Over the next few years, I would occasionally ask about finding my sister. Her absence gnawed away at me. I always referred to her as my sister, but my mother always referred to her as “the baby I gave up”. That bothered me in so many ways, because I felt it devalued her. My mother seemed to think that giving her daughter up for adoption meant that she was not her mother. She told me many times, “she is not my daughter, she was never meant to be mine”, but a few minutes later refer to her as my half-sister. It was very confusing for my pre teen self. My mother really never grasped how much my sisters adoption affected me too. She never considered my feelings on the matter. It was like I wasn’t allowed to think about my sister, or dare to want to know her. I kept alot of my feelings to myself. I really never understood all this secrecy. I would ask my mother the same questions over and over hoping she would slip up and give me new information.
It would start with me tentatively asking if she had put anymore thought into looking for my sister. It would end with my mother yelling at me saying that she would look for her when she was ready and that it was none of my business! I would eventually back off, but in my head I would be formulating questions for the next time I would ask. She had to know I wasn’t going to give up.
Somewhere in those arguments I mentioned that there was a Reunion Registry that could help my mother find her when she became an adult. At that point though, my sister was already an adult. I gave my mom pamphlets that I found on the registry, but she wasn’t interested. She refused to speak with me on it anymore. The subject was closed. I was beyond frustrated, because I wasn’t yet aware of all the intense feelings that surround reunion. I was excited to look for my sister and I didn’t understand why my mother didn’t want to try and find her.
Looking back, I think my mother was just scared. Alot of mothers from that generation were told they were never to look for their children, some even signed papers promising they wouldn’t. Still even more were told that their children might not know they were adopted and that by finding them, the birthmother would ruin their perfectly happy lives. For the most part, adoptive parents are rich. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have been able to adopt a newborn baby in the first place (adoption fees for newborn children are staggering…30-40 thousand dollars). In my mothers case, she was divorced, had a grade ten education, had spent most of her life in minimum wage jobs, raised two kids on and off welfare, and battled alcoholism. I’m sure that’s not the life she envisioned for herself, and she wanted to come into reunion as more than she was. I get that. I struggle that I am not worthy for my son (but that’s another future post). What I have learned over the course of my life though, is that there is no perfect moment. You either do, or you don’t. My mother became a mother long before I was born, and she hadn’t yet wrapped her head around the idea that she had a right to know that her daughter was alive and well. The brainwashing to the contrary was strong.
When I was 16, I went looking for that pamphlet again on the adoption reunion registry. I learned that, as a birth relative, I couldn’t directly search for my sister. I was heart broken. If I couldn’t search for her, how would I ever find her? I was then told by the lady at the registry office that as a birth relative I could go on the passive registry. Meaning that, if my sister was looking for us, then we would be able to reunite. I, again was heartbroken. My sister didn’t know we existed. What if my mother never wanted to search, and my sister never knew to look? Then the bombshell. I was 16. The nice lady on the phone said she could send me the papers, but I wasn’t able to submit them till I was legally an adult (19). Three more years…
Those three years made me anxious. I worried as the years went by that if she wasn’t looking, maybe she thought she was unwanted. Maybe she thought, like my grandmother, that you left the past in the past, and that she only had one family. Maybe she didn’t know she was adopted, or worse, maybe she did and was told her mother was dead. Or maybe she was looking for us RIGHT NOW and we were going to miss each other because I wasn’t old enough to register. Three more years without my sister, but at least I had a plan. My mother was not part of that plan. She may not be ready to search, but she had no right to tell me once I was an adult that I couldn’t have a relationship with my sister.
Within those next three years, I had alot going on in my life. My moms roommate was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She passed away in April of 1994. Two weeks later, my boyfriend (my first love) was killed by a drunk driver. I ended up going to grad with a friend of mine (instead of my now deceased boyfriend) because he conveniently worked at a tuxedo shop. I finished high school and graduated with honors, and in October 1994, at the grad ceremonies, I figure I was about three days pregnant with my son. I lost him to adoption the following year. I honestly don’t know how I kept my shit together, but I did. Two months after my son was born, I turned 19. On my birthday, I submitted the paperwork to reunite with my sister. I was not waiting a second longer. Knowing I may actually be able to meet her one day, gave me the hope I needed to help me through all the grieving I was doing at the time.
