For 23 years, my life story began at four months, when I landed in my mother’s arms wrapped in a thin blanket and bearing a handwritten letter that read, “Congratulations to you both, the new parents of our little Tammy. First off, may I say you are very blessed of the Lord to receive such a beautiful and perfect little girl. She was brought to us when she was three days old, and we’ve all loved every minute we’ve had her.”
The letter went on to explain that I took my cereal from a bottle with the nipple cut open, that I was afraid of strangers, and that I had played the baby Jesus in a church Christmas pageant.
Because the adoption was closed, the old woman who called me Tammy has no name.
“Love her for us, too,” she wrote. And then she signed the letter “The ‘Foster Parents’ of baby Tammy.’”
For a long time, I was content with the official “Gotcha Day” story of how my parents drove eight hours from Boise to Moscow, Idaho, in 20-below-zero weather to pick up their new little baby. I always loved the part about how I was wailing and howling in the social worker’s arms, how my mom said, “Give me that baby!” and how, once I’d been handed over, I immediately stopped crying. This sweet story made me special. Gotcha Day was like a second birthday, which neither of my two brothers had.
My younger brother and I have a saying that we made up in a fit of silly dramatics one night: Blood does not make the brother. Meow. You have to meow and scratch at the air with your kitty claws when you perform this to produce maximum silliness. Growing up, my brothers and I behaved as though the fact of my adoption was of little significance. It bore no more weight than my older brother’s breech birth and my younger brother’s birth via C-section.
In later years, as I became aware of the gaps and absences in my life story, my adoption took on a significance that only I could claim. My brothers were always likened to one side or the other of our family. One looks like a Brown, the other like a Dusseau. I, on the other hand, am biracial, brown-skinned, and look unlike anyone in my family. My grandmother once introduced me to a man as her “adopted granddaughter.” It would have been hard to ignore the gaps and absences forever.
It’s no coincidence that when I was young my favorite stories were “Moses in the Reed Basket,” “The Ugly Duckling,” and “No Flying in the House,” all about characters abandoned or lost who turn out to be extra-special.
At 22, I began to search for my birth parents. Fortunately for me, a careless judge who oversaw the finalization of my adoption let slip my birth mother’s name in court. My dad had told me her last name when I was 16. My mom wasn’t so forthcoming with information.
Recently, she told me, “There was no question in my mind that I’d help you find her, but I wasn’t happy about it. I was sort of holding out hope that she’d be a jerk.”
On my 23rd birthday, I received a call from the nonprofit organization called Search-Finders of Idaho, to which I’d paid a flat $35 fee to help me. The caller gave me the names of my birth parents and the most recent phone numbers available. I prepared a brief, to-the-point speech to use when I called the number: “My name is Elizabeth. I was born on August 19, 1973, in Moscow, Idaho. My birth father’s name is Karl P., and I have reason to believe you’re my mother.”
I had to adjust the speech for my birth father’s family, since he has been dead since 1977. I spoke to his mother. She didn’t know what to say. She had no knowledge of me. Nor did anyone else in the family, save for one great-aunt who had been sworn to secrecy. She corroborated the story during a family powwow, and when I sent pictures, my grandmother and the rest of the family said I look just like Karl. Less than a week after my initial phone call, I got a message from my father’s sister. “This is your Aunt Beverly,” she said on my answering machine. We’ve been family ever since.
My birth mother (we’ll call her T) responded to my phone call with a surprisingly chipper attitude.
“Well, that sure sounds like me!” she said.
I don’t remember if T cried right then. But I do remember her crying when she told me how alone she felt during her pregnancy. She found out she was pregnant when she left Atlanta to start college in Idaho. No one in her family knew, and she didn’t have anyone to talk to about what was happening to her. There was, she said, one graduate student who lived in her apartment complex, and he would check in on her every now and again to see if she needed anything from the store.
In the end, she walked to the hospital. She didn’t know she was in labor. All she knew was she was in pain. The graduate student came looking for her and stayed until I was born. She bit his hand during a particularly painful contraction.
That was all. She never held me. And to this day, no one in her family knows.
Within a year of our first conversation, I went to visit her in Tucson. She introduced me to her eight-year-old daughter as “Mommy’s friend.” We had dinner together. It was surreal. After so many years of wondering who she was and what she looked like and what it would be like to sit next to her, the reality didn’t feel...real. It was mind-boggling to feel such an affinity for someone I’d never met before. I felt the same way about my little sister.
