Notes on Loss by Brooke Maddison
Brooke Maddison is a writer and editor working on unceded Turrbal and Yuggera land. She is completing a Masters of Writing, Editing and Publishing at the University of Queensland and is the founder and co-editor of Crackle (Corella Press, 2021), the university’s anthology of creative writing. Her work has been published by Kill Your Darlings, Antithesis and Spineless Wonders, among others. She has a mentorship with University of Queensland Press and is a 2022 recipient of The Next Chapter fellowship.
Notes on Loss
My husband went out to our boxed-in garden so that he could take a call from his sister. She was going under: still a child herself, not able to care for her baby son. Too many other things were pulling at the edges of her attention. She was tangled within the net of a gang and had been placed in an emergency mother and baby residential unit so she could be assessed on her parenting ability. She was 16 years old.
I watched as my husband paced across the thin patch of grass that I had been trying desperately to grow. The bass-heavy drone from the ramshackle Carnival speakers rumbled in the distance. I wandered outside so that I could listen to what was being said.
The sun beat down. A welcome long-weekend reprieve at the end of another disappointing London summer. My husband’s face was tense as he told his sister it was a bad idea to try and head to the Notting Hill Carnival with her seven-month-old baby. An even worse idea to leave him with the neighbours.
The air throbbed, thick with smoke from the jerk chicken stalls. There was a palpable thrill of anticipation on the breeze. Our friends would be arriving soon, and we too would be following the masses on foot towards the epicentre of the carnival. Somewhere on the street a glass bottle smashed. Snatches of conversation floated out of open windows, little portals into stranger’s lives.
‘I’m on road already, bruv.’
‘Nah fam, don’t come at me like that—’
‘I beg you grab me a bottle of Appleton, sis.’
‘She was well vexed. And then—’
‘Tune! Turn it up.’
The plastic chair cooled the back of my legs as I perched under the lone tree in our garden. I stretched, accidently kicking over an empty can of baked beans that had morphed into an ashtray. I used a hand to shelter my eyes from the glare. It was hard to make out the subtext of what my sister-in-law was saying over the phone, but it sounded serious. When she was pregnant, she had held her body differently, walking upright with loaded pride instead of her usual teenage swag. Now it seemed like she was going to fail her parenting assessment.
Was I ready for this?
To take on someone else’s story, to be pinned to this place forever? Tied to this country, this man and to his disintegrating family?
I read over my son’s adoption reports and the forms filled out by social workers in an attempt to piece together his story. So much was left behind. The section on ethnicity says simply: Black, Zimbabwean. But there is no such thing. Zimbabwean is a nationality, not an ethnicity. On his biological mother’s side my son is Ndebele, an ethnic minority more closely related to South Africa’s Zulus in language and culture than to the majority Shona people of Zimbabwe. The identity of his biological father is unknown, a blank space on both his original birth certificate and his adoption file. If he had been adopted by another family, which was an absolute possibility, even what little was known about his ethnic and cultural background would have been lost, omitted from his story forever.
A year before he was mine, I watched as my sister-in-law carted her baby out of the family home and sat at the nearest bus stop. She had no intention of going anywhere—didn’t have any money, her phone, or a bus pass—but her parents were seemingly powerless to stop her from sitting at a bus stop on a cold winter night with her baby. She was like an unmoored ship, crashing from one shore to the next.
From the confines of the sitting room I saw her balancing the baby on her lap, bracing herself against the chill. The night air bit at our faces when we stepped outside to coax her back in. I wondered what was going through her mind. Was she was waiting for a new story to appear, so that she could grab a hold of it and use it to yank herself free from her own life?
Before I could ask her, her parents called the police. Eight officers escorted her back inside, and without much fuss she was out of the cold and back within the walls of the family home. But she never did manage to find a clear path through the mess of her story. When I look back at photographs from that time I see that my son’s eyes look haunted.