For the next few years my life revolved around post secondary education and open adoption. Lather, rinse, repeat. I became an early childhood educator (which so many of us do after losing children to adoption, we need little people to mother), and I did my post basic in special needs education as it was called at the time. I found great pleasure in working with children who were diagnosed with Autism, and as a result, was very busy in my “off” hours being a behavior specialist doing in-home ABA (Applied behavior analysis) therapy. I lived for the three month marks in which I would get to visit with my son. Most days I worked 15 hr days between three different jobs. I couldn’t stay still or the grief would catch up with me.
One day I came home and my dad passed a phone message to me. I didn’t recognize the name, but that was nothing new, I frequently did consults for families in my area, and my name was always being passed around in Autism circles. “Does she need me to call her back right away? I need some dinner”. “Nope, she said she would call you back later”.
The phone rang, I picked it up and said hello. There was a hesitancy on the other end of the line. “Hello, you don’t know me, but…” to which I responded “No, I didn’t think I did, how can I help you?” I was expecting her to start rattling off how she got my name from someone who has a kid with autism…but there was a silence. ” Does the name Cindy mean anything to you?” My breath caught. I was already crying. I choked out a ragged “yes!” “Does the birth date Jan 24,1969 mean anything to you?” I was bawling, I said “Yes! Yes! You are my sister!” I stated babbling, “You’re not full blood, you’re my half sister, but I don’t care about that, you’re my sister, just my sister.” The rest of the conversation was a blur. There were questions asked, I don’t remember them. There were tears and laughter. She was finally real! My sister found me! I was in shock, I was fully of Joy! I was freaking right out! She has lived about an hour away from me for years! Turns out, she wanted to meet me as much as I wanted to meet her, and in just three hours she was going to be at my house!
I was all over the place. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Those three hours were the longest of my life! I kept running up and down the stairs trying to burn off energy, chanting the mantra “I have a sister and her name is Liz” over and over again, just to hear it out loud! My dad was so happy for me. He tried to calm me down, but I was over the moon, walking on clouds, everything was sweeter, on the day my sister became real. I wondered if she would look anything like the way I pictured her. Would she have stuck out of a crowd to me? Would I have known her right away? I was about to find out…
When the doorbell rang I just about jumped out of my skin! I was frozen for a second taking in just how huge this moment was going to be. I opened the door, There she was. My sister Liz. I just stared. She resembled our mom….alot. She was just as beautiful as I knew she would be. She was indeed very much like I had pictured her. The sister I fantasized about had darker, longer hair…but everything else. Wow… My sister.
She was with me for about an hour and a half. I don’t remember alot of the conversation, I was just so stunned. I probably babbled alot. As for the question of “Would I have known her in a crowd?” If someone had told me that my sister was in the crowd and everyone lined up for me to look at? Yes, I believe, yes, I would have known her immediately. She looked so much like our mother. When it was time for her to go, we agreed to keep in touch by phone. The door closed, and my sister was gone, but I was full of love, hope, and promise.
The first person I told about Liz finding me was my sons birthfather. He and I had a challenging relationship with the adoption of our son. He knew I felt that he totally failed me when I needed him most. He had come to me a few months before, to share the news that his adoptive mother had passed away. I was there for him at that time, and he returned the favor when I called and told him about Liz. He is an adoptee from a closed adoption himself. He really got just how monumental it all was. He was near tears himself, and in a moment of unconditional love, support, and acceptance, he invited me to call him anytime to talk, and that he was always there for me.
Liz and I talked every day on the phone after that, sometimes multiple times. I loved every minute. We never ran out of things to talk about. We laughed, we joked, she sent me pics of my niece and nephew (wow! I was an auntie!) and of her handsome husband. They looked like the perfect family.
My mother was on a trip and had no idea that I had been contacted or that I had met my sister. I promised Liz that when our mother got home, I would tell her that she would like to get in contact, and she gave me a pic of her family to give to her.
By the time my mother got home, I had pretty much figured out how I was going to tell her. I was excited. I was going to reunite our family. It was such an honor. This was long before I had ever found my grandmothers birth family. This was my first reunion.
I took the long bus ride to my mothers house, where my younger sister was. When I told her what I was going to do, she said “Good luck with that, I’m staying out of it”. She didn’t even want to look at the picture. I was hurt, but she was never one to do, say, or feel anything without our mothers approval. That is how she coped with our mother. She was the golden child. I didn’t care anymore. I was going to reunite our family, and my mother would no longer have that gaping hole in her heart. She would feel complete. My mother was going to hug me and cry and say thank you for bringing her daughter back to our family.
