Unopened Letters

My personal Mount Everest that I have yet to conquer is a collection of unopened letters. The proof of the reality I’ve been avoiding has been stuffed beneath layers of rarely worn sweaters in my bottom dresser drawer for nearly four years. They do not contain memories, but rather snapshots of a present I am not part of. They are my secret, my denial, and my past that will always be a part of my future.

Today, I will open these letters. I’ve been dreading and yearning for this moment for months. Finally, I’ve gathered the courage to come to terms with the choice I now live with. I feel as if I have moved on enough to reconnect with the writer of the letters.

The Writter of the Letters

Her name is Joanne. I chose her out of a thick stack of profiles. There were so many couples desperate to start a family that I had to take the files home to study them without the watchful eye of my counselor constantly on me. I read about so many different couples, many sharing the heartache of infertility. It was easy to appreciate all the time and hope they put into preparing folders that depicted their lives and reasons for wanting a baby.

I imagined what it would be like to want something so bad that you’d put your entire personal life on display for strangers. It was a foreign concept to me. Being 19, I wanted nothing more than to keep my personal life to myself.

Finding Joanne

Joanne’s folder grabbed me from the start. The cover was a picture taken on her wedding day. She was sitting in a tree. Her husband was standing below, posed as if serenading her. I liked the picture and liked what she’d written. It was as easy as that. The social worker called her the next week.

What had it been like for Joanne and her husband to suffer years of miscarriages and failed attempts to create the family they both wanted? When was the final straw that forced them to consider adoption as their last option? What did Joanne think when she received that first phone call, from an agency in a city she’d never been to, telling her a pregnant teenager had chosen Joanne’s folder and wanted her to adopt the baby? Was she full of apprehension or relief? Did she cry with her husband that night? Had she begun making plans for the baby right away? Did she want to pinch herself to ensure it wasn’t a dream? Did she begin praying to God that she would not be heartbroken again? Even then, I knew I’d never fully comprehend what it must have been like for Joanne.

Meeting Joanne

Within two weeks of the phone call, she and her husband embarked on the long drive to meet me and my parents. We were all very considerate of each other, careful to say the right things and not reveal anything that might jeopardize the situation. I had fully made up my mind by that point. The baby had never felt like mine. Joanne and her husband were good people. They were farmers, like my parents. They could give the baby a childhood like mine.

Looking Forward to an Open Adoption

By the time the baby was born, a month after my first meeting with Joanne, I was grateful that the entire ordeal was almost over. I could not wait to move on with my life. The secret I’d kept for nine months had distanced me from my friends and prevented me from going to college, effectively postponing my entire life. I honestly believed that when Joanne left the hospital with the baby in her arms, I would be free of the situation. I had arranged an open adoption, thinking that getting yearly updates and photos would be interesting. Something to look at quickly in the context of my new and happy life, but without any lasting impact.

In the haze of postpartum emotions, I suddenly saw myself as an essential catalyst to Joanne’s happiness. Seeing the love shining from her eyes as she held the brand-new baby girl, I felt that love should be directed at me as well. I reveled in the flowers she and her husband gave me and their stumbled words of thanks. They ensured me they could never fully explain how much I had done for them.

Joanne nervously told me that they planned on naming the baby Cammi. I smiled and agreed that would be perfect, already having expressed that Joanne should be the one to name the baby. I felt like I was the sun shining on their new universe because I gave them a family. All the mistakes I’d made and the heartache I’d been through were suddenly distant memories. The world was at peace, and I was an integral part of it all.

The First Letter

The first letter from Joanne came six weeks later, and I opened it with gusto. My parents eagerly looked at the enclosed photos and read the letter, their own curiosity and pride evident in their slightly blurred eyes.

“What a beautiful baby,” said my father, gazing at the photos of the already unrecognizable six-week-old baby in the photos.

“They seem to be adjusting well,” my mother added tentatively. She was careful to see how I would be affected by her words. She had been waiting for some kind of emotional crisis to unfold with me, as the hurricane of my moods had not made an appearance since I told them I was pregnant. My mother was waiting for the inevitable return of foul weather. She’d noticed that I had not cried since the birth.

I had mourned my changed body and cringed over the pain of labor and delivery, but I didn’t shed any tears. My mother had watched as I signed over the legal documents that left the baby in Joanne’s custody. The ten-day period I had to reconsider the adoption (with no questions asked) passed without a hitch.

When the first letter arrived, my mother wondered if it would be the trigger that unleashed the emotions she knew had to be locked inside me somewhere. Nineteen years of being my mother had given her the ability to predict quite accurately when I was not telling the whole truth. That first letter did not evoke emotions of any kind.

“She looks a lot different,” I said casually, glancing at the photos quickly after my parents had their fill of them. I saw my mother give me a heavy gaze, searching for hidden meaning.

The First Phone Call

Two months later, on my 20th birthday, I received a phone call. A quick check of the caller ID showed Joanne’s number. Immediately, I envisioned Joanne, her light-brown hair disheveled from managing a baby and a house, dialing my number while her daughter slept in a nearby crib. A smile appeared on my face as I picked up the phone, thinking how considerate it was for her to call and wish me a happy birthday.

“Hello? Is Danielle there?” Joanne’s quiet voice asked.

