Creative Non-Fiction: 'Son of a Nun' by Christopher Thomas
In New Orleans, a cemetery can be a graveyard larded with mausoleums, a trampled tourist attraction, or a vacant field where the dead once laid but were swept away by the force of water. For me, however, there is one cemetery that transcends all others.
If you drive from downtown out to the airport, you can almost see where my birthmother, a nun whom I never met, is buried. Roughly two hundred yards beyond the large, white sign that reads “Metairie Cemetery,” there on the left side of Interstate 10, you will find her gravestone:
† Eula Ann Marker
Doctor of Medicine
Oct. 20, 1937 – Mar. 22, 1997
By incredible coincidence, I first set foot in New Orleans less than six weeks after she died. In May 1997, I was visiting Southeast Louisiana before my impending move from Brussels, Belgium, to Baton Rouge where I would begin graduate school at Louisiana State University.
In the Metairie Cemetery, my birthmother lives at the intersection of Bell and I Avenues. I regularly drive out there to lie over her grave. Each time I expect a sign or revelation. Each time I return home with only a sunburn and fire ant bites.
Her grave is quite plain, especially as compared to those in the same area. The plot to the north of hers, for example, features two art nouveau statues of guardian angels flanking a sarcophagus the size of a one-car garage. Tourists may not flock to this suburban cemetery, as they do to those in town, but that doesn’t mean the dead out here aren’t as interesting.
When lying down becomes too much, I get up and explore the rest of the cemetery. The sheer number and variety of memorials—names and dates, plots and statues—never cease to amaze me. Some of the gravesites are pristine, as though a caretaker has only hours before trimmed the grass, planted new flowers, and washed and buffed the headstone. Others graves are falling apart: chipped concrete, unreadable epitaphs, busted open sarcophagi, and plastic flowers that have been run over with a lawnmower, now thousands of pink, yellow, and green shards. Almost all of the gravesites are marked with a plaque that reads “Perpetual Care.”
For years I didn’t think about her at all, and growing up I didn’t often think about being adopted. My adoptive parents were my parents, and my biological parents were, if not apocrypha, beside the point. I knew only two facts about my adoption, which my parents had shared with me: One, that I had been adopted through Catholic Charities in Boston as an infant; and two, that my biological father was Lebanese and my biological mother was a mix of Irish, Scotch, and French.
Every once in a while the issue would come up in grade school—some other kid was adopted, or someone couldn’t quite believe that my sister is my sister because she has a fair complexion, blue eyes, and blond hair and I have a darker complexion, near-black eyes, and dark brown hair. After I told people that we were both adopted—years apart and from different birthparents—I would think about my birthmother for a day or two before the notion passed.
In high school, prompted by my first girlfriend who also was an adoptee, it occurred to me that since I was born in May 1970 in Boston, I could perhaps be a love-child of Woodstock, August 1969. In this scenario, my mother was seventeen, got caught up in all the excitement, and slept with a winsome hippie under the stars of upstate New York. Since Roe v. Wade was still many years away, I thought this story was not just plausible but romantic. Only years later did I discover that the “3 days of peace & music” of Woodstock 1969 actually took place in a soupy mess of rain and mud, 43 miles away on a dairy farm in Bethel, New York.
In fall 1995, circumstances led me to change my creation story. While living in Brussels and working in the European Parliament, I was having trouble obtaining a proper work permit and visa in Belgium. The European Union was cracking down on all foreign workers, not just those of “undesirable” countries. Then, a colleague told me that U.S. citizens who had a grandparent born in Ireland could get an Irish passport in six weeks. It was a long shot—that my birthmother might have a parent who was Irish-born—and I spent weeks debating whether or not to contact Catholic Charities to see if there was any information about her.
When I finally contacted Catholic Charities, they told me that my birthmother had never contacted the agency after signing me away at one month old and that, therefore, her name would not be released to me. For a small fee, though, they would compile a report of “non-identifying information.”
