Friday, November 23, 2018

Chapter 13: Welcome Home, Brother

It's a quiet November morning, and I've just finished chatting with someone who wants to introduce me to a person who just discovered late in life that he is adopted. I tell her that, of course, I am willing to talk to this person to guide him to some resources, or to just listen. 

For a moment, I actually think to myself, What must this be like? To have your entire world turned on its head in an instant? And then I remember. My own moment wasn't so long ago. Life goes on and fills up with many things, and so sometimes that moment seems far away. But I do know some of what this person is going through.   

It was just May of 2015 that I received an envelope in the mail from the Ohio Department of Health with my original birth certificate and adoption records, a document listing my birth mother's name along with two blank lines: one for me and one for my birth father. That name and those two blank lines changed everything for me, driving me on a search for who I am that I never expected would unfold this late in my life.  

Though the memory of that day sometimes fades, I haven't forgotten. I am also part of a private online late discovery adoption support group that has saved my life. Every week we welcome new members. Every week we greet and offer support to someone who has just learned and who is suddenly grappling with the fact that he or she was deceived for an entire lifetime. For some, the deception went on for many years with the help of extended family, all colluding in the secret.  

The sense of betrayal can be devastating and deep. Many are told, often by those who helped to keep the secret, that their feelings of confusion and grief and betrayal are not valid, that they are lucky to have been adopted, that the lies were for their own good, that they should just "get over it." No doubt, some people say these things with the best of intentions. Others say them to justify and defend their part in the secret. But I've never seen advice like this help anyone. Most feel, at first, utterly alone in the experience. And so, if they are lucky and willing to share, they find us. We never say those things to them. We listen, we support, and we understand.  

For some who discover the secret (though not all), the next step is often a deep and sometimes obsessive desire to know everything and to find birth family. That was me. The truth had been kept from me for so long that I could not rest until I had done everything to take my own story back. So I began searching my previously forbidden history like a detective. I looked for clues about who my birth mother Judy was.  I wanted to know everything about what she loved, who she loved,  and what she went through.  I wrote about my search here. And like the support groups, this writing saved my life as well. It was a way to keep the story of me alive as it grew and evolved. 

And then, as I said, there were those two blank lines: One for my birth father and one for me. The report from my adoption agency told me that the first blank line really contained five more.  Somewhere out there, I had siblings...

In September of this year I received a text that finally, and without a doubt, filled those paternal blanks. It contained a screenshot of the results of a 23 and Me DNA test.  It was from my newly-discovered half sister Tracy, another of my birth father's children.  

The text said, "Welcome home, brother."

How I'd gotten to this point was a long and complicated road. For me, this connection took over 3 years to make. After getting that initial birth certificate three years ago, I assumed that everything would fall into place, that I would only have to dig a little further and find the rest of the story. But that was not to be. Judy had died in 2007. She herself was adopted as well. She had no other children, no siblings, and the man she had married three years after having me had also passed away. I'd been able to make some contacts, but all had lost touch with her after graduation. The final years of her life, as far as I could tell, were lived in isolation. And I could not find anyone who knew her when she was 23, the year she gave birth to me.

As for my birth father, because of the closed adoption system, I was unable to learn much about him other than his age at the time of my birth, the fact that he was Irish, and that he already had  a family with 5 children. 

The social worker from Catholic Charities who had written the report was allowed to tell me all of this information over the phone, but she was not allowed to tell me his name, even though it was written right in front of her.  These are the kinds of policies that are still in place to keep adoptees in the dark. In fact, I already had more access than many adoptees do. Most states still keep original birth certificates locked away from those whose names are written on them. 

But something new was happening in the world of search and reunion that was allowing adoptees to take some control of their search and identities. DNA testing has changed the game. This is a fairly new thing. The future implications of it are still unknown, making some people apprehensive. But it has become the tool of choice for searching adoptees everywhere, especially those of us who were denied knowing our ancestry, our names, and our own medical histories. 

It works like this: You buy a kit, usually for about $80, and you spit into a vial. (Boy oh boy, it's a lot of spit.) You send that vial off to a lab, and they analyze your DNA. Then they match your DNA along with everyone else who has taken their test, letting you know with whom you share genes. Depending on how much you share, they make a prediction regarding how you are probably related. A first cousin match, for example, could also be a half-aunt. If you are open to it, there is a way to allow these relatives to send you messages.

Many people, when they sign up and do the test, find that they have 3rd and 4th cousins on these sites. Closer matches are more rare. But in March of this year, I got a message from a 2nd cousin match out in California who read this blog and had her own theory. Since we knew that she and I shared the same great-grandparent, we were able to make some deductions... deductions that led to a certain Irish family in Cleveland. Having been down many dead-end paths, following one theory after another, I was skeptical.  

Then a few months later, I got another hit: another 2nd cousin from the same Irish family in Cleveland. She told me that her mother was waiting for her own results, and when those results came in...well, that was hit number three: a 1st cousin match. I was zeroing in. 

