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Monday, April 14, 2014

My Mom and the Truth: Adoption and Otherwise

My mom, Susan Perry, passed away on Monday, April 7th, 2014. Words fall short as to how much we all miss her. I will continue to guest post on this site. We are still hoping that Governor Christie will sign S873/A1259 (The Adoptees Birthright Bill) into law in New Jersey, and that other states will pass similar legislation as well. For now, I am sharing what I said at my mom's service on Friday April 11th (my uncle, my sister, my dad and I all spoke), which is more about her than about the advocacy, though I talk about how my mom always spoke the truth (adoption or otherwise). I cannot express how strongly I feel about the need for reform and justice for adoptees everywhere. My mom might still be here if it were not for the outdated and antiquated laws in NJ (please see her past post as to why the intermediary system doesn't work). But more on that later. For now, my mom:


Mom
I love this picture of my mom with my niece Emma, taken this summer in LBI the weekend after her diagnosois. My mom's t-shirt reads "Life is good."


In addition to thanking my mom for everything that my sister Kate just spoke of, and for thanking all of you for being here today, I would like to thank her for one more thing as well: her commitment to telling the truth, always.

One of those truths was how she really felt about cooking, exemplified by her “I Hate to Cook Cookbook,” given to her by her mother. That cookbook is still on my mom’s shelf, the “Chilly-night Chili” recipe marked with a bookmark and her unmistakable handwriting. I ate that chili many times, along with a few other trademark recipes that my mom had mastered. Still, I loved cooking with my mom when I was younger, even if it was a birthday cake made from the box. I especially remember baking carrot cake with cream cheese frosting with her many times when I was a little girl. And when my sister committed to eating healthier in high school, my mom subscribed to the magazine “Cooking Light” and prepared many of its complicated recipes for us. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. Yet over the last 8 months, as we were able to reflect with my mom about her life, my sister and I thanked her often for what a wonderful mom she had been to us. Once, we reminded her about how much we had both loved the tradition of bringing up the card table from the basement each year to roll out the homemade dough for Christmas cookies. It was a process that took hours. Without missing a beat my mom replied, “Yes, and now that you’re older and know better, you can see what a sacrifice of love that was!” We all burst out laughing. Yes, I can see.

Another, related truth my mom told, however, was that eating good food, especially with loved ones, is one of the great pleasures of life. “I love when you cook,” she would tell me or Kate or my dad, or perhaps Kate’s brother in law Rod, but most often my husband Anthony or Kate’s husband Ed, “so I’ll clean up after you cook. I’m happy to clean up so I don’t need to cook.” Then she would rave so much about the meal, with every bite, that any effort would be well worth it. We spent almost every one of her birthdays for the last 15 years like that, enjoying seafood feasts at the shore. 

Another truth my mom  passed on to all of us is that heated competition is one of life’s great activities, especially when you win, but even when you don’t. But especially when you win.  Now, my Uncle Ken does tell a story about how he stopped by one time when Kate and I were young and he was concerned because we were playing “The Whale Game,” a game with no winners or losers designed to foster cooperative play, a game apparently so boring that when I mentioned it to Kate she didn’t even remember playing (she did remember jumping on the Parcheesi board and smashing it when she was losing once, though -- an action that, despite my mom’s love of competition, was quickly addressed. She cared about sportsmanship). The whale game phase was a quick one though, and my mom soon moved on to coaching our softball teams to victory and teaching us the delights of Pictionary, Parcheesi, and Sorry. As Kate spoke about, my mom was competitive in the best way in her own life, too. When I was little our basement was lined with trophies from when my parents won the married couples tennis tournament at the Field Club. The few times they lost they did so in a tie breaker, and it was my dad’s fault, and I know this because my mom told my dad, often. Usually, she told my dad the next year, while they were playing, as in, “Ok, this year, don’t blow it.” 

My mom loved skiing, swimming, body surfing, sailing, and maybe even playing golf (though she claimed not to, we all knew when she had a great round). When she was little, she and her brother had such heated wrestling competitions, setting up in separate corners of the bed as though they were in a real ring,  that they often broke the bed, much to my grandmother’s chagrin.


