A Casket and Clues
While my kids stayed in Kentucky with the twins grandma, I hit the road in November of 2010 and arrived in Waterloo, Iowa, on the day of Eileen’s funeral. I was entirely out of my element, being the adoptee outsider feeling invisible. Yet, I knew I was born at St. Frances Hospital in Waterloo, where my birth mother was. Waterloo always gave me an eerie feeling, one I have difficulty describing in words.
I have had dreams my whole life off and on about Saint Frances Hospital. I was five years old in the dream when I discovered I was adopted. I’m at St. Francis Hospital on the maternity ward where I was born and the last place I was with my birth mother before we were separated for life. I’m a little girl in the dream, wearing nothing but a small hospital gown with bare feet.
Everything was white, crisp, and had a paranormal feeling about it. It was the feeling of being misplaced, as if you are a little kid at the fair and you turn around, and your parents are gone. Like they left, never to return, a feeling of terror and panic comes over you. That’s how I feel every time I have this dream. I was frantic, searching for HER.
I take off running down the maternity ward hallways in search of her! The hallways never ended, and I ran in and out of every room, going on forever and ever. As I ran, I saw a giant clock, and time was running out. I kept running forever, but I never found her! I would wake up from these dreams in complete dire straights, completely inconsolable. Please believe me when I tell you that adoption is torture, and it’s a mental mind fuck for adoptees.
I had no idea how my trip to Eileen’s funeral would go down, but one of my main reasons for going was to learn more about her and possibly my birth father. It wasn’t long ago that I was told he was deceased, which never sat well with my spirit. I felt in my heart of hearts that was always one more lie, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it. First, I wanted to stand over his grave and see if he was deceased. Second, I wanted DNA to connect me to his family tree. I was never giving up until I found all of my people!
I will never forget reading Eileen’s obituary online and feeling a knife stab me straight in the heart when I saw I wasn’t listed in her obituary. This is another time I have difficulty finding the words to explain how this blow made me feel. I am thankful I was sitting in my car; otherwise, I think I would have collapsed. Logic would say, “Duh, of course, you weren’t listed; she gave you away!” However, the little girl in me couldn’t acknowledge that at all.
I could feel my heart ripped into shreds, and it took my breath away that I didn’t account for shit. I didn’t even exist or matter even a little bit. I was non-existent, invisible, still, hallow, and empty inside—a walking dead woman. So while reality seemed like the more straightforward solution, I was deeply hurt that I was not listed in Eileen’s obituary. It cut like a knife.
However, I needed to put on a smile to show up for her funeral service to be surrounded by people I didn’t know and search for more of my adoptee truth. One more example of me being vulnerable and putting myself “out there” to gain a glimpse of my birth mother’s life and learn more about her.
I was dying to talk to her closest friends and meet biological family I had never been allowed to meet in this lifetime. Would someone be able to share who my birth father was? Soon, I would discover more than I ever had about my birth mother and her life, but much of what I learned rocked me to my core.
I remember seeing my birth sister for the first time in over a decade with her children and husband. She gave me a card with sisterly sentiments in it, which was nice. She talked about wanting to pick back up where we left off and apologizing for disappearing. Even when sad circumstances brought us back together, I was happy to see her again. I was elated to move forward and open the door back up at a chance at a relationship with her.
We met before the funeral service and rode together to the funeral home. We walked in, and Eileen was lying in a casket dressed in a denim button-up shirt with a Christmas print on it. I thought that was odd because it was November; however, they said she loved Christmas, so she wore that shirt year round. She looked frail, wrinkled, and old, yet she was one month before her 63rd birthday. Lifelong alcohol, COPD, and cigarette consumption did a number on her.
As I got closer to the casket, I thought my emotions might take over me, but I felt disconnected and hallow, which I wasn’t expecting. We stood over Eileen’s casket for a moment, and I knew this was it. This was the last time I would ever see her in my lifetime.
I went to sit down with my birth sister and her kids and husband. I was handed a funeral program, and the service for Eileen started. It seems her funeral was planned down to every little detail, which I thought was interesting. She had the funeral home paid for, and her service was simple and short. After the service, she was cremated, and her urn was buried.
But, first, someone shared a short eulogy of her life, sharing she worked at Engineered Products for 16 years and was a NASCAR fan, especially Jeff Gordon. Then, they shared about her surviving one and only daughter, Joanna, and her only grandkids as Joanna’s three kids. While I had already read the obituary online, this still stung extensively. My emotions started to work on me.
After they shared a few short words about Eileen and her life, they played a song she picked out and requested to play at her memorial service. As the song began to play, this is when my tears started to flow. The words to the song struck a chord, and the reality that it was her last song somehow connected me to her at that moment.
