An Adoptee’s Anchor

I’m 30 on Sunday and struggling with the thought of it.

Birthdays are awful as an adoptee — at least, they are for me. I dread them every year and, even when I’m not consciously thinking about it, I feel my mood grow dark and my desire to hide away grow stronger.

I’ve been talking about grief a lot in the lead up to it, not least the ways I’ve explore grief intellectually these last few years. Why I’m so interested in it, so fixated on it? What was it about Mark Fisher’s death that became such an intense experience to immerse myself in and try to understand? It was as if, in feeling so deeply for Mark, I came closer than ever to some otherwise ineffable thing I’d never been able to touch or articulate.

To be an adoptee often feels like being born in grief, or even born of grief. But it is a grief that is detached from memory or experience or knowledge. It is felt but never really “known”. Not consciously, except until you’re older.

I was thinking about this really vivid memory I have from childhood: lying in bed, utterly distraught, wailing like a widow, thinking about the death of my adoptive parents. They came into my room and we had the conversation that many children have had with their parents when they try to wrestle with the concept of death. It’s dramatized in films and TV shows all the time.

“Are you going to die, mummy?”

“Yes, probably, but not for a very, very long time.”

And for most children, that’s the end of it. There is a quizzical acceptance that this abstract notion is not something for them to worry about right now. Some notion of an experience that cannot touch parents in their godlike stature within your tiny life. But I think my distress came from an intuitive sense of the gravity of death. I already knew what it would be like for them to be gone, to never see them again. I somehow knew that feeling already and, as a result, the thought of going through it again was too much to bear.

I think they were puzzled. Why was I this upset about some hypothetical that I had never experienced? I’d never lost a pet or known someone who had died. But I had lost a mother, in those first few weeks of life, and though I had no memory or knowledge of that experience, I nonetheless felt it immensely.

An adoptee’s birthday feels like that. It’s a voided anniversary. Birthdays are anchors for all of us, giving us a sense of ourselves as we revolve around the sun. But for an adoptee, a birthday is a horrific anchor that hangs around your neck. You feel the weight of it and feel all too keenly the abyss it has been dropped into. To tug at it, once a year, is to feel how dark and cold it is down there, in the depths, at the origin, where nothing is known and loss is all there is.

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