There was a time when my children were orphans. There was a time before I became one. My younger son and I were never orphans at the same time; we missed an overlap by seven months. He was gaining parents while I was losing mine. When I adopted Jack months before my mother died, I had been balancing the number of parents in the world. That need for balance–I know it well. I felt it as a child; it manifested as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. When I was nine, I lost my father, and as if to balance that loss, my limbs compensated with too much movement, too much awareness, too much repetition–anything to take my mind off of my worry.
To calm my nerves, I counted.
1. When I was a child, I had to make sure my right and left sides experienced touch the same. If my right arm swiped a door frame, I’d need to step back into the doorway to swipe my left arm. If I stepped on three sidewalk cracks with my left foot, I’d do the same with my right. Left, Left, Left. Right, Right, Right. The degree and duration of each touch mattered. Did I need to recreate a stomp or a fairy-light tiptoe? Had it been a drawn-out dusting of my left shoulder or a clap-length press? In my mind, I was “evening out the sides.” If I didn’t, something bad might happen.
My grandmother gave me a 5×7 cardboard picture of Jesus. It was bright orange and yellow and sat on my nightstand. I kissed that photo three times in the morning, three times after school, and three times at night. Kissed it to the point that some of the cardboard wore off and parts of his face were missing.
In the third grade I concluded any paragraph written for school with “Period,” “The End,” and an actual punctuation mark of a period. My teacher, Ms. Weitrich, would cross the words out and write, “Just one single period.” When I refused to stop writing my three-part finale, she gave up. Once, towards the end of the school year, she stuck a smiley face sticker next to the series of endings and wrote, “Amen.”
It was weeks after my father died from a heart attack that my symptoms first appeared. Genetics play a role in the development of OCD, but stress is also a factor. My mother never reported any of my unusual behavior to a doctor, so I never sought help. And, like most things in my family, we never talked about it. Amen. Amen. AMEN.
When I became an orphan, within months of my son’s adoption, it seemed the universe had been doing the same as me–restoring balance. When my mother was sick and her death imminent, I saw myself as an ORPHAN. The word was unavoidable, accusatory. The word itself was blaring. Odd, though, because I’d never used “orphan” to describe my own children; I referred to that period of their lives as “when they lived in Russia” or “before they came home.” Rather than say they lived in an orphanage, I prefered the Russian term of Baby Home, any title that included home. Home, home, HOME.
2. I took my spot nearest the nightstand, my mother kneeled next to me, and my sister settled in on her other side. I waited until they both matched my positioning, until all three of us were kneeling up high against my bed, our hands folded prayer style–fingers crossed, not pressed together–with our elbows propped up on my Holly Hobbie bedspread.
I began. “Our father with Art in heaven …” My grandpa’s name was Art and that was how I thought it was said.
At the end, in unison, we said, “Amen.” I then repeated, “Amen,” a little louder, all by myself.
I led into the next, “Hail Mary full of Grace–” By now my family knew the routine; the same three prayers were to be recited in the same order.
We were nearing the prayer’s end: “ … now and at–ACHOO–the hour of our death.” I stopped; I needed to know who had sneezed.
My mother turned to me, urging me along with her widened eyes. In the past, when anyone would cough or yawn or flub a word, we needed to start over from the beginning, start again with “The Our Father.” I understood my mother’s frustration at this moment; it was getting late and we had almost finished two of the three prayers. But, no, I knew it’d been Beth’s mouse-size of a sneeze; she’d been the one to make me lose focus.
“That’s it.” I shot my sister a dirty look. “From the top.” (Again, Again, AGAIN.) I bowed my head and closed my eyes. “Our father with Art…”
Towards the end of “Glory Be,” during, “As was in the beginning is now,” I smelled the salty, buttery aroma of freshly made popcorn, and knew Beth, who selected a spot nearest the door, had escaped. My mother had stayed. Going forward, it would be my sister I could count on more, the one who would stay. The one who would count.
Meeting new people, social situations where he doesn’t feel in control, starting new things—my younger son Jack has had his own share of anxiety. He has been diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia; most children who share either diagnosis also experience anxiety. In the first grade, he developed a tic: an incessant clearing of his throat. It continued for years and was most noticeable before any stressful event, like the beginning of each school year. He now attends a private school for those with dyslexia and ADHD, and his tics have almost disappeared. Occasionally, I hear an extra clearing of his throat—two, sometimes three in a row—but no one else in my family notices, and I wonder if I am imagining it. I never point it out, not to anyone; it seems to be a language he only uses with me. A language only detected by the anxious.
3. Each day during middle school, as we waited for her to return from work, my sister and I would hang out in our mother’s bedroom. She had the biggest bed, the most delicate bottles, the most ornate looking lipsticks. The room and her drawer contents–the neatly folded silken slips, the lace and satin nighties–smelled like her cologne, as she called it, musky and warm. Our video games were set up in there, and on my turn, my sister would sprawl out on Mom’s down comforter, her homework fanned out before her. I’d scoot to the bed’s edge, my face inches from the television set.
