I grew up a normal latch key kid. All that means is, it was the 80’s and people had to work. It also means I was a pilled-up kid partially raising myself. In the 80’s creative kids who couldn’t sit still were fed Ritalin like candy the day after Halloween. My dosage would have gotten Courtney Love excited. I mention this because it explains my bizarre memories of the day I was adopted. Some call it “Gotcha Day”, I’m not a fan. No one “got” me. I may have been “added”. I may have “joined” a family. But no one “got” me. Whoa Nellie!!!! Almost went off on one of my famous tangents. Not for you Doc! For you I’ll stay on task.
My memory of the day I was adopted mirrors my memories of everything else in my life before I entered foster care at age 14. Oh yeah, hi, I’m Chris Chmielewski. I’m the former foster kid who started America’s only monthly foster care magazine about 6 years ago. Ok, that’s done. So, the memories are sketchy but here’s what I can recall.
We were all awake earlier than normal and we were all dressed way nicer than the norm. We crammed in the station wagon. I remember thinking it was a Sunday because my Dad kept yelling about all the Sunday drivers. It wasn’t a Sunday. We got out of the wagon in front of a giant building. I’d see this building a few more times in my young life, it was the county courthouse. I should mention my Dad is a police officer. He knew EVERYONE! I’d been to the station a million times in my brief 5 years of life, it’s where my Dad worked, but this was different. He shook lots of hands on our way to a fancy office. A happy man greeted us in a big black robe. He took the robe off before he sat at his football field of a desk. He had so many toys in that office, my ADHD was calmed for a moment.
The adults talked and laughed, I think my Mom looked happy or relieved. She didn’t look the way she looked around family or the customers she waited on in the local diner/donut shop. When the finished yucking it up, they called me over.
Again, these are Ritalin tainted memories.
I cheerfully joined the family in front of the judge who seemed to be sitting across an ocean oak wood glistening as if it were being cleaned in front of me. The conversation with me was brief.
“Do you like your Dad?” the judge asked me.
“Yep” was my reply.
That was it.
Back in the wagon. Back home. Back to normal.
Some memory huh? Some “gotcha day”, huh?
Maybe not to you, but I’ve held on to that memory through foster care, homelessness, marriage, three child births, a decade of Ritalin and a couple years of college drinking. So, it clearly meant something to me. Even before I knew what it was, it was important.
Here’s the other part of that story.
A girl I’d never met before walked up to me in school and told me she was my cousin, and that my real Dad, who was absolutely NOT a police officer, was her Uncle. I went home with some questions.
To their credit, my parents came clean. Told me all a 14-year-old could handle…all a NORMAL 14-year-old could handle. A kid with Ritalin induced tea saucer eyes however, not so much. Finding out my Dad wasn’t my Dad floored me. Could it be that he’d only given me this ridiculously long, proud last name and not the life that went with it? Who the heck was I?
I was just leaving my Grunge phase and entering my Goth phase, this was all the push I needed.
What happens next is a complete blur. I added recreational drugs and some drinking to my Ritalin regiment. Not great results. I remember the following, in order; You’re adopted. Meet the sister you didn’t know you had. Look at your little brother; different Dads. Mom had a much tougher life than you had; exact name of your Dad may never come. You have a brother out there. Suicide attempts. Suicide ward at the hospital. Home for a week. Foster care. No more Ritalin.
I can tell you every single thing that happened in my life after that with the clarity of a fine diamond. Everything before is a cloudy mess. But I sure as hell remember my adoption day.
I’m older now. In retrospect, that man loved my mother and myself enough to put his last name on a troubled kid. When I say I was a bad kid in the eyes of the 80’s people of authority, I mean, I knew what the principal ate for lunch each day. But my Dad didn’t blink, he called me his own. I’m not sure I appreciated it until I had my own kids…or maybe it was the first time I was called to the principal’s office for one of my kids, but I appreciate it now.
Since I found out I was adopted (that memory that I couldn’t understand hanging on to) I met my great older sister and a couple years ago, I met my older brother. I have more family and an appreciation for all the big brother nonsense I gave my little brother. I started a magazine and if heard or witnessed, hundreds of adoptions. Each as unique as my own. Each as important as my own. I’ve been proud and privileged to have been a part of each.
So, in the hopes of ending this on a happy note…
I’ve seen babies, teens, adults, kids who have been in care for months and years all finalize adoptions. I’ve let them tell their stories or I’ve had the honor of retelling those tales. What a life full of adoptions for a kid who had no idea he was an adoptee.
Enjoy National Adoption Awareness Month. I hope you get to create your own memories. But do me a favor? RECORD THEM! Clarity is such a luxury when it comes to that special day.
Chris Chmielewski aged out of foster care. He is the editor and owner of Foster Focus Magazine. He and his wife Trisha are proud parents of three lovely children.