We haven’t seen each other since.
Over the past 14 years, I’ve gone back and forth between anger and acceptance of my status as Big Secret in her life. Seven or 8 years ago, I asked why she couldn’t at least tell her daughter that she has a big sister. T said she feared that I’d disappear from their lives and that her daughter’s feelings would be hurt. I understood and accepted that answer, knowing I was too broke to travel back and forth between New York (where I lived at the time) and Tucson to play the role of big sister.
Later, I asked T why she kept me a secret from her brother and sister and father. (Her mother had passed away when T was much younger.) She said there was no Big Secret; she just didn’t think they’d care. This weak excuse gave me the impetus to look up her father in Decatur, Georgia, thinking maybe I’d take matters into my own hands. I held on to the number until her father died.
∗ ∗ ∗
Somewhere in San Diego, I have an uncle who doesn’t know I exist. Long ago, when we were first getting to know each other, T told me this much. She mentioned that she and her daughter came to visit him once a year. So I did some searching, found a David B. residing in San Diego, saw his picture on the website of the university where he teaches, and knew right away that he was my uncle. There was no mistaking that squinty-eyed smile that T and I have too.
I tracked down his email address and wrote an email that read,
“Hi Mr. B.,
“I found your information online and am wondering if you are the brother of a T.B., originally from Georgia, now residing in Arizona. If so, you might be my uncle.
“If not, I apologize for bothering you.”
The email went on to explain that it would probably be best if he didn’t tell T that I had reached out to him.
“I’d just like to meet you and maybe sit down for coffee,” I concluded.
And then I saved the email to my drafts folder, not yet ready to hit the send button.
I knew that once I sent it, T’s secret would be exposed, and I wasn’t sure it was my right to expose it.
On the other hand, I did believe I had the right to know my uncle, and he had the right to know me. The same would also be true of aunts, cousins, sisters.
But didn’t T also have the right to hold on to her secret?
This circular thinking sparked my journalistic curiosity. In response, I decided to write about the conflicting concerns of those involved in what’s called the adoption triad: adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents. My mother and husband questioned whether I could write an adoption story without becoming emotionally entangled. I scoffed at their worries and flexed my journalistic detachment muscle at them.
The first hint that they might be right was easy enough to ignore. So what if I got a little choked up looking at the California Adoption Registry? The number of people searching for birth parents made me sad, but any feeling person would find it sad too.
I called the Independent Adoption Center looking for information about open adoption and a family willing to talk to me. In my conversation with Ann Wrixon, the executive director, she asked how I’d become interested in the subject of adoption. I answered as briefly as I could. Something about the way she listened, murmuring sounds of empathy and understanding while I spoke, gave my story a weight and significance I had never before experienced. It did occur to me briefly that I might have a leaky spot in my professional armor when, at the end of our phone call, she told me I could call her anytime if I needed to talk.
Thank God I Can Leave This Hospital and Be a Teenager Again
Wrixon put me in touch with Tai (short for “Taylor,” pronounced Tie) Farnsworth, who was 16 when she found out she was pregnant.
“I was kind of excited because I have very motherly instincts,” Tai tells me over the phone. “It was a little earlier than I thought I’d have a family, but I cared a lot about my boyfriend at the time, and so I figured I’d be okay.”
She wrote her parents a long letter and held on to it while she put her plans to have a baby in motion. She wanted them to see that she had given the matter thought and was prepared for the ways her life was about to change. When she gave the letter to them, they were adamant that adoption was the best option. For a time, Tai and her boyfriend stood together, strong in their decision to raise the baby themselves. But eventually, her parents took the boyfriend aside and convinced him that he wasn’t ready.
“When he came to me and said, ‘I agree with your parents. I want to place our baby for adoption,’ I felt like I had been backed into a corner,” Tai says. “I got frustrated with listening to them. So I said, ‘Fine. I’ll place my baby for adoption,’ but I planned on changing my mind.”
