Cycles of Rejection: An Elegy for My Four Parents

Alex M. Frankel

As I began a new life back in my own country, my foreign “exile” over, I slowly learned to grasp Marcia’s next and last incarnation: what had, at first, been the cool, smart lady of the letters, to become the ambivalent sometime mother at the reunion, had now (since I was living too close to her) metamorphosed into an unapproachable, even hostile presence—or I should say absence. She closed herself off almost entirely and let Frank do the work of organizing an occasional meeting. Maybe now I no longer believed that we could make up for the thirty years we didn’t have, but at least I thought we could become a sort of family. Years passed, and she never once reached out to me. Sometimes, when I scheduled a visit, she chose not to be home.

Besides her adopted children, she was devoted to her garden, her cats, and her mystery novels. Marcia turned Frank’s desolate retreat into a real home, and her garden was her masterpiece. Under her care, the front and back yards became colorful, lush, and jungly oases that all the neighbors admired. She spent hours every day working on this paradise of roses, surrounded by her cats. At night, cats on her lap or at her feet, she read her mysteries and listened to rock and roll, and smoked. She did not stay in touch with anyone in Hawaii and had made only two friends, the gay couple next door, whom she saw more than Frank, for she and Frank had run into difficulties almost from the beginning, and, by the end of the ‘90s, lived more as polite housemates than as a married couple. She had her own room, but for years slept in an RV parked beside the house.

Once, on one of my visits to their place, I saw her reading from a storybook to two small children on the sofa. I don’t remember who those children were—relatives of her neighbors? relatives of Frank? I passed through the living room on my way to the garden and I paused a moment to watch her read. The children, sitting there obediently, seemed alert and engaged as she read. Her voice was proper and matronly, expressive and sing-songy. I wanted to sit with them; I wanted her to read to me, too: “Be my mom!” I wanted to say but didn’t, and dutifully continued on my way out the room.

I’m looking forward to our meeting, though I surely don’t know what good it will do you—her words sometimes came back to me. How healing had our reunion been? I now knew who I was; and if it hadn’t been for Marcia and Frank I might never have left Barcelona, where I’d begun to stagnate, and come back home. Did I have a better life? Was I happier? I started working with a new therapist and taking two different antidepressants. I went to twelve-step groups for sexual compulsives and for a while I was abstinent and gave good speeches that were well received. I’d had hundreds of partners and I rarely found out their names. “Romance” was nasty, brutish and short: moments of open mouths, hot shoving, release, and (sometimes) thanks. After I read The Primal Scream, I asked my father in San Francisco if I had been held much as an infant. He said, “Mami did not believe in touching too much. If you cried, she used to say ‘Let him cry; eventually he’ll get tired of crying and go to sleep.’ She did not believe in spoiling you.”

I was rarely invited to my birth parents’ house. Even when we hadn’t seen each other in a while, Marcia’s attitude when I appeared in Orange County was a mixture of apathy and annoyance. Sometimes she yelled at me. When I asked her if she would consider giving up cigarettes, she let loose a vicious torrent of rage I will never forget. Eventually we stopped talking altogether, and I only saw Frank outside the house. I was proud of myself for leaving her in peace and for not appearing needy by trying to reach out. Nor did she ever try to reach out to me. She continued to create a really healthy and heavenly garden.

What brought more joy to her than her garden or even her cats was the birth of a granddaughter. I heard from Frank that she began to spend half her life in San Diego with her daughter’s daughter, whom she doted on. I wonder if this child was scared of Marcia, who in her last years looked even more wasted and severe than she had at the reunion.

I wonder if, when the little girl began to speak, Marcia mouthed her words.

Perhaps our silence was dignified and authentic. Perhaps what is called in the adoption literature “the primal wound” cannot be healed through even the most positive and cheerful later contact. Marcia’s discomfort around her long-lost love child seemed an appropriate way to honor the horror of the initial separation. Frank’s big extended family in Illinois, on the other hand, welcomed me from the beginning as a member of “the clan.” I am still in touch with my outgoing “birth cousins.” They tell me news of the family and try to include me. Perhaps my inability to fully appreciate them is due to the way I’ve been programmed: rejection is sexy. A cold birth mother teaches, like no other, about the beauty of rejection.

My birth mother died of lung cancer in February, 2007. She was 66. She had been sick for a long time, but Frank didn’t disclose the gravity of her illness until nearly the end. During her last days, while she was on life support in intensive care, I wrote to a friend about what I was going through; my friend, Karina, replied right away:

Alex, I know this sounds crazy but I am going to ask you to do one of the most difficult things that you have ever done. It doesn't have to come from the bottom of your heart JUST DO IT NOW while you have a chance. I want you to go to her bedside and tell her that you forgive her and that you love her. You need to release YOURSELF and HER. Say good-bye to her and let her go. You need to go on, get free of that past so that you can go on in PEACE. Spend those last few moments with her, maybe you can be bigger than her and that will give you strength to do something with your life that she didn't. I hope this reaches you in time.

It did. I didn’t feel at ease with this notion of “forgiving:” this assumed she wanted forgiveness and I couldn’t make this assumption. But I went to my birth mother one last time. In a room overlooking a freeway, I cried as I held her hand; she couldn’t speak anymore, with many tubes and wires coming in and out of her. She cried a little, too, as she looked at me. I said, “I now know you did the best thing in 1960—thank you! I had the best mother and father and the best life! I was so lucky!” I stayed with her and held her hand for an hour. She died the next day.

Of my four parents, Frank is the only one left. Years of junk food, drugs, cigarettes, and inactivity have caught up with him and he is both diabetic and “cognitively impaired.” His daughter—my biological half-sister—helped him to sell his house and move in with her up in northern California. She is now looking after him and will inherit his whole estate. Deaf and half-deceased, he wanders through his last years amid a collection of friendly cats and dogs.

Henry Frankel died only a few months after my birth mother. My father, now almost ninety, still thought he was fifty and I was ten. His bad temper and energy for shouting rarely let up, though his gold digger woman kept him half-sequestered in the palatial residence he helped her pay for.

In his last few days, he lay in a room in St. Mary’s Hospital, face-to-face with a huge crucifix on the wall. He wasn’t sick; he was just old and dying. I held his hand and told him of my words to Marcia before she died. He appeared annoyed when I first mentioned her unwelcome name, but when I told him exactly what I’d said—about having had the best father and mother, and being the luckiest son—his head fell back, his face contorted with emotion, and he quietly cried. A few days later he was gone.

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