Collateral Damage: On Adoption, Beheadings, and Invisible Siblings

Did you know Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig, one of the recent beheading victims of the Islamic State, was an adoptee?

When I first heard it on the news (and once I started breathing again) my first question was: Does his mother know?  Forgive me, it’s a knee-jerk reaction I have whenever I hear of an adoptee’s passing. And by mother, I do not mean adoptive mother. I mean the woman in whose womb Peter was knitted together. Because surely, his adoptive mother knows, since she’s all over the news (and seems like a perfectly lovely woman, by the way.) But his first mother – the woman who bled for him as she labored him into this world – did she know he was gone?

Through some quick Internet research, I learned that Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig had indeed found his first mother soon after his 18th birthday and had become close with his two younger half-siblings.  But sadly, I came across this article of their first interview since their beloved older brother had been tortured and killed: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/11/25/peter-kassig-biological-family/70091378/ Here are some of the words he wrote to his sister, Jana, while in captivity (the letter to her was one of only two he was able to send during the year and two months he was being held captive by the Islamic State). To his sister he wrote:

“Did you know, when I was little, I used to pray for a little sister? I prayed and prayed, but I didn’t see how it was possible. What do you know? One day I found myself staring at a picture of you and all I could think was, ‘She’s perfect.’

“You are the best thing that has ever happened to me: you and your brother.”

To Peter, Jana and Sam were perfect. They were his prayed for miracle. They were, in his words, “the best thing” that had ever happened to him.

And yet, thanks to adoption laws, the federal government does not recognize Jana or Sam as Peter’s siblings, next of kin, or members of his family, regardless of their shared DNA, regardless of their deep emotional bonds. Therefore, the U.S. Government did not and will not provide grief counseling for them as they do for family members of hostages and kidnapping victims, which in the case of Peter means only his adoptive family, not his natural family. Not Jana and Sam, the best things that ever happened to Peter.

Much like my three younger children, Jana and Sam are collateral damage of adoption. They are the invisible siblings, the forgotten of the adoption constellation.

In their first interview since the Islamic State captured, tortured and killed Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig in Syria, his biological mother, Rhonda Schwindt, and two siblings describe a bureaucracy that declined to help a grieving family at its lowest moments. Kassig was beheaded Nov. 16.

When they lost contact with their brother Oct. 1, 2013, the Schwindts say the FBI kept his captivity a secret from them for 5½ months despite extending victims assistance to his adoptive parents, Ed and Paula Kassig. Once they learned of his fate, the Schwindts say they were denied federal assistance in finding grief counseling and the FBI told them to keep quiet — even after Kassig’s parents and friends were encouraged to speak up in an unsuccessful attempt to save him.

More than a week after his death, Jana Schwindt still doesn’t have an exact copy of the letter her brother penned to her in captivity. The original, they were told by the FBI, was processed as evidence and destroyed.

Jana, Sam, Matthew, Luke, Poppy, Lyne, Marie, Teresa, Lily, Violet, Heather, Max, Jane, Kyle, Keith, Mark, Eliza, Spence, JP, Caroline, Phoebe, Margaret, Bonnie, Claudia, Nancy, Melissa, Benjamin, Trevor, Cindy, Steve . . .I could go on and on with their names, but my tears stop me tonight as I think of their collective losses.

These are my friends with whom I have wept when they discovered they have 47-year old sister somewhere out there. These are my friends who have called me at midnight, wondering why their adopted-out sibling has cut off contact with them again after what they had thought was a lovely Christmas holiday to Hawaii. These are my own children. These are the ones who, if their beloved older sibling were beheaded by terrorists, would not be acknowledged as “real” by the U.S. government and would be deemed undeserving of victim assistance.

The fact this cloak of invisibility goes both ways is not lost on me. If it were my son in Peter’s position, Ms. Feverfew would not qualify for victim’s assistance, either. The law does not recognize her as next of kin or immediate family of any kind.

I’ll keep asking these questions until I get a satisfactory answer: Tell me again,  how is adoption, an act that renders my children invisible to each other in the eyes of the law, a loving act? How is this blessing my family “into the eternities” as I was promised it would?

Tell me again, what part of this is about love?

________________________________________

Another article about Kassig’s natural family: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/11/21/kassig-birth-family-mourns-death/19335637/

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A Girl and Her Purses

Dear Ms. Feverfew –

When you were about four years old, your mom sent me a letter that told of how you loved purses. She said you carried them around with you everywhere, filled with bits of papers on which you had been writing. It was one of the only details of your life and childhood that was shared with me and I have long treasured it. That being said, I never understood it as I am most definitely not a “purse” kind of woman – that gene seems to have skipped me clean over.

Then along came Poppy, nearly 18 years later.

She adores purses. There’s no other way to put it. She’s been this way from the time she could toddle around the house. She won’t go to church without one. If we are headed out shopping, she has to have one with her. Heck, lately she won’t go to swim lessons without one!

