I thought I could handle it, Nadine. After all those years of seeing you, all those times I talked about whether I should look for my birth mother, I finally did it. I took that step. You were a part of it—I wanted to show you what an impact you had on my life, how much I’ve grown, how stable I am now, how balanced. That’s what you always told me, “Balance is the key.” But I forgot the other thing you used to say: “Slowly, Sara.”
I’ve missed this, being here. Remember how uncomfortable I was when I first started seeing you? Especially when I told you why I needed help. But you were down-to-earth and funny—not at all how I imagined a psychiatrist would be. This office was so bright and pretty that, no matter what I was worried about, as soon as I walked in here felt better. Some days, especially in the beginning, I didn’t want to leave.
You told me once that when you didn’t hear from me you knew things were going well, that when I stopped coming altogether you’d know you did your job. And you did. The last couple of years have been the happiest of my life. That’s why I thought it was the right time. I thought I could withstand anything that came my way. I was solid, grounded. Nothing could send me back to the nervous wreck I was when I first met you.
Then she lied to me—my birth mother—when I finally forced her to talk to me. She lied about my real father. It felt like when Ally used to kick my ribs when I was pregnant with her—a sudden blow from the inside that left me breathless. But it was my birth mother’s fear that got me the most. She was afraid of me. I’m sure of it. What I don’t know is why.
* * *
It started about six weeks ago, around the end of December, with an online article. I was up stupidly early this one Sunday—no need for a rooster when you have a six-year-old—and while I inhaled my first coffee I answered e-mails. I get requests to restore furniture from all over the island now. That morning I was trying to research a desk from the 1920s, when I wasn’t laughing at Ally. She was supposed to be watching cartoons downstairs, but I could hear her scolding Moose, our brindle French bulldog, for molesting her stuffed rabbit. Suffice it to say, Moose has a weaning issue. No tail’s safe.
Then somehow or another I got this pop-up advertising Viagra, which I finally got closed, only to accidentally click on this other link and find myself staring at a headline:
Adoption: The Other Side of the Story
I scrolled through letters people had sent in response to a Globe and Mail piece, read stories of birth parents who’ve been trying to find their children for years, birth parents who didn’t want to be found. Adopted children growing up feeling they never belonged. Tragic tales of doors slammed in faces. Joyful stories of mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters reuniting and living happily ever after.
My head started to pound. What if I found my mother? Would we instantly connect? What if she wanted nothing to do with me? What if I found out she was dead? What if I had siblings who never knew about me?
I didn’t realize Evan was up until he kissed the back of my neck and made a grunting noise—a sound we picked up from Moose and now use to signal everything from I’m pissed off to You’re hot!
I closed down the screen and spun my chair around. Evan raised his eyebrows and smiled.
“Talking to your online boyfriend again?”
I smiled back. “Which one?”
Evan clutched at his chest, collapsed into his office chair, and sighed.
“Sure hope he has lots of clothes.”
I laughed. I was forever raiding Evan’s shirts, especially if he had to stay with a group at his wilderness lodge in Tofino—three hours from our house in Nanaimo and right smack on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Those weeks I often wore his shirts around the clock. I’d get caught up working on a new piece of furniture, and by the time he was home the shirt would be covered in stains and I’d be exchanging all sorts of favors for his forgiveness.
“Sorry to break it to you, honey, but you’re the only man for me—no one else would put up with my craziness.” I rested my foot on his lap. With his sable hair spiked in all directions and his usual outfit of cargo pants and polo shirt, he looked like a college student. A lot of people don’t realize Evan actually owns the lodge.
He smiled. “Oh, I’m sure there’s a doctor somewhere with a straitjacket who’d think you’re cute.”
I pretended to kick at him, then said, “I was reading an article,” as I started to massage the throbbing pain on the left side of my head.
“Getting a migraine, baby?”
I dropped my hand down to my lap. “Just a little one, it’ll go away.”
He gave me a look.
“Okay, I forgot my pill yesterday.” After years of trying various medications I was now on beta blockers and my migraines were finally under control. The trick was remembering to take them.
He shook his head. “So what was the article about?”
