I’m the one you heard about. Ten years ago. June 28th. The seventeen-year-old girl struck by lightning while she was talking to her boyfriend on the phone. It was all over the news, usually near the end, a story to give America something to smile about. I wasn’t hurt badly; I was thrown back, I hit the wall, a spice rack fell to the ceramic kitchen floor and broke. My mom – my adoptive mom – called 911 and I was taken to the hospital emergency room. I felt okay, but I had a nosebleed. While I was waiting I talked to this stringer from the Danbury News-Times who’d gotten the story from the ambulance driver. He asked me how it felt to be struck by lightning and I said, “I guess it’s like being kissed by Johnny Depp.”
My story was quickly forgotten, but my quote survived. I heard a college football coach say it after his team won the Cotton Bowl, and I read about a woman in New Hampshire using my exact words when she hit the Daily Millions Game. My boyfriend Kenny, whom I was talking to on the phone when it happened, claimed he heard the line on Seinfeld, but that’s never been confirmed.
The real story, though, was never reported. It happened a few days after the lightning strike, and despite what many people (doctors and psychiatrists included) think, I believe it was directly related.
I became obsessed with my mother.
Not my adoptive mother, who nursed me through oral thrush, and paid for the horseback riding lessons my father forbad, and helped me decorate Gracie Kutner’s eighth grade locker on her birthday. My Chinese mother.
Up until this time I hadn’t given her much thought. She was a woman who had given me up for whatever reason and, like me, gone on with her life. But now, suddenly, I saw things differently. I envisioned not a poor, belabored soul victimized by her country’s one-child policy, but a revolutionary. I had obviously been kidnapped as some sort of retribution and sold to these wealthy, childless Americans, people who buy babies like others buy goldfish or shoes or insurance.
Then I found a photograph in the World Book. Qiu Jin. Her name, roughly translated, means Autumn Jade. She was a Chinese woman who, over a hundred years ago, unbound her own feet, dressed in men’s clothing, and took up a sword to fight the corrupt Qing Dynasty. She abandoned her husband and kids, unthinkable in that time and place. I convinced myself that she, beheaded in 1907, had somehow given birth to me in 1974.
I began to drive my American mom crazy by constantly qualifying things. In the car, I would remind her the moment she exceeded the speed limit. At home I would tell her that the frozen pizza box instructed us to preheat the oven to 450 degrees, not 400. Pi, I would inform her as she tried to help me with my homework, did not simply equal 3.14, but stretched into infinity, numbers marching in line as precise as the Red Guards.
During these times she would simply say, “All right, Dawn. I get it.” My oversensitivity would then kick in, an argument would follow, doors would slam.
I am not of that woman, I would repeat to myself.
My American father, who’d moved out of the house right after Easter, did as he’d always done. He cautiously and courteously avoided me. My mother called him on the phone one night – I was listening on the extension – and he told her these things have a way of working themselves out. When she asked if he was coming home, my dad told her he still needed time to gather himself.
I spent more and more time alone. My friends began to make plans that didn’t include me. Kenny, whom I’d dated since we were both freshmen, told me it was probably a good idea “if we expanded our individual horizons.”
Not that it mattered; I now had little use for any of them.
I began to lie. I would tell strangers that my name was Dao-Ming (the name I had been given in the orphanage,) and that I had moved here with my mother from Shaoxing City after my father’s death. If they were white, I told them I spoke Mandarin. If they were Chinese, I said I only spoke English since my mother would not allow me to use the language of our oppressors.
I told my friends – my ex-friends at this point – that my Chinese mother had located me and that I’d be joining her right after graduation. I said that she was wealthy and well-educated and always in constant danger. The fact that most of them rolled their eyes at my stories only made my disdain stronger.
I started to call my mother by her first name, Diane, and she seldom corrected me.
If this had been Seinfeld, the solution would have been easy. I would
have been struck by lightning a second time, and returned to being the potato chip munching, boy ogling, insecure high school (soon to be) senior that I was before. But lightning, in this case anyway, didn’t strike twice.
Then, in August, I found out I was pregnant.
“Go ahead,” I said to my American mom as soon as our doctor confirmed the result of the home pregnancy test. “Yell at me. Tell me I’m a slut.”
We were in the car driving home. It was hot, but I felt like I wanted to wrap myself in an electric blanket turned on high.
“What good would yelling do?” she asked.
“Why do you always have to be so self-righteous!” I screamed.
She put on the blinker and turned into our driveway. “Do you want to keep it?” she asked.
I knew what she wanted me to say. She wasn’t one of those loony abortion clinic bomber types, but she was Catholic and bought into that whole life-begins-at-conception deal.
“No,” I said.
“You sure?” she asked calmly.
“I want to go to college,” I said. “I don’t want this to be the end.”
“So let’s make it work,” she said as she pushed a button and our garage door opened like a dark portal into the unknown.
Over the next couple of months, the fixation with my Chinese mother dissipated. I had the baby in January, an eight pound girl. All over town you could hear the sound of eyebrows being raised. Kenny contacted me, but I told him the baby wasn’t his and, relieved, he went on his way. I was accepted at Williams College. My parents’ divorce, despite my mother’s Catholic wishes, became final and she and I moved to North Adams, about five miles from the college.
My mom got a job at the public library and told everyone the baby, named Autumn Jade, was hers. My daughter one minute, my sister the next. People either assumed both of us had been adopted, or that my mother’s ex-husband was Asian. Few ever asked.
Four years later I graduated and got a job teaching elementary school in Boston. I brought my family with me. My mom got a license to sell real estate, and AJ, as we call her, grew strong and confident. She calls her grandmother “Mama,” and so do I. We continue to survive, but during thunderstorms we stay indoors, away from electrical appliances and windows, the three of us huddled as closely together as newborn puppies in a cardboard box.