Switched at Birth: The True Story of a Mother's Journey (2 page)

BOOK: Switched at Birth: The True Story of a Mother's Journey
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Sometimes I actually had to try not to laugh. Sometimes I had to stop myself from grabbing them by the shoulders and shaking them, while screaming into their faces, “How do you
think
I’m dealing with it?”

But I knew they couldn’t even begin to guess.

No one—no mother, no father, and no daughter—could ever imagine what this experience has been like for us.

Well, that’s not entirely correct.

Regina and Daphne know, too.

We live in a town called Mission Hills, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. It’s nice.

Okay, I’m downplaying that. Mission Hills is much better than nice. It’s not unusual to see homes priced at upward of ten million dollars. I’m not bragging. I’m just trying to create a sense of where I live, and, if I’m going to be brutally honest (and what is the point of writing a memoir if not brutal honesty?), who I am.

I am a Mission Hills mom. And that means, among other things, that I live comfortably. Very comfortably. But unlike other places in the world where money translates to shallow people competing in a consumerism free-for-all, Mission Hills, for me at least, still has the feeling of a small, family-oriented town. Midwestern values die hard here, and I like that. In Mission Hills, neighbors are not just people with whom you engage in a property dispute because their new clay tennis court is three millimeters too close to your new infinity pool. Corny as it may sound, there is still a sense of community here. Are we perfect? No, far from it. And I don’t mean to imply that Mission Hills exists in a time warp, a
Little House on the Prairie
–meets–
The Waltons–
meets–
Father Knows Best
world where everyone spends all of their time pruning the azaleas and baking apple cobbler for the church bazaar. We have our problems, as you will see. Our kids act out and get grounded, our friends act out and get divorced. We make our share of mistakes here, just like anywhere else. But for the most part Mission Hills is a wonderful place and I’m proud to call it home. The two minutes it takes to say grace before a special meal, to me, is time well spent, especially when there is so much to be thankful for.

For close to eighteen years now, I have been a Mission Hills mom, and for me, the significance of the “Mission Hills” part runs a distant second to the “Mom” part. I work hard to make my home feel warm and inviting; I have been careful to create a safe place for my children to thrive and grow, a place where they will always feel free to be themselves, without fear of disappointing us. It does not mean I am less capable than a so-called “working Mom.” It just means I made a choice. I love what I do. And I know that I am lucky—no, not lucky, blessed—to have the life I have. Should I apologize for it? I don’t think so, and besides that’s a topic for someone else’s memoir.

Because my kid was switched at birth. Try having
that
conversation during carpool on the way to soccer practice!

When a crisis occurs, people talk about reality speeding up and slowing down at the same time. They talk about how everything seems to happen in some kind of haze or blur. I used to think that was all just a big exaggeration. Now I know better.

John, Bay, and I met the genetic counselor in her office at the medical center. It was an ordinary office—pleasant, clean, with a big desk, and diplomas on the wall … and in this case there was the bonus of a funky plastic model of a double helix DNA molecule on the bookshelf. Bay, my artist, got a kick out of that. I wasn’t in a “kicky” kind of mood.

John was quiet. I noticed him staring at the diplomas, and I knew he was trying to determine, based on the name of whatever institute of higher learning was imprinted there in gilt calligraphy letters, just exactly how qualified this genetic counselor would turn out to be. After twenty-two years of marriage I know how he thinks:
If that diploma is from Johns Hopkins or Stanford, then this woman knows her stuff and whatever she tells us will be right, accurate, true. If, on the other hand, she graduated from some lesser university or, worse, earned her degree in nine short weeks through some Internet pseudo-college … well, then whatever information she hits us with will be suspect and we’ll have to go elsewhere to determine the future course of our lives.

I peered at the diploma: Washington University in St. Louis. We were safe.

Or not.

I leaned back against the nubby fabric of the standard-issue office chair, remembering the last time I waited in a room like this. That time, John and I were holding hands, and our hearts were pounding just as rapidly as they were now. We were waiting for my ob-gyn to breeze in, with a chart in her hand, ready to tell me that the miscarriage hadn’t done any permanent damage after all, ready to tell me that I was once again pregnant. This time, with Bay.

It was a beautiful memory.

But I didn’t get to savor it for long. Because in the next moment, the genetic counselor, that bright, capable Washington U alum, came in with her file folder and sat behind her desk, and I knew from the expression on her face that this was going to be a very different conversation than the one sixteen years ago when the doctor smiled and handed me my prenatal vitamins.

Bay took my hand and I took John’s. My right hand held Bay’s gently, but with my left, I was squeezing John’s fingers in a death grip, because I realized that this was the point when everything was about to get blurry.

I remember the counselor said, “mix-up.” She said “ID anklets.” I think Bay said something like, “I find my real parents and you find your real daughter,” and even from deep within that horrible blur I thought my heart would shatter. I wanted to shout, “You
are
my real daughter, kiddo, and I have the aforementioned ID anklet tucked away in your baby book to prove it.”

Then Bay whispered, “I knew it.” To her credit, she did not turn to me with that familiar teenage smirk and say, “
I told you so
”; to my distress, she didn’t turn to me at all.

As I sat there willing myself to breathe (because somehow I understood that dropping dead there in that cheerful little office wouldn’t solve anything), I glanced at John. His jaw, that ruggedly handsome jaw with the tiniest shadow of afternoon scruff, was set so tight I thought he had turned to stone.

Again, I found myself reading his thoughts, and I knew that with every ounce of his being he was wishing that the genetic counselor’s handsomely framed diploma had, in fact, come from BE-A-DOC.com after all. Because then maybe we would have had grounds to challenge her findings.

But I am a Midwestern girl, born and bred, and I know that Washington University doesn’t churn out idiots.