In the jumble of my son’s adoption files I find the letters that I wrote to the judge presiding over the case in the family court:
Sunday the 13th of October 2013
To the Honourable Judge,
We are writing this letter to you as we have concerns for the welfare of our nephew, M.
M has been in foster care for almost a year. As he nears his second birthday the local authority still does not have a clear care plan or position regarding his long-term care.
We write this with M’s best interests at heart. We feel that he needs a secure, stable, and loving environment in which to grow and that we are the ones best able to give this to him.
The letters were written when it seemed likely that the adoption would not proceed. We had already completed an in-depth assessment and been through an intensive one-week introductions period, where we tried to transition from being periphery family members to primary carers. Each day we spent an increasing amount of time with him, firstly at his foster carer’s house, then out in the community or back at our flat. The first time I tried to put him down for a nap he screamed so much that I lay down with him in my bed, but he continued to cry and wouldn’t settle. The second time I walked the long way home from the train station, hoping he would fall asleep in his stroller. He did but woke when we got to the flat. I left him to scream himself to sleep, with the bedroom door shut, just like his foster carers told me to.
After the intensity of the introductions week we were presented to a panel of experts so that we could be matched to our nephew for the adoption to proceed. We were turned down at that initial panel, as the basic paperwork requirements had not been met by the local authority handling the case. He had already been in foster care for over a year. We had been through months of home visits by at least five different social workers, completed the police and medical checks, provided references and financial statements. We had taken time off work and spent every weekend crossing the expanse of London on a train to spend time with him.
As I look back over my frantic letter to the judge, written ten days after we were rejected at the panel, I’m reminded of the names of the social workers involved and the events that seemed to loom over those days.
When my son finally came to live with us, 15 months after he went into foster care, we were given two pages of notes.
These are the things they told us were necessary:
An afro comb,
Plantain (not a Zimbabwean food),
To use the same washing detergent as his foster carers (so his clothes and bedsheets would smell familiar to him),
A bottle at bedtime and another at midnight,
Peppa Pig on television when he woke up at five am,
Ready Brek oats every morning at seven.
Things they didn’t tell us (not a comprehensive list by any means):
He would sometimes wake up in rages so bad that he didn’t recognise where he was or who he was with,
That he would call all Black women mama (on the bus, at the playground, even the social workers who came to check on us),
That he didn’t like to be held when he went to sleep,
That you really can’t sum up a human being with two pages of notes,
That the tremendous love I felt towards him would sometimes masquerade as shame and guilt.
In the years after the adoption is finalised the trauma spools out into other areas of my life. There are times when it gathers and pools like blood on a hard wood floor. I don’t want to see it but can’t look away. The trauma feels like a barrier that no one, least of all me, can get past.
Almost three years after the adoption we move to Australia as a family of three. I let the process of applying for migration visas for my son and my partner consume me and I spend a whole summer scanning statutory declarations, photographs, bills, and tenancy agreements as my son naps. Picking up our lives and moving them to Australia is more difficult than we imagined. My marriage falters and dies in a sudden explosion. It is over quickly but the shame of failure remains, especially when I think about the enduring losses for my son, who now must face seismic loss and trauma once again. The night my son finds out that his dad is leaving I watch as sobs wrack his little body with deep noiseless spasms. I fold his form into me, and we lie together in bed, united in grief.
I read books on adoption and attachment, learning that trauma can manifest in unusual sleep patterns like sleep disruption, nightmares, or the need for too much sleep. I think back to those early years, and how he always seemed to need sleep, more and more of it, and I wonder if that was his way of trying to sleep away the trauma and pain. At age nine he still sleeps in my bed, with one foot touching me, always seeking reassurance that I am there, that I won’t leave him.
He struggles to read and write, the narrative thread that should run through his neural pathways have been disrupted. Teachers remark on the stark disparity between his vocabulary, vivid imagination, and the jumble of letters that he manages to write down. I take him to be screened for dyslexia, and it seems to be that it’s all bound by trauma.