And my mom passed this love of competition on to her grandchildren. She loved watching them play, and came to nearly every one of my daughter Grace’s travel soccer games this fall, and many of her travel basketball games this winter, despite how she was feeling. Just two months ago she was at a heated basketball game of Grace’s, as both of the teams were undefeated coming into it. The other team was extremely rough, and a little obnoxious, and the ref wasn’t calling anything. Finally, when the ref didn’t call perhaps the 5th time that a girl on the other team blatantly pushed down one of Grace’s teammates, my mom couldn’t hold it in any longer: “Come on ref!” she screamed, “Call the foul!” Later, we would laugh about this moment (Grace confirmed, "Nana, you were loud!”) but at the time she just couldn’t be silent. As I said, she loved to win, but she was ok if she lost -- the game just had to be fair.

Speaking of fairness, another truth my mom spoke was the truth about adoption. Even as she spoke of the deep love of her adoptive family, including her brother Doug, and her wonderful childhood, and the sweetness of her reunion with Carol and Jo, she was never quiet, and she never backed down, when faced with powerful interests who bent the truth. Her calm, clear voice was, and is, more powerful than those interests. Eventually, I know, it will prevail.

My mom spoke the truth about cancer, saying that it was not something she had needed to better appreciate her life -- she already appreciated her life -- and that it was difficult, and that it made her mad, as her body failed, and that it was tough, some days, to be hopeful ... But at the same time she squeezed out every bit of possible life since last July, body surfing with all of us that first weekend after the diagnosis, paddle boarding with her friends, walking, and then, as the treatment and the cancer took their toll, enjoying music, and movies, and learning how to draw - I love thinking of her sitting down with my daughter Genevieve to draw the  birds at the feeder out her living room window, and finally, in these last two months,  talking,  laughing, then only smiling. Honest and funny to the end, just last week as my Dad and sister and I helped her with one of the indignities that cancer brings upon you, and she said, “I’m so sorry,” to us, my sister answered, “Mom, you are NOT allowed to apologize. We are so happy just to be here with you.” Mom again didn’t miss a beat: “I highly doubt that,” she said, and again, we all laughed, even when it felt that laughter wasn’t possible. That’s what my mom did for us, and for so many who loved her.

My mom spoke the truth about love, telling me when I was younger that flowers and candles were nice but what was really nice was when you could marry your best friend, as she had. At the time, I thought that was so unromantic, but as I’ve grown older I’ve seen the beauty and romance of my parents' relationship, and marriage. My mom also told me that I wouldn’t understand how much she loved me until I had children of my own, and she was right. And when her mother, my Nana, died, she told me how much she would miss her. “Nobody loves you like your mom,” she said. That is so true. I know that I will miss that love the rest of my life.

Finally, there is one truth that I have learned that I would share with my mom if she were here today, and that I want to share with all of you. It involves a story that my mom and I have told and retold for years, laughing every time. We were at the beach one hot August day when I was about 7 years old, and the waves were huge. Though I was no stranger to the ocean, my mom wouldn’t let me in unless I held her hand. Sure enough, a huge wave broke not too far out and I braced myself for its impact, as did my mom. She must have been a bit in front of me because it knocked her down first, and under we went, still holding hands, not knowing which way was up and which way was down. Still, she never let go. Our hands clasped, we finally emerged from the wave, hair in our faces, sand in our suits, salt in our throats. Later, we would laugh and talk about here she was trying to protect me and she pulled me under, but now, thinking about that story, I see it its bare truth: nothing can break that bond of love. The ocean may send its fiercest wave, but love wins in the end. Love emerges. And though now I feel pulled down, and tossed around, and lost without her, I know that once the wave passes, what remains is love.





Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Gift of My Mom's Voice, and the Gift of Yours


Another guest post by Jenn, Susan's daughter (watch the video at the end of this post to hear my mother's voice, and laugh, in Spain this summer. It was our second day in the country and everyone was jet-lagged, but my mom was keeping us laughing with her Spanish. In this clip, she had just called our waiter (mesero) a fireman (bombero) by mistake. We were reliving the moment).

