Evening falls on the glow of late afternoon. The wind outside the nursing home winnows through the trees, reflecting the current of memory, sifting remembrance from forgetfulness. I sit in a chair next to my mother, who turned 94 last December. She doesn’t know me—or anyone—now.
A family created by love
I’m the son of adoptive parents. My mother and father took a chance on me and it paid off. At least, I like to think it did. And I hope they felt, as two survivors of the Great Depression and Second World War era, a quiet sense of pride in knowing that it was due to their risk and devotion that my life worked out so well.
I grew up in a family created by choice and love, a love unfeigned and never doubted, full of the warmth and attention that are the hallmarks of good parenting. My parents were the best I could’ve imagined for myself under the circumstances. My birth mother, whom I now love and have known for more than a decade, had few options and lacked the wherewithal, as an unwed, pregnant 16-year-old, to do anything besides give me up for adoption.
As a child, my adoptive mother was the focal point of all my affection. I looked to her, and only her, for all my needs. This emotional attachment to my Mom provided me with the sense of safety and security I needed to develop confidence and thrive in the world beyond.
My adoptive father had a different style of parenting. He played with me more, acting as a genuinely masculine role model who has formed my character to this day. There’s rarely a day that passes when I don’t think of him in some situation or scenario. I can still smell the Brut cologne he used and feel the expertly shaved smoothness of his cheek on mine when I’d go to hug him.
Meeting my biological family
Almost 10 years ago, I was reunited with my biological brothers, who hadn’t known that I existed. I then met my birth mother, Jan. A few months later, I met my father, Ed Corrigan, who was “pleased beyond words that I’d contacted him.”
Ed and Jan had long ago separated. My mother’s sister had just passed away, and in a moment of weakness, my mom told my brother Scott, a fireman, about my existence. He immediately contacted my youngest brother, Ryan, an attorney who’d done some pro bono work for an adoption agency and had ties with someone who could locate me.
I received a letter from my brothers early in January of 2007. After the letter arrived, complete with Scott and Ryan’s photographs and a convincingly written personal note, we corresponded for two months via email and got to know each other pretty well.
We planned to meet on St. Patrick’s Day in March, at Ryan’s home in Fresno, California. We spent two days and a night together in a cabin Ryan arranged at Shaver Lake, about an hour northeast of Fresno. There, we bonded, sharing stories and laughter in an old pine cabin set deep amidst the sequoia woodlands of the Western Sierra Nevada.
I felt at home with my brothers, and I consider this meeting one of the greatest events of my life. It was wonderful and I’m still in awe at the reality of it all.
Never in need of love or attention
My adoptive parents, Christie and Nora Seeger, were of the age most grandparents were in those days (Mom was 46 and Dad was 50 when they adopted me). To be frank, I was raised and treated more like a grandson than a son. But their good intentions, love and devotion won out over any deficiencies they exhibited in parenting. They were, after all, from that “Greatest Generation,” completely devoted to their parental roles and entirely “all for me.”
I was never in need of love or attention and never really felt a desire or longing to seek out my birth parents. At least, I didn’t consciously yearn for a reunion with them, so I never did. Never even thought about it, either. Still, it was there in a part of my subconscious self, and when I met my Irish biological family, it was like a light was coming on in a room I never knew existed.
My story is inseparably tied to my adoptive parents who, if you ask most people, are my real parents. And I agree. But when your genetics are displayed in front of you in living, breathing human beings, the familial bond and affinity for connection felt on a visceral level is undeniable.
My adoptive father’s death and mother’s loss of memory
I lost my adoptive father when he passed away in May of 2002. In the days and weeks following his death, my mother’s mental state steadily declined. She’d been completely devoted to my father, and without him, became lost on a sea of purposelessness and grief.
In the years since my Dad’s death, my Mom has continued to slip further and further away on that silent sea. The compelling silence of my mother, combined with the overpowering memory of her vital years is, in a word, overwhelming.
There’s a theory in Platonic philosophy, referred to as “anamneses,” which purports that all knowledge is really a form of memory or “recollection”—in particular, the remembering of things from a supposed previous existence. According to Plato, it’s the recollection of ideas that the soul has known in a previous existence, especially through the means of reasoning.
However, remembrance is dependent on the human mind and the frailties of existence, so it can’t be counted on for total recall. The vagaries of a person’s journey through life sometimes prevent them from accessing what would otherwise be fully revealed. In other words, there are limits to what can be known.
Recollection alone, Socrates argues, would prove pre-existence, not to mention our existence after death. What’s known, though, is specifically what remains through thought, feeling and the human brain’s ability to recall what was retained from past experiences. This “anamneses” can be thought of, in general terms, as using our remembrance of the past to influence our current behavior. Indeed, even now, the influence of my parents is seen and deeply felt throughout all aspects and levels of my own existence.
The incipient tubers of dementia have now taken their toll on awareness and recognition, and deprive my mother and me of any meaningful interaction with each other. Her mild and civil acquiescence in the daily and hourly routines of the nursing staff is a sort of auto-pilot response to the demands of life itself. If nothing else, now, she’s a survivor. I sit, transfixed, by the memory of my mother.
You’re lucky if you “die alive”
Someone has said that you’re lucky if you die alive—meaning that you haven’t been reduced, by ill health or age, to oblivion. In other words, you die as yourself.
My mother hasn’t been so lucky. She has, for all intents and purposes, passed on to another realm, impenetrable to the rest of us. My wife, Catherine, maintains the idea that my mother’s soul remains presently aware of her surroundings. More specifically, Grandma Nora knows when her visitors are present, especially those she loved and to whom she remained most devoted.
Like the waters of the river Lethe that runs its current of concealment and forgetfulness through the underworld of Greek mythology, my mother’s true self and awareness seem to have slipped off into a similar stream, passing from her mortal life onto the banks of oblivion and eternity.