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Sunday, November 2, 2014

All Souls Day and My Mom

Another post by Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan passed away in April of 2014 eight months after being diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma and seven months after reuniting with her biological sisters.

This morning, on All Souls Day, a day the Catholic Church has traditionally recognized as one to remember and pray for our loved ones who have died, I cleaned out my dresser and put it out on the curb. Our house was burglarized two weeks ago (You can read about it HERE), and the robbers, in their rush to pull out all the drawers and look for treasures, actually broke them (the dresser was an inexpensive Ikea piece that I bought 12 years ago, when I first got married, so no surprise there, just some annoyance). Among my clothes I found some folded pieces of paper, and I discovered, when I opened them, that they were journal entries from last fall, scribbled just after my mom's diagnosis. I wish I could have kept a journal of every day, of everything that happened and everything that we said to each other from her diagnosis in late July to her death in early April, but even now I know that it was impossible. These scraps of paper are all that I could do. Finding them today, it was enough. Here is the first one, from September 4th, two days before I sent a letter to Carol, her biological sister, and five days before she, Carol, and Joanne, her two sisters, were reunited:
I know I wrote "too" wrong in "Because I asked her to(o)!" That is just a reminder of how crazy last year was, trying to be there for my mom, my own children, and my students. "The whole thing cut me to the core." Yes, it did. 
When my mom's diagnosis was still new, I felt like I couldn't breathe. Sometimes at night I would have to get out of bed and go sit on the front porch to stare at the stars and wonder how we could get out of this. Please, please, please, I would pray. Not my mom. It was during this time that I asked my mom's blessing to write her sister, who didn't know about her (or so we thought). My mom had known about this sister for a few years but hadn't written for many reasons. Her original mother, when my mom had finally found her years before, had told my mom that she was a secret from everyone, even her own daughter, and asked her not to make trouble. My mom was not a trouble maker. Neither was I, really, but the only answer I could discern from all my fervent praying for my mom was Send the letter. It didn't make sense, really, when there were so many other things to be worrying about, but that inner voice, Send the letter, just wouldn't go away. So I sat down late one Thursday night and wrote a letter to my mom's older sister. I tucked in two pictures, one of each of my daughters, to help soften what I imagined would be quite a shock, and included a letter my mom had written herself, several years before, but never sent. I mailed it the next day.
It is strange for me to read "half sister" here, since my mom's older sister, once reunited with her, became a "full sister" in every way, as did her younger sister. 
That weekend, my mom got really sick. My dad called me when I was on the way home from my sister's and asked if I would come over. I did. My mom and I lay in her bed together, the full weight of what she was facing upon us both. We cried a bit, and we laughed, too. Please, please, please, I prayed, Not my mom. I wasn't thinking at all about the letter I had written to her sister. I was thinking about her, and how I wasn't really sure if I could live without her.
This was written two days before talking with my mom's older sister for the first time. "We've been desperately searching for her," my mom's sister told me, when we did talk, explaining that they had found a birth record two weeks before.

Monday was my first day back at school with students, and my first day ever taking Joseph, my then two-year-old, to day care. I had no idea how I was going to get through the day, let alone the week, or the year. And it was at the end of that day, right after I picked up Joseph, that I received the phone call from my mom's older sister (I've written about this day in a previous post -- Click HERE to read). I might as well have had an actual angel come sit down beside me in the car, I felt so comforted. I knew that this was a miracle, and I think that my mom and her sisters did too. They had found each other, despite everything. They had found each other.
The miracle of my mom's reunion with her sisters helped lift my heart, and my mom's heart, at a time when it was needed most. To this day, it helps me keep my faith in a God who is loving and merciful, one who held my mom (and her siblings) in the palm of His hand, and holds her (and them) still. 
My mom was soon speaking with her sisters herself, and they were making the drive down to see her as often as possible. They e-mailed her, too, every single day, with little funny stories, words of encouragement, and words of love. They were my mom's angels. They were mine, too. And I need to hold on to this goodness, this reminder, when I am made crazy by everything else.