"I love you", "Just sit here and hold my hand", "I've always been so proud of you", "I am so lucky to have this family" -- though my mom's words have always lifted me, and my sister, and our children, they have been especially dear to me during these last few weeks. Still, it was not until a friend of mine called a few days ago that I thought clearly about what a gift my mom's voice is. The words are wonderful, yes, but the sound, too, the one that I have known since the womb, is a gift.

My friend Gina, who lost her own mom to cancer, wanted to send storybooks for my mom to record herself reading, books for the grandchildren so that they could treasure her voice and feel her presence for years to come. Gina, knowing all too well how it goes with cancer, wanted to make sure it wasn't too late for this. 
My mom and Joseph, my youngest, at Barcelona's Camp Nou this past summer


When I talked to my sister about this, we couldn't quite hold back the tears, thinking of those future birthdays and holidays to be celebrated without our mom, even though we have thought of them before, and often, during these past seven months. It's amazing how many times the heart can break.

My mom's voice: a gift. Adopted when she was three months old, my mom's first words were heard by the parents who loved her as their own, her adoptive parents, my Nana and Gran. "Mama" and "Dada" and "Happy," the name of her first dog, she said, her foray into that world of language, that bridge between inner thoughts and outer needs. A rickety bridge, that is at times. But a strong bridge, too, at others.

My mom's voice, as a teenager, telling her mother that she did feel curious about her original mother, was one of trepidation but necessity. It was some truth that she couldn't yet fully articulate surfacing in shy words. Later that day, though, her father came into her bedroom. "Your mother was really hurt by you asking that earlier," he said. And thus my mom did not speak again about her need to know her beginnings for more than thirty years. She didn't want to hurt anyone, let alone those she loved most.
My mom at the beach house with my girls. She has been an integral part of almost every important moment in their lives.

My mom's voice, as an adult, asking the agency that placed her for adoption about her original mother, was still one of trepidation but necessity. It was medical necessity this time -- a Stage II melanoma diagnosis and endless questions about her family history -- that compelled her to voice this need. My grandmother, now much older, encouraged her to search. It was a matter of life and death, after all. "Why do you want to know?" the agency asked accusingly, as though my mom were a suspected felon and not simply an adoptee searching for her past. They took her money -- $600 when all was said and done -- and returned to her with the answer: "No." She was given a nearly useless piece of paper with non-identifying information about her original mother. THIS is how the intermediary system really works. Those who oppose laws allowing adoptees to see their original birth certificates and glorify it as the ideal compromise have obviously never had to navigate such a system themselves.

My mom's voice, as an activist, asking the New Jersey Senate, the New Jersey Assembly, and yes, the Governor, to change outdated laws, was also one of necessity. Honestly, she would rather have  spent time with her family, or her many friends, than have to listen to the uninformed opposition state that allowing adoptees access to their original birth certificates "would not protect all parties in an adoption and would harm the institution of adoption," though many of those brave adoptees, original parents, and adoptive parents who testified alongside her during those years also became her friends (friends, I would like to point out, that DO represent all the parties in adoption).

My mom's voice, as a daughter, one who found her original mother on her own, with no help from the State or the adoption agency that had pledged to look out for her interests, the adopted child, above all others, was one of kindness. She simply wanted to let her mother know how her life had turned out (it had turned out well; she was happy) and learn a few things about her past. Her mother responded to that letter with a letter of her own, though she did state at the bottom that she did not desire a relationship, citing her age, her heart condition, and her lifetime's secret: no one knew my mom existed. A few weeks later, though, my mom's mother had a slight change of heart, for she called my mom. Though she still wanted to keep my mom a secret  from others in her life (including her own children), she did want to talk to her. "I've always loved you in my heart," she told her. My mom respected her wishes and accepted this as enough, never bothering her again  (though now that my mom has reunited with her sisters, we all wish that their mother had been able to overcome this desire for secrecy so that they, the siblings, could have had more time together). 

