When I Least (But Probably Should Have) Expected It

As I wiped the tears falling down my cheeks, I tried to remember how I got here. On a return flight from California. Next to young college girls traveling for a weekend adventure. Crying over a movie. “That’s not me,” I told myself. And I wanted to tell the two undergrads as well. But I realized it was probably easier for them to think I’m just one of those people who cries at movies rather than try to explain WHY I was crying at this one in particular.

So, how did I get HERE?

It all starts with a simple choice – what movies to download for a business trip to California. As I sat in my recliner the Monday night before my trip, I estimated that I needed four movies (two each way), and I began the dutiful scroll through my preferred streaming options, mindlessly swiping. When I download movies, I have a pretty standard approach – get one movie I know I like, one movie that sounds intriguing, and two movies that I’ve heard good things about. So, I opted for “Friday Night Lights,” “Fences,” and “Lion” and I figured I’d find a fourth movie on the airline app.

Some of you already think you know how I ended up crying on a plane. But for those who don’t, hang with me. I swear I didn’t see it coming either.

I’ll skip the details about the trip to Cali and the business. Suffice it to say “Friday Night Lights” never disappoints, “Fences” was a bit slow, my meal at “In-n-Out” was fantastic, and I have the best job in the world! And after three days in Los Angeles, I was exhilarated, albeit a little tired.

So, I settled into my seat, popped in my earbuds, and pushed “play” on “Lion.” Let me start by saying that I knew the plot line, which is based on a true story. An impoverished young Indian boy (Saroo) is scrounging for coins and food on a train when he falls asleep and wakes up hours later and hundreds of miles away from his family. He lives on the streets of Calcutta for several weeks before being placed in an orphanage and eventually adopted by an Australian couple. More than two decades later, he reunites with his original family.

It’s an amazing story, but so significantly different from mine that I didn’t expect it to impact me. Before being reunited, I never knew my original family. I never saw them, hugged them, ate with them. I knew they existed, but in an obscure way – like you know there are billions of people in the world. I certainly didn’t have the memories that drove Saroo on his journey. So, why would I be moved beyond the typical emotions I feel when I hear a touching story?

Frankly, I didn’t expect to be. Which was why my reaction was so shocking.

It started as a strange tightness in my chest. That sensation occurred at the point in the movie that Saroo started to distance himself from his loved ones. Then, I found myself feeling a full-body tension when Saroo began staying awake all hours of the night searching Google Earth for any feature that aligned with his memories. And as he became more and more desperate, I was anxious – like the kind of anxious that causes your insides to shake.

And THAT’S when I started to cry. Not what you expected, right? Yeah, me either.

Because I expected to feel moved when Saroo’s parents supported his search and I expected to be moved when Saroo found his original family. And I did feel something at those points.

But the depth of my emotion came in the midst of the struggle, the chaos, the desperation, the lack of control, the disconnectedness. And I swear that for those moments, I was back in the place where I lived off and on for more than 20 years prior to my search and reunion. I was there. And it all felt just like it did all those years.

And despite my skill in compartmentalizing and subduing my emotions and practicing mind over matter and all that, I was paralyzed in the moment. And the tears came against my will and I desperately wanted to tell those girls that “I don’t cry at movies” and I realized it would be even more difficult to explain, “But apparently I am still traumatized over being adopted despite the fact that I grew up in an amazing family and have a great reunion with my original/natural family.”

Because it seems like people can understand that other people cry at movies. What it is (apparently) difficult for some to understand is that adoption, despite being a necessary and oftentimes wonderful thing, always starts with loss (with trauma, if you will) and that a good adoptive family and even a good reunion with original/natural family doesn’t make that go away.

What’s all the Fuss about Medical History? 

If you have read anything about adoption, you know that adoptee access to medical history is a hot topic. I think most people understand that it’s better for adoptees to have access to their family medical history for the obvious reason – to be aware of potential health issues that run through their genetic lines. I agree this is an excellent reason to ensure adoptees have access to that history without having to jump through any hoops, but I believe there are more reasons to do it and I want to share one by way of a story. 

A few weeks ago, I visited a medical provider for an annual exam. I checked in at the front window, and the staff person verified some information, handed me a packet, and explained that it was time to update my medical history. She said my old form was in the packet, along with a brand new form, and that I could transfer my answers and update any that are necessary. 

When I reached my chair in the waiting room and looked at my old form, I saw my traditional single line drawn down the entire “unknown” column, and noted that someone else had written in script across the entire page “ADOPTED.” Ah, yes, there it was – the medical version of the reminder that I am different from other people. 

But, then, I looked at the fresh, clean page, and read it – for the very first time in my life – because I actually know my family medical history now. I was so excited to fill out that form; a form that other people don’t give a second thought. After I completed my careful review and started to return the form, I realized I had some explaining to do to the front desk staff person, so I smiled and said, “I am adopted and reunited with my natural families, so I know my medical history now.” She looked sort of confused at first, then her eyes softened, and she smiled and said, “That’s great.” 

I don’t know if she was declaring my knowledge or my reunion as great, but in that moment, the great part for me was the empowerment I felt in completing that form.