Thursday, August 01, 2002

Baby James

I want to share with everyone a rather interesting experience that started April, 1997. Note, I've been sitting on this text thinking I would add more to it but now it's been nearly two years and I've decided to post it, even if incomplete. I've made a promise to myself to finish it. There's so much more to write.
First, I've always known I was adopted. I knew I was adopted before I knew what the word meant. When I was younger I didn't know there was anything unusual about being adopted. 

I had plenty of company being adopted. My brother and both sisters are adopted, all through Christian oriented adoption agencies in the Detroit area. Several of my friends were adopted, too. It seems all of us thought being adopted was no more significant than being blonde or having brown eyes. 

I never had a nagging urge to track down my birth parents. I thought only wistfully about what it would be like to look like someone. I thought curiously about what it would be like to look at my father and wonder if I was going to look that way in 16-or-so years. Would I bald or gray the same way? Would the lines on my face be similar? Would I follow in his professional footsteps? After the birth of my son I felt no need to find resemblance in an older relative since I had already claimed as my own his most adorable features (and a few of the less adorable ones). 

It wasn't until my mother started classes at St. Catherine's in MN to finish a Sociology degree that adoption seemed to become an issue. The influences there and at conferences she attended convinced her that adoptees are all somehow negatively affected by their 'situation.' The more I read the literature she recommended the more furious I became. The amount of self pitying and victimizing struck me as pathetic. I wasn't going to whine or demand imagined rights as an adoptee to discover my birth parents, or complain I was somehow incomplete without that knowledge. I was perfectly complete. My body and my family were whole, my parents loved me and helped me become a happy and confident young man. What I read in those books was yet-another-segment of society claiming to have been victimized by the system. Their apparent ungratefulness, and selfishness was something I refused to be identified with. 

It was about that time I started visiting an adoption-oriented newsgroup on the internet. I didn't feel particularly welcomed or encouraged there. The most proliferate opinions there smelled strongly of victimization. 

In any case, that's where I first heard of an adoption database, Birthquest, that promoted free registration and the potential for matches. Being both cheap and opportunistic I couldn't pass up a deal like that and without a thought as to the consequences entered as much information as I could as accurately as I could remember. I eventually stopped visiting the news group. Since then that same database has required a $20 donation. As much as I understand it to be nominal, I would never have registered for the inconvenience. 

That April, in what seems like another universe, my birth-mother, Sharon, had been following the AOL newsgroups with one of her sons, David. I'm unsure of the details but he either convinced her to enter her information into another database or he entered it for her. Whichever the case, it was a Wednesday (just two days later) when I got an unexpected phone call. 

A woman named Julie told me that while comparing adoption registries she had found as identical a match as she could expect. The data was similar enough to convince here that Sharon and I were mother and son. She shared with me the information Sharon had posted to AOL. As I listened I'm pretty sure I didn't breath. Time had slowed enough that normal respiration seemed to wrap around entire sentences. I scribbled everything she told me on a white board in my office and as soon as I got off the phone with her I called my dad. He confirmed the information Julie listed was much more accurate (exact, as a matter of fact) than what I had remembered. For instance, I didn't remember knowing my given name but my dad did remember it was James (still one of the disciples so we didn't stray too much there). Now I was convinced.

My wife was not as easily convinced. Being the assistant to a Civil Court Judge in she had seen too many cases of people taking advantage of other people and she thought myself to be of the gullible variety. She thought the timing seemed opportunistic as well--I had a great job, a new son, a new wife, and a down payment for a house from the recent sale of my first. 

Julie had also contacted Sharon, and though she wouldn't give her my current phone number, she did mention my information was publicly posted on the Internet. My half brother David wasted little time tracking it down and I received a phone call that very same evening. 

As well as I know David now, I'm still not sure what possessed him to call me at home. My wife answered the phone and was not pleased with the intrusion. My curiosity helped me ignore her disapproving glare as I listened to David. I quickly discovered there were three more brothers.

