“Mom. I hope this doesn’t upset you, but…I was wondering if you’d be willing to find your birth parents.” These earnest words were from my son. What!?
It was late June 2015, and my son had stopped by to pose in person what was for him, a difficult question, as he feared it might upset me. He tried to explain: “Not knowing anything about my family, or my ethnic background…I just…feel like something is missing, in here,” as he tapped his chest. Far from being upset however, I was inspired, and assured him that I was fine with searching. Then came the question that made me squirm.
“If you find your birth family, are you going to try and make contact with them?”
“Uh…no. Not at first anyway. Probably never. That’s just way too scary. So many of those stories don’t end well. But you’re welcome to contact them, if you’d like. If we even find them.”
As he wondered aloud where we would even begin, I realized I didn’t have a clue. I wasn’t about to repeat my mistake from years ago, paying a state-approved intercessor up front for a court order to open up my records (which could well be denied), only to be told that they’d raised their rates and wanted more money. Suddenly, for some strange reason, I blurted out something about how maybe we should check and see if the state laws regarding adoptee birth records had changed. As soon as the words were out of my mouth I wondered why in the world I would say such a thing, because the bureaucracy loves to keep doing what it’s always done, simply because it’s always been done that way. So why would those archaic laws ever be changed?
And So it Begins
Nevertheless, for the next day or so I was nagged by a strong feeling that I needed to look and see if my bizarre statement about the law possibly having changed made any sense. I had a little information regarding my adoption; in addition to informing my adoptive parents of the usual ethnic mix, the agency also told them the rather unusual story that my birth parents were married but separated at the time of my adoption.
Years later, as a young adult, I was able to get some “Non-Identifying” information from the adoption agency. The letter they wrote me stated that indeed, my parents were married and had four children – three boys and one girl — and that despite marriage counseling, they had separated and were planning to divorce. My now-single birth mom, having no idea how to support yet another child, decided that adoption would be the best alternative. The agency said my birth father had nothing to do with the adoption proceedings. I don’t know whether that is true or not, as “back in the day,” agencies routinely lied to both adoptive parents and adoptees — something I naively thought they would never do.
That is, until at a seminar for foster parents that my then-husband and I attended, I was told by employees of the agency I came through that lying had been the norm, because they would do almost anything to place those babies in homes. But that now there weren’t even enough babies to keep up with the demand, so they certainly didn’t lie anymore! Hm…really?
At any rate, I later enrolled with the aforementioned agency that acted as an adoptee intermediary. I filled out the appropriate paperwork and sent along what was for me a substantial amount of money. A few weeks later I received a letter informing me that they had raised their rates, and they would need a lot more. Not having that kind of money growing on trees, I abandoned the effort and tried to forget all about it.
Of course, I never could. Over the years I often wondered about my birth family, undoubtedly asking some of the same kinds of questions asked by most adoptees: My parents — were they well? Where did they live, what kind of people were they? How about my siblings? Did my older siblings remember anything of my adoption? Did my birth mom ever think of me, and if so, was she at peace with her decision, or did she regret it? Now here I was decades later, unsure of where to begin, despite my odd statement to my son about seeing if the laws had changed.
A day or two after my son made his request, I decided to start at the beginning, with the adoption agency. I was wonderfully shocked when I pulled up their website and the glorious information jumped out at me: a new law had indeed gone into effect, and adult adoptees could now have their original birth certificates sent to them from Olympia! The website warned that since birth records were kept in a different building than the one in which the form and the money were going to, and sometimes a record could be difficult to find, it might take up to a month or more for the copy of the original birth certificate to arrive. I didn’t care. After all these years, what was another month? I quickly printed and filled out the form, enclosed my check for twenty dollars and popped it in the mailbox.
Two weeks later I was holding my birth certificate.
I stared at it. This is it. This is really it! “My name,” I finally managed to stammer out to my husband, who had just delivered The Envelope into my hand, “was Hess. For the first and middle name they wrote ‘infant female’…but my last name was Hess.” Looking up at him in a daze I incredulously announced, “I have a name!” Which naturally was followed by the eye-rolling thought, well, of course you have a name, you ninny. I guess I was thinking, I had another name. An original name. Then the big moment of truth came as I scanned the boxes on the form that contained my parent’s names. I sprang into action, grabbing the laptop, frantically searching the internet, only to come up with…nothing. My husband, seeing my frustration, began searching with his phone and within moments, had found a reference to my birth mother.
It was her online tribute. She had passed away fourteen months before.
I was crushed.
But as always, there was a silver lining.
Names. Name after beautiful name sprang from the page to my wondering eyes…the names of my six – yes, six – siblings, as my mom had later remarried, had two more little girls, and moved to Georgia. I hungrily devoured the rich details that, until that moment, I never realized my soul had craved. They’re real, my racing mind practically screamed at me; they’re actually REAL! Just then, the strangest thing happened, causing a moment of terror.
My husband hit the “back” button on his phone.
“What?” I squealed, panic-stricken and sure that the information would disappear into cyber space, never to be seen again. “Why? Why would you do that?”
“I — I don’t know.” He sounded confused. “I don’t know why I hit it, but — look! Look what popped up!”
I looked closer. No way. No way! There on the screen was something neither of us expected to see and never would have even thought of, having no experience searching for family records. It was a website containing birth, death, marriage, and census records. Even more beautifully bizarre, the record that we were staring at was that of my birth mom’s family from the 1940 census.
My heart nearly stopped. “Okay, wait a minute. Tell me again exactly what you did.” Even though I already knew, because I was standing right there.
“I Googled your birth mom’s name, and the link to the online tribute came up. I clicked on it and we saw the tribute. Then without even thinking, I hit the ‘back’ button on my phone. And this came up.”
“But…that’s impossible. You can’t be looking at an online tribute, hit ‘back,’ and suddenly be on a census record. Any census record for that matter, much less a 1940 census record with my birth mom’s maiden name, and the names of her parents and siblings! That just can’t happen!”
Yet, there it was, right in front of our awed faces. To this day I have no idea how that happened, but we’re calling it a miracle!
Hands shaking, I quickly jotted down the information. We found the online tribute again and I bookmarked it on the computer. By this time it was late, as neither of us had remembered to get the mail until nine-thirty that night. I resisted the temptation to continue searching just then, as I knew I might end up online all night, confusedly staggering down hundreds of random rabbit trails and getting nothing for my efforts but red eyes, exhaustion, and weird hangover-like symptoms in the morning.
But…I Can’t Go There!
I couldn’t get to the computer soon enough the next day, sure of the odds that at least one of my siblings would be on Facebook. After searching awhile I hit pay dirt – and shrieked. There among the pictures was a woman who looked nearly identical to how I’d looked fifteen years earlier. It was an old picture of her. In her newer ones, she didn’t look as much like me…but still. Even her current photos showed the resemblance. This was my older sister Tina, who had been twenty months old at my adoption.
And the biggest picture was of an elderly lady who could only have been my birth mother.
The argument with myself began.
Time to message your sister.
No. Even the thought is terrifying.
Too bad. You’ve come this far. And you promised Michael.
I never said I’d actually make contact if I found them.
Just do it. You must.
How do you know?
I just know.
Sigh. I knew I had to. It’s hard to explain, but I felt compelled – pushed by an unseen force to do something wonderful, yet absolutely terrifying.
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