I hesitated for a few more weeks, and then I mailed them seventy-five dollars in cash. In return, I received a single-spaced, two-page list of miscellaneous “facts”: At the time of my birth, my birthmother was 32 years old, unmarried, Roman Catholic; had been a nurse for 12 years; had an older brother who had eight children; had a mother who was a teacher and a father who worked at a car dealership; and, had given me a first and middle name: Christopher Thomas. The record also indicated that she had come from out of state, which made me think she was from a state neighboring Massachusetts, such as New York or Connecticut, and that she had not told her parents about her pregnancy. The last sentence of the report reiterated that the agency had not heard from my birthmother since May 1970, but that I could sign the enclosed release form with my name, address, and telephone number in case she were to make contact with the agency.
In essence I was out of luck. If I wanted to continue my search, friends told me that there wasn’t much else I could do except to hire a private investigator. And I thought about it periodically but always had a good excuse for not following through—I didn’t have the money for a detective, I was too busy trying to find a career, I wanted to get married first and settle down, or, most importantly, I didn’t want to do anything that might upset my adoptive parents who had sacrificed a great deal to give me a good upbringing.
My fantasy, in fact, was that someday I would hire a detective not only to find my birthmother but to find out where she did her grocery shopping; I dreamt of camping out in the produce section to see if I could recognize her on my own, and in that moment I would know whether or not I truly wanted to meet her.
Even if the creation story I had imagined quickly fell to pieces, in its place a small seed of desire was planted—someday I would have to go looking for this unknown woman. But the search would have to wait: I was in the middle of a major career change, from expatriate consultant in Europe to fledgling graduate student in creative writing at Louisiana State University. Having taken only one English course as an undergraduate and nearing thirty years old, I had a lot of work to do toward becoming a poet. For the next ten years I focused all my attention on reading and writing, and, if at all, I thought about my birthmother sporadically and fleetingly.
Sometimes when I am sitting there on top of my birthmother’s grave, I write her a letter. It seems less strange than simply talking aloud to a headstone.
The clouds have cleared and the sun is burning through, but your grave is still shaded.
Do you remember? It’s your birthday: #73. Being dead it must seem absurd to keep count, which is a job for the living. I suppose it’s only fitting that from now on I will mourn you on your birthday as you mourned me on mine.
I stand on you. I sit on you. I lie down over you. I want to know when I’ll stop believing there’s something I can do to bring you back.
They say that around age eight a child begins to comprehend the idea of mortality and that life is fragile. I think the trouble with middle age (I’m 40) is that it gets harder and harder to remember a day when I didn’t feel my mortality. Perhaps in old age I’ll think less about it.
When I run my fingers over the letters and numbers of your headstone, it seems impossible that that’s as close as I can get to touching you—what’s left of your material self, there below me, some feet down, waiting in wood and metal, for nothing and no one.
I get up from your grave and visit the two angels next door. They are someone else’s angels, I know, but I think of them as yours because I have an unreasonable feeling that no one visits your neighbor’s grave. The angels are in art deco style, dated 1940, cast in bronze by one Antonio Mennelha (1901-1964). It seems odd that the plaque with the sculptor’s name is the same size as the plaque with the dead man’s name. Now, I notice a third plaque that tells me that this miniature mausoleum was “Erected in 2007,” which means that the angels weren’t there the day of your funeral. Even if I don’t believe in angels, I am disappointed.
I sit across from your gravestone on the steps of the small tomb across the lane. I close my eyes and listen: the sounds of the highway, a lawnmower’s buzz, a plane in the distance, periodic birdsong.
You are not really here.
I have to leave. I have to look elsewhere. I have to find another way to celebrate your birthday.
In May 2007, my wife had our first child, a boy, who we named Owen after my wife’s favorite book, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. I mention the connection because only in hindsight do I realize the significance of naming our son after a novel that deals heavily in the Catholic faith, social justice, and outlandish narrative—those three issues make-up, albeit in quite different ways, the story of my birthmother. But that is, again, in retrospect.
