Wondering “Who Am I?” Is Not Who I Am

“Once upon a time there was a Mommy and Daddy,
and they didn’t have any baby.
So what did they do?”

“They went to an adoption agency.”

This dialog is my earliest memory of childhood. Every night, one or both of my parents would start this conversation as I was being tucked into bed. It was a loving, happy story that ingrained in me early who I was and how I came to be their child. I’m grateful that my Mom and my Dad chose the high road of total honesty, which wasn’t necessarily the practice of all adopted parents back in the 1970’s or today.

Initial versions of the story included a second trip being planned to adopt my future brother or sister. The story had to be updated when my Mom’s illnesses made further adoption impossible, and I’m sure now that the nightly verbal realization of that was tough on her, even though I have no memory of her ever speaking about it or being anything but happy when it was time for my bedtime.

My Mom passed away when I was 14. My Dad and I decided to ask that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the adoption agency. Later that summer we took the two-hour trip to make the donation. We were invited into the Executive Director’s office, and as my Dad smiled knowingly – she proceeded to tell me she had been my caseworker fourteen years previous, which seemed like a pretty cool thing to find out. She then got out of her chair, walked over to a filing cabinet, and opened a manila folder and took a piece of paper out.

I don’t think I was really able to grasp the whole concept, but she handed the paper to me and there was my “story”. The story before “Once upon a time there was a Mommy and a Daddy…” It contained the first names of my birth parents and all of the information on them that the adoption agency had – except for their last names. What jumped off the paper was that everyone in both families wore glasses and that I was already taller at 14 than anybody listed. Sort of depressing since I had dreams of the NBA and Dad was 6’3″ – it was time to face facts that environment took second place to genetics when it came to height.

The woman told me something else: when I turned 18, I could come back and the adoption agency would contact these nice people described on the paper if I wanted them to. I remember like it was yesterday replying, “Why in the world would I do that?” She urged me to continue and 14 year old me told her, “They were nice enough to let me live and I’m definitely going to be nice enough not to bother them.”

Of course, I had no idea that Roe vs. Wade was not in place in 1966, a point that would be brought to my attention by “family” years later. The paper stated that my birth parents did not believe they were mature enough to raise me themselves, and hey – that was good enough for me.

I remember my Dad telling me he was OK with my going back at 18, and my response being something like, “Hey – you guys WANTED to be my parents and they didn’t, I’m good.” I knew I shared unconditional love with Mom, Dad, my Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, and cousins since I first heard, “Once Upon A Time…”

I never changed that belief, even after my Dad remarried someone with a different opinion of an adopted child than he had. She and I politely dealt with each other until we no longer had to.

A few years later, I heard a story in the news about a birth father suing the State of New Jersey for the right to make contact with his child that had been given up for adoption. Outside of thinking that was pretty cool, I didn’t give it much further thought. That’s why I was shocked when my Dad called me on my 30th birthday and the first words out of his mouth weren’t “Happy Birthday”. Instead, he told me that he had received a letter from the adoption agency and that MY birth father had been THAT guy suing the State of New Jersey. The letter continued that they wouldn’t contact me directly, the decision to pass along the information was his to make. My Dad once again said that he was totally fine with whatever I decided, which wasn’t any surprise. My Dad was the most supportive parent anyone could have, period.

I was definitely intrigued. I contacted the adoption agency and shortly after that I was talking on the phone with my birth father. I honestly don’t remember anything that was said except that he told me that I had a half-sister. Mind blown. Soon enough I was making arrangements to meet both of them, which was a logistical and geographical nightmare. When I asked my boss for a few days off, he told me I should call Jerry Springer and let his show pay for our “reunification”. I politely declined.

I grew up an only child. Dad’s side of the family lived fifteen hundred miles away, so Mom’s was the “family” I interacted with the most. Great-grandparents, Grandparents, Godparents, and two cousins, that was it. One table for the adults attached to a small card table for my two cousins and me for every family holiday dinner. Which made finding out my birth father was the oldest of NINE children beyond comprehension to me. The follow-up was that he and his wife had adopted a whole bunch more after having my sister. Each of my birth father’s eight siblings had kids. I was overwhelmed at the thought of having to memorize all of their names.