Tai’s mother contacted the Independent Adoption Center, an open-adoption agency. In closed adoptions, records are sealed, and birth parents and adoptive parents are not supposed to know anything about each other. In open adoptions, the birth parents have a hand in choosing the adoptive parents and vice versa. And not only do the parents meet each other, but they also agree to the number of visits, phone calls, pictures, and other means of contact between the birth parents and the adoptee. As Tai spoke to people at the agency and learned more about the process, she became more willing to consider adoption.
“I didn’t know a lot about adoption. It seemed to me something where, after you have your baby, you send it off into the abyss, and then you never know what happens to it,” she says. “But when I found out I can be a part of my baby’s life, that I can see pictures of him or talk to him on the phone, it became one of those things where I can have my cake and eat it too.”
She started with a hundred or so online profiles of families looking to adopt. She did a quick narrowing process, picking 30 favorites based solely on the aesthetic of the profiles’ webpages. Those she read carefully.
“Apparently, everybody loves to bake chocolate-chip cookies. Everybody loves their famous chocolate-chip cookies,” she says. “But rarely did they have pictures of them baking chocolate-chip cookies. It seemed like they were following some formulaic American dream, like they were trying too hard.”
But then Tai found the Quinns, a San Diego family whose profile included photos of the family traveling around the world and, yes, baking chocolate-chip cookies.
“They also had a picture where they were doing a christening for one of the other babies in the family, and they said that he was wearing a christening gown that was, like, 20 generations old. It was familial, and that was important,” she says. “I felt like the life my son was going to have would be similar to the one I had growing up.”
For the first meeting, the Quinns drove up to Valencia, in Los Angeles County, where Tai lived with her family. They talked and got to know each other, skirting the issue of adoption.
“Toward the end of the evening, we began to talk about the logistics of adoption and all these really random things, like, if it was a boy, would I want him circumcised, and who would name the baby,” Tai says. “It was really nerve-racking, but when they left it was exciting to know we had made this next step and that everything was going the way we had hoped it would go.”
Up until that point — three or four months into her pregnancy — although Tai had warmed to the idea of adoption, she still secretly reserved the right to change her mind. Meeting the Quinns solidified her commitment. During their visit, she learned that they had been matched with several other birth mothers, but each time someone had pulled out at the last minute. If this attempt didn’t work out, they planned to discontinue their search for a baby.
“I knew I couldn’t change my mind anymore,” Tai says. “This wasn’t just going to affect me and my baby. It was going to affect this whole family’s lives if I changed my mind.”
Tai continued to go to high school through her pregnancy. But it became apparent to her that the pregnancy and adoption were causing her to mature faster than her peers. Even the baby’s father got on her nerves. On a trip to the hospital for a tour, she asked him to hold her purse, and when she asked for it back, he said no and ran down the hall.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I cannot be with this guy any longer,’” she says.
Soon after, they broke up, though they would remain friends for a year or two after the baby’s birth.
Knowing she would give her baby to another family to raise did not keep Tai from bonding with him during her pregnancy. When he began to kick, she felt a connection to him, and she played with his limbs inside her belly.
“I think I always knew that he’s not my baby but he’s still my family,” she recalls.
Tai went to her doctor when the baby was overdue. The doctor examined her, and when he found that her cervix hadn’t ripened, he suggested a C-section birth. But Tai knew that mothers recovered from C-sections in the postoperative ward, and she was uncomfortable with that.
“When you have a C-section, you recover in a different area from the baby,” she says, “and I wanted to spend that time with him. I wanted to be near him.”
Fortunately for Tai, both her mother and grandmother were labor and delivery nurses. Her mother suggested Cervidil to ripen her cervix and Pitocin to get the contractions moving along. The doctor agreed, gave her the drugs, and then broke her water the next morning.
“Everything moved smoothly from there. I think I was only in active labor for two to four hours,” Tai recalls. “People don’t appreciate me saying this, but I found the whole thing to be relatively easy.”
Tai’s parents and grandparents and the baby’s father were present. The Quinns were at the hospital but not in the room while she gave birth.
“There were a lot of people looking at my ‘down there’ around that time,” Tai says. “But Ted Quinn is a man who is not a doctor, and I would have been uncomfortable with him in the room. So I asked if they would wait outside.”
Tai’s mother was the first to hold the baby. When she handed him to Tai, who tried to feed him, he would not eat. The frustration she felt at his refusal to eat confirmed the decision she’d made to place him for adoption.
