When I set out to discover the families I was related to by blood, more than anything I wanted to learn my family history. As an adult adoptee, I needed to find my roots. I wanted to meet my birth parents and other blood relatives if they were open to it.
But I didn’t yearn for new parents. After all, it wasn’t as though I grew up without a mother and father. Claire and Bob, my adoptive parents, raised me from infancy. They showed up and did the things parents are supposed to do. Dad chased down Maureen Murphy after she jumped me on the stairs outside of our elementary school. My father taught me how to drive. When I was about 17, Mom and Dad lined up an entry-level job for me at Talman Home, a savings and loan in our neighborhood.
My parents lost sleep when I ran around on Friday and Saturday nights with friends. (This was before young people used cell phones to ignore text messages from their parents.) Mom, Dad and I argued over my running around, smoking, friends, boyfriends and spending habits.
Bob and Claire never wanted their young single daughters to move out but I flew the coop when I was in my early 20s. Once they calmed down, my parents helped me settle into my single girl apartments. Our relationship improved.
My Adoptive Parents, Warts and All
Like all parents, my mother and father were flawed. They fought constantly. At least that’s how it seemed. Their bickering sounded like nails against chalkboard, an unpleasant, unrelenting racket that filled our home with ugliness. If only their fights had been a TV show, I would have switched channels after the first 30 seconds.
Living with old-fashioned parents, I felt oppressed. Traveling with friends to Cancun for spring break, going away to college, working as the editor of the college newspaper, my parents put the kibosh on everything I wanted to do.
More importantly, though, I wish my adoptive parents had been honest with me. I grew up unaware that I was not related by blood to any members of my immediate or extended families. Everyone in my mother’s extended family knew I was adopted except for Melissa and me. I’ll bet the neighbors, my teachers, even the mailman probably knew. When I found out, I felt like a fool. It’s taken me years to process and come to terms with the big lie upon which my childhood was built.
My Birth Parents — the Mom and Dad I Never Knew
While I never wanted new parents, I regret not getting to know Lillian and Steve, my birth parents. I will never know the sound of their voices, the things that made them laugh or how they sounded when they laughed.
In a different reality, I imagine the three of us sitting down and talking over coffee at a restaurant. I would have asked a million questions, taken notes, looked into their eyes, studied their faces and features, checked out their clothes, taken note of how they took their coffee. Maybe they didn’t drink coffee.
Lillian and Steve, their gestures, mannerisms, personalities, habits, opinions and interests, all buried along with them.
Sometimes adoptees connect with their birth parents in ways that were never possible with their adoptive folks. Who knows what would have happened if I had gotten to know Lillian and Steve? Maybe we would have hit it off.
Even so, I cannot imagine thinking of my birth parents as Mom and Dad. Claire and Bob will always be Mom and Dad.
I’d love to hear from other adoptees who’ve gotten to know their bio parents. Feel free to share your stories in the comments.
It feels like a cruel joke. Finding out you are adopted late in life destroys part of your identity and turns your life upside down.
I found out I was adopted at age 38. My sister, Melissa, called me one evening and dropped the bombshell.
“You and I were both adopted,” Melissa said matter-of-factly.
I couldn’t have been more surprised if she’d informed me that zombies had invaded her home in the south suburbs of Chicago. Stunned silence. Words were not available to me. I sat there holding the receiver, trying to make sense of this news.
MeIissa suspected we had been adopted. One phone call to Gina confirmed it. Gina is like our cousin. Her parents, Virg and Mitch, were close friends with my parents, Claire and Bob. Aunt Virg and Uncle Mitch, as I called them, and Gina came to our home for dinner and we visited them occasionally.
Gina told Melissa that she had known for some time about her adoption and our adoptions.
It took 38 years for the truth to show up like an uninvited guest for dinner, an unwelcome stranger who had no intention of leaving.
Emotional Impact of Finding Out You Are Adopted
I felt stunned. Claire and Bob never so much as hinted at the possibility that I was not their biological daughter. In hindsight, I realized how obvious it was that I was adopted. How stupid was I for not having put two and two together. After all, Claire who was in her 50s when Melissa and I were born. She was too old to have biological children. Well, duh!
