New Year’s Day, 1995. The adoption had just been finalized a week earlier. Our attorney called Friday night, just two days before Christmas, to say that he and the judge had an unusual appointment Saturday morning at the court house. “Merry Christmas,” he said. “The adoption will be final tomorrow morning.”

We lived in a small place. It’s hard to be anonymous there. Bryan had been in our foster care for nearly the full two years he had been alive, and we lived each day in cautious hope that he would be ours forever.

One day, when he was just over a year old, we were at the HMO for a check up with the family doctor. Because we were foster parents before we were adoptive parents, we had access to the birth mother’s name. A chill ran through me when I heard her name called by the nurse. My first instinct was to grab Bryan and run out of there, but reason and curiosity took over. I craned my neck and saw a very beautiful young woman follow the nurse. After that, I realized just how small our little world was.

We knew Bryan’s birth mother could ask for him back at any time. My constant nightmare was that some member of his birth mother’s extended family would see him while we were out shopping or beach-combing or at the park. They would see her in Bryan and would talk her into taking him back. I was grateful that it was a closed adoption. Bryan was every bit as much ours as his brother and sister were. I jealously guarded my position as Bryan’s mother. As soon as everything was legal, we made plans to move far away.

Even though we moved thousands of miles away, the fear that Bryan would be taken from us ate at me regularly. The territory we lived where Bryan’s adoption took place allowed birth mothers seven years to change their minds. Admittedly, I was focused only on our little family and would have gladly closed the door on the rest of the world. Bryan always knew he was adopted, but all of us felt about Bryan exactly how we felt about each other. While I carried deep gratitude for the unimaginable sacrifice of his birth mother, in my mind, birth had nothing to do with whose child he was.

Bryan’s early years were similar to the other children’s. And so were his teenage years. While all teenagers can say hurtful things (and all of mine did), it never bothered me much. “It’s a phase,” my husband and I would say to each other. “You’re the worst mother in the world,” or “I know you hate me,” are phrases that were uttered by more than one of our children. A parent develops tough skin to survive teenage children! But when Bryan said, “I wish I never would have become a part of this family,” it cut deep. I thought, after passing the seven-year mark, I wouldn’t feel threatened anymore. But as much as I believed there was no difference between Bryan and my other children, that moment told me otherwise. When the other kids said similar things, I’d think, “Too bad for you! You’re stuck with me.” But when Bryan said it, fear that he wanted to leave attacked my heart.

That night I sat on the edge of Bryan’s bed, and for the first time we talked about his birth mother. I told him that I loved him more than I loved life and that I couldn’t imagine our family without him. He told me that he didn’t mean it, and he couldn’t imagine ever having another family. And then I told him everything I knew about his birth parents.

There wasn’t much. I had seen his birth mother one time after that glance in the doctor’s office. Bryan was in the double stroller with his newborn sister, and we were walking through the mall. I saw his birth mother working in one of the shops. My husband had never seen her, so I pointed her out to him. Then, we passed on by in our protective way.

I told Bryan the little we knew of his birth father. And then I told him how I imagine his birth mother: gentle, loving, unselfish, caring, good-hearted. We talked about traits Bryan has that his birth parents must possess as well. I told him that his dimple came from his birth mother, and it’s clear where he got his good looks. That night, 13 years after Bryan entered our lives, my fear disappeared. I promised him that if he ever wanted to search out his birth parents, we would help him.

As the years passed, occasionally we’d talk about Bryan’s birth parents. Sometimes I’d think it was time to ask again if we should start the search, but his answer was always the same. “Not yet.” Bryan graduated with honors from high school and then left the country to serve a full-time two-year mission in the Philippines. We miss Bryan terribly but know his experience is perfect for him. Each week we look forward to his emails. I wasn’t at all surprised when the email came in saying that he was ready to begin the search for his birth mother.

Bryan is over 20 years old now. I recognize the gift that his life is to us, and with that recognition comes immense gratitude. The older Bryan gets, the more I want to thank his birth mother. Bryan returns from the Philippines in a month. His birth mother’s phone number is sitting on a piece of paper on his dresser, waiting for him. As guarded as I was for over half of Bryan’s life, I am now excited and anxious. Whether a relationship will develop or not, she deserves to know the tender, smart, courageous, amazing young man he is. And I desperately want her to know how grateful we are.