Portions of this piece were previously published as How the World Didn’t End and Nobody Died in American Adoption Congress’s magazine, The Beacon
The phone rings. The voice sounds like my Aunt Mickie. Iowans speak loudly, like they’re straining to be heard over a tractor or a hailstorm. It’s the call I’ve been waiting for. “I have the name of your son,” a woman says. “His name is Cory.” I write it down, spelling it out as she repeats it letter by letter. I write down the rest of the information she gives me. The remainder of the day and into the evening, the same thought repeats: I know my son’s name.
My daughters are one and four years old, and I’m exhausted when I crawl under the covers each night. But tonight my eyes stay open, watching the eucalyptus trees on the hillside, their leaves moving in the breeze like slender fingers touching the air. My older daughter is in her room across the hall, the baby asleep in her crib a few feet from me. You have a brother, I whisper.
Until I met my friend Julie, I didn’t know I could search for my son. I didn’t know the term birthmother existed. In my mind I was a woman with a secret past. A woman with two little girls who’d never know they had a brother. A woman with a son who’d never know he had sisters. These were hard, unchangeable facts.
But Julie took me to a Concerned United Birthparents support group meeting. She introduced herself as a birthmother, and I introduced myself as a birthmother too. For months we’ve gone to the meetings together and listened to the stories as a box of Kleenex is handed around the circle. Every month I’ve heard the same thing. The adoption records in Iowa are sealed. My case is hopeless.
“I know someone who can help you,” the woman said. The meeting was over, but people were lingering near the coffee pot. I swallowed a mouthful of bitter, tepid coffee.
“How?” I said. Probably she was going to recommend some kind of counseling or additional support. I needed that. But no, she knew someone who knew someone who would try to find my son. The Styrofoam cup in my hands shook as she explained.
There was money involved. When I discussed the venture with my husband, he didn’t understand my irreparable heartache over my son, but he agreed it would be useful for me to know what had become of him. The money was no problem, he said. But the eyes of “the adoption police” were on me when I withdrew the cash from our bank. I did the deed in increments, looking over my shoulder, dreading the handcuffs.
Eight months after the phone call I step out of a taxicab in front of the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. My hands are trembling, and it’s difficult to unzip my purse to pay the driver. Wobbling as I spot the uniformed doorman, I consider grabbing his arm to steady myself. Instead I clutch my purse and walk to the door with self-consciously even steps, like a drunk laboring to pull off an impression of sobriety. I scan the lobby for young dark-haired men to see if my son is waiting for me.
Twenty years and 11 months earlier I handed him, wrapped in a yellow blanket, to a social worker at Hillcrest Family Services in Cedar Rapids, Iowa — and walked out the door to my mother’s car, sweltering in the summer humidity. Now I’m entering the gleaming and air-conditioned Sheraton, gulping in the coolness as though I’ve just surfaced from a long underwater swim.
On the mezzanine overlooking the lobby I spot a young man who resembles the picture he sent me a few weeks ago. He surveys the people milling below, then steps onto the escalator.
Seventeen years later the first drops of rain splash against the windshield before we make it out of the airport. I’m behind the wheel of a rented car and my daughters are with me. Behind us there’s a mini-van, and inside are my son, his wife, and their three kids. He and I are, for the first time, going back to Iowa together to meet my family. His family.
It’s the summit of our many years in reunion. He has visited us regularly. We’ve traveled together. I’ve gotten to know his parents. There have been birthdays and holidays. I’ve been to his wedding where my daughters were bridesmaids, his birthfather’s sons were groomsmen, and his birthfather officiated at the marriage.
The whirl begins as we sit at a long narrow restaurant table in the little town near my sister and brother-in-law’s farm. Afterwards, we drive the gravel road into the country and stand in the last hour of daylight, watching cows, capturing barnyard cats, and cornering a toad in the tall grass by the back door. I might have hidden out here if I’d secretly kept my son. Then what… I ask as I always do when I pursue this line of thinking.
The only thing I know for sure is that if the past were revised, the moment I’m experiencing right now wouldn’t exist. My daughters wouldn’t exist. My grandchildren wouldn’t exist.
Back at the motel, we take my grandkids to the pool. “Do you know how to float on your back?” I ask my son’s oldest, as I coax her into my arms. There’s a glint of fear in her six-year-old eyes before she relaxes.
“My dad has two mothers,” she says, looking up at me, giving her capsule version of the story that sometimes bursts into our conversations out of nowhere. “You had him first, but you couldn’t keep him.” Her body rests lightly on the surface of the water. She doesn’t flinch.