What’s in a name?

This is not a typical blog piece, though nothing about me is typical, so it fits appropriately.

I have been hesitant to write anything about my life that is deeply personal, because that requires an incredible willingness on behalf of the writer to be vulnerable and honest. However, I am always up for a challenge.

I’m 9 or 10 years old. I’ve snuck into my parents’ bedroom and am quietly walking across their carpet, praying that I don’t make a sound. I open their closet and find the brown metal box. My heart is pounding, hands shaking. I crouch down, balancing on the balls of my feet, ready to jump up and escape at the potential first creak of the stairs. Silence. So far so good. I lift the top up slowly. It doesn’t betray me by squeaking. I’m grateful. My little fingers search through the vanilla colored tabs labeled BILLS, LICENSES, etc., until I finally find the one I’m looking for: “FOSTER.”

I cock my head to one side, straining to hear any sign that I might be caught. Reassuring myself that I am safe to proceed, I gently lift the folder out, and look inside. Shamefully, I can’t remember the exact contents inside of the folder, except for the one thing that was most important to me: my true name.

“HEATHER CORLEY”

I finally had a piece of my identity, right on that paper. You must understand, my mother refused to talk about my adoption. Whenever I would bring it up, or cautiously try to ask a question, the response would either be a look reflective of one who had just seen their own puppy murdered before their eyes, or she’d ignore the question altogether, feigning deafness.

There are a few things that I did know at the time.

1. I came to them when I was 2 years old through foster-care.

2. I did not speak, nor even cry, (they thought I was autistic).

3. I had been found in a closet eating peanut butter off a wall.

4. I would walk into walls, (probably because I didn’t have the best depth perception from time in said closet).

Other than that, I knew nothing. And in that moment, I knew something new: The name. My name. “Corley.” It rang through my head, as if it were some magic or sacred prayer, too powerful to utter aloud.

My revere over this new information is cut short. I think I hear something. I quickly put the contents back in their proper place, my heart beating into my eardrums. I close the lid, knowing my truth is in there, safe.

A few days later, I slink downstairs into the basement, which is my fathers makeshift office/cave/sanctuary — the only place my mother never ventures into. My mission is to “borrow” some quarters. I know he has them in abundance. I find them waiting for me in the bucket that once housed peanuts. I count out about 12, thinking that will be enough. I press my palms to my pants, trying to muffle the sound of the coins I now carry.

I am at school. It’s lunchtime. I tell an aide I have to go to the bathroom in order to escape the cafeteria. They let me go. I feel the weight of coins in my pocket as I make my way to the bathroom, only I don’t make it to the bathroom. I make it to a pay phone. I slip my hand under the phone and get out the white pages and scan the C’s, (why they had white pages for a school pay phone, I will never know). I find the first of quite a few Corleys. I retrieve a quarter from my pocket and dial. The voice on the other end of the phone tells me the call is 50 cents, so I put in another quarter. Ring, ring. The rings feel incredibly long and short at the same time. Almost as if I’ve entered some weird time warp. A voice answers.

“Hello?”

“Hello” I say, “I was wondering if you gave up a child for adoption?”

“What? Who is this? You prank calling someone? You call here again, I’m calling the police.”

Click. I pause, unsure of what to do. It never occurs to me that people might call the police. I reason with myself that I will call 2 more numbers, and then I’ll stop for the day. I dial the next Corley on the list, no-one answers. I am in the middle of calling the second number when I receive a tap on the shoulder. I turn to see it’s the school guidance counselor.

I am in the Principal’s office. He asks me why I was on the phone. I don’t respond. The guidance counselor tells him I was trying to find my birth mother. He says that he’s going to call my parents. Tears start to form from behind my eyes. It is not sadness that I am feeling, but panic, sheer terror… I know what’s coming. She will sound concerned on the phone, but secretly, her rage will be building. She will be kind to the Principal and the guidance counselor. She will look at me with sympathy. She will put on a good show. We will exit the building, and I will walk slowly behind her, head down. The silence will be deafening. I don’t know how long it will last. An hour? A day? 2 days? I will be left to guess, silently to myself, which part of my behavior is making her upset and angry. I do not like playing this guessing game, because if and when the question comes, “Do you know why I’m upset,” I will never have the correct answer, which will only aggravate her more.

After what seems like an eternity, she comes through the front door of the school. My heart beats through my chest. I feel sick. I am going to die. She enters the office, where she proceeds to exchange pleasantries with the principal and guidance counselor. At this moment, I leave my body. It is too much for me. Everything starts to sound as if I’m underwater. I keep waiting for the inevitable, for the horrific moment when I will be forced to leave with her.

We get into the car. My body feels detached from my head. I am hyper aware of everything around me. I feel as though I might float out of my body. I am waiting. We pull out of the parking lot. The sound of the turn signal is reverberating through my skull. Click, clack, click, clack, click, clack.

I am staring straight ahead when my mother announces that she is going to be taking me to the family pediatrician, *Dr.Strauss. Somehow, in this moment, it makes me feel safe, and gives me the feeling that perhaps it wont be as bad as I think.

I am sitting in a pale yellow room. My mother is in there with me. I feel as though I have entered a strange new territory, one of security mixed with dread. Its similar, I’d imagine, to feeling the terror of being in a lions den, but comforted by the fact that the lion has just been shot by a tranquilizer gun.

