Winter Hearts

A birth father loses his relinquished daughter twice.

Sonia Billadeau April 05, 2014
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We are as comfortable with each other as we are in the well-worn jeans we wear. We have constructed a life together, built on a foundation of shared experience– each brick of our lives cemented into place with memories. It has taken many years to build this private palace to our personal specifications.

* * *
It was two days into the New Millennium. We had celebrated quietly with our three teenagers, adding yet another brick to the palace. The house had been in a flurry of activity over the holidays, and we were finally alone for the evening. A new snow insulated the house, and we were enjoying the cocoon-like solitude it offered. Outdoors, it was eerily quiet. Indoors, we had just built a crackling fire and opened a bottle of champagne. We were curled up together watching an old movie we’d seen before when we were suddenly startled by the intrusion of the doorbell. Momentarily looking inquisitively at each other, he said, “I’ll get it,” and reluctantly rose from his warm indentation in the sofa and shuffled to the front door. When he reappeared a short time later, he looked ashen in spite of the warm glow of the fireplace. His hand was shaking, clutching a piece of rose-colored message pad paper.

“It was Gail, from across the street,” he told me nervously. “She said someone has been trying to find us through the Internet and was able to come up with a list of our neighbors, as our phone number’s not listed. She took a number for us to call if we wish.” We both knew who was trying to contact him.

“Go call her,” I said confidently. “You’ve waited a long time for this.”

Twenty-Five Years Ago

It was twenty-five years ago, when he was fifteen, that he shared an evening with a girl three years his senior. That evening resulted in an unwanted pregnancy.

They met again a little over a year later, took a train together into the city, and he signed the “relinquishment papers,” terminating his “parental rights.” They’d had no contact after the silent train ride back. And he had never shared his story with anyone until he told me.

* * *
David stared at the phone for a minute, composing himself, then slowly dialed the number. A woman’s voice answered. He identified himself and she asked him:

“Do you know Kathy Higgins?”
“Yes.”
“Did you date her in 1975?”
“Yes.”
“Do you know she gave birth to a child that year?”
“Yes, I know.”

He turned to me, wide-eyed and trembling, and mouthed the words, “It’s my daughter.”

The voice on the phone continued, “I’m contacting you on behalf of that child, Kerri Anderson. She found her birth mother four months ago, and Kathy has named you as the father. She’s been searching for you since that time. Were you aware of her existence?”
“Yes.”
“Are you married?”
Again, “Yes.”
“Does your wife know about her?”
“Yes.”

She had finally found him. He took a deep breath and settled into the kitchen chair. David and the voice exchanged some initial information, both speaking cautiously and trying to anticipate where the conversation would lead.

The voice, having prepared for the conversation that caught David off-guard, continued:

“Do you have any other children?”
“Yes.”
“Do they know about your daughter?”
“No.”
“Would you be willing to have contact with her?”
“Of course I would!”

David composed himself enough to ask, “Is she all right?”
The voice responded, “Yes. She just wants to know where she came from.”
“Is she married? Does she have any children?”
“No and no.”
“Is she happy?”
“Very.”

The voice told us that she was surprised David returned her call. She explained that Kerri might call him, but might choose to write instead. David gave her our address and telephone number and asked that the voice tell Kerri that we’d been waiting to hear from her for a long time.

Sharing A History

During that part of our courtship, where everything was new and we were shocking each other with getting-to-know-you stories, I announced to him, “I have a son. He is three years old.” To which he responded, “I have a daughter. She’s five.” The way he told me, I thought she was a real part of his life; I was surprised to find out that she was not. And he told me the story. He told me how bad he felt that a fifteen-year-old boy had made the decisions of a man and now had to live with a missing child in his heart.

* * *
When we married a short time later, his life became my life and his loss became my loss. During our twenty years together, we frequently wondered about her and considered searching for her. We had imagined a face, a soul, and a life for her. Always confident that he had made the right decision to place her for adoption when he was only a child himself, we decided that it was she who should find us instead. We had no knowledge of her whereabouts, didn’t know whether she knew she had been adopted or if she cared to find her birth parents, and felt that we should respect the privacy of the child and her adoptive parents. And David had absolutely no desire to see Kathy again. If the child wanted to find him, she would. We were sure of that.

* * *
The next evening, just having returned from the grocery store and with our coats still on, I gasped as David hurdled a kitchenful of bulging grocery bags to answer the phone. It was she.

