Every Step I Take: How A Tumor Led To My Adoption Reunification
I’ve been thinking lately about what you gain and lose over a lifetime… I was distanced by circumstance from my biological mother, but it was an unforeseen medical crisis that ultimately reunited us 26 years later-but not in the way you think.
I remember the moment the doctor told me. I heard the words, but they didn’t sink in. I was numb. I went into my “safe zone” where I methodically compartmentalized the words I was hearing. I was in shock.
“You have a tumor, a mass on your spinal cord” said the doctor.
All of the sudden my mind sped up, I had all of these questions running through my mind at breakneck speeds. I was 25 and I had always had this thought, a premonition of sorts that I would not live past 26. So at that moment, the one lingering thought I was living my worst nightmare.
I had gone to the doctor because of a combination of unexplained medical symptoms that were progressing in their intensity. I was falling all the time, being more clumsy than usual. I had bruises I could not remember getting, my toes were numb and for years, I had suffered from back pain, which caused me to swallow several ibuprofen every few hours just to deal with the pain.
After seeing several specialists who seemed bewildered by the symptoms, I finally had an answer.
I stared back at the doctor in disbelief and thought “How could this happen?”
A week later, I was back in the Neurologists office learning more about the tumor and about the treatment options. The non-cancerous meningioma was likely there for a decade, slowly growing on my spinal cord, eventually resulting in a loss of mobility…there was no other option- I would need surgery to remove the tumor that had made its home at T8-T11 on my spinal code or I would face permanent disability and paralysis.
It was at that moment that I realized as an adoptee, how dangerous it was that I did not fully know my family medical history.
I was adopted at three month old. We all wondered, was there a clue in my biological parents’ health history that would have shown a history of tumors? Cancer? Was this genetic?
Year’s earlier at the age of 16, my parents tried to legally unseal my adoption record. They were only successful in getting a redacted version of my biological mothers’ health records, but the records only included the health information relevant upon the date of my adoption. Nothing recent and no information on my biological father.
Now, as an adult, I still had a huge hurdle to overcome. Adult adoptees in the state of Indiana have no legal right to access their biological parents’ medical records unless the biological parents give permission. As I had at age 16, I experienced a title wave of emotion around my own adoption and felt frustration, disappointment and even anger that I needed permission to get access to critical health information.
With this shocking new health development, my parents began the arduous task of contacting an attorney to help me get access to my complete adoption file from the state of Indiana. We did not know if my current medical crisis was linked to any genetic pre-disposition, but my mom and dad were gearing up for a fight.
And I faced the biggest medical challenge of my life and I had no idea HOW it happened or how it would all end.
As the weeks went by, my symptoms grew worse. Walking got harder, I stopped being able to feel my legs and toes. I faced simple tasks- like walking the dog and taking a shower- with equal parts humor and frustration.
I was in school, pursuing my master’s degree, and I was worried I would never make it back in January for my spring session. I only had six weeks between sessions. What if I never was able to go back?
As my body endured daily changes and challenges, my emotions went from sad to angry on a dime. I spent my days wondering what would happen next and my nights afraid that I would never walk again. My mind was full of worst-case scenarios of how life would be after the surgery.
But this wasn’t my first medical crisis. When I was 12, I had a cystic growth removed from my ovary. It was so large that I also lost one of my ovaries as a result. I thought that was the hardest thing I would ever endure. At that time, I was a child with a child’s fear, and didn’t fully understand the severity of the situation. Now, I was 25 and knew all too well the significance of the medical challenge ahead of me and the impact it was having on my body. I could see all that I was poised to lose and I couldn’t hide from the facts this time.
It was December 6th, 1999. Surgery day.
I stared at my mom and dad as they wheeled me to the operating room- I could feel their fear even though they both tried to be positive for me. I surrendered to the power of the anesthesia in the cold operating room, worried that when I woke, either way, things would never be quite the same again.
It was five hours later and I started to wake up. I felt like I was moving through quick sand. I started to hear voices and the beeping of machines and slowly tried to speak, but my dry mouth and sore throat stopped me.
Then it hit me…I felt the pain.