My mom and her sisters with my girls this October. We all wish we had more time.
 

My mom's voice, quite simply, is and always has been a gift. I am hoping that because of it more and more people will educate themselves about adoption (the American Adoption Congress, www.americanadoptioncongress.org, www.nj-care.org, and the blogs recommended by my mom, are a good place to start). I am hoping that because of it more and more people will use their own voices to advocate for legislation granting adoptees the same legal rights that all other citizens enjoy, legislation that does ensure that all parties in adoption are treated fairly. 

Your voice is a gift, and it matters. Please let Governor Christie know that you would like him to sign the Adoptees’ Birthright Bill in honor of my mom and all those who have fought so long for this right and just bill to be passed. If you are Catholic, please tell him so, as he cited Catholic opposition as one of the reasons he conditionally vetoed the bill last time. If you are a lawyer with ties to the ACLU or the NJ Bar Association, please let him know as well, as your organizations are fighting against this bill for reasons I truly do no understand. Governor Christie has until April 11th (one day after my birthday, the day my mom brought me into this world) to sign it. If you are willing to make your voice heard, I am most grateful. You have a few options:

CALL the Governor's office and voice your support for this bill: 609-292-6000.

COPY and PASTE the letter below to a WORD Document, adding anything if you would like:
Your Name
Your Address
Your City, State, Zip
Date
Governor Chris Christie
Office of the Governor
P.O. Box 001
The State House
Trenton, NJ 08625
 Re: Adoptees’ Birthright Bill (S873/A1259)
Dear Governor Christie,
I’m writing to you to ask you to sign the Adoptees’ Birthright Bill (S873/A1259). Adoptees in the state have been fighting for over 30 years, to have their civil right restored. All citizens in our country deserve to know their names and their heritages, and all citizens deserve to have a complete medical history. The intermediary system that the opposition to this bill cites as a fair "compromise" simply does not work for adoptees, as numerous case studies have shown.
The bill is fair to both adoptees and birth parents. The bill protects birth parents’ privacy, since it gives birth parents the option to put a note in their child’s file, saying that they don’t want to be contacted.
I hope that you will do the right thing and sign the Adoptees’ Birthright Bill without delay.
Sincerely,
Your Name and address 
If you would prefer to send your letter via Email, here is the Contact Information:
Select the Topic: “Children and Families” and click CONTINUE.
Select Sub-Topic: “Adoption and Foster Care”

Thank you on behalf of my mom for making your voices heard. Below you'll find the clip of my mom and her voice, so precious to me, from just 8 months ago in Spain. 


Monday, March 10, 2014

A New Alert Has Been Issued: Catholics, Ask Governor Christie to SIGN S873/A1259

Another guest post from Jenn, Susan's daughter.

I became a Catholic the year after I graduated from college, while I was serving for a year with the Franciscans in Wilmington, Delaware. Moved by my experience working with the poor, the disenfranchised, the migrant, I saw only the beauty of the church during that year. Several years later, when by chance I met and sat with Maria Esperanza, a woman whose sainthood cause was opened at the St. Francis Cathedral in Metuchen, New Jersey in 2010, and who has been described by the Catholic Review of Baltimore as "a Venezuelan woman believed to have seen 31 apparitions of Mary who spread worldwide a message of family reconciliation and fraternal unity that she said Mary relayed to her," I deepened a faith that I've continued to practice these past 15 years.

 
Me, with son Joseph Rocco, after his baptism three years ago

So it is especially upsetting to me to see an "ALERT" issued on the webpage of the New Jersey Catholic Conference stating "Ask Governor Christie to Veto S799/A1406," which, though incorrectly referred to here (the bill currently pending is S873/A1259), is the Adoptees' Birthright Bill, just passed in the NJ Assembly and Senate, and waiting for Governor Christie's signature. I read through the Statement by Patrick Brannigan in Opposition to S799 from March 3, 2010, posted underneath the ALERT, because I am a person who likes to consider others' views and make sure that my own are rooted in the truth. There are so many things in that statement that I would like to address that I will have to do it over several posts, but here is what I need to address first (all quotes are from this Statement, which pulls heavily from Mills, in which, apparently, "the court reviewed at length the interests that are involved in placing adoption records under seal"):

"The child is the most important party to the adoption"   - Yes! I agree. Nothing should come above protecting the rights of the child.

