Orphan boy: Alex Kane's moving memoir of the adoptive parents who saved him
Written off by orphanage staff as being ‘sub-normal’, Alex Kane tells the deeply moving story of how the couple he would go on to call mum and dad, helped him overcome his traumas and gave him the confidence to thrive.
Even today, 53 years after I was adopted, there are mornings when I wake up and wonder where I am. And there are nights when Kerri has to wake me because what's she's hearing from me is the whimpering and fear of a frightened child.
Those dreams have never stopped. They haunted me as a child: and they still haunt me now, even though I'm happy and settled. The dreams have taken slightly different forms over the years, but they always end up with me standing outside a door and being unable to open it: unable to open it because the sense of fear and sheer terror is so overwhelming.
I remember nothing of my life before I was adopted in July 1961, a few weeks before my sixth birthday. Nothing. I have no memories of my parents, or any other family members, even though I didn't go to the orphanage until I was four. I have no memories of the orphanage, although I spent almost two years there. Those six years of my life have been wiped from my memory bank. It was clearly my way of coping with trauma.
I first met my adoptive mother, Adelaide, in the summer of 1960, but I have no memory of that, either. I had a squint (which I still have) and I was sent to her — she was an orthoptist — to have my eyes tested. I didn't speak to her at our first meeting or at the three follow-up visits. Indeed, I didn't speak at all at that point in my life. My silence didn't worry her. She liked me. Maybe it was something to do with that old line about eyes being windows to the soul and it was her job to peer into my eyes.
But when she approached the orphan
age with a view to adopting me they did everything they could to put her off. They told her that my unwillingness to communicate with anyone was evidence that I was almost certainly educationally sub-normal and wouldn't be able to fit in with the sort of life she was prepared to offer me. She ignored them!
I arrived in Armagh in July 1961. I was given a bear — he's never really had a name — and he has been with me ever since. He has been everywhere I've ever lived since then, including university digs. At the moment he resides in my study. He's the constant reminder that I've had two lives and two identities; and the constant reminder that I've been an extraordinarily lucky person.
You can never properly explain the feeling that accompanies the journey from an orphanage to a home and room of your own. Fernbank was a fairytale house for someone like me. Big — but not in the scary way that the orphanage was. It had fields all around it, which Sam rented out for cattle and horses. You could walk across those fields and come to a small river. Adelaide was passionate about the garden — which was also large. I loved that house. I loved standing in a field and stroking the heads of cattle. I loved feeding the horses. I loved being allowed to mow a lawn. I loved sitting in the front porch with a glass of lemonade. I loved having my own bedroom.
I'll never know — and I'm not sure that Adelaide and Sam knew themselves — why my ‘new' parents decided to ignore the advice not to adopt me. They certainly weren't experts on child psychiatry and couldn't have known that I wasn't sub-normal. I never spoke to them before they adopted me and all they got from me was a nod of the head when they asked me if I wanted to leave the orphanage and live with them. My mum told me years later that that nod of the head convinced her that I could understand what was going on around me.
Anyway, in an effort to prove her point and prove the orphanage wrong, she and Sam spent the next two years reading to me. They were bookish people anyway: books in every room, along with newspapers and magazines. They also preferred radio to television. So I grew up with the sound of words and of people talking. But it
was never easy for me at that stage. I was a hugely difficult child and prone to tantrums. I dreaded the sound of the doorbell or telephone because I thought it was someone arriving to take me back to the orphanage.
Bit by bit I began to talk to them — but only to them: I wouldn't talk to anyone else who came to the house. Because I hadn't spoken for so long, I had forgotten the mechanics of speech, so I started off with a lisp and rhotacism (the inability to pronounce my r's). They wanted to send me for elocution but I refused to get out of the car on the seven occasions they drove me to a private tutor. So they kept on reading to me and hoping that I would it pick up as I went along.
I went to school for the first time in 1963. It reminded me of the orphanage. I was terrified. One boy picked on me because of my squint and ‘stupid way' of talking and he soon had a gang of people picking on me.
Within a couple of weeks he had also found out that Sam and|Adelaide were not my real parents, so I had to endure being told, day after day, that my real parents had got rid of me because I looked strange and talked strange. Even writing that, I can feel myself welling up. I hate all bullies, in whatever form they manifest themselves.
But his bullying became one of the turning points in my battle to find my own voice. I never told Sam and|Adelaide I was being bullied, because I assumed that they would just get rid of me.
But I do remember asking her if I could go back for elocution lessons. It was tough going and it took a while, but I found my voice. I learned to speak. I learned to speak in front of others. I learned not to hide in the background anymore. There was nothing I could do about the squint, I was always going to have one — even though a couple of minor operations had made it a little less noticeable.
I never told my parents about my dreams, either. But night after night I had the same dream: the same black, terrifying dream. Morning after morning I woke in a wet bed. And I never told them about the pains in my|stomach. They had been part of my life since as long as I could remember and I just assumed there was no point in complaining about it. It was just one of those things.
