My Sister’s Story – Adoption & Reunion

This isn’t a medical story per se, but I offer it here as an example of how important family relationships and history are to health, healthcare, and general happiness and well-being. And the story does have medical implications, which I will explore at a future date.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy what is intended to be a heartwarming story of loss and recovery. It appears here with my family’s permission.

Part 3: Communion

Click for Part 2: Recognition

Click for Part 1: Adoption

Willow Tree_Sisters by Heart_50%  “And . . . oh my God. You have a mother!” That’s when it hit me: who was going to tell “our” mother!?

“I think you should do it.” Ah, spoken like a typical “baby sister.” Of course. I was the oldest. I was supposed to be the “responsible” one.

I suggested to Vicki that we meet that coming Saturday, August 15, 2009, to exchange copies of papers and photos. She was utterly fascinated with what we all looked like–or more particularly, whether she looked like any of us. After we decided that “the middle” was the Stockton Inn, just across the bridge from PA in NJ, I emailed her some photos. She said later that she couldn’t stare at them hard enough. I think she was looking for parts of her lost self in our faces.

And speaking of middles. . . . After Vicki and I hung up, a first-step plan in place, I called “our” brother to give him the momentous news. “Great. Now I have middle-child syndrome.” After I stopped smirking on my end of the line, I said: “Well, I used to be the older child–now I’m the oldest!” He’s the comedian; I’m the grammarian.

Then I told him the story and asked him the same question: who should tell our mother?

“I think you should do it.” Ah, spoken like a typical younger “middle child” brother. Of course. I was the oldest. I was supposed to be the “responsible” one.

Discussing names–it felt odd to us that we had a “new” sister named “Vicki”–Wayne decided how to work around the “but our sister’s name was Susan” problem: “I think we should call her Vicki Sue.” And so we did–and still do.

First things first. I had to meet our sister before I could tell our mother we’d found her–or, rather, that “Vicki Sue” had found us. I felt it was vitally important to be sure there were no sad mistakes before we made the big announcement.

* * *

I did make a couple of more phone calls that night. First, I called Emily, my deceased father’s wife. She was so happy for us: “God bless you all!” Emily passed away last year, never having had the chance to meet the Vicki she’d spoken to on the phone that August day in 2009. But I’m sending her a posthumous thank you through this story for helping to bring us together.

Another call I made that evening was to . . . you guessed it, Sandee. Her life was so busy that she rarely had time to talk on the phone unless she was in the car. I caught her as she was driving home from work. “Sand! You’ll never believe what just happened! I found my long-lost baby sister!” “You wha. . . .” Her phone battery died. She couldn’t call back until the next day, rampant curiosity and nervous excitement notwithstanding. That’s just how full Sandee’s life was.

When the phone rang the following day, she just picked up where she’d “dropped” off: “You what!?” As I told her, I heard more giddy laughter than I’d ever heard come out of her before. Oh, and I heard plenty of caterwauling about her dead phone. “Serves you right,” said I. “You talk too much!” (Long-time friends can say these things to each other.) I resumed: “And guess what else? She’s Jewish!” Well, the happy squeals and “I can’t believe its” on the other end of the line competed with gleeful laughing as we both remembered that, when we were kids, Sandee used to say I was more Jewish than she was. This wasn’t true, of course, but it was our longstanding joke. Between giggles and gulps, she said: “When do I get to meet her?”

I told you this part of the story in last Friday’s post–they met at my house two months later, at our family’s first “Oktoberfest,” a truly happy event. They never met again.

* * *

Saturday, August 15, finally came. Last evening, my husband and I drove through Stockton, NJ on our way to PA to see my mother, and all the memories flooded over me, washing away the past four years. And I’m remembering them so clearly this morning as I sit watching a light snow turn our landscape into a Christmas card.

On August 15, 2009, armed with “Vicki Sue’s” birth registration and lots of photos, I headed off to the Stockton Inn. I often misjudge driving time, so I was a few minutes late. When I entered the restaurant, I told the hostess I had a reservation for two–and she started crying. Then a waitress approached the reservation desk–and she started crying. Uh-oh. . . .

“What happened!?” “The other lady got here early. She was pacing and looking so nervous and as if she was about to cry, so we asked her whether she was all right. She told us the whole story!”