20130808-102227.jpgI try to keep them corralled in this basket, but I am constantly finding them around the house.  Here’s what is currently under the desk in my office:

20130808-102253.jpgAs difficult as it was to survive the tsunami of emotions brought with the discovery I was having another daughter, Poppy is helping me know – in small part – what it might have been like if you had remained with me.

Yes, missing the chance to have your purses underneath my desk will always sting and hurt. However, when I allow myself sit with those dark emotions, Poppy’s love comes to sit beside me, too.  Her joyful approach to life helps fill in those broken places. And as I sit with her love (and her purses!), a small smile of satisfaction steals across my face, a smile that starts down near my heart where you reside. Somehow, the small collection at my feet makes me think of both of my daughters with great delight. I can’t explain this delight or justify it – it just is.

Speaking of Poppy, here she comes now. She’s pulling a purse along behind her, full of those die-cast metal Thomas the Tank Engine trains, a love she shares with her brother Luke. The sweet irony of the trains being in her purse is not lost on me.

2013-08-09 08.09.18That’s my cue it is time to stop what I am doing here and play with this sweet creature. And while I am playing trains with her, you can be certain I will wonder if you liked to play with trains, too.

Much love,

M.

“The Absent are Ever Present”

Dear Ms. Feverfew –

Way back in junior high school, I learned a really cool trick from my home economics teacher (do they even teach that class any more? What is it called nowadays, anyway? Certainly not home economics – that phrase must have gone out of a favor for something more politically correct by now, yes?)

The cool trick? Crushed up candies melt in the middle of sugar cookies.  (These pictures are from a year or two ago – I forgot to get the camera out this year!!!)

bighearts_2They’ve never failed me yet – these are cherry Life Savers and some flavor of Jolly Ranchers. Year in and year out I can trust them to deliver gorgeous results. And the sugar cookie recipe I have is to DIE FOR, but I promised my niece I would never share it because it is the one she developed for her business, Snickety Snacks.

bighearts_5I’ve remained faithful and never shared it, even with the darling 12-year old who wanted it from me today!

bighearts_3Today has been a good day – lots of sugar cookies with the small ones and then a party with other home-schooling families from church. Tomorrow I head to University of Alabama to visit the pain management clinic there to see what they can do to help me…well, manage the pain caused by this craptastic medical device I have inside of me. (Thirteen weeks until it comes out, yahoo!!!)

lifesaverheartAnyhoooooo, as I wandered through today, I couldn’t help but think of you. I hope your mom helped you build family traditions, whether it be baking sugar cookies every Valentine’s Day or something else, like making Valentine cards for all of your older relatives. I am sure she did things like that. Well…at this point, I have to choose to believe she did – it’s my own version of fairy-dust and adoption-mythology, as it were. This fairy-dust is the only way I can endure a day full of Matthew, Luke, and Poppy laughing and giggling and carrying on like siblings do. It is on days like this that your absence in our lives is so noticeable to me.

Much love –

M.

I Should’ve Chambered a Round

Dear Ms. Feverfew –

About two months ago, Princess P. was snoozing upstairs in her bedroom and I was down here in my office doing whatever it is that I do. From the garage, I heard a loud sound, like a door slamming shut. It startled me, as Mr. Amazing Man was away at work and the pool lady wasn’t scheduled to come until the next day. However, I didn’t think much of it until a loud banging came from the laundry room.

Then I thought something of it.

While our neighborhood is normally an extremely safe place (like one of the safest in the state), there had been a spate of unsolved home invasions over the previous three weeks where the yokels would break in, tie up the people that were home and then proceed to rob them of all valuables. I was fairly certain I had locked all the doors leading to the outside, but I wasn’t absolutely certain.  Then I heard some more banging from the laundry room and I sprang into action.

For a split second, I thought, “Go grab Princess P. and then run for it!” But then I realized that to get upstairs to get her and then get out of the house would alert whomever was in my laundry room (if there was anyone). Essentially, there was no safe way to get to her and get out of the house. Immediately, my next thought was, “Then Melynda, you had better get the handgun and stand your ground.”

And so I did. As I dashed by the kitchen,  I grabbed the phone, dialed 911, and put it on speaker phone so my hands would be free. Then I pulled the handgun out of its safe location, chambered a round, and cautiously made my way to the base of the stairs that led to Princess P’s room. And there I waited, all the time talking with dispatch.

911, what’s your emergency? “I live in BWB and I think I heard someone in my garage and laundry room.”

BWB? What’s your address? I gave it to him, along with my name. Have you been out there to check, ma’am? “No sir. I didn’t want to open the door to the laundry room on the chance that someone might be in there.”

That’s understandable with what’s been going on recently over there in BWB. You did the right thing by calling us. Where are you now? “In my living room at the base of the stairs that lead to my daughter’s room.”

Is she home? “Yes, she’s 17 months old and sleeping right now.”

Do you have a weapon in the house, ma’am? “Yes sir, I have a hand gun with me.”

