A Season In Hell: My Medical Nightmare – Part 9
By Don Millard
So there it was. Junelle Anne Wichael–my Mother’s name. I noticed right off that she had the same middle name as my adoptive Mom, right down to the “e” on the end.
Moments after being positive about my discovery, I excitedly brought the paper over to show my Dad, who was sitting in his recliner. He’d been
supportive of my efforts to find my birth mom, but I noticed that after he looked at the request letter and came to the same conclusion as me, he seemed to have something in his eye. Seeing this, I told him once again that I wasn’t rejecting one family for another–I was just finding more family.
This wasn’t entirely true, however. I was rejecting one person in my family–namely, my step mom. She was a horrible woman, but don’t take my word for it. I’m not saying this because she didn’t compare to my adoptive mother–even my father’s friends in Florida couldn’t stand her, either, and they’d never met my mother in Connecticut. My step mom was petty, talked endlessly in a high-pitched helium voice that made your ears bleed, and was most likely an alcoholic. The only person who seemed to even remotely like her was my Dad. I tried to be sympathetic. Loneliness can do awful things to people.
I knew this woman was T-R-O-U-B-L-E from the first nano second. She and my father had been matched by some kind of dating service he’d joined. Their first date took place while I was dating Amy and before I got sick. The morning after this first date, my Dad was eager to tell me all about it as soon as I came into the kitchen:
“We got along great,” he said. “She says I can’t see other women.”
Oh, great! Let me know when she boils your rabbit, Dad.
I’ll give her credit for one thing, though–she did stick by my father when he had his larynx removed during his throat cancer surgery in 1989. They were married in 1990, and I just remembered that I was the Best Man at the wedding. I must have blocked this out of my mind for years. That was a bad day.
But if I had at least one morsel of respect for my step mom, that evaporated the evening she noticed that my Dad still carried a picture of his wife of 29 years–my mother–in his wallet.
“Why do you still have a picture of HER in your wallet?” she asked.
It took every bit of self-control I possessed not to say anything when I heard her say this, but out of respect for my Dad, I said nothing. I wanted to point out to this shrew that my father was a widower, not divorced like she was. Call me kooky, but if I were a woman, I don’t think I’d want to be with a man who stopped loving his wife because she was dead.
Anyway, I now knew for sure that MY mother was a Wichael. This was now a source of pride, but it was also frustrating since I still hadn’t heard a word from Frank. Consequently, I ran all kinds of wild scenarios and screenplays in my head to try to explain his silence. Was there some deep, dark secret about my mother that he was keeping from me? Was she crazy? Was she in jail? Or did he already know she wouldn’t want to know me? Did he think I was a jerk? Was he just being nice to me while I was there? All of these crazy questions came into my head. I was pretty sure that if my Mom were dead, Frank would’ve told me by now and been done with it once and for all. What WAS it? Did she have some kind of bizarre shrinking disease, too?
So close, yet so far away.
It was at this moment that I decided to write Frank and let him know that I knew my Mother’s name now. I was also letting him know that even though I now knew my Mother’s name, I wasn’t calling any other Wichaels and asking them to give me info on Junelle Anne Wichael.
It’s at this point in the story that I must issue a correction in this narrative. While going over my letters to Frank, I see now that I wasn’t diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome until a few weeks after visiting the Wichaels in August 1993. It was THEN that I went to see Amy’s mom and told her of my diagnosis. I wondered if she’d share this news with Amy. This correction also means that I hadn’t ever been diagnosed of anything the whole time I was with Amy, even in the Spring of 1993.
When I informed Amy’s mom of my diagnosis, I also told her of my amazing visit with the Wichaels and how I was finally trying to find my birth mom. She was happy and excited for me. My adoption was a topic that we’d discussed quite often when Amy and I were together. She’d always encouraged me to find my roots.
Anyway, sorry for the confusion, but I don’t have total recall of the last 20 odd years of my life. Now, back to the letter…
In my letter to Frank, I told him of how I’d just been diagnosed with CFS and that I had some other health problems, but I didn’t mention the shrinking. I said I needed my medical history, and closed this tortured letter by telling him that if there was something seriously wrong with my Mother I needed to know because it could affect me as well.
