December 28, 2012

The Most Epic Christmas Gift Ever

Another Christmas has come and gone.  All over the world people are clearing up the detritus of another year's holiday, carefully putting away decorations, moaning over the extra pounds gained from holiday snacking, trying to find places on already teeming shelves for this year's haul, and opening the refrigerator only to roll their eyes in disgust at the prospect of leftovers for dinner yet again.  Like everyone else, I still have a refrigerator full of leftovers. I have gifts to put away.  Decorations will come down, probably next weekend after Epiphany, assuming they don't drive me nuts before then.  And I confess to having slapped on a couple extra pounds from holiday noshing, in spite of the fact that my thoughtful daughter went out of her way to find Weight Watcher-friendly snacks for my stocking this year.

As things get packed away, most people's focus inevitably returns to creating another list of New Year's Resolutions, which those same people will start to ignore three days after the holiday is over.  Life will go on, as will we, secure in the knowledge that we have survived one more would-be (Mayan) apocalypse and are therefore able to begin another year afresh.  Everyone will start thinking about work or school or chores or whatever and forget about the holiday just past.

Normally, I would too.  This year, however, I am still a little obsessed with one of my Christmas gifts, which I received two weeks before Christmas.  And that's okay, because this is a gift like no other, nor is it one I was expecting to receive in time for Christmas (if at all).  This year, I was given the most epic of Christmas gifts. I was given back my history--my heritage.  And that's a priceless gift.

Some of you may not realize it, but I was adopted when I was only five weeks old.  Sometimes my mother claimed she picked me because I had a cold and she felt sorry for me (probably because she thought she was being funny and/or noble) and sometimes she said it was because I had red hair (which is probably more accurate--she was obsessed with redheads).  At any rate, the call came that a little girl was available and so they drove to the children's home to collect me. They had to stop on the way home for supplies because the call had come so unexpectedly that they weren't entirely prepared; the only baby things in the house were my brother's, none of which would fit me since he was 10 months old when he was adopted.  So after some minor scrambling they got me and the supplies home, and thus my life began.

I always knew I was adopted; my mom went out of her way to make sure we knew long before we were old enough to understand what adoption really meant. Because this information was never hidden from us, it became commonplace and I grew up not thinking much about it one way or another.  It was just another random fact, as much a part of my everyday identity as my freckles or eye color or auburn hair or height.

As I got older, I did occasionally get curious about my birth parents, or more specifically about my genetic background.  I used to fantasize that one day I'd pose as a Gallup pollster (back when that was still plausible) and would "interview" my birth parents to answer all the questions I had, such as who liked to draw or who liked music or what country they were from or who had blue eyes. Afterwards, I'd pack up my clipboard, shake their hands, and quietly leave with nobody the wiser.  After all, I figured that, for whatever reason, they'd made a difficult decision in giving me up and there was just no reason to upend everyone's life by pursuing the matter when I could simply do an informational hit and run to satisfy my curiosity.  Or so I thought.  Obviously, such a plan wasn't very realistic for a number of reasons, not the least of which was whether my birth parents could even be found and were still alive, never mind willing to talk to a "stranger" about something so personal or that they might prefer forgotten.  But then that's how childish fantasies often work.  Most of the time, though, I was reasonably content with my lot.  I never felt abandoned by my birth parents; if anything, I felt (perhaps naïvely) that they'd given me up because they wanted me to have a better life than I might otherwise have had. So I never held a grudge.

Life continued.  I went to college, I got married, I had a child.  Some days I'd still wonder about where I'd come from, some days not.  I became interested in genealogy through B's grandmother, who had traced her family back several generations (which was impressive in the days before Ancestry.com).  She was convinced that the family had descended from Bonnie Prince Charlie (they didn't) but she could never find the direct link between her family and Charlie. Years later, after my daughter was born, I became much more interested in pursuing my origins if for no other reason than to glean medical information that suddenly seemed infinitely more relevant with an infant at home.  After several inquiries the only new thing I was able to discover was the time of day I'd been born; everything else I already knew from the adoption papers my mother had given me before she and Dad moved to New Mexico to retire.  At the time I was told I could pursue my origins if I were willing to petition the courts or pay for a private investigator, but that was about my only shot since all the records were tightly sealed.  Funding an investigation was not an option at the time, so I let it go.

