It is a chilly summer evening in San Francisco, California. It is the evening of my husband's birthday. We had just returned from dinner and are sitting on our back porch, talking.
"Do you think your birth mother is thinking about you today?"
My husband, Paul, was adopted, back in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, over forty years ago. He was raised by a nice, loving family, but he has always wondered about his birth mother. Was that then-seventeen-year old girl from Pittsburgh wondering about her baby, decades later, on his birthday?
It is a summer evening in Rochester, New York. A woman in her early sixties is riding in the car with one of her younger brothers, Greg. They are leaving a large extended family reunion. Although they were raised in Pittsburgh, both of their parents were from Rochester. They will say goodbye soon because they are going to the airport, where the woman will fly back home to Tucson. She says quietly to Greg, "Today is my son's birthday."
As an adult, Paul has searched for his birth mother, but has never come up with anything. When he turned eighteen, his adopted father gave him a small piece of paper with a few written notes. It was all the information he could gather about Paul's birth mother before they changed the privacy laws regarding adoption in Pennsylvania. It included where she was born, the hospital where Paul was born, what name his birth mother gave him and most importantly, his birth mother's full name. A very, very common name except for one thing - her very unusual middle name.
A few years ago, after being married a little more than a year, I started searching for Paul's birth mother on the internet. I even paid for one of those reports that gives you possible addresses and next-of-kin. If I was on the right track, it seemed she had lived around the southwest, including some very remote areas. But the information seemed old and it seemed likely that maybe she had married and changed her name, making more recent information impossible to find. My husband seemed preoccupied with work, so I stopped searching.
The birthday conversation sparked a renewed interest in finding Paul's birth mother. For me, it is an interesting challenge; detective work. For him, he can stay unemotional and detached while I search. Because with adoption you don't know. You don't know what you are getting yourself into. The birth mother could have become pregnant because of rape or incest. She could be a drug addict or have a severe mental illness. But maybe even worse, she could just be completely uninterested in ever hearing from her child. Hours, days later, searching this woman's name, her middle name being the important keyword, I finally find something, an exact match of her name, the title of a Master's Thesis written over twenty years ago, in 1990, at the University of Arizona, it was, "Creating Meaning: A Birth Mother's Experience With Adoption." I was stunned. It was her.
The title haunts me. A woman gives birth to a child, a powerful experience. A woman surrenders her child. What is she left with, from that experience? More than twenty years pass and she is writing about it, writing about creating meaning, publicly. What has the experience done to her? What have those decades been like for her? To know nothing of what has happened to your child and from that, you must create meaning. Something so profound that you know so little about, nothing but what lives inside you. Haunting.
"What years were you at University of Arizona?" I ask my husband, who had transferred there from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
"Um, I think I got there in 1990."
"I think your birth mother might have been there at the same time, working on her Master's."
I show him what I have found. It feels like a sign.
I find nothing else on her, so, I start searching the names of the people I think might be next-of-kin. There are a handful of names from that old report I paid for, but the last name is very common and they lead in directions where I can no longer be sure if I am on the right track. Except for two. There is a man in his mid to late twenties in Philadelphia that I think may be a cousin. I find a random photograph of him on a random person's blog. It looks like Paul. I show him the photo and studies it very quietly, it is the quiet of looking at the very first person, after more than forty years, that looks like you. Your very first look at a relative.
Then, I look into the second person that I think might be a relative, a man in his fifties. I find his profile on LinkedIn, where it shows me his current city, where he went to college and where he works. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, which is not too far from Pittsburgh. He went to Robert Morris University. Where have I heard of that?
"Have you heard of Robert Morris University?" I ask Paul.
Yes, he tells me, it's a community college in Pittsburgh, near the airport. Hmm...people usual go to community colleges in their own community, so I think it would be safe to reason that this man was from Pittsburgh. Finally, I look at where he works and that is when my heart stopped.
My father works for a specialized shipping company. He is a project manager in IT at the headquarters outside of Philadelphia and his particular role requires him to regularly communicate with station managers at stations all over the United States. Over the ten years he has worked there, I have heard him refer to many of these colleagues quite fondly, as if he knows some of them really well. I call him at work the next day.
"Dad, do you know a guy from work named Greg Smith in Columbus?"