Of course I thought it was strange to have parents who were old enough to be my grandparents but I didn’t take that thought to its logical conclusion. It was odd that I had been born in Skokie, way north of Gage Park, but I never asked Bob and Claire why they had me at a hospital that was 26 miles away from home.
I wasn’t stupid, just trusting. Naïve. Without knowing it, I belonged to a secret club of secret adoptees, people born in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, during the era of closed adoptions. Surely other adopted kids attended classes with me at Tonti Elementary and Curie High schools in Chicago but we didn’t know we were adopted. Our adoptive parents upheld the unspoken, unwritten rule: “Whatever you do, don’t tell the kids they’re adopted.”
While 38 seemed embarrassingly old to learn I was adopted, other adoptees discovered their truth even later in life. Joanne Currao was 48 when she found out she was adopted. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Joanne’s brother, had known about their adoptions and never told her.
Finding out you are adopted late in life is unsettling. Author Mirah Riben contacted several late discovery adoptees who talked about the impact discovery had on their lives. Riben wrote an excellent article based on the comments from late discovery adoptees.
Being Adopted, an Uncomfortable Label for Me
Finding out you are adopted is weird. I didn’t want to dwell on what it meant to be adopted, to accept the reality that two other people were my parents. Claire and Bob were still my parents. I put my adoption in a box and shoved it aside.
Nothing changed in my life, the life that others could see. I took the subway to my editing job in Manhattan, arranged play dates for Jake, cooked meals for the three of us, walked the dog, cleaned the house and did all the other ordinary things that were part of my routine. Even if I had wanted to dwell on being adopted, my busy schedule would not have allowed it.
When I was a kid, I never felt like I had much in common with my parents. I loved Claire and Bob and they loved me but we didn’t think the same way. We didn’t share the same interests or talents. As far as personality, my mother and I could not have been more different. Claire thrived on drama. She often cried and bickered with Bob about stupid stuff. One time she poured dry cereal over Bob’s head, not to be funny, but to express her frustration. I wanted parents who were more like Mike and Carol Brady. Loud emotional displays made me uncomfortable. I retreated to my room.
Finding out I was adopted helped me make sense of the differences between us.
Adoptee Curiosity Builds
Years passed. On the outside, I looked like me, an older version, but inside, something had changed. Curiosity about my adoption grew. Questions about my biological parents and the circumstances surrounding my adoption sprang up but there was no one I could ask. Claire died in 1998, Bob passed away the following year. Gina knew nothing about my birth mother or father.
I called cousins on Claire’s side of the family. Of course they had known all along that I was adopted. My cousin Gloria could not believe that my parents had never told me. She and my cousin, Collette, had no idea who my natural parents were. Claire and Bob never revealed the details to their extended family.
After the state of Illinois unsealed birth certificates for adopted children, my husband, Tom, urged me to request a copy of my original birth certificate. Tom got the ball rolling. He handed me a check he had filled out for $15 to the Department of Public Health. Somewhat reluctantly, I mailed in the request. I felt apprehensive.
Discovering my Birth Parents’ Identities
My birth certificate revealed my birth mother was a 28-year-old married woman I didn’t know named Lillian, a Northbrook resident. My biological father’s name was missing. A search angel, Marilyn Waugh, helped me locate my half-sister, Michelle, my mother’s oldest daughter. Open and friendly, Michelle told me lots of stories about our family, including some horror stories. Unlike me, Michelle and her siblings grew up with a lot of freedom.
I wanted to know my biological father’s identity. Wanting to help me solve the mystery, Michelle tossed out the name of a guy with a common Irish surname, a man my mother had been friendly with. Michelle thought he could be the right guy but it was just a guess.
Determined to find out my biological father’s identity, I took two DNA tests. I found Stephanie, a woman who turned out to be my half-sister, my biological father’s oldest child. My natural parents, Lillian and Steve, were married but not to one another. They had an affair and created me. I’m sorry I never got to meet them before they passed away.
