HelenaMay 17, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Posted in Memoir -- Non-fiction Stories | 7 Comments
Tags: adoption stories, birth mother stories, Shannon Moeser
When I phoned last night, Helena said, “You won’t tell anyone who you are.”
“No, I’ll say you were my mother’s friend.”
Helena didn’t respond, so I spoke again. “I’m looking forward to our visit.”
“Me too,” she whispered.
Helena developed mental health problems at 29 while working as a pharmacist in Vancouver. After returning to Saskatoon to be with her family, she was assessed as schizophrenic. She spent 17 years in the North Battleford psychiatric hospital, then 21 years in group homes as an outpatient.
I learned this when I wrote Saskatchewan Social Services looking for contact information on my birth mother.
Whenever I imagined her—which was seldom—it was as a peaceful housewife with two or three children—my half-siblings—wondering, perhaps, what happened to me and hoping I had found a good home. I had; my adoptive parents were loving and kind. So I never initiated a search for my birth parents, even after adoption regulations were eased and records opened to reveal their secrets.
Mom died ten months ago, leaving a package that included my adoption certificate. As her gnarled, arthritic hands sealed the packet, did she wonder if I would search for my birth mother? Around 15, I stopped asking about my biological parents. Over the years, I learned to accept my strengths and many, many faults; they were consequences of decisions I made, not behaviours imposed upon me by genetics or nurturing. Yet, holding the certificate in my hands roused my curiosity. Did I have a sibling who shared my interests? More important, could I acquire a genealogical health history? With middle age came the realization that my future well-being depended on my ability to identify health risks, many of which had a genetic component.
The discovery of Helena’s mental problems should have been a shock but I felt nothing except a minor ache when I realized I had no siblings. Maybe watching Mom wither under the onslaught of cancer had made me numb—shockproof.
As a psychologist, I knew schizophrenia had a familial genetic component but, at 45, I was well past the age it was likely to develop. The only mental problem I had experienced was depression, which occurred sporadically but never severely enough for me to seek treatment.
What a coincidence, I thought, that Helena was in Vancouver, my home town, when I was a child.
“If you still want to contact Helena, send me a letter addressed to her,” the social worker wrote—so I did, describing my childhood in detail, telling Helena about my son, her grandson, and adding a bit about my education and work; I finished by stating I would like to meet her. So she could see me growing up, I enclosed seven photos taken at different ages.
The social worker drove to North Battleford to evaluate Helena’s mental condition and gave her my letter after their discussion. “I didn’t expect her to remember you,” the worker wrote.
Helena’s answer arrived. She grew up on a farm with five siblings and a widowed mother, moved to Saskatoon, and was 22 when I was born. After my birth, she entered the University of Saskatchewan, graduated with a pharmacy diploma, and worked five years, first in Saskatoon and then in Vancouver, until her problems. After a stay in the hospital for “a while,” she lived in a group home where she met a friend, Anna, another outpatient; they recently moved to a new residence operated by Kay. Helena wanted to see me.
She enclosed a portrait taken two years after my birth. With her dark hair parted in the centre, heart-shaped face, and eyeglasses straddling a broad nose, she looked serious—and innocent. I saw no resemblance between us. My face was square, my forehead higher, my eyes larger, my nose thinner, and my lips fuller.
I have been visiting my son in Calgary. When planning this journey months ago, I thought it a perfect time to squeeze in a trip to Saskatchewan. But now, the prairies are in the middle of a deep freeze. As no commercial airlines fly to North Battleford, I am speeding through farmlands on a bus, an arduous ten-hour drive.
I shift to relieve my aching back and cramped legs. The droning motor lulls me—except during infrequent stops when the door swooshes open and cold air enters. Brushing mist from the window, all I see are flat white fields, isolated houses, and scattered snow-covered trees.
By the time we reach town, it is night—and minus 38. My nose and cheeks sting as I rush from the bus to an idling taxi. Wheels clunk through hushed, ice-covered streets and soon we stop at a split-level bungalow.
The taxi driver honks his horn before I hurry up the stairs; by the time I reach the top step, the door flings open. A smiling woman, her brown hair flecked with grey, says “Hello, I’m Kay. We’ve been expecting you.” Behind her, in the shadows, stands Helena.
