By Patty Speakman Hamsher
I met my first blood relative in the middle of the night. The summer heat of the Caribbean dripped down my face as all seven pounds of her came tumbling out of me, blue and wet, her eyes wide and scared. The doctor and her dad pestered her for a few cries, and then I had her in my arms. Flesh of my flesh, dark hair and dozing eyes aching to stay awake and make sense of the confusion and sounds, but at peace to nuzzle into my breast and sleep off the adventure of coming to life.
My story begins a lifetime before that. I had been somebody’s new baby, wrapped in a pink blanket and howling in the arms of my mother who was standing next to my brother and father, all of them beaming in our first family photo. I was adopted and therefore had not only a birthday to celebrate every year but also a “special day” that honored the date I officially became part of my family, my first day of life in our family’s recorded history.
It wasn’t until my teen years that I found myself feeling around for missing pieces. I needed information about where I came from, my origin. I felt conflicted why I couldn’t appreciate my post-adoption life, the easy childhood of beach vacations, Brownie meetings, a room mother, family road trips, and skinned knees from playing with the neighborhood kids. But I was fumbling with the desire to lay eyes on someone who had my nose or my uniquely blue and hazel eyes, someone whose identity was concealed in the politics that dominated closed adoptions of the late 1970s. I was sure I would bump into my birth parents someday. I even let myself believe my parents were waiting for the right time to tell me they had known my birth parents all along. In this fantasy, everyone was waiting for me to arrive at the surprise party that would be our reunion.
Five months ago and several years after the self-absorption of my youth had faded into adult reality, I became serious about the search. The intimacy of pregnancy, and the birth of my own two daughters had given me the chance to experience the tenderness of growing life; I couldn’t imagine not knowing the little limbs that nudged me from within. An intense admiration for the woman who gave me up grew as strong as my own babies’ kicks. I imagined the tales I would tell my kids one day, of the two college students who fell in love, went on adventures, and spent a few years traveling the Caribbean, events that put into motion their conception and presence years after the thrill of late-night partying and a two-person tent had faded.
I made an official query to the agency that had handled my case 34 years ago. It was a request for contact with the fairytale characters with my wavy hair and slight build that I had imagined and searched for in random store aisles and crowded bus stops everywhere. My parents, anxiously supportive, offered protective warnings not unlike those they gave on my first drive down the driveway with a shiny new license in my pocket:
“Be careful, Patty, we don’t want you to get hurt.”
Like my brother, they were nervous first, excited second, and somewhere in each of them I sensed admiration and saw the dawning of a private curiosity they hadn’t let themselves realize before. My closest friends encouraged me by way of emails and lengthy voice mails, familiar with my desire to uncover what I felt for so long had been missing. Their encouragement soothed my conflicting loyalties to my family who loved me unconditionally and to my convictions that I would only ever feel fulfilled by taking this leap.
Sooner than I expected, my birth parents were real people on the social worker’s computer screen. These imagined people with the goodness and strength to give their baby a steady life suddenly had breath, and in their realness they shared their apprehensions with the social worker about direct contact with me. And I was again the howling baby, confused about my origin, angry about my helplessness, and frustrated by my limitations. Their faces were no longer everywhere, they were somewhere I couldn’t get to. Their identities were protected and carefully concealed to guard the hurt they had felt and the larger biological family that didn’t know about me. I began to mourn that I would never meet them, and angrily chipped away at the pedestal I had placed them on, the one I had created during late-night feedings with my own babies, when I rocked and realized the fortitude it would have taken me to give my babies to someone else.
It was only when I allowed myself the space to grieve that I gained the clarity to see the big picture of my life coming together. I have no control over or legal rights to my conception or my genes. The people that did only promised to write a letter, hoping that would be enough for me. They asked our mediary, the talkative social worker with years of experience, for permission to address it to me personally, and without hesitation I gave up my first name to them. I thought about how angry and raw I felt about their still-secret identity, and I wondered if they flinched at the sound of my realness.
I found my consolation prize a few weeks later, in between home security offers and credit card bills. Intuition had told me to expect the letter to arrive soon, and reason told me to prepare for a sterile run-down of my medical history and family data. What I found instead was five poignant pages long, typed in a font that was perhaps chosen for its dramatic slant. I read it alone in the back yard of a summer evening, letting the emotions have their way with me while my husband peeked out the window every so often. In those twenty minutes I watched myself reading a letter that was my taproot. I laughed, I cried, I cringed, and I smiled at the way things work out, even though walking through them can feel so heartbreaking and discouraging. I read the letter twice, both times finding myself slightly hung up on the lack of symmetry between the intimate details they disclosed and the sterile conclusion: they never signed their names. A week later, I would get angrier about this inequity and the legality of disclosure, but that night I was too drunk on the facts, more detailed than I could have dreamed about, to notice.
I tottered around in the awkward newness before I was able to reveal myself to my family, the ones who had cautiously given me their support to push the rewind button on the events that existed before the Kodak flash of my first special day. I got used to knowing my medical history and the circumstances surrounding my conception. It was a story as old as time, she wrote, where two careless teens found summer love and later faced the disappointment and embarrassment of families. Only in my story, the teens didn’t rush into marriage and play house with a real baby like their families wanted; they signed papers in the room at the end of the hall where the nurses spoke in whispers because the birth mother couldn’t bear to hold the baby she had signed over to an adoption agency. I devoured the personal words describing their physical traits that mirror my own and allowed myself the validation that came with the pain she felt for months after my birth.
Years later, my birth parents married and eventually had a son who knows nothing about this full-blood sister who looks for pieces of herself in men about his age without realizing it.
But the letter is enough for now. I have memorized the tender lines that make me physically ache—how she never saw me or held me for fear she wouldn’t have the strength to follow through on what they knew was the best decision, how she would cry for me months later, wondering how any woman could give her child away. I catch myself mentally crafting pieces of a reply letter to them before the final waves of sleep wash over me at night. But I often awaken without putting anything on paper, leaving my reply hanging in a place of peace where it can’t be rejected.
Last week I answered a phone call while sitting at a red light, and just as casually as the light turned green, the social worker informed me my search case would now be closed. I could tell from her voice and the words she chose when offering her mildly apologetic indifference that this had not been a successful case to her. She had hoped there would be further contact from them after the letter, perhaps they would have been moved to have direct contact after the shock wore off, she said, but it didn’t look like they would follow up after all. And while my kids clamored from the back seat for snacks and my interest in the latest handwriting assignment, I felt the familiar zing of helplessness once again. I was reminded that there is so much that is out of my hands even if it was my own fingers that made the first call.
Like the social worker whose expectations were that of a reunion, supportive friends often ask when I will write a response letter to my birth parents, a question I ask myself every so often and can’t yet answer. For now, I am learning how to find my way to what feels like enough. For now, there is a comfortable feeling of peace about it all that needs no follow-up.
I will always be a chosen baby. But I am armed with the truth that I began in the womb of a young girl who still loves the same young boy she made a mistake with, the woman who has found a place to tuck me into her heart and visit with me from time to time while we both charge on to make lives the other would be proud of, knowing that our paths may never physically intersect. From one family I was given breath, but from the other I was given life.
Patty Speakman Hamsher is a freelance writer and a dreamer living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with her husband, two daughters, and six chickens. When she’s not fantasizing about traveling or overanalyzing parenthood, she is an editor at Eastern Shore Savvy and blogs at Salinity Press.
To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.