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Searching Warps the Mind a Little

Winner of Gulf Stream's "_____ Warps the Mind a Little" contest.

I looked for my birth mother the year my mother died.

The Catholic Charities counselor used the word "biological" for this woman, this other mother whom I wanted, after decades, to find.

"Can I ask why it's taken so long?" the counselor said.

Her hair was gray, cropped. Her beige skirt hit below her knees. My mother, the mother who'd raised me, called this shade of beige "bone." She had shoes in this color. She had a lot of shoes—high heels—with purses to match. She stacked them in her closet, still in their boxes, arranged by color.

"The rest of me might be going to hell," my mother liked to say. "But my legs are good." At 70, she'd kick like a Rockette to show just how good.

My mother and I had worn the same shoe size, but I couldn't walk in heels. When she died, I had to decide what to do with all those beautiful shoes I couldn't bear to leave at Goodwill. It was one of the things that bothered me, the idea of strangers walking around in shoes my mother used to dance in.

Grief is like that.

The Catholic Charities woman had thick ankles. Her shoes were rubber-soled. Her hands were folded in her lap, fingers tight together, like a stone. Beneath those hands was my file, my name printed in black marker on the tab.

"I wasn't ready," I said.

A silver cross glinted at the woman's throat. Her face was blank. She didn't blink. This seemed conscious, as if by not blinking she'd come across as open and honest. She probably didn't know that when he played Hannibal Lector in "Silence of the Lambs," Anthony Hopkins didn't blink once.

I hated her.

Grief is like that, too.

"I wasn't ready," I said. "Now I am."

The woman nodded. She unfolded her hands and picked up my file. She tapped it once against her palm, then set it on the far side of the desk behind a framed picture of her dog. The dog, a white poodle, wore a birthday hat. Its front paws straddled a cake shaped like a bone.

"You should know. There aren't any guarantees," she said. "Sometimes the stories are happy. And sometimes they're not. Most times, they're not."

I nodded. She handed me a clipboard.

"Don't leave anything out," she said.

Even the easiest questions seemed like tricks: name, date of birth, known medical history. The other ones were worse:

What is your expected outcome for this search?

How satisfied are you with your life? Rate from 1 to 10.

Do you consider yourself stable? Content?

If you had one thing to tell your birth parent(s), what would it be?

Outside, Pittsburgh's rivers and bridges sparkled in the spring light. Everything looked pure. In Point State Park, near the fountain, kids who should have been in school were flying kites.

Years ago, my high school English teacher, Mr. Engleman, an aging hippie with a long beard he'd braid into two pigtails, encouraged romanticism. Once, after he'd asked me to score him a dime bag, he gave me Thoreau's "On Civil Disobedience."

"The unexamined life isn't worth living, man," Mr. Engleman said.

"If a plant cannot live according to its nature," Thoreau wrote. "It dies; and so a man."

The next week, I skipped school and caught a bus downtown. I walked to The Point and waded fully dressed into the fountain. I stood in the center and looked out through a kaleidoscope of sun and water. I was young. The city was beautiful. I believed I knew my place in the world.

Then a security guard made me get out. I took the bus back to the suburbs, shivering in the bus's air conditioning. The driver eyed me in the mirror. A lady next to me held her purse. At my stop, a whiskey-breathed man in filthy overalls got down on one knee and sang, "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." He held my sopping pant leg. He looked into my green eyes that were nothing like my mother's.

"Doesn't that just break your heart," the bus driver said.

The questionnaire.

I filled it up with lies.

I rated my life a 9.

I wrote, "I see life as an opportunity for growth."

Was I content? "Yes."

Stable? "Yes."

What is your expected outcome?

I wrote: "I'd like a medical history."

What one thing would you tell your birth parent(s)?

I wrote: "I'm happy."

These were, I knew, good answers.