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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Grace and Dignity, and the Original Birth Certificate

My mom's sister Jo (my aunt) and me in Long Beach Island two weeks ago.
A note from Jenn, Susan's daughter (Susan passed away on April 7th after an 8-month battle with melanoma, and 7 months after reuniting with her sisters Carol and Jo after a lifetime apart): The post below was written by Jo, my mom's younger sister, and my aunt. Just a mere year ago, due to the closed adoption system that did not allow my mom access to her original birth certificate, my mom still did not know that Jo existed (she also, once again due to the closed adoption system, did not know that melanoma ran in her family). Jo, too, did not know about my mom, though she said she had "always wondered" if another sibling was out there because of something her grandmother once said. She had no way to find my mother, however, and no real proof that she existed. Once she did find that proof (a "certificate of birth" that happened to fall out of a folder at her mother's house two weeks before she and Carol received our letter about my mom), she still had no way of finding my mother, as the name on that certificate (Mary Williams) and my mother's name (Susan Thomson) were completely different. The only reason they (and we) were able to find each other was that a miracle occurred.
But it was a miracle made possible, in part, by another adoptee's tragedy.  I was prompted to send a letter to my mom's sister Carol (my mom had her name and address after finding it by accident when searching for her mother's obituary two years before) when a friend's mom who had just found out about my mom's diagnosis, and subsequently read her blog and learned she was adopted, wrote that my friend's father, who had passed away when my friend was very young, "was adopted ... his family came looking for him a few months after he passed away." Will more adoptees be able to find their original families because of what my mom went through? I hope so. But I also hope that one day no adoptees will be forced into these tragic situations, because all will have unfettered access to that simple piece of paper, the original birth certificate. (Adoptee blogger Deanna Shrodes writes about this conundrum beautifully in her latest post: But I digress. Below is the writing of my wonderful aunt Jo.

Just  A Little Grace (a post by Jo, Susan's younger sister)

Win with grace, lose with dignity. These are the words I repeated to my son recently as he competed against his good friend for a vice principal position. I've thought so much recently about those two words, grace and dignity. There was the grace my sister Susan lived her life with and the dignity she fought so hard to keep as cancer weakened her body and claimed her life. And there was the grace with which she advocated for the rights of herself and other adoptees and the dignity with which she treated all those whose paths she crossed.

On April 11th, I was warmly welcomed to the home of my sister's brother-in-law and wife for a gathering of friends and relatives following Susan's funeral. After meeting many of her family members and friends for the first time I stood amongst the crowd feeling slightly awkward, extremely sad, and angry.  Angry that I never knew about her and that it took a miraculous set of circumstances for us to meet. Sad because we only met seven months before her death, and awkward because I was somewhat a stranger amongst her family and friends. I could never have imagined one could feel so lost amongst people to whom you are related to. How unjust that sealed adoption records should prevent the opportunity to know your birth family should you choose to do so. How grossly unjust that anyone should be denied a birth record as my sister was. How deeply detrimental to be denied any access to medical history.

I  stood there wishing Susan were there with her great big personality and warm, loud laughter. For a moment, as I stared blankly into space, I could almost hear her voice, when something made me look up. Standing just a few feet away from me was Susan's granddaughter, looking my way with her piercing blue eyes and beautiful smile. She was  waving her hand in the air and I remember smiling at her and looking behind me to see who she was waving to. We had met only a couple of times before, but never really spoken, so I really didn't think she was waving to me. But then her hand beckoned for me to come closer.

"I can't find Emma, have you seen her?" she said. "No," I replied, and she smiled, running off just as quickly as she had appeared. There she was in a crowd full of familiar family and friends and yet somehow she had singled me out.

When I saw her again, at my sister's summer beach house,  along with Susan's daughters, son-in-law, husband and five other beautiful grandchildren, it was no surprise that this particular  granddaughter and I became fast friends. She drew pictures for me, took an interest in my camera, photographed her mom and me together and, along with her Papa Ty, went kayaking with me. At the end of our kayaking trip she asked me if I wanted to race, and of course I was up for a challenge, so we paddled side by side, very closely, toward the shore; so close in fact that her paddle hit me in the head, at which point we both laughed. She was not deterred!
Genevieve and Jo heading to shore

She won the kayaking race without a problem; competitive just like her Nana. As she was shouting, "I won," she gave me a hug as we posed for a picture. At that moment,  I knew in my heart that I was the one who had really won. Without her even knowing it, this little blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl brought me closer to my sister, and just like a white wave that curls and folds on a summer's day, she pulled me gently toward the shore with grace and let me lose with dignity.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Happy Birthday, Mom

Note: This is another blog by Susan's daughter Jenn. Susan passed away on April 7th after an 8-month battle with melanoma.

Today, July 9th, is my mom's birthday. She would have been 64. She always loved having her birthday in July, saying it was perfect for celebrating outside. She also loved that she received so many fun toys (i.e. recreational equipment) because her birthday was in the summer. For the last ten years or so, we celebrated at the beach with a seafood feast prepared by my husband and my sister Kate's husband. My mom, always an enthusiastic and vociferous appreciator of food, would sit at the head of the table and proclaim, after closing her eyes and shaking her head back and forth with a dramatic "Mmmm!", that everything was "Just delicious!"
Happy Birthday, Mom. Thinking of you with love ... 

