Thursday, December 10, 2015

Chapter 8: You Look Just Like Her

I have always had an odd feeling looking at my reflection in a mirror, as if the face looking back has always been someone else, not me. It's strange to notice this phenomenon so late in my life, since to me it has always seemed normal.  But it's true. 

The fact is that, until the events of this past month, I have never seen a face that truly looks like mine, never seen my eyes mirrored in the eyes of another.  And not having experienced it, I was unaware that it was even something I could  miss or want.  I have always been perfectly happy to think of myself as an alien, masquerading on earth.  After all, as adoptees, we are often told that we are "special."  I was told this, even though my adoption was a secret. But I have never heard anyone say: "You have her eyes.. Her forehead... His chin...I see the resemblance."  I never heard words that would connect me, by blood and DNA, to another human. 

Until now.

A while ago, I was reading another adoptee's blog, Judith Land's wonderful Adoption Detective when I stumbled upon a modified quote by the architect Daniel Burnham:  "Make no little plans.  They have no magic to stir your blood."

I'd actually heard the quote used before and always felt just a little shamed by it, believing that, in my life, I'd never made big plans, that I hadn't taken the kind of risks that would lead to extraordinary success. Whatever that even means.

True, I'd packed up years ago, jumped off a train that was heading to a PhD in English lit, and changed direction, moving to Chicago to be a theatre actor and director.  That was a big plan.  But somehow, soon enough I'd begun to settle. I'd found my safe little routes and patterns, but had little idea where things were headed. I got in comfortable ruts.  I'm honestly still sitting in a few of them, but now at least  I can see the tire tracks.

I read inspirational books that told me to stop living small, to believe in myself, to make big plans.   But  I'd gotten too comfortable in my shuffle.  I felt like I was perpetually walking into rooms and forgetting why I'd gone in there. Believe in myself?  I didn't even know the person I was supposed to believe in.

But for the past few years I'd gotten into this pesky habit of honesty and truthful self-appraisal.  I quit drinking three and half years ago, and have since been diving much further into a world of authentic connection with others and with myself.   Discovering my adoption and pursuing the truth about who I am has been a natural extension of this journey.   Small plans... big plans... I don't know... they all feel like part of some big unseen plan.

For the first time in my life, I feel like I'm headed somewhere.  I may still be wandering a bit, but at least I am along for the ride.

I felt this way back in September, as I sat in a rental car on the street where my birth mother lived, preparing to knock on doors. What I found and learned on that street in Euclid, OH brought me straight to the heart of a deep grief and loss, not just of my birth mother, but my adoptive parents as well, and all the things that had been lost.  The missing years.. the missing pieces of me...   It was something I hadn't truly faced up to. But I came through, and I'm glad I did it.

I still felt stuck, though, in the search.  Aside from the burly next-door neighbor who described my birth mother as an "old lady who didn't really leave the house" I hadn't found anyone who could make Judy real to me.  She was still just words on a page.  The one man I'd been searching for, her husband of 30 years, had died five years after she did.  They had no children. She had no brothers or sisters or parents left alive. And she was adopted herself.. an alien like me. It seemed she'd disappeared from this earth without leaving a single footprint.

True, I had found two photos.  One was of a woman posing with an small owl on her shoulder. It was from a website I believe she had created, but I wasn't sure that it was really her, and to this day I still have my doubts.  The other was a sneakily-obtained drivers license photo taken months before she died.  It was fuzzy, and in it, you could see that Judy was not well at the end of her life.  Her hair was unkempt, her face bloated and grayish. I could maybe see somewhat of a resemblance, but not enough. And her eyes looked so sad and empty... Maybe I just didn't want to see myself in them. I admit I still don't like to look at it.

There had to be something else, I thought... a happier time when she had smiled for the camera.

It was a month ago when I stumbled upon that thorny quote again: "Make no little plans..." And that night, in the quiet hours before sleep, I came up with a crazy idea.

On Sunday, November 8, a small "In Memoriam" ad ran in the Obituary Section of the Sunday Cleveland Plain Dealer.  It listed Judy's name and her birthday, which would have been later that week. It also invited family and friends to call or write with memories they wished to share. 

That morning, at around 10:00 am, the phone rang.

In the seconds before picking up, I felt an intense panic. What if I'd just done something horrible? Did I have the right to do this?  What if this whole thing was a mistake... all of it?  What if Judy wasn't really my mother? Is it possible that I'd misread every piece of evidence up until this moment and that I was now intruding on another family's grief with this stupid and cruel joke?

"You have no right... you have no right..." said the voice of self-doubt in my head.

"Yes, I do," I said. And I answered the phone.