They led me to the garden waiting area, where I beheld my baby sister–who would be turning 50 exactly one month later–for the first time. The Willow Tree picture in these posts–the “Sisters by Heart” statue–captures the essence of that first reuniting embrace. Vicki Sue gave me that statue at our first Christmas together, four years ago already, in 2009.

After we hugged for some indeterminate moments, we went to our table, where a tearful waitress brought us some wine for a toast. Even though it was only the two of us, we had each brought with us, in spirit, 50 years of family and life that we would soon reveal to each other, words tumbling over bites of food and sips of wine, spilling out through smiles, splashing past happy tears. The occasion felt as profoundly important as any ceremonial day I’d ever experienced.

In case you’re wondering: Yes, the information on the papers matched. Her adoption papers and “my” birth registration contained the same data. But by that point, I didn’t need facts. As Vicki Sue took off her glasses, I looked into the eyes of my much younger mother from deep within an early childhood memory, still such an integral part of my adult mind. It was a strange, eerie feeling. VS didn’t look that much like my mother, just a little. But when she removed those glasses, it was our mother’s eyes I was looking into, the long-ago mother-child bond impossible to recall at will–and equally impossible to destroy by time. Although Vicki Sue would not look into those same young-mother eyes, she would look into the windows of her biological mother’s soul. Soon. Very soon.

Yet Vicki Sue’s eyes aren’t even the same color as our mother’s. My parents, brother, and I all have hazel eyes. But my mother’s sister–Aunt Ceil–has very pale blue eyes. And these are the color of Vicki Sue’s. Interestingly, VS resembles Aunt Ceil, who has lots of nieces and nephews, but no children of her own. And I almost forgot yet another coincidence, which I was reminded of last night when I stopped in to see Ceil on the way to pick up my mother for dinner: That summer of 2009, just a couple of weeks before Vicki Sue appeared from the ether, I told Ceil about my long-lost baby sister, just after she’d finished telling me a wonderful story about her long-lost high school friend.* Believe it or not, Ceil had never known about her sister’s “lost” child. About two weeks later, my aunt and I both felt as if we’d manifested Vicki Sue just by talking about her!

By the end of that lunch at the Stockton Inn, my sister and I–no DNA test could make us any surer that we were just that–had made a plan. She would meet our brother and his family the following week. But in the meantime, I had a very important job to do.

How do you tell your 79-year-old mother that she now has three children–and two more grandchildren–to buy birthday, Christmas, and Chanukah gifts for?

* * *

Part 4: Reunion tomorrow.

___________________

Part 1: Adoption

Part 2: Recognition

___________________

*I will be posting a link to my aunt’s story soon–it’s a charmer, just like her.

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My Sister’s Story – Adoption & Reunion

This isn’t a medical story per se, but I offer it here as an example of how important family relationships and history are to health, healthcare, and general happiness and well-being. And the story does have medical implications, which I will explore at a future date.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy what is intended to be a heartwarming story of loss and recovery. It appears here with my family’s permission.

Part 2: Recognition

Click for Part 1: Adoption

Willow Tree_Sisters by Heart_50%  After the chills shot through my body, I had just enough time to say, “Oh my God, that’s my sister!” before we were instructed to put away all electronic devices. The plane was taking off.

I was traveling with a colleague. At the time, my son, Matt, was working with us remotely, and Rob and I had gone down to Greensboro to meet with him. But even quick trips can be exhausting, and Rob just wanted to nap on the flight home and get back to his family. So I sat on the plane staring at my switched-off cell phone with no outlet for my mounting anxiety mixed with excitement. Good thing it was a short flight; but it would take an additional hour-and-a-half or more to drive home from the airport.

Finally, in the early evening, I was back home. I called my father’s wife, Emily, to continue our truncated conversation from earlier that day. She was a bit giddy, but also cautious. Rather than give this “Vicki” person my number, she took Vicki’s number and said she would have “Bob’s daughter” get in touch with her. I lost no time making the call. It was a wrong number.

I called Emily back to check the number. I had written it down correctly. Now what? Emily said “Vicki” had sounded nervous and that she wasn’t sure she’d ever call back. I said, “Don’t you have caller ID, or can’t you do *69 or something?” “Wait a minute. Let me hang up and look at this phone.” So, I hung up and waited . . . and waited.