Though they didn't have the same father as I (as might be expected with a 16 and 17 year old) all four did share the same paternity. He went on to describe how all four had either been through or were still in the military, had played football and enjoyed camping. Their parents divorced when they were young but Sharon did marry a truly courageous man who raised the boys as his own and was more father to them than they could have hoped for. They had in common with each other a host of characteristics I could not identify with. I had enjoyed music, basketball, and track as a kid, my parents were still together, and I thought camping was a bigger hassle than it was worth. 

I was surprised to discover my mother, her husband John (Ric) and two of my brothers lived less than 30 minutes from my house. So close in fact our paths probably crossed several times in the intervening 32 years without our knowing it. 

I was less open about sharing too much about myself and my thoughts turned towards ending the phone call. I decided to take sanctuary in procedure, and offered to Dave that before going much further we should follow Julie's advice and send our information to Wayne County for verification. I had enough faith in government that I would have plenty of time to organize my thoughts before the county accomplished anything. 
We ended-up faxing our information and driver's licenses to the county the next day. We didn't expect an answer until the next week at the earliest. Though I was confident the match was correct, I didn't feel the same sense of urgency Sharon did. 

When Sharon was 15 her parents had recently separated and she was living with her father to escape a controlling mother, and in a way maybe, to spite her. As Sharon told me later she became a bit of a rebel and her dad let her get away with it. In fact, he tolerated most of Sharon's outrageous behavior because as she puts it, she had him wrapped around her proverbial little finger. Maybe because he was still in love with her mother, maybe because Sharon was a piece of her mother and by indulging her he was in proxy indulging his wife. 

What happened next in the early months of 1964 is the stuff we try to scare our teenagers with.

That school year Sharon met and started dating a boy named Steve who was a junior at their high school. He was tall, handsome, witty, and a heck of a good drummer. They only did it once and it was her first time. It was only a matter of weeks later that Sharon moved from East Detroit with her father to Detroit's far west side. That is when she discovered she was pregnant. 

Steve's father, if not violent, was apparently an intimidating man. When Sharon called to tell Steve the news he did what most 17 year-olds would do and denied it was his, most adamantly to his father whom he suspected would literally beat him to death if he admitted it. His parents decided Sharon must have had other romantic liaisons not as promising as Steve and therefor selected him as the best candidate for fatherhood. They would have no part of it. 

For better or worse, things were different in the 60s than they are today. Sharon was removed from her high school and sent to a Catholic home for unwed mothers-to-be. There she waited-out her pregnancy with other girls in the same predicament. Near the end of nine months, her 72" girth on her 5'4" frame won her special dispensation from the strict dress code usually observed at the home. It seems her dress couldn't be worn modestly enough for Catholic masses so the priest allowed her to wear pants. It was a small compensation for her discomfort and anxiety, but she was thankful. 

My parents had been married a few years when my mother discovered she had a uterine problem and underwent a mastectomy. They still wanted to start a family so my mother left her job at Detroit Edison, even though at the time she was making more money than my father working as an accountant at Ford Tractor, to become a full-time mother to two children adopted from Catholic Social Services in 1961 and 1962, my older brother and sister. 

All the while Sharon was pregnant her parents' plan was to put the baby up for adoption. But after carrying the baby all that time she decided she wanted to keep it. She was sure she could persuade her father and she was prepared to pull-out all the stops a 15 year-old could muster. 

Sharon turned 16 that November 25th. On the 26th, she gave birth to a 10 lb. 6 oz baby boy at the old Providence Hospital in Detroit--nearly four weeks late. Still trying to win-over her father to let her keep the baby boy she named him James Patrick McKenna, after his father. Sharon was convinced she would be able to keep him. She was convinced she could keep him even when the nuns were describing the couple waiting to adopt him. As she was told the father was an engineer and the mother was (now I can't remember) she wasn't worried because she knew she was going to keep that baby. 

She never realized how out of her control keeping James was until she sat with her father to sign the papers releasing him for adoption. 

Like my brother and sister before me, my folks recieved little advance notice from the adoption agency. On December 22nd they got a phone call from Catholic Charities asking if they were ready for a third child. The next day my parents brought home an early Christmas present. 

They named their new son Thomas Gerard. Thomas was for my mother's father who had died when she was young and Gerard was for St. Gerard Majella, the patron Saint of expectant mothers.