Frank Sinatra – My Way
“And now the end is here
And so I face that final curtain
My friend, I’ll make it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more
I did it, I did it my way
Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again too few to mention
I did what I had to do
I saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much, much more
I did it, I did it my way
Yes, there were times I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all, and I stood tall and did it my way.
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
Not to say the things that he truly feels
And not the words of someone who kneels
Let the record show; I took all the blows and did it my way.”
She did what she had to do, stood tall, and did it her way. Back to her learning, she was pregnant with me, in 1973, out of wedlock, with a married man who was a family friend. This song will always remind me of her; it has touched my heart profoundly. Not in a heartwarming way, in a sorrowful way. While I started to cry, listening to the words and incorporating her choosing to give me up for adoption, my emotions got the best of me.
I was sobbing, and just an arm’s length away, so was Joanna. While we both cried tears, we didn’t carry the same pain. I would learn in a few conversations that her pain was from a lifetime of loss of the mother she deserved. Eileen was an alcoholic who wasn’t present to support Joanna growing up. She had scars from her childhood and life and said it was challenging growing up as an only child with an alcoholic mother. I had great sympathy for her then, and I still do.
She mentioned multiple times that she wished she was the one given up for adoption. But, of course, this implies that an adoptee has a chance at a “better life,” although the reality is that it only provides a “different life.” In her mind, I had a better life, but the reality was that she didn’t know my life. So her conclusions were made on assumptions.
While the song “My Way” finished, there was a close to the service, and tears began to dry up. Now it was time to mingle and dig as deep as possible into every conversation possible, to learn more about my birth mother and find more information about my birth father and where he was.
Joanna took me around to meet everyone and introduced me repeatedly, “This is Pam, my sister that mom gave up for adoption.” Ouch, this stung in a wild ass way, but it was the reality of the situation. So over and over, I was introduced as “Eileen’s daughter that was given up for adoption.” I didn’t know how to feel, so I just tried not to feel.
I spoke to one of Eileen’s long-time neighbors, who shared that Eileen was disconnected from everyone around her when she passed away. She shared that they tried to bring her cookies and check on her in the winter months, and she wouldn’t answer the door. They reached out to her various times, and she became semi-hateful toward people trying to help her, even telling them to “go away,” so they eventually left her alone.
Joanna also let me know that several years before Eileen passed away, she and her kids and husband packed up and drove to Iowa from another state to see Eileen at Christmas time, and she refused to answer the door. So while Joanna and her husband and kids were stuck outside at Christmas, this was essentially the end of their relationship until she learned of her passing away. I am confident this was extremely hard for Joanna.
I was introduced to one of Eileen’s best friends named Janet, and we had a few moments of a one-on-one conversation. She let me know that she remembered when Eileen was pregnant with me. They both grew up together and had their daughters together around the same time. Then Eileen became pregnant with me.
Janet told me that Eileen worked up until she had me and returned to work the next day. She said she was never seen without a drink in her hand, despite her pregnancies. She said she had flowers delivered to the hospital the day I was born, but they were returned because Eileen used an alias when she gave birth to me.
I asked Janet if she knew if Eileen held me or named me? She said, “Honey, I don’t know if you had a name or if she held you. Maybe she named you in her heart if she did name you?”
I asked her if she knew anything about my birth father, and she said he was a pall barrier at my grandfather’s funeral and was a close friend of the family. Taken back by this, I started to ask more questions.
“Do you know where he lives or his name?” – I said
“She said his name is Jack Jennings, and he was from Leon, Iowa.” So I proceeded to ask more about him.
“Do you know if he had any other kids?” I said.
Janet said, “I’m not sure; he was much older than Eileen. He was married when you were conceived, and he knew nothing about the pregnancy with you. Eileen kept it to herself due to the nature of the circumstances.”
While I was eternally grateful for the information, I was only in a position to retain this information. Processing it all would come at a later time. So I kept digging, asking as many people as many questions as I could. Every little clue counts.
Eileen had planned a small funeral service to a tee, and she had paid to take everyone to a restaurant to have a meal together. This allowed me to sit close to her best friend, Barb. I met Barb 16 years earlier because she was at Eileen’s house during our first and final in-person meeting in 1995. She was a familiar face to me, and I was happy to sit next to someone I felt like I knew a bit.
Barb started to open up and let me know she was glad I returned for the funeral. She said, “You know, it never sat well with me how Eileen treated you after you all met in 1995. But I do know she had her reasons. One of them was that she was distraught when you met in person, and she found out your adoptive parents divorced a year after adopting you. She was also sad about all you went through in your life. She said if she knew that was going to happen, she would have kept you. But instead, she wanted you to be raised in a two-parent household and have a better life, so this hurt her and hurt her deeply. But I was still not okay with her cutting you off like she did.”