Last summer, though, with no hint of the tragedy about to befall us, we celebrated in Madrid, where my mom had generously accompanied me to help care for my three children, ages 9, 7, and 2 at the time, so that I could facilitate an exchange program for 30 of my students. We had no obligations with the students on her birthday, though, so we celebrated first in our apartment with a bowl of potato chips, a plate of olives, and a few cold beers (three of her favorite things) that we bought from the corner supermarket right below us. My dad, who came for the last two weeks of the exchange, was taking a run in Parque Retiro, so it was me, my mom, my mom's dear friend Jill (who stayed with us the whole trip, as her grandson was on the exchange), and Grace, Genevieve, and Joseph. With Los Pitufos (the Smurfs) in Spanish as our background, we talked, laughed, and celebrated my mom. 
In the Madrid apartment last July ... my mom (on the right) and her dear friend Jill

Later in the evening we headed to Plaza Santa Ana ("Ah, la Santa Anita," said the taxi driver when I told him our destination, as though she, the plaza, were an old friend of his), where we ate dinner outdoors while Joseph played on the playground right next to us. The picture printed by the Philadelphia Inquirer in their March story, "NJ bill on adoptees' right to birth certificates advances" (Click here for article) is from that night (the bill was signed, albeit with a compromise, by Governor Christie on May 27th of this year). My mom also posted that picture when sharing her diagnosis with the adoption community last year ("Facing a life-threatening illness and thinking about adoption": Click here to read). In the picture Grace, who was close to her Nana all her life (since her very first breath, actually, as my mom was there when she was born) is kissing her cheek. My mom and I are smiling.

As I try to celebrate my mom today, even as I grieve the loss of her, I can't help thinking of birthdays in a more general sense and the special meaning they take on for adoptees. On my birthday I can reflect on the story of the day I was born (it was Easter, 1977, and my mom had eaten too many jelly beans the night before. My three-year old sister Kate was so distraught over my mom leaving her at the chocolate egg hunt with my dad that she scribbled in purple crayon all over her walls). I can picture the house I was brought home to, too -- a twin house on East Park Avenue in Haddonfield, New Jersey where my family lived for the first ten years of my life. When this past winter my mom shared with me, "It's funny how some memories stick ... I can still clearly remember, about a week after I brought you home from the hospital, three-year old Kate marching into the kitchen with her chubby little legs to announce, very seriously, 'Baby's cryin'," I could picture it exactly. Most importantly, I can picture my mom, and my dad. No one ever tried to block me from knowing who they are, because I am not an adoptee.

Before my mom decided to search for her biological/original parents at the age of 47 (her first cancer scare), she did not speak much about adoption at all, but she did tell me once, "I thought about it a lot when I had both you and Kate, when I realized how deeply connected I was to you already. But of course then life was just so busy ... " After she searched and was told by the adoption agency that her biological/original mother wanted no contact, she told me, "I didn't anticipate how much that would hurt. I guess I had a fantasy of a teenage mother who had loved me deeply giving me up and thinking about me on my birthday each year. To know that no one was doing that ... just hurt." Hurt caused by another human being, often one deeply connected to us, is often a part of life, of course. My mom accepted that. Yet it deeply bothered her, as it should have, that she did not have the right to know the identity of her original mother and contact her herself (so much so that she eventually found her mother on her own and sent her a letter in her own words, which was healing).

My mom with my sister and me when we were young, in the early 80s. She was still years away from searching for her original mother, but she had thought about it.

Mostly, though, my mom and I talked about things other than adoption. In fact we laughed, along with my sister, that we hardly ever talked about anything for more than a minute because the kids were always around, interjecting their urgent and ever-important conversations. This was the case last July, as we celebrated my mom's birthday. I don't remember talking about anything specific that night, though I do remember the happy feeling of being together, walking after dinner for churros and chocolate to Chocolatería San Ginés near Madrid's Plaza Mayor, extending the evening, in that most Spanish of ways, as long as it would go.

Time, though, keeps bull-dozing along, and eventually we had to go home. Eight days after my mom's birthday we left Spain, and on the plane ride home, several hours in, I remember looking down the row of seats to see my mom, sleeping, and thinking, "What would I ever do without her?"

My mom's sister Jo, however, helped me to see this question in a different way when she wrote me, Kate, and my dad in the beginning of June: "I have read them [your mom's writings] many times over. I think for every memory you have and  miss I am sad for  those that I might have had. Life sure is a mystery sometimes."

Mom, if life were a Spanish evening we would all be walking with you now to the Chocolatería. Those who loved you over years and years and those who loved you briefly, but truly, would be at your side. Happy Birthday, we would sing, and you would know that you were  thought about with love, love as deep as an ocean -- deeper, even-- each year on your birthday forever.

In Madrid last summer (above). I love the way my mom has her arm around me in this photo. We are standing in front of a plaque for the Battle of the 2nd of May, which is the basis of one of Goya's most famous paintings, though my favorite is "The Third of May," shown above. My mom loved this painting when she saw it, too. I think being an adoptee led her to be more sensitive to anyone whose rights were being trampled.

Happy Birthday, Nana.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Joseph, My Mom, and Unanswered Questions

Joseph in May. He has grown up so much since September.

This is another post by Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan passed away on April 7th after an 8-month battle with melanoma. 

 This Thursday was my son Joseph's last day of school until next year, and we celebrated by bringing in fruit for the class and letting his teachers know how thankful we are. When I picked him up he was sitting happily with his friends, laughing and eating his snack, and though he was happy to see me, he wasn't in any hurry to leave.