Every now and again I'd still wonder about my ancestry, but mostly I went on with the daily business of raising my child, which kept me plenty busy.  Sure, I often amused myself by making up my ancestry on the whim of the day.  One day I'd be French since my maiden name was French, and another I might be English.  On St. Patrick's Day (my birthday) I was always Irish, along with every other person trying to make up an excuse for drinking green beer.  My supposed Irishosity seemed more plausible, I thought, given such an auspicious  birthday and my leprechaun coloring.  Certainly I immediately discarded  several possible ethnicities because of my pale skin; my friends' prevailing opinion was that I was either Irish (possibly Scottish) or German.  Maybe both.  Anyone's guess was as good as mine.

In April, though, things changed.  In April, my mother passed away at age 80.  I know that she wouldn't have begrudged me wanting to search for my birth parents, but I also know she would have been hurt; the one time I said anything about searching back in high school she became depressed.  She wanted me to be happy, but I think she was afraid of having to share me or of losing me.  No doubt it sounds opportunistic of me to start searching for my birth parents right after my mother died, but that's not exactly how things happened.  I wasn't even thinking of searching at the time.  My mother died and I grieved for her, though I was glad that she was finally free of her dementia and at peace with my dad. It wasn't an immediate thing, this search.  One day in August I was cleaning up piles of stuff on my desk when I ran across a clipping of  Mom's obituary.  I started to file it away with my adoption papers and my other genealogy stuff.   Of course as I did so I had to look through them all again.  After rereading my adoption papers for maybe the 100th time, I thought to myself "I should try again.  I'm getting older.  Medical information could prove useful."  So after playing with the magic Google I did some research,  found some links, and submitted some forms with the requisite fees to the Indiana Department of Health.

A couple weeks later I got a letter back from someone named Darcy.  Darcy informed me that I had used an incorrect form and was therefore returning my check.  She also noted in her letter that if I was interested in continuing my search, she could suggest a couple of options.  I admit I was intrigued.  I thought about it for a couple of days, then decided "what the hell" and called Darcy.  Darcy suggested that I register with the state's adoption database because if my birth parents were likewise registered then the database would find the match and I could then get a copy of my original birth certificate.  She also told me that another option would be to hire a Confidential Intermediary (CI) who could be appointed by the court to research my case and make initial contact with any living birth parents.  It seemed unfathomable to me that some 47 years after my birth I might finally be able to discover something about my origins; I found the prospect both frightening and exciting. I followed Darcy's advice and immediately registered with the Adoption Registry and Database.  In a follow-up letter thanking me for registering with the database, Darcy also sent the names of several available CIs in case I chose to pursue the matter further. So back to Google I went, letter and names in hand.  Next thing I knew I was looking at the Facebook page of a woman named Jill who worked as a CI for an law firm in Indy which focuses exclusively on adoptions and adoption law.  The whole thing seemed entirely too easy.

A few days later I nervously called Jill.  She told me how everything worked and how much it cost.  For $500 plus court costs I could potentially find out something about my birth parents--an amazing thought after all these years.  The cost seemed reasonable compared to that of hiring a private detective, with the added benefit that Jill could personally access the court records.  I gave Jill all the information I had regarding the adoption and she filed a petition with the court to be made my CI, warning me that it would take around a month to be processed.  I sent off my fees and proceeded to wait.  In October I got a call that Jill had been officially appointed and could begin searching on my behalf.  Jill told me that if my birth mother was deceased (as well she might be considering my age, never mind hers), then both my original birth certificate and hers would be released to me.  A part of me almost hoped that would be the case; not to be all macabre, but it seemed to me at the time that it might be easier under those circumstances because I could get the information I craved without having to potentially deal with awkward situations...I didn't want to rock anybody's boat.  Of course, that was before I met my birth mother.  Everything was just happening so quickly.  But I tried not to think about it.  I told Jill that my primary objective was to get information and that while I was not necessarily opposed to any relationship that came out of this, it was also not the main goal.  She told me she was happy that I was "managing my expectations."  Good Ginger.  Gooooooood Ginger.