“You’ll want to talk in private,” Kay says, leading us to a small, plain room containing a desk and three chairs. I settle into the chair nearest the wall, expecting Helena to sit near me. Instead, she slips behind the desk, putting a barrier between us.
Thick eyeglasses dominate her face. Deep furrows run from the corners of her nose to her sagging chin, giving her mouth the appearance of a frown. I try to project the picture of the innocent woman with smooth skin onto the ruin of her current face but fail.
Her formerly dark hair is now blond like mine. To break the ice, I make a trivial remark.
“You bleach your hair also.”
Helena’s voice is soft, restrained. “Anna does it.”
“Anna. Your friend. You met her 20 years ago.”
“We liked living on the farm … You won’t tell Anna who you are.”
I reassure her and she sits back in her chair—but says nothing. So I introduce my main interest, family health. “You wrote that your father died from the flu when you were four and your mother is dead now. When did she die?”
Helena hesitates. “I don’t know. I was in the hospital. Martha would know but she died.”
Her oldest sister.
“Martha often came from Saskatoon to see me. She took me shopping.”
“What about your other sisters?”
“Dorothy … she visited a few times. Elsa moved away—to Ontario, I think.”
I ask if she sees any other relatives.
“No … but I get Christmas cards.” Her brows furrow. “You’re not going to call them, are you?”
“Of course not. I don’t know their names.”
Helena waits for me to ask questions, which she answers to the best of her ability. She “doesn’t know” many things that occurred after her incarceration, probably because patients in psychiatric hospitals were heavily sedated.
Talking to her is a challenge. I must ask specific questions because she doesn’t enrich her conversation with details, doesn’t move from one idea to a related topic unless prodded. As I know nothing about her family except for the brief description in her letter, my attempts to gather information flounder.
Since Martha died, Helena seems to have had minimal contact with her relatives. My quest for a genealogical health history has hit a dead end. But I can still get to know Helena better, so I ask why she left Saskatoon for Vancouver.
“To find you. I knew you were in Vancouver. I never wanted to give you up for adoption. Mother made me do that. I wanted to keep you.”
Startling information! Unwed mothers seldom kept their babies in the 1940s. But after my adoption, why would she search for me? Was it her mission to ensure I was thriving? Or did she expect us to be reunited? I was six when she arrived in Vancouver and wouldn’t have wanted to leave Mom and Dad.
“How would you find me? Did you know the name of my adoptive parents?”
“No. But they were from Saskatoon. I thought … asking around …”
I remember the social worker writing, “In Vancouver, she met a man she thought might be your adoptive father and was unsure what to do.”
I see my gregarious father, who often stopped at a bar after work, introduced to a woman from his home town. Talking. Showing her a picture of Mom and me—he always carried one. How happy we are, he would say.
“Did you meet my adoptive father?” I ask.
Where did the social worker get her information? A psychiatric report? Helena appears to have forgotten the incident. Or she doesn’t want to discuss it. Yet I believe that now I understand what happened. Helena determinedly pursues her goal: find her baby. She begins her search in Saskatoon, discovers I went to Vancouver, and spends a year there looking for me. But when her goal seems within her grasp, she doesn’t know what to do. She never visualized me as a seven-year-old, the happy daughter of another woman. The mental conflict precipitates an emotional breakdown.
Helena sits passively, hands folded on the desk, awaiting my next question. The conversation should be steered towards a less painful topic, so I ask about her last group home, the farm where she lived for 20 years.
Helena neither acts nor talks like a schizophrenic. Schizophrenics frequently have trouble following a logical conversation. They get “off topic” easily. Ramble incoherently. Helena is reticent but able to follow a complex discussion.
A sudden insight. I think, not schizophrenia but a deep, destructive depression. Withdrawal from the world. I have skirted its fringes—only recognizing it once the danger passed. Helena probably was diagnosed incorrectly.
Behind coke-bottle glasses, her eyes are sharp and intense. But every crease in her sagging face is etched with grief. I again attempt to engage her in a meaningful conversation.
“What do you like to do now?”
“I love reading.” Corners of her mouth form the semblance of a smile.
“I read a lot also. Mainly murder mysteries. What types of books do you like?”
“Lots of books.”
