TUESDAY, DECEMBER 16, 1986 – BROWARD COUNTY, FL
Monthly Kaypro Computer Club meeting tonight, and tonight two friends I hadn’t seen for a while had recently bought Kaypros and were coming with me. We met for dinner first. Jan and GeeGee began discussing problems with their grown daughters–”I can’t for the life of me understand her!” type thing, and “What do you think, Carol?” “Hey, you guys RAISED your kids, I’m the cop-out…I gave mine up.” The conversation turned to me and the search I opened in 1975. GeeGee had been married to my cousin and was one of the few friends I had left who knew my story. My few other confidants, including my cousin married to GeeGee, had died, one after the other, over the past three years. It wasn’t easy to talk about the adoption. I felt a lot of shame and remorse and, oh, so much regret. So, I kept it pretty much to myself. I told them I gave up hope a few years before and was resigned to the fact that she wasn’t going to look for me.
When I returned home that night, the first thing I noticed was the steadily blinking message light on my phone. I found only one message–an unfamiliar voice requesting that if I returned before midnight, to please call (it sounded like) “Steven,” collect, at a number with an equally unclear area code, that could have been 402, 302, or maybe 202. Whoever it was would accept a collect call, so what did I have to lose?
It took the operator three attempts before we reached my caller–area code 202–Washington, D.C. On connection I heard a feminine voice say: “Oh yes, operator. I’ll accept the call.” An odd feeling churned in the pit of my stomach when I heard the voice ask: “Are you Carol Bird?” I answered yes. “My name is Susan– and I’m your daughter.” Shock waves of hope, panic, wonder, gratitude, joy, and every conceivable emotion engulfed me and all I could say was “Oh, MY GOD…oh my God…oh, my God! Where are you? I was just talking about you tonight. I thought you’d never look for me…Oh my God.” It seemed like a miracle; we’d just spoken of her tonight, and now, after 32 long years of separation, I was hearing the voice of my “baby girl” for the first time.
SATURDAY, FEB. 13, 1954 – EDGEWATER HOSPITAL, CHICAGO, IL
The contractions began on Friday night at around 9:00 PM. The pains were spaced five minutes apart and they didn’t subside; they thought it was false labor, but finally at around 1:00 AM, Mom drove the icy roads to the hospital. The contractions went on all night, waking me up from the too-short catnaps I took in between. I was of small stature (5′ 2″, never weighing more than 107 lbs before pregnancy) and the doctor said either the baby was large or my pelvic area was small. The little bump that was my baby kept pushing up under my heart, as if to fight coming out.
Finally I was taken to the delivery room, given a spinal, and was knocked out. I gave birth at 4:45 PM on Saturday afternoon to a 5 lb., 4 oz baby girl, who would subsequently be taken out of my life by people I didn’t know, to a life I would never share. I was 19 years old and unmarried.
I wasn’t supposed to see or hold my child. “It is best that you don’t,” I was told; “This way, you can put it all behind you and go on with your life.” (A few weeks later my doctor would proudly tell me: “I did such a great job that no one will ever know you had a baby.”) Ah, will we ever know how many thousands of our sister birth mothers around the world were fed this same line, as they were plummeted into the depths of the cesspool of lies and secrecy we know as “closed adoption”?
I found my baby girl accidentally the next morning–Valentine’s Day 1954–when I took my first walk down the hallway and discovered the nursery window next door to my private room. I searched for her in the tiny faces of all the little bundles in the bassinets, without recognition, of course. But, as I stood there, something interesting began to happen. The nurses began bringing babies, one by one, to the window where I was standing. Just to my left was a scale and open ledger. It was weigh-in time and I had a “front row seat.”
I had my first look at my little girl when a nurse marked her weight next to my name in the ledger; easily found, though upside-down. I watched where she was placed, and from that time on, even raging bulls couldn’t have chased me from my new watching post. Every day, at every opportunity, I was at the window. They’d close my door when the babies were brought to their mothers for feeding and reopen it when they were settled back in the nursery. Then I would make my way to the window where I watched a nurse, seated in a rocking chair, cuddle and feed my baby. Those times were the highlights of each day.
On the last day, dressed to leave the hospital, I went back to my “station” at the window for a last look and silent “goodbye.” It was her feeding time. To my incredulity, when she finished the feeding and put my baby back in the bassinet, the nurse came out to the hall and asked if I was leaving today. I said yes, and she smiled kindly and asked: “Would you like to dress your baby or do you want me to?” Surely she knew I wasn’t supposed to see the baby, much less hold her! After all, she was never brought to me for feeding; I never was given the chance to cuddle her. Of course she knew! She just decided to break the rules. “Please, I’d like to dress her, I have clothes for her.” In those days we didn’t have advance knowledge of a waited baby’s gender, so when picking out “going away” clothes for my baby, I chose my favorite pastel, a soft mint green–a color suitable for either boy or girl. Everything–kimono; sweater, cap and booties set; receiving blanket; crib blanket and even the heads of the diaper pins–was a soft mint green. For her final “wrap-up” I brought a beautiful crocheted baby shawl of the same color.