Is it loaded? “I believe I chambered a round, sir, and the safety is off with a full magazine.”

OK – I will let the responding officers know you are armed. “Thank you.” And then we waited with him periodically letting me know where the officers were.

Within a few minutes, I could see them out the front window. “Sir, I just saw them pull up. What do you want me to do?” Just stay put until they have made sure everything is clear. If you want, you can put the safety back on your weapon now. “OK.”

Through the sliding glass doors, I could watch them circle around back of the house, past the lanai that encloses our pool, and over to the gardenia bushes by my bedroom window. They made their way back around then came in through the garage door and into the laundry room. Nothing looked amiss to them, even though none of us could explain the noises. They checked everything thoroughly and assured me I had done the right thing by calling and by being prepared to defend myself and my daughter in our home.

Strangely, I was calm through this entire ordeal – like preternaturally calm. When Mr. Amazing Man got home from work later that evening and I told him about my day, he asked me, “Were you scared?” I told him I was when I first heard the sounds in the laundry room, but not once I made the decision to stand my ground and protect Princess P. with lethal force if necessary. “Do you think you would have actually shot an intruder?” he asked. “Absolutely, without at doubt,” I responded. “I have already lost one daughter. I am not willing to risk losing another one.”  My mind was perfectly clear and perfectly decided that morning: No one was going to get past those stairs to reach my daughter, and I mean no one.

In the weeks since this incident, I have had a lot of time to replay the scenario in my mind and digest its meaning. I have come to see this event is one of the things that woke the tiger in me and unleashed a fierceness with the Truth in my life. It came 19 years to late for you and I, but that morning I finally found the courage to stand up for myself and my children in a way I never thought I possibly could. I didn’t run and hide in a closet. I didn’t duck underneath my desk. I didn’t allow other people to make decisions for me. I made a decision to protect my daughter and I acted on it.  And ever since then, something has shifted in me. I think this is why, after all these years I was finally able to “out” myself on Facebook, why I finally have done the hard work to find a therapist who is at least trying to “get” what adoption means to me, why I am willing to stand up for myself to my mother.

I don’t know why exactly I am telling you this story. What I do know is that I owe you an apology for not being that kind of mother for you, for not fighting for you, for trusting other people’s advice and opinions even when it didn’t feel right to me. I should have chambered a proverbial round and stood my ground for you, too. I hope you are able to find that resivor of courage in your own life before you have to suffer too much heartache and sorrow. It is somewhere inside of you, I promise – just keep looking for it.

Much love,

M.

P.S. Looks like a young mother did just what I was ready to do: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-57352344-504083/okla-teen-mom-asks-911-for-permission-fatally-shoots-intruder-on-new-years-eve/ (Edited to add this on 01-12-12)

Are you thirsty?

Dear Ms. Feverfew –

“Children thirst to hear where they came from…
they need to know that they were desired,
that their birth was a wonder, and they were always
the object of love and care.”

~ Marcelle Clements

The boys never tire of hearing about the day they were born, how I labored them into this world. They love to hear of when they were still slippery and wet against my bare skin and we gazed deeply into each others eyes for the first time.

Captain Knuckle joins us earth-side

Captain Knuckle full on smiled at me – yes, a real smile that spoke of recognition and joy at seeing each other again. I don’t care what the experts say, this mother’s heart knows that was his first real smile and it was glorious.  And then I cried because my heart was so full of love for this tiny creature. (That’s us above – Captain Knuckle came so quickly the doctor didn’t even have time to put gloves on! What the picture doesn’t capture is me sobbing over and over and over, “It’s my baby, it’s my baby – no one can take him from me!”)

The Professor is born

When the Professor was born, it was about 25 minutes from the first contraction to when he was placed in my arms. When he landed safely in my arms, he looked up at me with a wide eyed gaze as if to say, “Hi there. I love you. Can you please explain what just happened to me?”  And I cried because my heart was so full of love for this tiny creature.

Princess P with mama on the delivery table

When the doctor (the one with the hands of a surgeon but the heart of a midwife) passed Princess P. across the surgical drape nine months and one day ago, she was placed on my bare skin just like all of her siblings. I couldn’t look directly into her eyes because I was on the surgical table, but I wrapped my arms around her as the nurse snapped my gown back together with Princess P. tucked inside and covered us with warm blankets.  I inhaled deeply and breathed in that heavenly scent of peace and wonder that new babies bring with them. She was so calm, so warm – perfect, just like you. We lay there together for the entire time it took to close the incision, our hearts beating against each other. And I cried because my heart was so full of love for this tiny creature.

Every child’s birth was a wonder, a miraculous dance of the oldest kind. Each of you has always been the constant object of my love and care. This mother-love is what innervates my cells and motivates so many of my decisions. I hope that someday you will want to know your story so you can understand you were not just adopted but you were born.

Someday, I hope to have the honor of  telling you of your journey into this world and that yes, you were labored over, bled for, cried for, and above all else – loved.

Much love,

M.