I remember the exact day I met my parents. Not many people can say that.
It was on my 10th birthday. February 23, 1979, to be precise. Danielle, the Social Worker in charge of my case since I had become an orphan four years earlier, drove me to a restaurant where she introduced me to a nice young couple. They treated me to a giant piece of cake and gave me a crisp two-dollar bill to celebrate. At the time, I was happy because of the sugar rush and my newly found fortune. Today however, after a long and intense look into my past, the scene that took place some 35 years ago is a comforting memory not only because it coincides with the real beginning of my life, but because it also serves as a reminder of all that had to happen in the years before that meeting just so I could sit with these good people, at that very table, on that very day.
The path that took me to that restaurant was a long and peculiar one, no doubt about it. I was born in poverty, taken from my biological family at the age of six and driven to an orphanage in a big white car by a man wearing a suit. No one has ever given me a reason. I would later find out that my brothers and my sister were all sent to live with different families, all at the same time, but they returned to live with our mother again a few months later. I can only speculate that, since she was raising us alone, since I was the youngest of the five kids and we were so poor, my mother wanted to give me a shot at a better life. There can be nothing but bad explanations and this is the only one I've ever allowed myself to contemplate over the years.
So I was left behind at the orphanage, which was called Ville Joie, or Happy Town, and this is where the quest to find a family for me began.
The adults at the orphanage were called educators, a group of people as kind and as dedicated a kid in my shoes could ever wish to meet on this kind of road. Still to this day I can't get over the romanticism of this fact: there once was an orphanage called Happy Town and it actually lived up to its name. Soon after my arrival, I was introduced to Danielle. She was so kind and had nothing of the bureaucrats who sometimes manage cases like mine. I loved Danielle immediately. During our first meeting, she told me her job wasn't to find a home for me; it was to find family where I would be happy. Right then and there I knew she was for real. She also gave me marbles. That sealed the deal between us.
If the orphanage was as close to perfection as it could be, it wasn't the case for the era in which I grew up. At the time, kids like me who were in essence taken in charge by the government, were somewhat treated as guinea pigs. I know with absolute certainty it wasn't done with mean intentions, but it has had its consequences. And so I never lived in "foster homes." I was instead sent to live with "pre-adoption" families. People would pick me up at the orphanage and on our way to their home my entire world would change. I had to adapt to their lives: new habits, new rules, new food, new school and new friends. A new name also. That's how it was at the time: when I joined a family, I took their name. That would have been an inconsequential detail had it happened only once or twice. I didn't have that kind of luck. Considering I had to revert to my birth name whenever I was sent back to the orphanage after things didn't work out with a family, I've had to change my name nine times in a little over four years.
Some kids are loners. I was a loaner. Families were allowed to try me. If they weren't fully satisfied, they could simply return me, no questions asked. I sometimes joke by telling people that I came with a toaster as a bonus gift. Customers could return me to the orphanage and still keep the toaster.
When I set out to write my book, Citizen of Happy Town: An orphan remembers, I went back deep inside that period of my life. I saw again the man with the suit and his white car. I saw the moment I arrived at the orphanage and Alain, the great friend I made there. I saw Danielle and the educators. In my head, I also went back to the families who took me in, starting with my biological family of course. Then there was the first family I was sent to live with. I only spent three months there. It turns out three months is an eternity when you spend most of it in hell. Thankfully, in my reflection, it wasn't the meanness of these horrible people I was able to measure; it was the kindness of the other families who took me in.
Like the "P family" for example.
They were a beautiful couple with two generous daughters. But they had the bad luck of welcoming me after my stay in hell. Given my state of mind, it was never going to happen with the P's. Ultimately, I was the one who rejected them and Mr. P drove me back to Happy Town. His goodbyes, by the door of the orphanage, will stay with me forever.
There was the "B family" who were simple and down to earth folks. I was starting to open up a little and to allow people inside of my bubble. Danielle was on sick leave at the time and she was replaced by one of these bureaucrats I spoke of earlier. I make light of it in my book but the truth is this cold man was at the root of an immense sadness for a lot of people. He confirmed his lack of compassion, and common sense, when he denied the B family a very simple request they made. And so they too had to let me go. They too had to drive me back to the orphanage.
I was eight years old and I was already beginning to wonder if there was a place for me out there in the world.
There was also another couple which I won't name because I don't want to ruin it for those who will chose to read my book. It's fair to say I felt they were my dream family and that the way we met is the stuff Hollywood movies are made of. I was finally ready to be loved but I didn't know how to give some of it back. I had been an orphan long enough to forget what it entailed to be a son. That family made the decision not to keep me at the same time another one agreed to take me in. This time around, there would be no return to Happy Town. I would leave one family and move in with another right away.
That "other family" would turn out be the right one for me. They are the ones I met at the restaurant on my 10th birthday. It sure wasn't an easy adaptation and with everything I had experienced prior to joining them, they had to show a lot patience and understanding at first. Some people even asked them if they were in their right minds, taking in a 10-year-old kid with such a past. I'm sure glad their desire to give a family to a child was stronger than the doubts expressed by some.
I tried to write my story a few times over the years. I knew it was different. I knew it was a story "you can tell." I just couldn't find the right words to tell it. Something was missing in my approach to the writing process and therefore, something was also missing on the pages. A chapter or two of meaningless words and to the recycling bin it all went.
I needed to go back. I needed a reflection. The one I did in order to finally be able to write my book, which took nearly three years to complete, was a powerful wake up call. Instead of seeing only the tough moments as I had in my previous attempts, I was reminded of the kindness showed by most of the people I met on my path. I was also surprised by few the tears I shed; not by their presence but because they were reserved for those who brought some much needed light to my life at a time where there could so easily have been only darkness to remember.
The deeper I dug into the emotions of the time, the less bitterness I felt and the less regrets I found. And with the completion of my book, not only was I able to find again most of the images of my life as an orphan, I was also able to put them back in the right order, which is behind the images of my life as an adoptee. I can't, not even for a second, imagine a life without the memories I have of my childhood because they now lead to my life with my family.
It's OK to reflect. It's OK to go back. Sometimes when you go back, you end up in a restaurant with a giant piece of cake in front of you and a little fortune in your pocket.
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