Though the poem, “Fable” by Louise Glück is not meant to be about adoption, it resonated with me nonetheless. But not in the way you might think-not pitting adoptive mother against birth mother. In the poem we read about the suffering of a daughter in a strained relationship with her sister. Loss and grief are deep and primal in this poem. Like the loss and grief in adoption.
BY LOUISE GLÜCK Two women with the same claim came to the feet of the wise king. Two women, but only one baby. The king knew someone was lying. What he said was Let the child be cut in half; that way no one will go empty-handed. He drew his sword. Then, of the two women, one renounced her share: this was the sign, the lesson. Suppose you saw your mother torn between two daughters: what could you do to save her but be willing to destroy yourself—she would know who was the rightful child, the one who couldn’t bear to divide the mother.
The death of Edward Hirsch’s son has inspired a book length elegy. The article, “Finding the Words,” in the August 4th issue of The New Yorker, begins:
In October, 1988, my friends Janet Landy and Edward Hirsch flew to New Orleans to adopt a boy who was six days old. He was collected from the hospital by their lawyer, who brought him to the house where they were staying. Waiting for her, they stood in the street in front of the house. For several days, they worried that the mother, overcome by love or by guilt might want the child back, but she didn’t.
Later in the piece we learn, “Hirsch had a cousin who was a lawyer in New Orleans, who put him in touch with the woman at his firm who sometimes handled adoptions. In August, 1988….the lawyer called and said that a young woman had approached a colleague.” This is all we are given regarding Gabriel’s birth and his birthmother. Perhaps this is fitting since the story is about Hirsch’s grief and the book-length elegy that grew out of his suffering over the death of his son. But from my perspective as a birthmother, even as I followed the trajectory of Gabriel’s life and of Hirsch’s profound sorrow over the loss of him, a piece of my heart lay lodged in that first paragraph with the woman who had given up her son.
An excerpt from the elegy
Hirsch describes a section of the elegy he wrote as being extremely important to him:
I did not know the work of mourning
Is like carrying a bag of cement
Up a mountain at night
The mountaintop is not in sight
Because there is no mountaintop
Poor Sisyphus grief
I did not know I would struggle
Through a ragged underbrush
without an upward path
Look closely and you will see
Almost everyone carrying bags
Of cement on their shoulders
Hirsch’s recognition that never ending grief over the loss of a loved one as a common experience connects the reader with an abiding truth. But I couldn’t help but wonder if he ever thought of the woman who might still imagine her son walking the earth, whole and healthy. She (and the rest of Gabriel’s birth family) has suffered a loss more terrible than his relinquishment, only she doesn’t know it.
I do not mean to say that Hirsch’s grief is any less because his son was adopted. I don’t mean that at all. I just can’t help imagining a mother thinking daily of the boy she gave away. And how, now that he has rounded the corner of official adulthood, it might be a good time to search for him. Perhaps, even though she did not merit a mention in the New Yorker story, Hirsch does give her a nod somewhere in the elegy. I hope so. She has been carrying her bag of cement since Gabriel was six days old.
While the poem below is not actually about the secrets that birthmothers often harbor, there are many ideas and images in it that struck a chord with me. I took a lot of comfort in moving from my small Iowa town to Los Angeles a few years after my son was born. The farther away I got from the place of my transgression, the more likely it seemed to me that I could maintain my secret.
I was raised to believe I had a guardian angel. In my mind’s eye I can still see those religious portrayals of angels saving people from destruction. The large winged creature holding children back from the edge of a cliff, or guiding them as they cross a river on a rickety bridge. I took comfort in those images as child.
But now I know that accidents happen anyway.
I appreciate the poet Carl Dennis’s thoughts about accidents, luck, and our personal angels.
However busy you are, you should still reserve One evening a year for thinking about your double, The man who took the curve on Conway Road Too fast, given the icy patches that night, But no faster than you did; the man whose car When it slid through the shoulder Happened to strike a girl walking alone From a neighbor’s party to her parents’ farm, While your car struck nothing more notable Than a snowbank. One evening for recalling how soon you transformed Your accident into a comic tale Told first at a body shop, for comparing That hour of pleasure with his hour of pain At the house of the stricken parents, and his many Long afternoons at the Lutheran graveyard. If nobody blames you for assuming your luck Has something to do with your character, Don’t blame him for assuming that his misfortune Is somehow deserved, that justice would be undone If his extra grief was balanced later By a portion of extra joy. Lucky you, whose personal faith has widened To include an angel assigned to protect you From the usual outcome of heedless moments. But this evening consider the angel he lives with, The stern enforcer who drives the sinners Out of the Garden with a flaming sword And locks the gate.
Your personal angel
Our personal angels might not be the same. What kind is yours?