Today, on All Souls Day, I did not go to church. I simply couldn't. The Catholic Church has been so adamant in its opposition to allowing adoptees access to their original birth certificates, and so disingenuous in its arguing, that I find it currently impossible to attend, despite the goodness of so many I know who do attend (and usually know nothing about this scandal). Instead, my husband and I ourselves read the story of Mary and Martha mourning the death of their brother Lazarus to our children, and we prayed for the souls of those we have loved. I do not know what we'll do going forward. I can only follow my heart, and my earnest prayers, and do what I believe to be right.

After all of the press about my mom and adoption last year, I have been approached by so many in the adoption triad who have shared their stories with me. I listen very, very carefully. And what I have learned is that most of us would not even survive what birth (original) mothers were made to go through. The very Catholic church that is now using birth mothers as an argument for not allowing adoptees access to their original birth certificates is the one that shamed them (birth mothers) into giving up their children, telling them to "forget about them," in the first place. Women had to pay room and board, and often work, in exchange for their medical care, and then their babies were given away (at a high price) before they ever had a chance to hold them. I cannot begin to imagine the grief.

There is great grief, too, for adoptees, blocked forever from knowing who this mother was. I saw this clearly enough with my own mom, even as she loved and cherished her own adoptive parents. And I know that there is often grief for adoptive parents, before the adoption, as they deal with the excruciating pain of miscarriages and infertility. Please, please, please, we have all prayed at one time, our hearts filled with grief. Sometimes, it feels as if there is no answer. Sometimes, we wonder where God could be. I do too. But I have had it confirmed in my heart, in the deepest seat of my soul, that a God of mercy, and tenderness, and love, and TRUTH, does exist beneath the madness, of which I can still make no sense. In the face of great grief, love and truth are the only answer. Secrecy, shame, and fear are not. Don't you agree, dear Catholic Church? For you are worth so much more to me than an Ikea bedroom dresser, and I would rather not take you to the curb. But if I must choose between Love and Truth and you, I will choose Love and Truth, for that, of course, is God.

My Ikea dresser on the curb

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Good Guys and Bad Guys in Adoption

Joseph: "Am I a good guy or a bad guy?"
Another post by Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan passed away in April, 2014, 8 months after being diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma and 7 months after meeting her biological sisters for the first time.  

My three year old son, Joseph, gave me a kiss the other morning and said, "I'm not a bad guy, right, Mommy?" His question surprised me. "Of course you're not," I told him, "You're a good guy." Joseph, who loves superheroes so much that he owns both a Spiderman and a Superman costume, takes these matters seriously. In the car a bit later, I realized where his question had come from, though. The night before, this "good guy" had gotten angry (maybe rightfully so) at his sister and bitten her (not rightfully so). In her anger, she yelled, "No! You're bad!"

We had a little talk with Joseph's sister that night about the difference between doing something bad and being bad, and the need to differentiate between the two when talking to her three-year-old brother, but the incident, along with Joseph's question the next morning, got me thinking again about the recently released film The Box Trolls, which I saw with the girls last weekend, and which plays with this question as well."Who am I?" Eggs, the main character, an orphaned boy raised by underground cave-dwelling trash collectors, asks at one point. The one true bad guy in the movie, Archibald Snatcher, never asks himself this question, of course, but he does take great pains to disguise himself so that others don't know who he is. What was most interesting to me, though, and most similar to Joseph's incident with his sister, was that the men who helped Archibald Snatcher in the movie did so because they thought they were doing, and being, good. "We are the good guys, right?" they ask at one point.