What a difference since September, when I first brought Joseph to Kindercare, which is right across the street from where I teach in Philadelphia. He was two then and, because of my mom, had never before had to go to daycare or school. Like my girls, Joseph loved "Nana Days," when my mom brought him to the Discovery Museum or the playground and generally showered him with love. This September, a mere month after my mom's diagnosis with Stage IV melanoma, Joseph started school. He sobbed and clung to my leg when I dropped him off, and when I picked him up afterwards, nearly eight hours later, he was so overcome with emotion that he fell off his chair onto the floor as soon as he saw me and again broke into sobs. "Mommy," he said, and the look on his face was clear: "I didn't know if you were coming back."
Joseph on the first day of school, looking a little nervous.

Of course I was coming back. And as Joseph saw that this was true, day after day, week after week, and as he made friends and played on the playground and grew to love his teachers in the two-year-old classroom (Ms. Wanda, Ms. Stefanie, Ms. Jessica, Ms. Angie), he began to relax and enjoy himself. Eventually he gave me a hug and a kiss goodbye in the morning and ran off to play with his friends.

Joseph at 3 months, when my mom first started caring for him.
None of this is to say that no longer having my mom care for Joseph was not a huge loss, or that her two years of caring for him were not extremely important in his life. I plan to tell Joseph stories about his time with my mom for the rest of his life so that, if he doesn't remember himself, he will at least know. He will know how much he was loved, and what sacrifices were made for him. And another thing: none of this is to say that had I not come back, for whatever reason, that Joseph wouldn't have been truly traumatized, regardless of how wonderful his teachers were. And he would have been especially traumatized had all reasons for me not coming back been blocked from him forever. Had all information about me been blocked from him forever. I've been thinking about this lately as I think about the mysteries surrounding my mom's early life because of her adoption. She was three months old when my grandparents took her home. Three months! Who held her during those days and weeks before her new life? Who first saw her smile? Was she loved, spoken to, rocked back to sleep when she cried?

This winter, my mom received a letter from the Children's Home Society of New Jersey, the adoption agency that placed her, in response to a letter she had sent them asking for more information about her life, since she had been reunited with her sisters and her original mother had recently passed away.  What possible reason was left for any secrecy? The agency did send my mom more information about her father, and an older son that he had, but wrote that they could tell her nothing about who cared for her for the first three months of her life. "We could have you speak with a current foster family if you are curious as to what that experience is like," they wrote. That made us laugh.

My mom and dad also received another letter from
the Children's Home Society of New Jersey this
My mom, me, and Joseph in Parque Retiro, Madrid, in July 2013.
winter, one in response to their letter urging the agency to support S873/A1259, or the Adoptees Birthright Bill (signed into law in NJ in May) which will allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates, or OBCs. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Child Welfare League of America, among many, many other groups and institutions, support legislation such as this. Still: "We will take no position on the bill," the agency wrote to my parents.

I must admit that this is as much a mystery to me as the first three months of my mother's life. Why would an institution whose sole goal is to protect children not speak out on behalf of those thousands of children it placed for adoption who had their rights stripped from them? Donna Pressma, President and CEO of the Children's Home Society of Trenton since 1986 even chairs, according to her biography, a committee for the Child Welfare League of America (this one on children with HIV).

There are some other mysteries for me as well, mysteries I was reminded of as I searched the agency's website for clues to my mom's history, to my history. For instance: Why must an adoptee pay anything in order to receive information about his or her own family history? I knew that my mom paid for the piece of paper with minimal information about her original family (the one we laughed about for its inaccuracies with my mom's sisters this fall) back in 2002, but the prices listed here reminded me how much. $75 for basic information, $200 for a complete background, and $500 for a search, meaning that the agency would attempt to contact an original family member for you. $100 for each additional search (a sibling, a father). $50/hr for a pre-search counseling session. If I remember correctly, for my mom this consisted of someone asking her, "Why do you want to know?" (Eventually, my mother would pay several thousand dollars to an outside source to find her mother on her own so that she could deliver a letter to her "in her own voice," something I believe that is important for all adoptees to be able to do).

Also: why did my mom's original mother ever have to pay anything to the adoption agency? This winter my mom's sister Jo gave us a letter her mother had kept all these years about just this. Apparently she had fallen behind on payments but finally caught up, and a letter was sent to acknowledge this.  My mother's parents also paid a lot of money to finalize her adoption. I know diapers and formula are expensive, but ... well, it just doesn't add up.

Joseph at 2 months. So much had already happened in his life. Where and with whom was my mom at this age?
Children's Home Society of New Jersey, if you are reading, let me say that it seems, from your website, that you do some wonderful work for children. You wrote to my mom that you read her letters with "great compassion," and indeed much of your work does seem to be infused with this compassion. Yet how can compassion for adopted children stop once they become adults and begin advocating for their rights? Where is the compassion in charging them $500 simply to connect them to the parent or parents that you had a part in separating them from? And why can't we know where my mom was for the first three months of her life? Do those records not exist?

Faced with the losses tied up in sealed-records adoption, one can become overwhelmed. Faced with any loss, actually, one can become overwhelmed. I know that's how I was feeling last September when I picked up Joseph, sobbing, from the floor after his first day of school. Back in the car, once he was safely buckled, I let the feelings sink in. What I had already lost with my mom's diagnosis. What I might lose. Mom.

It was then, when I was feeling most lost, that the phone rang. I didn't recognize the number, but something made me pick it up. Joseph, unusually, sat quiet in the back.

"Hello, this is Jenn," I said.

"Jenn? Jenn Gentlesk?" spoke a sweet, yet inquisitive, and perhaps slightly nervous voice.


