Adoption, the hole called ‘Mummy left me’, and New Skin by Torres

There are certain events in films, books and even songs that I have a problem dealing with.

When I saw Artificial Intelligence and the mother drives away, leaving the robot boy, David, abandoned in the woods, I cried buckets of tears. I didn’t know I had so many tears left in me. Sitting here, in a conference room waiting for the next speaker to start, I remember that scene and I feel myself welling up. I haven’t managed to finish The Goldfinch. I can’t get past the first hundred pages. It’s too painful. It’s too real. I can’t experience it with any aesthetic distance.

These moments of pain, of meltdown, of hollowed-out loss that can never be put right, ambush me from the most unexpected places. Episodes in Supernatural. Children’s books. Newspaper stories. I ow I’ll never be able to watch any Game of Thrones featuring certain character, not so much because of their grisly fate but because her parents abandoned her and nothing can ever make it better.

Yes, I’m adopted. Yes, I have abandonment issues. I’m a man in my early fifties and I’m still little more than a bundle of learned coping mechanisms wrapping around a gaping hole labeled ‘Mummy left me’. (I’ve said it before and I’ll probably find myself saying it again.)

Which brings me to the latest Torres album, Sprinter, and the song New Skin. Mackenzie Scott, who records as Torres, has spoken relatively frankly about her own adoption and the role its played in her life. It’s the central theme of Sprinter, whether she’s singing in the voice of the mother who gave her up or her adoptive mother, an adoptee herself, attempting to trace back her birth mother in the literally devastating The Exchange. Literally, because the protagonist is devastated. There is possibly nothing left. It’s a song which, like the best songs and short stories, is a chain of synecdoche for entire lives.

But back to New Skin. It documents (there is no other word) the experience of being adopted as a baby. The loss of your old identity, the new one you’re wrapped up in.

Ready to wrap me up
Ready to love me in this new skin I’m filling in

No child ever gets to speak for itself. The child’s parents do, in particular the mother. But a small baby is still part of its mother, early years psychologists tell us, and perhaps there’s a mysterious way in which mother and baby can speak for each other. If you’re adopted, that becomes impossible. You can only be spoken for by a stranger. The chorus of New Skin says

Who’s that trying to speak for me?
What kind of love do they claim to be?
A child of God much like yourself
You’ll still find me right where I fell

I find the last line adds an ambiguity – the chorus could almost be sung by the birth mother.

I know now that this fracture affects both sides for a lifetime. I also know that it can never be repaired, not for me. I’ve met my birth mother and maybe it’s patched up a little but the hole is still there.
Anyway, Scott, by her own account, had a successful adoption. She’s a writer of fictions, however much of herself she pours into them, and I wouldn’t presume for a moment that this piece of art called New Skin is the empirical truth of her life and feelings. But there are portions of my own truth in it, enough to trigger the Artificial Intelligence effect.

Thankfully, because it’s music and a lovely song, I can bring myself to listen to it more than once.

“The Guest Cat”, by Takeshi Hiraide (2015)

My wife and I have lived with cats for twenty years now which is a shocking realisation. This book, an unexpected birthday present, is a meditation on how the relationships between ourselves and our cats (and neighbours) form and the ways in which we negotiate the fiddly, fussy social barriers defining the spaces and transitions between us.

A couple rent a property and find a cat begins to visit them regularly. She (the cat, Chibi), becomes more and more important as the narrator and his wife negotiate a major change in their lives, the Showa era ends and the Japanese property bubble of the late 80s begins to evaporate.

I suspect something of the flavour of this book has been lost in translation, though more through the unbreechable gap between the Western language of subject-object and that of Japanese (something the book explicitly addresses), where the distinction all but dissolves, rather than through any fault of of the translator. 

What we have, however, is still a touching mediation on loss and marriage and the kind of love that descends like snowflakes overnight. 

Milky Way

“Light is the fastest thing in the world,” announces little elf, my seven year-old daughter. I think of the Discworld where light pours over the edge of the world like Golden syrup each morning. I wonder when she’ll be old enough for the Tiffany Aching novels.

“That’s true,” I say.

“But even light can’t escape from a black hole! Did you know a black hole is a dead star?”

“Yes. I think that’s interesting – even stars die.”

She jumps conversational track slightly, the way we both do and my son and wife don’t.

“It’s a shame we can’t see our own Galaxy.”

“But we can. Mostly. It’s called the Milky Way.”

“Can we see a picture of it?”

“I don’t want to get out any screens right now.” (Because we’d never get off them.) “But I can tell you what it looks like.”

“What does it look like?”

Oops. Have I ever really seen seen it? I remember a glimpse of something on the rare night when camping, the countryside and the dark coincided with a cloudless sky.

