I believe certain things happen for a reason, even if the reason is obscure or painful. After 20 years of letters to plea for information to the prison where my birth mother was sentenced, where I was born, the warden calls and invites me to visit the prison. The gates open with a warm welcome for a private tour. Prison is my birth country, a land I yearn to visit the way people adopted from Korea, India, China, the Philippines, various African nations, and every other country abroad yearn to visit places of their birth. Most people at least hold a curiosity about their roots. Even non-adopted people seek their homeland.
I’m headed home. My mother country, Alderson Prison.
Even though I’ve been raised with middle-class opportunities, I’ve felt exiled and paralyzed, deprived of my homeland. At last I’m headed to my motherland, a location up until now I’ve only imagined, a place elusive and bizarre but never real. I’m about to replace the impressions of prison promoted by television, movies, and public opinion with my own personal and private images. As difficult as it might feel for others to understand, I’m about to enter a world I’d always imagined as my place of comfort, a nest. While this contradicts the usual association with the word “prison,” a part of me connects the word and the place with love and safety. For any adult, we know it’s not true. For me as an infant, though, prison was the first place I felt loved.
Grass and concrete layer the compound, but the ground has fallen away in this out-of-body drift. My feet float, air-filled dumplings. Another space jump. I’m on the first floor of a two-story brick colonial, this one deserted. The afternoon sun slants through an open door into the hallway. We enter and the officer says, “Your mother delivered you in here.”
My head’s about to explode from emotional overload and from the humid ninety-five-degree West Virginia August heat. The officer’s shoes scuff on the tile and echo across the empty hospital room. I jump. She looks at me, waits for questions. At last I stand in the place of answers but I can’t eke out any words. Was it a difficult birth? I want to know but I’m silent, mute. Did my mom pant hard for air? Part of me, desperate to ask, tries to speak, but another part, all I can manage is a long draw of air. I’m speechless. I suck in a breath, imagine the scent of my mom’s birth sweat from more than thirty years ago.
Another time distortion sweeps me up and I imagine a collective thump of my heart with my prison mom’s, as if we’re together again in this barred hospital room we shared. Joy floods through me and I blink back the tears. No way do I want this officer to see me cry.
We inch across the compound and the officer leads me to Cottage C, two floors of long rows of rooms on either side of a hallway. I try to make small talk with the officer, but I feel transported back into my preverbal life in prison. My senses on fire, my cells alive, and I’m without words.
She points to an open door on my left at the end of the first-floor hall. For a second, I wonder why we approach this door: C7. Then it hits me. It’s the cell I shared with my mom.
The officer and floor guards hang back. I approach the door. My breath catches. Air traps in a cave at the bottom of my lungs. The last place she held me. She loved me in this room. I loved her here.
For the first time I think of her pain and loss, not just mine.
I try to step into the room but my boots glue to the tile. I can’t lift a foot. I lean forward, bent at my waist to scan the room for a second. I spin back into the hall and press my back against the wall. My breath still stuck, my head about to explode again.
I turn and step into the door threshold, try to enter this five-by-eight-foot room, my first home. There’s just enough space for a table, chair, and bed. I stand in the doorway and the cell soothes me like a scene in a dollhouse I played with as a girl. My home, this cell. I slept in here, ate, crawled around.
Was there nothing to keep my prison mom clean, the way I found motivation? Why didn’t she fight to stay out of prison, to stay clean from addiction, to begin a new life? Why couldn’t she do what I did? Why didn’t she? Wouldn’t she see any choices or chances? What if she’d quit drugs, stayed out of prison so she could look for me, find me, stay with me?
She didn’t get the chance to read any of the poems and stories I wrote as a kid or sit in the front row at my dance and piano recitals. She missed the times I fell into hell, she couldn’t teach me her street savvy, how to run from the cops or hunt the streets for the dealer who passed me bad dope. She wasn’t around when I passed out drunk or for the day I cleaned up. She missed it all.
I am sad we missed out together when my name changed from Madlyn to Deborah.
Sad she missed when I learned to dress myself, to tie my shoes.
My first bike ride, the skinned knees I got from roller-skating down the front steps.
Brushing my hair, then braiding it to keep the strands out of my eyes.
The day in sixth grade when I had to squint to see the blackboard, then learned I needed glasses.
The first time I got my period.
My first date.
My high school graduation.
Missed when I learned to stand up straight, shoulders back, so people think I’m confident even when I’m not.
Missed the chance to see my profile like hers.
I’m sad she couldn’t show me how to make the cowlicks in my hair, also hers, act right.
How to salve my dry ashy skin.
How to tame the restless tiger inside.
How to cool the blaze in my chest from so many years of masked pain.
She missed my telling of this story.
Then I remind myself—“if only” doesn’t go anywhere.
She just didn’t.
Some people shoot heroin, others overdose on shame, guilt, and secrets. I’d lost myself in all of it. Drugs were never social entertainment for me; alcohol never just a beverage. They served as my anesthesia, a patch, medicine, healing, freedom. And then, near-death. Drugs ruined my every relationship, every corner of my life, because my one true love ruled—alcohol and drugs. I’d hoped this voyage to my homeland would be a tonic in my healing and forgiveness.
Right before I leave the prison’s administration building, the warden’s assistant waves me into her office. She hands me an inmate bulletin typed on coarse beige newsprint, one page tabbed with a two-inch cutout sketch of a baby.
“Open it,” the warden says, her eyes warm, almost teary.
Further down the hall we’re met with gales of laughter and we fought our way in to greeting the bubbling, bounding debutante of the compound. The little dark-eyed witch Stromboli, 5 months old, weighing 13 lbs. She is already sporting argyle socks. Her given name is Madlyn Mary but no one seems to remember it. Even Margo, a personality kid herself, has a hard time recalling it. We left laughing, who could help it, behind the force of such a dynamic duo.
My name! Madlyn Mary. There, in black and white, evidence of us together. Even though I learned my name earlier, now it feels real. I run the words over my tongue and imagine our time together in prison, my mom and I, her whispers—Madlyn. My whole body floods with a warm gush of assurance.
It’s the end of my tour and the warden walks me to the front of the compound where her house sits near a white picket fence around a four-foot-square grassy area. Inside the fence, six tiny grave markers topple sideways. Bits of moss creep up the white granite.
Her voice softens, almost to a whisper. “These babies didn’t make it. You were one of the lucky ones.”
I reel inside, ready to break. How did I end up as one who survived?
I feel a glimmer of a miracle, how I’d survived against so many odds, beginning on day one of my life. But I don’t have time to linger in reflection for long. It’s time for my tour to end and the warden leads me farther down the hill. I thank her, we shake hands, and I walk through the prison gates.