"I received your letter today, your letter you sent by certified mail, the one about your mom, Susan Perry ... I'm ... her sister." Carol then explained that my mom had another, younger sister (Jo), and that they both had been frantically searching for my mom for two weeks, ever since Jo had accidentally found a birth record in her mother's apartment.

I can't speak for my mom, but I know that at this moment in my life, when I was feeling a bit as though God had dropped me off at daycare and was never coming back, to hear "We were frantically searching for you," and then to be found, was nothing less than miraculous. I am grateful, and humbled, to have been touched by this miracle. It has sustained me through this incredibly difficult year. And I'm hoping that, like Joseph at his school, each day going forward will be a little easier for me. That each day I'll find some joy.

Yet is shouldn't take a miracle (or thousands of dollars) for people who are related to each other by blood to find each other. There are enough mysteries and tragedies in life that we can't do anything about and need true miracles for. As I reflect on this year -- the beautiful reunion with my mom's sisters, the devastating loss of my mom -- I know there are some questions that I'll never be able to answer. But others, well, I'm going to keep searching until I find what I'm looking for ... I'm going to search for answers for my mom.
My mom and Joseph in Spain last summer. She would hate how she looked in this picture (she had just woken up on our first day in the country, and was jet-lagged from our day of travel), but I love how her hand is on Joseph's leg, and how happy they look just sitting together.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Adoption, Catholics, and Moral Responsibility

Daughter Genevieve at her First Holy Communion in May. Innocent and sweet. She has helped remind me of the beauty of faith, especially in a child, as I struggle with my feelings about the Catholic church's role in blocking adoption reform.

(This is another post from Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan passed away on April 7th after an 8 month battle with melanoma)

I arrived home this afternoon to find the Catholic Star Herald, the official publication of the Camden Diocese, along with my other mail. I don't always have a chance to look through this paper, but something made me open it today. Because Catholic groups (The Catholic Conference, certain Right to Life groups, the Knights of Columbus) have been among the most outspoken against adoption reform, which would allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates, and because my own Catholic faith is important to me, I am always holding my breath, slightly, when I encounter public expressions of the Catholic faith. My mom, an adoptee, shined the light on adoption for me, and I will never be the same. I cannot be silent now in the face of what I know to be untrue. Sealed records are a violation of the adoptees' basic rights as a human being, pure and simple, and they should not exist, anywhere.

Sealed records have also been used to perpetrate and hide horrible crimes over the past century, including Spain's stolen baby scandal (,8599,2112003,00.html),  Argentina's stolen baby scandal (, and, yes, right here in our back yard, the United States' stolen baby scandal ( Though I have not yet seen the movie Philomena, I hear that this, too, shows the scandal of sealed records, and the role of the Catholic church in promoting them. Spanish journalist Natalia Junquera, who led the newspaper El País' investigation of the baby thefts in that country, said of those who facilitated illegal adoptions: "They honestly thought they were doing the right thing." As difficult as it is to accept, I do believe that there are some who fight against adoption reform who honestly think they are doing the right thing. It's time to stop. Sealed records have never been, nor will they ever be, "the right thing."

After opening the Catholic Star Herald this afternoon I first came across a lovely reflection by Jean Denton called "Discovering God through Christ-like actions," which ended, "When we live the way of the Christ, others discover God." Amen. Two pages later, though, my heart stopped when I saw the commentary on S873/A1259, a bill to open adoption birth records in New Jersey, by Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference: "Adoption law and moral responsibility." Moral responsibility, indeed. Every Catholic, every human being, does have a moral responsibility to consider the effects of unjust laws sealing adoptees' true identities from them forever. This is partly about getting medical information, yes (my mom died from melanoma, which ran in her family, which she did not know, despite her attempts to gain "full access" to her family medical history), but it is also about more than that. It is about the state (or any institution, including the Catholic church) not getting involved in blocking any human being's knowledge of his or her origins. It is about finally reforming adoption to be, first and foremost, about the welfare of the adoptee, the "voiceless party," the innocent child. Thousands of these innocent children, now grown up, have told us what they need (access to their original birth certificates without ever having to go to court to show "good cause"), and that must be respected. And please, leave those adoptees who have said they don't feel the need to search for their birth parents out of it. Had you spoken with my mom at age 30, she would have told you the same thing. But she changed, and when she realized she had no rights, she became an activist. This is the most personal of personal decisions. As my adoptee friend told me, "Searching is the most vulnerable you will ever be." We have a moral obligation to protect the vulnerable.

Which brings me to the claim that sealed records help to protect the vulnerable unborn -- the future adoptee -- from abortion. This argument is false. And there are many people fighting for adoption reform who, despite their own pain, their own lack of rights, wouldn't be in this movement if the argument weren't false. Some evidence even points to the idea that abortions increase when records are sealed because mothers cannot face the pain of a future forever locked away from their child. Certainly, states that have NEVER sealed records (Kansas, Alaska), and those that have passed adoption reform allowing adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates show that these fears are completely unfounded (abortion rates have either dropped, or not been affected). The claim, "Adoption, not Abortion!" (as posted on the Knights of Columbus website) is misleading, divisive, and hurtful. Choose Life! (We'll help you!) would be more truthful, more responsible, and more loving.

