When I was little my mom would read to me from a book called "The Chosen Baby." It was aimed at adopted kids like me, to help us understand how we came to become part of a family.
I loved that book more than anything I've ever read. The theme was this: Everyone else's parents are stuck with their kids but an adoptee is special because his parents chose him. Forget about today's emphasis on self-esteem: Is there anything more empowering for a 3-year-old than that? As a result I never felt like I had been rejected by one family: I felt accepted and cherished and loved by another.
Mom's name was Sylvia Macks and she was 93 when she died. You could tell that I was adopted. I'm muscular (#FAKEDESCRIPTION) 5 feet 11 inches (with 2-inch lifts) handsome (after three drinks), with a full head of hair (thank you Propecia). Dad was 5 feet 5 inches, bald and 215 pounds. Mom was 4 feet 8 inches tall and 95 pounds. But in her tiny body was a strong intellect, and an even stronger heart.
I began writing this in a hospice room in Santa Barbara as my mom was in her final struggle. I read the parts that were finished to her while she lay there unconscious. I'll never know if she heard my voice.
She had a tough life. Both her parents were deaf - one born that way, one became deaf at age 9 - and as a toddler she had to answer the phone when it rang, see whoever was knocking at the door, let her mom know when her baby sister was crying, and deal with eccentric neighbors. Can you imagine having that weight on your shoulders when you're 5 years old?
Somehow she learned how to play the piano brilliantly from my deaf grandmother. How does that even work? She told me my grandmother's secret was to watch her fingers on the piano keys and see if my mom flinched when she hit a clunker.
How smart was Mom? Brilliant. (Also proof I don't have her DNA). She skipped two grades in school and could have gone to Penn, but as a 4 foot 8 inch 15-year-old was too intimidated.
So she got a job as a medical technician and after World War II met my dad, Albert. They couldn't have kids so they adopted me and my brother, Adam.
One night I had a term paper due in college. I had written it by hand, but it needed to be typed. I was home on spring break, with mono, and was so exhausted I fell asleep with only one page typed. I woke up at 4 a.m. to see her at the Olivetti, typing the final page.
Over the years, through my dad's many business ups and downs (mainly downs), she was there, doing the books, helping deliver ice and soda on weekends and counting the empty potato chip bags in his truck to confront him over his 37th failed diet. And when those potato chips caused his heart attack she kept the business going.
I'll never forget how she handled the news when they told her that her ovarian cancer was so bad she had, at most, six months to live. That was in 1986. She handled it the way she handled most things -- stoically, stubbornly, doing what the doctors said -- and she then went on to live another 31 years.
When people talk of the Greatest Generation, they rightfully mean those who, forged in the furnace of the Depression, fought in World War II and then went on to rebuild this country. My mom didn't fight overseas, but women like her also belong in that Greatest Generation. They did their jobs, some at home, at work, or both. They tried to do the right thing - always. They didn't have the opportunities my daughter has, but women like Mom raised their families, passed on their values and gave their kids a chance at a better life.
The inevitable question I get when people learn I was adopted is this: "Did you ever try to find your real mom?"
I did find her. I found my real mom the day Sylvia Macks adopted me.
Now that she's gone I think I realize that maybe, just maybe, I wasn't her chosen baby in the way the book described. But I do know this: If I had had my pick, there is no other woman I would have chosen to be my mom.
So Mom, thanks, this is dedicated to you and to all those who adopt children around the world.