by Lola E. Peters
The drunk walked away unscathed. My father died instantly. My mother, true to form, clung to life. For seven days I sat by her hospital bed vacillating between “you’ve had a good life, mom, it’s OK to go” and “no, not yet, we’re not done.” On the last day, with the doctor standing over her, she suddenly opened her eyes, looked straight at me and said, “I’m so sorry Diana. My perfect girl. We’re so sorry. If only we’d known.” Then she closed her eyes, exhaled, and died. Now it was sure: there would never be a conversation between us that ended in certainty.
On their 80th birthdays, each of my parents gave me an envelope to be opened on the day each died. Not surprisingly, the envelopes contained details for their cremations and memorial services. They were scientists, humanists; no long religious drama for them. Their memorials were to be held in Casper’s Glen.
Casper’s Glen. If my parents truly believed memorial services were for the living, then why were they forcing me back to the memories of childhood torture seeping out of every corner of that stifling hamlet? For nearly thirty years I had cauterized the synapses leading to those memories. Now I had to go back. Each night I dreamed of faces contorted in mocking laughter and heard my mother’s soothing whisper “my perfect girl.” Those words, spoken to me every night for the first seventeen years of my life as the family watched the evening news, were the heart of my search for a career in broadcasting. While everyone in town snickered at the obvious physical differences between my family and me, inside our home my parents reminded me daily: girls who looked like me were the successful ones. Just look at the reporters and weather girls on the evening news. They hinted I was, like those women, pre-ordained to success.
By the time I reached my preteens, I was convinced I’d been adopted. Maybe one of those TV personalities was my real mother. I even created a whole back story about how she had to give me up in order to save her career, and my parents had graciously agreed to raise me until I was old enough to join her in New York or Los Angeles. On vacations I convinced myself she was somewhere nearby watching me. Every time I’d see a woman with my frame and coloring, I’d try to get closer and see if her eyes were as distinct as mine. If not, which was usually the case, my heart would drop.
I began treating my parents with respectful indifference. After all, I reasoned, one day I would have to leave them and join my real mother. But I respected and loved them for their willingness to take in and raise a child not theirs. I knew they made sacrifices for me, and I was deeply grateful.
Finally, in high school, I decided to pursue the path my parents groomed me for: broadcasting. I joined all the right clubs, became the lead in school plays and sang solos with the choir. While the drama and music teachers seemed to like me, other teachers treated me with disdain. The science teacher was the worst. “You’re not so special in my classroom,” he would say, “I don’t care who you or your parents are.” I imagined this was a reference to my parents’ status as plant geneticists and found it confusing since there were other students in his class whose parents also taught at the nearby university.
How many of those horrible people would I have to see at the memorial service? Would they be offended when I couldn’t remember them? Would they revel in my failure to become a broadcaster, or even come close to Broadway? By the time I graduated college, the faces on the evening news had changed and the stars no longer looked like me. Former starlets had been relegated to playing hookers and drug addicts on TV dramas. I was no longer “fashionable.” Walking out of auditions, I would hear casting directors say, “I could have done a lot with her ten years ago, but no one wants that look now. It’s been done.” I was no longer the “perfect girl” except in my parents’ eyes; those eyes haunting me with their disappointment and, when I became a paralegal, disapproval. And now they were dead.
I wrote their obituaries, one for each of them, and sent them to the local papers. As a result, the memorial service was well attended. People ascribed my detached demeanor and memory lapses to the shock of losing both parents so suddenly. The reception afterward flew by in a whirl. Near the end, when only a few people remained, a former neighbor approached me.
“Hi Diana. I don’t know if you remember me, Janet Morton. Oh, I was Janet Adams then. We lived up the street?”
I vaguely remembered her as an annoying, scrawny, younger child, always wanting to tag along with the older kids.
“Sure,” I responded.
“My mother died about a year ago.”
“I’m so sorry,” I interrupted.
“It’s OK. She was very ill, and death was a release from a lot of pain.” I nodded.
“I was going through the contents of her attic a few months ago and came across something I think really belongs to your family. It’s in a box in my car. I know this is awkward, but I don’t know when else I might give it to you.”
“What on earth?” I thought.
“Of course, thank you,” was what I actually said. “Give me a minute to finish up here and I’ll go out to your car with you.”
After saying goodbye to the remaining guests and confirming when my parents’ remains would be delivered to the mausoleum, I walked with Janet and transferred a large file box from her car to mine. It was taped up and labeled DIANA ANDREASON FILES across the top.
“What is all this?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. As a kid, I remember my parents saying odd things about your family’s move into the neighborhood. You know, in that way meant to confuse kids; nothing that made sense to me. Stuff like: ‘perfection is a myth.’ Anyway, since it’s your name on the box, you should have it. Here’s my card if there’s anything in the box I can help you with.”
I took the card: Janet Morton, Investigative Reporter. Great. Another reminder of my failures.
After the quiet ceremony at the mausoleum I went home, curled up on the sofa with a hot cup of tea and stared at the walls until I fell asleep. I awoke around 2:00am and crawled into bed. I dreamt of a giant mother spider standing on a wrap-around porch protecting her children from me. This recurring dream only came when my mother needed me to call her, so I awoke reaching for the phone. I remembered just before I dialed.
In the days following the memorial, I had my parents’ condo to close and sell and their belongings to organize and store or dispose of. Each morning I would see the box in the back of my car and say, “I’ll bring it in tonight.” Each evening I’d think, “I’m too tired.”
