Tell Me Your Story: Of Reunion

A typical family reunion is filled with joy and laughter, but for adoptees and their birth parents, a reunion is anything but typical. It’s complicated. Adoptees can feel stuck between embracing their birth families and not hurting their adoptive families. There may also be feelings of rejection and long buried anger and bitterness towards their birth families. And what is the mother’s role in her child’s life now? She nurtured and bonded with her child during pregnancy, but now she is a stranger. For many adoptees, reuniting with their birth families is a dream come true, but for others, it brings on another set of problems they are not ready to face. Because of the deep emotions involved, reunions are rarely easy, but with time it is possible to forge a new and different relationship. In her own words, Kimberly shares how she reunited with her son, and how they are trying to move forward despite many obstacles.

Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 8.47.35 PMI relinquished my son to adoption in 1990.  It was a semi-open adoption. For us, that meant his adoptive parents sent a letter and pictures every year until he turned 18 years old.  They honored this agreement until his 18th birthday.

I had expected to get a letter or phone call from him on his 18th birthday.  Two years passed (July 2010) until I received a phone call from my adoption caseworker stating my son wanted to send me a letter.  Of course I said yes and confirmed my address.

I received a letter from him in September 2010.  I remember feeling a thousand feelings just holding that envelope in my hand.  I was overwhelmed with memories of my past.  Memories of my relationship with his birth father, the fact I hid my pregnancy from my family (I finally told my parents and immediate family what I had done about 10 years later), visiting him at the foster home where he was cared for until the adoption was finalized (now I know I could’ve changed my mind during that two weeks), and saying good bye to him at the courthouse as I handed him over to his new family.

I think I held it for an hour until I had mustered the courage to open it.  It was addressed “Dear Kim.” The letter was short.  He wrote that he had a good life, he was happy, explained his current living situation, described his girlfriend, and he would like for me to write back and send some pictures if I wouldn’t mind.  He ended the letter “From your son” and signed his full proper name.

I grabbed my computer and ferociously wrote a four-page letter (my handwriting is horrible) and labeled about 50 pictures of my family.  He later told me when he received the letter and pictures, he just cried and cried feeling so overwhelmed by actually seeing current pictures of me and knowing about my current life.  I wanted him to know everything about my family, my past, and me.  Most important, I wanted him to know how much I loved him and will always love him. We exchanged a couple more letters over the next couple months (he’s not much of a writer). The last one he wrote included his phone number asking me to call him if I ever felt like it.

I waited until I had an afternoon off of work and my other two children were at school so I would have privacy to call him.  I held the phone in my hand staring at his phone number for what seemed to be a lifetime.  Again, memories of my past were scrolling through my mind.   Honestly, I prayed that he would answer and say he didn’t hate me, that he understood why I made the choice I did, that he will be able to forgive me and he wants to try this reunion thing.

I was incredibly nervous, excited, scared, and full of anticipation when I dialed his phone number.  When I heard his voice answer “Hello” I immediately felt so much love, it’s really indescribable.  I told him who I was, there was a long pause, and then it seemed we couldn’t talk fast enough.  I let him do most of the talking, just listening to my son’s voice for the first time. Relishing every moment, every second.

After close to three hours, knowing I would need some time alone to process all the emotions of this call, we set up a time to talk again.  It was funny because neither of us wanted to hang up. Even in that awkward silence, it was as if we were afraid of losing each other once that call was disconnected.  When we did finally hang up, I couldn’t stop crying.  I cried because I was happy, because I was sad, because I loved him, because he is my son.

I followed up with an email that night, just to make sure he was doing ok and to let him know I was doing ok.  He responded, “It felt so good to hear my mom’s real voice”.

We continued to call and email each other frequently the next month or so.  The question of when do we meet began to creep into our conversations.  We decided to set up some boundaries prior to meeting.  Unfortunately, neither of us had done any reading/research so we had no idea what kind of “rules” to put in place.  I took the lead and came up with a few: He decides where our relationship goes, parents (adoptive) first, and we will be open and honest with each other at all times.

Up to this point in my adult life I was orderly and efficient at any task. My to do list was always completed at the end of the day and as I worked full time as a registered nurse, had a home, two small children and a husband, and I attended school full time to obtain my Bachelor’s degree in Nursing.  No easy feat, but for me, as controlled and determined as I was, I could do anything.  Complete Type A personality!

