She Was My High School Gym Teacher; She Became My Mother
I met Barb when I was 14 years old. I was a freshman in her PE class at a small school in rural Nevada. Barb had blonde hair and laughed often.
I had been in foster care for two years by that point and had a couple more to go until the fateful day Barb, or Ms. Burton as I called her, would offer to let me move in with her.
The last time I lived with my biological mom I was eight years old — that was before she was incarcerated for drug dealing. When she was released, she moved to the other side of the country, leaving me, my sister, and brother with Dear Old Dad. He liked to drink, gamble, and sleep with young girls barely older than my high school-aged sister. He left us for days at a time, locked most of the food in the kitchen closet, and generally dismissed his fatherly responsibilities. He tended to be verbally abusive, and at times he let off steam with his fists.
Eight months after I was placed in foster care, Mom died of colon cancer. What followed were a string of foster mothers. One hurled silverware at me when her forks were placed in the wrong section of the drawer. “You can’t do anything right!” I remember her screaming. “The forks go in this slot next to the spoons!” That woman wanted to adopt me — until I turned her in to social services.
By age 16, I’d given up on having a stable mother figure. I was living in another group home in a different city. My school was the only consistent aspect of my life, but I’d been told I might have to switch to a new one because my case worker couldn’t keep driving me. It didn’t matter that I had good grades or that I was on sports teams and student council. It didn’t matter that I was clinging to the normalcy my school provided.
Many knew of my situation, given that it was a small school. The secretary offered to take me in a few weeks prior, only to tell me her situation changed and I couldn’t move in with her after all. That small shred of hope evaporated as soon as it appeared.
After hearing the news that I’d be leaving my school after all, I cried, sitting at a round table alone during lunch. The other kids looked at me with pity and whispered. A few of my basketball teammates tried to console me. “It isn’t fair,” I repeated over and over again, between tears.
It was humiliating, but I couldn’t pretend I didn’t care anymore. Nothing would ever go right for me. No one would ever want me. I might as well give up.
Enter Barb. She sat at the table and put her arms around me.
“You know,” she said, “I have a three-bedroom house and an extra room. Would you want to come live with me?”
Barb had just come from talking to the school secretary, who felt badly about what happened. Barb went looking for me so we could talk and didn’t even know I was having a nervous breakdown in front of the school.
We’d never been close; the last class I had with her was Biology in my sophomore year. We got along fine, but I was too busy — whispering to my boyfriend in class and sneaking off to smoke weed — to pay attention to her lectures. Did I like Barb? Yes, she seemed nice. But I didn’t know her and she didn’t know me. Why would she want to help me? Would she, like the secretary, change her mind?
I wiped the tears off my face and nodded, a mixture of fear and hope churning in my gut.
After months of waiting for approval from Child Protective Services, I finally moved in with Barb. My younger brother moved in, too. I remember the first night we spent in our new home, located off a dirt road in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. For dinner, Barb made pie and served it with ice cream. Her youngest daughter, Sara, who had gone to my school, was there and we watched movies together on the couch. Sara was 18, a year older than me. She had just moved out to live with her boyfriend. I felt responsible for her leaving, guilty even, but I was grateful to inherit her bedroom. I had my own room for the first time in a long time.
After my brother went to bed, Barb and I stayed up late talking about my life. I told her about my dad, how we just started talking again after years of silence, how he called me names and still frightened me, but also, how he wasn’t all that bad. I wasn’t ready to give him up, even though he’d signed away his parental rights to me. Legally, I wasn’t his daughter anymore.
I told her about my birth mom and her side of the family, how they never stepped up to care for us, how we had no choice but to enter foster care. I told her about the homes I’d lived in and how I wanted to go to college. Barb listened as I complained about school, and vented about my basketball coach, who I was sure had it in for me. Later, when I was depressed, having been taken off the starting roster and benched, Barb brought home chocolate ice cream and Harry Potter movies for us to watch together on the couch. She knew just what I needed to feel better. With Barb, I let out everything I’d been holding inside and she listened.
She told me about her life too. Barb became a mom at 17 and raised her three girls mostly on her own. She dropped out of high school and got married, but later got her GED and earned her undergraduate degree when she was taking care of her children and stepchildren from a prior marriage. Now her kids had grown. It was just Barb… and my brother and me.
One day, Barb asked my brother and me if we wanted her to adopt us. My brother, who got along with Barb and seemed to adjust to living in her home easily, immediately said yes. I said no. It was nothing personal, I explained, and thanked her for the offer. But the truth was, I’d had enough failed parent relationships. I was going to move away to college soon, anyway. I told myself it didn’t matter whether or not I was adopted.
Plus, I still talked to my dad and I knew he didn’t want me to be adopted. We’d just started to reconnect, and I didn’t want to rock the boat.
