A Year of Stories

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 12.44.43 PMA year ago today, I clicked “publish” on my first blog post. As I’ve told others, I started the blog as a New Year’s goal. For the past few years, I’ve always put “publish my writing” as a goal, but I would never get around to doing anything about it. Work kept me busy. My two kids kept me even busier. I kept making excuses, but at the end of December in 2013, I just decided to go for it. I had been kicking around the idea of a blog about adoption for years, and I don’t know if there was any single thing that made me do it, but for some reason I decided I was ready.

My first post was an interview I did with my sister about her time spent with Invisible Children and the connection she felt with being adopted and giving back. After that first post, I didn’t really have a plan for my next post. Looking back, I realize how crazy that sounds. The week after I published the first story, I started reaching out to people on social media, and so many responded, eager to share their story.

Without a doubt, I am a different person today than I was a year ago when I started. I wasn’t really active in the online adoption community, and the only adoption stories I knew of were my own, my siblings, and a few other Haitian adoptees that we grew up with. My views of adoption were pretty limited, and this year I was able to meet people who broadened my view. I met adoptive moms who opened up their hearts and homes to foster children. I interviewed book authors, filmmakers, and vloggers. And I wrote about adoptees, who like me, struggled with the loss of their birth families.

These conversations helped with one of my hardest posts, the Mother’s Day post.  For years, Mother’s Day has always been difficult for me. I didn’t talk about it or share it, but I knew I had a platform to help someone else who might be hurting like I was. So I sat down and wrote a draft. And deleted it. And cried. And wrote another draft. I was shaking when I finally clicked “publish”. It was a turning point for me. For the first time, I made myself completely vulnerable and let my heart bleed. It was a weight lifted off my shoulders when it was finally published. And something in me shifted too. I started to actively seek out other adoptees online and communicate with them. And guess what? I wasn’t alone.

Over the next few months, I shared my hesitation to search for my family, but I received so much support that I decided to finally go for it.  With the help of so many people, something that I had never thought was possible came to life. In my wildest dreams, I never thought that starting this blog would lead me to my mother. As I’ve shared before, it was nothing short of a miracle, and I owe it all to the generosity of strangers.

I knew going into it that this blog would be a short term project. It has helped me focus on what I want to do next. 2014 was a big year, but I am even more excited for the year ahead. God willing, I will meet my family in Haiti. In addition, I’ll be writing for a few publications. You can keep up with all my happenings at www.mariettewilliams.com. I also started a group for Haitian Adoptees on Facebook, and we welcome all Haitian adoptees to join the growing group. I hope that it will grow into a community of adoptees who support each other and the next generation of adoptees.

I have a lot of “thank yous” for everyone who made this blog possible. My dear husband was a silent partner in all of this. He would often take the kids to the park for a few hours so I could send emails, watch documentaries, and write blog posts. Another big thank you goes to everyone who let me share their story. Each person was so gracious in my request for more information, accurate dates, and personal pictures. My understanding of adoption and of myself has deepened over this past year, and I will take each one of these stories with me for the rest of my life. I cannot end without giving thanks to God for giving me the vision and ability to write. And finally, thank you dear reader for taking this journey with me. Thank you to everyone who supported me from day one.

And if you’re here for the first time, I hope you take some time to read these special stories. There are 29 of them in total from birth moms, adoptive moms and dads, adoptees, and adoptee siblings. Hopefully each story will help you understand both the beauty and heartbreak of adoption. You know I love a good quote, so I’ll end with this:

“Stories nurture our connection to place and to each other. They show us where we have been and where we can go. They remind us of how to be human, how to live alongside the other lives that animate this planet. When we lose stories, our understanding of the world is less rich, less true…after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

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Finding My Family

The events of the past few months have been surreal. There are no other words to describe it. This blog has done many things for me. It’s been a way to express myself and share my adoption journey. I’ve also been able to hear and share others’ adoption stories. But most importantly, it has helped me find my family.

