I remember the exact day I met my parents.
Not many people can say that.
It was on my tenth birthday. February 23rd 1979, to be precise. Danielle, the social worker in charge of my case since I had become an orphan four years earlier, took me to a restaurant where she and I met with 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 the money.
Today, however, after a long and intense look into my past, the scene that took place 35 years ago is a comforting memory not only because of the good my family has brought to my life since then, 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 leading 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 in a big white car to an orphanage by a man wearing a suit. No one has ever given me a reason. 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 the only one I’ve ever allowed myself to contemplate.
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 need. It still amazes me to this day: 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 just 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, the era in which I grew up wasn’t.
At the time, kids like me who were, in essence, children of the system, were somewhat treated as guinea pigs. 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 inconsequential had it happened 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 changed my name nine times in a little over four years.
Some kids are loners. I was a loner.
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 free gift. When customers sent me back, they could 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 the very first one where I spent three months.
It turns out three months is an eternity when you spend most of it in hell.
Yet, in my reflection, it wasn’t the meanness of these terrible people I was able to measure.
It was the kindness of the other families I was sent to live with, like that of 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 with the bad first family. 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’s entrance 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 was replaced by one of the bureaucrats I spoke of earlier. I make some light of it in my writings but the truth is, this cold man caused a great deal of pain to a number of great people. As a result of his lack of compassion, and common sense, 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 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. 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 and at the same time another one agreed to take me in. This time around, there would be no return to “Happy Town.” I would be leaving one family and going straight to another one.
That “other family” would turn out be the right one for me. They are the ones I met at the restaurant on my tenth 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 ten year old kid with such a past. I’m glad their desire to give a child a family 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 to my approach in the writing process and therefore, something was also missing on the pages. A chapter or two worth of meaningless words and to the recycling bin it all went.
What was missing was 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 the negative or difficult moments like I did in my previous attempts, I was reminded of the kindness most of the people I met on my path showed to me.
I was also surprised by few the tears I shed; not by their presence, but more because they came at the thought of those who brought a much needed light in my life at a time where there could so easily have been only darkness to remember. You know, the right kind of tears.
It seemed like the deeper I went 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 for one 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 an enormous dessert in front of you and a little fortune in your pocket.