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.