One afternoon, on level three of Ms. Pacman, I glanced into the mirror behind the dresser. I stopped. The left side of my face had frozen. It was no longer matching the right. When I smiled, only the right side of my face curled into a grin. When I lifted my brow, only the right side arched.
I reached behind and tapped my sister on the leg. She toppled over her spelling book and folders as she moved towards the dresser. “Watch this.” I smiled. We both studied my reflection’s half grin.
She shook her head as if to say, “So what?”
I flared out my right nostril, in and out, in and out. “Weird,” she said. “Now make a mad face.” Two different emotions emerged—the right side scowled while the left side stood still.
Beth orchestrated my next expressions. “Do a surprised face, now a scared one. Try sad.” Sad, happy, sad, happy, SAD.
We rarely called our mother at the hospital where she worked as a nurse because we knew how busy she was. This, however, felt important. Beth ran to the kitchen, to the house phone mounted on the wall; I continued to study my face.
As my sister made her way back into the bedroom, I caught her reflection in the mirror. Her smile had flattened. “Mom sounds worried. She’s coming home.” I turned from the mirror, no longer finding my face as humorous. It was rare for my mom to leave work early—the only other time had been five years before, the time I’d fallen off of the bathroom counter and needed emergency surgery. This time I was afraid I might get into trouble, as if I could have prevented my uneven expressions like I should have prevented my clumsy dismount from the sink that had led to stitches.
When my mother got home, she rushed around, ordering me into the car. “Go. Go. Go.” I slid across the vinyl backseat, tried to catch my reflection in her rearview mirror, wondering if any of my neighbors were watching the commotion, had noticed something was off. If it were a true emergency–it did feel that way–maybe my mother should have called an ambulance. Perhaps she thought she’d be faster in her olive green Camaro as she sped to the hospital, to the children’s ER next door to where she’d just left.
The doctors performed a few quick tests, diagnosed my unevenness as Bell’s Palsy, and prescribed prednisone. I liked the attention from the pretty nurses, some of whom were my mom’s friends from the hospital next door. I kept hearing: “How is she? … Do you need me to do anything?”
Once the medicine had kicked in, my mother revealed she’d been worried I’d had a stroke. For her, Bell’s Palsy was a relief. I recovered within weeks and didn’t need physical therapy or any further treatment. I’d never had physical therapy–perhaps my mother didn’t believe in therapy of any kind–and wondered if I would have gotten a lot of attention like I did at the hospital. Either way, my sides were evened out. I was fortunate; some people with Bell’s Palsy never regain use of half of their face. My mother spoke of a doctor she worked with whose mouth sagged his entire life, possible proof for her of therapy’s ineffectiveness. For him, there’d been no shot at balance.
While I was counting cracks in the sidewalk, grabbing door knobs, citing and reciting prayers, my sister developed her own anxiety disorder: trichotillomania. Those afflicted with Trich pull out hair, mostly from their heads but it can be from any parts of their body. I blamed my anxiety on the silence and fear surrounding my father’s death; she attributed hers to our father’s yelling. I grew out of mine; it took neighborhood bullies to shame Beth out of hers.
A childhood friend who’d lost her brother had developed a disorder similar to my sister’s. In junior high, my friend twirled clumps of glossy black hair between her thumb and forefinger, and once it was tightly wound, she’d scratch her handful of hair. Taut like a rubber band, the sound would reverberate throughout the classroom. This friend was tiny—no one expected such a sound to come from her. I never found either hers or my sister’s behaviors strange; I was more curious, and relieved that I wasn’t the only oddball.
4. My sister claims my unusual OCD-type behavior began when I was younger, before our dad died. She recalls the time our mother took us to Dayton’s, the fancy department store downtown, to have breakfast with Santa. Mrs. Claus, Santa, and the elves would sing Christmas carols while we ate our silver dollar pancakes and greasy sausage links. Afterwards, everyone would line up to get their photos taken with the cast. During “Jingle Bells,” as I was trying to clap along to its beat of three, Jing-le-Bells, Jing-le-Bells, I panicked. I couldn’t hear. The other kids were banging their forks against their plates, pounding their fists into the table, and shrieking out the lyrics. My mother beckoned an elf over to our group, anything to get me to stop crying. The elf, in her striped stockings and pointy ears, kneeled down beside my chair, and just to me, sang “Jingle Bells.”
By high school, my OCD had gone away, though it resurfaces when I’m overwhelmed. I was taking graduate classes and waiting tables at night when I first began teaching. On occasion, I would leave my house and need to return home to make sure that I’d turned off the coffee pot, the iron, lock the door, anything. Once, I needed to leave school in the middle of class because I was convinced my negligence was going to burn my apartment down. After that, each morning, I’d allow an extra ten minutes or so to check and recheck appliances and locks. Off, on, off, on, OFF.