“Ontario’s opening up their adoption records, and…” I groaned as Evan worked a pressure point on my foot. “There were all these letters from people who were adopted or who gave up their children.” Downstairs, Ally’s giggle rang out.
“Thinking about finding your birth mother?”
“Not exactly, it was just interesting.” But I was thinking about finding her. I just wasn’t sure if I was ready. I’ve always known I was adopted, but I didn’t realize that meant I was different until Mom sat me down and told me they were having a baby. I was four at the time. As Mom grew bigger and Dad prouder, I started worrying they were going to give me back. I didn’t know just how different I was until I saw the way my father looked at Lauren when they brought her home, then the way he looked at me when I asked to hold her. They had Melanie two years later. He didn’t let me hold her either.
Evan, willing to drop things long before me, nodded.
“What time do you want to leave for brunch?”
“A quarter past never.” I sighed. “Thank God Lauren and Greg are coming, because Melanie’s bringing Kyle.”
“Brave of her.” As much as my father loves Evan—they’d probably spend the entire brunch planning their next fishing trip—he despises Kyle. I can’t say I blame him. Kyle’s a wannabe rock star, but as far as I’m concerned the only thing he’s playing is my sister. Dad always hated our boyfriends, though. I’m still shocked he likes Evan. All it took was one trip to the lodge and he was talking about him like he was the son he never had. He’s still bragging about the salmon they caught.
“It’s like she thinks if they’re around each other more Dad will see all his good qualities.” I snorted.
“Be nice, Melanie loves him.”
I gave a mock shudder. “Last week she told me I better start working on my tan if I didn’t want to be the same color as my dress. Our wedding’s nine months away!”
“She’s just jealous—you can’t take it personally.”
“It sure feels personal.”
Ally came barreling into the room with Moose in fast pursuit and threw herself into my arms.
“Mommy, Moose ate all my cereal!”
“Did you leave the bowl on the floor again, silly?”
She giggled against my neck and I inhaled her fresh scent as her hair tickled my nose. With her dark coloring and compact body, Ally looks more like Evan than me even though he’s not her biological father, but she has my green eyes—cat’s eyes, Evan calls them. And she got my curls, though at thirty-three mine have relaxed while Ally’s are still tight ringlets.
Evan stood up and clapped his hands.
“Okay, family, time to get dressed.”
* * *
A week later, just after New Year’s, Evan headed back to his lodge for a few days. I’d read a few more adoption stories online, and the night before he left I told him I was considering looking for my birth mother while he was gone.
“Are you sure it’s a good idea right now? You have so much going on with the wedding.”
“But that’s part of it—we’re getting married and for all I know I was dropped here from outer space.”
“You know, that might explain a few things.…”
“Ha, ha, very funny.”
He smiled, then said, “Seriously, Sara, how are you going to feel if you can’t find her? Or if she doesn’t want to see you?”
How was I going to feel? I pushed the thought to the side and shrugged.
“I’ll just have to accept it. Things don’t get to me like they used to. But I really feel like I need to do this—especially if we’re going to have kids.” The entire time I was pregnant with Ally I was afraid of what I might be passing on to her. Thankfully she’s healthy, but whenever Evan and I talk about having a child the fear starts up again.
I said, “I’m more worried about upsetting Mom and Dad.”
“You don’t have to tell them—it’s your life. But I still don’t think it’s the best timing.”
Maybe he was right. It was stressful enough trying to take care of Ally and run my business, let alone plan a wedding.
“I’ll think about putting it off, okay?”
Evan smiled. “Riiight. I know you, baby—once your mind is made up you’re full speed ahead.”
I laughed. “I promise.”
* * *
I did think about waiting, especially when I imagined my mom’s face if she found out. Mom used to say being adopted meant I was special because they chose me. When I was twelve Melanie gave me her version. She said our parents adopted me because Mom couldn’t have babies, but they didn’t need me now. Mom found me in my room packing my clothes. When I told her I was going to find my “real” parents she started crying, then she said, “Your birth parents couldn’t take care of you properly, but they wanted you to have the best home possible. So now we take care of you and we love you very much.” I never forgot the hurt in her eyes, or how thin her body felt as she hugged me.