Almost half an hour later, the phone rang. “Pam?” “Yes?” “The lady at the number I called gave me your number.” “Vicki?!” “Yes.” Pause. “We thought we’d lost you. What’s your number?” It was one digit off what Emily had given me. 

“Hi.” “Hi.” Obviously, we shared a creativity gene. When in doubt, I let my “business” persona take over. “Why don’t you tell me what you know, and I’ll answer any questions you have.” So “Vicki” read me the information from her adoption papers, and I compared it with the birth registration Wayne had found. Date of birth: check. City of birth: check. Parents’ names: check. Birth name: check. And she knew the name of the hospital where she’d been born: check. “That information exactly matches what I have. I think you’re my sister.”

When we recovered our voices after the moment of emotional overwhelm, we talked for almost an hour. She told me about her adoptive family–father deceased, mother then living, older brother (biological son of adoptive mom and dad) grown and living out west. Then she described where she’d been brought up–at one point she lived practically around the corner from my first married home, and she had always lived in the vicinity of Philadelphia, as had I. (Now I’m in New Jersey, but she’s only an hour away–whereas she was once 50 years away.) Then she told me about her own family–married with two children. I had two “new” nephews!

* * *

My WASP-by-birth sister had been raised Jewish, and her sons–my nephews–Dan and Jason, had both been bar mitzvahed! Wait ’til I tell Sandee, I thought. As I said last week, Sandee, the star of Friday’s post, was beyond thrilled when she finally got this news–especially about the bar mitzvahs. Also as I’ve mentioned, Sandee’s entry into and departure from my life eerily coincided with Vicki’s story. I found Sandee just as my sister was born and was lost to us. And Vicki found us just as Sandee was becoming ill and would soon be lost to us. It felt as if they were exchanging places . . . but, of course, only in my world.

Vicki’s story contains other strange coincidences. Although I’d known of her existence since I was 18, I had never made an attempt to find her. That cold, lonely winter of early 2009 just after my father died, I was sitting in my home office feeling bereft. Sandee had emailed her family and friends an urgent plea on behalf of one of her sick cousins, who was in dire need of financial help, and she was asking people for contributions. After I sent mine, Sandee’s efforts on behalf of her family got me to thinking more about mine. I’d been watching those adoption programs on TV and suddenly had an impulse to check into some of the resources they’d mentioned. It was time to find my sister.

I registered with a family reunion site, providing all the information I had about my lost sibling. Then I waited. But I heard nothing. Not until that August day stepping onto the airplane. While Vicki and I were on the phone that first time, I asked her what had prompted her to try to find us now–only several months after I’d started my initial efforts to find her. She said she’d just read a story about adoption and had a sudden impulse to grab a Philadelphia phone book and look up the family name on her adoption papers. She’d always known she was adopted, but it was not until her father died seven years before that she’d found her papers and learned of her birth name.

Now, here was another strange thing: Growing up, again knowing she was adopted but not anything more, Vicki’s favorite name was . . . Susan. Her second favorite name was . . . Mary. As you’ll see in another installment, my mother refused to let her baby leave the hospital and go to a new mother’s arms without a name. The name she gave her that day in September 1959, the one that appeared on “Vicki’s” birth records, was Susan Mary.

And one more eerie matter of timing: Not only had Vicki and I had an impulse to try to find our lost family–and she not even knowing who she was looking for–within months of each other after a span of almost 50 years, but had Vicki waited to pick up that phone book just a few more months it would have been too late. Our father’s house was sold three months later, and the phone number was disconnected. It was almost as if my father was helping to orchestrate this reunion from wherever he was. I remember that later on Sandee concurred with that notion.

* * *

Now it was my turn. Wayne and I hadn’t had the happiest of childhoods, so I thought carefully about how much I should tell Vicki about us . . . and about how she came to be given up for adoption at birth. “Well, you have me–I’m your older sister by seven years. I’m married, for the second time, and have a grown son, Matt. And you have a brother–he’s 20 months younger than I am and about five years older than you. He’s married and has a grown daughter, Lindsay, who’s also married. And . . . oh my God. You have a mother!”

That’s when it hit me: who was going to tell “our” mother!?

* * *

Part 3: Communion tomorrow.

___________________

Part 1: Adoption