My children do not seem to mind when others find out they are adopted. There is no shame. No secrecy. At their ages, I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t have a father—I didn’t want to be seen as different. When someone asked me what my parents did for a living, I’d avoid the question, or lie. Once when friends were over, weeks after my father had passed, a telemarketer called the house and asked to speak to my father. My mother had taken the call and all we heard was, “He’s dead.” She was telling the truth, and there was nothing wrong with her reply, but I was ashamed that my friends had to hear that, had been subjected to my family’s secrets, had been privy to our sorrow. We all know he’s dead, I wanted to scream. Dead. Dead. DEAD.
Months before my dad died, I tried to imagine what life would have been like if my father weren’t around. Back then, I never allowed myself to wonder the same about my mother—that would’ve been disastrous and unbearable. I never told anyone that I felt responsible for his death and held onto this guilt throughout my childhood. He was alive one minute, dead the next. (Undead, dead, undead, dead. DEAD.) My sister blamed herself, too. Beth had been dealing with neighborhood bullies and desperately wanted a friend. She’d made a bargain with God—she was willing to sacrifice our father in exchange for one loyal friend, just one. (One, none, one, none, ONE.) I still will not allow myself to imagine the worst of life’s scenarios, as if my thoughts might provide the universe with an idea that it finds too tantalizing, too alluring to ignore.
5. Seven years ago, my anxiety and depression reached an all time high. I worried about everything, and it affected my self-esteem. Depression is powerful. When you are in the dredges, you do not see things clearly—at that point, it can be nearly impossible to pull yourself out. I’d do what one of my therapists had suggested; in a series of three, I’d repeat: “You have a family who loves you. You have a family who loves you unconditionally. You have a family who loves you, and you are lucky for that.” As I’d witnessed in group therapy, not everyone can say that about their own families.
Several Novembers ago, in a moment of great sadness and desperation, I asked my husband why he even loved me. He rattled off a few things, but also wrote a more thorough list and emailed it to me. He said he didn’t want me to ever be left wondering.
There is a peculiar guilt among adoptive mothers–guilt over the length of time our children spent without us, whether it be in an orphanage or with a foster family. If only we had found our child sooner. If only we hadn’t delayed our decision to adopt. If only we had completed the loads of paperwork quicker. A friend who’d gone through fertility treatments blamed herself for not ditching the pregnancy route sooner, certain those futile months of needles and thermometers could have been better spent searching for her Chinese son. I imagine the checking and rechecking of temperatures and tests, the counting and recounting of days and shots, the imbalance in one’s hormones and bodies. And the guilt from not getting any of that right either. Not Pregnant. Pregnant? NOT PREGNANT.
6. I can still imagine my mother’s hugs—light, high on my upper back, her palms flat, her elbows tilted upward. A soft pat, pat, pat. The last time she embraced me, weeks before she died, it was too quick, too soft, and I can no longer feel it. No impression had been left on my back. If only it had been tighter, more indelible. Something to balance out the longing I have for more time with her; something to fill in for the time I wish I’d had with my sons. Pat, pat, PAT.
We had been waiting months for a court date to finalize our older son’s adoption, and had traveled to Russia to visit him. At the end of our stay, we were forced to leave him behind, not knowing how long it would be until we saw him again.
We always said our farewells in the play area, the room down the hall from the one where he slept–fifteen cots lined up soldier-style, in rows of three, head to footboard. With sheets tucked tightly into the mattresses, the fluffed pillows looked like little birds ready to bounce into flight. In the play area, a ruby red carpet covered the wooden floors. Spices from the day’s lunch of borscht and perogies had made their way into the bedroom, tempting the children’s hunger for more food, more love. More. A reminder that this place would always leave them wanting.
I had learned some Russian and, on our second trip, as we were saying goodbye, I whispered, “Ya tibia Lyblu.” I love you.
He stared at me, and with his sweet raspy voice, said, “Lyblu?” Love you? A question.
Tight, with hands that seemed too big for a two-year-old, he reached around my waist and squeezed. He then turned, shot off to join his group at the Baby Home, as if he’d be seeing us the next day and the next, unaware the wait would be months. I watched my son run off wearing almost nothing, in an undershirt, tights, and his little red sandals. Watched him dart past the potted plants and fogged up windows, watched until he turned the corner and was out of sight.
On the 13-hour flight home, from Moscow to Minneapolis, I’d replay what he’d said and imagined his clenched arms, his little boy smell of sweat and wind, his inability to comprehend love. I liked to imagine that months later when he hugged the giant Teddy bear in the common area, he conjured me: my skinny arms, my freckled hands. The desperation in my embrace.
Period. The End.
The story behind the story:
Because I have OCD, I always long for balance. When I was younger, it was more physical; but now I try to think of possible ways that every event of my life has a counterpart. Love and Loss, Birth and Death, Learning and Teaching, Anger and Forgiveness.
This essay includes adoption, grief, and mental health, the three pervading themes of my book, Guess What’s Different.
Susan Triemert’s collection of essays, Guess What’s Different was published in May of 2022. She reads creative non-fiction at Pithead Chapel. A mother of boys and cats, she lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. You can find out more about Susan at susantriemert.com.
“Evening Out the Sides” was first published in Pithead Chapel.