At the end of June, I wrote a post about Searching. I had several people reach out to me, and each person kept offering their help to find my family. They knew someone who was in Haiti or they knew someone who could help me. I was still scared to start searching, but every time I was discouraged, I thought of the stranger who was sitting on their computer so moved by my story that they reached out to me to let me know they would help. So I started searching.

My family is from Pestel, Haiti, a small town outside of Jeremie. I went on Facebook and found a Facebook Page for Pestel. I sent a private message that I was searching for my family and I listed my name, birthdate, and my parents’ names. The administrator, Jean, reached out to me and kindly translated my message into Creole and French and shared it on the page. He also told me he was from New York, had family in Pestel, and would gladly share my information with them.

About two weeks later, I was on vacation with my husband and kids when I received a message from Jean on Facebook.

Mariette, hope all is ok. Please call Denise 011509********, she will be able to give you more info on your mom and dad. You can tell her Jean ——- gave you the number. Do you still speak creole?, if not I can always translate. I’m leaving for Pestel, Haiti next week.”

My heart was racing. “She will be able to give you more info on your mom and dad.” I don’t remember the next few minutes, but somehow I was able to get the words out to my husband. He was just as excited as I was because he knew how much it meant to me. I somehow got through dinner, and tried to call Denise when we got back to the hotel room. I was hoping Denise could speak enough English that we could communicate over the phone, but she didn’t speak any English, and I don’t speak any Creole. I was frustrated and had to wait until I got home to find help.

When we finally got home, I messaged a long time friend who spoke Creole. I explained the situation and gave Denise’s number. Their phone call was much more productive. We found out that Denise knew my sister Ginette, and knew her phone number. She told us that I had seven siblings (five sisters and two brothers) all living in Haiti. Denise also told my friend that my mother was alive, but my father had passed away last year. The news that my mother was alive was shadowed by the fact that my father wasn’t. I felt guilty for several days. If I had only done this sooner, he could have seen me before he passed. I cried, but was consoled by the hope that I could still be reunited with my mother.

I thanked my friend for calling, but I was unsure of the next step. My emotions were all over the place, and I needed a few days to sort everything out. Over the summer I was working on several interviews for the blog, so I decided to email Marlyse, a woman who was in the process of adopting two children from Haiti, so I could get an update. She knew about my story, and asked me about my search. Wanting to be honest, I told her that there was a possibility that I found my sister in Haiti. I told her I had a number, but no way to communicate. Marlyse wrote back almost immediately. “Do you want to call her this week?”

Three days later, we had Ginette on the phone. I could understand little of what she said, but she was overjoyed to hear from me. Over the next 45 minutes, Marlyse translated as I asked her questions. Slowly, the blurred lines of my history came into focus. Ginette answered every question. She confirmed the information I knew, and filled in what I didn’t. Ginette knew the name of the Haitian woman who had ran the orphanage and given me up for adoption. I had not told anyone this information, and when I heard the name, I got goosebumps. I knew at that moment, this was my sister, my family.

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My sister Ginette

Ginette was in Port-au-Prince and promised to do her best to get our mother to Port-au-Prince from Pestel to speak to me. Within two weeks, I spoke to mother on the phone. She sounded like Ginette, but her Creole a little higher and softer. We told each other things that we had wanted to tell each other for so long, with Marlyse interpreting the entire conversation. I was sweating, my heart was pounding, but it was perfect.

Ginette told me she could send me a picture of my mother with the help of her neighbor. Ginette had a cell phone, but it didn’t have a camera. She was going to get her neighbor to take a picture and send it to my phone. We ended the conference call, and I waited. In the waiting time I tried to keep my hands busy. I kept thinking that I should be doing something special in the moments before seeing a picture of my mother for the first time. I couldn’t think of anything, so I just stared at my screen saver, trying to calm my racing heart.

My phone was beside me, and I heard it vibrate. I opened the email on my computer and clicked on the attachment. I had no words. I was by myself in front of the computer, and I just stared at the picture. I must have stared at it for a full five minutes before moving. And then I grabbed every single picture I had of myself on my computer and started comparing them. I finally called my husband into the room, and asked him “Do we look alike?” He answered my question with one look.