Since the first letter, I could feel myself slipping.  After the first phone call, I found myself thinking about him all the time, about nothing in particular, just “him”.  Then the “What if’s”? started coming.  What if I would have told my mother I was pregnant? What if I chose not to follow the “rules” and ran away with him after I made the adoption commitment? What would our lives have been like? And so on and so on and so on.  My husband and friends started to notice I wasn’t myself after that first year. I was crying all the time.  I would do an activity with my other two children and begin to cry because I missed out on that same milestone with him. I did choose to see a therapist.  She helped me see I was grieving! Grieving is something I hadn’t done 20 years ago.  I went through all the stages of grief and then back again.  The first couple years I was a complete mess!

Our first face-to-face meeting took place in November 2010.  He chose a bar and grill close to his home.  I think it was in order to make a quick getaway if needed.  I honestly don’t think I had ever been so full of anxiety, hope, anticipation, and love as I was when I saw him walk through the door.  We greeted each other with hugs, sat down and literally stared at each other for what seemed like forever.  Personally, I was taking in all that was his physical presence.  Did he look like me or more like his birth father? Are his mannerisms similar to mine, etc?  That first meeting was the beginning of an emotional roller coaster ride filled with happiness, sadness, regret, grief, and love that neither of us had been prepared for.

The first year we met at least a couple times a month.  Because he was living at home with his parents, and he didn’t feel he was ready to meet my husband and other two children, we often met for lunch or dinner.  I enjoyed listening to him talk about his trials and tribulations growing up.  He said right off the bat that he isn’t one to trust people easily.

I told him about my life growing up, how I ended up pregnant and alone at age 19.  He knew a little bit about the relationship between his birth father and me as I wrote a letter to him that was given to his parents and left for them to decide when he was ready to read it.  He said he read it when he was 16 and actually became quite angry when he found out his mother sent me pictures and a letter once a year. He knew I was a psychiatric nurse and said his friends warned him not to lie or cover up things because I’ll know. I found that funny.

During this first year, I learned that he was an addict, had no real relationship with his parents, and legal issues.  This added another dynamic to the already complicated issues with come along with reunion.   We developed a trusting and loving relationship, bonding quickly.

After that first year, a push/pull cycle began between us.  He would feel that we were getting to close and start to push me away.  I would feel him pulling away and do whatever I could to keep him.  The first two years this cycle was very intense for both of us.  He knew I would’ve done or said anything to make sure he didn’t leave my life.  Part of that was the “addict” manipulating me and me the “enabler” playing along.   The part of our story that includes addiction is a monster all it’s own.  One that had him cut off all communication with me since his DUI in January of this year.  As I write this, I haven’t spoke to him or seen him in almost 11 months.  This separation has rocked me to the core.  I know it’s not about ME, but it still hurt just the same.

The main struggle for us in the process of reunion has been other people interfering.  His adoptive parents, especially Mom, have expressed jealousy and insecurity throughout the past four years.  According to my son, he has been made to feel that he is abandoning his family when spending time with me.  His mom would tell him how her feelings would be hurt when she would see pictures on Facebook of us, know that we were going to dinner, or just hanging out.  He would lie to her at times about spending time with me. When she found out, she expressed to him that hurt her feelings even worse.

His adoptive mom and I “friended” each other on Facebook and started exchanging messages.  Over the years I’ve asked her many times to meet in person.  She has refused every time.  She has made comments to others that I have been selfish and not considered her feelings during my relationship with him.  I’ve had comments made to me by friends close to him that I have no right to have a relationship with him, I gave up that right 24 years ago when “I gave him away”.  “Ouch”! That one stabbed me right in the heart.  He knew it too.  After seeing what his friend texted me, he did show concern for me by talking with his friend and explaining how inappropriate those words were.  I felt validated and relief that he did really listen to the “Why’s” of the choice I made so long ago.

I will always feel that he has been put in an unfair position of having to choose sides.  He’s told me many times he feels like he’s from a divorced family.  This also breaks my heart.  He’s confided in me, felt safe with me, and truly feels a loving bond with me.  He shouldn’t have to choose.  If I were an aunt or a cousin, our relationship wouldn’t be put under the scrutiny it has.  I try very hard not to take this personally, as anyone who would be his birthmother would be treated the same way.

