My Adoption and My Identity

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Here is a short list of some things you might not have known about me:

My precious mother passed away when I was 2 years old.

I grew up with seven brothers and sisters.

I am adopted.

When I was younger and would tell my peers that I was adopted, they would respond with “Wow! That is so cool!” But as I shared my story it was often met with shaking heads and rolling eyes. They would brusquely respond, “That doesn’t count!” It is difficult in our early years to fully grasp the profound. Unfortunately, in my own ignorance, I allowed these interactions to rob me of the significance of my adoption. It wasn’t a matter of the cup being half full or half empty, it was completely dry—I became rather indifferent toward the whole thing. I didn’t know what to think. But throughout my interconnected life experiences, as I have matured and reflected upon them, my cup is now filled to the brim and overflowing with gratitude. Proverbs 31 says that a woman who fears the Lord should be publicly praised even specifying that her own children should be the ones to rise and call her blessed.  These words are long overdue.

Tragedy

“There it was, against the fireplace, and there seemed to be scarcely anything else in the room except the sunny light on the floor. It was very long and dark; smooth like a boat; with bright handles. Half the top was open. There was perfected beauty. The head, the hand, dwelt in completion, immutable, indestructible: motionless.” —James Agee, A Death in the Family

On September 30, 1961, a beautiful baby girl was born in Ishpeming, MI. On the way to the hospital, her father heard a song by Buddy Holly on the radio and decided to name his new little princess Peggy Sue. Innocent, outgoing, and athletic, Peggy grew up in Raymond, NH, where much of her life was centered on the people and activities of the small Baptist church she attended. She relocated for a short time with her family to the Philippines during the Vietnam War, went to Washington Bible College where she met her husband, and was married in her church followed by a horse-and-buggy ride through historic downtown Raymond. She gave birth to three boys, each a year and a half apart, and moved into the house her husband built for her in Strafford, NH. Suddenly and unexpectedly, she passed away in a tragic car accident at just 27 years old in February of 1989, shocking her new community and all who knew her.

Peggy was my mother. I was her middle child.

Our lives intersected for only 2 years and 4 months—834 days.

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Unfortunately I have no memories of her alive, but the image of her body peacefully lying in her coffin at the viewing has been forever burned in my mind as my very first memory.  I know that seems heavy, but I didn’t understand. When I asked my dad where Mommy was, he would simply reply, “She’s in heaven with Jesus.” So at the viewing—in a large translucent room, nebulous and crowded with many familiar and unfamiliar faces—I literally thought I was in heaven visiting her in her celestial abode. For some time following this event, I would continue to tell my friends that I visited my mom in heaven and she was lying just like a baby in a crib.

Beauty

“There’s been great fear expressed by many people that no woman can give this large number of children sufficient attention and affection to allow them to grow up in a healthy atmosphere. But in this courts investigation of your home, the reverse seems to be true. All the children seem to be happy, well-fed and normal, the house amazingly clean and in good order. My wife has two children, one poodle and a full-time maid and can’t seem to manage anything. What is your secret?”             —Yours, Mine, and Ours

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Being a widower and a small business owner with three baby boys, my dad obviously needed a lot of help. A friend of my mother—Kathy Jean, a single woman with three children of her own—began to babysit us for him. Very quickly and obvious to all, their relationship blossomed into something much deeper and they were married in June of the same year. That’s right—I know what you’re thinking—Brady Bunch . . . Cheaper by the (Half) Dozen. With six children, ages five and under, you would think they were in over their heads, but they had a honeymoon baby and even had another a few years later making eight of us altogether! And yes, we drove around in a large 16 passenger Ford club wagon van. I love each and every one of my brothers and sisters with my whole heart. Spending time with them, their spouses, and children today is equally as enjoyable and exciting as the years growing up together.

I clearly remember Tuesday, March 17, 1992—St. Patrick’s Day. I sat in the courtroom with my family before the judge. Although I can’t remember all that went on in there, I do remember the judge addressing me personally by name and asking me to count as high as I could. Here it was, the moment of truth. The pressure was on. Was I smart enough to be adopted? After slowly and carefully counting to about 20 (which seemed like an eternity), he finally told me I could stop. My older brother got an even harder question. He was asked to read the time from the clock on the wall—it was in Roman numerals! Somehow we made it through and after everything was finalized we went out for Shamrock Shakes!

Fortunately the judge didn’t ask me if I understood what adoption was. I had been watching a lot of Cinderella then and when my mom had asked me beforehand, I confidently replied, “It means you’re not my wicked step-mother anymore!” Thanks Disney! So, needless to say, I did not fully understand the meaning and significance of adoption. But I was adopted—I was not an orphan (in the strict sense of the word), I was never in the foster care system, I did not come from another country, my name did not change—but I was adopted. And my adoption did count!