The door opens. Dr. Strauss, his tiny glasses magnifying his blue eyes, looks at me and smiles. This puts me at ease enough to feign a small smile in response. He sees my mother and asks her if he might be able to talk to me alone. She begrudgingly acquiesces. I note her demeanor: she’s taking it personally. It will get taken out on me later.

He takes a seat on a stool with wheels. He rolls over to the exam table where I am sitting. He asks me what happens. I hesitate. He reminds me that he won’t repeat what I’ve told him to my mother. I fill him in on what I’ve been up to. He tells me about his own adoptive children, and how it’s natural to want to know where you’ve come from. I ask him if he knows anything about me or my birth parents. He sadly doesn’t have any information. I’m wondering why I’ve been brought in here to talk with him.

Back at home, my mother is leaning against the counter, arms crossed, staring at me. The ice out has begun. I stare back at her, my eyes inadvertently causing her head to look shrunken. I’m waiting for her to say something, anything, but she just continues to stare. Her eyes begin to well with tears as her head shakes in disappointment. When she finally does speak, she asks what she’s done wrong that would make me do something like that. She proceeds to tell me that I have everything, and keeps asking, “What did I do? Tell me”. It isn’t a question, its an accusation. I stay silent. I have lost my ability to speak. I am caught in the jaws of fear. I do not know what to say. I do not have the words to explain that I want to know about my beginning, where I came from, who gave birth to me. Instead, all I can mutter is “I’m sorry.” She sends me to my room.

A few days later, I am sneaking into my parents room again. She is out, not to be home for hours. My dad is in the basement, drinking and listening to jazz. I am safe to explore. I open the closet with the box still there. I lift the brown metal lid, fingers quickly remembering the place where the file is, only it’s not. It’s gone. I frantically look up and down the filing tabs. Nothing. My stomach sinks. I search again, and again. The reality of the situation sinks in. This is my punishment, my biological erasure. But she can’t take the one thing that really matters, the name that is seared into my head:

CORLEY.

*Name Change

**Subsequently, I did get to meet both of my birth parents, but those are blog posts for another time.

182 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. You drew me in with this story. There was also the suspense in how your mother would actually respond. It also made me wonder what came next and how you broke through the barrier. I look forward to future installments.

  2. This is such a vivid piece. I imagined every moment of it. Thank you for sharing such a compelling story. I can’t wait to hear more from you.

  3. Wow!! you should really write a small novel about this. Its really worth it, you really do have the writing skills. Such a great story.

  4. I am also adopted, but I was lucky in that my parents have always been extremely forthright with any information they have and answering any questions I might’ve had. I’m glad you eventually got to meet your birth parents. I look forward to reading the posts about the meet.
    Thank you for sharing, I’m sure it wasn’t easy.

  5. A really good piece…..intense and encapturing the minds and hearts of the reader.A rightfull struggle of a child to know about her birth parents

  6. Incredible. I was truly moved by your story. I was not adopted, but I found myself lost in a story. I hit the end and felt intrigued. And sad because it was over–a great book, the last bite of cake made with love, a black screen at the end of a film, or the last pour of wine and no other bottles. Thanks for the inspiration and vulnerability. Ready for the next post!

  7. Hello! Raquel from Paris. I am currently questioning my identity . Although as you well say, we all feel our story is different, I think I understand how you feel… I was born from a single Mum so I guess I have a “plus” over you, I know one side of my story. My mother got married when I was 7 and told me “he” was my father and I bear his family name . Then at 11 told me that finally was not but that I should keep on saying and thinking that he was… that lasted for a loooong time. At 40, I discovered that my father was not my father… I am currently trying to find myself in all this story. I find writing helps, sharing helps. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Skillfully constructed narrative. You drew the reader into your suspenseful tale yet you offered a glimpse of what it was like from your adoptive parents’ perspective. You keep writing like this and you will have a huge devoted following. I can’t wait to read more about what happened next…

  9. It’s a shame that your adoptive parents didn’t talk with you about your birth parents and where you came from. Things have definitely come a long way – most adoption agencies now strongly encourage parents to talk with their kids early and often about the adoption. It’s so natural to want to know where you came from! I worked with kids in foster care for several years, and there was a lot of confusion and anger and just plain longing for connection to their bio families. Thanks for sharing your story! Well written!

  10. I hope it turned out is what I’m thinking. As an adoptive mom. As a person, I guess. I hope it turned out ok for you and your family/s. It’s tricky business being on any side of the adoption coin.

  11. This is very brave of you. More power to you. And I love the way you keep the narrative gripping and suspenseful. Hope you find all the answers you’re looking for…

  12. LOVE this!!! I put my son up for adoption at 18… it was literally the hardest thing I have ever done! Well he is now five and starting kindergarten in the fall!!

  13. Thank you for sharing. Our best writing comes from what we know. This was a very powerful piece. I look forward to reading more!

  14. I was adopted also and my parents never told be anything about my adoption. I found out my real name who my mother and siblings were, never knew that I had three siblings, and I never knew that my birth father left my mother when he found out she was having me this took a lot of courage and it was really interesting! thank you for sharing

  15. I will never be able to understand why you wouldn’t want to let your adopted children know about where they come from. I can understand that it might scare you if you really love them. That it might worry you because you never know what will happen. But it’s something you should never keep from a child. I think it’s so very important for everyone to know where the roots are, what happened and why you were brought to the place you’re at.

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