Here's what I did when my dad took me down to Phoenix: I visited my own grave.
Clearly, this needs an explanation.
I was born and lived the first four years of my life on Phoenix. Near where I lived, there is a cemetery. In that cemetery is a headstone, and on that headstone are three names: Cheryl Boutin, Charles Boutin and Zoe Boutin.
My mother's name is there because she is actually buried there; I remember being there for her funeral and seeing her shroud put into the ground.
My father's name is there because for many years people believed his body was there. It's not. His body lies on a planet named Arist, where he and I lived for a time with the Obin. There is a body buried here, though, one that looks like my father and has the same genes as he does. How it got there is a really complicated story.
My name is there because before my father and I lived on Arist, he thought for a time that I had been killed in the attack on Covell, the space station he and I had lived on. There was no body, obviously, because I was still alive; my father just didn't know it. He had my name and dates carved into the headstone before he was told I was still around.
And so there you have it: three names, two bodies, one grave. The only place where my biological family exists, in any form, anywhere in the universe.
In one sense, I'm an orphan, and profoundly so: My mother and father were only children, and their parents were dead before I was born. It's possible I have second cousins twice removed somewhere on Phoenix, but I've never met them and wouldn't know what to say to them even if they existed. Really, what do you say? "Hi, we share about four percent of our genetic makeup, let's be friends"?
The fact is, I'm the last of my line, the last member of the Boutin family, unless and until I decide to start having babies. Now, there's a thought. I'm going to table it for now.
In one sense I was an orphan. But in another sense...
Well. First, my dad was standing behind me, watching me as I was kneeling down to look at the headstone my name was on. I don't know how it is with other adoptees, but I can say that there never was a time with John and Jane that I didn't feel cherished and loved and theirs. Even when I was going through that early puberty phase where I think I said "I hate you" and "Just leave me alone" six times daily and ten times on Sunday. I would have abandoned me at the bus stop, that's for sure.
John told me that back when he lived on Earth, he had a son, and his son had a boy, Adam, who would have been just about my age, which technically made me an aunt. I thought that was pretty neat. Going from having no family on the one hand to being someone's aunt on the other is a fun trick. I told that to Dad; he said "you contain multitudes," and then walked around with a smile for hours. I finally got him to explain it to me. That Walt Whitman, he knew what he was talking about.
Second, there were Hickory and Dickory to the side of me, twitching and trembling with emotional energy, because they were at the gravesite of my father, even if my father wasn't buried there, and never was. It didn't matter. They were worked up because of what it represented. Through my father, I guess you could say I was adopted by the Obin, too, although my relationship to them wasn't exactly like being someone's daughter, or their aunt. It was a little closer to being their goddess. A goddess for an entire race of people.
Or, I don't know. Maybe something that sounds less egotistical: patron saint, or racial icon or mascot or something. It was hard to put into words; it was hard to even wrap my brain around most days. It's not like I was put on a throne; most goddesses I know about don't have homework and have to pick up dog poop. If this is what being an icon is all about, on a day-today basis it's not terribly exciting.
But then I think about the fact that Hickory and Dickory live with me and have spent their lives with me because their government made it a demand of my government when the two of them signed a peace pact. I am actually a treaty condition between two intelligent races of creatures. What do you do with that sort of fact?
Well, I tried to use it once: When I was younger I tried to argue with Jane that I should be able to stay up late one night because I had special status under treaty law. I thought that was pretty clever. Her response was to haul out the entire thousand-page treaty - I didn't even know we had a physical copy - and invite me to find the part of the treaty that said I always got to have my way. I stomped over to Hickory and Dickory and demanded they tell Mom to let me do what I wanted; Hickory told me they would have to file a request to their government for guidance, and it would take several days, by which time I would already have to be in bed. It was my first exposure to the tyranny of bureaucracy.
What I do know that it means is that I belong to the Obin. Even at that moment in front of the grave, Hickory and Dickory were recording it into their consciousness machines, the machines my father made for them. They would be stored and sent to all the other Obin. Every other Obin would stand here with me, as I knelt at my grave and the grave of my parents, tracing their names and mine with my finger.
I belong. I belong to John and Jane; I belong to Hickory and Dickory and every Obin. And yet for all that, for all the connection I feel - for all the connection I have - there are times when I feel alone, and I have the sensation of drifting and not connecting at all. Maybe that's just what you do when you're this age; you have your stretches of alienation. Maybe to find yourself you've got to feel like you're unplugged. Maybe everyone goes through this.
What I knew, though, there at the grave, my grave, was that I was having one of those moments.
I had been here before, to this grave. First when my mother was buried, and then, a few years later, when Jane brought me here to say good-bye to both my mother and father. All the people who know me have gone away, I said to her. All of my people are gone. And then she came over to me and asked me to live with her and John, in a new place. Asked me to let her and John be my new people.
I touched the jade elephant at my neck and smiled, thinking of Jane.
Who am I? Who are my people? Who do I belong to? Questions with easy answers and no answers. I belong to my family and to the Obin and sometimes to no one at all. I am a daughter and goddess and girl who sometimes just doesn't know who she is or what she wants. My brain rattles around my head with this stuff and gives me a headache. I wish I were alone here. I'm glad John's with me. I want to see my new friend Gretchen and make sarcastic comments until we burst out laughing. I want to go to my stateroom on the Magellan, turn off the light, hug my dog, and cry. I want to leave this stupid cemetery. I don't ever want to leave it because I know I'm never coming back to it. This is my last time with my people, the ones who are already gone.
Sometimes I don't know if my life is complicated, or if it's that I just think too much about things.
I knelt at the grave, thought some more, and tried to find a way to say a last good-bye to my mother and father and to keep them with me, to stay and to go, to be the daughter and goddess and girl who doesn't know what she wants, all at once, and to belong to everyone and keep myself.
It took a while.