The missing stories, the learning difficulties; how much does this change the way he makes sense of the world? When he can’t begin to understand how to read, write or process language? Does he feel like the absence of story leaves him adrift in the world? Without the geography of a story, I wonder how he can even begin to make sense of himself. Which way is it—has the trauma robbed him of an ability to process information or does his inability to read and write stop him from making sense of the past?
What I know now: we will always carry this trauma with us in our bodies. Stuck to our bones, nestled between our organs, and concealed in our veins. Adoption is a kind of exile, a loss so deep that it reverberates through families forever. My son must feel a kind of ever-present and eternal absence, similar to what immigrants and refugees experience. I picture his loss folding in on him in layers: he has lost his birth parents and extended family, his home, his foster carers, his cultural heritage, language, and history. He has lost the stories that should have been his birthright.
One day I overhear my son and his best friend talking about his biological mum. The two of them are crouched closely together, eating ice blocks which drip onto the smooth wooden floor. His friend wants to know, was she a good mum like Brooke? My son uses his hands to indicate. So-so. And then: not really. But really, there is so much that he can’t remember. I don’t know whether to be grateful for this or not.
Under all of this is something deeper, and our relationship remains tenuous for him. Sure, it is deep and constant and full of love, all of those things. But in the pit of his stomach is the fear that I could be taken from him at any moment. This is after all what has happened to him throughout his life, he is no stranger to losing people. Sometimes he can verbalise his fears: I can’t get myself to trust myself. And he tells me that during the night, when he is in my bed and I’m working at the kitchen table in the next room or having a shower, that he imagines that someone will break into our house and something terrible will happen to me. He tells me that if this happens he will run to his best friend’s house, in the middle of the night, to get help. To get there would involve him running through his darkened school and crossing several roads. I make a note to teach him how to use the emergency call function on my phone.
The strongest link I have with my son will always be based on narrative, not genetics. We are a family because it was written so. Because of child protection reports, the issuing of a new birth certificate and a chain of emails that crisscrossed between a network of social workers. I even wrote my name into his by interweaving my surname into his birth name.
I could say that I wish it hadn’t happened this way. That I wish my son hadn’t experienced the trauma of separation, multiple times over. That I wish that I had stayed married and that we still lived in that little flat in Northwest London with the yellow bedroom that opened out onto the garden. I can wish for all of this, but that’s not the way it happened.
So much was lost, but there are other stories waiting for us. Adoption and parenthood are layered in complex narratives, stories that are moored in culture, tradition, language, and memory that have been piled on top of one another, melted and merged for thousands of years until we end up here. Our relationship is the story that binds us.
And with the story comes meaning. The narrative creates order, gives structure to the events that shattered lives along the way. I might not get this version of the story right, but that is not the point. There is plurality here. Who did what to who, who remembers what, even who owns whom. There are so many disparate parts of this story, of any story. Blurred memories, faded photographs, forgotten conversations, personal mythologies that place blame at the feet of everyone else. Would my now ex-husband remember that fateful phone call in our garden in London? I fantasise about picking up the phone and asking him but realise it’s not important.
I still find myself questioning whether this narrative enough. It seems like such a fragile thread on which to hang a family, a life. But writing this story is a kind of alchemy: it carries with it the power to transform. I write to give the story space, to let it breathe. I write to let it out of my body, my mind, and into the light. I let it vibrate through us as a living, breathing thing. I do my best to remember it all, the story of me and him. And as I write I find that he is at the centre of my story, and that I am at the centre of his.
I write my way back to the beginning of us, to the start of you and me. I write back to when you were first imagined, just a faint glimmer in your birth mother’s eye. I write myself to you, stitching our past and future together at the seams, wrapping you tightly in our memories so that you will never forget. I hold you in our story, I cover you with it and all the while I am telling you: you are loved, you are mine, you are the story.