The next time I seriously thought about looking for my birth parents was when I graduated, then when I found out I was pregnant, and then seven months later when I held Ally for the first time. But I’d put myself in Mom’s shoes and imagine what it would feel like if my child wanted to find her birth mother, how hurt and scared I’d be, and I could never go through with it. I might not have this time either, if Dad hadn’t phoned to ask Evan to go fishing.
“Sorry, Dad, he just left yesterday. Maybe you can take Greg?”
“Greg talks too much.” I felt bad for Lauren’s husband. Where Dad despised Kyle, he had no use for Greg. I’d seen him walk away when Greg was in midsentence.
“Are you guys going to be home for a while? I was just going to get Ally from school and come by for a visit.”
“Not today. Your mom’s trying to rest.”
“Is her Crohn’s flaring up again?”
“She’s just tired.”
“Okay, no problem. If you need help with anything, let me know.”
* * *
Throughout our lives Mom’s health had been up and down. For weeks she’d be doing fine, painting our rooms, sewing curtains, baking up a storm. Even Dad was almost happy during those times. I remember him lifting me onto his shoulders once, the view as heady as the rare attention. But Mom would always end up doing too much and within days she was sick again. She’d fade before our eyes as her body refused to hang on to any nutrients, even baby food sending her rushing for the bathroom.
When she was going through a bad spell Dad would come home and ask what I’d been doing all day, like he was trying to find something, or someone, to be pissed at. When I was nine he found me in front of the TV while Mom was sleeping. He dragged me to the kitchen by my wrist and pointed to the stack of dishes, calling me a lazy, ungrateful child. The next day it was the pile of laundry that set him off, and the next, Melanie’s toys in the driveway. His big workingman’s body would loom over me and his voice would vibrate with anger, but he never yelled, never did anything Mom could see or hear. He’d take me out to the garage and list my shortcomings while I stared at his feet, terrified he was going to say he didn’t want me anymore. Then he’d barely speak to me for a week.
I started doing the household chores before Mom could get to them, staying home when my sisters were out with friends, cooking dinners that never got my father’s approval but at least didn’t earn his silence. I would do anything to avoid silence, anything to keep Mom from getting sick again. If she was healthy, I was safe.
* * *
When I phoned Lauren that night she told me she and the boys had just gotten home from dinner with our parents. Dad had invited them.
“So it was just my kid who wasn’t allowed over.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t like that. Ally just has so much energy, and—”
“What does that mean?”
“It doesn’t mean anything, she’s adorable. But Dad probably thought three kids were too much.” I knew Lauren was just trying to make me feel better before I went on a rant against Dad, which she hates, but it drives me nuts that she can never see how differently Dad treats me, or at least never acknowledges it. After we hung up I almost called Mom to check on her, but then I thought about Dad telling me to stay home, like a stray dog who’s only allowed to sleep on the porch because she might mess in the house. I put the phone back on the charger.
* * *
The next day I filled out the form at Vital Statistics, paid my $50, and started waiting. I’d like to say patiently, but I practically tackled the mailman after the first week. A month later my Original Birth Registration, or OBR, as the woman at Vital Statistics called it, arrived in the mail. I stared at the envelope and realized my hand was shaking. Evan was at his lodge again and I wished he could be there when I opened it, but that was another week. Ally was at school and the house was quiet. I took a deep breath and ripped open the envelope.
My real mother’s name was Julia Laroche and I was born in Victoria, BC. My father was listed as unknown. I read the OBR and the adoption certificate over and over, looking for answers, but I just kept hearing one question: Why did you give me away?
* * *
The next morning I woke early and went online while Ally was still sleeping. The first thing I checked was the Adoption Reunion Registry, but when I realized it could take another month to get an answer, I decided to look on my own first. After searching Web sites for twenty minutes, I found three Julia Laroches in Quebec and four down in the States who seemed around the right age. Only two lived on the island, but when I saw they were both in Victoria my stomach flipped. Could she still be there after all this time? I quickly clicked on the first link, and let my breath out when I realized she was too young, judging by her article on a new mom’s forum. The second link took me to a Web site for a real estate agent in Victoria. She had auburn hair like me and looked about the right age. I studied her face with a mixture of excitement and fear. Had I found my birth mother?
