Monday, April 9, 2012

Finding My Family

Like most adoptees, I thought about my mother while growing up. I wondered what she looked like; speculated about her interests and personality; and hoped that she thought about me as well. During my college years, I fantasized about her finding me. My version went something like this: knowing that I had reached adulthood, she would eagerly call the adoption agency to let them know she was ready to make contact with me. The agency would locate my adoptive parents, who in turn would let me know that my mother wanted to meet me. That was the perfect scenario in my young adult mind, because it removed responsibility from me as the finder, making me nothing more than the innocent one being found. My imaginary scenario, however, never played out. I briefly considered searching for her in my mid-20’s when I was pregnant with my first child, and then again a few years later as I approached 30. But each time those thoughts pushed their way into the forefront of my mind, I pushed them back down to the guarded place in my wounded adoptee psyche. The place that kept me relatively safe from my paralyzing fear of rejection, disruption, and disloyalty.

In September 2009, at the age of 39, I stumbled upon an article highlighting a handful of states allowing adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates. I was surprised to see my birth state listed. In fact, I’m not entirely sure I even knew that such a document existed. I only knew for sure that I had an amended birth certificate that listed my adoptive parents as my “mother” and“father”. I proceeded to the website listed in the article, followed a series of links, and before I knew it, I was holding the short application for my OBC in my hands. And then I tucked it away for 3 months, before finding the courage to move forward.

My original birth certificate arrived on December 24th, but being busy with out-of-town guests visiting for the holiday, we neglected to bring in the mail. Seriously, of all days to forget the mail?! The following afternoon – Christmas Day – my husband came inside from checking the mailbox, and handed me an envelope from The State of Maine. I knew immediately what it was, so in a quest for privacy, I ran upstairs to my bathroom. I secured a spot on the edge of the bathtub, where I quickly but carefully opened the envelope and removed it’s precious contents. I can still remember my trembling fingers and racing heart as I unfolded that piece of paper. My eyes fell immediately on her name. My. Mother’s. Name. Not only was her name typed, but I could see her signature. Other pieces of information
were listed, like her age, hometown, and city of birth. But it was finally knowing her name, after 39 years of not knowing, that literally took my breath away. What an amazing gift to receive on Christmas day!

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, it only took me about 24 hours to find my mother, or the woman I was 99% sure was her. It was almost too easy the way the pieces were falling right into place. I was simultaneously excited and terrified, among a million other emotions that I couldn’t quite articulate. After 5 days of facebook stalking, advice seeking, and soul searching, I sent a very carefully composed message to the woman I’d been wondering about all those years. Immediately after sending the message, I ran to the kitchen where my legs practically collapsed from under me. I sat on the floor for several minutes and
let the realization of what I had just done fully sink in.

The hours that followed were excruciating. I continually checked to see if I had received a response, but nothing. I tried to rationalize why I hadn’t heard back yet. It was New Year’s Eve, after all, and she was probably out for dinner or maybe at a party. My husband gently reminded me that it had taken me almost a week to
prepare myself to send that message, and it would likely take her some time to
process this information as well. After 39 years, she probably never expected to hear from me – I needed to be patient. Yeah, right.

Twenty hours later, at 11:30 on New Year’s morning, the message I had been waiting for appeared in my inbox. Again with a racing heart and shaking hands, I read the first line of her response, “Hi Nikki – yes, I am her.” I read and re-read her entire message. It was warm and friendly, and delivered perfectly. She agreed to answer any questions I had for her, and she wanted to know everything about me that I was willing to share. She said that giving me up was “heartbreaking and life changing”, which I found both sad and comforting.