“Well, the offer still stands if you change your mind,” Barb said with a smile. So she adopted my brother, but not me.
Later that year, I started having health problems. I gained weight. My stomach hurt all the time and distended. I stopped having regular bowel movements. Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, and I was worried I might have colon cancer like my mom. Finally, I made an appointment for a colonoscopy. The night before, I drank this horrid fluid meant to clean out my system. I wasn’t supposed to eat anything after drinking it, but I did — just a little soup. Late at night, driving home from dinner, I regretted it. Sweating, pain, nausea.
I pulled over to the side of the deserted road and puked my guts out. The fluid I drank was meant to clean out my bowels and even though there wasn’t much left to clean out, it did.
Crying and dizzy, I called Barb. She and my brother came to pick me up. My brother drove me home, and she followed us in my putrid car.
I was so humiliated and physically ill that I could barely speak, so instead, I just cried. Barb soothed me. She held me like her own child. She put me in a warm bath. She told me it was all going to be okay, and it was. I couldn’t explain it, but a small part of me was happy I ate that soup.
Soon my health issues were resolved and I was graduating from high school. My next move was an hour away to start college. I visited Barb’s house frequently, hauling my laundry home from my apartment near campus. After my brother went to sleep, Barb and I stayed up late in the living room talking. I told her about college, about whichever boy I was dating at the time. Barb was still single. She was in her forties and uncertain she’d ever remarry, but she was okay with that. She said all the love she needed came from her kids.
Time passed. We both got busy. My brother moved out of Barb’s house after he graduated. Barb fell in love and got married. Fewer visits turned into fewer phone calls. Years of abandonment insecurities festered. Why didn’t we talk as much as before? Why hadn’t Barb offered to adopt me again?
I finally blurted these questions out to Barb one day, crying and telling her I wanted to be adopted. So she got a lawyer to draw up the paperwork. I remember feeling sheepish as I signed the paperwork in front of the judge. Barb hugged me and, not for the first time, I thanked her for choosing me.
At 20, I was a little old for an adoptee. I was excited to finally be someone’s daughter again. Still, I didn’t call Barb “Mom.” I was too old for that, I told myself. It was weird. “Adoptive mom” was an okay way to refer to her when talking to other people, right? I mean, that’s what she was.
I graduated from college and immediately moved across the country for the summer. A few months later, I moved to California. Barb came to visit me in Santa Barbara, where I was eventually hired at a local newspaper. She said she was proud of me. She stocked my new fridge with food. It was the little things Barb did that said the most.
So when Barb moved to Hawaii without telling me, when I had to find out about it on Facebook, it felt like a gut punch. One of my worst fears seemed to be realized; I really wasn’t part of a family. I wasn’t important to her, after all.
By then I was engaged to a wonderful man I’d met at work. I was supposed to be happy, but I couldn’t stop thinking, where was my “mother” to help me with the wedding?
I was angry. I felt abandoned. But mostly, I missed Barb. I wondered if she still cared about me at all. My insecurities were heightened when she didn’t respond to my invitation to the rehearsal dinner.
“I never got it,” Barb answered when I told her about the invitation. “I figured you might have something like that but isn’t it for the wedding party only?”
I pulled the phone away from my mouth so she couldn’t hear me crying.
“I want you to be here,” I told her, trying to muffle my tears.
She said she’d do her best and, after a few awkward moments of pretending nothing was wrong, we said our goodbyes, and hung up the phone. I cried myself to sleep that night.
A few days later, Barb called to tell me she’d bought a plane ticket to the wedding rehearsal dinner. I told her how heartbroken I was when I thought she wasn’t coming. I told her I wished she’d been more involved in the wedding planning. I said I knew it was my responsibility to tell her these things, and that it’s not just her job to call me, but that I wished she did more.
As for Hawaii, Barb was only there temporarily, as part of an extended trip while she could still travel before her online master’s program ended and she’d have to return to work. It wasn’t a permanent move, and she planned to tell me. She just hadn’t yet.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll try to call more because you’re very important to me and I love you very much.”
Instantly, I felt lighter, better, important.
I told her about my fears that I wasn’t really part of the family, and that she didn’t call more often because I wasn’t her real daughter. She said she’d always thought I was so busy and independent. She didn’t want to bother me. And of course, I was her daughter. She thought I knew that.
“I wanted to feel wanted,” I told her.
Months later, I stayed with Barb at her house for the first time in years. Even though I’d never been to her new house, I felt at home. After her husband had gone to sleep, we huddled on the couch telling stories, just like we used to.
“I missed you,” she told me.
“Me too,” I said. Then I let go of the words I had imagined saying a hundred times, but never had the courage to utter before. “I missed you too, Mom.”
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Illustrations by Rosee Canfield / Brit + Co