Yes, there is a moral responsibility when it comes to Catholics and adoption, but the commentary in this week's Catholic Star Herald is hugely misleading as to what that is. "Thousands of birth mothers placed their children for adoption, relying on the church's assurance of their privacy," writes Brannigan, "...we have a two-part moral obligation to ... establish a robust educational campaign to alert birth parents that New Jersey's law has been changed ... and [we] must make available counseling and other services for birth parents who will be impacted by this significant change in law ...People - mostly mothers - will be vulnerable because of this change in our long-established law."  In states that have passed adoption reform allowing for adult access to the original birth certificate, fewer than 1% of birth/original mothers have filed 'no contact' preferences, so we are hardly talking about thousands of women here. And, in the words of another adoption rights blogger, the women who "don't want to be found" are usually "scarred and scared" -- often from the shame heaped upon them for being unwed and pregnant, and then from the trauma of giving away their child. So yes, counseling might be a good idea, but not in the way it was presented in this commentary. The majority of birth/original mothers want to be found. Many of them have testified on behalf of adoption reform. Those who are scared and scarred (such as my mom's original mother) will not suffer by being contacted by their children. A good counselor would help them realize that.

And one more thing. Brannigan also writes, "Over the years, NJCC [the New Jersey Catholic Conference] message was consistent." This is not true. Those fighting adoption reform these days say they are doing so on behalf of the birth mother, but in the past they argued that it was for the benefit of the adopted child (to protect him/her from the stigma of illegitimacy) and for the adoptive parents (to protect them from interference from the birth parents). The message has changed through the years.

This year, as my mom, a longtime advocate for adoption reform, suffered and died while this public campaign was fought, I was saddened that the faith I needed to turn to for comfort was tainted for me by outspoken members who spoke out against reform. But my faith is strong, and the church community I am a part of is loving and beautiful. Still, it was a struggle. Often at night, cut to the core by the impending loss of my mom, I would turn to the Gospels to try to find the comfort I longed for.  I craved miracle stories, healings, signs of God's love, but I opened, again and again, to Matthew 23: the denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus, speaking to the crowds and to his disciples, says: "Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. They tie up heavy burdens [hard to carry] and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them." Jesus then has some choice, harsh words for the "hypocrites," and all winter and early spring I wondered what comfort there was in that harshness.

Reading my mom's diary in her closet.
Ultimately, it was my mom's words that showed me that comfort. In the months leading up to her death, I was also preparing my daughter Genevieve for her First Holy Communion. She had retreats and classes each week, and each time I dropped her off, or attended with her, I struggled with my feelings. I did not want to betray my mom, or contribute in any way to the suffering of others (by supporting, through my presence or my donations, opponents of adoptee reform).  But I also saw in Genevieve's retreats, in her devoted teacher, and in the innocent, trusting faces of her entire class, the beauty of the church. The week before Genevieve's First Communion, just three weeks after my mom's death, my sister and I met at my mom and dad's house to go through some of my mom's things. Our hearts ached as we went through her t-shirts, her socks, her beloved bathing suits. After an hour or so, her closet nearly empty, we decided to take a break. It was then that I came across her diary from 1963. She had been 13 years old then. I sat down on her closet floor and read. Descriptions of ice-skating, dancing, visiting her Nana ... I smiled even as my heart broke, missing her. Her love of life, of family, was so clearly there. The entry for Sunday, January 6th, however surprised me. "This morning I took my first communion as I joined my church just before Christmas. To me, it was a very meaningful service and reminded me of Christ's presence with us always. I know that it is an experience I shall never forget." I could almost hear my mom laughing at this, remembering her story about the first time she doubted her faith, when a Sunday school teacher explained to her that Mary was just floating around on a cloud, looking over them, literally. But I also felt its deep sincerity. "It sounds like a boring day but really it was wonderful," she wrote. Her belief in God was real, tender, and sweet. Much like Genevieve's. It was only later that the Scribes and Pharisees got in the way (and I am not talking about that poor, well-meaning Sunday school teacher who told that story. I've said some ridiculous things myself, I'm sure).
"It sounds like a boring day but really it was wonderful"

My mom was able to make peace with her God, and she loved the women's prison ministry she was a part of for many years, but she was never quite able to shake her distrust of the "institution" of the church, which so often seemed to do exactly the opposite of what Jesus preached. She also saw what the institution of adoption, supposedly set up for her benefit, did to her and others, and she said a simple, "No thank you." I respect her for that, and I ask that all well-meaning Catholics, including those who have been outspoken against adoption reform, do her the honor of at least considering, or reconsidering, their views. You might even say we have a moral obligation to do so.

Sweet Genevieve opening the necklace we gave her for her First Holy Communion.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Simple Piece of Paper: Adult Adoptees Access to Original Birth Certificates

Tomorrow, May 7th, marks one month since my mom, Susan Perry, passed away from melanoma. She was diagnosed in July.  This weekend, for Mother's Day, my dad, my sister, and I are going to the beach together for the first time without her.  We know it will be hard.  Our families our joining us Saturday evening, and we'll have breakfast together, at the house, on Sunday.  Sunday is also the day that filmmaker Jean Strauss' documentary "A Simple Piece of Paper" debuts around the country on PBS.  As New Jersey looks forward to secrecy-free adoptions starting in 2017 and Pennsylvania awaits (hopefully) the passage of HB162, an unrestricted access bill, and as we mourn the loss of my mom, an adoptee, I am pleased to share the words of Jean Strauss about the movie and my mom.

My mom roller-blading with my oldest daughter last spring. It is hard to believe she is no longer here. I will continue to honor her memory by speaking out for adoptees' rights, and I am touched that others are doing so in her name as well. #HonorSusanPerry
By Jean Strauss, director of the documentary A Simple Piece of Paper:
Last June, as I was filming testimony of NJ-CARE members during an Assembly hearing, my primary camera failed. I was filming Susan Perry at the time, and I remember thinking – well, New Jersey isn’t going to pass access legislation while Governor Christie is in office, and Susan Perry is one of the most important voices out there so there will be lots more opportunities.