After Owen was born, I began to think more and more about my birthmother simply because I was now a parent of an infant son. When I would look at him, the first blood relative I’ve ever known, I would think about the experience she never had. But it took another two years and a series of events before I would actively go looking for my birthmother. In March 2009, after a 15-year struggle with colon cancer, my mother-in-law died at age 64. A few months later, my wife became pregnant with our second child. At this point, my wife and I decided that we no longer needed to try to move to New York City where her mother had lived. As well, I no longer felt an urge to live elsewhere. After a major career change, too many graduate schools, and numerous cross-country moves, I finally had a stable job as a professor. Moreover, my wife and I adored the people and the city of New Orleans; we knew we had found a permanent home.
And so after more than a decade, I again contacted Catholic Charities in Boston. The social worker who replied to my inquiry was very kind. She wrote that my birthmother had not contacted them since signing final papers back in summer 1970, but that I might be interested in “Catholic Charities Search and Reunion Policy” and some of the other documents she attached to her email. One of these included the following:
How Senate Bill, No. 63 Impacts Adoptees’ Access to Their Original Birth Certificates?
As of January 1, 2008, the law regulating the release of original birth certificates to adoptees has been amended. An adoptee over the age of 18, who is born prior to July 17, 1974, or after January 1, 2008, now can request and receive a copy of their original birth certificate from the Bureau of Vital Statistics in Massachusetts. An adoptive parent can request a copy of their child’s original birth certificate if their child is under the age of 18, and born after January 1, 2008. An adoptee would be able to find on their original birth certificate their birthmother’s name, age and address at the time of their birth. Rarely are the birth father’s name listed. The law does not impact the laws of confidentiality that adoption agencies are bound by.
Aside from the obvious potential for revelation, I had a few questions. How come no one contacted me about this change in the law? What about those poor sons of bitches who were born between 1974 and 2008? And why does the heading of this bill end with a question mark—is there some kind of catch?
As someone I can’t recall once told me, “Being adopted isn’t a big deal, it’s just how you got started, not your entire life.” That may or may not be true for the adoptee. But for the birthmother, and for my birthmother in particular, carrying me, delivering me, and then letting me go not only shaped but defined the rest of her life.
It could not have been easy, in any way, to leave Louisiana for Massachusetts in November 1969. I imagine, too, in a bittersweet thought, that she probably had never experienced snow firsthand—something I am very familiar with having lived more than half of my life in either the Northeast or the Midwest. It could not have been easy, in any way, to have given birth to a child out of wedlock in 1970. And it is virtually incomprehensible to imagine how she did this as a nun of the Roman Catholic Church.
One of the difficulties I have is knowing what to call her. I would call her “mother” but that either seems inaccurate or disloyal to the woman whom I have called “mother” all my life, what adoption books call my “adoptive mother.” In the language of the give and take of adoption, Eula Ann Marker was my “birthmother” or “biological mother” or “b.m.” or “bmom.” None of them fits very well, and I can’t quite get myself to distinguish my two mothers by calling one “adoptive mother” and the other “birthmother,” because that leaves me with no one to call simply “mother.” I suppose the easy, but not comforting, answer is that I have two mothers. My mother and my other mother. But that doesn’t solve the problem of who is going to be “the other” one.
All of this is a bit silly, I know.
Riffling through the stack of 100 plus books on my desk, sorted out by category—adoption, nuns, psychology, memoirs, essays, afterlife, beforelife, neuroscience, dreams—I find another answer to “Who is my mother?” in a children’s book titled Here’s a Penny.
Penny, an adopted boy, runs home from school with tears in his eyes. His best friend Patsy has told him his mother isn’t “really truly” his mother.
When he reaches his mother, he says: “[Patsy] says when you’re ’dopted you can’t be really truly.”
“Nonsense!” says his Mother. “There is only one thing that makes a little boy ‘really truly.’”
Penny sits up and looks at his mother. His blue eyes are big and round. Teardrops still hang on his eyelashes. “What does, Mother?” he says.
“Why, his mother’s love for him,” says Mother. “His mother’s love for him makes him her really truly little boy.”