Walking back from school one day I vomited and fainted. When I came to there was a group of people around me and a pool of blood. An ulcer had perforated in my stomach and I was rushed to Dundonald hospital for a transfusion. My mum told me — again, years later — that the doctor had warned her that I could die. The good news for me was that I never wet the bed again!
The rest, as they say, is history. The stomach pains stopped and I found it much easier to concentrate at school. The bed-wetting stopped so I was prepared to go to sleepovers and camping weekends with friends. Two very understanding teachers of English took me under their wing and encouraged me to write. My school entered me for a debating competition — which I won. I had found myself and my voice. The ‘new' Alex had arrived.
People ask me why I don't find out about my birth parents and my life before the orphanage. There's a part of me that doesn't want to know and that's because of the dreams. Something traumatised me back then and I'm not sure that I want to know the details. As I say, even though I'm in a blissfully happy head-over-heels-in-love relationship and have two wonderful girls, I can still wake up very, very scared.
I regard Adelaide and Sam as my parents and even though they are both dead, I can't help feeling that it would be a betrayal of the risks they took for me if I was to start poking about in my past.
I wasn't an easy child to live with. I gave them a really hard time. I put them through hell and back on a number of occasions: and I'm sure there were times when they wished they hadn't bothered bringing me into their lives.
But they never gave up on me. They gave me the sort of unconditional love and support that parents are supposed to give to their children. They were always there when I needed them. They were more often there before I'd even realised that I needed them. So why would I want to find out about my ‘real' parents or early life?
Taking someone else's child into your life is never easy. Yes, it happens all the time when couples split up, begin a new relationship and share children between them. But in those cases you tend to know the parents: you may even see them on a regular basis.
It's not the same with an adopted child, particularly a morose, traumatised six-year-old. Quite often you've no idea what you're letting through your front door.
That was the reality when Adelaide and Sam (she was in her late 40s and he in his late 50s) opened their home and lives to me. Wherever I'd lived before doesn't exist in terms of my memory. The orphanage — other than in the shape of a large building — doesn't exist either. Adelaide and Sam are my parents. They are my family.
They were also extraordinary people: and I really cannot say that enough. How many prospective adoptive parents would take on a child when they had been told he was “almost certainly educationally sub-normal”?
I remember when my Mum was clearing out Fernbank — she had decided to move to France after Sam had died — she lifted the one-page psychiatric assessment that had been in the envelope the orphanage had given her. “Well, you proved them wrong,” I said. “No,” she said, “we proved them wrong and that's what families do for each other.”
We live in a world in which the word extraordinary is used of people who are mostly pretty ordinary. The ability to change a life for the better is a truly extraordinary thing and that's why Adelaide and Sam were extraordinary.
And do you know something; if I really had been educationally sub-normal I can't imagine that it would have made a difference to the love and time they devoted to me. They were offered other children at the time they were making their pitch for me, but stuck with their gut instinct.
So why the dreams: why the whimpering and sweat-soaked fear 50 years later? I don't know. I cannot imagine being any happier than I am now. I enjoy what I do and I adore my family. Surely after all this time the dreams should have stopped? But they still come. Still terrify me. Still nag and nag and nag at me.
Is there something I need to know about my past? Are the dreams some sort of internal message that I need to confront the issue rather than try and keep it all at arm's length?
It would be very easy to contact social services, make an appointment and see all of the available files relating to my first four years and my time in the orphanage. I might discover that I have long lost brothers and sisters. I might discover the real reason I ended up in an orphanage. I might discover that my birth mother is still alive. Who knows what I could find out about myself? And maybe, just maybe, the dreams would end.
Three months before she died — and we both knew it was imminent — I asked Adelaide how she would feel if I enquired about my birth parents. She took my hands in her hands: “Do what you think is important for you, but never forget that Sam and I were your mum and dad and we've been very proud parents.”
So no, Mum, I'll never forget that.
Celebrities who thrived after adoption
Steve Jobs — the late Apple computers guru’s biological father was Abdulfattah Jandali, a Syrian Muslim, whose girlfriend’s parents objected to their mixed relationship. As a consequence, he was adopted as an infant by Paul and Clara Jobs in February 1955
Bill Clinton — the former US President was sent to live with his grandparents as a child after his mother was widowed, and is only the second US President to have been adopted, Gerald Ford being the other
Jamie Foxx — the Hollywood actor and comedian was born Eric Bishop in 1967 but following his parents’ separation he was adopted at seven months by his maternal grandmother, whom he thanked years later during his Academy Award acceptance speech for her hard work and love
Nicky Campbell — the Scottish radio and television presenter was adopted as a four-day old baby, and later traced his birth mother, who was from a Dublin Protestant family, and his biological father, who turned out to be a Northern Irish Catholic who was 13 years younger than her. In 2004 he wrote the book Blue-Eyed Son, an account of his adoption and efforts to trace his birth parents