By now, a prime suspect was beginning to emerge of who my birth father might be. He'd been deceased for over 20 years, but he matched the description from my adoption report almost exactly. Also he had 5 children, just like the report said. Somehow, a part of me knew in my heart that this was it, but as someone who has lived his whole life believing his own intuition and perceptions were wrong, I could not trust it. Not without proof. 

In August I got a message from Tracy, one of this man's children, introducing herself and asking if I could talk. I was at work, and it was almost lunchtime. I ran outside my building and proceeded to spend the next hour on the phone with her. I told her my story, and she told me hers. And though I could still not fully trust what was unfolding right before me, there was something in her voice and manner, something that was just... well, familiar. She agreed to buy a test from 23 and Me, and for the next month and a half, while we waited for the results, we talked and texted each other. All the while, she claimed she "just knew" we were related. Deep down I did too.

But I still could not trust it. This period of waiting was not unlike another period of waiting I'd had three years before. You see, I knew most of my life deep down that I was adopted, "known" it all my life. But I'd buried that knowing deep down, choosing instead to accept a lie rather than accept the fact my own family had been the ones lying to me the whole time. Facing and acknowledging that truth, I believed, might mean losing them.  It wasn't until after my father had passed that I had the opportunity (the laws in Ohio had changed) and the courage to find out by requesting my original birth certificate. 

During that period of waiting three years ago, I told no one. Looking back, I know I shouldn't have. But I kept it to myself, because I could not bear the thought of what I imagined would be the humiliation and embarrassment when the proof did not come. I imagined the chuckles, the shaking of heads, the patronizing looks of pity over the fact that I had actually believed I was adopted. Kevin, what were you thinking?

During that period of waiting three years ago, I would not have been surprised to get in the mail, instead of my original birth certificate, a letter saying; "Thank you for your inquiry. Unfortunately we have no adoption records for Kevin Gladish. PS - You're crazy."  That, of course, did not happen. But I needed the proof. 

The difference between that period of waiting and this one, was that this time I made sure I wasn't alone.  I did tell others. I told my friends. I told my sister, my fellow Gladish and adoptee-in-arms who lived through this surreal journey of lies and discovery with me. She never doubted, but instead gave me the crucial advice to take it slow and take take care of myself, advice that I sorely needed. 

And this time I also had someone else who was waiting with me, someone who never doubted that she just "knew," a half sister who was willing to get the proof that my doubting heart needed to heal. Her words, when that DNA proof arrived announcing that she and i shared 25% of our DNA - a half sibling match, are three that I will never forget: 

"Welcome home, brother."

Much has happened since. Too much, really to write all about here today. But in short, earlier this month I drove to Cleveland to meet three incredibly wonderful people who happen to also be my half-siblings Lori, Dan and Tracy, in person for the first time. Two others live in Texas and I plan to see them too. 

I also met nieces, nephews, and loved ones, all of whom welcomed me with open arms and beautiful Irish gifts. Again, there was that sense of it all being brand new and yet totally familiar that I can't really describe. It was a long whirlwind of a day. And I am still absorbing the fact that it all really happened. 

Lori, Dan, Tracy and Me

I am still letting it sink in that these people who had been strangers to me until now, are not really strangers at all, but half-brothers and sisters, people who grew up a 25 minute drive where I did, living their own lives and challenges, while I lived mine, living unaware of me while lived unaware of them. Knowing this sometimes pains me as I think of the time lost. But I cannot change the past. And words can't express how thankful I am that they have opened their hearts to me today. I know that, in some reunion attempts, that's not always the case. I am very lucky.

Yes, my family just got a whole lot bigger, and I have no clue how to do this, what's coming, or what any of this is going to look like as time goes on. But I welcome it, and I am thankful for it. 

Until then, there's still me, living this life day to day... that second blank on my birth certificate. In that blank is a name that has grown a bit longer. And what I am, besides a member of a Slovak family by adoption, a member of an Irish family by blood, a brother, a friend, an uncle... what I am, besides ALL these things, is something called a late discovery adoptee. It's a term I learned for the first time only three and half years ago. It now defines me as much as anything. For me, it's not something I can, or even want to, forget and "get over," but rather something I can accept as another part of who I am, something that allows me to connect with and help others, rather than feel alone. 

I know that I am someone who has lived through something very, very strange. But strange as all this is, I am not the only one. I am not, thank God, totally and terminally unique. My own sister shares this strange history with me, having living through her own version of this trip. What oddballs we are! And I wouldn't have it any other way. 

I don't say this to diminish or minimize the pain that many feel.  But with connection to others, that pain can have meaning and a place. There are more of us out there. And they will need us.

Adoptees or not, my wish for everyone in this world is that we all find our place of acceptance, whether that be by blood, by chance, or by choice. 

The blank spaces are filling in every day. And the story continues.