The conversation that followed would be the first of many that I would have with a woman named Dee, Judy's adoptive cousin.

At first she was confused about who I could be.  It seems she had moved to South Carolina for a while and had lost touch with Judy a long time ago.  Now she was back in Cleveland, and my obit was the first she'd heard of Judy's death.  "I thought her husband's name was Joe," she said when I answered. "So I don't really know who you are. But I just wanted to say that I'm sorry for your loss."

And that's when I broke the news about who I was.  I gave her a thumbnail sketch of everything I'd learned from May of this year until now.  "Oh my God!" she said, laughing in disbelief.  "I'm lucky I'm sitting down!"   I wasn't surprised she didn't know about me.  According to the report from Catholic Charities, Judy never did tell her family she was pregnant.

Dee asked me if I knew that Judy was adopted too, and I told her I did. Dee told me that as a child she herself grown up very close to her Aunt Carrie, visiting her often, picking out school clothes together every year.  Then one day, when she was about 12, her Aunt Carrie and Uncle Joe had brought home a nervous little one-year-old girl whom they named Judy.

Nervous. That was the same word the Catholic Charities report had used to describe Judy too.  I learned that Judy was awkward and shy and that her adoptive parents were very strict.  I also learned that when Judy grew into her teenage years, her shyness gave way to strong-willed rebellion. That made me smile... I couldn't help it.

After our conversation, Dee snapped a digital pic of one of her wedding photos and sent it to me.  In it, there's a 12-year old girl named Judy, front and center, giving the same little half-smile that I had seen in my own photos so often.

There was no denying it. The face was mine.

 Judy & Kevin at 12 yrs old
Later I would receive more photos in the mail. And I sent Dee one of my own, an acting headshot. As soon she received it, she immediately called me. "Oh my God!" she exclaimed before even saying hello.  "You look just like her!"

I don't think she had any idea how much those words meant to me.

Dee and I have talked a number of times since that day.  She is a wonderfully generous and sweet woman, and I plan to see her next time I'm in Cleveland.  She even asks me about my acting and how I'm doing. Like the rest of the family I know and love, she is not connected to me by blood. But it feels as though I've gained a long-distance family member, and it's kind of nice.

To be honest, as I look over these photos of Judy taken years ago, I don't feel the deeper connection to her that I thought I would. I mean, they're only pictures after all.  The person she was is gone. And aside from owls, I don't know what Judy loved and what made her happy. Other than words like "nervous" and "rebellious" I don't know what she was like.  I've learned that she went to high school at St. Peter's, which used to be in downtown Cleveland.  So I can now get to work trying to find classmates.  Perhaps I can find someone who was her friend.

And yes, someday soon, I might begin to search for the man who came into her life when she was 21-year-old woman working at a switchboard.  The other half of my face...

The search will continue. 

But the photos, along with the voice of this living person who knew her years ago, they are a testament that all of this is, indeed, real. Judy was real and she was my mother. It amazes me that after all I've discovered, I still needed this reassurance.  That panic and self-doubt that arose as the phone rang will probably always be there, waiting to pounce. But I know now that I have nothing to be afraid or ashamed of.

This is where I come from. I do look just like her, And yes, the face I see now in the mirror is already feeling less like a stranger to me. We just need  time to get to know each other.

I recently spoke to Dee a couple of days ago.  "That obituary you wrote..." she inquired.  "Was that the only day it ran?"

"Yes," I replied. "You only get one day."

"Well, that just shows you that miracles do happen," she said.  "I just happened to pick up the paper that day and I was just skimming through, when her name caught my eye.  I almost didn't call you, but I'm so glad I did."

I told her without hesitation that, yes, miracles do happen.

I have no idea what comes next. But I can't wait to find out. 

In Memoriam
Judy Cecelia Sobocinski


  1. Knowing who you look like is so affirming. I would draw my face shape as I looked into the mirror and fill in the details. My search was completed in the 1970s and it feels so good to know my history. Blessings.

  2. So amazing to read this part of the journey. You did it. How truly wonderful. One day.

  3. The photos did almost as much forE as first seeing my mother's name, amd the name she gave to writing. I hope, truly hope you find a relative who you are able to look into their eyes, and see yourself. Meeting my maternal 1/2 sister was that moment for me, and I will never forget the feeling, and saying it to her, 'I feel like I am looking into a mirror, into my own eyes'. ♡

  4. The photos did almost as much forE as first seeing my mother's name, amd the name she gave to writing. I hope, truly hope you find a relative who you are able to look into their eyes, and see yourself. Meeting my maternal 1/2 sister was that moment for me, and I will never forget the feeling, and saying it to her, 'I feel like I am looking into a mirror, into my own eyes'. ♡

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