Tired of trying to pull answers from her, I describe my work as a university professor and my life in Newfoundland, then add, “St. John’s is cold and windy. I wish I could move back to Vancouver.”
“I wish I could move back to Saskatoon,” she says wistfully.
Kay knocks on the door. It’s after nine and the home has bedtime rules. Weary, I welcome the interruption and ask Kay if she can recommend a nearby hotel.
“You can sleep here if you like, in my daughter’s room. She’s away at college.”
Her daughter’s room is on the main floor while Helena sleeps downstairs. I say goodnight and add, “We can talk again tomorrow.”
I fall asleep as soon as I snuggle under the down duvet.
Next morning I meet the other members of the group home: two thin men who mumble greetings and Anna who welcomes me warmly while scanning my face with bright blue eyes. During breakfast, Kay talks, Helena answers questions, and Anna adds a few words. The men say nothing.
After breakfast, Helena quietly clears the table and washes dishes with Anna’s help. The men disappear. I continue my conversation with Kay, then notice that Helena and Anna have gone.
“They’re outside, on the porch, having their cigarettes. I don’t allow smoking in the house,” Kay volunteers.
“Outside! In this weather?”
“They must have their smokes after breakfast and dinner, no matter what.”
Kay has operated a group home for years, but just recently started taking in former mental patients. Previously she sheltered foster children and she describes caring for them—children left in a hot car for six hours, children starved for days, those forgotten when parents relocated. One, a native girl, stayed four years until Kay was allowed to adopt her. This is the “daughter” whose bedroom I occupy.
I tell Kay stories about Mom. Not yet fully recovered from Mom’s death, I find talking about her provides catharsis.
I don’t notice Helena and Anna slip downstairs. When I ask about them, Kay replies, “They have chores in the morning. They’ll be up shortly for lunch.”
Talking to Kay is relaxing. This is how strangers get to know one another, by sharing stories. I would have enjoyed hearing Helena’s stories—about growing up on a farm, playing with her siblings, working as a pharmacist. But she seems incapable of telling stories, although she clearly remembers the period before her incarceration. Institutionalization has damaged her ability to share her memories with strangers, and I am a stranger.
At noon, the four arrive upstairs. We eat; then I accompany Helena downstairs.
The above-ground basement contains two bedrooms, a bathroom and a sitting room. The men share one bedroom, the women the other.
“It’s nice here,” Helena says. “We have our own TV.”
The others invite me to join them, so I sit between Helena and Anna on an old, comfortable couch, with the two men ensconced in equally ancient cushy chairs. We watch Wheel of Fortune. When it ends, The Price is Right begins.
Not a fan of daytime TV, I ask Helena to show me her bedroom. As we enter, she says, “I must take my pill. I can’t forget.” She takes a pill from a bottle on her dresser, adding, “I must take five pills a day.”
Helena’s ankles remind me of tree trunks. Do drugs cause this edema? Are those pills the reason she has difficulty moving from one idea to a related one?
The room contains two beds, two nightstands, two dressers with mirrors, and a chair. No closet. Walls are bare. I thought Mom lived frugally during her last ten years but at least her small bachelor apartment was cluttered with pictures and souvenirs; she had cable TV, her own bathroom. Helena has nothing.
I perch on the bed, Helena settles into the chair, and we continue our conversation from the previous evening. With no desk between us, she seems more accessible.
“Besides reading,” I ask, “what else do you like to do?”
“I take long walks.”
“Not in this weather!”
“No … but in the summer, it’s nice.”
We talk briefly about North Battleford, and then, taking a deep breath, I ask, “Who was my father?”
“Gordon G—,” Helena replies promptly, as if expecting this question. “He was a railway conductor.” She stops, then adds in a sobbing voice, “He forced me! He forced me!”
When I say nothing, she continues, “He left Saskatoon. I didn’t see him again. But a few years ago I saw his name on a poster. He was running for Parliament.” She spits out the last sentence.
“Are you sure it was him? Did you see his picture?”
“Just his name.”
“How do you know it was the same Gordon G—? It might have been another man with the same name.”
For a moment, her mask lifts and I see brightness in her eyes, a mental click as the suggestion registers.
“Yes,” she agrees. A fragmentary smile. “Maybe it wasn’t him.”