“David?”
“Yes.”

A nervous woman’s voice said: “Hi. My name is Kerri.”

Over the next hour and a half, a deluge of questions was gladly answered, some others reluctantly. As I listened to David’s side of the conversation, I was unexpectedly unnerved. We had never needed to discuss the circumstances surrounding the conception of our children, even between ourselves, and now this stranger was inquiring about my husband’s intimacy with another woman. He talked with her and then I talked with her. He talked with her adoptive mother and then I talked with her adoptive mother. At David’s request, she described herself and, quite in contrast with him, she relayed that she is a tiny young woman with blonde hair and blue eyes. He said that he was sorry he could not remember what her mother looked like; it was so long ago. He thought he remembered long dark hair.

My heart pounded in my chest as he continued his conversation. Who was this young woman who was coming into the life of my husband and asking such personal questions? I was unprepared for how this made me feel. Scared? Jealous? Angry? Happy? We had waited for this day. We had hoped for this day. We had prayed for this day. I thought I would be elated.

Adjusting

When David signed the relinquishment papers, he was shown a small photo of his daughter. The image was etched in his memory. On the occasions when he’d want to talk about her, he’d tell me that, in that photograph, she looked like the daughter we had together, so I had an image of Kerri as well. Of course, the image of an infant was frozen in our memories and, although we’d imagined her life over and over again, we were not prepared for the young adult who now confronted us.

* * *
We both told her how happy we were that she had searched for and found us and that we’d wondered and worried about her all these years. She told us, quite emotionally, that she did not intend to disrupt our lives. She simply wanted to know where she came from, who she was, and wanted to have access to her medical history. She emphasized that she’d had a wonderful life and that she loved her adoptive family very much. We responded that we hoped she’d become part of our lives in time. Her adoptive mother said that she wanted us to know that Kerri had been well-cared for and that they had provided a good life for her, that she’d played baseball and been to Disney World. She cautioned us: “Kerri is very emotional about this. It may be some time before she contacts you again.”

We both said that we understood. The time would give us an opportunity to adjust our own lives. We were already agonizing over how we’d tell our three teenagers that they had another sibling.

The next morning, I used the drug store’s photograph copying computer to make collages of old and recent pictures. They included pictures of my husband and me from our wedding (he was just a little younger than her age now when we were married), pictures of David by himself, and pictures of our children. I hand wrote little phrase bubbles for the photos on yellow sticky notes in perfect Palmer method and placed them carefully into the mailbox in a neatly addressed brown envelope, along with a handwritten note from David. I was surprised when David asked to see what photographs I had chosen for the collages before I had an opportunity to show them to him. He seemed to want to impress her, as a man will do with any new woman in his life. Everything had to be perfect. And that’s what had come into our lives– a new woman– not the child emblazoned in memory. I felt challenged.

I sat at my desk and wrote several disconnected email notes to Kerri, sharing information about her birth family and her ancestors. I had known several generations and felt I could be the most objective in relaying family traits, characteristics, and personalities. I wrote a chronologically complete family medical history, as much as I knew. I wrote little vignettes about each of my children, her half-siblings. I penned a couple of long notes, carefully describing the man with whom I had spent my life with– the same man she had never known but to whom she was genetically connected. Suddenly, as though I’d had the wind knocked out of me, I gasped for air– I realized that I was the only one about whom she didn’t care. I was the only one without the common denominator. I felt cold and isolated. The more I tried to participate, the more disappointed and lonely I felt. I didn’t belong to the secret society. Yet, at the same time, my arms ached to hold the child, a physical manifestation of the man with whom I’d built my life.

Isolation

That night in bed: “David?”
He responded, “Mmmmm. . .?”
“I feel like I want to crawl inside you and just be with you.”
He huffed a low laugh. “Like an alien?”
“Yes.” I felt sadly disappointed with his analogy. “Like an alien.”

That’s exactly how I felt. Like an alien. And I thought that, by crawling inside him, I could be a part of him, like the others.

* * *
A week passed. Dressed daily in the same flannel shirt, a hand-me-down from my husband, and faded stretch pants punctuated with bulky socks, I was paralyzed. Together we had waited twenty years for our family to be complete; I had expected she’d accept all of us. I secretly took time off from work as I attempted to assimilate my subjective feelings with what I objectively sensed to be a better response. Although I told myself my isolation was self-inflicted, my notes went unanswered, my photos only acknowledged to the one who hadn’t sent them.