Susan taught us many things. One of them is, we can never foresee the future.

Shortly after her testimony, she was diagnosed with fourth stage melanoma.  She passed away less than a month ago.  If she had access to her own birth information, it’s quite possible she would still be alive.

And somehow, Governor Christie is finding his way to ‘yes.’  So in May of 2014, New Jersey will see the light at the end of its very long tunnel of adoption reform.  Secrecy in adoption will end – and Susan Perry will have played a significant role in that.  While I don’t think she’d be happy that adult adopted citizens will have to wait until 2017 to access their birth certificates, or that redactions were a necessary compromise for the passage, I have to believe she would be thrilled about eliminating the secrecy for future generations.  Her advocacy alongside the NJ-CARE team will save lives and provide both equality and dignity for adopted citizens going forward.

Susan and I both had cancer scares mid summer 2013.  Mine ended up just being a lot of tests and good news.  Susan’s experience was far different.  I just reread the last emails between us.  As she cheered the good news I’d received, I kept prodding her to consider doing a film. She would have been a natural filmmaker with her storytelling gifts, with her laugh, and with her wisdom.  But Susan was very clear about what she intended to do with her time: spend it with her husband, her daughters, her grandchildren – and her two newly found sisters, who arrived bearing love and kindness last fall.

Mid winter, I sent Susan and Ty the very first copy of my new film, A Simple Piece of Paper, about adoptee access in Illinois.  I don’t know if Susan felt well enough to even watch a few frames – but it made me feel good to know she was its first audience, in spirit.

The film now goes out into the ‘ether’, as it premieres in twenty states on PBS this week, and will hopefully air in every state in the Union through the summer and fall (see for the schedule).  I wish she were here so we could talk a bit more about about writing with pictures, and the impact films can have.  She had the most important gift of any storyteller: an intense passion coupled with a compassionate mind. I am imaging the films she would have made, stamped with her own special wisdom and wit.  I will always regret that I didn’t capture her testimony last June.  Her words were so powerful.  They will always be powerful…

Monday, April 28, 2014

NJ Adoptees Can Get Birth Certificates in 2017: The Possible for the Perfect

This is Jenn, Susan's daughter, posting again on her behalf. As regular readers of this blog know, Susan passed away April 7th, 2014 after an 8-month battle with melanoma. She was an ardent supporter of S873/A1259, aka the Adoptees Birthright Bill, in NJ, and of adoptees' rights everywhere. Today, it was learned that the bill she long supported will be signed into law by Governor Chris Christie, albeit with a compromise ( Although the bill to be signed into law isn't all we would have liked, we know that in politics you often have to sacrifice the "perfect" in order to achieve the "possible."   Susan (my mom) fought hard to achieve a clean bill in NJ and she knew real change was coming in NJ and around the country, if not in her lifetime.   She would have  been ok with this compromise, recognizing how much it achieves for so many.
My mom, Susan Perry, on a trip to Disney with my family in 2010.

My family and I would like to extend our thanks to those who have worked so hard to bring this long overdue change to adoption law in NJ to fruition..... the NJCARE team, Senators Vitale and Allen, Speaker Prieto, those in the adoption triad around the country who have voiced their support, and those behind the scenes who came to recognize this as the basic civil rights issue it is.   Collectively this message got through to Governor Christie and helped allow him to make concessions that he previously wasn't willing to consider.   All in the adoption triad will benefit.   Hopefully those fighting for change in other states can use the NJ experience to assist their efforts to pass meaningful reform. 
Somehow, it seems fitting to post my dad's words about my mom at her service on April 11th along with this announcement. To me, they captured her perfectly.
My mom and dad in Spain this summer, before her diagnosis.

Good morning.

A few weeks ago when Kate and Jenn were talking with Susan about what they might say at her service, I piped in that I too planned to speak at the service.  Without hesitation Susan, knowing me so well,  responded,  “That’s not a good idea!”  So here I go, defying her for one of the very few times over the past nearly 45 years! 

And it was nearly 45 years ago, in the spring and early summer of 1971 that we would stand on her front steps and practice the lines from ee cummings’ poems that we planned to recite to each other on our wedding day along with the verses from 1st Corinthians 13 that so many millions have spoken over the years. Of course Susan had made the selections!  Most nights we couldn’t get through the lines without one of us cracking up in laughter! My lines were these:  

Here is the deepest secret that nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud 
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life, which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
I carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

Of course then I was confident about just about everything, and Susan would tell you unjustly so.  Now as I reflect on the lines from 1st Corinthians.... “for now we see in a mirror dimly,” I realize that perhaps Susan was right, and I didn’t quite have all the answers!  
Susan and the first family dog, Ranger
But I do now see some things “face to face”.... and find for the first time a wonderful connection between the words in Corinthians, " faith, hope, and love, these three abide, and the greatest of these is love,” and the lines in cummings' poem.   For faith, hope, and love are all emotions of the heart..... they are just there; you feel them or you don’t.    Susan and I worked hard to come to an understanding of our faith, as elusive as that often was for us, and over these past eight months we all were challenged by a hope that would keep sneaking into our hearts despite all evidence to the contrary.   And of course love, the emotion that welled up in our hearts all those many years ago, and has only deepened as we shared our life together.  