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My mother and I

My mother will be turning 70 on July 15th, and I would like to see her before that happens. A few days after we spoke, she took the long journey back to Pestel by bus. The bus ride was almost four hours, no easy feat for an older woman. When we spoke, she asked for nothing. Just to see me again. She had told me she had been praying every day, never giving up hope that we would see each other again.

So this journey that I’ve been on is no longer about me. It’s not about my wishes or unfulfilled desires. It’s about a woman who was separated from her daughter and never gave up hope that she would see her child again. And I owe this story to every single person who has encouraged me to search for my family. I especially thank Marlyse. She was a stranger who let God use her to reunite a mother and daughter. Marlyse helped give me closure, but what she did for my mother was nothing short of orchestrating a miracle, and I cannot thank her enough. To be honest, I was unsure if I would ever meet my mother on this side of heaven, but she never gave up on me. Isn’t that what mothers do?

Searching

This past May, I wrote about my difficulty on Mother’s Day. Several people reached out to me and asked me if I wanted help with searching for my birthmother, and I was grateful for the genuine desire to help. So first and foremost, thank you! For anyone from the outside, the solution seems simple. If you are searching for something, go find it. But it’s not always that simple.

Although I’ve been thinking about searching for my birth family for many years, I haven’t. I attempted a search almost ten years ago. I was starting my first year of college. Away from home, the combination of curiosity and independence made me believe that it might be possible to find my family. So I asked my mother to mail me copies of all of my adoption papers. About a week later, I enthusiastically ran down to the mailroom and was handed a thick package. But when I sat down on my bed and spread everything out in front of me, the task seemed insurmountable. Doubt crept in. I had no idea where to start, who to contact, or what I wanted to find.

This was just before Myspace, and years before Facebook and Twitter. My online presence was limited to a few email addresses and MSN Messenger. I didn’t have the money to work with an agency, and I didn’t know who to contact in Haiti.  I just didn’t see how I was going to find them. I felt foolish, tucked the papers back into the manila envelope, and hid the envelope at the bottom of my desk drawer. The envelope stayed there all year, untouched, until I packed up my things to move back home for the summer.

Today there are few excuses, but I’m still hesitant for several reasons. First, I don’t know if I’ll like what I find. It’s easy to avoid reality and build up this idea of what someone is like. For now, my family can be whatever I want them to be. They can be good and kind and selfless. My birth mother is still alive, just waiting for me to “come back.” But once I begin searching, I can never go back to this fantasy in my head.

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photo credit: Ali Kay “God’s Children” Series

In addition, searching for a family member in Haiti is much different than searching for family in the United States or Canada. Haiti’s system of  recordkeeping is not reliable. It’s not a Google click away or as easy as searching for a name on Facebook. The orphanage I was adopted from no longer exists. My adoption papers stated that my birth parents cannot read or write, and today they may not have access to modern technology. But Haiti is a small country and does have a good system of word of mouth. I have been told that my best chances would be to actually go to Haiti and look for them.

In the last few months, I’ve watched three different documentaries about adoptees searching for their family members. Each story was so different, but I noticed one theme throughout: each adoptee was surrounded by family. It was not a solo search, but a team effort. Their adoptive families were there to walk with them, offer words of advice, and give emotional support. As I’ve shared before, I live in Florida, while my family still lives in Canada. As independent as I seem, a search for family would be better with my family.

So these are the excuses I’ve told myself over and over. These are the things that are holding me back. Or protecting me, depending on how you look at it. If I’m honest with myself,  I just want to meet my family members to let them know that I’m okay. I don’t know if a relationship with any of my family members is possible. There are linguistic and cultural barriers. And I am not the little girl they said goodbye to over 30 years ago.

Greek Philosopher Heraclitus said that “No man steps in the same river twice. For it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” Time did not stand still. Our lives have gone on without each other. But even with all these realities, the yearning remains. If and when I decide to search for my birth family, I know that it doesn’t change the past. It doesn’t change who I am. But I would like to someday meet my birthmother again and tell her I love her.