The Box Trolls shows the importance of LISTENING to those children
who find the courage to tell their own stories. 
Oh how I wish those who aid in the work of opposing adoption reform would ask themselves the same question, and then reflect. And then change. In fact, I wish that all those who aid in the work of opposing adoption reform would go to see The Box Trolls. In the movie, the adoptee, Eggs, is completely ignored when he tries to tell the truth about what happened to him. Those who raised him, the Box Trolls, are also ignored (and nearly exterminated), and his biological/original father is forced out of the picture, too. At one point, the entire town, enamored with Archibald Snatcher, is willing to sacrifice Eggs to preserve its own erroneous thinking. They are not bad people, but they are most certainly doing something bad, and Eggs, the adoptee, is the victim (and might I point out that the adoptive parents and the original/biological parent(s) are the victims too).

"Who am I?" is a question we all need to ask ourselves, and adoptees know that the search for the answer to that question is bit more labyrinthian for them (because some of the most basic answers to that question are legally blocked by those claiming to be "good").  "Am I a good guy or a bad guy?" is another question. The answer can change, depending on what we do.

In the movie, when Eggs bravely announces the truth of his own experience to the entire town we, the viewers, know that this declaration should be revolutionary, that it should result in great, dramatic change, but the town doesn't listen at all. They don't do anything! Archibald Snatcher, of course, ramps up his actions to keep his dirty scheme going. He can't do it alone, however. He needs people to go along with him, to believe his lies. Will they? Will you? Adult adoptees have bravely spoken, and are speaking, about their lives. The results should be revolutionary. Whether or not they are depends a lot on whether or not we are good guys or bad. I think we can be good.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Please Do What's Right: PA HB 162

Another post from Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan passed away on April 7th, 2014.

The vote is Tuesday. Two days from now, Pennsylvania's Senate Committee on Aging and Youth will consider PA HB 162, which would allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates. I think my mom's voice, below, eloquently states the case for why this is a loving and just bill. If they vote no, it might be another 10 years before similar legislation even has a chance. Please, please consider calling the members of the Senate Committee tomorrow, especially if you live in Pennsylvania and are an adoptee, adoptive parent, or birth/original mother. I have spoken with SO many of you from this triad who understand the urgency of this bill, but I am not sure that yours are the voices the legislators are hearing. They are hearing from lobbyists for the adoption industry and those with a political agenda. For me, it comes down to this:

1) Adoptees are fully human and therefore deserving of all the rights ever other human being enjoys in this country.

2) Knowing who you are, and having access to your original birth certificate, is a right. Most people don't ever have to think about this.

3) No other group of people is denied its rights with the justification, "Just feel lucky you are alive" (i.e. that you were not an abortion). We are all lucky to be alive. And study after study after study has shown that open access laws either DO NOT impact abortion rates or LOWER them. And I find the PA ACLU's argument that denying adoptees access to their original birth certificates is part of "a woman's reproductive freedom" ridiculous, and I hope any thinking adult would as well (as much as I respect the ACLU on other issues). Once again, adoptees are REAL people, and should have the same rights as everyone else under the law.

4) This is thus a civil rights issue -- an issue of giving everyone equal treatment under the law. To repeat myself, it is loving, and it is just. Please call! (phone numbers of Senate Committee Members after my mom's post)

Facing a Life-Threatening Illness and Thinking About Adoption (originally posted by my mom in July, 2013, one week after her Stage IV melanoma diagnosis)

This past week has been the most difficult one I have ever endured.  I  had just returned from Spain, where I felt great and walked at least five miles every day.  I noticed a little bump on my thigh and had my friend, a surgeon, take a look at it.  He thought it was vascular, but scheduled an ultrasound just to be sure.  The results were concerning, so the next day I went in for a PET scan.  That day I got the devastating news that the melanoma that I had 16 years ago has returned and metastasized.

It is surreal to go from feeling just fine one day to being told that you have stage 4 melanoma the next.  I vacillate from feeling as if I am an actor in a play to feeling sick at my stomach as I contemplate what I am facing.  On the bright side, I have the best husband, daughters and extended family in the world, and I have been surrounded by caring and love every minute of every day.  My best friend can keep me laughing no matter what the circumstance.