I was pretty sure that Frank was not only related to my Mother but that he also knew her as well. But I wasn’t so sure if he knew that my Mom had been pregnant and had given a baby up for adoption way back in 1965. Since this was a small, rural religious community in the South, common sense told me that very few people probably knew about Terry Lee Wichael.
It was the hardest letter I’ve ever had to write.
I mailed it off in October and so passed about 4 or 5 of the longest weeks of my life as I waited and waited, but STILL didn’t hear anything from Frank Wichael. What was going on? I was getting paranoid and starting to worry that maybe my Mother was in a mental institution or something.
And then, just a few days before Thanksgiving, the phone rang.
I don’t know if it was wishful thinking, but something told me it was Frank. When I heard a Southern voice on the other end of the line say, “Young man”, I knew it was Frank.
Frank got right down to business, saying: “We’ve been in touch with your mother’s family. Her mother just died this summer and she was in the hospital this summer–that side of the family has mental problems. We’re in touch with the family and they want to get the okay from her doctor before they tell her about you. They want to make sure it doesn’t cause a setback.”
“Okay,” I said, a little bit stunned. Why would telling my Mother about me cause her to have a setback? Wouldn’t this news make her happy?
“Now, as soon as they get the go ahead from her doctor, they’re going to tell her,” Frank continued. “So, just hang in there a little longer, young man. Next time you come up, we’ll just get in the car and go to Gettysburg for the day.”
I thanked Frank for all his help with this and wished him and his family a Happy Thanksgiving. As we were hanging up, he said “Come around!”
Just a few months later I would find out that shortly after my visit in August, Frank had gone to my Mother’s house about 20 miles away to tell her about me, only to learn that she was in the hospital. So, he hadn’t been stalling or stringing me along at all. He was planning to tell her the news himself that day. He would tell Junelle later: “As soon as he stepped out of the car, I knew where he belonged.”
As alarming as it was to suddenly find out that your birth mother has had to be hospitalized for depression, there was also a certain amount of peace in this news as well, strangely. As I’ve said, I was certainly no stranger to depression–especially during my high school days–where even the slightest rejection was seen as EPIC. But, as I tried to tell my doctors, at no time when I was depressed did I ever complain of being sick or claim strange things were happening to my body.
Discovering that my Mother suffered from depression was in a way cathartic. I say that I always assumed that my own struggles with depression were due to having an artistic temperament. I never once thought it might be hereditary in any way. My parents told me I was adopted as soon as I was old to understand what that meant. Growing up knowing I was adopted, I thought whatever traits I had were mine and mine alone and that the only other influence was my environment. But one phone call from Frank Wichael changed all of that and showed me just how wrong I was. Turns out, I wasn’t quite as unique as I thought I was. Imagine that.
In a way, for better or worse, we’re all victims of our biology. Each of us are endowed with certain talents and handicaps; talents and handicaps which we had no say in choosing; and it’s these endowments that control our fate. All we can do is steer.
Being adopted is kind of like playing Seven Card No Peek. We’ve all heard the saying “You’ve got to play the hand that’s dealt you.” Well, being adopted is like having to go through life without getting to look at your hand. Most people get to look at their hand and bet accordingly. Not so with adoptees. After 28 years, I was finally being allowed to peek at one of my cards; and even though it may not have been the card I wanted, seeing it helped me to understand myself in a way I never could have otherwise. Priceless.
My father has never understood depression. Since he’s never really suffered from it, he doesn’t think anyone else should, either; kind of like a skinny person not being able to understand how somebody could be fat. He seemed to think that anyone who struggles with it does so because they’re weak or have no will power. Like telling a person with diabetes to just snap out of it and forget about insulin… Oh, well, this is the same person who worried that dog shit might not dissolve like human shit when I flushed it down the toilet; the same person who, when John Lennon was murdered, said: “They shot Jack Lemmon”; the same person who threw away vintage WWII photos of his step-father in Europe because he liked the photo albums so much he wanted to put his own dopey present day photos in them instead. It was times like these that I made a special point of telling people I was adopted. He must have looked good in his Marine uniform when my Mom met him.
