Throughout my life, I have been surrounded by adoptees. I currently work in the field of adoption but even in my personal life, I have always had close friends who were adopted. I am not an adoptee myself, yet I find I can relate to many of their feelings and struggles surrounding the unknown portions of their lives; the struggle of not knowing their own biological family and their desire to search for answers. In my early 20’s, I began a search of my own for biological relatives I wasn’t even sure existed.
I am an only child raised by a single mother who had no support from her ex-husband, my biological father. He knew I existed because the three of us lived together for the first 6-9 months of my life. But following my parents’ divorce, he only attempted to see me once in 15 years. When I was 5 years old, he called my mother and asked to see me. She asked him how old I was and when he ‘guessed’ I was 7 or 8 years old, she immediately denied his request.
During my childhood, I often wondered about him. What did he look like? Where did he live? Was he watching me and I didn’t know it? And if so, why wasn’t he revealing himself to me? But most importantly, why didn’t he care about me? I turned my questions and hurt into defiance and told everyone who asked about him that I didn’t care one bit. In the mid-80’s, John Waite released a song called Missing You. It was my anthem. “I ain’t missing you at all since you’ve been gone away. I ain’t missing you, no matter what I might say.” It was my obstinate, pre-teen way of saying F-you; you didn’t hurt me. As an adult I realize that song just highlighted my confusion over the whole situation.
Once I closed my heart and convinced myself that I didn’t miss him, I focused on wondering what he looked like. The tangible factors of a face and a body seemed easier to deal with. I could see some similarities between my mother and me, but there were obvious differences. Did I get my nose from him? What about my mouth or the shape of my face? It seemed I would never know because when I was 17 or 18 years old, I learned that he had died when I was 15 years old. The door was closed.
When I was in my 20’s, I started to wonder about his parents—my grandparents. Were they alive? Did they know I existed? Were they as uninterested in my existence as he was? With no adoption agency to turn to and little desire to involve others in my quest, I became my own private investigator and turned to the internet. It took about two hours to figure out his parents’ names and find their address. It took two months for me to write them an actual letter. I thought about it for a while because what does one say in a letter like this? “Hi! You don’t know me, but I’m your granddaughter. Your dead son was my biological father who didn’t give a rats-ass about me but even though you also have made no attempt to get to know me in 20+ years, I hope you are nice and normal and want to be friends. Oh, and could you send me a photo of your son? You see, I’m curious about his physical features and if I resemble him at all. Have a great day!”
I don’t recall what I actually wrote in the letter, but within a couple weeks I received a response. It was from my grandmother (my grandfather had died) and didn’t really say anything of substance, which was disappointing. However, she stated she was going to be in town visiting friends in the next month and she wanted to meet me…
I was ready for correspondence via letters (and a picture!), but to actually meet? That seemed like a giant step and obviously way too soon in this ‘relationship’. I wasn’t ready to open this door. But what was I supposed to say? I was the one who reached out and invited this person into my life. She didn’t live anywhere remotely close to me so the fact that she would be in town seemed like my only opportunity to meet her in the foreseeable future. We made arrangements to meet and I tried to minimize the whole thing and pretend like it wasn’t a big deal. It’s easier to avoid heartache when you don’t get your hopes up.
Before I knew it, there was a knock on my apartment door.
The elderly stranger standing there seemed excited to meet me. If she was nervous, I was oblivious to it. All I could focus on was how to hide my shaking hands. I invited her in and we sat one cushion apart on the hand-me-down, slip-covered couch. I wasn’t worried about what to say; she talked enough for both of us. She brought with her a stack of papers. Photocopied memories of her son’s short life. Included in the stack of paramedic certificates and short stories penned by him, were a few photos. One or two were clear enough to confirm that I did indeed inherit some of his physical features. She told me that he had two other children, both boys. This fact threw me for a loop. (As if the meeting in itself didn’t?) I was an only child. And now I have two half-siblings? Does that mean I’m not an only child? When people ask me about my siblings, how was I supposed to respond now? Would I essentially disown my half-siblings if I continued to tell people that I am an only child? Where do they live? Should I look for them as well? Do they know I exist? I shoved all of these thoughts to the back of my brain and tried to remain in the present. As she started to talk about her son, she said he was an amazing and wonderful man. There was no discussion of why my mother divorced him. There was no mention of the fact that he didn’t provide any financial support or that he never laid eyes on me following the divorce and only attempted to do so once, when I was approximately 5 years old. She talked about how upset she and her husband were that they weren’t “allowed” to be in my life. She didn’t understand why my mother would keep me from them.
