Child adoption stories are like winding Texas Hill Country roads. To enjoy them fully, you have to start at the beginning.
So, first things first.
If you missed reading from the beginning of this series, you are encouraged — nay, exhorted — to go back and start with Part 1. If you start here with Part 7, I’ll look like a crappy writer, and you’ll go away very confused.
Neither of us wants that.
So if you’re in a rush, slow down. Skip work if you must. (Don’t tell your boss I told you to.)
And… I know I told you it was going to be nine parts. I screwed up the sections. It will be eight. Final piece tomorrow!
Some names and identifying details have been changed
to protect anonymity.
I met Barbara and Jim, her husband of 45 years, twice over the weekend of February 8-9, 2020. COVID prevented us from meeting a third time in mid-March when I was in their city again for work, and since then we’ve had only emails, phone calls and FaceTime.
We scheduled our first meeting by email. I hadn’t heard her voice before our lunch on February 8. I arrived at a golf course restaurant a half hour early to make sure I wasn’t late. As a career nonprofit fundraiser, I’ve had probably a thousand meetings at a restaurant, office or Starbucks, and I always arrive a little early, so that I don’t offend a potential donor. In more than two decades, I have never arrived a full 30 minutes early, even for the atypical handful of billionaires I’ve met. This wasn’t so much out of concern that I’d offend her, though that was true. It was more that I believed I might miss her if I was even five minutes late. Like she’d vanish.
Therefore I was the first to arrive and agreed for the hostess to go ahead and seat me at our table.
It was on a patio on a warm day. I looked around to take in all the details that I knew, correctly, I’d remember later. As I write this, I recall the putting green behind me, the warm touch of the sun, the chatter at adjacent tables on this Saturday. A standing propane heater repelled what little late winter breeze there was.
Before long, a blonde lady in a black blouse followed by a tall man in a sport coat – both of them quite distinguished-looking — emerged from the main building about forty feet away and started walking toward the table.
I can’t remember the very first words she and I spoke, if there were any, but after a hug, she stood back, twirled in place and said, “Well, now you’ve seen all of me!” And she laughed. If there’s one thing we can’t imagine about a stranger nor do we expect its rightful centrality, it’s their laugh. We imagine their look, their personality, their political or religious views, even how their voice might sound, but we never consider what it’s like when they laugh. At least I didn’t. Her laugh, which I enjoy as much during FaceTime calls now as I did in person, was the thing that perhaps made her more real than anything, even more real than how she looked, which had been the thing I’d been most curious about until that moment. Our laugh is a public declaration of how comfortable we feel in our body.
It’s not a stretch to wonder, though it’s bandied about so casually, “How might God sound when laughing?” Perhaps this is the deep mystery we all long to have answered. One we cannot solve ourselves.
As we ate lunch, she elaborated on her initial email to me. It had said that she was young, just starting college, had met a “very nice boy,” and got pregnant at a time when “society looked askance” on a single “girl” in this situation. With the support of her loving parents, she had written, and everyone in agreement that this was best, especially for the baby, she went to a home for unwed mothers. Jim had known from the beginning of their marriage about her secret. Over lunch, I now heard how hard it was when she learned she was pregnant. She couldn’t tell anyone. But she had a friend who’d been through this not long before, and this friend came alongside her and supported her during those early days. Even the more intimate parts of the adoption agency’s document I’d received in my 20’s had no real dimension to what she was describing about her life. I was getting to know her.
During the course of that first meal, we of course discussed how the internet connected us. She had intentionally avoided using one of the handful of DNA testing services because, she said not looking directly at me but with a somewhat quiet laugh, “I was worried you’d find me.” She didn’t need to explain. I immediately knew why she had had that concern and how it wasn’t her fault nor mine. American society in the ‘60’s and often even now shames unwed mothers. The same society not only doesn’t shame the man involved, but it often puts a feather in his cap. Her admission only made me more empathic. She was becoming more real by the minute.
As she recounted the months leading up to my birth, the day of my birth (when she corrected that important mistake in my agency document about being held by her), and her emotions in May 1963, her sapphire blue eyes grew misty and her voice shook. She found it hard to continue. Jim leaned over and gently touched her forearm. “Next time,” he said, “next time.”
In her first email to me, she had written, “When I received your letter with your loving message, it was like opening a door that I have kept closed for 56 years.” Jim had encouraged her to “keep the door open” about meeting me. Our lunch carried different emotional tones for each of us. She had felt shame at becoming pregnant; I had felt empty at being adopted. She had closed a door; I kept trying to open it. Meeting me required her to confront her secret; meeting her was a realization of my frequent and most significant life’s dream.
When it was time to say goodbye, we hugged. Jim and I hugged. Later that afternoon, she called and invited me to brunch the next day. I went to their home, a short walk from the Pacific Ocean. A few blocks away, in fact, was “where I began” in the summer of 1962.
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