“I kept thinking, ‘I was going to take this baby home and try to get him to eat and wake up in the middle of the night and not do any fun teenager things,’” Tai tells me. “I thought, ‘I’m so glad I’m not doing this. I’m not strong enough for this right now. Thank God I can leave this hospital and be a teenager again.’”
Her sense of relief did not diminish her pain. On the day after John Quinn was born, Tai requested one day alone with him. She told her mother to let the Quinns know that she wasn’t changing her mind, but since they would get John to themselves for the rest of his life, she wanted him to herself for this one day.
“So I spent the day with John in the hospital by myself. I have video recordings that I took of him, and I just basically held him the entire day,” she says. “I didn’t cry that day. My dad cried that day, but I didn’t. I kept telling my dad, ‘I’m trying to have this as a nice day with John, and then tomorrow, I’m going to cry. So if you want to cry tomorrow, we can cry tomorrow. But please stop crying right now.’”
Before she signed the relinquishment papers the next day, the Quinns told her that if she wanted to change her mind, they would understand.
“That was really special for me,” she says. “It was important that they acknowledged that this was a really hard thing that I was doing. I knew I wasn’t going to change my mind, but I appreciated it, and I said, ‘Thank you.’”
Tai signed the papers, sobbing.
“I cried an overwhelming amount that last day,” she says. “I was exhausted from crying so long. I was exhausted from having a baby. When I went home, I cried myself to sleep. And when I woke up a few hours later, I thought, ‘I’m hungry.’ This was a sad thing, but it was also a good thing. I realized that I needed to take the next steps in my life. I thought even if I cry for the rest of my life, it’s not going to change it.”
Tai and the Quinns had agreed that Tai would not see John until he was old enough to say, “I want to see my birth mother.” But when he was three months old, the Quinns invited Tai and her family to come for a visit. Tai’s father was wary, afraid that if Tai saw the baby, she would experience the pain of losing him all over again. But Tai believed she was strong enough. They didn’t go right away, but when John was about nine months old, Tai and her parents drove down to San Diego to visit the Quinns in their La Jolla home.
“We got a hotel in that area and spent a day or so with them. John was so much bigger than I thought a baby could be. I had no concept of how babies grow,” she says. “He was so cute and such a sweetheart. But then it got a little hard.”
Tai left her parents and the Quinns at breakfast, returning to the hotel with the excuse that she had homework to do.
“It wasn’t like the experience of giving him up all over again,” she says, “but it was still hard.”
These days, Tai’s family and the Quinns meet in Santa Barbara once a year, usually around the Fourth of July. It’s what Tai says she’s comfortable with, but at times she questions whether she’s being a good birth mother.
For the past year, Tai has worked as an office manager and agency services representative for the Independent Adoption Center, the same agency that brought her and the Quinns together. Her job puts her in touch with birth mothers, adoptees, and adoptive parents on a regular basis.
“Working in this office, I hear [some birth mothers] talk about how this is their fourth visit, and the child is just a year old,” she says. “It didn’t occur to me that my particular situation was low on contacts until I started working here. I sort of felt like I wasn’t fulfilling my duties as a birth mom.”
Although her mother sends little John birthday presents every September, Tai has only done so twice.
“I don’t know if it’s a defense mechanism or if I was just a lazy teenager,” she says. “This year, I sent him an awesome birthday present. It was stuffed animals from Where the Wild Things Are.”
John is now five years old.
What Do You Want From Us?
After talking to Tai, I wanted the point of view of a birth mother who chose to keep her adoption closed. Who better to call than T?
So I sent her an email letting her know that I planned to write an article about the conflicting rights of those involved in the adoption triad. “I have battled myself over whether your rights to keep your secret overshadow my rights to know my sister or my aunt or uncle,” I wrote. “I have no answer for that, but I would really like to hear from you about it.”
I promised I would conceal her identity.
She responded within the hour.
“You incorrectly assume that I don’t want to talk and that you are a big secret,” she wrote. “My concerns are your expectations and motivations. Obviously, I am not living up to your expectations, so why do you think anyone else would?
“What are your expectations and what exactly do you want from us? Do you just want to meet all of my relatives? What if nobody else is interested because they have their own lives? I think the real problem is how one can expect to maintain a long-distance relationship with someone that you don’t know, may never see again, and have no history.
