Reading my birth mother Lillian’s letter is like looking inside a window to Lillian’s soul.
Eight months before she died in 1983, my birth mother wrote a six-page letter to her beloved sister, Donna. Lillian and Donna were not biological sisters but the absence of blood didn’t make their emotional connection anything less than strong.
Donna was one of the first people I called five or six years ago after I’d learned my birth mother’s identity. Donna spoke kindly of Lillian. After we talked, Donna sent me a big brown envelope containing photos of Lillian taken at different periods in her life.
Last month, Donna, her husband and I got together on my last night in Indiana, where I had traveled for a family reunion. As we sat and talked in the lobby of my hotel near the Indianapolis airport, Donna offered me Lillian’s original letter, which she had saved and photocopied. I took the copy, thinking Donna should keep the original since it was her letter and she had saved it all these years. I showed Donna photos of my biological father, Steve, thinking she might have met him on one of her visits to see Lillian in Northbrook. Donna didn’t recognize my biological father in the pictures.
We talked about Lillian’s difficult life in Indiana and unhappy years as a wife and mother in the suburbs of Chicago. I thanked Donna and her husband for meeting me and walked them to the door. We hugged. “I’ll call you next week,” I said, thinking I would have questions about Lillian’s letter.
Back in my hotel room, I read and re-read the letter. What the letter said and what it didn’t say intrigued me in equal parts.
Reading my Birth Mother’s letter
In neat handwriting that slanted to the right, Lillian gave Donna a glimpse into her world at the beginning of 1983.
She wrote about the horrible car accident that had left her youngest son, my brother, Fritz, with brain damage.
After being struck and dragged 75 feet by a car in July 1981, Fritz slipped into a coma that lasted for three weeks, Lillian wrote. When he came to, doctors discovered he had brain damage on the left side of his brain. Fritz spent five months in a hospital.
“He had to learn to walk, talk and eat again,” my birth mother wrote. “He’s doing pretty good now (but) his coordination on (his) left side (is) not too good. I’m trying to get him into a rehabilitation training center so he can learn to do things for himself. All in all it has been pretty rocky…”
Lillian wanted to visit Donna in Indiana but she felt like she couldn’t leave Fritz.
“I’d love to visit you all but I can’t leave Fritz alone and he has a tendency to get on people’s nerves, that aren’t used to him,” she wrote. “I was never too strong on patience but I’m sure learning all about it now.”
They had moved out of their longtime home on Alice Drive in Northbrook to escape “all the trouble,” Lillian wrote. The trouble included a fatal shooting in their old neighborhood followed by a robbery of the victim’s home. Lillian desperately wanted to get Fritz away from his old friends and drugs.
My Birth Mother’s new home
Lillian and Fritz had moved to a home in a wooded area, with a big lake across the street. I think it was Slocum Lake in Island Lake, Illinois. Lillian, who grew up in rural Indiana, probably felt safer in a smaller town and maybe the lake appealed to her. After all, my birth mother fished occasionally.
Twice divorced, Lillian worried about money. She didn’t have a phone. While Fritz was hospitalized, she racked up a huge phone bill that took a while to pay off.
“I was doubtful I’d ever get the thing paid,” Lillian wrote. “I just got the last payment made on the house in Northbrook so that is done so now maybe I can get to other things that I couldn’t afford before such as a phone.”
Lillian offered newsy updates on Mike and Michelle, her other children, her granddaughter Chris, her friends and ex-husband, Howard. She asked about Donna’s family. My birth mother expressed awe that Donna’s daughter, Kim, was old enough to drive.
“She was a tiny little girl when last I saw her,” Lillian wrote.
My Birth Mother, the Indiana farm girl
As girls, Lillian and Donna lived together on a farm near Odon, Indiana. Lillian was a foster child. In the 1930s and ‘40s, Lillian’s struggling parents were too poor to take care of their big brood – around 12 children. Authorities placed Lillian and her siblings in the homes of foster parents in southern Indiana.
During her teen years, the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, Lillian lived with Donna’s family. Donna’s stern mother, Ruth, made it clear she expected Lillian to do housework and look after Donna, who was 13 or 14 years younger than Lillian. Ruth had her hands full with two other children and relied on Lillian to help out. My birthmother stepped up to the plate. Lillian took care of Donna like a mother and they formed a deep bond. After Lillian moved to Northbrook, she and Donna visited one another, usually with their families along.
Lillian confided in Donna when she learned she had breast cancer. The cancer was in an advanced state when Lillian was diagnosed a couple of years or so before she died. A surgeon removed a large tumor in my birth mother’s right breast along with lymph nodes in her arm. After surgery, my birth mother was unable to use her right arm normally.
Metastatic breast cancer had been eating away at my birth mother, causing discomfort, fatigue, depression and who knows what other symptoms. Lillian never mentioned her health in the letter. Maybe Lillian had accepted the prospect of dying with stoicism and was steeling herself for death and didn’t want to talk about it in the letter.
“I have thought of all of you so often and do love you all (but) just hate to write when there are problems and I usually have a one-track mind when there’s trouble,” she wrote. I “can’t think of anything else until I get that solved and don’t like to lay it on anyone else.”
Feeling connected to my Birth Mother
I knew my birth mother’s childhood had been difficult. Now in Lillian’s own words, in her own handwriting, I saw how difficult the end of her life had been. In 1983, I didn’t know I had another mother. My adoptive parents kept the truth about my adoption and my biological family hidden from me. I never had a chance to meet or get to know my birth mother. That’s why I find every detail about her life so fascinating. I feel connected to my birth mother.
Reading the letter, I felt sympathy for my birth mother’s situation. Sitting alone at my desk with the letter in front of me, I blinked my eyes and tears rolled down my cheeks. Several days later as I wrote this piece at my desk, I had to stop writing to take a walk across the hallway. Tears flowed.
Perhaps my birth mother would have told Donna more if they had talked on the phone. I think my birth mother wanted to talk. Lillian gave Donna an unlisted phone number for her friend, Nancy, in case Donna needed to reach her.
“I expect to get a phone in the next month but if for any reason before you would want to reach me, call Nancy,” she wrote.
My birth mother had given me up for adoption almost 20 years earlier. I don’t know if she ever thought about me over the years or in the final months of her life. She never mentioned me in the letter.
Donna wrote back to Lillian but the letter was returned. My birth mother was just 48 when she died at Lutheran General Hospital in November 1983. Fritz passed away in a nursing home in January 1985. He was 23.