Gravity

“It’s bad enough right now, but it’s going to take a while to sink in. When it really sinks in it’s going to be any amount worse. It’ll be so much worse you’ll think it’s more than you can bear.” —James Agee, A Death in the Family

Things like death and adoption are so full and a child’s mind is so small. During my teen years, I was the typical self-consumed juvenile with my deafening music abolishing any opportunity for thoughtful reflection on life. Growing up knowing that your mother died yet having no memory of her alive is a strange feeling. You don’t really know how you should feel about it. No one tells you how you should feel or how you should make sense of something like that. So for most of my life it was this sort of enigmatic aberration—a reality that I didn’t know what to do with. Because I didn’t have any real memories of her living and interacting with me, I didn’t feel bereaved. I didn’t even know I was supposed to grieve. Once I asked one of her old friends how well she knew Peggy. This woman collapsed in a chair and began weeping. This was surprising to me. It wasn’t until I was 24 years old and my oldest son turned two that I had a similar experience. After spending two entire years watching him grow and develop his personality, after building an intimate, loving relationship with him and seeing the profound bond he had with his mother,  I realized—for the first time in my life—just how much time I had with my mother. I realized the magnitude of the influence she had on who I was as a person. It was here at 24 years old—22 years after the fact—that I finally broke down and wept for the first time because I missed my birth mom.

Just as the significance of death was missed in my adolescence, the magnitude of adoption was also completely overlooked. I remembered being in court, I always knew I was adopted, but it was just a mere fact—it hadn’t made much of an impression on me. Two years ago, my wife and I became involved in foster care. Our first placement was siblings, two girls ages one and two. We had them for three months. After they were transitioned out of our home, we soon received a two-week-old baby girl. She has been with us now for 17 months and we are on the verge of adoption (Lord-willing). These last two years have been a thrilling, life-changing, humbling, and heart-breaking experience. They have been the hardest and best years of our life. I do not regret any of it and would do it all over again. Through it all, I have finally grown to have a deeper understanding of my own adoption.

For years I took for granted what my step-mother did. She didn’t have to adopt me. She didn’t have to become my legal parent—my mother. But she wanted to. She chose to. She wanted me. She chose me.  The initial desire is like a leak in a dam and once that decision is officially made, the dam breaks pouring forth a deluge of grace on others. Like death, adoption is a powerful force that ripples and reverberates through time and space affecting all it comes into contact with. The ramifications of her choice have affected my whole family and those around us and they are still continuing today. Not only did I get a new mother, but I got new brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and friends. Not only did I become a legal son, but a brother, a grandson, a nephew, and over time an uncle.

My oldest sister fostered and adopted two siblings. Could it be that she was influenced by her mother’s example of faithful love and care for another woman’s children? Or maybe the experience of growing up in a blended family? Did my desire to be involved in foster care come from my experience? Now, we never make these distinctions—this is for observation’s sake alone—but what is so fascinating is that out of my mom’s ten grandchildren, only two are related to her by blood. The rest are through legal declaration. When I remember growing up in our blended family, when I see my sister with her kids, when I interact with my nieces and nephews, when I see my mom with her grandchildren, when I am with my foster daughter, when I talk with other foster/adoptive families, I can see plainly and tangibly that loving a child you did not generate is profound, beautiful, and natural—even super-natural. One of my wife’s favorite quotes is by Jody Landers: “A child born to another woman calls me Mommy. The magnitude of that tragedy and the depth of that privilege are not lost on me.”

Security

“It would have been extraordinary enough for God simply to redeem us, to forgive us our sins, to declare us righteous. But he does not stop here—he makes us his children. Here you will find the richest proof of God’s personal, particular, passionate love for you.” —Russel Moore, Adopted for Life

It may surprise you that I used the term super-natural. But I am referring to a love that transcends nature, genes, heredity, ancestry—however you want to say it. Blood is thicker than water, but there is still something more substantially impenetrable. I accepted Jesus as my Savior at a young age, but my grasp of the Gospel was as simple as my understanding of death and adoption. If someone asked me what I believed, I would have told them quite proudly, “Mary had a little lamb and his name was Jesus. I have invited him to live inside my heart.” But as my understanding of the Gospel grew over time, I came to see that it is not simply good news, it is a glorious, crushing weight that knocks you down to the ground speechless and awestruck—overwhelmed with humility, gratitude, and security. I did not choose God, rather he chose me. He determined to set his love and affection upon me. In the words of Rosaria Butterfield, “I didn’t choose Christ. Nobody chooses Christ. Christ chooses you or you’re dead. After Christ chooses you, you respond because you must. Period.”