My suggestion comforts her. She has no fond memories of this man. Even the possibility that he didn’t thrive raises her spirits.
I ask if she has any pictures and she removes an envelope from her dresser drawer. In it are photos of Helena in Saskatoon, smiling beside university friends and work colleagues; several of her laughing on a fishing boat in Vancouver. Only one is recent. Taken two years earlier, she sits glumly beside her sister. There are no photographs from 1947 to 1983—35 missing years.
A Vancouver “street snapshot” captures my attention. Helena is striding along Granville, head held high, eyes focused forward, long hair framing a determined face. Only in this picture do I see a resemblance between us: in the concentration of her face, tilt of her head, and firm grip on her purse. With a tailored suit showing under her swinging coat, she looks successful. The date scribbled on the back reveals this photo was taken only a few months before her breakdown.
Anna knocks on the door. “It’s time for dinner.”
As we eat, both Anna and Helena talk to me, albeit hesitantly and quietly. The food is simple but wholesome—meat, potatoes and two vegetables prepared with care. Cake for dessert.
Helena and Anna again wash the dishes, then go outside to smoke.
On Kay’s mantelpiece are pictures of her family. Her husband died a few years ago; she has a natural daughter who lives outside Saskatchewan and seldom sees; but most of the pictures display her adopted daughter and Kay talks mainly about her. While she talks, I think, the bond between mother and child is forged not by blood but by shared experiences.
Helena cannot share her experiences with me. Not even a bond of friendship can be formed. Once she was a successful professional. Had she continued on that journey, had she not been locked in a psychiatric hospital, we could have shared stories, maybe discovered kindred souls, possibly established a friendship. But what might have been cannot be because her journey was halted, her life destroyed, when she was classified as schizophrenic. I believe, although I can never know for sure, that she was misdiagnosed. Would her life have been different if she had received treatment for depression?
Helena comes inside and I stop her before she disappears downstairs.
“I’m leaving early in the morning, before breakfast,” I state. “I want to say goodbye in case I don’t see you again. Thank you for inviting me.”
Helena replies, “I enjoyed meeting you.” I give her an awkward hug and she hugs me stiffly in return. We are strangers, tied by blood but without shared memories.
“I’ll write,” I say.
“Me too,” she replies.
Helena doesn’t answer my letter. We have nothing in common and she lives far away: Our encounter shifts to the back of my mind. Nine years later, I receive a message stating, “Your biological mother has died.”
Helena never told her relatives about our meeting, although they all knew about her baby and the adoption. Martha’s granddaughter had moved to North Battleford and visited her, but Helena kept her secret. However, she told Anna her story and Anna gave her family my carefully preserved letters and photos.
Suddenly I have cousins, second cousins, and an uncle inviting me to meet them. Martha’s daughter provides a detailed genealogical health history that is very useful.
I ask Martha’s daughter, who was 17 when Helena became ill, what symptoms she displayed. Did she hear voices, have delusions, speak gibberish or possibly stop talking altogether? Helena showed none of these symptoms, my cousin says. She would go on long walks and not return.
I learn that Helena initially returned to Saskatoon because she began crying uncontrollably at work. All her symptoms suggest severe depression—certainly a serious mental disorder, but not one that required detention in a psychiatric prison.
I discover that the North Battleford psychiatric hospital, originally built to accommodate 800 patients, contained 2,000 during the period Helena was incarcerated. Wards of seventy patients were supervised by three nurses. Patients with relatively minor issues were placed with the severely psychotic. There were no chairs or sofas, no pictures or mirrors—only grey walls, cement floors, and wood benches. When not huddled on benches or the floor, patients slept two to a bed on straw mattresses.
I wish she had told her relatives about me and—during the last nine years of her life—saw me welcomed into the family. They gave me her photographs. There were seven new ones, all taken since my visit. In these, she is smiling.
ADDED NOTE: I wrote this about two years ago. Since then, I have discovered (I think) my birth father’s family. Helena would have been pleased to know that he died at a relatively young age, about 20 years before I visited her. He did live a happier life than she did, but it was also a short one. I received a couple of pictures of him from his family. There was also a picture of him among Helena’s photos, albeit a photo in which he was difficult to recognize until I saw the other photos of him.