Adoptee Regrets, I’ve Had a Few
I regret not having learned the truth about my adoption sooner. Had I known before my parents had died, I could have approached Claire and Bob. I know my questions would have caused an epic shit storm, but I would have learned a few details about the first chapter of my life. Bob and Claire had their reasons for not disclosing my adoption. Perhaps they wanted to protect me from the stigma of adoption. Maybe they feared I would search for my bio parents. Perhaps the doctor who connected my parents to a newborn baby girl (me) at Skokie Valley Community Hospital advised them to keep mum about my adoption.
At first I blamed myself for being dumb. But with the passage of time, I have stopped blaming myself. Claire and Bob should have told me the truth.
The truth about my adoption felt unwelcome when it landed at my door so many years ago. I kicked the truth aside, unwilling to explore it but it sat there and waited for me. Once I opened my adoption box, I learned the facts about my original parents and their families. The truth didn’t come gift wrapped with a pretty bow on top, but it’s all I’ve got. I feel better, having found the missing pieces of my life.
I’d love to hear from other adoptees who stumbled onto their adoptions. Tell me your stories!
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.
Adoption search journeys are not for the faint of heart. Recently, I traveled to southern Indiana for a big family reunion of cousins on my birth mother’s side. Though the cousins are my blood relatives, they were strangers to me.
I’d never been this far south in the Hoosier state. Daviess County, Indiana looked and sounded nothing like the concrete jungles where I’ve lived most of my life. Cornfields, critters, big open skies, winding roads and Amish buggies – that’s what you find in Daviess County. Sirens, car alarms, honking horns, endless construction and millions of vehicles and people rushing around – that’s what I’m used to in Brooklyn.
My birth mother, Lillian, would have felt right at home in this little farm town, just seven miles east of her birthplace.
Far from feeling at home, I felt anxious as I parked the rental car at the Amish hotel in the town of Montgomery. In a few minutes, I would meet blood relatives on Lillian’s side.
I didn’t know what to expect at this family reunion. Growing up with my adoptive parents and sister, Melissa (also adopted), I saw my extended family at weddings, showers, wakes or funerals in the suburbs of Chicago. I loved spending time with my cousins and aunts and craved more time with them. Most of my childhood unfolded at a painfully slow and boring pace – or so it felt – in our bungalow in Gage Park, just Mom, Dad, Melissa and me. I felt isolated and different from my parents.
A Chance to Learn About Family History
As an adoptee wanting to learn about my roots, I was intrigued by the prospect of meeting new blood relatives. I knew the Arvin-Armstrong reunion would be different from anything I’d ever experienced. (In case you’re wondering, the Arvins and Armstrongs are linked by marriage. Somewhere back in time, two Arvin siblings married two Armstrong siblings, blending the families and creating double first cousins along the way. I’m related by blood to the Arvins.)
I had no idea what the vibe would feel like or whether I’d hit it off with my cousins. I wondered if I would feel like an outsider in someone else’s family. Throughout my childhood, I felt like an outsider, which is common for adoptees.
My cousins probably would be curious about me, the adoptee who didn’t find out I was adopted until age 38. People find my story interesting even though they cannot relate to it.
After six years of learning about my biological family and getting acquainted with a few relatives, you’d think I would be an old hand at first meetings with new blood relatives. In 2015, I met my half-sister, Michelle, and her daughter, Chrissy, in Galveston, Texas. In 2017, I bonded with another new half-sister, Stephanie, and niece Rachel, on my home turf in Brooklyn. Earlier this year, I spent a week hanging out with Stephanie in our home state of Illinois. All of those experiences were rewarding (and none of us ran out of things to talk about!)
But unlike a family reunion, those first meetings were small in size. The Arvin-Armstrong family reunion brings dozens of siblings and first cousins together for three days of conversation and meals. The siblings and first cousins have a lifetime of shared history and memories that makes the reunion easy and comfortable. As the newcomer, I would not be so comfortable.
My cousin, Shannon, who invited me to the reunion, put me in contact with Helen, my cousin Jim’s wife. Helen assured me the relatives are friendly and that I’d learn a lot more about my bio family if I made the trip. I could hang out with her and Jim. Ok, that did it. I booked a trip to Indiana.