Now that I’d been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, my father felt it was the perfect time for me to move out so he could rent out his house to a family while he and his shrew lived at her museum of a house with its horsehair couch. He’d been splitting his time between both houses as he couldn’t seem to put up with his new bride full time. It was a match made in Cape Coral.
I managed to rent a room from a young, unmarried couple who lived in a lonely quadrant of Cape Coral usually reserved for ritual killings. The couple was pleasant enough and so was the house, but as anyone who’s ever rented a room knows, basically you’re expected to pay rent but not actually live there. Or eat there. Or… well, you get the idea. To make me feel more at home, they graciously cleared out a spot in the refrigerator big enough for a whole two liter bottle of soda. I guess they didn’t think I required food.
I remember, too, that they had a cat, but put its litter box in MY bathroom. Every time I got out of the shower, I’d step on granules of kitty litter that the little bastard had flung from his box. It wouldn’t surprise me if this couple took their own shits in my bathroom as well when I wasn’t there.
This is the same couple who shanghaied me into an AMWAY meeting, but that’s another story.
When I moved in with these two, the girl thought it would be great if we all rented a bunch of movies and watched them as a way of getting to know each other. I was for this and looked forward to it until she showed me the movies she’d picked out, saying:
“You like Chuck Norris, right?”
I gave Frank my new number and hoped he’d pass it on to my mother’s family.
At this point, I was off disability, but was still getting Supplemental Security Income (SSI). I was trying to work some, but it was a classic CATCH-22 situation. They didn’t think I was crazy enough to get full disability now, but I really wasn’t well enough to work full time, especially if it was any kind of a physical job. So, that sort of left me with only one viable option–Telemarketing. I know, I know. I felt the same way about it. Ugh. As I’ve said, my illness didn’t kill me–it did something much worse–it robbed me of my life. And that is a fate worse than death. That I still couldn’t get an explanation let alone a real diagnosis was just an added bonus. I’m still constantly amazed at how life finds new ways to be cruel to people. Nothing is so cold and indifferent as Nature, and the idea that there is somehow a kind hand behind all of this is absurd to me. But people will believe ANYTHING as long as you promise them life after death.
It was in this curious setting and residence that the phone rang again, this time just about a week before Christmas. Since no one else was home, I answered the phone and heard another Southern voice, but this time it was a woman:
“Is this Don?” the woman asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Well, Don, this is Janet. I’m Junelle’s sister. How are you?”
“Alright,” I replied.
“Well, bless your heart… Now, Don, like I said, I’m Junelle’s sister and we’re very close. She’s got two other sisters, but they live a ways away. Nancy is the oldest and she lives in Richmond. Our other sister, Catherine Hope–we all call her ‘Hopey’–lives in Petersburg. She’s married to a preacher…”
There was a pause.
“Do you know why you were adopted, Don?” Janet asked.
I braced myself before answering.
“Not really,” I replied. “They told us that my parents were very young, maybe in high school when this happened.”
“Well,” Janet began, “they weren’t in high school. They were both in their early twenties and were planning to get married. Junelle knew she was pregnant with you and so did your Daddy. They were all set to get married. We all went to the rehearsal the night before and everything seemed fine. But the next day, the day of the wedding, your Daddy never showed up and left Junelle at the altar. That’s when she told me she was pregnant.”
My blood ran cold when I heard this. I was stunned. I shuddered to think that I even shared one strand of DNA with this coward. Ever since finding this out, I’ve never had and never will have any desire to know this man. I couldn’t fathom the amount of cowardice and shameless it took to just not show up for your own wedding without any notice or explanation. How could you live with yourself? I sure couldn’t.