After I drove Ally to school, I sat at my desk and circled the phone number I’d jotted on a piece of paper. I’ll call in one minute. After another cup of coffee. After I read the paper. After I paint every toenail a different color. Finally I forced myself to pick up the phone.
It might not even be her.
I should just hang up. This was a bad way to—
“Julia Laroche speaking.”
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.
“Hello?” she said.
“Hi, I’m calling … I’m calling because…” Because I stupidly thought if I said something brilliant, you’d instantly regret giving me up, but now I can’t even remember my own name.
Her voice was impatient. “Are you looking to buy or sell a home?”
“No, I’m—” I took a deep breath and said it in a rush. “I might be your daughter.”
“Is this some kind of joke? Who are you?”
“My name is Sara Gallagher. I was born in Victoria and given up for adoption. You have auburn hair and you’re about the right age, so I thought—”
“Honey, there’s no way you’re my daughter. I can’t have children.”
My face burned. “God, I’m sorry. I just thought … well, I hoped.”
The voice softened. “It’s okay. Good luck with your search.” I was about to hang up when she said, “There’s a Julia Laroche who works at the university. I get calls for her sometimes.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that.”
My face was still hot as I dropped the phone onto my desk and headed out to my shop. I got most of my paintbrushes cleaned, then sat and stared at the wall, thinking about what the real estate woman had said. A few minutes later I was back at my computer. After a quick search the other Julia’s name came up under a list of professors at the University of Victoria. She taught art history—was that where I got my love of all things old? I shook my head. Why was I letting myself get excited? It was just a name. I took a deep breath and called the university, surprised when they put me straight through to Julia Laroche’s extension.
She answered, and this time I had my speech ready. “Hi, my name is Sara Gallagher and I’m trying to find my birth mother. Did you give a child up for adoption thirty-three years ago?”
A sharp intake of breath. Then silence.
“Don’t call here again.” She hung up.
* * *
I cried. For hours. Which kicked off a migraine so bad Lauren had to take Ally and Moose for me. Thankfully, Lauren’s two boys are around Ally’s age and Ally loves going over there. I hated being away from my daughter for even one night, but all I could do was lie in a dark room with a cold compress on my head and wait for it to pass. Evan phoned and I told him what had happened, speaking slowly because of the pain. By the next afternoon I’d stopped seeing auras around everything, so Ally and Moose came home. Evan phoned again that night.
“Feeling better, baby?”
“The migraine’s gone—it’s my own stupid fault for forgetting to take my pill again. Now I’m behind on that desk and I wanted to call some photographers this week and—”
“Sara, you don’t have to do everything right away. Leave the photographers for when I get back.”
“It’s fine, I’ll take care of it.” I admired Evan’s laid-back personality in many ways, but in the two years we’ve been together I’ve learned “we can do it later” usually translates into me rushing around like a crazy woman to get something done at the last minute.
I said, “I’ve been thinking about what happened with my birth mother.…”
“I was wondering about writing her a letter. Her address is unlisted, but I can just leave it at the university.”
Evan was silent for a moment. “Sara … I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
“So she doesn’t want to get to know me, fine, but I think the least she could do is give me my medical history. What about Ally? Doesn’t she have a right to know? There could be health issues, like … like high blood pressure, or diabetes, or cancer—”
“Baby.” Evan’s voice was calm but firm. “Take it easy. Why are you letting her get to you like this?”
“I’m not like you, okay? I can’t just brush things off.”
“Listen, cranky-pants, I’m on your side here.”
I was silent, my eyes closed, trying to breathe, reminding myself it wasn’t Evan I was angry at.
“Sara, do what you have to do. You know I’ll support you no matter what. But I think you should just leave it alone.”
* * *
As I made the hour-and-a-half trip down-island the next day I felt calm and centered, confident I was doing the right thing. There’s something about the Island Highway that always soothes me: the quaint towns and valleys, the farmland, the glimpses of ocean and coastal mountain ranges. When I got closer to Victoria and drove through the old-growth forest at Goldstream Park, I thought about the time Dad had taken us there to watch the salmon spawning in the river. Lauren was terrified of all the seagulls feasting on the dead salmon. I hated the scent of death in the air, how it clung to your clothes and nostrils. Hated how Dad explained everything to my sisters but ignored my questions—ignored me.