At the hotel, I spotted a group of people talking outside of the hotel entrance. Are those people my cousins, I wondered as I wheeled my carry-on to the inn’s front door. Helen saw me approach.
Meeting My Blood Relatives, Learning About Ancestors
“Lynne, you made it,” she said, smiling broadly as she reached out to shake my hand. Helen introduced me to Jim, Rod and Lynn and their spouses. Jim, Rod and Lynn are first cousins to one another and second cousins to me. Like me, they traveled from other states for this reunion.
That was the beginning of many more introductions I’d make over three days. The Arvins and Armstrongs welcomed me with warmth and kindness and regaled me with tidbits and stories about our ancestors.
My cousin, Afra, who I met at one of the dinners, knew I wanted to learn more about my maternal family history. An avid genealogist, Afra brought heavy binders containing photos, obituaries and other historical documents. She offered to make copies of any photos I wanted.
Flipping through the pages of a binder, I felt a thrill when we reached the George Arvin section. For years, I’d wondered what my grandfather looked like and now, for the first time, I gazed at photos of George, taken when he was a young man
In the 1920s and ‘30s, George and his wife, Susan Melissa, were a young married couple with lots of kids, a dozen or more. Raising a big family during the Depression must have been difficult for many people. George struggled to hold down a job. Though he made a little money doing various jobs, even raising raccoons for their pelts, George was not a good provider. I’ve heard that he got arrested for stealing a loaf of bread just likeJean Valjean in “Les Miserables.”
My Grandfather: A Black Sheep?
George wasn’t around much. He deserted the family a couple of times, eventually settling in Minnesota where he died. His family in Indiana struggled. Social workers found foster homes for the children. George and Susan divorced.
In the photos, George has a long face and serious expression. In one photo, an adorable baby is perched on a table next to her daddy, George, who wore suspenders and a brimmed hat that covered most of his hair. The little girl was Mary Arvin, who was only 11 when she died.
Afra’s binders contained a slew of photos I’d never seen before. Pictures of my grandmother, Susan, George and Susan’s sons and daughters, George’s siblings, Susan’s sisters, George’s parents, Susan’s parents, all preserved for posterity. These are my ancestors, I thought as I studied the black-and-white images of mostly unsmiling men, women and children.
I felt like I had just hit a genealogical jackpot.
From talking to my cousins, I learned a lot about more distant ancestors. One of my late cousins, Charles, better known by his middle name, Bob, spent three years as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II. Another cousin named Bob ran unsuccessfully for Indiana Attorney General in 1980. One ancestor sired 19 children with two wives. Some Arvins were Catholic, some were Protestant.
Listening to all the stories and connecting the names with the faces made my head spin. I felt stimulated by the openness.
Daviess and Martin counties are full of graveyards. With my cousin Jim and Helen, I visited Oak Grove Cemetery in Washington, the town where Lillian was born. It was exciting to find Susan Melissa Arvin’s headstone in section D.
In Loogootee, we visited Truelove Cemetery, the final resting place for many of my ancestors including my aunt, Mary C. Arvin, who died at age 11.
Making Memories with My Blood Relatives
The fun started at my cousin Jason’s place near Loogootee. He lives on a big parcel of farmland with persimmon trees, horses, cows and at least one friendly dog. Jason and his family live in the same modest home where his mother, Frannie, and her four siblings grew up. They maintain an equestrian center where local kids come for riding lessons. Jason keep bees and makes and decorates fancy cakes. His two younger children have amassed a huge collection of 4-H trophies, which are on display In the house.
Jason drove us around the property on a golf cart. Riding on the open seat in back, I tightened my grip after we hit a couple of spots hard on the way to see the steers. What if I tumble off this golf cart, I thought, not wanting to make a fool out of myself or mess up my clothes.
Helen sensed my anxiety. “Jim, let Lynne sit in the front with Jason,” Helen told her husband. We switched seats. In the front seat, I could see what was coming along the path.