Part of my beautiful support team -- granddaughter Grace and daughter Jenn in Spain

My physician daughter was able to schedule an appointment for me with one of the best melanoma doctors in the world within the week.  There is hope, and I am going to try to hold onto it with all my might.  As she explained to me, we don't talk of curing melanoma at this stage, but in ongoing clinical trials at Penn, they are seeing partial and complete remissions in a number of patients through a combination of standard and immunology therapy.  I qualify for the trial, and after several more procedures this week and next, will be getting started.

I welcome prayers from those who pray, positive energy from those who meditate, and good wishes from one and all.  I am working hard on mindfulness exercises, as I can see already that a major challenge in all of this will be letting go, living in the moment, and controlling the racing of my mind.

As my thoughts and emotions have careened all over the place this past week, I have been thinking about why I have been so dedicated to adoption reform and adoptee rights over these past 16 years.  I was blessed with loving adoptive parents, and I found myself feeling so very close to them this past week, as I sat on a bench looking out over a beautiful cove where I had grown up sailing and water-skiing with my parents and brother.

But like many adopted people, I feel connections to other people as well.  Neither I, nor any adoptee, should ever be forced into an either-or kind of thinking, in which one set of parents is recognized and validated, and one set is not.  Having experienced the paradoxes and willful mistruths of the adoption system, I myself have no tolerance for half truths and the masking of deep truths.

Throughout my life, I have learned that the road to peace is never through falsehood, and I think that is the reason I have always felt so devoted to truth, fairness and social justice.

It is truly misguided and so very wrong for the state to attempt to block two grown adults from knowing the truth about each other's identity -- especially when those adults share such a deep, primal connection.  We cannot and should not ever block a human being's path to truth, peace, forgiveness and love.

I was told through the agency that placed me that my original mother did not want any contact with me.    With help from several enlightened souls, I found her on my own and sent her a sensitive and compassionate certified letter, asking her also for medical history.  As a human being facing a medical crisis 16 years ago, I felt that I was worthy enough to at least ask for information.  I received it, and eventually my original mother told me over the telephone that she had always loved me "in her heart."  Not every adopted person will seek out her original parents or get even that far in the journey.  Some will get further.

But how dare the state block the possibility for that love to be expressed?  How dare they?  Let people -- adults with minds and souls of their own -- find their own way.  Facing a critical illness at the moment, I can tell you with certainty that there is nothing that is more important than love.  Nothing.  Please, let's let the light, the truth and the love overcome the misguided fears and the ideology.

There is no difficulty that enough love will not conquer,
no disease that enough love will not heal;
no door that enough love will not open;
no gulf that enough love will not bridge;
no wall that enough love will not throw down;
no sin that enough love will not redeem ....
It makes no difference how deeply seated
may be the trouble; how hopeless the outlook;
how muddled the tangle; how great the mistake.
A sufficient realization of love will dissolve it all.
If only you could love enough you would be the happiest
and most powerful being in the world.

Emmet Fox

(Please, if you can, call them and urge them to vote yes on HB 162, which would allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates. Calls are probably more effective at this point. If you prefer to email, the email addresses are in the previous blog post)

Senator Randy Vulakovich
Senate Box 203040
Harrisburg, PA 17120-3040
(717) 787-6538
FAX: (717) 787-8625
1407 Mt. Royal Blvd.
Glenshaw, PA 15116
(412) 487-6600
FAX: (412) 487-6607
Senator Scott Wagner
Senate Box 203028
Harrisburg, PA 17120-3028
Room: Room 460 Main Capitol
(717) 787-3817
FAX: (717) 783-1900
218 North George Street
York, PA 17401
(717) 846-2828
FAX: (717) 852-8478
Senator Sean Wiley
Senate Box 203049
Harrisburg, PA 17120-3049
(717) 787-8927
FAX: (717) 772-1588
1314 Griswold Plaza, S. 100
Erie, PA 16501
(814) 453-2515
FAX: (814) 871-4640