Two months went by.  I kept busy.  I knew it would probably take awhile to discover anything, so I wasn't too concerned by time passing.  Then earlier this month it occurred to me that I hadn't heard from Jill since her appointment as my CI, so I shot her a quick email to check in and ask if there'd been any progress.  I didn't want to be pushy but figured I should remind her I was still out here waiting patiently.  She called the next morning to say that she was "so close."  My heart skipped a beat.  Jill said she knew who my birth mother was, who her brothers were, and everything about her and was trying to make contact but had been unsuccessful so far.  Talk about dangling a carrot in front of someone's face.  She said she was glad I had called because it gave her the impetus to push a little harder by trying to send a certified letter, etc., etc.  Okay.  Whatever.  Excuse me while I go twitch in a corner for several hours.

The next morning I was in my room working out.  As I sat on the floor stretching, my phone buzzed with a message from Jill to call her because "I have good news."  With my hand shaking a little, I called her back and was told "I FOUND her. And she's HAPPY."  I sat there, stunned, not quite sure what to say or feel.  Jill, meanwhile, was positively giddy with excitement because she "loves it when they're happy and not slamming doors in my face."  Well, who could blame her, really?  Jill told me I'd need to send her an email, as would my birth mother, stating that it was okay to release personal information. I agreed to send one immediately and off Jill ran off to see about getting a court date so she could get records released.  I was flabbergasted.  Later that night Jill called again to inform me that there had been an "interesting development."  I couldn't even imagine.  This was all becoming quite a roller coaster ride.  Turns out she called the family of the person she thinks is my birth father (I gather he has a common name so it was not 100% sure) only to discover that he was dead and that his daughter was more than a little freaked at the possibility her dad may have fathered an unknown child.  Jill asked what she wanted me to do, as though I had the first clue.  Let's face it--it's not every day someone asks whether or not you want to strong arm a potential sibling.  We decided to back off on the birth father search for a bit and see what happened with my birth mother, thinking perhaps more information would eventually surface as she and I chatted, after which I could decide how and if to continue pursuing my birth father.  Besides, it seemed only fair to give the girl time to process the possibility of a half-sister; after all, I certainly didn't want to traumatize anyone because of my search.  That was never my intention.  Everything was becoming real (with a capital R) at breakneck speed.

On Wednesday morning, December 12, Jill called to inform me that she could "now release information."  She gave me the name, phone number and email address of my birth mother NJ and asked whether I was going to contact NJ or whether she should contact me.  I drew a blank.  How does one answer that?  I hardly knew where to start after nearly 48 years of limbo.  I told Jill that I would contact NJ either sometime that day or the next but that first I wanted to think of some questions so I wouldn't sit on a phone and stutter stupidly like a fool since there was no way to know how I'd react in such uncharted waters.  I ended up emailing NJ later that night, making it clear that I was looking primarily for information because I didn't want to mislead her and telling her that if anything more was to come of this it would have to happen slowly over time.  As a result, I wanted to start from the safe distance of email and go forward from there.  Once my missive was sent, I proceeded to sit on tenterhooks while waiting to see how long it would take to get a reply.

Meanwhile, I shared this stunning revelation with my "Posse" of friends in our online forum.  They were thrilled for me even as they advised caution initially.  While I was chatting with them I looked up and saw that an email from NJ had suddenly appeared in my inbox.  I gaped at it in awe.  Then I read it.  And read it again.  And again.  NJ very respectfully answered my email just as carefully and cautiously as I had approached her in my own.  The irony that her message came through at  12:30 am was not lost on me either...perhaps NJ was also a night owl, I thought.  I soaked in her words, marveling at them, then answered her back immediately.  It took longer to get a response the second time and I was surprised to find myself so twitchy and antsy with anticipation while awaiting her next email.  I nearly had to tie myself down to keep from calling her immediately.  So much for dignity and caution.

With the dialogue between us freshly opened, we emailed regularly back and forth the next several days.  Within a mere 48 hours, questions I'd held in my heart for nearly half a century were finally answered.  Then suddenly NJ's emails stopped.  I didn't think much of it at first, since sometimes it took a while for one or the other of us to answer (particularly as her laptop wasn't working and she was still getting used to a new smartphone), but when I didn't hear anything from her for a couple of days I began to worry that I'd unintentionally said or done something to upset her.  It seemed cruel that a door so suddenly opened should be slammed shut just as quickly.  After 3-4 days I finally sent her another note saying that if she needed some space to process things that was fine, but could she please let me know she was okay?  I got a message back the next day; turns out her phone and laptop had been stolen so she'd been largely incommunicado while trying to deal with insurance for the stolen items and for a fender bender she'd had the previous week.  I was relieved, far more than I might have expected.  I was starting to like NJ.