Together.... Susan and I did just about everything together.... and from the start, it was she who introduced me to just about everything we did:  

Water skiing, for it was watching her in the water trying to teach my brother Tom how to ski (one of the few things in her life she wasn’t successful achieving!) that the spark of love first was felt in my heart,

Tennis, and as best she could, teaching me how to hit a backhand. Did you know she had a great backhand?  One of my favorite things was to just be on the court working on our strokes together. And, of course, we could never leave until Susan felt she had hit the perfect stroke or left me sprawling at the net reaching for her passing shot, 

Snow skiing,  and the wonderful feeling of carving a turn in soft powder,  
Sailing, the joy of being up on a plane in our little sunfish flying across the bay, just the two of us;
After "Splash Mountain" in Disney together

Kayaking around the island at the end of our cove, stopping to swim in the same spot where we had both grown up swimming,

Biking to both ends of LBI and for many years our bike trip from Haddonfield to the shore, 

Gardening, a joy she found with the woodland garden at our new home, and at the beach house.   Already I am struggling to recall which pots go in which location.   

And just this past summer, the new adventure of stand up paddle boarding.  

And though it will be tough to see Susan’s skis in the closet, her bike, kayak, and sunfish in the garage, her tennis racket..... all of these things, because of her,  Kate and Jenn have taken up and now Grace, Emma, Genevieve, Eddie, Tyson, and Joseph also have come to learn from their Nana.   For it was Susan who taught Grace and Genevieve how to ski,  Susan who held their hands to build courage going in the surf,  Susan who cheered as they rode their first waves.  
Susan with the girls in LBI
Susan was a voracious reader, so it is no wonder that Emma is working her way through her 5th Harry Potter book.   And together Susan and Genevieve worked on drawing, an activity Susan turned to when she no longer could be physically active.   

When Susan took care of Grace, Genevieve, and most recently Joseph several days each week, they would exclaim in joy, “It’s a Nana Day!”   And, of course that meant going to Nana’s house..... a term that for a time made me feel somewhat slighted.   But of course  I understood well what they meant and why they said it that way.  And the same was true when all 6 of them would say, “We’re going to Nana’s beach house!”   Poppa Ty just happened to be another guest at Nana’s houses.

So, where do I turn knowing I have lost my best friend?

The answer is elusive, but I will start where Susan has lead me, saying : our grandchildren keep us looking forward and not backwards in time.  

This week I asked Grace and Emma, having known their Nana the longest of our grandchildren, to let me know what stuck out in their minds most vividly about her.  It only took a minute. Grace said, “ Nana always liked to boogie board.  She claimed she was the best even though secretly she knew she was not.  Even though sometimes she would mess up, she would always try again until she got it just right.  Nana especially loved it when her grandchildren did it with her.  She always claimed that she got the best rides even if it only lasted for 5 seconds.  Sometimes she would go deep in the water to get the best rides.  Nana always said that her back was sore after doing it, yet she kept doing it because she was determined and her love for the ocean was strong.”   
All six grandchildren in 2011. They loved their Nana fiercely, and she loved them.

And Emma added: “Nana had the best laugh.  She always giggled with us about her past, and when she was lying in her bed, she could not talk much but she laughed at our stories.  Nana had a great sense of humor.  Nana literally might have had the best and loudest laugh on the planet.   She had the habit of laughing at herself, even when no one else did.   We all loved Nana terribly and always will.”

We have a tradition in the summer of extending each day by gathering on the beach, getting in a twilight swim and having a glass of wine as the sun sets with those we love the most circled around us.  These were some of our favorite times together.
So, I will take to heart Susan’s words to me saying that she knew I will be OK without her.   She has been right about every important thing in our life together, so I will trust that with time I will see she is right about this too. 

 Susan, I say thank you,  for I will carry your heart, with faith, hope, and an unending love, I will carry it in my heart forever.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Justice for My Mom and All Adoptees

Another post by Susan’s daughter, Jenn. Susan passed away on April 7th, 2014, after an 8-month battle with melanoma. She was an ardent supporter of S873/A1259, aka the Adoptees Birthright Bill, now awaiting Governor Christie’s signature in New Jersey.
My family in San Francisco in 2001, visiting Kate, who was in her last year of medical school at UCSF at the time. As a doctor, my sister has always advocated for my mom having full access to her medical records. In 1997, because my mom didn't, she was blocked from a clinical trial after being diagnosed with Stage II melanoma. Intermediaries (proposed as a "compromise" by those who oppose the Adoptees Birthright Bill) do not work, and are insulting to adoptees. 

Earlier this week during a morning class, one of my students, Saaya, proclaimed suddenly, “It’s snowing!” We all looked to the windows. Indeed, gentle white flakes fell softly just outside. Snowing in Philadelphia in April? With surprise, I went to the window and looked up, then down. It took a moment – after all, it had been a very snowy winter -- but my mind finally saw what was really happening: white and light pink flowers, from the trees around the corner, were blowing in the wind. We had all been so sure, even in our surprise, that it was snow. But it was not. 

The image stuck with me. Sometimes in life we need to look closely, and not accept our first impressions, in order to see the truth. 