Senator Joseph Scarnati III   (Ex-Officio)
Senate Box 203025
Harrisburg, PA 17120-3025
(717) 787-7084
FAX: (717) 772-2755
410 Main Street
Brockway, PA 15824
(814) 265-2030
FAX: (814) 265-2040
Senator David Argall
Senate Box 203029
Harrisburg, PA 17120-3029
(717) 787-2637
FAX: (717) 783-8657
One West Centre Street
P.O. Box 150
Mahanoy City, PA 17948
(570) 773-0891
FAX: (570) 773-1675
Senator Lisa Baker
Senate Box 203020
Harrisburg, PA 17120-3020
(717) 787-7428
FAX: (717) 787-9242
2512 Route 6
Hawley, PA 18428
(570) 226-5960
FAX: (570) 226-5964
Senator Bob Mensch
Senate Box 203024
Harrisburg, PA 17120-3024
(717) 787-3110
FAX: (717) 787-8004

Senator Bob Mensch
404 Main Street, Suite A
Pennsburg, PA 18073
(215) 541-2388
FAX: (215) 541-2387
Senator Elder Vogel Jr.
Senate Box 203047
Harrisburg, PA 17120-3047
(717) 787-3076
FAX: (717) 772-2756
488 Adams Street
Rochester, PA 15074
(724) 774-0444
FAX: (724) 773-7384
Senator Judith Schwank
Senate Box 203011
Harrisburg, PA 17120-3011
(717) 787-8925
FAX: (717) 772-0578
210 George Street, S. 201
Reading, PA 19605
(610) 929-2151
FAX: (610) 929-2576
Senator Michael Stack
Senate Box 203005
Harrisburg, PA 17120-3005
(717) 787-9608
FAX: (717) 772-2162
12361 Academy Road
Philadelphia, PA 19154-1927
(215) 281-2539
FAX: (215) 281-2798

Senator John Yudichak
Senate Box 203014
Harrisburg, PA 17120-3014
(717) 787-7105
FAX: (717) 783-4141
1701 Wyoming Ave.
Exeter, PA 18643
(570) 883-4690
FAX: (570) 883-4694

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Adoptees' Voices: PA HB162

This is another post by Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan passed away on April 7th, 2014 after an 8-month battle with melanoma.

"I was fifteen years old when I understood how it is that things break down: people can't imagine someone else's point of view." - Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her autobiography My Beloved World

When Pennsylvania's Senate Committee on Aging and Youth reconvenes this month, they will consider HB162, a law that would allow adult adoptees access to their birth certificates. The measure passed the Assembly unanimously in the spring, but it is unknown whether or not it will have the votes to make it out of this 11-member committee. If it doesn't, more adoptees like my mom will have no access to information about their heritage, including crucial medical information that may save their lives. This, as well as the fact that the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference continues to lobby hard against it, is heartbreaking to me. I cannot fathom how they (leaders of the Catholic Conference, senators considering a "no" vote) don't yet "get it" and can perpetuate such an injustice. I am writing tonight as one more voice pleading for them to "imagine someone else's point of view," that all important bedrock of justice in our country. And, to be fair, I must let them, and all of you, know that I, for years "didn't get it" in the way that I should have. My mom, an adoptee herself, didn't get it until she was 50 years old and had to sit across the desk from someone, an employee of the agency that facilitated her adoption, and hear that she could not be handed the file of her most personal information, a file only mere feet away, because in the one, impersonal phone call the agency made to the birth mother, that mother had been scared and said no.

My mom with my girls in Disney, 2010. 

A few weeks ago, my dad, my sister, my aunt Jo (my mom's sister, reunited with her last September, before my mom's death in April), and my Uncle Doug (my mom's brother, also adopted, raised with my mom) gathered at my dad's shore house in Long Beach Island. There, we read together letters that my mom had exchanged in 2003 with the agency that facilitated her adoption. We all shook our heads together when we read the agency's response to one of her first letters. The agency's letter began, "It is with great compassion that I write this letter,"  and ended "I hope you are able to understand our position." After that, we read my mom's response. Here it is:

In response to your recent letter, I would have to answer no, I do not understand your position in this contemporary age, especially in light of the fact that you still facilitate closed adoptions. From my perspective as a 52-year-old adoptee, closed adoptions make no sense, not in this age when genetic research is transforming medicine and the way we view behavior, practically by the day. 