For a moment I believe I’ve found an answer—the woman who lovingly took care of me for half my life is certainly my mother. Slowly, though, I realize that I want this answer only because it allows me not to have to consider further or to accept the sacrifice that my birthmother made for me. If she were here, I could of course work out some of this existential angst. Or, if I were to tell my adoptive mother about discovering my birthmother, I might find a better answer. But I have not told my mother about my other mother, and I have trouble even imagining a time when I plan to.
The first time I went out to see her it happened to be one of Metairie Cemetery’s busiest days of the year: All Saints’ Day. I parked the car amid all the fluster—there were dualing marching bands practicing in the parking lot—and I thought: This is ridiculous, who mourns for somebody he never met?
I went into the office, and a woman behind an old, schoolteacher’s-type desk said to me: “This is Greenwood. You want Lakelawn. That’s the other one, on the other side of the highway.”
I drove over to the Lakelawn Metairie Funeral Home and Cemeteries. After being led by a security guard through a labyrinthine building, I inquired at the front desk about the location of “Eula Ann Marker.” The woman made a phone call “downstairs” to another woman who was presumably looking up my request, and then said, “It’ll be a few minutes.”
I looked around at the art on the walls, which was surprisingly tasteful and appropriately neo-ancient, and then I excused myself to the restroom where I urinated and considered pilfering something, anything from the small space, as if I’d need a reminder of the moment—the minutes before I would first see my birthmother’s grave. I departed, empty-handed, and sat back down.
The woman behind the desk filed her nails. I entertained myself by trying to figure out what this woman would say if I were to ask her what she thought it might be like to have sex with a nun. Finally, the phone rang.
“Uh-huh, uh-hun, okay.”
She turned to me: “There’s no one by that name in the cemetery.” She began to hang up the phone.
“Wait,” I said, “she was a doctor, try Dr. Ann Marker.”
She put the phone back to her ear, “Did you hear that?” and then she hung up. “She’ll call back.”
I told her that this person—“my mother” I finally admitted—had been a nun, too.
“She might be buried in a special place in the cemetery. What order was she with?”
But before I could answer, she said, “If she died as a sister then there’ll be initials after her name, like S.J. or C.S.J., to indicate the order. Unless she was dispensed of her vows, which you can only do by writing the Pope.”
The phone rang.
“Yes, I see,” she said into the receiver. “There is a Dr. Ann Marker….”
She hung up the phone and pulled out a map of the cemetery. With a pink highlighter, she circled an area.
“Your mother’s right around the corner,” she said.
Twenty-eight dollars. That’s how much it cost me to find out that I am the son of a nun, a fact I discovered six months before my fortieth birthday.
Along with the check, I had to include two notarized forms in the envelope I mailed to the Registry of Vital Records in Dorchester, Massachusetts. In return, I was supposed to receive my “birth certificate prior to adoption.” But two weeks after I sent off the envelope, I had a voicemail from a man with a heavy Boston accent: There’s a problem with your request.
I’d waited decades to find out who my birthmother was, and suddenly I recognized that it couldn’t be as easy as a check and a couple of forms. I phoned him back.
“I can’t process your request,” he said.
I couldn’t help imagining a Bartleby-type civil servant sitting in a cubicle, phoning adoptees every half hour, indifferently crushing their dreams.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“This just won’t do,” he said.
“It was a fire, wasn’t it? The records are all gone?”
“Won’t do,” he said.
“Really?” I said. “I was kidding.”
“Your papers aren’t in order.”
I figured they’d lost my records or there was some other screw up.
“What’s the problem exactly?”
“I need a copy of your driver’s license.”
“My license?” I said. “But you have the notarized documents where I had to show my license.”
“I still need a copy.”
“So I send you a copy of my license, and you’ll tell me who my mother is?”
“I can’t do that,” he said, “but yes, then I can process your request.”
The next day I faxed him a photocopy of my license. And a week later I came home to a notice in the mailbox about a piece of certified mail. The following morning I was first in line at the post office.