“It’s…a sort of grey-silvery thing. You don’t realise your looking at it at first because the other stars are brighter. Then you realise there’s a kind of stream running across the sky, full of dim twinkly stars. It’s…”

She isn’t listening. I carry on trying to remember. Did I see  a stream of stars, full of myth and wonder? Or did I make it up? And does it matter? I still remember it.

Exhaustion and pattern recognition 

Exhaustion: There’s a William Gibson novel (Pattern Recognition?) where the main character wonders about whether jet lag is when your soul gets left behind you out in the middle of the Atlantic. I suspect it happens on train journeys and after long meetings. Today, I spent two hours talking and arguing and convincing and, most of all, acting, to a room of fifteen people. Work involves so much acting. To clients, to colleagues, to yourself.

Mum died. The Wheel turns.

Last Monday, my sister rang me at work.

“Mum’s in hospital. They think she’ll be going home by the end of the week so you should think about popping up to see her soon after.”

We both knew what she meant. 

“Are you sure I shouldn’t come up now?”

We discussed it for a minute or two and agreed that it would be potentially upsetting if I materialised in Mum’s hospital room like a harbinger of imminently expected death. I vaguely made plans to show up early in the New Year, possibly with the family in tow. My sister went back to our mother’s bedside. She’s been her carer for some years. I’ve been semi-detached from the family for as long as I can remember. Religion, life-style choices, freedom of speech – it’s complicated. My sister and I get on, my father and I were reconciled before he died but I’ve never really liked my mother for a long time. In return, she’s gradually erased me from the family history as her memory erodes, needing more and more prompting to bring me into focus.

Did I mention I was adopted?

The next day, my sister rang again.

“You might want to think about coming up tomorrow.”

I dropped everything, dashed up to Euston and got a train North. My sister lives in an industrial northern town dominated by Unilever’s chemical works and ringed by new-build estates. She lives on one with her husband and, until now, our mother. 

We sat by her bed together for a couple of hours. She was asleep. My sister was convinced she knew I’d come. I wasn’t. Every now and then, my sister would get up and wipe the stringy white strands of dried fluid that had gathered on my mother’s mouth and under her tongue. The nurses came in and turned her once. Their kindness was an almost physical presence. My sister’s kindness felt more like ownership.

We only ever seem to have meaningful conversations at the bedside of dying parents. 

“I only ever really got to know the real mum in the last few years, you know. Dad was a bully.”

I knew that.

“I never saw that. I know she was much more intelligent than he was.”

“But no-one was allowed to have a different opinion from him. That was was always your problem. But that’s just how it was. You did what you had to do for yourself.”

My sister’s fond of that line. I got up and left home. She didn’t. Eventually, she acquired a kind of ownership of our parents.

I got the train back down. The next morning, my sister rang and told me that mum had died overnight. We’d joked at her bedside about the closing window for a funeral before Christmas but the family Catholic Mafia closed ranks and made calls and the service happened yesterday, on the 23rd.

The service took place in slow motion. We followed the hearse out to the grave (her husband’s, opened up to to accommodate her) and the deacon went through the last rituals. Like everyone else, I dropped a clod of the sandy northern soil on the coffin. I noticed the railway sleepers lining the grave all the way down to hold the space open.

After the requiem, there was a “hot pot” lunch. I’d been dreading it.

Then something surprising happened. Half a dozen relatives – aunts, cousins, an uncle – I hadn’t spoken to in thirty to forty years approached me one after another. They wanted to talk. They wanted to know what I’d been doing. So I told them and asked what they’d been up to. It was astonishing – they’d been through entire careers, tragedies, raised families, lived lives of which I’d seen or heard nothing.

No-one mentioned my mother. Everyone seemed relieved and happy for me in an odd sort of way, and happy to see me. And I found I was happy to see them. I gave and received contact details and found I was genuinely intending to see people.

My sister dropped me at the station, having determinedly raced to get me to a particular train. Typically, it turned out to be the slow one so, as soon as she’d driven off, I wandered briefly into the town’s “Cultural Quarter” and found a vegan coffee shop covered in bright new age paintings and with didgeridoos hung on the walls. There was vegan chocolate cheese cake (surprising tasty) and alpaca hand warmers for sale. I had a coffee and heard about the owners’ plans for their new business (“We had our first vegan footballer in here yesterday! We should be able to get that in the papers.”) then caught the non-stop train south.

I woke up this morning feeling lighter and happier than I had in ages. Somehow, somewhere, the Wheel had turned, decisively. 

The Wheel, from the Druid Craft Tarot

The Wheel, from the Druid Craft Tarot. Click for source.



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