Evan and I talked about opening a second whale-watching business in Victoria one day—Ally loves the museum and the street performers in the inner harbor, I love all the old buildings. But for now Nanaimo suits us. Even though it’s the second largest city on the island, it still has that small-town feel. You can be walking on the seawall in the harbor, shopping in the old city quarter, or hiking up a mountain with an amazing view of the Gulf Islands all on the same day. Whenever we want to get away, we just take the ferry to the mainland or drive down to Victoria to do some shopping. But if things didn’t go well in Victoria this trip, it was going to be a long drive home.
* * *
My plan was to drop off the letter requesting information at Julia’s office. But when the woman at the front desk told me Professor Laroche was teaching a class in the next building, I had to see what she looked like. She wouldn’t even know I was there. Then I’d leave the letter at the front desk.
I slowly opened the door to the auditorium-style classroom and crept in with my face turned away from the podium. I found a seat in the back, scrunched down—feeling like a stalker—and took a look at my mother.
“As you can see, architecture of the Islamic world varied…”
In my daydreams she was always an older version of me, but where my hair is auburn, falling in unruly waves down my back, her black hair was cut in a sleek bob. I couldn’t see her eye color, but her face was round, with delicate bone structure. My cheekbones are high and my features Nordic. The lines of her black wrap dress revealed a slight boyish frame and small wrists. My build is athletic. She was probably a couple of inches over five feet and I’m almost five-nine. The way she pointed out images on the projector’s screen was elegant and unhurried. I talk with my hands so much I’m always knocking something over. If her reaction on the phone wasn’t still haunting me, I’d think I had the wrong woman.
As I half listened to her lecture, I fantasized about what my childhood might’ve been like with her as my mother. We’d have discussed art at dinner, which we’d eat off beautiful plates and sometimes light the candles in silver candlesticks. On summer holidays we’d have explored museums in foreign countries and had deep intellectual talks over cappuccinos in Italian cafés. On weekends we’d have browsed bookstores together—
A wave of guilt swamped me. I have a mother. I thought of the sweet woman who raised me, the woman who made cabbage-leaf compresses for my headaches even when she wasn’t feeling well herself, the woman who didn’t know I’d found my birth mother.
After the class ended I walked down to the stairs toward the side door. As I passed near Julia she smiled, but with a questioning look, like she was trying to place me. When a student stopped to ask her something, I bolted for the door. At the last second, I glanced over my shoulder. Her eyes were brown.
I went straight back to my car. I was still sitting there, my heart going nuts inside my chest, when I saw her leave the building. She walked toward the faculty parking lot. I inched my car in that direction and watched her get into a white classic Jaguar. When she pulled out, I followed.
Stop. Think about what you’re doing. Pull over.
Like that was going to happen.
As we drove down Dallas Road, one of the more upscale areas in Victoria along the waterfront, I kept back. After about ten minutes Julia turned into the circular driveway of a large Tudor house on the ocean. I pulled over and got out a map. She parked in front of the marble steps, followed a path around the corner of the house, then disappeared through a side door.
She didn’t knock. She lived there.
So what did I do now? Drive off and forget about the whole thing? Drop the letter in her mailbox at the end of the driveway and risk someone else finding it? Give it to her in person?
But once I reached the big mahogany front door I stood there like an idiot, frozen, torn between tucking the letter into the door and just sprinting back down the driveway. I didn’t knock, I didn’t ring the doorbell, but the door opened. I was face-to-face with my mother. And she didn’t look happy to see me.
My face was burning.
“Hi … I … I saw your class.”
Her eyes narrowed. She looked at the envelope clutched in my hand.
“I wrote you a letter.” My voice sounded breathless. “I wanted to ask you some things—we talked the other day.…”
She stared at me.
“I’m your daughter.”
Her eyes widened. “You have to leave.” She moved to shut the door. I put my foot on the jamb.
“Wait. I don’t want to upset you—I just have some questions, it’s for my daughter.” I dug into my wallet and pulled out a photo. “Her name’s Ally—she’s only six.”