Over the last two and a half weeks NJ and I have slowly been getting to know each other.  It's been difficult to think of much else, really, especially before the girlie got home for break.  How could it not be?  I have rarely faced more monumentally life-changing events than this. I expect this has all been as much a miracle for NJ as for me;   it never really occurred to me before now that my birth mother might have just as much curiosity about me as I did about her.  (You know how selfish children can be.)  This has already been a fascinating journey, and the more I get to know NJ, the more I respect her--and not just for giving me life at a time when unwed mothers were largely vilified.  Now that I've had the opportunity to talk with her, I'm grateful she is still around to put my history into context with stories of real people and real family members.  We are both getting long-sequestered questions answered and curiosity slaked as we each discover the type of woman the other is.  We are uncovering hidden connections between us, such as that NJ is indeed as much a night owl as myself.  Along the way I've been plugging in new information to Ancestry.com as it comes; for the first time in my life, I have a genetic heritage.  I can look online and see the progression of generation after generation and know, even if I never met any of them, that I am still a part of them.  That half of my legacy is no longer unknown.  I have a past--well, more of a past.  I have a nationality, one which I no longer have to guess at or make up.  I am learning my medical history.  In short, I have knowledge, a knowledge I can now share with my daughter so she'll know the rest of her history too.   And it's brilliant.

Now, three days after Christmas, three days after a lovely day with my family during which we opened fun and festive presents (one of which was a new, non-possessed laptop--squee!) and spent quality time together, I am still unwrapping the biggest and most mind-boggling gift I've ever been given (short of my daughter's birth) and no doubt will be for some time.  And it is a gift, a gift of epic proportions--one which has already changed my life and will probably continue to do in ways I can't yet comprehend.  None of this changes the fact that I loved my mother or that I miss her or that I am equally the product of her nurture as I am of NJ's genetics.  I consider myself more than fortunate to have been raised by a woman generous enough to love another woman's child as her own; now the selfless woman who gave me life in the first place has been selfless enough to give me (and my child) back our history.

I am twice blessed.

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Now--bonus--a poem I've had on my wall for years, one which seems infinitely more relevant and poignant in light of this month's blessings:

THE LEGACY OF AN ADOPTED CHILD 

Once there were two women 
Who never knew each other. 
One you do not remember, 
The other you call Mother. 
Two different lives, 
Shaped to make yours one. 
One became your guiding star, 
The other became your sun. 
The first one gave you life, 
The second taught you to live it. 
The first gave you a need for love, 
The second was there to give it. 
One gave you a nationality,
The other gave you a name.
One gave you a talent,
The other gave you an aim.
One gave you emotions, 
The other calmed your fears. 
One saw your first sweet smile 
The other dried your tears. 
One sought for you a home 
That she could not provide. 
The other prayed for a child, 
Her hopes were not denied. 
And now you ask me
Through your tears, 
The age-old question, 
Unanswered through the years:
"Heredity or environment,
Which am I the product of?"
Neither, my darling, neither--
Just two different kinds of love.

~Anonymous

8 comments:

  1. OMG! Congrats!! I'm sure it was a bit nerve wracking to go thru it all but kudos to you for sticking to it! I have to ask though... is NJ a ginger??

    Happy New Year's friend!!

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    1. Thanks! Needless to say it's been very exciting. And no, NJ is not a ginger, but she says they do run in her family. Her mother had auburn hair and she has 3 cousins who are carrot tops. :D

      Happy New Year's to you as well--I hope you have a fantastic year!!

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  2. Add to list of things I inadvertently take for granted: my heritage. This also makes me think it is important to bestow the knowledge of my ancestry to my young son.

    What an extraordinary gift! I am thrilled for you!

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  3. I am SO happy for you! I read your post with tears in my eyes, as you might well imagine. I will have to share that poem with Lizzie's family.

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    1. I hope the poem means as much to Lizzie and her family as it always has to me. <3 you.

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