The reunification stories of adoptees and their families are as unique and varied as the individuals themselves. Sometimes, the birth families of adopted children are aware of their existence and sometimes it has been kept secret. Sometimes adoptive parents are supportive of their children’s desires to find birth families and other times they struggle. While adoption is a beautiful gift, it is simultaneously tragic and filled with loss.
Pam Thompson’s parents were in their fifties when they adopted her and her older sister, Debbie. They never met the biological mothers involved, as that was just not common then. The girls grew up in a loving family and, though their dad passed away when Pam was just seven years old, their mom lived to be 94 before passing away in 2011. Pam and Debbie’s parents always spoke openly of their adoptions, so the two have no memory of learning they were adopted. They just always knew. Adoption was the way their family was built and they discussed it freely, though their story pre-dates the cultural shift toward open adoption. Unlike some adoptees, Pam never felt a strong urge to seek out her biological family in her youth because she felt confident that they had made the right decision on her behalf. Long before DNA testing and Google searches, Pam’s mom asked if she wanted her help to find her birth mom. Out of concern for her mom’s emotions, she declined. “She looked very relieved,” Pam recalls. Besides, she assumed the search would be difficult since it would require a court order to open the sealed records in Oklahoma. Content to know that her birth family had acted in her best interest and that though there may be biological family members she would never meet, life was beautiful for her so Pam moved forward without seeking out her birth family. She married her husband, Del, at a young age. The couple has one caring daughter, Patricia, and they continue to enjoy a great life together more than 40 years later. Pam found her passion while teaching high school biology and, while thoughts of her birth family were never far from her mind, she was happy with her life and had not felt the need to reunite with her family of origin. All of that changed when her daughter, Patricia, gifted her a DNA testing kit at Christmas in 2017.
“I really had no idea what the test would show,” Pam remembers. “Maybe where I was from—England or Ireland, probably? But the DNA test showed much more. I was related to hundreds of people that I didn’t have a clue who they were. With the DNA testing, I had some very close matches. A sibling on the maternal side and an uncle on the paternal side. That was a big surprise!” As Pam inched closer to finding her birth family, her sister Debbie reminded her that they were a two-for-one special and that whoever got Pam got Debbie with her. The bond between these two women shows that biology is just one part of sibling connections, and the lifelong relationship they share transcends DNA.
After receiving the DNA results, Pam sent messages to some of the DNA links. She also began investigative work using the last name provided on her adoption papers (baby girl Cook), looking at obituaries, and writing out genealogies. This process led her to discover her birth parents. She looked up her maternal sibling online and found her birth mother’s name connected to his. The fact that her birth mother had kept her maiden name with her married name helped expedite the process. Pam later learned that this was a very intentional choice on the part of her birth mom to make herself easier to find if her daughter ever sought her out. Pam decided to write to her birth mom. “I wanted to let her know that I was okay, had a wonderful husband, a loving daughter, and a great son-in-law. I’ve had a good life.” She mailed the letter on a Tuesday in April and on Friday, she received a call.
“I am your birth mom,” Terri Cook Caldwell confirmed from the other end of the line, “and my prayers have been answered.” She went on to explain that she had kept her maiden name in case Pam tried to find her. The two arranged to meet the next weekend, so when the time came, Pam, Del, and Patricia traveled to Oklahoma to meet Terri.
“It was a wonderful first meeting,” Pam explains. “We hugged, laughed, looked at pictures, heard stories about family, and enjoyed the day.”
As the rest of the story unfolded, Pam learned that not only had Terri become a birth mother by placing Pam for adoption in hopes of giving her a better life, she had also become an adoptive mother when she adopted her first son, Eddy, 18 years after Pam’s birth and then was surprised to become a mother to her youngest son, David, two years after Eddy’s adoption.
Pam notes that many people wonder if she asked the big question of why. “Why was never important to me,” Pam explains. “I knew my birth parents had made the right decision and I’m sure a painful one.” As it turns out, she was right. Terri found herself a very young mom in high school; Pam’s birth father was away at college. Times were very different back in the 1950s and 60s. Pam continues, “She was not allowed to attend her high school and was sent to live with an aunt. She later transferred to a different school to finish high school. My birth dad did ask her to marry him, but she said no. She did go to college and became a social worker. She married a bit later but they didn’t think they could have children. So, they adopted a baby. Then guess what, they had a baby! Surprise! So, I have two much younger brothers by 18 and 20 years—David and Eddy. David is the one with my DNA match. They gained an older sister. And the oldest of the brothers became the middle child!”
In May of 2018, Pam was traveling through Oklahoma and had the very exciting opportunity to meet her brother, David. “On Sunday, I was able to spend more time with him, our mom, and his young family on Mother’s Day. The meeting was just so natural and comfortable. There are many emotions to process: pure joy, utter amazement that this has all come together, and being very thankful they have welcomed me.” Pam remembers, “When the day was coming to a close and I had to go home, my brother gave me such a good hug. I know I will have connections with my new family for many years to come. When I got back home from having Mother’s Day dinner, I had a message from my brother. He was happy to call me his sister. These people that were complete strangers have a place in my heart now forever.”
In the months that followed, Pam continued to spend time with her biological mother and learn more about her story. “She told me she was able to hold me in the hospital when I was born. I have always felt that love surrounding me,” Pam notes. Pam traveled to Oklahoma several times that summer to spend time with Terri, and Terri even came to spend a week in Pam’s home. Over the past few years, Pam has been able to connect with each of her brothers and spend time with them and their families also, including the sweet nieces and nephews she adores.
Not all reunification efforts are met with the enthusiasm of Pam’s maternal family. Each adoption story is unique. In her pursuit of her biological family, Pam learned that her birth father had passed several years earlier. She has connected with an uncle on that side who has shared about her paternal family with her. She has a biological brother on that side as well, but at this time, he has not shown interest in meeting.
Pam’s story is an amazing combination of each part of the adoption triad, and her family has adoption written all over it. From her and Debbie’s shared experiences of seeking out their birth families to her biological mother having experienced placing a child for adoption, adopting a child, and raising a child she birthed, the story is wrought with the influence of adoption. It is forged in the fire of life, loss, and grief and refined with the beauty of family, love, reunification, and restoration. Pam has experienced the joy of having loving parents and a strong sibling bond, the privilege of parenting her own daughter, and the joy of being reunited with her birth family. She has walked with her sister through the pursuit of her own biological family, and both have experienced loss along the way.
In September, after they first reunited in April, Pam’s biological mom, Terri, was in an accident and passed away. Pam’s sister, Debbie, also reunited with and then faced the passing of her biological mother. While the grief is strong, the women are incredibly grateful for reunification and the connections they’ve been able to build with their birth families. Regarding her mom’s passing, Pam says, “That was a rough time but besides my family that I grew up with, my new family was there for support also.”
Pam is grateful for the family she was raised in through the gift of adoption. She is also grateful to be connected to her biological family. Each family is an important part of who she is. She has her birth mother’s smile, physical traits, and stubbornness, and her mom and dad taught her to work hard and value education. She grew up with her outgoing sister Debbie, yet she shares mannerisms and a similar smile with her biological brother, David. She’s told her personality is just like her Grandma Vivian, the one who also shares her same shade of red hair. Her birth mom, Terri, and her daughter, Patricia, are both very creative and crafty with polished makeup and appearance, though Pam is more natural and outdoorsy—maybe a little like her dad. She is who she is because of nature and nurture. She’s a little of this, a little of that, and a whole lot thankful for everyone she calls family.