I was struck by the recent story of a 65-year-old woman who gave up a baby son when she was 19 and unmarried. The story ended tragically: She discovered he had been one of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing when he was only 21.
Then I saw the movie Philomena, based on a terrific book by Martin Sixsmith. It’s the lovely story of a woman who sought to find her adopted son after more than 50 years of anguish.
Those stories brought home for me how lucky I was to receive perhaps the greatest gift I’ve ever received, about nine years ago.
I, too, had given up a baby boy at birth, when I was barely 18 and unmarried. It was the “dark ages” of the 1950s, when young women had few choices. Most adoptions then were “closed,” meaning no information could be garnered by the birth parent after the legal adoption was completed.
Young women were often consigned to homes for unwed mothers to wait out a pregnancy with the understanding that they would not be able to keep the child. It was a secret we kept, even within our own families, as if it had never happened. But I never forgot, and I spent years agonizing about whether I had made the right decision for that child. Had he been raised in a good family? Did he feel abandoned? Was he loved?
Over the years, I made sure the agency that handled the adoption, Vista del Mar, knew where to locate me in case my son ever wanted to make contact, but I never wanted to push myself into his life. Maybe he didn’t know he was adopted. Maybe he didn’t want to know me.
I found a reunion website where I could register for free, the International Soundex Reunion Registry (ISSR), and completed their application form. Their policy is that if they receive an inquiry from both sides, they will let each know of the other.
When my later-born twins, Michael and Susie, were about 16, I thought it was time for them to know they had a half-brother out there somewhere. Michael fantasized about his older brother, deciding his name should be Steven. When Michael’s son was born— my first grandson—he was named Stephen: same name, different spelling. My heart swelled.
After almost 45 years, I got a phone call. It was a Sunday night. My husband answered the phone.
“It’s for you,” he said. “It’s a woman who says she’s a social worker with Vista del Mar.” My heart literally skipped a beat. “Oh, my God,” I thought, “he’s dead.” I always figured that if my first-born died, someone would let me know.
I took the phone, and a lovely woman gave me the news that my son was seeking to find me. She cautioned that reunions go badly sometimes, and that I might want to seek some counseling before contact was made.
“Do you want us to give him your information?” she asked.
“Absolutely! And please tell him it’s enough for me just to know he’s alive, in case the only reason he wants to make contact is for medical information or something like that. But if he’s willing, I would love to talk with him.”
Early the next morning, I got a call from ISSR. They informed me that my son was seeking me through their registry as well.
“Do you want his contact information?” they asked.
I responded by telling them I wasn’t sure why he was seeking to make contact, and that I didn’t want to push myself into his life any further than he might want. “Please tell him that I would be very happy for him to call,” I said—and silently hoped he would.
Not an hour later, the phone rang, and there he was. He spoke in a rush of words, clearly a bit nervous, as was I. He told me about his family, and why he had decided to reach out to find me.
My son is an adult-school teacher who was conducting a creative-writing class. He had given his students the assignment to write about their greatest regret in life. One of his students, an older woman from England, wrote about how she had given up a child at birth and had spent the rest of her life worrying whether she had handed him over to a better life. After the discussion, my son decided to find his birth mother so he could let her know that she had, in fact, made the right decision for him.
Amid his rush of telling me about himself, he dropped into the middle that he was gay and had a longtime partner. I responded by saying, “You couldn’t have chosen a better birth mother!” We both laughed.
We talked some more and decided to meet the following week in Los Angeles, where he lived.
I knocked on his door, full of anticipation and very nervous. When he opened the door, my first thought was: “He looks like Michael’s brother!”
Michael loves to brag that he can eat the hottest peppers imaginable. My first-born grows such peppers in his garden. Other such similarities blew me away. When he proudly showed me his closet, full of animal prints, I knew he was my son!
I had brought pictures of his half-brother and half-sister, and other members of my family. He proudly showed me pictures of his family. His father had died a few years before. It was his mother who had given him the information that allowed him to find me.
After our first meeting, he scanned some of the family pictures I had brought and inserted himself into them. He found beautiful poems written by others who had been through similar situations and shared them with me.
A few months after our initial contact, he was able to meet Michael and Susie here in Palm Desert. We were having drinks in a restaurant when a couple sitting at the next table offered to take a picture of us all. The man asked, “Are the two boys twins?” We all laughed.
Not everyone who reaches out has a positive experience. In my case, I’m grateful to no longer live with the doubt about whether I did the right thing. He had a much better life than I could have given him.
In my letter of thanks to ISSR, I wrote: “My other children are thrilled that they have the chance to know their half-brother after so many years of fantasizing about him. If you don’t already know the story, my other son had made up a name for his ‘brother’—calling him Steven. To then find out, so many years later, that my adopted son’s name IS Steven was almost more than we could comprehend!”
My holiday wish for others who have gone through a similar experience is this: Never lose hope. Share your stories—miracles can happen!