His legal and addiction issues have complicated things this year as he is on house arrest (at his adoptive parents home) and must comply with the rules.  His release date is December 8th.

So I wait again, wondering if he’ll write to me, call me, or text me as I did when he turned 18.  I have written him short notes every couple months this year so he understands that I love him, he’s my family, and I’m not going anywhere. It’s taken me about seven months to adjust to him not being in my life.  We were getting to a place where he was comfortable in my home with our family.  I miss him dearly, I love him always, and I know this is not the final chapter in our story.

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Finding My Family

The events of the past few months have been surreal. There are no other words to describe it. This blog has done many things for me. It’s been a way to express myself and share my adoption journey. I’ve also been able to hear and share others’ adoption stories. But most importantly, it has helped me find my family.

At the end of June, I wrote a post about Searching. I had several people reach out to me, and each person kept offering their help to find my family. They knew someone who was in Haiti or they knew someone who could help me. I was still scared to start searching, but every time I was discouraged, I thought of the stranger who was sitting on their computer so moved by my story that they reached out to me to let me know they would help. So I started searching.

My family is from Pestel, Haiti, a small town outside of Jeremie. I went on Facebook and found a Facebook Page for Pestel. I sent a private message that I was searching for my family and I listed my name, birthdate, and my parents’ names. The administrator, Jean, reached out to me and kindly translated my message into Creole and French and shared it on the page. He also told me he was from New York, had family in Pestel, and would gladly share my information with them.

About two weeks later, I was on vacation with my husband and kids when I received a message from Jean on Facebook.

Mariette, hope all is ok. Please call Denise 011509********, she will be able to give you more info on your mom and dad. You can tell her Jean ——- gave you the number. Do you still speak creole?, if not I can always translate. I’m leaving for Pestel, Haiti next week.”

My heart was racing. “She will be able to give you more info on your mom and dad.” I don’t remember the next few minutes, but somehow I was able to get the words out to my husband. He was just as excited as I was because he knew how much it meant to me. I somehow got through dinner, and tried to call Denise when we got back to the hotel room. I was hoping Denise could speak enough English that we could communicate over the phone, but she didn’t speak any English, and I don’t speak any Creole. I was frustrated and had to wait until I got home to find help.

When we finally got home, I messaged a long time friend who spoke Creole. I explained the situation and gave Denise’s number. Their phone call was much more productive. We found out that Denise knew my sister Ginette, and knew her phone number. She told us that I had seven siblings (five sisters and two brothers) all living in Haiti. Denise also told my friend that my mother was alive, but my father had passed away last year. The news that my mother was alive was shadowed by the fact that my father wasn’t. I felt guilty for several days. If I had only done this sooner, he could have seen me before he passed. I cried, but was consoled by the hope that I could still be reunited with my mother.

I thanked my friend for calling, but I was unsure of the next step. My emotions were all over the place, and I needed a few days to sort everything out. Over the summer I was working on several interviews for the blog, so I decided to email Marlyse, a woman who was in the process of adopting two children from Haiti, so I could get an update. She knew about my story, and asked me about my search. Wanting to be honest, I told her that there was a possibility that I found my sister in Haiti. I told her I had a number, but no way to communicate. Marlyse wrote back almost immediately. “Do you want to call her this week?”

Three days later, we had Ginette on the phone. I could understand little of what she said, but she was overjoyed to hear from me. Over the next 45 minutes, Marlyse translated as I asked her questions. Slowly, the blurred lines of my history came into focus. Ginette answered every question. She confirmed the information I knew, and filled in what I didn’t. Ginette knew the name of the Haitian woman who had ran the orphanage and given me up for adoption. I had not told anyone this information, and when I heard the name, I got goosebumps. I knew at that moment, this was my sister, my family.

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My sister Ginette

Ginette was in Port-au-Prince and promised to do her best to get our mother to Port-au-Prince from Pestel to speak to me. Within two weeks, I spoke to mother on the phone. She sounded like Ginette, but her Creole a little higher and softer. We told each other things that we had wanted to tell each other for so long, with Marlyse interpreting the entire conversation. I was sweating, my heart was pounding, but it was perfect.