In a short while the nurse brought me my daughter, together with diapers, a bottle and a friendly wink. So, I not only saw my daughter, but held her in my arms, fed her, diapered her, soothed her, and whispered of my love for more than two beautiful stolen hours of bonding, before the lawyer and my mother walked into the room. The doctor was horrified and my mother was stunned; but I had two hours of love, and they could never, ever take that away from me.
Illinois Law required that we cross the threshold of the hospital together. A nurse carried my baby out of one door and the attorney and my mother walked with me. Upon exiting the hospital I was stopped and in horror watched as the nurse continued down the walkway, carrying my baby to a woman waiting next to a taxi. She was a tiny woman cloaked in a fur coat so long it must have swept the ground. Her face was hidden by dark veil that that didn’t fit her stature anymore than did the coat. As clear as I would remember my baby’s face, tiny body, fingers and feet through the years, I also would remember that tiny fur-clad woman standing at the taxi.
I don’t have to describe to you the feelings of pain and helplessness I felt that last day and all the years to follow. If you haven’t experienced it yourself, you’ve certainly read about it countless times over the past decade on online adoption bulletin boards, and the Internet websites of recent years. Suffice to say, the ache never, ever, goes away.
DECEMBER 1986 – BROWARD COUNTY, FLORIDA
That December 16, Susan and I talked for hours. She announced that I was Grandma of a five-month old baby girl; oh joy of joys. She gave me a synopsis on her life and I told her about me and my family, and after hours of exchanging thoughts and “history,” we arranged for a New Year’s Eve Reunion and broke the phone connection. She was spending the holidays skiing in Colorado with her husband’s family, and I was spending Christmas with my siblings in North Chicago. I would go to Washington on December 30. Both Sue and I stayed up all that night gathering pictures to send Express Mail (our packages crossed in the mail).
Ironically, it was Sue’s very supportive, sensitive mom who set the wheels of reunion in motion. Sue made a previous attempt to locate me when she was around 20, but was warned off with a charge of “ingratitude” by the clergyman whose help she sought. She didn’t attempt again.
I registered with ALMA (Adoptee’s Liberty Movement, Inc.) in January 1974 in anticipation of Sue’s 21st Birthday. Along with gender, date of birth, city, hospital, attorneys, etc., I noted the mint-green “going away” clothes in which I dressed her that last day. I also sent notarized letters to the doctor, law firm, and hospital, giving my address and phone number and requesting that they release information about me to anyone inquiring. Fearful of disrupting her life, I decided that I would not actively search. The years passed with no knock on the door; no phone call; no word. My hope faded, and I began having problems with depression. I finally resigned myself to a permanent loss.
But Fate had other plans for me. One morning in early December 1986, Sue’s Mom tuned in to a Phil Donahue show and discovered that Adoption and Reunion was to be the day’s topic. She lost no time placing a call to our daughter–a nursing mom home on maternity leave–to urge her to tune in. Maybe they’ll give her an idea of how to go about finding her birth mother. ALMA was highlighted, and with the phone number in hand, Sue called to request a registry form.
On the morning of Dec. 16, 1986, within a few days of sending in the completed form, Susan received a phone call from ALMA. “We think we have a match,” she was told. “Could you answer a few more questions?” One of those questions was “Do you have anything from your birth mom?” She told them she had a crocheted baby shawl. Sue’s mom had saved the shawl all those years and presented it to her upon the birth of our first grandchild in August 1986. It was, indeed, a match– he gave her my name, address, and phone number and she placed the call, left the message and waited.
DECEMBER 30, 1986 – REUNION, WASHINGTON, D.C.,
I climbed the stairway leading to the waiting area at the Washington Airport that morning with what can only be described as fearful anticipation. From the dozens of pictures she sent (babyhood to marriage) I knew what Sue looked like and she’d quickly recognize me from the snaps I sent her — but would we hit it off? Would I be accepted? As I reached the landing and stopped to quiet my racing heart and compose myself, I spotted her, her husband, and my grandbaby. We cried and hugged and cried some more, while my chubby little granddaughter quizzically scrutinized me as if to say “Now, WHO is THIS one?” (She still occasionally gives me that look, after ten years.)