Janet told me that none of his family showed up for the wedding, either, and that there was never an explanation, ever, from anyone. My birth father simply walked out of my Mother’s life forever on their wedding day knowing she was pregnant with his child. I thought this kind of a thing only happened in the movies or soap operas. Now more than ever, I hoped with all my heart that I looked like Junelle and not this son of a bitch.
“Now, Don,” Janet continued, “back in 1965 I was head nurse on the maternity floor at the hospital where you was born. It was kind of a blessing because I made sure your Momma got the best care possible when she had you… I guess I’m the one who convinced her to give you up for adoption. Junelle really wanted to keep you, but it would’ve been hard for her and hard on you. She didn’t want you to have to grow up without a Daddy. Momma & Daddy were getting old and it would’ve been hard for them to help, but they said they’d do everything they could. Junelle didn’t have a lot of money, so we thought the best thing to do was to put you up for adoption and give you a chance at a better life.”
I told Janet I completely understood this decision given the circumstances. I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up without a father.
If you’re adopted, common sense tells you that you were cared about otherwise you wouldn’t be on this Earth in the first place. Common sense also tells you that the reason you were put up for adoption was to have a chance at a better life. My eyes still fill with tears when I think of the sacrifice Junelle made for me. I can’t begin to imagine the kind of pain that must have caused her. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is. If there’s a more unselfish act than a woman giving up her own flesh and blood so he/she could have a chance at a better life, I’m not aware of it. As far as I’m concerned, my Mother deserved a Purple Heart.
I never believed I was put up for adoption because I wasn’t loved or wanted. I told Janet all of this and she seemed so relieved. I think she was worried I’d blame her for convincing her sister to give me up. I told her it was the right decision and, more importantly, it was done out of LOVE. Now that I was Don Millard, I couldn’t conceive of ever NOT being Don Millard or having the parents I’d had. But I had it easy. Junelle was the one left with all the pain and loss.
Janet then told me all about Frank and my Mom and I learned what the “H” stood for as well.
“Now, Don, Herbert Frank and Junelle are first cousins. They were very close growing up, always called each other “Cuz.” Frank was your Mom’s favorite cousin. He helped out Daddy a lot on the farm when he was growing up and he was Daddy’s favorite, too… You couldn’t have picked a better person to contact than Herbert Frank.”
My hunch about Frank Wichael had been right, somehow. Frank was the man. I’d also gotten my wish, too. Not only was Frank related to me, we were cousins!
Had I called one or two other Wichaels listed on on my page, Junelle’s secret would’ve been known by the whole county before I even hung up the phone. “Good thing he didn’t call Leon,” my Mother would joke just a few months later.
Janet told me that Junelle drove a school bus for the county and had done so for 14 years. She said that she also worked at a restaurant called The Buckhorn Inn on the weekends. She had to work there as well, Janet explained, because she was a widow and had been one since 1984. Her husband had dropped dead right in front of her while they were working in the yard. He was only 45, but had suffered from a bad heart for years. The death of her husband forced her to raise her two other children by herself. Her daughter was 17 at the time while her son was only 9. Janet told me that my half sister had been born about a year and a half after me.
My heart went out to my Mother after hearing all of this. Some people seem to be able to skip through life relatively unscathed while fate seems to pick on other people mercilessly. I could already tell that my Mother was in the latter category.
“Well, Don, your Mom has a lot of fun about her and everyone likes her. You told Herbert Frank in your letter that you didn’t have a mean bone in your body. Well, that’s a perfect description of Junelle… You’ve got a good Momma, Don.”
I had just found out that my Mother was funny and kind. What more could a guy ask for? As far as I was concerned, I’d hit the jackpot. I didn’t care if she were rich or poor, fat or skinny, pretty or ugly. Nothing else mattered.
And then, at last, Janet gave me my Mother’s telephone number and said to call her tomorrow at 5 pm. She told me that she’d be waiting for my call.
As I hung up the phone, I felt like I’d just completed a journey of a million miles. I felt like I had successfully navigated through a giant maze as well as a mental obstacle course. Somehow, it seemed like everything happened the way it was supposed to. All in all, my search for my birth mother had taken only about six months. I was very, very lucky. If I hadn’t known my birth name, how would I have ever been able to find her? I’d still be looking. This was turning into one amazing Christmas! For me, this was the first time it ever felt like Christmas in Florida.