“I would love it if we lived closer together and we could visit and do things together and make a relationship. I guess I just don’t know how long distance relationships work or if this is even what you want.”
She signed off by telling me to take care of myself and to please kiss my baby daughter for her.
Thinking myself a professional writer practiced at persistence and at setting aside my own feelings, I responded:
“Although this particular subject is close to me,” I wrote, “writing this article is partly an attempt to step back and see it from a different perspective.… I have a need to understand your [perspective]. I’d like to know how you felt when I contacted you, whether it was a relief or a disruption of your life. I’d like to know what you experience (if anything) in regards to my presence in or out of your life now.… I’m not asking you to spare my feelings. I really want to know.”
At the end of the email, I asked her to let me talk to my sister, not for the story, but to say, “Hi. Remember me from that day 14 years ago? I’m your sister. Can you believe it?” T ignored the request, but she did respond briefly to the rest.
“When I first heard from you,” she wrote, “it was an unbelievably huge relief. Every day of my life up to that point, I would lay awake at night worrying about you. I could not sleep wondering where you were, if you were ok. I would lay awake thinking about how to find you so I could just check to see if you were okay. My mind was haunted by you.
“The day I heard from you, the haunting completely stopped. It was like a switch turned off in my brain. I felt great relief to know that you were ok and had a good mom and family. It was a bonus to know that you turned out so good. You were very kind, articulate, and thoughtful.”
I was touched by her openness and a little disappointed, too; it was as if the worry had been our only connection.
After that, we emailed back and forth a few times about when might be a good time to talk, so I could ask her more specific questions. She said she had a cough and wouldn’t be able to talk for a few days. I said email was fine. She said she was busy at work. When I wrote the following week to ask if her cough was better, she wrote, “Give me some time. I’m not one to talk about my stuff.”
I figured that meant “never,” so I gave up the idea of communicating with her and revisited the idea of sending the introductory email to my uncle.
But first, I wanted a second opinion.
∗ ∗ ∗
Adoptee Awareness is a support group in the San Diego area run by a national organization called Concerned United Birthparents. The meetings are held one Monday a month at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. Birth parents, adoptees, and sometimes adoptive parents attend the meetings.
I decided to go in search of adoptees and birth parents willing to talk to a journalist. And if I liked it, maybe I’d go back for myself.
The phrase “kill two birds with one stone” has always conjured a not-so-plausible image. Unless your birds are tiny or your stone gigantic, it likely will not work. I thought I was dealing with tiny birds.
We sat in a lounge crowded with conference-room chairs. At 7:10, eight of us pulled our chairs toward the middle of the room to create a more intimate space. I found myself flanked by the only two birth mothers in the group. By 7:15, when we made room for the ninth person, I had already let one bird fly free: I would not be a journalist tonight.
Normally, as a newcomer, I sit back. But when the facilitator asked if I’d like to be the first to share, I jumped right in. I meant to share only as much as I needed to get everyone’s opinion on my right to contact Uncle David, but the responses to what I said encouraged me to speak freely.
When I said, “To this day, she hasn’t told anyone,” the two birth mothers clucked their tongues. When I said, “If I try to talk about any of this with my adoptive mother, she shuts down,” the other adoptees shook their heads with empathy.
And on and on I talked because their open faces told me I could. For a while, my story became a group discussion. One of the birth mothers held my hand. She suggested that T’s silence and detachment was her way of coping and said that there was no way T wasn’t traumatized by giving me up.
Then the other birth mother said something I later read in The Primal Wound, by Nancy Verrier.
“People think babies don’t know what’s happening to them when they’re born, but they do,” the woman said. “It used to be that when these babies were born and taken away from their mothers to be put up for adoption, they’d give them phenobarbital to calm them down. Believe me, they know.”
Hearing this, I began to cry.
Others told their stories. When the birth mothers spoke, they used the word “relinquished” to describe their relationship with the babies they gave birth to.
Listening to them, I recalled giving birth to my daughter two years ago. Seconds after she was born, holding her skin-to-skin on my chest, I thought of the vulnerability of the world’s newborn babies who have no one to hold them, and I began to cry almost uncontrollably. Until my husband said, “But look at you. You survived,” I had no idea I was crying for myself.