So this …
this
… was real. This was happening. This crisis, this earthquake, this catastrophe of immeasurable proportions was really and truly happening. And it was happening exactly like they say it will happen—in that proverbial hazy blur, fast and slow at the same time. It was happening exactly like a crisis was supposed to happen.

But this time, it was happening to us.

Somehow, we made it home from the medical center. Somehow, John didn’t drive off the road, and I didn’t faint, and Bay didn’t cry. I don’t know how we got home, really, but somehow we did.

We didn’t speak a single word on that ride, lost as we all were in our own thoughts. I noticed in the rearview that Bay was staring out the window, and I couldn’t suppress the ridiculous feeling that she was searching the sidewalks and parks and crosswalks for her real—oops,
we say biological
(as though a formal parlance existed for this sort of thing, as if we were wording wedding invitations!)—family, whom she was bound to spot just around the next bend, at which time she would open the car door and leap out of the SUV to join them. I had a sickeningly vivid image of my daughter waving good-bye and heading off with these DNA-appropriate strangers to the life she was supposed to have lived, while her father and I sat helplessly, idling at a traffic light. I actually felt my index finger hovering above the button on the armrest that would engage the rear door’s child-safety lock feature.

Hah! Talk about a day late and a dollar short!

I jerked my hand away from the button and squeezed my eyes shut tight. I was only ten minutes into this nightmare and already I was teetering on the brink of insanity!

When I’d successfully forced aside the picture of Bay flinging herself from the vehicle, I made myself focus on those final minutes of our meeting with the genetic counselor. John’s last question to her was “Where is the other baby?” (He’d said “other,” not “our,” and I don’t know if this was for Bay’s benefit or simply because at that point he couldn’t bring himself to think of this absent child as anything other than “other.”) The counselor informed us that she had already put in a call to the hospital’s legal department, and as soon as we left, she would begin the arduous process of reviewing the maternity records for October 22, 1995.

So she would assist us in finding our misplaced child. Were we supposed to be grateful? Did she expect me to compliment her on her work ethic? What I wanted to know was: Where was this conscientious professionalism sixteen years ago?

“Well,” I said, standing (still holding Bay’s hand) and giving the counselor a steady look. “We will leave you to it, then. And please do notify us the minute you find what you’re looking for.”

What she was looking for was my daughter, but I didn’t see the point in mentioning that. Instead, I turned away from her and her Washington University credentials and left the office.

And now here we were, pulling into the winding drive of our stately Tudor home, on its four lushly manicured acres of prime, secluded real estate. In the distance, I could hear the sound of a lawn mower, and the clean smell of newly cut grass made the world seem somehow innocent and fresh. I could see the house now, and I knew that inside everything was orderly and in its rightful place. My kitchen calendar was marked with dentist visits and bake sale dates and a mother-daughter manicure appointment (Bay would choose black nail polish as always, but I was okay with that). John’s Royals jersey was hanging in its shadow-box frame in the basement game room, and the first of Toby’s potential college brochures was tacked to the bulletin board beside the fridge, sharing a thumbtack with the recipe for edamame salad I’d recently clipped from
Better Homes and Gardens
.

I don’t need to tell you what wasn’t in that house, in its rightful place. I think this was the first time I truly understood that it is possible to have everything—
everything—
you’d ever hoped for and still feel utterly and completely bereft.

As John guided the SUV into the garage bay, I sent up a silent prayer imploring heaven:
Find her
. And then, before I got out of the car, I imagined myself sending a telepathic communiqué directly to the genetic counselor. Presumably she would be barricaded in her office by now, doggedly poring over every medical record, insurance form, and birth certificate she could get her hands on. The words of my message were the same as the ones of my prayer—
Find her
. But this time they sounded more like a command.

Find her. Find my baby!

Then John was opening the car door for me and offering his hand.

It was time to tell Toby.

We called him into the kitchen, and John and I stood on one side of the marble-topped island, while Toby stood beside Bay on the other. She kept her eyes low, studying the veins that swirled through the marble as though she had never seen them before, and I think this was her brother’s first clue that something was not right. His little sister was being quiet. That never happened.

John was staring out the window above the sink. Also silent.

So it fell to me to do the talking. It fell to me to inform my son that his life was about to change irrevocably, and forever.

I explained everything. Calmly, and in the exact same scientific terminology the counselor had used.

At first, Toby, my sweet, musically gifted son who has my honey-colored hair and his father’s broad shoulders, thought we were kidding.

I said, “Toby, sweetheart. Do you really think we would kid about this?”

I looked at Bay, still tracing the silvery web of capillaries eternally captured inside the shimmering stone of the countertop. She was biting her lip. Waiting.

I wondered if she was remembering the time when her brother was nine and she was seven and he taped a crayon-lettered “BAY KEEP OUT” sign on his bedroom door. Or how he’d teased her relentlessly four years later, after finding the notebook in which she’d doodled three pages worth of
Mrs. Bay Timberlake
,
Bay Kennish-Timberlake
, and
Bay loves Justin
.

I wondered if Toby was remembering that, too.

But if I was hoping for a warm and fuzzy moment, a scene straight out of a Hallmark card commercial, I sure as heck didn’t get it. Toby, laid-back future rock star that he was, simply shrugged and said, “Okay.”

Okay?
Now he was the one who had to be kidding. This was a revelation, and he was acting like I’d just informed him we were having lamb chops for dinner! I swung my gaze to Bay, expecting her to feel crushed at this lack of emotion, but when she looked up from the countertop, she was smiling.

“Yeah, okay,” she said.

John and I looked at each other, and I’m happy to say he was as baffled by this reaction as I was. Once again we were lost in teen world, and we didn’t have the guidebook.

BOOK: Switched at Birth: The True Story of a Mother's Journey
3.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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