Needless to say, I called Junelle Anne Wichael at EXACTLY 5 pm the next evening. I was happy, excited and nervous all at the same time. When I heard her Southern accent, it seemed so strange that she could be my Mother. It was a bit mind-boggling that though we were from totally different worlds and cultures and had never known each other, I had once lived inside her. It’s hard to put into words, but it was a strange dynamic. It was like we were intimate strangers. It was very surreal.
Maybe it’s partly because of this that I can’t really remember the details of the very first time I talked to my Mother on the phone. This may sound odd, but it’s the truth. But one thing I do remember is being able to say 5 words to her that I had longed to say ever since I’d started my search for her:
“Thank you for my life.”
“You’re welcome,” came the gentle reply.
About a week later, I received a letter from my Mother. It was dated December 25, 1993. Here are a few passages:
First from day one I have loved you with all my heart. So many times I thought if I could only see you and hold you that would help or know where you were.
If it had been my decision only there wouldn’t have been any question about keeping you. When you were born I wanted to see you and hold you in my arms but nobody would let me.
When I left the hospital without you I just wanted to die. I hoped so much that you would look like me and have my heart.
I became depressed in November 65 and was in the hospital for a while and have been off and on since then. I never could tell the Doctor until I started going to a doctor that I really liked. That was 1990.
I was married in November 65. My husband accepted this but I wasn’t allowed to talk about it.
I love making people laugh. I guess that’s one thing that has kept me going.
I love antiques and have quite a few of them.
I am 51 years old now and have gray hair. My hair has been gray since I was 41. Guess I’m a antique too.
My life has been changed so much since I found you. You will never know exactly what this means to me. I have cried and cried about this.
Everything seems like a dream. I haven’t been able to sleep or eat since I got the good news.
I am so proud of you. I want to tell the world.
I want to see you so much. I love talking to you on the telephone. It means so much to me. I can’t wait to see you. Our baby pictures sure do look alike.
I wish I could see you and talk to you every day. I love you with all my heart and always will.
How could I not already love this woman?
I wanted to meet my Mom in person as soon as I could. On New Year’s Eve, we talked on the phone for an hour and then watched the ball drop on TV together. It was a great way to end one year and begin another.
In the meantime, against my better judgment, I took another telemarketing job, this time in the nearby town of Ft. Myers. I was raising money (sort of) for the Police Benevolent Association. The last time I’d seen or heard of this organization, they were the sponsor of my little league team. I remember our shirts were blue and said PBA on them. Again, I’m not sure of the exact percentage that went to the cause, but I’m pretty sure our regional manager drove a DeLorean.
At the time, this seemed like the best job to earn some quick cash to finance my trip to Virginia. It was also the kind of a job I could just abandon for a week or two and then return, no questions asked. In the world of telemarketing, if you show up two days in a row they want to make you a manager.
Speaking of managers, when I told my telemarketing manager how unhappy I was renting a room and having a litter box in my bathroom, he offered me the extra bedroom in the new two bedroom apartment he’d just rented across the street from where we worked. He would give me a big break on the rent and I’d be paying about half of what I was paying to share a bathroom with cat. He seemed like an interesting and decent enough guy, even though he was a born again Christian, which should have been a HUGE red flag. He said he managed rock and roll bands on the side, even claiming to have been one of the managers of Saigon Kick, a band that had a big recent with the LOVE IS ON THE WAY. He said they had listed him on their album. I looked at the album credits and didn’t see his name anywhere on it. If he was involved with him, I think all he did was roll up an extension cord.
Still, I leapt at the chance to retrieve my two liter bottle of soda and leave that Yuppie wanna-be couple in the dust. My new rental rate would give me more money for my trip.
I decided the cheapest and easiest way to go for me would be to take a bus. This, of course, wasn’t my preferred mode of travel, but it was cheap and didn’t involve having to drive my little car a thousand miles to Virginia in the dead of winter.