We dropped my son-in-law at his office and went home to talk, and talk, and talk. Her mom phoned. Yes, the fur-clad woman at the hospital was her. The lawyer told her to disguise herself. She told me she never forgot the look on my face that day: “I felt so terrible to be doing that to you,” she said. Her older sister (her parent’s only biological child) called; friends called. I stayed at a nearby hotel for four days, taxiing up in the morning and back late at night. We spent New Year’s Eve viewing reels upon reels of home movies taken by her parents. One film showed her mom carrying her into the house in Michigan shortly after picking her up at the hospital — she was wrapped in the mint green baby shawl. A year later parts of those films were transferred to a video by Sue and her husband to be presented to me at Christmas.
THE INTERIM YEARS
You need only to meet my daughter to realize that she was raised in a very loving family. She’s well-adjusted and level-headed. Her mom and dad are wonderful people, pretty much the same age as my parents. Besides a sister, three years her senior, she has a brother who was adopted when she was 11 months old. I’ve met many of her family members–aunts, uncles, cousins–and am grateful for the love they all share with her. She had a happy life, a good education (a B.S. and M.S.) and was married at age 31. My first granddaughter was born only a year later and when she was 18 months old she was joined by my second granddaughter. I gave up one and got back THREE.
While I’m satisfied that Sue had and continues to have the life I hoped adoption would give her, I feel a deep, deep loss and ache when I hear about those interim years between 1954 and 1986. In the earlier years I was overpowered by jealousy of her mom, and it took a long time to overcome that unfair reaction.
I remained in Chicagoland after giving Susan up. I worked and went to school, eventually landing a job in the publishing field–my career niche. But I continued to be haunted by memories of my baby. I thought she was in Chicago and I constantly looked for her. In 1958, just months before Susan’s fifth birthday, I moved to Southern California. I tried for a new life, but she never left my thoughts. I had relationships, but never anything serious. I always felt shame and guilt over my status as “unwed mother who gave away baby.” Who could respect a woman who gave her child away? I confided only in a very close friend; a shoulder I could cry on in times of need. Other than that, I was alone! No one really cared about my loss, not even my mother, who couldn’t, for the life of her, understand why I couldn’t “put it behind me.”
When Sue was twelve I returned briefly to Chicagoland. My younger brother already married and had a son; another younger brother (five years my junior) married within weeks of my return; my older brother, an engineer in the Merchant Marines, was home for a six-month R&R and I had two sets of parents, another brother and a “baby” sister; all in Chicagoland. I never told my Dad about Susan; I wanted to wait until we could reunite before breaking the news to him (Dad was Italian; need I say more?) By 1968 my youngest and only sister had married and my older brother finally met his match. Two days after his wedding I fled again, this time to South Florida where I remain at this writing.
Over the years I had several relationships, but never married. In my very vivid imagination I saw myself meeting my child and having her reproach me: “You gave me up, but went right ahead and married and replaced me with other children. How could you?” After years reading the stories of other birth moms and several years of post-reunion therapy, I’ve come to understand that I carried deep-seated feelings of unworthiness and created all sorts of ways to “punish” myself. I find that many of my sister birth mothers have had similar hangups.
Ironically, one of the first things Susan asked me was: “Do I have any siblings?” She actually hoped I had other children. I can laugh at myself now, thank God.
JUNE 1997 - BROWARD COUNTY, FL.,
It has been slightly more than ten years since Susan and I reunited. My first grand-angel will be 11 in August; my second was 9 last February. They are the light of my life and I’m happy to say that, in spite of the distance separating us, we share a very close bond. We’ve been corresponding since even BEFORE they learned to write. I “wrote” letters to them on audio tape and would read books I bought them on tape, too. Today I get REAL letters and drawings, and copies of school work, and things they make, and the efforts of a budding author (the nine-year-old).
Susan’s and my relationship is still forming. It has taken me a long time–and many therapy sessions–to understand that I can NEVER go back; I can NEVER undo the past; I can’t step in and assume a role I gave up in 1954. We can never have a mom/daughter relationship. She has spent her lifetime as a beloved member of her adoptive family–she already has a wonderful mom and dad. I know I hold a special place in her heart and am learning to be content with that; after all, what did I have before December 16, 1986?
Post-Reunion is not easy. Dr. Abraham Low, the psychiatrist who founded Recovery, Inc., warns that “high expectations can lead to great disappointments;” take it slow and don’t expect too much right away. Lasting relationships take time to develop. Fortunately we have help today that wasn’t available to us older birth moms of the 40s and 50s and 60s. I’ve taken advantage of it, and therapy has helped me a great deal. I’m still unraveling the knotty tangles of my life and have made some very surprising and welcome discoveries–the most important is that I can’t repair four decades of wounded psyche in just ten years. It takes time.