Ginette told me she could send me a picture of my mother with the help of her neighbor. Ginette had a cell phone, but it didn’t have a camera. She was going to get her neighbor to take a picture and send it to my phone. We ended the conference call, and I waited. In the waiting time I tried to keep my hands busy. I kept thinking that I should be doing something special in the moments before seeing a picture of my mother for the first time. I couldn’t think of anything, so I just stared at my screen saver, trying to calm my racing heart.

My phone was beside me, and I heard it vibrate. I opened the email on my computer and clicked on the attachment. I had no words. I was by myself in front of the computer, and I just stared at the picture. I must have stared at it for a full five minutes before moving. And then I grabbed every single picture I had of myself on my computer and started comparing them. I finally called my husband into the room, and asked him “Do we look alike?” He answered my question with one look.

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My mother and I

My mother will be turning 70 on July 15th, and I would like to see her before that happens. A few days after we spoke, she took the long journey back to Pestel by bus. The bus ride was almost four hours, no easy feat for an older woman. When we spoke, she asked for nothing. Just to see me again. She had told me she had been praying every day, never giving up hope that we would see each other again.

So this journey that I’ve been on is no longer about me. It’s not about my wishes or unfulfilled desires. It’s about a woman who was separated from her daughter and never gave up hope that she would see her child again. And I owe this story to every single person who has encouraged me to search for my family. I especially thank Marlyse. She was a stranger who let God use her to reunite a mother and daughter. Marlyse helped give me closure, but what she did for my mother was nothing short of orchestrating a miracle, and I cannot thank her enough. To be honest, I was unsure if I would ever meet my mother on this side of heaven, but she never gave up on me. Isn’t that what mothers do?

Searching

This past May, I wrote about my difficulty on Mother’s Day. Several people reached out to me and asked me if I wanted help with searching for my birthmother, and I was grateful for the genuine desire to help. So first and foremost, thank you! For anyone from the outside, the solution seems simple. If you are searching for something, go find it. But it’s not always that simple.

Although I’ve been thinking about searching for my birth family for many years, I haven’t. I attempted a search almost ten years ago. I was starting my first year of college. Away from home, the combination of curiosity and independence made me believe that it might be possible to find my family. So I asked my mother to mail me copies of all of my adoption papers. About a week later, I enthusiastically ran down to the mailroom and was handed a thick package. But when I sat down on my bed and spread everything out in front of me, the task seemed insurmountable. Doubt crept in. I had no idea where to start, who to contact, or what I wanted to find.

This was just before Myspace, and years before Facebook and Twitter. My online presence was limited to a few email addresses and MSN Messenger. I didn’t have the money to work with an agency, and I didn’t know who to contact in Haiti.  I just didn’t see how I was going to find them. I felt foolish, tucked the papers back into the manila envelope, and hid the envelope at the bottom of my desk drawer. The envelope stayed there all year, untouched, until I packed up my things to move back home for the summer.

Today there are few excuses, but I’m still hesitant for several reasons. First, I don’t know if I’ll like what I find. It’s easy to avoid reality and build up this idea of what someone is like. For now, my family can be whatever I want them to be. They can be good and kind and selfless. My birth mother is still alive, just waiting for me to “come back.” But once I begin searching, I can never go back to this fantasy in my head.

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photo credit: Ali Kay “God’s Children” Series

In addition, searching for a family member in Haiti is much different than searching for family in the United States or Canada. Haiti’s system of  recordkeeping is not reliable. It’s not a Google click away or as easy as searching for a name on Facebook. The orphanage I was adopted from no longer exists. My adoption papers stated that my birth parents cannot read or write, and today they may not have access to modern technology. But Haiti is a small country and does have a good system of word of mouth. I have been told that my best chances would be to actually go to Haiti and look for them.

In the last few months, I’ve watched three different documentaries about adoptees searching for their family members. Each story was so different, but I noticed one theme throughout: each adoptee was surrounded by family. It was not a solo search, but a team effort. Their adoptive families were there to walk with them, offer words of advice, and give emotional support. As I’ve shared before, I live in Florida, while my family still lives in Canada. As independent as I seem, a search for family would be better with my family.

So these are the excuses I’ve told myself over and over. These are the things that are holding me back. Or protecting me, depending on how you look at it. If I’m honest with myself,  I just want to meet my family members to let them know that I’m okay. I don’t know if a relationship with any of my family members is possible. There are linguistic and cultural barriers. And I am not the little girl they said goodbye to over 30 years ago.