It was nice to finally have someone acknowledge that Eileen cutting me off and the way she did it wasn’t okay. When I learned Eileen had issues with how things turned out, it made me feel like she cared a little bit in her way, which comforted me and helped my healing. Still, I was taken back by the information regarding Eileen being troubled about my adoptive parents divorcing when I was one.
However, every little clue allowed me an opportunity to put myself in her shoes and try to feel what she felt. This helped me understand why things were the way they were. I imagine she would be upset that the dream she was promised, the “better life” I was supposed to have, wasn’t better at all. I would be more than upset. I would be heartbroken.
After the luncheon and the funeral, I asked Joanna if there was any way we could drive by Eileen’s house, so I could see a glimpse of what her life was like before she left the earth. She hesitated and said, “I don’t think you want to go, Pam. It’s not a pretty scene; it’s the opposite. It’s awful.”
I assured her I wanted to go, and nothing would be too much for me to grasp. So off we went on the drive to Eileen’s house, where she was found dead just a few days earlier. She was still an everyday alcohol drinker, a full-time smoker, and had severe COPD when she died. Whatever I was about to see, I had hoped it would bring me more understanding of why things were the way they were, but I was not fully prepared for what I was about to walk into.
Joanna opened the door, and we walked into a dark and gloomy environment that loomed with sadness and despair like a scene from the 1970s. It’s almost as if things were dead, and there was no life in the surroundings.
I noticed several windows had newspaper taped to them, with duct tape to cover holes in the windows—one on the front door and several on the exterior windows throughout the house. Curtains were drawn closed, and like the pattern on her old couch, the curtains appeared to be old floral patterns from decades ago, the kind they don’t even make anymore.
She had dust so thick that it had been collecting for years, and her empty oxygen tanks lined up along one of the walls in the dining room area. The water appeared to be turned off in the house, and empty alcohol bottles were scattered on the kitchen counter and table tops.
We went upstairs, taking each step and listening to the stairs creak. It was an eerie vibe, and darkness still loomed as we turned the corner to enter Eileen’s bedroom. She had a Garfield clock on the wall, and a box of Christmas decorations sat in the corner scattered all over the wood floor. All the curtains were drawn shut, and no outside light made its way inside.
We walked back down the stairs, grazed past the coffee table, and headed back outside. I saw a 2-inch by 2-inch green glass paperweight that looked like it might be an elephant shape. I took a chance and asked Joanna if I could have it, and she said, “Sure!.” As of this day, it’s the only tangible thing I had to hang onto that was a piece of Eileen’s. A small paperweight that might have a $5.00 value means the world to me, just because it was hers.
It would take me ample time to process this life-changing experience. However, during my healing process over the last decade, I read “The Girls That Went Away,” which was a pivotal read for me. I recommend it to any adoptees who might be tuning in. I learned that our birth mothers’ world often stops, and time stands still. They never recover from the separation; for many of them, life does not go on as usual.
I learned that life for them is never the same. In my situation with Eileen, seeing the surroundings of how she lived her life, it appeared to me that she was stuck in 1974 when we were separated, lost from one another essentially forever.
While Joanna was right, her home was not in good shape; I am eternally grateful to have been allowed to see this for myself. I will always be thankful Joanna included me in this life-changing event. It looked for any signs of life in Eileen’s home, but I couldn’t recognize any. Darkness loomed, and this was an eye awakening experience because it allowed me to see what the last days of her life were like. And likely, these weren’t only the last days of her life; this was her life.
Our next stop was to my Aunt Nan’s house, who I had also met in 1995. She was sick and couldn’t leave her home for the funeral, so we stopped to see her. She welcomed us again and allowed us to sit by her on the couch to ask how the funeral services went.
During our conversation, I decided it was now or never and tried one last time to get some information about my birth father. Aunt Nan confirmed what Janet had shared about my birth father being Jack Jennings in Leon, Iowa. I didn’t press too hard, but she shared that he had several brothers who all lived off the land in Leon. She gave me the name and number of a male cousin who was close to the Jennings brothers and encouraged me to give him a call.
Aunt Nan was a pleasant person, and I felt drawn to her. I have always been thankful that she was willing to share the truth with me, and I feel that she could sense it was essential. Unfortunately, not long after this meeting, within months, sadly, my Aunt Nan passed away.
As this trip to my birth mother’s funeral ended, a whole new adventure was about to begin. Now that I had the confirmed name of my biological father, I was determined to find him, but how? So I put Leon, Iowa, in my GPS and hit the road. I was fearless and determined to see his face at least one time. It was now or never, and one thing was for sure, no one would do it for me. My life would be rocked in a new way in the next few hours.
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