"The State has the obligation to protect the interests of this voiceless party" - Yes! I agree again. The child placed for adoption has no voice. Thank goodness so many adult adoptees have bravely spoken up in past years to let us know what the interests of the adopted child are. For who else, other than someone who has lived adoption, can speak to these interests? Adult adoptees have told us that adoptees don't necessarily need reunions (though I have learned from my mother's experience that reunions can be sweet, and healing, and beautiful) but rather the right to their own birth certificate, and the right to navigate those deeply personal relationships without State interference. That is what the law currently awaiting Governor Christie's signature provides. It is just and certainly protects "this voiceless party," the child adoptee who will some day grow up, with rights long denied. If the adoptee chooses never to search that, of course, is fine. This is a rights bill, not a reunions bill.
My mom as a child, the "voiceless party" in adoption.
Now an adult, she doesn't need, or want, the State's "protection." 

"[Sealed records] protect the child from any possible stigma of illegitimacy which, though fading, may still exist ... "   - Wait! What? This is the only argument being used to say that sealed records are in the best interest of the adopted child? Is anyone truly still thinking of adopted children as "illegitimate"? Adoptees have spoken out strongly in favor of NOT sealing records. Though some adults may choose not to search, they certainly don't feel that they need the State's protection from any "stigma." There must be some other argument showing how sealed records benefit adoptees. Apparently, though, there is not. All other arguments cited in this Statement are for the benefit of some other member in the triad of adoption -- and I don't find them any more credible then those purporting to look out for the adopted child. But more on that tomorrow.

As a Catholic, I would like the New Jersey Catholic Conference, New Jersey Right to Life, and Governor Christie (who is Catholic, and who cited the position of New Jersey Catholics when he last conditionally vetoed this bill in 2011) to know I do believe that the most important party in an adoption is the child, and that the State does have an obligation to protect this voiceless party. The way to do that is by encouraging Governor Christie to sign S873/A1259, the Adoptees Birthright Bill. Or, if you are Governor Christie, by simply signing the bill yourself.


**Similar bills (for adoptees' rights to their original birth certificates) have been supported by the Catholic Conference in other states.



a Venezuelan woman believed to have seen 31 apparitions of Mary who spread worldwide a message of family reconciliation and fraternal unity that she said Mary relayed to her. - See more at: http://catholicreview.org/article/life/metuchen-opens-sainthood-cause-for-venezuelan-mystic-who-died-in-us#sthash.oExFuRF6.dpuf
Maria Esperanza Medrano de Bianchini, a Venezuelan woman believed to have seen 31 apparitions of Mary who spread worldwide a message of family reconciliation and fraternal unity that she said Mary relayed to her. - See more at: http://catholicreview.org/article/life/metuchen-opens-sainthood-cause-for-venezuelan-mystic-who-died-in-us#sthash.oExFuRF6.dpuf
Maria Esperanza Medrano de Bianchini, a Venezuelan woman believed to have seen 31 apparitions of Mary who spread worldwide a message of family reconciliation and fraternal unity that she said Mary relayed to her. - See more at: http://catholicreview.org/article/life/metuchen-opens-sainthood-cause-for-venezuelan-mystic-who-died-in-us#sthash.oExFuRF6.dpuf

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Grace is Born, and My Mom is There

(a guest post by Jenn, Susan's daughter)