When I handed the notice and my identification to the clerk, he said, “Hey, that’s funny, your first name is the same as my middle name.”
“It’s a good name,” I said, even though I knew I once had a different name, and that the document he was about to hand me would include my “original” last name.
“Damn fine name,” he said, smiling.
He was so cheerful that, for a moment, I wondered if some kind of reality TV show was secretly videotaping us. But it’s New Orleans and a person doesn’t have to have a reason to be cheerful. It was, as well, the day before the second-largest holiday in town: Halloween.
I walked out of the building and into the balmy air. Knowing that my life would change in some way, even if only slightly, I hesitated for a second, felt silly about hesitating, and then tore open the envelope.
There was a single piece of paper inside. I scanned it quickly and saw her name: Eula Ann Marker. There was an address in Boston that had been hers in 1970 and, most likely, would be of little use now in 2009. But then I saw another city and state. This was a surprise; I hadn’t expected that her birthplace would be on my birth certificate. When I read Thibodeaux, Louisiana, I couldn’t quite fathom it: my birthmother’s place of birth was essentially my new home. Thibodeaux is an hour from New Orleans, and I’d been there the previous spring to give a poetry reading at Nicholls State University.
I got home and began Googling. Immediately I discovered an obituary, but it was for a “Eula Ann Marker” who died in 2004 at age 92. Then I found the obituary of her daughter, “Dr. Ann Marker,” but again the age didn’t coincide. Next I found a “Eula Marker” in Lansing, North Carolina. When I searched the White Pages online, I was asked if I’d like to “Date 50+ Lansing Singles.” I thought about it. For the rest of the day, I searched online, finding more Eulas and Markers who never quite matched up with the handful of details I had regarding my birthmother, until finally at six o’clock I had to stop because I was already late to pick up my wife and son.
Later after our son was in bed, my wife sat down with me. She, too, had spent the day trawling the internet. We sat next to each other with our laptops Googling. Half an hour later she said, “This is her,” and pointed to the obituary for Dr. Ann Marker.
Marker - Dr. Ann Marker, A Nun And Retired Physician, Died Saturday Of Cancer. She Was 59. Dr. Marker Was Born In Houma And Lived In The New Orleans Area For Many Years. She Was A Graduate Of St. Frances De Sales High School, Mercy School Of Nursing And Louisiana State University School Of Medicine. Dr. Marker Was The Former Director Of The Algiers-Fischer Health Clinic From 1982 To 1989. In 1985, Dr. Marker, With The Help Of The Archdiocese Of New Orleans, Helped Obtain Money To Keep The Clinic Open After The New Orleans Health Corp. Threatened To Close It For A Lack Of Financing. Survivors Include Her Father, Her Mother; A Brother; And Two Sisters. A Mass Will Be Said Monday At 11 A.M. At The Chapel at 1200 Mirabeau St. Visitation Will Begin At 9 A.M. Burial Will Be In Metairie Cemetery.
“I’ve already seen that one,” I said, “it can’t be her, the age isn’t right.”
“Look again,” she said, and put her cursor over my mistake. At the top of the list of obituaries, I had read “2005” as the date of all the notices listed below. But that date was simply when the genealogy webpage had been last updated. The actual year of Dr. Ann Marker’s death was 1997; she was 59, the exact age my birthmother would have been.
And then other details—obscured because of her parents’ divorce and her father’s second marriage—began to add up. All at once the obituary illuminated her life: She had been a nun for almost 40 years, most of that time as a nurse and later a doctor, and now she was buried in a cemetery fifteen minutes from our house.
One night last spring, I was reading a book about a famous British explorer who, with his son and his son’s best friend, went missing in the Amazon jungle in 1925. It dawned on me an hour into my reading that the author’s search for the lost explorers held my interest not because I cared that much about the story itself, but because I still felt that my search for my birthmother had not yet ended even though I knew exactly where she was buried. I put the book down around midnight. My family, including our month-old baby, was sound asleep, and so I slipped out of the house and got in the car. I figured a drive with all the windows down in the warm night air would help clear my head.
