Debra and I agreed we both needed some coffee pumping in our systems before we talked about what was going on in the cemetery. We sat in our usual spot in the empty cafeteria trading off awkward eye contacts and repeatedly folding our napkins like neurotic origami.
“This is going to sound crazy, but you are going to have to believe me,” Debra cut through the small talk.
I didn’t say anything back, just nodded and wiped my mouth.
I continued not to speak, just gave Debra a confused look, she blushed and went on.
“I know that is a lot to digest and you probably don’t believe me, but I can prove it, I swear.”
I looked around the cafeteria to make sure no one was in ear shot.
“What the fuck are you talking about? Why are you leaving flowers at my dad’s grave?”
Debra gave a long pause and let out a heavy exhale.
“It’s probably easier if I just show you some things. This is going to be a lot to take in. I understand. I also understand if you want to walk out of this cafeteria right now and never see me again.”
My gut instinct told me this woman was full of shit and I needed to just walk away, but something in her eyes seemed to familiar I wanted to believe her. Looking at her, I felt as if I had always known her somehow. It was like a subconscious memory from a dream.
“Okay,” I agree with a nod.
Debra pulled her hefty purse out from under the table and started sifting through it until she produced a few items she spread out upon the table.
The first item she slid over to me made me want to jump out of my seat. It was a faded Polaroid and in the picture was what I recognized as me as a toddler held in the younger arms of what was unmistakably Debra, her grey locks replaced with shining red.
I picked up the picture and examined it closer.
“There’s no other way to say this John, but that’s not your real mother.”
I took my eyes off the picture and looked to Debra’s soft blue ones, the same color as mine.
“I’m your mother.”
I couldn’t get a word out or a breath in as Debra looked at me with crying eyes. She slid over the other two items. One was the same missing child milk carton I had seen before, the other an old newspaper clipping.
“That article can back everything I am going to tell you. The dying woman in that hospital room kidnapped you from me when you were just barely three years old. Took you from my home in Asheville, North Carolina where I was raising you as a single mother and ran away to this tiny island with you where she thought no one could ever find either of you. But I found you Jeff, I can’t believe I found you.”
I stuttered. She cut me off.
“Can I call you Jeff? That’s what I named you. That’s. What. I. Named. You.”
“Yeah, that’s okay.”
“I just really can’t believe I found you. I waited so many years and I didn’t know how to explain all of this correctly. I promise you. Even hearing my explanation now seems clunky to me. But look at the article, it’s all there.”
I had been reading the article while Debra talked and it was true, the newsprint confirmed everything she was saying. It said young mother Debra Clancy had her son Jeff abducted in Asheville by a woman named Susan Blum who had disappeared. There was no denying what was in print, but I still felt hollow. The woman who had raised me my entire life had stolen me from my real mother?
I wanted to still call Debra a liar, but I couldn’t. Especially because I could see some resemblance of myself in her. But, I also saw resemblance in my mother and father. I didn’t know what the hell to think. I just stared across that dirty cafeteria table at Debra with my mouth open until a very good question popped into it.
“Why were you leaving the flowers at my dad’s grave?”
She snapped up in her seat.
“He was the one who finally led me to you. I wanted to honor him in some way and that was the only way I could really think of. I thought I would never find you, but then one day I got a Facebook message from a man I had never seen before, your father. I thought it was really weird I even had a message because I had only started the profile about a few weeks before.
“I’m not good with technology. But I got the message, saying he had been looking for me ever since he started using the Internet at work himself and he found our story. He said he was dying and the last thing he wanted to do was let me know about you. He had only found out about your story a few weeks before because your mother had started spurting out random memories once she started slipping into Alzheimer’s and she had told him about what happened. He told me you had just moved back up here, you were okay and I was welcome to come up any time and meet with you, as long as his wife didn’t find out.”
I had an unintentional cringe on my face that I’m sure concerned Debra, she started speaking frantically.
“I didn’t make it up here until your dad had already passed and I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t introduce myself to your mom or you when she was around, but I was relieved when I found out she was in the hospital. Hospitals are always looking for volunteer help, so I signed up and I couldn’t believe it when I finally saw you.
“The great thing too was she was so out of it there was no way she would ever recognize me all these years later.”
I believed her. The article really helped, but it was also just one of those things where you believe someone because of the natural things – the quiver in her voice, the look on her face, the tears in her eyes – she was telling the truth. I actually wished I thought she was lying because it would leave far fewer difficult questions and directions.
I looked down at the table, ashamed, and I didn’t know why.
“Well, now what?” I said with a near chuckle.
“I can’t give you that answer Jeff,” Debra said. “I would love to get to know you, spend time with you, but I understand how heavy and crazy this has to be, so you don’t have to. I’m renting a place on the island and I would be happy to have you over, or meet somewhere, whatever you are most comfortable with. We can talk more.”
She took out a pen and a scrap of paper and wrote a phone number and email address on it.
“This is my contact info, take your time.”