In order to get an even cheaper rate, I bought my bus ticket a month in advance and I counted down the days as I moved in to my new place with a Jesus freak. Junelle and I talked to each other on the phone as much as we could (these were the days of the dreaded toll call) and exchanged letters every week. I didn’t think it would ever come around, but finally a month passed and it was time to go. I told my boss/roommate of my trip about a week before I was to go, and he acted like I should care more about my bullshit fundraising job than seeing my birth mother for the first time in my life. I calmly told me I was going and he could fire me if he wanted or had to. He quickly backed down and told me my job would be there for me when I came back. In what other job could I have done this? You see, there’s a method to my madness. The only question now was who would take me to the bus station.
I was living in Ft. Myers these days, across the Caloosahatchee River, and about 20 miles from my Dad in Cape Coral. He had never once come to see me when I was doing stand up comedy, so I wasn’t thrilled about having to ask him to take me, anyway. Meanwhile, I’d been giving Amy’s mom regular updates on my search for my birth mother. Ever since I’d told her about meeting Frank, she’d wanted to know of each and every development in my quest. As I telling her about my pending trip on the phone, she asked:
“Who’s taking you to the bus station?”
“I don’t know yet,” I replied.
“I’ll take you,” she said immediately.
And so she did.
Amy’s mom didn’t live very far from me and I didn’t live very far from the bus station. It was really kind of fitting that she would end up being the person to take me because she’d always been like a second mother to me even after her daughter and I had broken up. It was like I was being delivered from one mom to another.
After checking in my big black bag, it was time to get on the magic bus that would take me to the mother I had never known.
Amy’s mom and I hugged each other as we’d always done, maybe a little tighter and longer this time given the circumstances. As we were coming out of our embrace, she suddenly and quickly leaned back in and kissed me on the mouth… She’d never done this before. There was no tongue, mind you, but it surprised me and gave me something to ponder on the long bus ride to Virginia.
When I got on the Greyhound bus, I noticed that it was anything but magic. If this had been a ship, we’d all be in Steerage. Although I’d never really traveled much by bus before, I didn’t have any illusions about it. It was just as shitty as I expected, but it still beat driving all those miles in February, alone.
I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that after 10 hours of riding on that bus, I wasn’t any closer to Harrisonburg, Virginia than when Amy’s mom kissed me. ‘Greyhound’? Shit, they should call it ‘Bassethound.’
It was a LONG, boring, smelly ride. I brought along a paperback copy of Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln in preparation for this, but was able to read only a few pages due to the stench of diesel and despair. I felt like I needed a HAZMAT suit for my soul.
The only vivid memory I have from that bus ride is a guy with a gym bag getting on the bus late in the evening. He found a seat just a row or two in front of me. Moments after he sat down, he unzipped his bag and produced a ferret. ‘Leave The Driving To Us.’
As the miles crawled by and we stopped at every sparrow fart town, I noticed a distinct pattern: Greyhound, with incredible foresight, had placed every single one of their bus stations in the absolute armpit of each city. I’m pretty sure Nostradamus has a quatrain about this very phenomenon. Just ask The History Channel.
About 20 hours and two hemorrhoids later, we entered Harrisonburg, the city of my birth. I tried to look around but wasn’t able to see much because it was dark–again. I couldn’t believe this bus ride was coming to an end.
It was then that the full weight and reality of what was about to happen hit me. I thought, what if this isn’t real? Maybe I was in a coma and was all some crazy, drug-induced dream.
While this thought bounced around in my head, the bus suddenly slowed down, took a right, and pulled into a diner parking lot. My heart moved to my throat when I saw the Greyhound sign lit up on the side of the building and the bus came to a stop.
I was anxious to get off that bus and was one of the first ones to do so. As I got off the bus, I saw a line of about six or seven people standing together nearby. Just then, one of the people from this line, a short woman, broke ranks and started walking directly toward me. As she got closer, I noticed that she looked like a little me.
This was real. This was my Mom!