“I don’t have a worm in my pocket,” Michelle announced happily, bouncing in from her play. This little four-year-old, brand new to our family, was completely mystified that we would look where she had clearly announced there was no need to look.
Although we read all her paperwork, knew what she had been through, and heard the words of the social workers when they said, “She may never be able to attach to you,” we retained the optimism of all adoptive parents. Her “special needs” became irrelevant the first time we saw her. What became evident was that she was exceptional. Her spirit was indomitable; it was the reason she had survived.
Although it was often surprising, I never questioned the miraculous process of how this child found her way home outside the usual genetic channels. The day after Michelle came home, I was shopping at a local food store. The checker took one look at me and said, “You must be Michelle’s mom.”
My mouth dropped open, and I admitted that it was true. “But how did you know?” I asked.
“I saw you at the preschool yesterday, but I would know anyway. She looks just like you.”
It surprised us that she had artistic ability like her dad. She drew pictures even before kindergarten, in proper perspective, with unbelievable detail. Not only was the family sitting at dinner, you could identify who was who and what the food was on their plates. She drew Dad with his glasses, curly hair, and beard eating from a large plate of food, sister with long blond hair and hardly any food, and I was the one sneaking food to the dog. The art talent evolved as she grew. With praise and encouragement from her art teacher, one of her drawings won a ribbon at the County Fair. The mural she drew for our aviary still brings awe from everyone who sees it.
Mysteriously her love and enthusiasm for the outdoors matched mine, and with her strong little legs, the only thing that delayed us during backpacking trips was that she kept stopping to examine everything along the way.
She had an insatiable urge to adopt wild creatures of any size, from the original worm in her pocket, to a bedroom full of cages and terrariums.
What I didn’t understand in those early years as we battled with the challenge of her emotional damage was that we would never be to her what she was to us. The emptiness of her lost family remained. And the painful realization finally came that the kind of mom that feeds the dog with the big begging eyes, even when that mom knows she should have a tighter boundary, is not the ideal parent for a child with wounds this deep.
The most miraculous thing of all was that Michelle and I had a mutual interest in writing. I read the cards she wrote with awe, even when I suspected that they were written from her understanding of what I wanted to hear. One Mother’s Day her gift was a Hummel figure of a stork with a baby bundle hanging from its beak. The card told me, “The stork knew what it was doing after all.”
Fate is known to twist, and it was her own words, written over a decade ago, which came back around to deliver the message she needed to hear most.
Although she could have inherited the same tendency had she been our birth child, she did battle a genetic predisposition to addiction. With the pain she always faced, and the inner turmoil of always feeling different than everyone else, she succumbed first to nicotine, then to alcohol, and finally to the worst enemy of all, methamphetamine.
The way back from this addiction came not because of any counseling or recovery program. Problems with trust preclude that kind of influence. It came from her original indomitable spirit and strength of pure grit and determination. She built her strength back a little at a time, managed to endure the necessary dental work, get a driver’s license, a car of her own, a job, and eventually a shared apartment. But Michelle was emphatic about the fact that she was no longer able to draw or write. “My brain is damaged, mom,” she would say. “I just can’t do it anymore.”
“I don’t believe it,” I would say. “Brain cells can regenerate. I worked in rehabilitation as a nurse. I saw it happen.”
“You just don’t know. I’ve tried. Nothing comes.”
And then one day I found a treasure of her old writings, and sent her this story she wrote around age twelve.
The painter gathered up his canvas and paints and headed for the mountain. He found a good spot to start painting and sat down on a rock. As he was getting his paints ready, he heard a voice.
“Oh painter, you do not want to paint me,” said the mountain, for all he could see was his ugly side and was ashamed of it.
The painter replied, “Dear mountain, what do you mean? Why should I not paint you? You have pretty tall trees, and Irish green grasses, with wildflowers of all colors. The deer and small creatures of your forest graze in your grasses and nap in the shade of your trees.”
The mountain looked down at himself, but could still only see his ugly side. The mountain looked at the painter and said, “Painter, why is it that you see what I cannot? Where are my pretty tall trees and my Irish green grasses with wildflowers of many colors? Where are these deer and small creatures that graze in my grasses and nap in the shade of my trees?”
The painter’s face was puzzled, he looked up at the mountain and replied, “Dear mountain, is what you have said true? Can you not see what I have seen? Have you not once had a glance at your beauty? If you cannot see what I can, then what do you see that I do not?”
The mountain again looked down at himself and replied quietly, “Nothing pretty, painter.” The mountain could only see one side of himself and that was the side that wasn’t pretty.
The painter asked, “Mountain, is there a way that I can see what you see?”
The mountain was doubtful, but guessed, “Maybe you could walk around to my other side.”
The painter did so and there he saw what the mountain could only see. The mountain and the painter thought for a while. They tried to figure out a way to make that side of the mountain as pretty as the other side.
“There must be a way for both of your sides to be this pretty,” the painter said in a determined tone.
But the mountain had his doubts. “How can that be done, painter?”
The painter quickly replied, “Well, it can’t be done if you don’t believe it can be. You have to believe in it, before any such thing can happen.”
The mountain looked down at himself and then once again looked back at the painter. “I believe,” he said quietly.
The painter smiled. “Then I will go back to your other side and begin to paint your pretty tall trees and your Irish green grasses with the wildflowers of many colors. I will paint the deer and small creatures of your forest that graze in your Irish green grasses and nap in the shade of your pretty tall trees. Then I will bring the picture that I painted back to you so that you can see how beautiful your other side is and make this side just as pretty.”
So the painter went to the other side and started painting. The mountain thought it had been a very long time since the painter had disappeared so he called out, “Have you finished the picture yet?”
The painter replied, “Yes I have finished. I am just resting for a moment.”
The mountain anxiously pleaded, “May I see it, please?”
“Yes, mountain, just wait a moment. It’s a long walk to your other side, so I want to rest right now.” The painter remained calm.
“But painter! What if something happens and I never get to see it? What if…….?”
“Mountain, Mountain, do not be frightened. Do not worry so much. No one can take the picture from me, and I won’t let anything happen to it. Trust me.”
So the mountain calmed down and trusted that the painter would protect the picture.
A little while later, the painter got to his feet, made the trip and arrived at the other side of the mountain with the picture safe and sound as he had promised. The painter then hung the picture on a tall tree so that the mountain could see it.
“Oh, that is so beautiful! But I don’t know how I can become that beautiful.”
“Mountain, that is you! It is just your other side. You are that beautiful. If you look at the picture and believe that this side of you can be just as pretty, it will!”
The mountain looked at the picture and began to believe. Day by day he started to have pretty tall trees and Irish green grasses with wild flowers of all colors. The deer and small creatures of the forest came to graze in his Irish green grasses and nap in the shade of his pretty tall trees.
The painter helped many other mountains with only one pretty side and still does.
And then I understood. It was not her brain cells that were the source of the irreparable damage; it was her belief in herself. I printed out a copy of the story and added a note at the bottom. “I’ve been saving the picture. If I hold it, will you believe?”
Offering this tale for publication is one way I hold the picture. For her eyes and yours.
This is a unique piece because it is a personal essay and yet it contains within it a short fictional work by the subject of the essay, the author’s adoptive daughter, Michelle McIntyre. Adriane St. Clare has been a psychotherapist for over 25 years. She has published short fiction and memoir in the Lost Coast Anthology, the Alzheimer’s Newsletter, the Times Standard Newspaper, Joyful Magazine and Pocket Change Magazine. She has just finished her first novel. This is Michelle’s first attempt at publication.
© 2009, Adriane St. Clare