The Reunion

How fast things happen has a lot to do with perspective. For me, finding out five days after Julie's initial phone call that Sharon was, in fact, my birthmother didn't give me adequate time to consider the implications. For Sharon, on the other hand, those five days came at the end of more than 30 years and if there was anything she could do to hasten it she was willing.

As I understand it, she spent a good deal of the following Monday morning on the phone with a clerk at the court building (ironically named after the Judge that presided over my adoption) waiting for someone to check the records. The clerk tried gently to advised Sharon not to get her hopes up--that many of these requests don't match-up as often as people hope. She had barely finished the sentence when she compared the records to the drivers' licenses, double checked our permission to release the information to the other, and shouted. 

The notes from Julie's phone call were still on my whiteboard and I stared at them as Sharon announced the news. I wasn't surprised but I was suddenly feeling a little awkward talking to her, hoping not to make a bad impression, stutter, or let an accidental curse word slip out. 

Sharon wanted to know when we could get together. "Why waste any time?" I thought. As luck would have it, I was wearing my favorite double-breasted charcoal gray suit with a starched white dress shirt and tie. One of the benefits of working in downtown area is I could stop at both a barber shop and a florists before reaching my car parked across the street without so much as a detour--and I had plenty of time for both before lunch. We agreed to meet at a Friday's located approximately halfway between us. 

It's possible for a mind to be doing both nothing and something at the same time. I know mine was racing while driving to the restaurant and even picked-up speed as I got out of my car and started walking towards the entrance. What, exactly, those thoughts were I could barely keep track of. What do you say to a woman who gave you up for adoption 33 years ago and are about to meet? What kind of salutation is appropriate? A simple, "Hello," seems miserably inadequate. Should I hug her? Should I kiss her? How big should each be? Would that be appropriate? Would it be intimidating? Misleading? Genuine? Obligatory? After that's out of the way what should I say next? Do I have any pictures of my wife and son? Great, there's some here in the door pocket. Did I remember my wallet? Of course! You got your hair cut, didn't you? I didn't leave it at the florists, did I? No, it's in your pocket, stupid. Should I offer to pick-up the tab? What if she offered? Should I accept her offer or insist I get it? Damn it! I'm through the door and standing next to the hostess' stand and haven't figured any of this stuff out yet and how will I recognize someone I've never seen... 


Sitting at the bar directly across from the entrance was Sharon. I didn't need anything to help me recognize her. There's an expression that only a mother could have after not seeing a child for 33 years suddenly walk through a door that is difficult to explain, though unmistakable when you see it. Everything I was worrying about vanished. My mind cleared. I knew exactly what to do. I gave her as great a hug as could. I'm now certain God gave us tears to express what even the greatest of hugs can not. 

When two lives are at once connected, as a mother and infant's are, then separated by so many years, walking through a door seems too easy a thing to do. There's a horrible incongruency to life when such an every-day occurrence as walking through a door can be punctuated by an event like this. 

Growing up, a regular feature of dinner time was updating my father on everything that went on that day, either in school during the winters or just around the neighborhood in the summer. Even with four children this doesn't take too long and there was usually more to eat than to tell, especially after we'd already told mom the really neat stuff right when we got home.. In any case, we just saw dad nine hours ago! 

At dinner now I ask my four year-old how his day was and he can't remember what he had for lunch. Imagine trying to recount 33 years worth of birthday parties, artwork, bullies, homework assignments, science projects, colds and flues, music lessons, band concerts, basketball games, track meets, grades, and girl friends to a woman who was probably interested in what I had for lunch each one of those days.

Sharon brought with her pictures of my father, Steve. His high-school graduation picture could have been mine. I saw so much of myself in him that for a moment I thought it was me and I had forgotten going to high school in the early '60s. 

I also met my brothers Dave (the one that called me at home) and Don. They told me about two more brothers, Kevin and Kraig, at the time, both were in the military (Kevin still is). I remember getting confused and forgetting who was older than whom, and turned to Don and asked, "Now, which one are you?" and he replied, "I'm the oldest... or at least I was the oldest."