"Ready for dinner"
Having been adopted in New Jersey, I was never able to obtain my original birth certificate. Growing up, I would beg my adoptive mother for any tidbit of information about my birth mother until one day, shooting her foot through the kitchen wall, she screamed, “Don’t ever ask me that again.” For years I went on believing I was the product of rape or incest, or that my birth mother just wanted to get rid of me. I never fantasized about being the daughter of famous celebrities unable to raise me for fear that an illegitimate birth might ruin their careers. I reconciled myself to not knowing the truth, and I thought that was the end of the story until my mother lay on her deathbed.
When it became clear that her two-year battle with cancer was drawing to a close, my mom put a lot of effort into apologizing to me. As I sat by her beside, trying to comfort her now that we knew she was near death, she told me, “I know I was a bitch to you.” The confession came as a surprise, but I smiled, figuring it was the morphine talking. Maybe the drug gave her the freedom to let go of her pride. “You were a lovable bitch,” I responded, with a wink and a smile. But inside, my heart was breaking. Why couldn’t she have apologized years ago? We could have had so much time to rebuild our relationship.
We both laughed. For the first time in years, maybe ever, we opened up to each other. In this dreary hospital room, with its green walls and its threadbare divider curtains, with its IV drip and heartbeat monitor, my mom, for the first time in memory, wasn’t judgmental. When she told me she was proud of me, I had to wonder: Why did she wait until now? I felt so much pain growing up, but I couldn’t tell her how she had hurt me. Not now. Not when she was dying.
A week before she passed away, she told me about a lockbox hidden in her bedroom closet. “There are important papers in there,” she said. Then she gave me the secret code: “Your daddy’s birthday.”
For the first time in my life, I felt nervous being alone in my childhood home. As I prepared myself to open “the secret hidden box,” I felt my heart pounding in my throat.
Balancing on a chair in front of the closet, I reached past the stacks of hat boxes, the silk scarves, the leather gloves; my hand touched metal. I pulled out the box, placed it on my mother’s quilted bedspread and stared at it.
I took a deep breath and rotated the first cylinder to “6.” The second was already in the correct position. After easing the third cylinder into place, I felt the lid release and slowly open. It was filled with papers. Insurance documents. Itemized lists appraising the trinkets my parents collected: jewelry, furs, monogrammed silverware, the china my father shipped over from Hungary during the war. “My inheritance.”
As I worked my way through the documents, my heart stopped: “Adoption Papers.” The piece of paper listed my birth name. I could hardly read through the hot tears that filled my eyes. After removing my fogged-over contact lenses, I was able to examine the hand-typed court documents drafted so many years ago. While I studied the pages, one memory came to mind.
“Don’t ever ask me that again,” she’d yelled, so many years ago. Had she told me where this box was so I’d find the papers and open up a dialogue? Did she want me to ask her about this now? She had apologized for all of her cruelties. She realized she had been unfair. But was she ready to talk? Was that the reason she told me about the box?
I returned to the hospital the next morning expecting her to ask me about it. Did you find the box, do you have any questions? I’m ready now to answer anything. But she never mentioned the lockbox and I didn’t have the heart, or guts, to bring it up there, on her deathbed. I wasn’t going to do or say anything to upset her. She had to be the one to broach the subject. I waited.
In the end, no matter how many disappointments my mother had in her life, she couldn’t bring herself to talk to me about her greatest disappointment of all: that she could not give birth. She said nothing and I said nothing.
She died the following week. We never discussed her secret.
Real Families is a personal-essay series that celebrates the surprising and ever-shifting nature of domestic life in the 21st century. If you have a fascinating, original story you'd like to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org.