The two birth mothers at the meeting spoke directly to the trauma of relinquishment, and in doing so, they gave me an idea of what T might have gone through. But more so, in voicing their pain, they gave me access to a hurt I’d never been allowed to feel before. “Adoption” is such a positive word. I was one of the lucky ones, scooped up by a family who will always love me. The rest is not supposed to matter. But it does matter. And in that room at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, I cried and cried because it was a relief not to pretend I was detached and unhurt.
In the end, everyone at the meeting agreed that I had the right to contact my uncle and to speak to my sister, no matter how T felt about keeping her secret.
And so I sent the email to Mr. David B. My uncle.
Lovely and Sad at the Same Time
One of the birth mothers in the Adoptee Awareness meeting told me, “There are four people at every reunion between birth parent and child: the woman the birth mother is now and the girl she was back then; the adoptee as you are now, and the baby you were back then.”
When Ted Quinn agreed to talk to me, he made it clear over the phone that he did not want me to use John’s real name and that it would be best if we had our conversation about the adoption out of John’s earshot (all of the names in the Quinn family have been changed). So for the first 20 minutes after I arrive at the Quinns’ spacious La Jolla apartment overlooking the Pacific, Ted, Sarah, and I make small talk. It takes little John a few minutes to come out from his hiding spot behind the couch, and when he does, it’s with his smile hidden behind a pillow. But before long, he’s telling me — in an excited voice — everything he knows about puffer fish, sea slugs, the live lobsters he’s seen in restaurant tanks, and the “glowing sucker octopus” he saw at the Birch Aquarium.
Sarah, Ted, and their 17-year-old daughter Jane, who wanders in and out of the room, are all long-legged. Sarah and Jane, both barefoot and in shorts, are also tan and blond, their hair highlighted from the sun. Despite the Southern California stereotype inherent in this description, they appear all-natural, freckled, and rosy from afternoons spent at the tide pools searching for shells and sea urchins. Ted, in his gray work slacks and white button-up shirt, looks as though he spends more time indoors than the rest of them. And John, whose biological parents are a mixture of black, white, and Mexican, wound up with green eyes, blondish curly hair, and golden skin. I imagine he’ll never be mistaken for anything but a Quinn.
After we talk a while, Ted tries to persuade John to go play with his toys rather than hang out with us, but John won’t have it. Sarah says there’s nothing they need to hide from John, but Ted has made his wishes clear. Finally, Ted talks John into making me something special with his Lego toys and sets him up at the kitchen table, most likely not quite out of earshot.
Ted and Sarah Quinn, both born in Ireland, come from large families. They had Jane soon after they married. Sarah, her legs draped over the arm of a comfortably worn leather chair, says the moment Jane was born, she knew she wanted to adopt.
“Then?” Ted interrupts. “I didn’t know that.”
“Yes,” she says, “and you were a bit reluctant.”
“Oh, I was the classic man,” Ted says, “kind of narrow-minded and stupid about it.”
But for years after Jane was born, they tried to conceive. They attempted a brief stint with infertility medicine but decided it was too much stress.
“And then we were at a dinner one night,” Sarah says.
“A marvelous dinner,” Ted says.
I pull my feet up under me and settle in as they continue to pass the story back and forth, lulling me with their Irish lilt. At the dinner, they met a professor who had six adopted children. He gave them information that eventually led them to the Independent Adoption Center, where, in January 2002, they attended their first informational meeting. The average time that it took to adopt a baby, they learned, was between 18 months and two years.
“Of course, there was Ted and I sitting pretty, saying, ‘We’ll have a baby within six months,’” Sarah says.
“No, you said that,” Ted says. “I didn’t say that.”
“I said it,” Sarah confesses. “I was convinced.”
“We hung in for two and a half years,” Ted says.
“Three, actually,” says Sarah, “by the time he was born.”
Ted and Sarah’s response was similar to Tai’s when they read the profiles of other families looking to adopt. In Sarah’s words, they felt that many of the profiles “were very saccharin.”
“We were fortunate because we already had a child,” Ted says. “So we could be more natural about it.”
The Quinns tell me about two of their earlier matches that fell through. One birth mother in Texas changed her mind at the last minute. Another time, because of a lack of follow-through on the birth mother’s part, Ted and Sarah were the ones to back out. Faulty communication, however, meant that the agency didn’t get the message to the birth mother, who, in turn, called the Quinns from the hospital and told them they could fly to Pennsylvania and pick up their baby the next day.