Friends came by to help me sort and move piles of memories. They cooked for me and made me laugh. One of them inadvertently brought the box in from my car. Seeing the label across the top, he asked “What’s in the box?”
“I don’t know.” I explained the story of how I got it.
“Oh, a mystery. Cool. Aren’t you going to open it? I mean, it could be important.”
“OK. You can keep your secrets overnight, but tomorrow morning bright and early I want to know what’s in that box.”
“You’re such a pest.”
“Yes. I am your friend.”
After they all left, I stared at the box a long time. Finally I went to the kitchen, got a box cutter, and sliced the tape. Inside was a photo album and many file folders. On the first page of the album was a newspaper photo of my parents with me cradled in my mother’s arms. I had seen this photograph many times, but never on newsprint. I turned the page.
First Designer Baby is Born read the inch-high headline. The article continued:
Dr. Maritsa Andreason, wife of Dr. Stephen Andreason and botany professor at Corman College, has given birth to the first infant specially designed to her parents’ specifications. Dr. John Mowerman, who delivered the baby girl, reported little Diana weighed 7-lbs, 4-oz and was 19-inches long. The healthy infant and mother will remain in the hospital for a couple of days to monitor their health.
What?! What?! I reread the paragraph over and over. What! No wonder I didn’t look like anyone in my family. I suddenly became acutely aware of my features: my skin color, the shape of my eyes, the size of my breasts. I really am a freak. Really. A freak outside of nature. Oh my god.
I continued to read:
This birth has stirred fierce debate among scientists, ethicists, theologians, psychologists and government officials. The public is evenly split among those who say they want this option for their own future children and those who think designer babies are unethical and sacrilegious. Protests are scheduled outside the hospital when the Andreason’s take their child home, and Dr. James Crayfield, the geneticist who produced the infant, has received death threats at his office and home. The Andreasons’ home and neighborhood in suburban Los Angeles will receive round-the-clock police protection.
Casper’s Glen wasn’t anywhere near Los Angeles. Whenever I asked my parents about our first home, they told me we moved so they could work together at the university.
I suddenly realized: the kids I grew up with weren’t teasing me; they were trying to tell me the truth. I am a freak. I’m not an anchorwoman’s secret love child. I’m an art piece commissioned by my parents and manufactured by Frankenstein. They all knew. The science teacher knew. The only one who didn’t know: me.
Bit by bit I became angry. Not the five-stages-of-grief angry. Really furious. If the mausoleum hadn’t been locked and patrolled by a security guard I would have driven there, taken my parents ashes, and dumped them in the sewer. How dare they do this to me? I’m not a Picasso or Rodin they can show off to their friends. I’m a person. And the joke that should have been on them was on me. The “perfect girl” they created was based on a model now extinct and irrelevant, but I have to live with her. By the time she inevitably returns to fashion, I will no longer be her.
I heard anew my mother’s dying words. Is this what she/they were sorry for: this monumental lie: my life? As I turned page after page the album exposed my fraud. Each role in a high school or college play held the notation “nature, nurture or science.” There were pictures of my kindergarten, junior high, high school, and college graduations. A copy of an article I’d written fresh out of college. Page after page of my successes and failures all called into question. Interspersed with stories about me were papers my parents had published about their research on intentional hybridization of lilies. Now my middle name, Lily, took on a sinister meaning. Was I their living human experiment? Were there papers somewhere written about me?
I ran to the bathroom and vomited for ten minutes. My body shook with rage. Who were these people who raised me? My benign fantasy of a kindly old couple who took in a bastard baby gave way to a Stephen King nightmare. My parents had engineered me to be their vision of “the perfect girl” of their era, denying me the chance to become the perfect girl of my own. What I had interpreted as generosity and kindness was monumental selfishness. I sobbed in rage at the betrayal. Snippets from long submerged memories burst into my consciousness, fueling my emotional steam engine, producing three Kleenex boxes worth of tears.
At some point my brain switched back on and I, the daughter of scientists, began a list of questions:
- Who is this Crayfield, my personal Dr. Frankenstein, and is he still around to answer my questions?
- Was I the only one or are there other manufactured children? If so, do any of them know?
- Whose child am I genetically? Or am I anyone’s child?
- Are there medical records I should have? Diseases I should watch out for?
- Since I can’t use my mother as a model, what will happen to my body as I age?
- Is this why I’ve never become pregnant, even when I tried?
And on and on until the sheet was full.
The light of dawn finally broke through and urged me back to the present. Had I just slept through a horrible nightmare? No. There, strewn all around my living room, was The Box, with the articles, pictures, and commentary that had sliced my reality into shreds throughout the night.
I jumped, startled by the phone’s jangling tone. The world was still out there.
“Hey. Are you up? We’re on our way over.”
I looked furtively around the room. Was I ready for my friends to see this?
“Yeah. I’m up.”
“OK, we’re stopping for lattes then we’ll be right there.”
I held the phone for at least a minute after the line had disconnected. What to do? What would my friends say? What would they do? Would I become one of those tabloid freaks sold out by all their friends? Will pictures of me surface on the Internet next to pictures of Sasquatch?
I curled up on the sofa in a ball of indecision and waited for whatever was coming next.
Lola Peters is an editor-at-large for the South Seattle Emerald.
Featured Image: Dean Hochman under a Creative Commons license.
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