I instinctively tried to move my lower half — but I was 100% numb below my belly button to my toes. could feel my back and the intense pain stopped me from trying to move again. I drifted in an out after that, groggy, but thankful for the pain medicine. I felt relief when mom came in and started to feed me ice chips. Ice never tasted so good!
The doctor came in later, once I was fully awake and in my hospital room with my parents.
He said “The surgery took longer than anticipated, the tumor was larger than we thought… you gave me a lot more grey hair!”
Truthfully, I thought he got the better part of that deal.
With the surgery hurdle completed, it was time to focus on recovery. My legs were like overcooked pieces of spaghetti, I had no ability to control them and no strength. I also had 30% less mobility in my left hand. I would need extensive, daily physical therapy if I was to attain a full recovery.
My goal was to walk again completely unassisted and get back to school, and attend my brothers upcoming wedding…... I could not imagine anything less.So I pushed, and pushed and even fell a few times due to my over exuberance. But I got back up.
As my days were filled with painful physical and occupational therapy sessions that lasted most of the day, my nights were spent wondering about my parent’s search for answers about my biological mother.
Then, one night as I was laying in my hospital bed, my phone rang. It was mom calling to tell me that the judge had giving permission for my adoption records to be unsealed. I took a deep breath in…I wasn’t sure if it was the pain medication or my fear and anxiety, but my heart skipped a beat and my hands began shaking.
Mom asked: “Are you alone?”
“Yes”, I said
“Jolynn… we found your family”
I replied, shaking and with tears in my eyes, “Mom… I always had a family”.
It was my way of reaffirming that my search was not about replacing something that was already there, but adding to an empty part of my soul that my adoptive family could never fill- the knowledge of from whom I came and why I was given up for adoption.
With an avalanche of emotions whirling inside me, I feebly tried to take notes in my organizer as I listened to my mom tell me the story, as she understood it, about my biological mother, my birth and adoption.
My biological mother was unmarried when I was conceived. She was in her late-20’s and living with her parents. She was Irish-American and my biological father was black. There was little information on him other than a name and it was clear that she did not want him to know about me.
Her life was not easy. She struggled with depression, anxiety and had a physical and cognitive disability due to a car accident she suffered years before my birth. She would go on, years after my adoption to marry and have another daughter in 1979. Nine years later she died in 1988 of colon cancer.
My half sister would go on to live with her grandmother after her mother’s death. It was this same grandmother who consented to having my adoption records unsealed. I owe her so much for making that decision.
I would never have the opportunity to speak with my biological mother, to ask her why she felt she could not raise me or to say thank you. I wanted to see where some of my personality came from, did she love coffee, writing and bacon too?
I struggle to this day to accurately describe the feelings I experienced in that moment when I realized that I had lost someone who was so significant and to whom I had a very profound connection with. I met her once in my life, but we would never meet again.
How do you mourn the loss of someone that you never truly had? How do you reconcile that against a life they gave you which was so full of blessings?
I did my best to process all the news and I eagerly waited to receive my first get well card and letter from a half-sister and grandmother I never met.
Slowly, over a period of 6–10 weeks, I went from being in a wheelchair to returning to school in mid- January — on crutches no less. That July, I would walk down the aisle at my brother’s wedding and dance, albeit a little less steady on my feet.
The only way I survived the emotional roller-coaster I experienced back then was to allow the positive to overcome the sadness. I gained a grandmother and a half-sister whom had only recently learned of my existence. I learned my tumor was NOT genetic, but that I do have a genetic predisposition to several cancers. This critical information has helped me take a more proactive stance in terms of managing my health.
I marvel now, almost 18 years later, how an unforeseen medical crisis and a false assumption about the cause of the tumor, led me to answers to lifelong questions about my adoption. It’s funny how things happen sometimes…
I was recently reminded of a conversation I had with my half-sister about how we came together and we settled on the belief that our biological mom must’ve known we needed each other and that in some way, she orchestrated our meeting — albeit in a most unconventional way.
This story is written as a tribute to my biological mother, Nancy who made the hardest decision a women can make out of love, to all of my siblings who inspire and motivate me and to mom and dad who took me in, helped me grow and gave me the family I needed.