We wrote back and forth for the next several days, answering each other’s questions and sharing various details about ourselves. I would wait with giddy anticipation each day, knowing that with every email I received, something new would be revealed. With each new piece of information, I was becoming more real, more whole. I discovered that she is left-handed like me, something I always wondered. We are the same height and have the same blood type. We share an affinity for list making, and we both separate our M&M’s by color before eating. We enjoy the same music, prefer our apples sliced, and both have a crazy-good memory for dates. I got my blue eyes from my father, who passed away unexpectedly in March 2005 at the age of 53. I missed knowing him by 4 years and 9 months. My mother and father were high school sweethearts, but eventually broke up after I was born, and both went on to marry other people. My mother and her husband had 2 daughters together, 7 ½ and 10 years younger than me. My father and his ex-wife had 2 children together, a son and a daughter, only 3 and 4 years younger than me. But the most shocking piece of information came a few days after our first contact. My mother told me that she and my father had another child together 20 months after I was born. I have a full sister! She was also placed for adoption, and our adoptive parents unknowingly gave us the same first name. My sister found our parents in the fall of 1991 when she was just 19, back when I was merely fantasizing about being found. That news made my head spin, and filled me with regret – why hadn’t I searched sooner? The fog of denial that had served to protect me for 39 years, was starting to lift. The severity of my loss was
becoming more and more apparent. My grief was beginning to surface.

My mother and I continued to grow closer during the months that followed. We talked on the phone, and spent hours chatting on facebook, really getting to know each other. We discovered some amazing things, like the fact that she and my adoptive brother lived in the same small town, though didn’t know each other. My husband and I had spent time at my brother’s place every summer since we married in 1993, just minutes from her home. It was possible that we had passed each other on the street or sat close by in a restaurant.

The most devastating information that she shared with me was the truth about my birth and surrender. It was not her decision to give me up. She loved me, and she wanted to keep me. She held and took care of me for the 4 days we were together in the hospital. The decision to place me for adoption was made by her mother, and by society. In 1970, pregnant teens were often sent away to live out the last few months of their pregnancy in hiding. They were told that their baby would be better off being raised by a married couple who could provide the stability of a two-parent home. Young mothers were promised that they would forget the baby they gave away, and assured that they would one day marry and have more children. My mother did get married years later and she did have two more daughters, but she never forgot the two she lost.

After communicating with my mother and siblings for 4 months through email, online chats, phone calls, and texts, I flew to Maine to meet them in person. To say that I was excited and anxious as I boarded the plane on that April day doesn’t even begin to capture the enormity of what I was feeling. Upon landing, I got situated in my rental car and made the 45 minute drive from the airport to my mother’s house. The experience was surreal – as though I couldn’t quite believe I was about to meet her face to face. In less than an hour, I would be looking into the eyes of the woman I had been separated from for almost 40 years. I pulled into her driveway at 2:30 in the afternoon and she immediately walked outside to greet me. It’s kind of a blur to me now because I was so nervous, but I think we said hello to each other. We were both smiling, and we embraced immediately. After that long, wonderful hug, we went inside and talked for hours.

The next day, I met 3 of my sisters, along with my mother’s older brother and younger sister. I found myself staring at each of them, searching their faces for resemblances and familiarity. My face is shaped like my mother’s, but my coloring is more like that of my uncle’s. When I looked at my sister, I saw my oldest
son’s eyes looking back at me. It’s difficult to explain the mixture of emotions I felt that beautiful spring day as I sat on the deck with my newly found family. I was happy – enjoying their stories and soaking up their laughter. But I was also sad – this was my family, yet they were virtually strangers to me.

Well, it’s been two years since that first meeting, and I have since met the rest of my siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and many of my cousins. In fact, I have spent a lot of time with and become very close to several members of my first
family. Everyone has been incredibly welcoming and accepting. I am lucky for that – not all adoptees are met with that kind of warm embrace. I’m genuinely happier than I’ve ever been in my life, and feel a completeness that I never expected. But it’s also been hard. Very Hard. For me, reunion unlocked the door to a whole lot of repressed and deeply buried grief, and opened my eyes to the enormous loss that surrounds adoption. There are days when I feel completely swallowed up by the sadness of what I lost; but there are also days when I am able to revel in the pure joy of what I’ve found.