A few months ago, my father turned over every photograph he'd ever taken of me. I looked through them in reverse order: a clutch of pictures from my shaggy teenage years, taken after the divorce, in which I'm trying way too hard for the camera; a few birthday party shots from age 8 or 9, when my parents were having problems; and about 10 photos a day from age 7 and younger, when it seemed as if things couldn't get much better.
I lingered over the contact sheets from the ride to the hospital, the waiting room, the nurses. Then, there I am, a fresh raisin in the crib. There's my mother, who looks joyous and exhausted, and then and then . . .
And then my parents divorced and found new partners, and then split from them, too. I have half brothers and stepbrothers and ex-stepmothers. (My father, married four times, has a great relationship with a little girl who is his ex-wife's daughter from her current marriage; he calls her his ex-step quarter daughter.)
Lately, I've been looking for places I recognize, places that haven't changed. I've been searching out my old schools, the duck ponds where I walked with my parents, the public pools in which I used to swim.
One afternoon in Hollywood, I drive down Fountain Avenue to Catalina Street and park at a four-hour meter near a huge faded blue complex whose entrance sits way back from the street, as if shy of strangers. It's the Church of Scientology building.
Standing here, I'm nervous, as if I'm not a pedestrian but a jewel thief. The last time I was here, it was 1964, this was Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, and I was 1 day old.
I note the beautiful landscaping (what are those pink and ruby red flowers?), a weathered cross above the Scientology sign and dozens of missing windows. I spot a guy on a ladder, many floors up, halfway swallowed by exposed insulation.
"May I help you?"
It's security, on a mountain bike. According to my parking meter, it's taken him less than a minute to find me.
"Actually . . ." I'm at a loss. "I was born here. When it was still the hospital. I guess I'm making a . . ." I choke on the word. "Pilgrimage." It feels like a poor word choice so I try again. I guess I'm making a "visit." "Would anyone know where the maternity ward was?"
He nods. He's younger than I, relaxed yet alert, and his green eyes assure me he knows I mean no harm. He speaks code into his walkie-talkie. Bravo this, Bravo that. This is when I notice the security cameras fastened to the building.
"I'll give you the tour," he says. "I went back to where I was born once. Of course I didn't remember anything," he laughs.
I follow him. Like all children of divorce I know, I'm cautious. I have no idea what to expect, not just today, but ever. I trust no one and have never been married, though twice I almost--as I instantly think of it--pulled the trigger.
The security guard and I walk from Fountain to the 1300 block of L. Ron Hubbard Way, paved with bricks in a herringbone pattern. "One of the buildings has a roundabout. That may be the old maternity ward."
It's lunchtime and people are standing in groups of three or four, talking on the sidewalk. The church is renovating the whole block, building by building. The guard gestures to one structure that's now a school--a college, really--but he's not sure what it housed before.
My mother suddenly pops up on my internal radar. She doesn't know her own birthday. She's English, the second of at least seven children, born to a woman with schizophrenia who couldn't keep track of all those dates. During the blitz, bombs destroyed the hospital in which my mother was born, so she doesn't even have a birth certificate. I wonder if this is where my mother's battle against stability started.
It slowly dawns on me that I'm looking for faith. As life changes--as my father becomes someone else's father, someone's stepfather; as my mother dates a fashion designer, then a jazz singer's manager, then a man young enough to be her son--the places we know change, too. Visiting my childhood haunts has never been about wishing they were mine again; it's about learning to accept that the only constant I know is change itself. I almost want to ask aloud if it's OK to place my trust--my faith--in that. From my vantage point, it's the only choice left.
Instead, I ask, "Are you a Scientologist?
"Yes, I am," the guard says. We walk along the parking lot. "Do you know about Scientology?"
"Sure." I feel guilty, because I'm half-lying. All I know is, like a hospital, like a family, a church seems to help some people, and anger others. I'm embarrassed to know so little and to have nothing in hand--no particular religion, no spiritual insurance--to show off in return. It's almost as if the place is still a hospital, and I'm talking to a doctor who wonders aloud if I have a health plan.