I’ve always believed that things happen for a reason when they’re supposed to, and it’s pointless to argue with God’s plan. Had “contact” been made just one month earlier, I would have declined and probably never followed up. My Grandma Olga, my Mom’s Mom, was in the hospital then, ironically just minutes away from the adoption agency. As I sat in the lobby of the hospital, my cousin shared with me she had just told Grandma she was going to be a great grandmother again. I really can’t imagine that my final words to my Grandma would have included that my birth father wanted to meet me. You see, my Grandma would have had ZERO interest in sharing her oldest grandchild with ANYONE, right up to her last breath.

When this was all happening in 1996, I felt completely alone. Ancestry websites helping people find previously unknown family members were still at least a decade away. My case had made it to the New Jersey Supreme Court and that resulted in vital records for adopted children being revisited and updated. Everyone wanted to talk to me about it, but not everyone was nice about it. A couple I had known my whole life threatened me to NOT tell their son about my story – which made me realize that he must have been adopted and they had never told him. My girlfriend at the time wanted to know who these people were that now wanted to be my “family”, when HER family was all I needed. You can probably figure out that girlfriend and sister meeting each other didn’t go very well. My Dad of course thought it was exciting, his wife – not so much. My two young children informed me that they already HAD enough family. So happy I never called Jerry Springer.

You’re probably noticing what’s missing so far from this story: my birth father had to sue the State of New Jersey because my birth mother wanted ZERO part of finding me. The adoption agency believed they had no legal obligation to share the information with him because he was not their client. When he reached out to my birth mother’s family, he was told she had basically disowned them because she didn’t want her husband to ever know she had once given birth. My sister was the pain in the ass that pushed him on, as well our shared genetics that don’t like people in authority telling us what we can or cannot “do”. I get it.

The “break” for him was that although my birth father was not the “client”, the families had negotiated that he would be responsible for the expenses in exchange for being listed as the father on the birth certificate. When the adoption occurred, that birth certificate was sealed. He convinced New Jersey to open up the record, they found his name on it, and that was that. I was told that the adoption agency had told him not to waste his time, that I had been there at 14 and never returned. Of course, that wasn’t a good enough reason for him to quit. I get it.

Because my birth mother’s sister was “all in” for this search also, I was about to move from “innocent bystander” to part of the “problem”. Before I realized what I was doing, I was being driven to meet more people I wasn’t supposed to ever meet. SO NOT COOL. My maternal grandmother made me promise I would come to her upcoming birthday party. Saying yes was yet another big mistake on my part.

Right up there with betraying my birth mother’s stated wishes, I also had an uncle that had been serving in Vietnam when his sister got pregnant. Nobody EVER told him. So there I was in 1996, looking very much like his son who had recently died, showing up at his mother’s birthday party, SURPRISE! I’m not sure who cried more, me or him. That was the last time I ever saw them by my choice, at least one visit too late by my count.

Outside of the guilt of knowing that I failed my childhood mantra of “thanks for letting me live, we’re good”, I had also doubled-down on my maternal aunt – who to this day hates me for coming into her life and leaving it again. Son like mother, I suppose. I’ve tried, but my multiple attempts to apologize to her have not been accepted. It all happened so fast, but still shouldn’t have happened at all. I had control, if I had been responsible when I could have.

I’ve had in-depth conversations with everyone in my birth father’s family who has wanted to. They range from those who have fully embraced me as a lost-now-found family member to others who have reminded me I should be thankful that Roe vs Wade wasn’t enacted sooner. I’ve learned that I CAN handle having more family members and that just makes me love them all even more. I’m grateful to have learned that cancer is a risk factor for me, something NOT on the paper I got when I was 14. I’m sad that I’ve lost my birth father, paternal grandmother, and three uncles to it. My sister definitely needs a big brother, so even though it’s a few decades late I continue to try and smack some sense into her, as she attempts the same to me.

And not surprisingly, there’s a part of me that wants to show up at my birth mother’s house (of course I know her name and where she lives), and another part of me that accepts and respects her unknown reasons for not wanting anything to do with me. Her story, her actual story, remains a mystery. I am grateful to be who I am, which among many things is someone who accepts that things happen for a reason when they’re supposed to, and it’s pointless to argue with God’s plan 🙂

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