A Tale Of Two Mothers
By Don Millard
Growing up as an only child, I always knew I was adopted. My parents told me this as soon as I was old enough to comprehend it, which was a relief as I must have known it instinctually because I always felt something didn’t quite fit; having blonde hair while both parents had jet black hair probably had something to do with it, too. After finding out I was adopted, I felt luckier than other kids who weren’t. I knew that I was really wanted and I loved to hear the story about how they “got” me.
My mom, Amalia Anne Millard, a full blooded Italian, told me of how I started drinking right out of the bottle when she first picked me up in her arms, which shocked the people at the adoption agency, because they had had a lot of trouble getting me to eat. I like to think that, even at that age, I knew a good woman when I saw one. As I would come to find out soon enough, I couldn’t have found a better mother. I was the luckiest kid in the world.
Knowing all this at such an early age, the subject of my adoption was the easiest thing in the world for my parents and me to talk about, even joke about. Whenever I was being a particular pain in the ass, I would tell my parents, “Hey, you guys picked me out.”
The full ramification of being adopted didn’t hit me until 4th grade, when we were assigned to do a family tree. I remember being panicked about getting a bad grade because I didn’t have a family tree; I had a stump. My mom tried to soothe my fears by saying that I did indeed have a family tree, even though I wasn’t related to it. But in my head, I knew that didn’t count and I was missing a heritage.
My mom quickly diagrammed her side of the family, tracing her relatives all the way back to Naples, Italy.
This isn’t going to be so bad, I thought.
Then I brought the diagram over to my dad, who was asleep in the chair, watching BARRETTA. After explaining the project to him, he grimaced and said,
“I don’t know, Donald. Jesus Christ, I’m trying to watch this. I think we’re French or somethin’.”
Thinking back on it, I think we just made up his side of the tree.
My mom was directly responsible for my first political memory as a kid. It was August, 1974 and we were on vacation in Cape Cod. As we were walking around Provincetown, my mom heard that Nixon was going to resign on national television. I remember her saying to my dad, “I want Donald to see this. This is history.” Even though we had already had lunch, we started to search for any restaurant that had a TV. We quickly found a luncheon place with a television and took our seats in a booth. We ordered something just so we could sit there and see the 37th President of the United States resign in disgrace. This was my introduction to politics.
My mom was and still is the greatest person I ever knew. Her character was summed up by the quote she chose for her high school yearbook.
“Private sincerity is a public welfare.”
As a young woman, she was a very talented pianist who wanted to go to Yale School of Music but couldn’t because it wasn’t open to women yet. She ended up becoming a secretary, transferring the dexterity of her fingers onto the keyboard of the typewriter. Those who heard her type would stop in amazement at her speed and skill. She was a staunch Democrat who proudly voted for Adlai Stevenson twice. She listened to talk radio in the afternoons and hence, so did I. It was a call in show out of New York City and I remember one of the hosts she particularly liked was Barry Farber. She also founded a local political action group in Clinton, Connecticut which she named ACCT (Association of Concerned Clinton Taxpayers). As her son, it was impossible not to be aware of and interested in the issues of the day, both local and national.
As I got older and my interests in history, art, writing and reading grew, the closer we became. In her world, poets, writers and artists occupied the highest station in society and she always encouraged me to follow my dreams. We would have long philosophical discussions about every subject, including religion.
My mom was a devout Catholic, and she raised me as one. She was one of the few true Christians I’ve known. She was too busy being a Christian to tell everyone how Christian she was. By the time I was a senior in high school I had to tell her that I was an agnostic. Instead of lecturing me she said, “You’ve done a lot of original thinking about religion, which is more than most people your age do, so I respect your opinion.” I truly believe there couldn’t have been a more perfect match if I had searched the world over five times for a mother.
After a year and a half of college, I decided I wanted to see some of the world. If I was ever going to be a writer, I needed some real life experiences besides puking in a dorm room. I had already written 2/3 of a screenplay and was stuck on how to end it.
“He wants to have an adventure,” my mom said to my dad, who was asleep in the chair.
With a friend, I vagabonded around Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, and finally ended up penniless in Paris. The year was 1985.
When I returned home, I found out the very next day that my mom had cancer. The doctors told us the tumor was highly treatable and they were optimistic about her chances. I took her to all of her treatments for chemo and radiation, but her recovery was not to be. She died almost a year to the day of her diagnosis. She was 56 and I was 21.
A few days before she passed away, she cleared everyone out of the hospital room by telling them she wanted to talk to me alone.
“You have to tell me that you’re a survivor. You have to tell me that you’re going to survive this.”
Of course I said yes, even though I had no idea whether I could hold up my end of the bargain. I was just scared and numb.
She had always told me and others that she hoped I would know my birth family and roots later in life.
This was the last thing on my mind when she died.
Two years passed and my dad was selling the house and we were moving to Florida. As we were going through a safety deposit box, we came across a paper from the lawyer who handled my adoption back in 1965. As I read the letter, I was stunned to see the following sentence which read… “the infant named Terry Lee Wichael.”
Terry Lee Wichael? WTF?
