People | Adopted

The Formality of Occurrence

What leads up to an adoption search can be both big and small

I spent a whole year thinking about my adoption and what it meant after September 11, 2001. When you’re adopted you’re less than an accident—you don’t know the circumstances of your birth; your very conception seems to have come about by the snap of two fingers in the backseat of a car around 11:30 P.M. on a rainy Saturday night; and, in my case anyway, you have no idea what your racial or ethnic heritage is.

So on the first anniversary of that beautiful morning mixing madness and death with a clear blue sky and bright orange sun, ushering us all into the twisted realities of the 21st century, I took the day off and pulled all my documentation together so that I could finally make the state of Ohio happy.

My skin was the color of raw teak or breakfast coffee half full of heavy cream and sugar. My nose and lips were nondescript Anglo, though my hair was nearly black and my eyes were the color of baker’s chocolate. I was, and still am today, a dark-featured blend of humanity.

There are many versions of mix in this country. Although there are no useful statistics, it is very likely that ours is a nation dominated by mixed heritage citizens. Certainly, most African Americans and Hispanics are mixed race. And the number of so-called white people who are actually combinations of multiple ethnic groups with hints–or more–of African, Native, Hispanic, Jewish, Asian, and Mediterranean genes in their histories, is untold. But no one could tell me anything about my story. In one sense I was whatever you wanted to imagine I was. In another sense I was a question with no answer.

Three months later I received a copy of my original birth certificate in the mail. My “biological father” was registered as “Unknown,” but my birth mother’s name and even her address at the time of my adoption in 1958 were listed. I spent several days trying to track her down on the Internet, all to no avail. I used MapQuest to plot out the address given on the document. But cartoon maps are not very satisfying when you want answers to real questions. 

After a week or so of dithering, I put the document away again in the folder, but this time I labeled it “The Formality of Occurrence.” It was a bright yellow folder and I hid it in the back of my file cabinet. The term was something I’d read somewhere. The formality of occurrence. At the time, I couldn’t remember where I’d come across it, nor did I really think much about what it meant. All I knew was that my life was incomplete because I was adopted. I was stuck in the infinity of possibility, a story with no beginning. Somehow, I felt storing things in that yellow folder with its weird label was the only way I could come close to filling my identity up with even a semblance of significance.

After that, I began to put everything I came across about adoption and racial identity in that folder: how people chart out their connections; all the articles I could find on Kevin Bacon and the six degrees of separation supposedly connecting our entire global culture; little essays by famous writers on what it felt like to adopt a child; feature pieces on the dilemmas and joys of inter-racial adoption. I remember thinking that I had no idea what I was doing. I was just stuffing this file folder full of anything that seemed significant. I couldn’t even remember where I’d read about the formality of occurrence. I walked around for months with that term in my head, scanning magazines and the internet for anything even remotely relevant to the notion of the story of acquired lives and the fragile net of connection that we all seek all of the time, even if we’re not aware of our seeking.

I put the official Ohio birth certificate away in that folder, then stuffed it in the back of my filing cabinet. I told no one about what I’d received in the mail. My birth mother’s name roiled around in my head after that, but it became almost frightening to consider her after awhile.

Her name was Diana Hope Brown. I still had no idea if it was my birthmother who was the source of my hybrid look or my biological father. The backup documentation to the certificate also gave the name of the baby–Anthony Tobias Brown. Me. That’s all I knew when we set out to find her in the summer of 2002.