“I’ve sat down to write this piece almost every day since I was asked by Love What Matters to contribute, and I just haven’t been able to find the words. It feels like the world is crashing, and the distance between people is growing, and suddenly my story seemed hopeless. I haven’t been able to channel my perspective… one of hope and perseverance. Suddenly, my message seemed pointless. Suddenly, my story just seemed sad, and everything I dealt with to get here, to be able to tell my story in a positive light, worthless.
But recently was the passing of actor Chadwick Boseman. Another blow to the black community and our country, just adding to the casualties of 2020. His death hit me harder than I would have thought. Boseman brought Black Panther to the world and portrayed many other great black characters, including my personal hero, Jackie Robinson.
Jackie Robinson has been a centerpiece in my life since I was a child. Growing up in a community where I didn’t really fit, I needed to find a model I could identify with. Some of the challenges I was facing I saw in Jackie’s story. Jackie once said, ‘A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.’ He was responding to a question about why he continued to play with all he had to deal with.
This became my motto when I lost my mother at 16 and became a guide for navigating my own life. These words helped direct me to a career in medicine. These words helped me stay the course when my path was uncertain. What would Jackie say or do? Simple as that for me. Boseman brought Jackie back to life for me and was a role model in his own right. As Jackie’s story did when I struggled as a child, his death triggered a little fight in me in a way. Finally, a wakeup call… a reminder that my story and my perspective are worth sharing.
I’ve always felt like part of my purpose in life is to share my story and pay it forward. My life is all about the people who got me here: the people who gave me life, literally and figuratively. People who supported me against the odds, ignoring what made sense, despite the challenges helping me would create for them… they are my real-life heroes. These people simply chose love, and I am a product of that love. I hope my story can inspire during these dark times, and we can all start believing in love and other people again.
I can’t tell you how many times throughout my life, I’ve heard, ‘Good for you!’ or ‘That must have been so difficult.’ I was even asked to write an essay for a medical school scholarship because the office felt the scholarship would be good for me… the prompt: ‘What have I conquered to gain acceptance?’ I remember telling my father about it, and he just chuckled.
For my family, acceptance is something we have struggled with but has never been something we have sought. We are a family like no other, and we all knew that… everyone knew it. I mean, look at these pictures. Put a family like that, with 9 adopted children from challenging circumstances, into a small, white, Nebraska town…! They never taught us to seek acceptance. They taught us to love each other, do what we can for others, and know the Brandt family would always stand behind us.
My parents met in college and lived a pretty ‘typical,’ and frankly, ‘idyllic’ life before the madness. My father, a dynamic and charismatic teacher and coach. My mother, the beautiful manager of their home and the biggest heart in the world. A young, attractive couple and 3 beautiful children. They were the type of family everyone loves and wants to be but secretly hates… don’t act like you don’t know what I mean, haha. I only paint that picture because it still blows my mind to think about the changes coming for this group.
My mother developed a bone disease that kept her from conceiving any more children at that point, and the family was complete…or so they thought. After moving to my hometown, my parents gave one of my father’s football players a place to stay. His family moved, but he wanted to finish out his senior year with his friends. They didn’t know that was just the beginning… a gateway drug of sorts, which would lead to more than 30 temporary placements and the adoption of 9 children.
It started with some temporary placements, just weeks to months typically. Teen mothers, ‘problematic’ children, foreign exchange students, basically any child or teen in need of temporary refuge, were offered a safe haven. My parents were not foster parents. There was no compensation, and they definitely never planned to adopt. They were just willing to help when presented with someone in need. Their reputation and the Brandt name spread. When a child was in need, the Brandt home became an option and a middle ground for kids who would otherwise enter the system… or worse.
In 1987, my parents were called about an 11-year-old Korean orphan with cancer who would not live long without treatment and a home, so the Brandts gave her one. 1 year later, her sister was brought ‘home’ from that orphanage in Korea as well. I was next in line, followed by my older brother. He had been a ward of the state and bounced around foster homes. When he came to the Brandt home, he was like a battered puppy. He had a history of being abused and came with a crippling fear of our father, which was hard to see.
My little brother was next. He was born in New Jersey to a mother addicted to cocaine. He would need specialized healthcare and a stable home to grow up in. Who would take a baby on such short notice? A baby who would already have so much to overcome and otherwise enter the system… the Brandts. That night my dad flew out and brought him home.
Bank loans and faith would carry the family through this time. As wonderful as these acts of love and kindness were, my parents were still living on a teacher’s salary and dealing with the health issues of my mother and 2 of their newly adopted children. Which begs the question: ‘What were they thinking?’ Their faith would only be further tested when my mother was in a car accident, leaving her legally blind. Even my parents didn’t feel they could do much more, and their faith was shaken.
But as the fates would have it, another call came. A 17-year-old girl was abandoned by her foster family and ‘diagnosed’ with ‘mental health issues.’ Even placing her in a foster home would be challenging with that history, and she would soon be cut loose to fend for herself when she turned 18. They initially said no, but eventually agreed to meet her. I’ll give you one guess what happened… she became my eldest sister.
To round out the 9, my little brother and sister came to us a few years later, after being in foster care. There had been a history of abuse, their mother had finally given up her rights, and the foster care situation wasn’t working. Finally, a teenage girl came to us because she and her mother were having significant issues. Her mother would not relinquish her rights but still requested she be raised in the Brandt home. My parents became her legal guardians, but obviously, to our family, she was a Brandt.