Greek Philosopher Heraclitus said that “No man steps in the same river twice. For it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” Time did not stand still. Our lives have gone on without each other. But even with all these realities, the yearning remains. If and when I decide to search for my birth family, I know that it doesn’t change the past. It doesn’t change who I am. But I would like to someday meet my birthmother again and tell her I love her.

Tell Me Your Story: Of a Full House

When the alarm sounds at 6:30 in the morning, Katie rolls over, rubs the sleep out of her eyes, and spends the next few minutes checking Facebook. Then she makes her way into the kitchen to make breakfast for her seven children. Yes, seven children.

Katie and Tony Gonzalez started their adoption journey by adopting through foster care. In 1999, they adopted a 15 month old little girl, and for over ten years, Gabby was an only child and took pleasure in being her parents’ “center of joy.”

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Gabby, Katie & Tony

Katie and Tony always wanted to have a big family, but were cautious about stepping back into the adoption process after Gabby. In 2010, through a “chance conversation”, they learned that three siblings  were in foster care and needed a permanent home. After a year of “forms, medical checks, background checks, and waiting,” Gabby became a big sister to Lydia, Will, and Madi on her 12th birthday. Although the transition from a family of three to a family of six was difficult, Katie is proud of her oldest daughter for showing tremendous maturity and adjusting to her new big family.

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Lydia

Will

Will

Madi

Madi

 Three years after welcoming Lydia, Will, and Madi, Katie received an email from her agency. She was asked to reach out to first time parents in the process of adopting three siblings from foster care. The parents were “struggling badly and drowning in needs they had not expected.” Katie reached out to the struggling parents, but they made it clear that they were not ready to adopt. Katie felt in her gut that she and her husband were being called to provide a home for the siblings. She brought it up to Tony who was apprehensive. Where would everyone sleep? How would they transport all seven children? Would there be enough to go around?

There didn’t seem to be any easy answers, and even friends and family thought they were getting in over their heads and expressed their concerns. Katie and Tony were receptive and discussed the potential adoption with their families at length. And they prayed. Katie knew that if God was calling her to adopt, He would also walk by her side. Katie and Tony took a leap of faith, confident that things would work out. Today, the three children are living with the Gonzalez family waiting for their adoptions to be finalized.

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Tony, Katie, and their seven children.

Katie and Tony’s seven children range from ages 5 to 16. To keep sane, Katie created a family schedule that would impress a drill sergeant. During the week, she is part of a homeschool co-op and teaches several 10th grade subjects. The oldest four are also homeschooled, while the youngest three attend public school. After the youngest are picked up from school, there is snack time followed by at least an of hour play time. All of Katie’s children see a Play Therapist once a week, and her youngest have an additional session with a Behavioral Skills Therapist.

The family gathers for dinner at six, and everyone pitches in to help clean the kitchen. Bath time begins shortly after dinner, and bedtimes for the six little ones are staggered throughout the evening starting at 7:15 and ending at 9:00. Katie tries to fit in one on one time with Gabby and quiet time with her husband to dicuss their day and read the Bible. This is enough to make anyone’s head spin, but Katie also manages to find time to keep up a family blog.  Although things do not always go as planned, Katie says, “it is her morning prayer that she would have an organized day.”

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Tony, possibly taking a nap?

Katie knows there is a need to foster and adopt, and takes the opportunity to spread awareness whenever she can. On her blog, Katie explains that she once read that adoptive families are not God’s plan A, but His plan A was for the biological family to work. But what happens when Plan A is broken? or fails? Katie says, “Looking around at my messy house, hearing the children laugh and yell,…helping our children cry over wounds they are too young to consciously remember…Yes, I think I am OK with that. Remember this is all Plan B. Plan A was a garden. A garden where foster care, orphans, and pain didn’t exist.”

On any given day there is laundry to be folded, meals to be made, and dishes to be washed. There are also lesson plans, homework, karate, and  band practice. If anyone thinks what Katie and her husband are doing is impossible, they don’t seem the least bit deterred. The name of Katie’s blog is “Seeds of Hope”, and written on the header is Matthew 17:20:“ I tell you the truth, if you can have faith as small as a mustard seed…Nothing will be impossible for you.”