I can’t express how it felt to read this strange name and yet know that name was once mine. My first thought was, if things had been different, I’d be driving a pickup with a gun rack, sporting truck nuts. Silly or not, this was my first thought.
I put this piece of paper away in a drawer with the thought that one day the time would come for me to pursue this.
I don’t know how to explain it, but in 1993, something told me it was the right time to try to find my roots and more importantly, my birth mother, if she was still around. This is not a decision you can enter into lightly. You have to get to a point that you know that once you embark on this journey, there is no turning around, no matter what the outcome. You have to accept that you might not like what you find.
It was the hardest decision I ever made. You can’t un-ring that bell.
According to my long form birth certificate, I was born in Harrisonburg, Virginia, at Rockingham Memorial Hospital. Sorry, but I don’t remember the room number, Mr. Trump.
Being a history buff, this lack of knowledge about my own heritage started to weigh on my mind, more than it ever had before, especially with the thought of someday having children. I thought I had no heritage to give them. I also realized I had no medical history, which was kind of scary on its own. My doctor had told me I had to write my birth hospital to get my medical records, which I did.
In the screenplay of my mind, I had this Hollywood hope that somehow they would forget to black out my mother’s name on my records. Upon receiving the records in the mail, I saw that everything was, in fact, blacked out. It might as well have been a CIA document. I laughed at myself for thinking that somehow I would get critical information leading to her identity. Then I happened to look at the photocopy of my own request page and noticed some faint writing going up the top right hand corner of the page. There, before me, was the name “Junelle Anne Wichael, moth.”
Someone at the hospital, for whatever reason, must have written my mother’s name on another piece of paper and it happened to transfer to my cover letter. The odds of this happening have to be pretty slim. I took this to be a good omen.
Turned out, my birth mother’s sister was the head pediatric nurse at the hospital where I was born. She confirmed to me over the phone that Junelle was indeed my birth mother and then gave me her phone number. She also told me the circumstances of my adoption; of how my birth mother was stood up at the alter by my biological father even though he knew she was 4 months pregnant. My heart went out to her and I hoped with every fiber of my soul that none of my father’s cowardice was in me.
It was jarring indeed to realize that the charmed life I had been given was the result of such heartbreaking conditions. It was my first glimpse into how truly unselfish my mother’s decision was. My first thought was the hope that I could in some way erase her pain by thanking her for my life.
Her life had been as hard as mine had been easy. Giving me up had left her feeling as though no man would have her. She married a man who had always pursued her, but then abused her. She worked as a school bus driver. She would later tell me “I could haul everybody else’s kid but my own.”
I talked to my mother for the first time on New Year’s Eve, 1993. It was so strange to hear a gentle, Southern accent on the other end of the phone and yet know that this person was the one who brought me into this world. We talked for two hours and watched the ball drop together.
About a month later, I went to visit and see her in the flesh, to make sure this was all real. It was real. Real country. Despite the cultural divide, there was an immediate connection. People couldn’t get over how much we looked alike. She looked like a mini-me. I was happy to find out she was funny and that she was the kind of person that young people were drawn to. She got a kick out of me being left handed, as she was the only lefty in the family herself. The first night we stayed up all night just talking. I got to thank her for my life and tell her how good I’d had it. She was very happy to hear this and it was a comfort to her. She was so relieved to know how close I had been with my mom in Connecticut. All my life, she had worried that I would harbor ill feelings toward her for giving me up for adoption. I was reminded once again that all the pain of my adoption had been on her side; although I wondered about my heritage, I wasn’t really missing anything, whereas she was missing EVERYTHING. If a person is capable of a more unselfish act then what she did, I don’t know of it.
I felt like my role was to heal the pain in her heart and to make right what once went wrong. I felt like I was starring in my own personal episode of QUANTUM LEAP, without Al.
The hardness of her life was laid bare in that visit, as I saw how her own kids treated her and I heard stories from others about what she had endured from them.
She wanted me to live there straight away but I resisted for a time, for many reasons, not the least of which was the exact opposite universe that I would be moving into as well as a complicated family dynamic.
But then it hit me. It was time for me to be unselfish.
So, a spoiled Connecticut Yankee moved to redneck Virginia and it all somehow worked out, despite the expected ups and downs of any upheaval. This decision gave me every day moments with her I would have never had if I’d stayed away. I was so glad I made this decision because I didn’t know it at the time, but I would be spending the last 10 years of her life with her.
My mother was diagnosed with ALS in the fall of 2003.
As bad as it was when she told me the diagnosis, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else on the earth but where I was.
She knew she was facing a death sentence, yet her humor and bravery remained intact. She wanted to know everything there was about Lou Gehrig, When I told her about Lou Gehrig’s famous speech at Yankee Stadium where he said that he considered himself the luckiest man in the world, she said,
“How’d he figure that?”
In true fashion, the weaker she got, the more she cared about others. Towards the end of her own journey, she found out about a friend she had known all her life who had committed suicide. Even though she could barely get around or barely speak, she told me in tears,
“She should have called me, I could have helped her.”
I was never more proud to be her son or share even a strand of her DNA.
She passed away in April 2004, at the age of 61.
So, on this Mother’s Day, I give praise to TWO Moms. One who nurtured me, and one who gave me life.