On Mother’s Day

As this time of year approaches, I always start wrestling with my emotions about my birth mother. Growing up, my longing for a connection with her always intensified on Mother’s Day. It was a feeling that I tried to avoid the rest of the year, but on Mother’s Day, it was was inescapable.

marion-bolognesi4On Mother’s Day, my siblings and I would make cards, buy flowers, or offer up whatever art project we had made in school. I was happy to show my appreciation, but inside I felt much differently. The days leading up to Mother’s Day always filled me with an overwhelming  anxiety, and on Mother’s Day I always felt awkward and uncomfortable, despite my outward display of gratitude. I mostly hid my true feelings about my birth mother. She was the woman who thought she had given me up for a better life, and I felt there was no room for anything but gratitude.

On Mother’s Day, I was celebrating the mother I had, but I was pushing away feelings of hurt and anger for the mother I lost. To express these feelings meant admitting that I was missing something. That I wasn’t entirely satisfied when everyone around me had done their part to ensure my success. I had no idea how to verbalize my conflicting emotions. And so Mother’s Day would come, and I would grin and bear it. A week would pass, then a month, and the sharp pain became a dull ache for the rest of the year.

These are feelings that many will have on Mother’s Day, despite having loving families. I have many people in my life who love me including my adoptive parents, siblings, and extended family. I have a close group of loyal friends, and a wonderful husband and two beautiful children. And still that will never be enough to fulfill this longing.

We all have a different story, so there is a danger in saying that every adopted child feels this way, because some do not. I’m no expert, but I do think there is a certain healing effect when you can acknowledge the loss. Discuss it. Cry about it. And know that it doesn’t mean you’re ungrateful.  Some of us will find closure in this lifetime, while others will have to learn to accept the unknown. So this is for anyone suffering from the loss of a mother, any mother, on Mother’s Day. Today you are not alone.

Where Are You From?

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This simple question is usually meant to start small talk or find out if you have something in common with a stranger, but for many adoptees, including myself, this question is anything but simple.

I grew up in Canada and being a part of a visible minority, it seemed as if people felt they had the right to question your family history. The summer after my first year in college, I was working at a convenience store in the small town that my family had just moved to.

“So, where ya from?” The unblunted words shot out from underneath a dirty baseball hat, as the customer dumped his wares on the counter. I slid the cigarettes and beef jerky over the scanner, praying that if I ignored the question maybe he would forget that he asked. He didn’t and tried another way. “So how many of you guys are there here?”

I didn’t take my eyes off the counter and politely said through a forced smile, “I moved here recently.” And I offered nothing more. He paused, clearly not satisfied with my answer. He then scooped up the cigarettes, shoved the beef jerky in his back pocket, and moved on with his life, the tiny shopkeeper’s bell signaling his departure.

 These instances were not frequent, but it was enough to make me feel on guard around strangers. When someone asked me that question, it didn’t feel like they were asking where I was born or where I grew up. They wanted to know who I was and where I belonged. And after while, after being asked so many times where you belong, you start to feel that you don’t.

Over the years, I’ve come up with some creative ways to answer the question because there is always a follow up question. When strangers find out I’m from Canada, they ask,“But where are you originally from?” And then their line of questioning leads to adoption, my siblings, my family, and if they are feeling really brave they will ask me if I’ve ever met my birth mother. Questions that I don’t feel like answering when I am making minimum wage selling lottery tickets and stale donuts.

At the end of that summer, I transferred down to a small college in Florida. Over the next few years, I finished my degree, met my husband, and started my teaching career. Moving to Florida has made things easier in many ways. I’m no longer a visible minority in my community, and most of the time I can enjoy a certain amount of anonymity.

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It took me awhile to get to this point, but I now know I don’t owe strangers an explanation for my accent, my complexion, or my last name. When I feel like telling “my story”, I do. I am not ashamed of who I am and where I am from, but there are days when I just want to “blend in” with everyone else. And the truth is, telling someone where I’m from is just one part of who I am. If you really want to know me, ask me where I’m going.