Mary Ellen GambuttiIt was the summer of 1954, in my parents’ driveway in New Milford, that I experienced my first panic attack. Dad carried me out and hoisted me up high, pressed me against the colossal night sky and pointed up into the blackness of space. “See the shining moon? The twinkling stars? See how bright and pretty they are, Honey?” I wrestled to be free of his arms while he sang, “How I wonder what you are...” I felt ungrounded in the immense darkness that threatened to swallow us. Dad returned me to the safety of my bed.
A year later, in the subway under Columbus Circle, Nana dropped our tokens into the wooden turnstile that made a mechanical ratchet noise as she pushed us through. Hand in hand we hurried into a subway car just as the engineer called out the next stop. The sliding doors hissed and snapped shut. Nana helped me climb onto the safety of a smooth seat near a hot open-window breeze. The blur of cold white wall tile and black writing, the whir of ceiling fans, and click clack rhythm of the tracks as we picked up speed mesmerized me. The ceiling lights flashed as we roared through the tunnels. I pressed against Nana’s petite frame for protection. Her smile showed pride in me, her little traveling companion. My yellow summer dress bunched and twisted as I squirmed anxiously in my seat.
Amid the screech of steel brakes we arrived at Houston Street station and emerged into jagged light and stifling New York heat. The reek of overflowing trash barrels and dog piss stung my nose. Shouts of workmen startled me. Noxious orange dust filled a lot across the street, where a lead wrecking ball swung from a massive chain like a frightening pendulum. I witnessed its relentless power to annihilate a brick tenement. I couldn’t hear Nana’s voice, my source of consolation, above the din, but she still held my hand.
The same year, my parents and I took the ferry to Liberty Island. To reach the top of the pedestal, the elevated base of the Statue of Liberty, tourists took a lift. I whined to my parents, nervous to get into the big moving box, but the climbing had just begun. In the crowded pedestal deck a sign showed the required children’s height. Just over four feet, I was allowed to use the one-hundred and forty-six narrow, 18 inch, double steel spiral steps to Liberty’s crown. It was the only way. My fear of vertiginous heights, the acrophobia that grips me to this day, was already apparent. My claustrophobia would be challenged by the six foot clearance in the stairway, a mere two feet above me. My parents meant to rid me of my fears by confronting me with them.
“Come on, I won’t let you fall.” She tried to assure me I wouldn’t slip under the railing and tumble to my death, but I resisted the stairs, tears rolling down my cheeks. An older girl wearing leg braces and forearm crutches began the ascent. “Look at her. She’s not crying. Don’t be a baby!” Mom tugged my arm, but I turned toward the elevator, caught between two dreadful choices. She insisted, so I submitted to the torture and we crept up to the crown’s viewing platform. I glimpsed through the lookout and turned away. The mass of her shoulder, looming torch, monstrous green profile, and our height above the harbor was more than I could fathom. I shrieked, “I want to go!”
Shopping, enclosed spaces, open spaces, flying, elevators, tall buildings, bridges--my phobia found them all. Finally, at forty, a psychiatrist prescribed anxiety medication. My unknown medical history prompted him to ask, “Have you given any thought to searching for your birth mother and obtaining your birth records?”
“I don’t know where to begin. South Carolina’s adoption records are sealed. Adoptees aren’t allowed access to our own birth certificates.”
The psychiatrist administered an effective remedy: the name of a local adoption advocacy group and the impetus to search. On track to gain information, the power of which would free me from ingrained fears, I plunged myself into a search for self.
In 1990, I succeeded. My half-sister arranged my first phone conversation with our mother in her senior citizen apartment.
“Is this Leila?”
“Yes, who is speaking?”
It was a moment I never dared hope for.
“I believe I am your daughter, Ruth!” She had given me the name, but my adoptive parents gave me a new one, as well as a separate life.
“I am so glad I found you!” I said. I asked how she felt about our reunion, and to my joy she replied, “I think it’s just great!”
“They make it very hard to connect with birth families. That’s not right,” I said.
“No, not if you really want to find each other,” my birth mother said.
My half-sister told me our mother sat glued to the television when stories of adoptee reunions aired. The agency made it clear she could never hope to hear from her relinquished daughter. The story of my adoption, as told by my parents, left no chance of them, or me learning of my birth kin. Sadness of secrecy haunted both Leila and me.
I learned of her troubled life, her incapacitating fears, panic when she “couldn’t think,” when her thoughts whirled--a genetic connection to my “bad nerves.” I’ve read a theory how the unborn child feels her mother’s anxiety and trauma, that a child given up by a sad, frightened mother bears psychic scars of abandonment.
Leila died one year after our reunion. In the end, we had courage to confront our fears, and I trust she found peace. And I could learn to face my own fears and dreads; the wrecking ball, looming visage, menacing vortex, and the wonder of a night sky, where stars do twinkle and all is well.
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