I wish mightily that the opponents of the Adoptees Birthright Bill in New Jersey would look closely at their own arguments and realize that they are gravely mistaken, to the peril of their own causes, and certainly to the great peril of those in the adoption triad. In New Jersey, a coalition of adoptees, original (biological) parents, and adoptive parents have fought for years for the end of sealed records, an archaic practice that does great damage to thousands of people in New Jersey, and millions of people throughout the United States. Governor Chris Christie has the chance to ameliorate this injustice by signing the Adoptees Birthright Bill now on his desk.  He and those who oppose this bill can best serve those who live adoption by recognizing what the Philadelphia Inquirer editorialized today saying: “The measure strikes the right balance: It enables adoptees to explore their pasts but preserves birth parents’ right to privacy despite evidence that most won’t insist on remaining anonymous.”
My mom and dad after their wedding in 1971. I look so much like my mom in this picture that when my daughter saw it she said, "Who's that man with you, mom?" When my mom reunited with her sisters this September, they came to her house with boxes of pictures, and we marveled at the resemblances.
The opponents are the NJ ACLU, the New Jersey Bar Association, New Jersey Right to Life, the National Council for Adoption, and the NJ Catholic Conference. Are you affiliated with any of these organizations? If so, please, please keep reading. And please work to help the leaders in those organizations to see the truth. Right now, they are seeing snow  -- and, in fact, spreading alarm about a giant, crippling “snowstorm” -- for flowers. 

One night in early March, when I had just returned home after spending the evening lying next to my mom in her bed, my heart heavy with the impending loss, and with how my mom was suffering, I decided to search for information on Marie Tasy, the director of NJ Right to Life, who had testified against this bill. Somehow I thought that if I wrote her a letter explaining what blocking the Adoptees Birthright Bill was truly doing to adoptees, and trying, once again, to get her to see that blocking this law did NOTHING, nothing at all, to convince women in crisis pregnancies to carry their pregnancies to term, as she erroneously believed, then maybe she would change her mind. As I said in the letter, I was praying for a miracle, and I continue to pray for that miracle. Of course, I also prayed for a miracle for my mom, and I know sometimes we must live with cancer that cannot be cured, or people who will not reconsider their deeply held (yet false) beliefs. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to cure cancer (or pray for a miracle), or try to help those who are wrong see the errors in their thinking. Right now, each time they show up at a hearing or post something online about opposing this bill, each time they refuse to listen to the compassionate reasoning of those who live adoption, it feels akin to each devastating CT Scan we got back over the last 8 months, showing us that my mom’s cancer was not responding to treatment.   

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We’re talking about people here, and people who, if they listen, could respond. They could change.  And the time for change is now....not next year or beyond.   Justice delayed is justice denied.   
My mom and me skiing, early 1980s. Later, she would teach my girls to ski as well. She was an incredible mom, and an incredible person. She never should have had to go through what she did to find her original family. No adoptee should.

That night in March, as I searched for how to send Marie Tasy of NJ Right to Life a letter, I came across a blog post written by Deborah Jacobs, Executive Director of the ACLU-NJ (Blue Jersey: Strange Bedfellows (and Pillowtalk) in Trenton) where she described testifying alongside Tasy against the Adoptees Rights Bill that Governor Christie conditionally vetoed in 2011 (it was similar to the current bill). She described this bill as a “hot, messy sausage,” claiming that by allowing adult adoptees to receive their original birth certificates “the privacy rights of birth mothers who do not wish to have their names revealed [would be compromised].”  Of course this is also what NJ Right to Life argues. The letter they urge their followers to send Governor Christie reads, in part, “S873/A1259 does not contain adequate protections for birth parents who placed children for adoption in the past and want continued anonymity. It also takes away the option of anonymity in future adoptions for women in crisis pregnancies who may only consider adoption if they can be guaranteed confidentiality.”

Privacy, confidentiality … there is no one who understands the desire for this better than adoptees, who, if they care to know the most private and confidential aspect of their lives (their own births! their own family history!) are forced to appeal to a complete stranger (the adoption agency, the intermediary, the state) to gain access. Adoptees are no danger to the “confidentiality” of an original (birth) parent. As my mom often said, why is an “intermediary” contacting an original birth parent any less intrusive then an adult adoptee doing so? Adoptees aren’t looking to take out full-page newspaper ads announcing the identity of their original parents to the world. They simply want, and need, the truth for themselves. 

My mom sledding with Genevieve and Eddie several years ago. She loved having fun with them, and they adored her.

Aside from that, I am highly skeptical of any agency today that says it cares about a woman in a crisis pregnancy that simultaneously assures her that she could, or should, remain completely anonymous for life from the child she brings into this world (or that this would be good for her). In today’s day and age, especially, with social media, any lifetime guarantee of anonymity is simply not true. And any agency that tells a woman this is possible, or that tells her she can “have a baby and forget about it” is not presenting her with the full truth. Adoptees who want to know who their original parents are must jump through hoops and spend large amounts of money to do so, but they often find their parents. And they do so in ways (Facebook campaigns, for example) that are much less “private” and “confidential” than a simple, direct inquiry from the adoptee herself would be. 

My mom only told my sister and me the details about her conversation with her original mother during these last months of her life, and we are her daughters, who have always talked with her about everything.  That part of her life was so personal, so deeply embedded in her heart, that she was hesitant to share it with even those closest to her. Here is what we learned: she took the call in her bedroom, with the door locked, and her hands trembling, because she knew this was most likely the only time in her life she would ever get to talk with her. Though my mom’s mother was not capable of having a relationship with her (a great loss for her, for sure), she was not harmed in any way by this contact. And please remember that she (an original mother who does not want contact with the child she has given up) is in the minority (less than 1%). Great harm is being done to thousands of adoptees in New Jersey, and for what? To protect myths about adoption that simply don’t hold up upon closer inspection.

My mom’s battle with melanoma happened to coincide with one of the longest, coldest winters in recent memory, but she did live to see the first spring flowers emerge.  In this season of flowers, of renewal, let’s honor my mom, and all those who have brought us closer to the window to see the truth of adoption, by passing the Adoptees Birthright Bill in New Jersey. How about it, Governor Christie?