Because David worked long hours, they emailed during the week. As questions were answered, more questions seemed to surface. Although David was patient, I became annoyed.

“How much does she need to know? Why does she want to know THAT?”

David asked me to try to put myself in her position, which I did, but I was having trouble understanding.

When Kerri thanked him for the photos and the vignettes, David asked her if she “saw herself in any of those people.” Anticipating an animated response, he was surprised with a flat “Not really.”

Most of the questions involved discrepancies. Kerri wondered why Kathy would tell her that David had no knowledge of her, or why she would say that he had moved to New York and there was no point in looking for him as she’d never find him there. He and Kathy had not seen each other since the train ride. He was sure she had no knowledge of him after that. As they corresponded, they discovered that dates didn’t match. His age was not the same as had been documented on her papers. Kerri sent photographs and, although we stretched to find a match for her features, even with distant relatives, they didn’t look alike. They didn’t act alike. They didn’t think alike. Kerri suggested that they undergo DNA testing “just to be sure,” to which David responded, “You watch too many talk shows on TV.” Secretly, he had his doubts too, but we had decided to keep those thoughts to ourselves– at least for the time being. Emotions were already running rampant, and David felt that he should take responsibility now for his irresponsibility long ago.

Revelation

Kerri continued to meet with Kathy, who evaded any conversation about David, not aware that Kerri had located him. Together, we brainstormed possible reasons why she wouldn’t talk about him with Kerri. She would, at each meeting, tell Kerri that she would “talk about it the next time we meet.” Finally, Kerri told her birth mother that she had found David, and Kathy reluctantly surprised her by announcing that David wasn’t the birth father. She admitted having a “thing” with a married man, a man whose last name she insists she does not know, and this new-found daughter is a nearly perfect copy of her other lover.

Although it was Kathy who had insisted that he accompany her to the adoption agency and terminate his rights, it was also she who had provided his name and birth date so that Kerri could conduct her search– and it was also she who fabricated the inconsistencies that finally led to David’s broken heart as he lost his daughter for the second time.

Because Kathy told Kerri that David was a drug addict and a loser, had a common last name, and had moved to New York, she was confident that Kerri would never find him. Instead, Kerri was obviously surprised to find a successful family man twenty miles away who had been awaiting her phone call for twenty-five years. Kathy had conveniently blamed a young man whose thinking had been clouded by raging hormones and naivete.

With the latest phone call and this revelation, my isolation turned to anger, but then quickly returned to alienation as David told me: “It’s my problem, not yours. It’s not for you to worry about.”

I turned to stone. Nothing I should worry about? He was not the only one who had waited so many years for the child to find us. I had prepared myself to welcome her into my life as well– our life– as any part of David would certainly be a part of me. Just as he had felt about “our” first son, my child, to whom he’d been Dad for the past twenty years.

* * *

Forever Changed

Over the course of a fortnight, my soul imploded. The young stranger had tossed a firecracker into the room that was our peaceful life and then quickly ran away, calling out behind her (but not to me): “It’s not my fault. I didn’t know. I really didn’t want to tell you.” I felt bloodless, limp, and eviscerated. We had shared some of our most private secrets with this stranger.

* * *
No, not a firecracker, but rather an Oklahoma Bombing had taken place in the structure of our life together. Kerri flew out of our lives eleven days after she had parachuted in. We had openly welcomed her. The facade of our carefully constructed palace was blown away by Kathy’s acts of emotional violence, exposing floor after floor of our existence, stripped naked for strangers to study. Every closet, every storage space, every commode was now in full view of the terrorist and her other victims. Ragged shards of our most private feelings– Anticipation, Excitement, Joy, Fear, Isolation, Loneliness, Anger– and Love– lay strewn from the wreckage. And, our bruised and bleeding hearts were carried out on stretchers into the cold Chicago winter. We are innocent victims of this bombing; David was simply, twenty-five years ago, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and became a convenient scapegoat for Kathy. His daughter was taken twice from him– from us– and the circumstances do not allow us to mourn our loss. There is no hastily erected chain-link fence surrounding the devastation where the sympathetic can leave flowers and notes of condolence.

Because of the experience, we reinforced our foundation and quickly rebuilt. We retreated into the comfort of our relationship once again. We have memories together; we have a history. We’ve picked up the bricks. But, we are changed, just as a renovation is never the same as the original. We now have Winter Hearts.

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Sonia Billadeau


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