Your voluntary search program was a good start, but it is not sufficient. In fact, the process makes me feel like a paralyzed infant, because once again, your agency holds all the power, and my interests have been sublimated to these secrecy pacts you have endorsed and apparently continue to endorse. There is no way that I can feel my birth mother was forthcoming with medical information, as your letter strongly suggests, when ______'s exact words to me were: "Even in that area, I felt like she was holding something back."

Why should I, as the adoptee, be asked to honor an agreement that was flawed and didn't consider my best interest in the first place? It is well and good to protect birth mothers from their friends and neighbors, but not from the human beings they bring into the world, and for life. Every person should have the opportunity to explore where he or she has come from. Babies are not commodities -- they grow into adolescents and adults, many who want to know the truth and are unwilling to accept the legal fiction this closed system has forced upon them. 

I would ask you once again to consider how little I am asking for. I never said I desired a reunion, although I wouldn't have turned one down. I want to deliver a letter to my birth mother in my own voice in the hope that it may touch her and allow her to provide a little information. I have promised not to approach her again, and I'm fully prepared to accept the fact that her need for denial is so strong that she may be unable to do this. But shouldn't I have the right to try? In not attempting to facilitate this healing, you have once again made the decision to completely ignore the adoptees' feelings. Can you even begin to imagine how this makes me feel? ...

And then, in her next letter (after she was told there would be no attempt to compromise):

Your unyielding position makes me feel totally violated as a thinking, feeling adult.... Why can't you take the mildest of risks and meet me somewhere in the middle on this issue? I remain totally disgusted by your self-serving, hypocritical stance. And while you may be able to block my ability to heal and thwart my search, fortunately for me, you cannot control my voice. At least that is one power I still possess -- the power of the pen.       Sincerely, Susan T. Perry

I beg of you, any of you who have made your way to this site today, but especially those who live in Pennsylvania, to use the power of your voice to speak up so that no one else has to go through what my mom did. If you have questions and still don't "get it," please ask! I am happy to answer your questions, and I won't yell at you. I will, however, tell you the truth. Once you do get it, write! Below is the contact information for all of the Senators on the Pennsylvania Committee on Aging and Youth. I think they especially need to hear from members of the adoption triad (adoptees, original parents, and adoptive parents). Please pass this on to anyone in Pennsylvania you know.

In addition, I would ask any Catholics to write to the Catholic Conference to let them know you oppose them lobbying against this bill. For me, this is personal. Catholics, if true to their faith, should be worried about protecting the powerless, and supporting this bill would at least allow the adult adoptee some semblance of power over his/her own life.

LINK TO SENATE AGING AND YOUTH COMMITTEE (click for full information on each Senator and snail-mail mailing addresses, if you are so motivated. Just click on the Senator's name on the list to the left -- options for Twitter and Facebook as well!):


Chair, Senator Randy Vulakovich (District 40): (must click on link above and e-mail via form)
Minority Chair, Senator Sean Wiley (District 49):
Vice Chair, Senator Scott Wagner (District 28):
Senator Joseph Scarnati III (District 25):
Senator David Argall (District 29):
Senator Lisa Baker (District 20):
Senator Bob Mensch (District 24): (must click on link above and e-mail via form)
Senator Elder Vogel Jr. (District 47): (must click on link above and e-mail via form)
Senator Judith Schwank (District 11):
Senator Michael J. Stack (District 5):
Senator John Yudichak (District 14):

Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (click on "Contact" - top right):
I especially ask all Catholics of good faith to contact them and ask them to stop opposing HB 162. In other states (Ohio specifically), Catholic leaders have REVERSED THEIR POSITION on this bill and supported it as "the right thing to do." Catholics in Pennsylvania could also do the right thing.