My parents knew there would be struggles, and people questioned them at every step, but they knew we needed homes. My dad once told me he thought a lot about adopting me, being the first black child, and bringing me into that environment. He honestly wasn’t sure if the Brandt home was best for me… crazy, I know. Like my siblings, and even more so, my story is one of sheer chance.
I was born to a single mother who struggled with severe depression. My biological father was never part of my life, and he met my mother while she was an inpatient being treated for her depression. She was taken advantage of in a vulnerable state, but she made the unselfish choice to give me life when deciding what to do. Not many would have faulted her with her health issues and the circumstances if she had made a different choice.
My mother, Kathy, tried to raise me but was just unable to do so. This is where it gets really random. My adoptive father just happened to be sitting with my biological uncle while watching their children in a youth track meet… confusing, I know. Their small talk led to my uncle talking about my mother and her struggles. That’s kind of how my parents are. They can talk to anyone but are so open and authentic, people tend to open up. This ability is something I share and understand well… you know, that whole apple falling from a tree thing. My dad being my dad, offered to give her a break and take care of me to give her time to get on her feet. After a few months, Kathy gave it another shot. After a couple weeks, she realized she couldn’t give me the home she felt I deserved, and I became Aaron Brandt.
Kathy and my grandma were always there. My grandma even became Grandma to all of my siblings as she always came with gifts for everyone. They made sure I knew I was loved and was no ‘mistake’ to them. I never questioned her decision to give me up. To me, it made sense, and having her around for all the big moments made it clear the decision had nothing to do with not wanting me. What I remember most about my mother was that with everything she dealt with… all that darkness and sadness… when she came around, she was always smiling.
Being a part of the Brandt home made it a little easier to see adoption as something ‘normal.’ I was somewhat oblivious to the differences between my peers and me early on because my home was so incredibly diverse. With the revolving door of kids — black, white, babies, teens, shy, aggressive — our home was chaos but in the best way. When I entered elementary school, though, you could say my eyes were opened quickly. My classmates and I began to recognize the obvious differences and what they meant in the world’s context.
Suddenly, my environment seemed a lot more uniform, and I didn’t ‘fit.’ I really struggled with a sense of identity for a few years, as all my siblings did at times. Some of us fought the differences and struggled because of it. I wanted to fit in. Why do I have to look so different? I just want to blend in. Being one of the few black kids in small-town Nebraska was very often isolating. I learned quickly that trust was something earned. People who started as friends or trusted confidants would often prove to be something else. Often the change was subtle, but many times it was far from that. No, I don’t think race was always the issue, but it sure became an easy way to target us when things went wrong.
As the world seems to regress, many of the scars have been opened, and these experiences as vivid as when they happened. What gave me strength in those moments was my family. What my parents put together for us was a masterpiece of imperfections. They provided a place where the hopeless could have a future. My father used to say he only kept the kids who no one else wanted… where the hope was lost, they showed us love was what mattered.
In my freshman year of high school, Kathy unexpectedly died. She wasn’t much older than I am now. She went from there one day to just gone. I remember getting home from school that day and being sat down by my parents. They told me the news, and I just got up and went to my room. I don’t remember tears, anger… really anything. I do remember becoming very critical of myself. I began to question my purpose in life. Suddenly, I felt like a selfish and self-absorbed kid. I was taking my incredible gifts for granted, and that was crushing.
Kathy gave me life despite everything that was stacked up against her… why? I was adopted into the Brandt family, not only a loving home but such a different and unique home. A place that provided me with the perspective and strength to not only deal with adversity but thrive in it… why? I ended up in this small town, which offered many challenges but also a great community of people who showed me I could be myself and love would prevail… why? I was blessed with many talents and gifts, which would provide me a platform to be heard…why? What was my purpose? Who was I supposed to become to make all that sacrifice worthwhile? I felt there had to be something important I was meant to do.
As Stephen Hawking said, ‘Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny!’ As unique and challenging as it may have seemed, our home was also the place where we could be ourselves without fear or shame. ‘What? You’re adopted?’ was a joke used so often inside and outside the home… and that’s how we approached our circumstances. We were able to laugh at ourselves and didn’t take ourselves too seriously. We all became examples for each other of how bad things could have been and how great things can be.
Makes sense why so many kids came through our home when looking back. Just seeing an environment like that for a short time, a place where they could just be kids and weren’t constantly reminded of their circumstance, could be good for anyone. We grew up seeing that no matter how hard things got, they could always be worse… they were worse. What an incredible perspective to be able to grow up with and see every day.
In the challenging moments, I draw strength from my family and my biological mother, and I remember the sacrifices of a role model of mine, Jackie Robinson, and his battle. I draw a lot of strength from that sense of purpose I felt. I genuinely believe the lows we all hit are just God’s way of forcing us to reexamine our purpose. For me, it’s not a question of what we have conquered to gain acceptance; it’s what each of us has overcome to be able to accept. Accept ourselves, accept our backgrounds, accept and love those who don’t accept us.
As I sit here truly mourning Chadwick Boseman, I am reminded of everything I want to be. I am reminded of Jackie and how he has been part of my life and my story. I am reminded of how special my family truly is. I am reminded that, in this world where people cannot find love for each other, the Brandt home was a small image of what the world should and could be. 14 different people, different colors, different natures, different talents, different issues under one roof. Despite the differences, despite what the world around us looked like and said about us, we chose to love and became family.
This will be my legacy. In my life and career, I will spread that love and hope. ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’ That is my purpose. My purpose is to honor my family and all they are. What is yours?”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Aaron M. Brandt, MD, from Denver, CO. You can follow his journey on Instagram and Twitter. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
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