Some of my cousins traveled from Florida, California, Illinois and Michigan for this reunion, which has been an annual event since the 1960s. On each of the three days, there had to be 35 to 40 or more people who gathered for meals and conversations about family, houses, jobs, pets, genealogy and travel. Politics never came up.
Several times I found myself repeating the story of learning that I was adopted as an adult and searching for my biological parents. My cousins seemed to sympathize and understand my need to uncover the family history that had been hidden from me for most of my life.
I liked the friendly, relaxed vibe. On the last day of the reunion, I hugged and shook hands with my cousins at Whitfield Hall, where we gathered for salads, fried chicken and lots of desserts. Whitfield is in Martin County, next to the St. Martin Catholic Cemetery, where more than 100 Arvins are buried.
I felt satisfied as I traveled back to New York with copies of family photos and historical records packed in my carry-on.
This must be how you make family history, I thought, when you find your blood relatives later in life. I felt closer to my biological roots.
The next time I go to the reunion, I’ll leave the anxiety at home.
As I drove south on Interstate 69, the green rectangular sign for Daviess County on the right gave me a jolt. Up until now, Daviess County was an unfamiliar location listed on the digital records I had found for my birth mother Lillian, not a real place that I could see up close.
A child of the Great Depression, Lillian spent her childhood and adolescence in Daviess County. She lived briefly with her large, impoverished family before she was sent away to live with strangers who took her in as a foster child.
I was about to see the places where my birth mother and her family had lived, places I’d never been to before. It felt exciting to be near Lillian’s roots in rural southern Indiana.
If you are not adopted, you take your birth certificate for granted. It’s a piece of paper you’ve had forever, with facts about your parents and your birth that you’ve known about all your life.
But if you’re adopted, the original birth certificate is like a piece of gold. I just got mine two years ago and feel lucky to have it. Without it, I would be completely in the dark about my birth mother Lillian’s identity, which is part of my identity, too.
Many adopted adults can’t get their original birth certificates because of old-fashioned state laws that keep those records sealed. That’s not fair. I think other adoptees should be able to learn about their origins without having to jump through a million hoops or spend gobs of money.
I signed Sandy Musser’s petition, which would restore original birth certificates to adult adoptees. Sandy, an adoption reform activist, wants to take her petition straight to the White House. She hopes to convince President Obama to enact an executive order, which would restore the OBCs to every adult adoptee in America “in one fell swoop because it is a civil and constitutional right.” I’m with you, Sandy.
If you’re reading this, take a moment to add your name to Sandy’s petition. The more signatures, the more likely this drive will make a difference.
Every time we turn around, we hear about the importance of family medical history. Yet for adoptees, these facts are missing or at best incomplete.
A couple of recent situations reminded me how little I know about my family medical history.
Leafing through Better Homes and Gardens on the subway, an article about heart disease caught my eye.
“When it comes to heart disease, what runs in your family matters—a lot,” the article began. “Studies show that if one of your parents had a heart attack or stroke, your own risk for these conditions can double, and having a brother or sister with the disease ups your chances of having a heart attack, too.”
I turned the page. Another article suggested talking to relatives about diseases that run in the family and then telling your doctor, who can use the information to recommend lifestyle changes or screenings. “So grab a pen and paper and start interviewing Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, and everyone in between,” the article said.
Yeah, right. Like I can pick up the phone and get the scoop on family health conditions just like that. The writer is obviously not adopted.
On another day, sitting in an office in Manhattan, my doctor and I tried to calculate my lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. Lillian, my mother, died of breast cancer at the age of 48 and that’s why I made this appointment. I have no idea how old Lillian was when she was first diagnosed with the disease so I couldn’t answer my doctor’s question about age of onset. Hell, I didn’t know about my adoption until 11 years ago and didn’t know Lillian’s name until 2012. By the time I found out about her, Lillian had been gone for nearly 30 years.
I recalled hearing from a relative that Lillian had battled cancer for quite a while. How long is quite a while? Let’s say my mother had the disease for seven years, I told my doctor. She knew I was guessing and she wasn’t pleased. My doctor quizzed me about the other members of my family who had the disease. I don’t know, I don’t know, I said. My blood relatives are strangers to me.
