From the moment I handed off my letter to the Fedex man, the clock was ticking. I tracked the envelope obsessively, waiting for the moment that it was signed for at the mystery man's door. As soon as the signature appeared on my screen, I expected a call. Every hour that went by, I became more and more convinced that he would not call. Nevermind that it was delivered at 11AM on a Tuesday and it was possible he was at work, or shopping, or visiting friends, or doing any of the myriad of things that a person does in the course of a normal day when they are not expecting a life-changing package to arrive at their home.
After the shock of a credible response from my shot-in-the-dark classified ad, I spent the weekend crafting a letter to the man that could be my alleged birth father. What were the odds that this Cuban golf pro Lothario had been right near Bard all along? If he wasn't "the guy", would he cooperate and name names?
Below is the letter that I Fedex'd off on Monday morning with huge, flapping, crazed butterflies in my stomach:
In the end, it turns out that all the research in the world can't take the place of pure dumb luck. In the end, what eventually enabled me to find my birth family was a fluke, a joke, a serendipitous chain of events that yielded me results I might have otherwise never reached.
In the end, it didn't matter how I found them but that I did find them, those mysterious shadow people, those biological parents, MY birth parents.
Probably the single greatest source of information for me when searching over the years came from the wonderful people on the NY Adoptees Yahoo group. They share their stories, answer questions, support each other and generally provide insight based on best practices and their own personal experiences. It was because of that group that I decided to write Catholic Charities again in summer of 2007 and ask for an updated non-identifying information report.
The second new clue that my parents were able to furnish was a copy of my baptismal certificate as it was provided to them by the illustrious Kathryn Doll once my adoption had been finalized on March 29,1971. This date is important because it marks the moment that I officially became Lisa Joy Sanger in the eyes of both the Catholic Church and the government. Prior to that day, I was in a nebulous grey area--adopted and moved into my parents home but still legally and ecclesiastically my original or birth name.
Including my parents in my search yielded some unexpectedly enlightening results. The first was a letter that they had received from their Catholic Charities social worker, an apparently delightful older woman named Kathryn Doll. Written in a beautiful longhand script that revealed a solid Catholic school education, the letter was from the woman who had taken care of me in the eight weeks between my birth and my parents receiving me.
One of the biggest hurdles for adoptees that are thinking about searching is the major question of impact on their families. No one wants to hurt the feelings of their parents...the people who raised them, loved them, kissed their booboos, tucked them in at night...you know, their parents! Most adoptees, me included, fear the reaction of their parents if they tell them that they are searching for their birth family. Does that mean the parents weren't good enough? Does it mean the adoptee doesn't love them? Is the adoptive family insufficient? Will the adoptee abandon their family should they find their birth family? The answer to all of these questions is overwhelmingly no in the majority of cases, it certainly was in mine. But that doesn't stop the fear of losing their child from rising in the mind of the parent.
Along the way, I registered with the New York State Adoption Registry, a passive reunion registry. Similar to other Mutual Consent Voluntary Registries (MCVRs) in other states, the registry collects information from adoptees, birth parents and birth siblings and houses them in a large database. These registries don't have a stellar success rate, between 1.5 and 10% in states that have them, as they only work if all parties register, and if the agency that monitors them has an adequate matching algorithm.
Searching became a part of my life; it had ebb & flows, when my life was busy, hectic or focused on other things, I was passive, but when life was slow, relaxed or otherwise quiet, I turned back to my "mystery" as I had come to describe it. I discovered that my undergraduate history training was good for something besides eye rolling on the part of my more practically-minded friends--it had conditioned me to think critically about the details and see connections where others might not.
I had great luck reuniting inanimate objects with people who needed them, loved them and didn't even know they missed them. The first was a "ready made ancestor" that I had purchased at an antique store in Skagit Valley, Washington back in the mid-90s. The portrait had travelled with me back to Houston and I was became quite fond of the old gentleman, wondering who he was, what his story was and why he was wearing what looked to be a massive gold nugget ring. I discovered accidentally that there was some faded handwriting on the back of the large portrait when I was remounting it in it's original frame. It looked like it might say Clarke, but Clarke who? The photographer's studio address was listed as San Francisco, perhaps a gold rush forty-niner, I thought, although this gentleman's dress was late 1800s, not mid-century. After days of Googling, I identified the man as William Andrews Clark, Sr. the Copper King of Montana who became a US Senator in one of the defining scandals of the turn-of-the-century.
Once I had my known search parameters, I seached the internet incessantly. As search engines grew more powerful, so did my ability to see connections, leads, possible avenues to explore. Left with a spare half hour, I could be found on Ancestry.com, reading through lists of ship's rolls for possible Cuban names, or sending shot-in-the-dark emails to Cuban ex-pat golf leagues in Miami. I became very good at summarizing my story & along the way, I met many wonderful people who wanted to help, just because they couldn't imagine not knowing their own families.
I remember one particular email that I received back.
My second letter from Catholic Charities coincided nicely with my infant use of the internet. Armed with new ideas (a golf pro, a Cuban emigre, a divorce around 1970), I searched mercilessly. I posted my information on every adoption reunion board I could find, large & well-resourced through small & rarely maintained, keeping track of everything in a big manila file folder. I spent months on paths that never panned out (calling every golf course in downstate NY and NJ, learning about Catholic Church doctrine on adoption & its role in the church, becoming intimately familiar with the foster care system employed by Catholic Charities in the 70s), I joined groups, two of which I became quite active in: NY Adoptees (a yahoo group) and a Catholic Charities Triad group, and more than anything, I kept perspective.
The file about me, hidden safely in the Catholic Charities filing cabinet, surely could yield more. Certainly I should be allowed to know what "spanish descent" meant--vague 70s terminology meant nothing to me. It seemed reasonable to ask about discrepancies in the report, such as the remark that there was no cancer in the "alleged" birth father's family, while his brother was listed as having died of leukemia.
Those first pieces of non-identifying information provoked a watershed moment for me: there were actually REAL people who had loved me and given me up, presumably for reasons that they believed to be in my best interest. Prior to seeing them described on the page, they had been no more real than characters in a well-known children's story or familiar heroes from Greek myths. They were shadowy, illusive, undefined, much imagined and even more--safe. Safe from being identified, safe from being a disappointment, safe from breaking my heart as the people who gave me up...who didn't want me...who opted for a life without me in it.
Quirky, outspoken, but secretly shy, I've never been afraid to be self-deprecating for a laugh. I believe that it's just as easy to be kind as it is to be cruel, that we are each our brother's keeper, and that no day is more important than this one.