‘90s FAMILY : A Story of Desperation and the Child It Wrought


His birth mother never really got a chance to see her son. They took him from her quickly, fearful that if she saw him she would never give him up. I doubt that this would have happened. He was too misshapen to be instantly lovable; born prematurely, he needed that final month in the womb to grow stronger and bigger.

I still believe that had he lived inside of me for those nine months he would have been safer. It took me a while to like his face, but then he really wasn’t yet mine. It took me a year to adopt him. He didn’t look like anyone I knew, but he had the best head of dark black, wavy hair, so very thick for such a tiny baby. I have always loved his hair. It is thinning now with strands of premature gray.

He had a peculiarly winning smile, just a little off center. Nothing else about him made much sense. His face was kind of lopsided and his body was floppy. But they said to take him home and love him. I did just that; probably I did that job better than most might have.

He didn’t grow right, not exactly crippled or deformed, but nothing really worked the way it should have. There wasn’t one part of his body that wasn’t just a little off. Even his elbows jutted out at odd angles. He was slower than other children his age, slower to crawl, slower to walk, slower to do all those things parents dote upon.


Everyone could see that something was amiss. We just had no name for it. He even began to get better looking, tiny eyes squinting through thick glasses, but he certainly had an odd assortment of features.

He lived with me in my home and finally in my heart. So deeply in my heart that I could not think of giving him back. There was no ticket attached that said, “If damaged in transit, goods may be returned for a full refund.”

There is still not a part of him that works the way it should. His body is a testament to eight bad months inside his mother’s womb.

I always wondered what had gone wrong. So did the doctors. What happened to retard his brain and mess up his body? When asked, I pleaded ignorance. I wasn’t there at the conception, his birth or anything in between. I just brought him home and lived with him.


Over the years, I had thought to search for his biological mother. Older adoptions were secret affairs with social workers sworn to eternal secrecy. Files were locked in basement rooms, of no particular interest to anyone, but locked away nevertheless, making it so hard for children to find their birth mothers that books were written describing the agonizing search and frequently painful reunion.

This is not about the search. That was the easy part, so easy that within weeks I had the name of his birth mother written on a piece of paper, along with her phone number and the name of the Eastern city where she lived.

I saved that number for some time and finally on a Tuesday in the early evening I decided to make the call. Perhaps she was watching “Roseanne” on television or doing the dishes. Whatever it was, she could not have been prepared for my call.

I told her that I had adopted her baby some 30 years ago. She said she always knew that someday I would call, and she asked about her son. I tried to describe him as best I could--including his mental retardation. She said she thought he probably looked a lot like his father with that mass of black hair.


Still she seemed not to want to hear about his disabilities. With some urgency she told me about her family and while there were problems with weight and heart, she said, no one had ever suffered from any “mental problems.”

When I asked her what had happened to that fetus she had carried so long ago, she became very silent. She knew the answer. And then there were deep sobs as she recalled the past. She remembered the fear and shame she felt when she discovered her pregnancy.

My son was supposed to have been aborted, but 30 years ago his mother badly botched the job. She was too scared, too unknowing and too young to take care of herself and her unborn child. She was not promiscuous, only careless. A one-time-only romance for this nice, well-brought-up Jewish girl charmed by a handsome, upper-class Mexican man who left her pregnant.

There was no legal way out of pregnancy in 1963 so she tried to find her own way. She knew that drinking quinine in the first trimester had often caused abortions. She drank the quinine. And the next day she drank it again.


She recovered. The fetus didn’t.

I have the most vivid picture of those drops of quinine crossing the placenta and finding their way into the tiny holes where eyes would soon develop, delicately damaging the intricate workings of the retina, the iris. A few drops fell on the shell-like beginning curve of the ear, touching one eardrum just enough to mute hearing forever. The liquid traveled through this tiny creature twisting the soon-to-develop arms, legs and feet. The heart was touched just enough to make it murmur. The most potent fluid fell on the emerging brain, microscopic lobes altered immutably for the life of this human being.

This is not meant to be a political statement about abortion. It’s simply a story of desperation, fear, error and serious consequences, what people will do when they feel trapped.

After so many years, perhaps I should not have disturbed his birth mother. I did it out of the hope that finding the answers would soothe me. I found no comfort there but the new knowledge has allowed me to relinquish the past and to move on.


Now there is nothing more to know.