Adoption is a microcosm of a greater spiritual truth—it is a vertical-theological reality before it is a horizontal human experience. It is a particularly extravagant expression of God’s love. From a spiritual standpoint, when I was born into this world, I wasn’t an abandoned child, but a naturally rebellious one who emancipated myself from my Father. God’s holy wrath was justly aimed at me for my sin. But. While I was a willful sinner, God demonstrated his love toward me; while I was his enemy, God reconciled me to himself through the death and resurrection of his Son; while I was still helpless and unable to change, he transformed me and made me new (Rom 5:6-11). He chose me before the foundation of the world. All of this would have been sufficient for my salvation, but the riches of his grace were lavished upon me further in a remarkable way—He predestined me to adoption as his son through the kind intention of his will (Eph 1:3-8). God has legally placed me into his family, so that I am now his son and enjoy all the rights and privileges of one who is a member of his eternal family, including the privilege of calling him Father (Jn 1:12; Gal 4:4-7). I didn’t choose this status nor did I initiate this transaction. It was all of grace! As Steven Lawson has said, “Jesus does not merely stand knocking at the door of your heart. He blows the door off its hinges, enters, and says, ‘You are mine!’”

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This is what my dad’s new wife, my step-mom did with me. Just because she married my father didn’t mean she had to adopt me or choose me to be her son. But she wanted me and my brothers to be just as much hers as her natural children so that even if our father passed away, we would belong to her—legally, officially, incontrovertibly. What a reflection of the Gospel! This woman is a strong woman, a woman after God’s own heart, a woman overflowing with grace and kindness—a saint! If children are an inheritance from the Lord, if the fruit of the womb is a great reward, if a full quiver brings joy—how much more blessed is the woman who purposely gathers children to herself—is this not pure and undefiled religion in the sight of God (James 1:27)! I am proud to call her my mother and I am overwhelmed by her choice. I am astonished by the setting of her love upon me and her declaring, “You are mine!” This was an expression of love and commitment, not only to me and my brothers, but to my father and to my birth mother—her friend. When I see her signature on the adoption papers, I think of the line from Augustus Toplady: “My name from the palms of His hands eternity will not erase; Impressed on His heart it remains in marks of indelible grace.”

Identity

“The years from twelve to fifteen are the final stage of transition from a concrete way of thinking to one that is comfortable with abstractions. That brings with it the ability to see oneself objectively within a larger context. It also means an ability to think about complex hypothetical situations and assess the consequences of potential courses of action.” —Thomas Hine, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager

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What I have just delineated is my journey from childhood to adulthood, from immaturity to maturity, from ignorance to cognizance. When I was a child, I saw the events of my life dimly. I interpreted them simply and literally through the lens of my limited knowledge and experience. But over time and through the many interconnected experiences of my life followed by much reflection, I have come to understand the meaning and significance of my past and it has helped me to move forward with a new perspective that I never expected. The weight and significance of all these events have hit me hard at times, but the more they sink in, they anchor me down and harbor me in something much bigger than myself.

A mother’s influence on the first two years of her child’s life, the unexpected death of a young family member or friend, the conscious choice of a family to care for a child in need, God’s grace and mercy in salvation—these are powerful forces that break into and alter the monotony of life. These painful fires and floods of joy have forged my identity, even against the grain of my own will. In my youth I did not choose these things. In my adolescence, I did not fully understand these things. I couldn’t. Part of that is God’s grace. Part of that is just life. But now, with a more sufficient understanding, these interdependent events augment each other. Together they have made me who I am. Together they are making me who I am. They are integral to my identity. I still have the same simple memories, but they are infused with a greater significance of meaning and they continue to shape me every day. I still have much to learn and much to reflect on. But I have come a long way.

I am my Peggy Sue’s son—grieving because she is not present with me, rejoicing she is more satisfied in the presence of her Savior, continually learning about the magnitude of her impression on my life, carrying on her legacy in the world.

I am Kathy Jean’s son—overwhelmed by her gracious choice of me, thankful for the years she took care of me, recognizing her incredible influence in my life, carrying on her legacy in my life.

I am God’s son—an unworthy sinner redeemed by His mercy and grace, adopted into his family, thankful for his providence working all things together for my good, seeking to carry out his will in my life.

How will I be celebrating the 26th anniversary of my adoption? Well, I will probably call my mother, tell her how much I love and appreciate her, and thank her for choosing to adopt me. Then I will go to McDonald’s and order a Shamrock Shake. Maybe I’ll encourage my brothers to do the same.

2 thoughts on “My Adoption and My Identity

  1. JESSICA PINCENCE March 16, 2018 / 9:37 am

    This is so beautifully written. I have vivid memories of you guys picking us up in the big blue van! I always was in awe of your family as a whole,I used to think how lucky you all were to have so many siblings!

    I had the same experience with people telling me that “it doesn’t count” after the man who had been married to my mom 8 years before she passed adopted my sister and me in 2004 after she passed.

    It is such a powerful thing to feel chosen and loved.

    Like

  2. Donna McKiernan March 16, 2018 / 1:47 pm

    Peter, beautiful testament to both your moms. Nicely done! God Bless!!

    Like

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