I sat in my car, parked outside her residence—the very house I’d already driven past a dozen times in the past week, hoping I wouldn’t be seen.
My body buzzed with nervousness, a current of energy in my core so intense that I was almost shaking.
It was my 36th birthday, and I was about to meet my birthmother for the first time since I entered the world.
On a tree-shaded street in a pleasant neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, I stepped from my green Ford Explorer and walked to the front door of her modest bungalow. My heart pounded like a great drum, so fiercely and fast that I thought it might burst from my chest. I took a deep breath, straightened my buttoned-down shirt, and summoned all my courage.
Then I knocked on the pale blue door.
A moment later, the door swung open and I was greeted by a tall, slender woman with short silver hair. She stood with poise, a tailored skirt and blouse accenting her shapely form. Angled cheekbones and flawless pale skin framed the dark brown pools of her eyes. At 62 she was strikingly beautiful; in her youth she must have been absolutely stunning.
We have the same eyes, I realized, and something like a cry broke open inside me, catching at the back of my throat. I swallowed hard.
For a long, silent moment we regarded each other across the threshold. For the very first time in my life, I was gazing at a face that resembled my own. I looked like someone … like my birth mother.
Adopted children have no birth story. Our life begins the day we came home from the agency or the orphanage. We never hear how many hours our mother struggled in labor, or that “you have your father’s chin.” Similarly, we don’t possess Uncle Charley’s nose or Grandmother’s temperament. Our true biological heritage remains a mystery, often hidden our entire life.
Trembling on the doorstep as if I was a teenager rather than a grown man, Katherine invited me inside. I stepped into the house, a dozen emotions surging like waves that crashed together within me.
This face-to-face moment was the dramatic conclusion of a lengthy process: an opening of court records, and a subsequent long and frustrated seeking on my part; a paid, assisted search in cooperation with the adoption agency, yielding a notification that she was willing to meet me; an exchange of letters, and finally her suggestion that we have lunch on my upcoming birthday.
My eyes swept the surroundings—trying to somehow glean a sense of this woman who, at 26 brought me into the world and then without ever seeing me, relinquished me to another life. Scanning her porcelain face, the modestly furnished house, I looked for clues about her … about me. Were we alike in any way?
We sat in the simply furnished living room. Similar to my own dwelling, the fireplace mantle and built-in bookcases were decorated with worthless treasures gathered from nature: pinecones, sea shells, unusual rocks of various hues and shapes, bits of driftwood. Also like my own house, there was a total absence of family photos.
“I suppose you want to know something of your birth father,” she said, matter of factly. “You look a bit like him.”
Withholding his name, she spoke briefly of their affair; he a married man who went back to his wife when he learned Katherine had conceived. Telling the story all these years later, her anger still simmered like a blue flame, turned up at the end with a vindictive comment. The enduring bitterness startled me. What a long time to carry a heavy sword, I thought … and yet how long have I denied and wrestled with my own buried anger?
We walked a few blocks to the place she had chosen to have lunch, a community house and garden, and sat across from each other in wooden, high back chairs. Mother and adult son meeting for the first time, our meal together had all the nervousness and awkwardness of a first date.
From the letters exchanged, we already knew the brief, vague outlines of each other’s life: siblings, children, schooling and work in the world. Yet I learned on that first lunch that I was actually the second child she had placed for adoption. Seven years previous to my birth, at 19 she gave up her first child; she knew nothing of him. Her third son, born fourteen years after me, was the child of her current marriage, and she said he was eager to meet me.
Throughout lunch, I was struck by her keen, obvious intelligence and her deliberate, articulate speech. She was friendly but reserved, cool rather than warm. Her straight posture and continuous poise—even the way she held her fork and chewed her food—was a closer sibling to rigidity than to grace.
Those flashing dark eyes regarded me intently, considering each word I spoke and every gesture I made. Measuring me. My sense of her was that of a wild falcon or hawk. Beautiful. Solitary. Seemingly docile on her perch, at any moment she might launch with flashing talons to swoop upon her prey and tear it apart.
We walked through the neighborhood back to her house where, at the front porch, she announced that she wouldn’t be inviting me in. She had other things to do but we could meet again in the future. For a moment, I was taken aback; not simply by her bluntness or the solidity of the boundary, but because it was exactly the sort of thing I would say and do. It was like gazing into a mirror.
We exchanged a light, tentative hug and I walked to my car. She went into the house and closed the door.
I had met my birthmother. The search for her was one of the most significant things I’ve ever done in my life, and today some missing piece of the puzzle inside of me finally snapped into place with a nearly audible click.
I look like someone.
As I drove away, trying to stay afloat in a whirlpool of powerful emotions, what engulfed me was gratitude—not that Katherine and I had finally met, but rather that she had given me up and I had been fortunate enough to be raised by warm-hearted parents who loved and celebrated me.
What a curious, unexpected twist. Such grace.
Warm tears streaming down my face, I found myself awash in gratitude for my adopted mother, departed from the earth, who steered me towards my own soul. What a priceless gift to be loved, to be wanted, to be cherished as one’s own son.
A hundred thousand blessings to everyone who adopts a child—straight, gay, it doesn’t matter; love makes a family.
The May afternoon I met my birthmother was the day that, regardless of bloodline, I rediscovered my true family—the two special people who brought me home from the adoption agency on the day my life really began.
Author: L.R. Heartsong
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: Heaton Johnson at Flickr