My mother finally came home. I had her sit down, and I took a deep breath. Suddenly I was scared. My mother has a history of flipping out on a grand scale. I chickened out, and decided to make it simple. She would have gotten impatient with my long speech. I handed her the envelope with the picture. “Mom, this is for you” She pulled out the picture and stared at it. “What is this?” she asked. “Mom, do you recognize the woman in the photo?” She stared some more and her hands began to shake. I could see her thoughts racing, contemplating the possible reality. The resemblance between them was striking. I got tears in my eyes…this was the moment. This was the magical moment that would change our family forever. My own voice was failing me, heavy with emotion. I whispered “Congratulations Mom, it’s a girl. This is your daughter Liz and her family.”
I sat back and let it sink in. I felt so honored to be able to do this for her. I was so full of love at that moment. “Isn’t she beautiful mom?”, “she looks just like you did”. She just kept shaking, and staring at the picture. I reached across the table and gave her the info with Liz’s number and email on it. “Are you going to call her? She would love to talk to you”. My mother was in deep shock. I had almost a week to absorb all of this, and I was so excited I forgot how huge this news would be for her. I could feel the energy in the room change…and I held my breath. I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a “fight” or “flight” moment.
My mom looked up at me, eyes blazing, and screamed “I want to be alone!” and left the room, going into her bedroom and slamming the door. My younger sister was smirking from the doorway. “Way to go, Phaydra.” My moms husband looked at me and said “You should probably leave”. He drove me to the bus station, and I went home, stunned. It wasn’t the magical moment I had envisioned…and I again, was at the top of my mothers hit list.
I brushed off my mothers reaction, and gave her space while she processed her feelings. I cherished the time I spent getting to know my sister. I continued to talk to Liz, almost every day. Then the day came when our mother called Liz and they spoke. I can’t remember if they were going to meet right away or not, but because of the way mom reacted, I told Liz it was probably better if she didn’t know we had met already. She agreed. My mom is one of those “I was there first” kind of people. That stuff is really important to her so we let her think she met her first. I had waited for Liz to become real for so many long years, and I was not going to waste anymore time on my mothers version of “how things should be done.”
My mother called me a few days later. She wanted more information, which I was happy to provide. I told her about the Adoption Reunion Registry and how they helped families separated by adoption reunite. She asked why I went looking for her without her consent. I answered that I had been asking for years if she would search for my sister. Every time I asked, I was brushed off. I told her how I had dreamed of reuniting our family, and how I had wanted so much to help her heal her feelings around the loss of my sister, and that she had NO right to keep her from me. I did everything legally, I was an adult when I registered. I did not hire a private investigator to search her out, I was put on the PASSIVE REGISTRY which means that in order for a match to happen, SHE HAD TO BE LOOKING. I also told her that I had already been on the registry for a few years before I was found. I asked if she has spoken to Liz yet, and I was told coldly, “That’s none of your business.”
Okay then… I let my mother do what she was going to do, and I let it go. I was going to concentrate on having a relationship with my sister. I felt like a great weight had been lifted from my soul. I told everyone I saw that I have an older sister and that I knew her name. Most people didn’t get the significance of that. I was so proud, I loved the sound of her name on my tongue. ” My older sisters name is Liz.” The secret was no more, she was real. I was officially a middle child, and I couldn’t have been more happy. I was thrilled. One of those days on the phone, Liz told me that she had talked to our mother. I was happy they finally touched base. She said it went well, and I didn’t ask for any details.
Time went on, and there was the big family “meet and greet”, where everyone met Liz and her family for the first time. I remember looking around the room at all the people gathered there, and wondering if they had wondered over the years. If they thought about their secret niece, and missed her. I wondered if the adoption affected them. Everyone was on their best behavior that day, I didn’t even recognize my mother. She always complained about family events while we were growing up, but here, at this one, she was redeemed. She didn’t have a secret anymore. She was lighter and happier than I had ever seen her, literally since I could remember. She was radiant. I recognized that look. It’s wholeness. As a birthmother myself, it’s the feeling you get when you are with ALL of your children at the same time. I’ve only had that feeling once in my life, and it happened many years after this event, so it’s taken me this long to fully understand that moment. I get it now. I didn’t care anymore that she would never acknowledge my role in bringing this together. I knew that I had helped to start her healing process, and in that I found peace.