"Yeah, he is the owner of the station there. Really nice guy. He is a private pilot and he restores classic cars. Why?"
"Well, I think he might be Paul's biological uncle."
A long, silent moment.
We talk about the possibility of my dad contacting Greg. We have to think this through. Paul has to be ready, in case it is a real link. Maybe Greg didn't even know his sister had a baby. We don't know the situation of her pregnancy. Greg could be unwilling to talk or uncooperative or emotional or protective. We don't know.
"Let's wait a little bit." I say, "You and Paul both have your hands full with projects at work, lets wait until things settle down."
A month passes. It is a late summer afternoon and my dad is driving me to the Philadelphia airport. I have just finished a family visit and now I have to go back to San Francisco.
"So, I think we should contact Greg soon." says my dad. "I've thought it through and I think I have a good strategy with how to approach it." My dad is good at things like that.
"Okay," I say, "I know Paul is ready now."
In Columbus, Ohio, a man is about to leave work for the day, but he has an IT-related question that he needs an answer to before he goes home. He picks up the phone and makes a call. The man he was expecting to answer has already gone home for the day. Instead, the call is forwarded to the man's boss.
A few evenings after returning from Philadelphia, I am walking in San Francisco when my dad calls my cell phone.
"Hello?" I say.
"We have a match!"
"What do you mean?" I ask, not sure what he is talking about.
"I just talked to Greg Smith and we have a match!"
I am trembling.
As it turns out, my dad answered Greg's call and took care of his IT-related question. When they were done with that issue my dad started casually asking Greg some personal questions like where he grew up and how many brothers and sisters he had. Lots of brothers, it turns out, but only one sister. Finally my dad cut to the chase, "Look Greg, my son-in-law was adopted in Pittsburgh and he is searching for his birth mother. We think she might be a relative of yours. Her name is Mary Carmela Smith."
"That's my sister."
Greg shut the door to his office. He wasn't going home anytime soon.
He told my dad about Carmela, how she is a wonderful person, she is married and lives in Tucson. Her pregnancy was not something that was talked about in their family, he was still a kid when she left for many months and it was never confirmed with him that she had a child until he was thirty. Their mother was very ill when Carmela got pregnant. They have searched for her son but have never been able to get anywhere because they really had no information, no name. It has felt like a missing piece in their family. This has affected her life very deeply.
My father listened and gave only a few details about Paul. He told Greg he would check with me and send him an email with some confirming details, just to make absolutely sure we had a match before everyone got too excited.
"I've got to call my sister! No, wait, I need to call my brothers first."
Greg calls one of his brothers to ask for advice on how to break this news to Carmela, but he doesn't answer. He tries calling another brother and tells him the news.
"Why are you calling me?" his brother says, "Shouldn't you be calling Carmela?"
In Tucson, a woman is giving her dog a bath in her backyard, when she hears her house phone ring. She ignores it. When the answering machine picks up, she hears her brother Greg asking her to call him back. I wonder what he wants? I'll call him later.
My dad called me to get the details of Paul's birth, the hospital, the exact date and year, his birth name, which he immediately sends in an email to Greg. Unfortunately, Paul was still at work and had an evening meeting with a client, so as much as I was bursting to tell him, I would have to wait many hours. How am I going to break it to him? If I beat around the bush too much, he will get anxious. if I just blurt it out, it will be too abrupt. I have to prep him a little, but not too much.
In Tucson, a man is sitting at the desk in his home office. The phone rings and he hears his wife answer. It is her brother, Greg. He hears her say something, she is quiet, then she lets out a yell. Oh no, he thinks, someone has died...
Hours later, my dad finally receives an email response from Greg:
This is wonderful and incredible. My sister and I talked for a few hours, I felt a peace come over her that I have not felt for a long time.
She had done a lot of research on this subject and fully understands that these meetings don't always follow a Hollywood script and she is comfortable with whatever happens. She is elated to know that Paul is fine.
FYI: Carmela's husband, Dan, is from San Francisco and they travel there several times a year. She has no other children.
It is almost ten o'clock when Paul arrives home. I let him put his things down and get some food, since he hadn't had dinner. We sit at the kitchen counter.