Thank you, everyone, for honoring my mom by using your own voice. Thank you for pleading for the rights of others simply because you care about doing what is right.
With a full and hopeful heart, Jenn

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Holocaust Lessons, Nieto 114, and Adoption

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

I awoke Wednesday to find "Holocaust Lessons," a story about Philadelphia police recruits visiting the Holocaust museum in Washington DC as part of their training, on the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The program was started by Commissioner Charles Ramsey, and it is now used nationally. I was especially touched by a picture of the young, idealistic recruits standing respectfully as they viewed images of Holocaust victims and of police who participated in the atrocities. I had stood quietly, just like them, in that same room in late April of this year, only a few weeks after my mom had died, and wondered, as I'm sure they did: How could this have happened? How could "good" people have supported something so bad?

Later that morning I rejoiced when I heard the news that Estela de Carlotto, leader of the "Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo" in Argentina, had found her grandson. Like nearly 500 others during Argentina's "Dirty War" of 1976-1983, this grandson had been stolen as an infant from his mother, who was subsequently killed, and given to an adoptive family to raise as their own.  His grandmother Estela, now 83 years old, had endured years of searching. Finding him, she said, was a miracle that gave her "tremendous joy" (Click here to see BBC story).
Grandmothers protesting in Argentina's Plaza de Mayo. The sign reads, "Where are the hundreds of babies born in captivity?"

Estela de Carlotto visiting Pope Francis, who was leader of the Jesuits in Argentina at the start of the Dirty War,
soon after he was elected to lead the Roman Catholic Church.  During the visit she handed him a folder with files of the children (more than 400) that Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo was still looking for.
Carlotto also gave him a letter requesting him to demand members of the Catholic Church and its parishioners to provide information they might have about the "whereabouts” of the “disappeared grandsons and granddaughters."
She found her grandson, however, because he "had doubts about his identity" and  on his own decided to give a DNA sample to a database the group had set up. He is the 114th child to be found.

"Tremendous joy." Estela de Carlotto at the press conference announcing that her 'stolen grandchild' had been found.
This morning as I drove to work (the AP Spanish Institute at Camden County College), I listened to the story again on NPR (Click here to hear story). As I rejoiced for Estela, and mourned that such atrocities had ever been committed, I thought of my mom and her fight for adoption reform. She fought for adult adoptees to have the right to their original birth certificate -- that is all -- the right to know who they really are. "You just can't imagine the love that these children -- that had their heritage given back to them -- had for [Estela de Carlotto]," commented Francisco Goldman, the writer interviewed  on NPR this morning. It should be noted that many of these "children" (adopted adults, actually) were at first ambivalent about finding out their true identities. This is normal, of course. They knew only the parents who had raised them, parents who weren't necessarily complicit in the crimes committed in facilitating the adoption. As Francisco Goldman explained on the story this morning, "They [the adoptive parents] might just have gone to the church, and this was the child that was given to them."

The church believed it was doing what was right by giving these babies to parents with "Western, Christian" values to be raised. It looked the other way when parents were simply "disappeared." Documents were falsified and true origins hidden.

In the United States, birth mothers were not murdered as they were in Argentina, of course, but they were often treated horribly and shamed into giving up their babies. They were "disappeared" in their own way. Did you know this? I didn't, until this year, when I started writing on this blog for my mom and began reading the stories and comments of so many birth mothers. And because I didn't know the full truth, I was a "good" person who stood silent in the face of something bad. I didn't speak out even as my mom was harmed terribly by an unjust system.

It's never too late, though, so I'm saying it now. Adult adoptees need access to their original birth certificate, with no exceptions. Those who oppose this right are either doing so because they erroneously believe it is for some greater moral good, or they are covering something up. In Pennsylvania, a Senate Committee will hear an adoption bill in Harrisburg this fall, and in New York, a similar bill is pending. Change is coming, I hope. And along with that change is a whole lot of love for those who help give adopted children -- now adults -- their heritage back.

Filling in the pieces of my heritage. My Aunt Jo (my mom's sister, found last September), my girls, and me

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.