I’ve got her feet, I thought as I looked under the bathroom stall; wide feet making the canvas of her running shoes bulge slightly — size 6½ at most. I’ve been looking at my birth mother the way parents search their newborn’s parts, puzzling out which bits come from where.
Six years earlier, I had applied for my birth records. The call came in two years later: “There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that I spoke to your birth mother. The bad news is that she doesn’t wish to have contact at this time. . . . She was shocked, you know.”
The social worker told me that she would send me updated medical information. Later, I learned that the information was solicited in the introductory phone call. “Hi. Your daughter is looking for you. Oh, and do you have a history of cancer, heart disease or any other genetic ailment?” I suspect the segue was smoother. Still, I didn’t get much information. One of my sons was born with a slight birth defect, and I wondered what important medical information my boys were missing. I was annoyed that I wasn’t able to ask any of the health questions that specifically affected my family.
Then, in 2008, the adoption laws changed in the Province of Ontario and birth records were unsealed. Two years later, I decided to take another crack at it — I felt that my right to care for my children trumped my birth mother’s right to privacy. Adoptees and birth parents who wanted to remain anonymous could file a disclosure veto. I figured that my birth mother would. She didn’t.
“I didn’t know what it was at first,” said my husband, Mike. “So I opened it. I think it’s something you’ve been waiting for a long time.” There it was, just like that. My birth name, my mother’s name, her maiden name.
An hour on the Internet and one phone call later, I knew her married name, where she lived, where she worked and when her next shift was. I couldn’t send a letter or call her — her husband might not know.
I’d like to say that I spent time developing an approach strategy. In truth, I was inhabited by aliens, beaming to her workplace, a restaurant I knew well.
“If I just see her, I’ll know what to do,” I told Mike. He looked at me like I had four heads.
“Don’t you think you should think about it?” He barely got the sentence out. I had already teleported to the car.
I knew her instantly, at least I thought so. Was I sure? I bought a coffee. Did I really want to go through with this? I sat down. I watched her greet several customers by name. She had good energy. It suddenly became real. I bolted to the bathroom. She must have followed me in.
I have her feet. It is her. No doubt.
Get a grip, Trish.
I wasn’t there long, maybe 10 minutes. I sat in the bathroom, went back to the car, paced the parking lot and finally asked her co-worker to make sure she got my “card,” a curt letter I had dashed off before I left. Her shift would end in five minutes. I wouldn’t disrupt her work.
Hello, My name is Trisha Elliott. I believe that I might be your birth daughter. For the sake of my children’s health and my own health, I would like to be able to speak to you to obtain a bit more medical history. I would also like to be able to ask some questions that I’ve lived my whole life without answers to. I don’t necessarily want a relationship or to disrupt your life. I don’t want money. . . .
She called our home while I was driving back. I took a deep breath and returned the call. She sounded nervous. I was her daughter.
“I’m so sorry I contacted you at work. I didn’t know how else to do it. There’s no guidebook for these things. I didn’t know if your family knew,” I apologized.
“You did the right thing, dear. It really was the best way,” she responded, kindly. “I appreciate that you don’t want to intrude.”
We talked for a good 45 minutes, starting with easy stuff — medical information. Turns out my half-sister and I had shared the same unusual high-risk pregnancy. Other useful things surfaced, too. Medical things I should have known, and hearing them, felt that I had the right
Then the harder question: Why? It came tumbling out: A teenage pregnancy. Family shame. Cover-up. “No one knew, not even my cousins who lived down the road. My mother made me feel so bad. I went away to have you. When you were born, I was told to forget about you,” she said. “I remember wanting to hold you. I cried and cried.”
Finally: Who is my father? She dodged variations of that question three times, finally saying, “You have to understand; you were a mistake.”
“No. I wasn’t a mistake. You made a mistake, but I am not the mistake,” I retorted, angry that she was putting her secrets above my children’s health.
“I raised my girls to be good girls. What would they think of me if they knew that I wasn’t?” she asked. An archaic question. Pause.
“Do they love you?” I asked.
“Then that wouldn’t change.”
It was a one-sided interview more than a conversation. Inwardly, I questioned her motivations: Did she call to answer my questions or was she simply protecting herself? She repeatedly thanked me for not wanting to intrude, shoring up her wall. Damage control.
My birth mother asked only one question: “Did you have a good life? . . . Oh, I’m so glad that you had good parents. I’ve always wondered that. . . . I’m happy that you have a profession. You say you are a m-m-minister?” As she tripped over the word, I felt the socio-economic gap between us widen into a gulf. This is as weird for her as it is for me, I thought.
The conversation closed with a mutual agreement not to pursue a relationship right now. She graciously told me that I could contact her with questions any time. We exchanged e-mail addresses and agreed to leave it at that.
But keeping my birth mother’s secret is complicated. She lives in a village neighbouring my hometown. My brother worked with several of my half-cousins. That was a curve I hadn’t anticipated. I didn’t know if I should tell my parents that my birth mother lived nearby. Would it disrupt their lives? Is my birth mother’s secret also mine?
It took me eight months to decide. I concluded that I am not responsible for my birth mother’s secret and won’t own her shame by hiding things from those I love. If my parents want to know who she is, I will tell them, provided they don’t divulge further.
They didn’t want to know.
Does my birth mother know how fragile her secret is? Does she sense all the connections? I don’t know. If I told her, would she think I was pressuring her to divulge? Likely. Enough said, for now.
My adoption “reunion” wasn’t weepy and fawning like the ones on television. Strangely, as I recounted my story to friends, some were disappointed that we didn’t morph into the Brady Bunch. I’m not. The assumption that adoption reunions should wind up like a 1970s family sitcom is unhelpful. No two families are alike, so why should their reunions be?
Discovering that my birth mother lives near my hometown has been awkward. Still, I don’t regret knowing. The experience has afforded spiritual resolution and the peace of mind that comes from knowing where my genetic roots lie.
All in all, it feels good to know.
Rev. Trisha Elliott is a writer in Ottawa.
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