"Do you remember that guy Greg Smith, that we thought might be related to your birth mother and my dad knows him from work? We talked about contacting him soon."
"Well, my dad talked to him today," I pause and glance at Paul, "And it turns out your birth mother is his sister. He is your uncle. We found her."
Silence. A long silence.
"Couldn't you have broken it to me a little easier?" says Paul. But I can tell he is excited.
"There is no easy way break news like that! I thought about it for hours and I decided it was best just to come out with it!"
"You are probably right." says Paul. "So, does she know? Does she know about me?" asks Paul nervously.
There is a man in San Francisco tonight who has so many emotions all at once he doesn't even know what they all are. Of course, he is nervous, the box has been opened. There is no going back. There is no more "someday" or "maybe". There is no more time to wonder. It is now. It is real. It may or may not be what you hoped for. Now, there may be disappointment or expectations, or not. Now, there will be strangers that are also your family. A family you never knew. A family who never knew you. Do they even want to know you? Will they even like you? Will she like you? You don't know, you are nervous, more nervous than you have ever been. Why so nervous? Will she reject you again?
No, no she will not. She was forced to surrender you once and it was enough suffering for an entire lifetime.
Quietly, I say, "There is a woman in Tucson tonight, whose life has changed forever."
(Some names have been changed to protect privacy.)
About the author
Having had a similar experience with one of my clients, I just could not put your story down! The flash-backs and events involving these people and the manner in which you wrote them kept me riveted to your story from beginning to end. You have masterfully captured defining moments in all of these lives!
I'll bet you invested a lot of emotional capital in this story, Kathleen. The tensions, doubt, and indecision all show through. Thanks for a genuine legacy story.
You are welcome. It all happened a little over a year ago and it seemed time to get it all down while it is still vibrant in memory.
Hi Kathleen. Thank you so very much for sharing this beautiful story. I am sitting here still emotional after reading it. My son is adopted. We took him home from the hospital 22 years ago. I found out I was pregnant on his 1st birthday. (I call him my lucky charm.) My daughter Victoria (named for "Victory") was born when my son was 20 months old, and another daughter, Julia, was born three years later...on Victoria's third birthday (go figure - ha!). I often say: "I have three children. One is adopted. I forgot which one."
I don't know the true circumstances of why his birth mother couldn't keep him, but I am so grateful to her for her selflessness. What a gift she has given my husband and me. I pray for her happiness every day, until the day we meet, if that is meant to be.
I loved reading every word of your husband's story. The last two sentences were the most special. Thank you again for sharing.
Hi Deborah, Thanks for sharing your story as well! I think my in-laws would agree with you, they have three children as well, although two are adopted.
My aunt also has three children, two who are adopted. She had very different experiences with the two adoptions, in that one birth mother left a note to be given to her son when he was older (telling him how much she would always love him) and the birth mother of her daughter made it clear she never wanted to hear from her child.
It seems that each adoption situation is very unique. I now have two mothers-in-law. They have VERY different experiences of adoption that has really shaped their lives.
Wow, Kathleen, it really makes you think, doesn't it? Like you said, how unique each situation can be. It's so difficult/complicated. You don't want to upset anyone's family, but at the same time, they may be looking themselves. Who knows, your female cousin whose birth mother said she never wanted to hear from her child...hey, years go by and things change, but maybe they don't change. Sigh. When my son turned 18, my daughter asked him if he planned on looking for his birth mother. He answered, "I have a mom. Why would I look for a different one?" (Now I'm smiling.) Deb ))
It certainly asks us to redefine "family" in some ways. My husband is very much a product of his parents upbringing, yet he has some undeniable traits from his biological family, it is uncanny. The only thing I pushed during the whole experience was to include his adopted parents as much as possible, so they could share part of experience with him. My husband said something similar to your son, He said, "I always felt like I had a complete picture." yet, he still always wondered. Finding his birth mother has in no way been a replacement, instead it has been an addition. The closest thing I can think of is adding a spouse. Although the type of relationship and love is obviously very different, it is the addition of someone who is potentially very important in your life. The role is not well understood in our society. The closest thing to meeting biological family is like meeting in-laws, they are now family, yet you don't know them. But again, everyone has a different experience and all of what I said could be completely null and void for someone else.