“We weren’t prepared,” Ted says. “It was the hardest bloody thing. We had to say, ‘You haven’t helped us help you.’ And it was very sad.”
“We had a lot of turbulence in that period,” Sarah recalls. “I remember we were in Argentina or somewhere, and we both decided, ‘Okay, we’re going to give it three years or three and a half years or something.”
“No, I remember what you said. ‘If it’s not done by the end of March…,’” Ted says.
“Yes,” Sarah remembers.
“And we got Tai’s phone call a week before the end of the month,” Ted recalls. “That was the two-and-a-half-year mark.”
John bounds into the room with a Lego toy he’s built. It’s a flat, triangular spaceship, with long protrusions in front. Earlier I told him I was thinking of buying my daughter a Lego set, and he tells me now that I should be careful when I give it to her because some of the tiny parts are easy to lose.
“John, I’m talking, sweetheart,” Sarah says.
“Hey, lovey,” Ted says to John, “finish your work out there. Then come in. Let us finish in here, okay?”
“So we get the phone call from Tai,” Sarah says. “I said to Ted, ‘I think this is it.’”
Over the next few months, as they became acquainted with Tai, Sarah found her to be “levelheaded and open,” and Ted came to believe she was “a very solid girl.”
On September 19, 2005, they received the call that Tai was going to the hospital, and the next morning, they were told to come on up.
“We were in the room ten minutes after he was born,” Ted says.
“We went in, and Tai was there with [John’s] biological grandparents and great-grandparents,” says Sarah. “We got to celebrate his birth, which was really nice.”
“Lovely,” Ted confirms.
“My birthday?” John shouts from the kitchen, clearly not out of earshot.
“Yes!” we all shout back.
“When you were a little baby in the hospital,” Sarah adds.
The day John was born, the Quinns had dinner with Tai’s family. The following day, when Tai’s mother called the Quinns at their hotel and told them Tai wanted to spend the day alone with John, it didn’t make them nervous, they tell me, even after everything they’d been through with last-minute pullouts.
“It did make us discuss it for sure,” Ted says. “But deep down, we know. These people are really good people.”
“So we knew that the next time we’d see them would be the handing-over process,” Sarah says.
Then she tells me a story about how every year, at fund-raisers for her daughter’s school, she’d buy a piece of jewelry she likely wouldn’t wear.
“They were artistic pieces,” she says. “Heavy, solid, and you pay about $1500 for them.”
She bought an Angel Gabriel one year and thought she might give it to her daughter when she made her first Communion or got married. But then it occurred to her that maybe she should give a gift to Tai.
“I said, ‘I’m going to give her this angel because she’s giving me an angel.’ So that morning…,” she says before Ted cuts her off.
“Can I paint the picture of the room?” he says.
“What can you say to a birth mom when she’s handing over the baby?” Sarah continues. “So I said, ‘Jesus, I’m in Your hands. I’m not even going to plan what to say.’ But I knew I had this angel. So we go into the room,” and then she gestures to Ted, “You can paint the picture now.”
“Going into the room,” Ted says, “the door opens, and her father, who…”
This time, it’s Sarah who interrupts. She says something to Ted in Irish. Ted, in turn, calls out to Jane, who came in from the pool moments ago, hair wet, wrapped in a towel.
“Jane, love, will you take John?” he calls.
“And show him that photograph,” Sarah adds, “the one of the deep-sea creature.”
John runs out of the kitchen. Jane comes out of a back room looking somewhat concerned about how this is affecting John. But she puts on a good, enthusiastic face. “Yeah, come on!” she says, reaching out for her little brother’s hand.
Once they’re gone, Ted continues.
“So, going into the room, her father Michael, who is a very strong man, is in bits. He’s just bawling in the chair. And that’s the first thing we see. Then, her friends are there, solemn. Very solemn. And then her mother, who was a nurse in that hospital and so had tremendous freedom and knew her way around, she’s just in a beautiful zone, Zen, of giving.”
“Beautiful,” Sarah says. “Amazing.”
“So she’s there, tending to her daughter who is sobbing and sobbing, holding her boy.”
“Sitting there with pigtails in her hair,” Sarah says.