I knew what my doctor was thinking: you should know your family history! I am adopted, I said, feeling compelled to defend my ignorance.
As we wrapped up our meeting, my doctor commented on how frustrating this lack of history must be for adopted people.
Yup, adoptees from the sealed records era run into these situations all the time. We don’t have family gossip stored in our memories because we never had a chance to talk with our biological kin. We can’t answer doctors’ questions with actual knowledge. We are clueless about our family histories.
In recent months, I’ve learned a few things about the health issues that run on my mother’s side of the family. Lillian, in addition to breast cancer, struggled with alcohol and probably bipolar disorder. At least one of her brothers struggled with bipolar disorder, too. Lillian’s father, George, also had a drinking problem. My half-sister has diabetes and suffered a mild stroke some years ago.
What little I know about my mother and her relatives seems like a treasure chest of facts compared to what I have on my father and his family – absolutely nothing.
This problem is finally getting attention from the outside world. New Jersey lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow adoptees to gain access to their medical histories along with their original birth certificates. I say it’s about time.
In the absence of information, I will do what I can to keep heart attacks, strokes and other bad stuff away. Healthy genes, heart attack genes, mystery genes – whatever I inherited doesn’t have to dictate what’s going to strike me five, 10 or 20 years from now.
I try to take care of myself by making (mostly) healthy choices. Today I have a head cold. Part of me wants to take a nap, the other part of me thinks it’s time to get up, stretch my legs and have a glass of water with another shot of cold medicine. It’s snowing and 27 degrees outside but a walk might do me good and get my mind off the things over which I have no control.
I take my original birth certificate for granted. I don’t give it a second thought, even though it was less than two years ago that I got my hands on this document, which revealed my birth mother’s name.
But as an adoptee, I am one of the lucky ones. The only reason I have my original birth certificate is because I come from Illinois, one of the states that has unsealed birth certificates for adopted people. Many adoptees are not so fortunate. They can’t get their original birth documents because of old-fashioned state laws that keep those papers locked up like cold hard cash in a bank vault.
If you are adopted, the original birth certificate is a key to your origins. It reveals the name or names of your original parents, their hometowns, their ages, where they were living at the time of your birth, even whether or not you have a twin brother or sister. These are basic facts that non-adopted people know from day one. Why should adoptees in the 21st century be kept in the dark? It’s just wrong.
Without my original birth certificate, I never would have been able to find out anything about my mother, Lillian, her children, her husbands or other details about her life and death. My quest to learn about my original family and medical history never would have gone anywhere without that piece of paper. My birth certificate unlocked doors.
Adopted people are not the only ones who want these vital documents unsealed. Lorraine Dusky, a birth mother, makes a compelling case for opening the record vault. “Adopted people are not children all their lives,” she writes. “They grow up and need not only updated family medical information, but they need and desire to be whole and integrated individuals.”
I am glad to see a number of states are starting to recognize the rights of adoptees. In Ohio, adult adoptees will be able to get their original birth certificates under a recent change in state law. Lawmakers in New York and Georgia are considering similar actions. (Here’s an overview of birth certificate access state by state, courtesy of the American Adoption Congress.)
Writing about this has brought back a memory. In 2012, it came in the mail, many weeks after I had requested my birth certificate from the state of Illinois. Until that day, I didn’t have a single document related to my adoption, a secret affair that didn’t involve an adoption agency.
My hands shook a bit as I ripped open the envelope. Inside was a non-certified birth certificate containing an honest answer to that basic question I had wondered about for years: Who is my birth mother?
The birth certificate dispelled a couple of myths. Contrary to what I had thought, my birth mother was not a member of my adoptive family, nor was she a teenager who got in trouble. Lillian was a married woman of 28 with four children when she brought me into the world. Of course, my birth certificate did not fill in all the blanks, especially the one for my father, who is listed as “not legally known.”
Still, it was thrilling to see the facts for the first time. I was no longer the “undocumented” adoptee. Those kernels of truth got me going on a mission to dig up more truths about my family history.