I headed down Magazine, across Audubon Park, and up Leake which runs along the Mississippi River. You can’t see the river from the road, but it’s enough sometimes to know it’s there. I thought of the road, how if you follow it long enough, it’ll take you all the way up to Baton Rouge in a couple of hours. I wasn’t going to go that far, but I thought about that corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge—how it’s called “cancer alley” because of all the petroleum processing plants, and how most New Orleanians, myself included, do nothing about the pollutants that are constantly put into the environment. From cancer alley, it was the smallest mental leap to the aggressive breast cancer that killed my birthmother. And then suddenly I thought She’s alone out there, as if she’d not been alone out there for years or as if she really was out there anyway.
I made a few turns and headed for Interstate 10. I knew the cemetery gates would be closed, so I parked on one of the streets in the fairly affluent neighborhood behind the cemetery. The wrought iron fence wasn’t difficult to climb, but because I entered from a direction I wasn’t used to, I didn’t know which way to go. The flashlight I’d gotten out of the glove box went dead after about a hundred feet, and it suddenly occurred to me that I’d never been in a cemetery after dark. It took some stumbling around, but I discerned the concentric ovals of graves—most of the cemetery used to be a horse racetrack and the graves are aligned in an ovular shape. Then, I found the canal lined with cedar trees, and finally her grave.
At times, the problem seems to me to be that there is no evidence of her death. There’s the plot and gravestone, but of course I never got to view her dead body. Part of me truly wants to see a handkerchief of dried sputum or a bloodstained sheet. On numerous occasions, I’ve thought about exhuming her grave so that I might actually touch her. I was standing there on top of her headstone, thinking “autopsy” and then the word’s literal meaning: “see for yourself.” I rationalized that plenty of people have imagined unearthing their mother—to make sure she’s there or to try to get her back one more time—but that nobody has ever done it. But I’m not nobody, I thought. In the darkness I got down on my hands and knees. Nothing I’d done up until that point—praying, crying, denying, cursing—had helped me cope very much. I began rationalizing further: It’s sacrilegious, but so what? If I do it, maybe she or God will finally give me a sign, a reason why—why she never tried to find me, why she’s dead, why I’m in the cemetery in the middle of the night.
I began pulling up the grass and scratching at the dirt. I opened up the flashlight, threw the top and bulb aside, took out the batteries, and began digging with the plastic bottom half. After ten minutes, I looked at the hole and thought It’s about the size of a cantaloupe. I looked up at the sky and tried to figure out which was more ridiculous—the act of digging or the fact that now I couldn’t get the word cantaloupe out of my mind. I made a few more scratches at the earth and then quit. Daring God wasn’t working either. But I still wanted to touch her. Then my rationalizing took a rational turn: If I were caught and arrested for digging up this grave, my son and daughter would be harmed—psychologically as well as financially—because I would probably lose my job. If going to a cemetery in the middle of the night and contemplating a felony is strange, putting my children ahead of all else in my life is not. I am ordinary in that way.
More than a year after first reading her obituary, I still find myself unable to fall asleep every night without running through the story of my birthmother in my mind. When I’m feeling sorry for myself, I boil the story down to the singular idea that I found and lost her on the same day. But most nights, I stare dumbly in near-blackness at the ceiling while listening to our three-year-old suck his thumb on and off throughout the night. His sleeping in the conjugal bed was my wife’s idea, but I’ve justified it to myself by remembering that my birthmother never had such a decision to make.
Since discovering my birthmother, I have met a variety of her relatives and friends who still live in the New Orleans area, and who have generously told me stories and shared photographs of her. The part about my being the son of a nun is provocative as well as poetic—too poetic, I think, for a man who only moved to New Orleans to be a poet and professor at a Jesuit university. Ultimately, it’s the nun part of the story that surprises me the least. What I’m still not over—and can’t imagine ever getting over—is that I will not have the chance to do the thing I wanted to do but didn’t realize at the beginning of my search years ago: thank her.