet it is the Jews who take center stage when the Holocaust is mentioned. Few remember that more gypsies and Christians died in the camps than Jews, which does not diminish or detract from the Jewish experience or the horror of what they lost. There are fewer Jews overall than Christians and gypsies and losing so many families was the difference of taking a cup of water from a barrel versus taking a cup of water from the Mediterranean.

It is the same for me. I am one of fifty writers and few outside my family and friends would notice if the book didn't have my story in it, but that doesn't diminish what I contributed in time and in opening up a part of my life that I have held silent and close to my heart. One of my cousins, when she wrote to me about reading the books, said she had forgotten about Jaime. I haven't. During all the years since I gave him up a week before Xmas, I haven't forgotten him or forgotten how it felt to hand him over to someone else and walk away. It was easier to tell people I lost him a week before Xmas when he was twenty months old and let them believe he died than to go into all the details of why I gave him up. He was one child and I am one mother who made that decision among tens of thousands of mothers who chose to let go. I am a cup of water from the ocean and yet I feel more like a cup of water from a barrel.

Too often people focus on the wrong part of a situation, the wrong moment in a person's life, like Carol focusing on what Jaime's life was like when his adopted parents changed his name and where he lived and went to college. It's not about them. It's about me. It's not even about Jaime. It's about me. It's about what I felt and still feel. It's about how society sees a woman who gives up a child, who doesn't, as my mother always claimed she would do, strap a mattress to her back to support her child. It's about how giving up someone so much a part of my soul diminished me and left a void that can never be filled. It's about me. It's about how doing the right thing can hurt more than soldiering on and how the scars still bleed and never heal. It's not about how a blind man describes an elephant but what the elephant really is. It's about me.

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