Julia wouldn’t look at the photo. When she spoke her voice was high, strained.
“It’s not a good time. I can’t—I just can’t.”
“Five minutes. That’s all I need, then I’ll leave you alone.”
She looked over her shoulder at a phone on a hall table.
“Please. I promise I won’t come back.”
She led me into a side room with a mahogany desk and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Moved a cat off an antique brown leather high-backed chair.
I sat down and tried to smile. “Himalayans are beautiful.” She didn’t smile back. She perched on the edge of her seat. Hands gripping each other in her lap, knuckles white.
I said, “This chair is gorgeous—I refinish furniture for a living, but this is pristine. I love antiques. Anything vintage, really, cars, clothes…” My hand brushed the fitted black velvet jacket I’d paired with jeans.
She stared at the floor. Her hands started to shake.
I took a deep breath and went for it.
“I just want to know why you gave me away. I’m not angry, I have a good life. I just … I just want to know. I need to know.”
“I was young.” Now her voice was reedy, flat. “It was an accident. I didn’t want children.”
“Why did you have me, then?”
“I was Catholic.” Was?
“What about your family, are they—”
“My parents died in an accident—after you were born.” The last part came out in a rush. I waited for her to say more. The cat brushed against her legs, she didn’t touch it. I noticed a pulse beating fast at the base of her throat.
“I’m very sorry. Was the accident on the island?”
“We—they—lived in Williams Lake.” Her face flushed.
“Your name, Laroche. What does that mean? It’s French, right? Do you know from what part of—”
“I’ve never looked it up.”
“It was at a party and I don’t remember anything. I don’t know where he is now.”
I stared at this elegant woman. Not one thing about her fit with a drunken one-night stand. She was lying. I was sure of it. I willed her to meet my eyes. She stared at the cat. I had an insane urge to pick it up and throw it at her.
“Was he tall? Do I look like him, or—”
She stood up. “I told you I don’t remember. I think you’d better go.”
“But—” A door slammed at the back of the house.
Julia’s hand flew up to cover her mouth. An older woman with curly blond hair and a pink scarf draped around her thin shoulders came around the corner.
“Julia! I’m glad you’re home, we should—” She stopped when she saw me and her face broke into a smile. “Oh, hello, I didn’t realize Julia had a student over.”
I stood up and held out a hand. “I’m Sara. Professor Laroche was kind enough to go over my paper with me, but I should be off.”
She took my hand. “Katharine. I’m Julia’s…” Her voice trailed off as she searched Julia’s face.
I jumped into the awkward silence. “It was nice to meet you.” I turned to Julia. “Thanks again for your help.” She managed a smile and a nod.
At my car I glanced over my shoulder. They were still standing in the open doorway. Katharine smiled and waved, but Julia just stared at me.
* * *
So you understand why I had to talk to you. I feel like I’m standing on ice and it’s cracking all around me, but I don’t know which way to move. Do I try to find out why my birth mother lied or heed Evan’s advice to just leave it alone? I know you’re going to tell me I’m the only one who can make that decision, but I need your help.
I keep thinking about Moose. When he was a puppy we left him in the laundry room one cold Saturday when we went out, because he wasn’t housebroken—little guy piddled so much Ally tried to put her doll’s diapers on him. We had this beautiful bright-colored rope rug we’d brought back from a trip to Saltspring Island, and he must’ve started nibbling one corner, then just kept pulling and pulling. By the time we got home the rug was destroyed. My life is like that beautiful colored rug—it took years to sew it together. Now I’m afraid if I keep pulling on this one corner it’s all going to unravel.
But I’m not sure I can stop.
NEVER KNOWING Copyright 2011 by Ren Unischewski. Chevy Stevens is the author of Still Missing. Before becoming a writer, she worked as a realtor. When she held open houses, she had a lot of time waiting by herself between potential buyers, and Stevens would spend this time scaring herself with all the things that could happen to her. The most terrifying scenario she thought up became the story behind Still Missing. Stevens grew up on a ranch on Vancouver Island, and she still calls the island home. When she’s not writing, she’s hiking with her husband and her dog in the local mountains.