“Her pigtails,” Ted remembers. “She was so young.”
“She was holding John,” Sarah recalls.
“And he’s pressed tight,” Ted goes on. “So now it’s a moment of incredible awkwardness in one sense. And Sarah gets into her own zone and approaches. The baby has begun to cry. And Tai is almost pushing against herself to release her baby. And now you…” he says to Sarah.
“I just bent over,” Sarah says, “and I said, ‘You have been an angel in this process. And you’ve given us an angel. Now I would like to give you this little angel, just as a remembrance of how we’re all connected.’”
“And as soon as the baby went into Sarah’s arms,” Ted says, “he was bawling, and then he just quiets. The room just stopped.”
“So, subsequently, I got the jeweler to make the exact same angel, which I will give to John when he’s older,” Sarah says.
I try to pretend my eyes are glossy because the story is touching. But when it’s my turn to speak, I can’t.
I cover my face with my hands.
After a few moments, I apologize. They tell me I don’t need to. Luckily, I have already told Ted a brief version of my own story.
The experience of adoption, Ted says, “is bittersweet. There’s a grieving process. And I think John picked it up one year. This is my intuition.”
Then he tells me about that year, when their family met up with Tai’s family in Santa Barbara. Tai and John spent some time together that trip. The next morning, Tai had to leave early once again.
“We understood,” he says. “We stayed the day with her parents. Then we come home. I can hear John around midnight, just sobbing.”
“Sobbing,” Sarah echoes.
“I’ve never heard it since or before,” he says. “A wet-sponge sob in his sleep. We hold him for hours. Can’t get him to stop. It’s just like a wet little sponge.”
“The following day…,” Sarah says.
Ted continues the story of picking up John from preschool. “And there’s a lovely girl, Rachel, there, and she says, ‘Is John okay? Did something happen over the weekend?’ And I said, ‘Why? What happened?’ And she said, ‘Well, I had to hold him for an hour.’”
“John is not a huggy kid,” Sarah says.
“I personally believe it was grieving. He didn’t know it. Couldn’t articulate it. But deep down, he knows that there was that transition. That giving away.”
∗ ∗ ∗
Before I leave, John takes me into his room to show me a picture he painted of Sarah. It’s taped to the back of the door in the room he shares with his parents. Ted had wanted John to bring the painting out to show me, but John said there was too much tape, and he couldn’t take it down. He counts eight pieces of Scotch tape.
“It’s beautiful,” I tell him.
But he won’t let me go. There’s still more he wants me to see. He winds up a spaceship topped with an Anakin Skywalker bobblehead, and we watch it zip across the floor.
And then he pulls out the three stuffed animals Tai sent him for his birthday. I recognize the characters from Where the Wild Things Are. He lays them across the bed in a neat row.
“Where’d you get those?” I ask.
“From my BirthTai,” he says.
When I tell his parents, Sarah’s eyes widen with astonishment. Ted is incredulous. Neither of them has ever heard him refer to Tai in that way.
The next day, Ted emails me, “Mind you me being witty and all, I told Sarah that he said birthday to you but was sufficiently indistinct for you to hear BirthTai.…”
Perhaps he’s right. John does have a bit of his parents’ Irish lilt. But I had already told the story to Tai, so I’m sticking with it.
When I sent the email to Uncle David, I was surprised to feel nothing. None of the elation I’d felt when I first contacted T and my father’s family. None of the giddiness of possibility.
And after speaking to Tai and to the Quinns; after hearing the story of John Quinn’s birth and the one day he spent in the hospital with Tai; after catching a glimpse of my own birth mother in Tai’s story and discovering how hard it is for Tai to see and then leave John over and over again, I realize I don’t want my uncle. I want my birth story. I want to hear that T played with my limbs in her belly. I want to hear more about how she worried, how I meant something to her then, and how I still do now.
For days, I regret sending the email. Breaking T’s silence will do nothing to fill in my blanks or soothe the baby who once played the part of Jesus in a Christmas pageant.
A week or so later, I receive an email from David B. In the half second it takes for the email to open, my heart speeds up. I’m as terrified as I am eager. The deed has been done and I can’t undo it, even if I have made a mistake. A small part of me wishes for that.
It turns out that David B. is not my uncle. He sends me best wishes on my search, but he has no sister named T.