Sunday, November 28, 2010

Good Night, My Adoptee Godmother

Tonight, I was shocked to learn that the bold, brilliant and elegant Betty Jean Lifton -- writer, humanitarian and open-adoption activist -- died one week ago in Boston of complications from pneumonia.

Margalit Fox's obit in today's NY Times appears here.

I spoke with BJ over the summer and hoped to see her this winter. I had a book idea that was knocking around in my head for the past two years and she was the one to discuss it with. Nearly 27 years ago, she saved my life by inviting me to join her Adoptee Rap Group, which met monthly in her Central Park West apartment.

At the time, I was 23, newly married and pregnant with my first child.

Just prior to getting pregnant, I met my birthmother in an encounter that was so bizarre and violent that it barely seems plausible. The thing that I did -- barging into my past, demanding to know the truth about my origins, defying conventions, breaking rules, knocking over obstacles -- seemed a criminal act of sorts, therefore, being held up at gunpoint hadn't really surprised me for it seemed a reasonable punishment for my deed.

Someone, a New York State judge, I believe, directed me to BJ. She was warm and funny and unafraid and iconoclastic and sharp. She had a cozy, almost plummy voice. She was cool and stylish and maternal -- exactly the kind of grown-up woman I wanted to be. She wrote books about the very thing I was engaged in -- the search for personal truth. She was famous yet completely accessible, unimpressed with her renown.

When I showed up on her doorstep I was a terrified girl with a growing belly who had almost gotten killed on the way to meeting the woman who gave birth to her -- a drug-addled welfare recipient living in a stinking, garbage-strewn hovel in Bed-Stuy.

I had been having recurring nightmares about giving birth to a red-headed baby girl in the bathroom of the house I grew up in...and then watching helplessly while my mother and birthmother fought over the child.

During waking hours, I was besieged by feelings of doom. My pregnancy evoked an almost existential terror, exacerbating my lifelong sense of alienation. More than ever, I saw myself as a visitor from another planet, a foreigner, a fake.

There were rational reasons for at least part of my distress, of course. I had never met a woman who was a great writer and had kids; I was fairly convinced it had never been done before. I felt like my life was over. I woke up every morning crying. I wanted to run away.

All kinds of people came to BJ's rap group. Some were extraordinarily interesting, others were incredibly weird; many were in terrible pain. One of the men -- an adoptee and adoptive father -- fell in love with me in the most awkward way. His attraction was born, I believe, of his double loss and the archetypical power of my pregnancy. I was lush and glowing, literally bursting with life. I was also young, the youngest pregnant person in Manhattan it seemed. With a college degree, that is. And I was distraught. The whole thing must have made him want to steal me, save me, be me.

BJ served cake and coffee at our evening meetings, asking for no compensation. She moderated our discussion and interjected, providing insight, humor, context. Sometimes she sat back and simply listened. From time to time, a story shocked. People often cried. I do remember laughing quite a lot, as well. Though the group had the quaint designation of a rap group, there was no crunchy granola, hippie-dippie vibe to our gatherings.

Instead, BJ's adoptee rap groups were gritty and real and valuable. They were part of a long-ago era, my young adulthood in Manhattan, a time before cellphones and BlackBerrys and email and computers and sky-high real estate and super-busy lives and insincere conversation conducted while doing 10 other things and all the trappings of the 21st century.

BJ's obit rests on the table next to my laptop. I keep glancing at the headline through blurry eyes. Damn it. I wanted to see her again, after two long decades. I wanted to talk to her about my book idea. I wanted to reconnect. I wanted to hear about her life, listen to her laugh, hear her latest insights about this way of being -- perpetually on the search for authenticity.

Last Sunday, at a brunch on the Upper West Side -- completely out of the blue -- I found myself talking about BJ's rap groups. I spoke incessantly -- perhaps obnoxiously -- about being adopted, about needing to find out why I had been given away. I spoke about the paradoxical nature of adoption -- the tragedy and joy contained therein, the dance of two families who might never meet, conjoined through one child.

As I spoke, I noted, as always, the rapt attention of my audience. Adept storyteller though I might be, I know that it is the subject of being adopted that gains me the spotlight.

Weird how I talked about BJ last week. Just like that. Out of the blue.

And then, a couple of days later, I learned that I was admitted to a course in book writing at Columbia on the strength of my book proposal -- the one I wished to talk to BJ about, the one I assumed I would interview her for.

The black ink of the newspaper makes BJ's obit unambiguous. I'm glad I'm seeing it this way first rather than online, where colors distract. The NY Times newsprint reminds me of when I first met BJ. I wish to linger in recollection of that time.

Tonight, I remember BJ Lifton and cry. Through my tears I see her smiling from the newspaper, giving me the thumbs-up for my project, laughing in her honeyed way, reminding me that, of course, I already interviewed her, many years ago, when we sat in a circle in her Central Park West living room and she was smart and cool and caring and I was on the cusp of growing up and discovering the truth about my life.

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