“Yes, this is she,” I replied brightly, my feelings of entitlement again resurfacing and warming me when I heard Joanne’s voice.

“Oh, Danielle, I was just wondering if you know if you ever had bladder infections as a child. Poor Cammi has gotten another one and I really need to know if there’s a family history,” Joanne said quickly.

My smile disappeared, and an icy feeling began spreading throughout my entire body. This call was not about me. It had never been about me. Suddenly, I felt that I may have been crucial in bringing Joanne to Cammi, and in making Joanne a mother, but I was no longer part of their relationship. I felt I existed, not to be thanked and praised, but to be sought out for pertinent information that might benefit Cammi. Joanne had not called to wish me a happy birthday.

But then it dawned on me that Joanne most likely did not even know it was my birthday. Her daughter was sick, and she had called hoping I had information that could be useful at the doctor’s office.

Then the Emotions Hit

Nine months of carefully denied emotions hit me with the strength of a gale-force wind, just as my mother had been anticipating for months. My mouth hardened into a firm line as I spoke.

“I have no idea. You’d have to ask my mother.”

“Oh, okay,” answered Joanne, disappointment readily evident in her voice. “Do you think you could have your mother call me when she’s in?”

“Sure,” I lied, a teenage temper fighting to remain in control. “I have to go.”

With all the strength in my body, I forced myself not to slam the phone into the cradle. The illusion of martyrdom was gone. The cloud of hormones that had hidden the truth and given me a sense of entitlement dissipated, and I fully realized the gravity of the situation.

Nine months of hiding from the shame of my darkest secret could not simply be swept under the bed with the journal I’d kept to document my pregnancy. The mistakes I’d made, the cross I bore, could not simply be forgotten with the stroke of a lawyer’s pen. This wouldn’t “just end”. I couldn’t move on like nothing had happened. Like the angry red stretch marks that were scrawled across my belly, I felt that placing my baby for adoption would continually haunt me and prevent me from ever being who I was before.

But the outward storm my mother feared still did not happen.

Nothing happened.

The Second Letter

The second letter came. My father handed it to me, curiosity written all over his face. I was surprised he was able to fight his temptation to rip the envelope open with his truck keys the moment he picked it up at the post office. Not wanting to cause a fight, my father said nothing as I took the letter without a word and retreated to my bedroom. Likely he and my mother thought I wanted to look at the photos and read the news in private.

But I didn’t open the letter.

I did not want to see the pictures or read the stories. I did not want to be reminded of the picture-perfect life that I had no part of. The letter was the first of many to find a new home beneath my sweaters in my bottom dresser drawer. The letters stayed there as I left for college. New letters were added when I visited home. My parents eyed me but didn’t say anything as I took the carefully enveloped letters and disappeared without sharing their contents.

Becoming My Ideal 20-Year-Old

I focused on college and becoming the 20-year-old I imagined I’d have been if I’d never gotten pregnant. I traveled, I flirted, and I was seen as a normal student. And I never spoke of Cammi.

However, images of what might have been haunted my dreams. The silence of night did nothing to drown out my doubts and regrets. I’d dream about keeping her and wake up feeling the gut-wrenching pain of loss over and over again. It wasn’t until I finished college, bought a condo, and began a serious relationship that I finally allowed the emotions to surface.

With my boyfriend’s careful words and unconditional support, I found myself able to tell him the entire story, including the regrets and the what-ifs. His acceptance and understanding allowed me to come to terms with my past. For the first time since placing Cammi, I began to pray, instead of blaming God for my regrets.

Today, I will open these letters.

I open the bottom drawer and slide aside the sweaters. The stack of letters has remained unchanged since I added the last one a year ago. I have the latest update in my hand; my father left it on the top of my dresser in preparation for my long-weekend visit. I take a deep breath and open the oldest unopened letter.

Dear Danielle,

Cammi is a wonderful baby. I cannot thank you enough for choosing us. If only I could put everything I feel into words. She’s started taking solid foods. She giggles all the time, and seems so happy. Our home is alive with her. I thank God for leading you to us, but I can’t imagine how hard it has been on you. I pray you continue to find the strength to remember this gift you gave us without regret.  

– Joanne

My eyes blur as I thumb through the photos depicting a 6-month-old baby so obviously loved by everyone around her. Despite the sadness and loss I know will always be part of me, I suddenly feel at peace. I spend the next hour opening the letters, watching the baby I never knew grow up into a little girl right before my eyes.

Cammi

She’s four now. I read about the activities she’s involved in, her love for animals, and the joy she seems to bring to everyone in her life. Then I gather up the letters carefully, return upstairs to where my parents are sitting in the living room, and present the stack of letters to my mother.

“I thought you might want to look at these,” my voice trembles as I sit down on the couch beside her.

My mother wraps her arms around me and says, “We are so proud of everything you’ve done.”

I start crying, the tears finally gushing from years of pain. I know I did the right thing by choosing adoption.

Now, I will begin writing a letter to explain everything to Joanne.

Are you considering placing a child for adoption? Not sure what to do next? First, know that you are not alone. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98 to speak to one of our Options Counselors to get compassionate, nonjudgmental support. We are here to assist you in any way we can.