And that is when she lost me. Although I didn’t understand the core of who my father was and all the details that lead my mother to the decisions she made, I trusted her completely. She wouldn’t have divorced him and moved away from him for nothing. My allegiance was to my mother. The young woman, who went back to college with a baby, scraped together all she could to get us an apartment, got a job and raised me on her own with no support from him. I continued to listen to my grandmother and politely answered her questions but in that moment, I knew we would never have anything but a Christmas-card-exchange relationship.
And in the next 6 months, that is all we had. She sent one letter and I did the same. And then, nothing.
I convinced myself I was okay with nothing. I honestly didn’t want to continue to hear about how wonderful the man who abandoned me was. I didn’t want to confront her about her dead son’s failures. I had received a photo of him and could finally put to rest the lingering questions about where I got certain facial features. I got what I thought I wanted.
Fast-forward 7 years. I was planning a trip to her home state and figured I should attempt to connect. I sent a letter with no response. I searched, but didn’t find an obituary but thought she might have moved to a nursing home, so searched for any other names connected to her. Within minutes, I found what appeared to be another son. My uncle. I found his email address and thought, why not?
This ‘letter’ was only slightly easier; after all, since she met me, he probably knew I existed. My email didn’t need to start with, “you’ve probably never heard of me” but instead needed to confirm that he was, indeed, my uncle. The fear in sending this email was different. I had already met my grandmother and didn’t like what she had to say, but she didn’t know that. In the last 7 years, she hadn’t made any attempt to connect – was she just elderly and couldn’t respond? Possibly. Was she rejecting me? Probably. If I sent this email to her other son, would he follow suit and reject me as well? I steeled myself and sent the email.
Within hours, he responded and wanted to meet. He explained that his mother was indeed in a nursing home due to dementia and had moved there within months after she met me years before. (So she didn’t reject me?) We arranged to have dinner when I was in town.
I don’t know when I have ever been more nervous. At the time, I didn’t know what I wanted. I didn’t know what I hoped to gain from meeting my uncle (and his wife and daughter). Would I feel an instant connection? I didn’t feel that with my grandmother. Would this be different? I checked myself in the mirror a dozen times. Was my outfit okay? My make-up? My hair? Do I look fat in these pants? What would I say? What would I do if he also talked about how awesome his brother was and what a disappointment to his entire family that my mother didn’t reach out to them and invite them into our lives? What if they were just really weird? I decided that the odds were not in my favor. He would likely feel the same as my grandmother and I would be disappointed, yet again. But this time, I was ready for it.
When my uncle picked me up, I very quickly realized that I looked nothing like him. This was an unexpected disappointment for me. He was small and thin – the kind of thin that you know he doesn’t have to work at maintaining. He had a narrow face with dark hair and dark eyes. We were complete opposites. His wife and daughter were small too. I felt like a giant. An awkward giant who had no clue what to say. We made small talk in the car and at one point, I remember his wife apologizing to me for staring (I honestly hadn’t noticed) but she was floored at how much I resembled my grandmother when she was younger. This was somehow comforting.
We made it to the restaurant and sat down. The minute we sat down, my uncle told me that he was sorry. He was sorry that his brother was such an ass and that he believed my mother did the right thing. And I nearly lost it. In that moment, I knew. That was what I was hoping to get out of this. Validation. Acceptance.
All through dinner, they continued to talk and tell me things about his parents and brother. He told me things he remembered from when I was born. He even had photos of me from when I was only a few months old. He said his parents had friends in the town I grew up and they would give my grandparents updates on me. I know that sounds creepy and stalker-ish, but it was actually comforting to know that they cared enough to know how I was doing but respected my mother’s request for a closed door. Over that short dinner, I learned that my uncle, aunt and cousin were amazing people. I learned things about them that completely overwhelmed me. It took all I had not to run into the bathroom and cry. They weren’t weird. And I cared about them. They were my family.
It has been 8 years since we first met. It has been 8 years since I learned the truth about who my father was. It has been 8 years of understanding and 100% support of the decisions my mother made all those years ago. It has been 8 years of realizing that it wasn’t me; it was him. It has been 8 years of turning abandonment into peace. In the last 8 years, I conducted two more searches and have connected with my two half-brothers; we have yet to meet in person due to distance, but I expect we will some day soon. In these last 8 years, I have gotten to know my uncle, aunt and cousin – we have visited each other’s homes, vacationed together, exchanged countless texts and emails, celebrated birthdays and graduations, but mostly we have become family.