As my mom's health has become more grave these past two weeks, she has received many letters from friends and family letting her know how much she means to them. What most people say they admire most about my mom is her joy for life, exemplified by her laugh. Her laugh, like her life, is authentic, spirited, and one of a kind. Indeed, just a few weeks ago my mom said to me, "Though I would never have wished this upon myself in a million years, we have had so many laughs." For me, those laughs started on a Saturday in Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Island, three days after her diagnosis this past July. We were lying together on the hammock on the lower deck, tears on both our cheeks as we listened to the sound of the waves and swayed in the gentle breeze. My dad, who is a doer (a wonderful trait that has helped him accomplish many things in his life), was dealing with his grief by extreme activity. He had just bid us goodbye a few moments before with, "I think I'm going to go wash some dishes," and that's where we assumed he was as we rocked gently side by side. Suddenly, we were interrupted by the roar of a jet engine.  Only it wasn't a jet engine. We both lifted our heads at the same time, turned to one another, and said, slowly, "Is that ... ?" Yes, it was my dad, power-washing the side of the house. Washing dishes just wasn't enough. We burst out laughing.

My parents with Grace this past August in LBI, right after the diagnosis
A few days ago, lying in her bed together, my mom and I were laughing once again as we remembered the day nearly ten years ago that Grace, my oldest daughter and her first grandchild, was born. I had never planned for my mom to be with me when she was born, but she was. I didn't think I would need her, but after a few hours of labor and some particularly painful contractions, I cried to my husband, almost on instinct, "I want my mom." To his credit, he called her immediately.  "I'll never forget his voice that day," my mom shared, "I think Jenn would like your company, he said, and I was out that door so fast and driving like a madwoman ..." It did seem like she was there only a moment after my request, and oh, how comforting it was to see her, to have her hold my hand.

Grace wasn't a straightforward pregnancy, and in fact at one point (very early) during the first trimester I had to go to the emergency room with complications. They took me to a small dark room for the ultrasound, and what I remember is that it was the same room that I had sat in with my grandmother (my mother's adoptive mother) only months before, after she had suffered a stroke. As I lay in that room that October day I remembered holding my grandmother's hand the April before and listening to the whoosh whoosh whoosh of blood passing through her veins, the sound of her life surrounding us in that tiny room. Though she had passed away soon after, the room made me think of holding my grandmother's hand, and it gave me comfort. Everything would be ok, I thought. The moment felt prescient.

Only when the doctor met me back in the examination room, she told me I had had a miscarriage. "It's very common," she said, explaining what I should expect, answering our questions, and sending us on our way. Strangely, though, she was wrong. It was in the midst of this worry, though, as I was contemplating becoming a mother for the first time, but not sure if that was really going to happen, that my mom called me one afternoon with huge news: she had just spoken with her original mother. My mom's original mother is the woman that the "opposition" to adoptee rights always holds up as an example. She had kept my mom a secret from everyone in her life, including her daughters, and because of this she had not wanted contact. But when my mom was able to find her address on her own and send her a letter, explaining who she was and how her life had turned out, she was not harmed at all, and indeed she did call my mom. "She told me she had always loved me in her heart," my mom told me, "But that she couldn't handle a relationship." My mom respected that wish and never contacted her again.

But that doesn't mean she forgot, or that this very important first chapter of her life--the woman who carried her for nine months and brought her into this world-- can somehow be ignored. And it does NOT mean that those adoption agencies and lawyers who apparently counsel women that they will be able to bring a child into this world and forget all about him or her are not acting on faulty, dangerous psychology based on denial of nature itself.  Those opposing adoptee rights bills saying they are concerned about the rights of the birth mother are at best lying to themselves and at worst lying to others when deep down they do know the truth.

No, the first chapter of one's life, the one shared between original mother and child, is an important one and it belongs to that mother and that child, not the government. Indeed, for me, my first experience of carrying a child, of hearing those first heartbeats, of feeling those first kicks, slight at first and then stronger, and stronger, is forever connected, because of the timing of it all, to my mom's experience as an adopted child.

Grace Elizabeth, named for my grandmother, came into this world with my mom at my side. My mom saw her even before I did. "Oh, she's beautiful Jenn," she told me, "Just beautiful."

The woman who brings you to this world, the eyes that see you first, the pain, the joy, the heartbreak, the story -- it matters, it's a part of you, and it's certainly no one's right to try to block you from that. So while others may write about how they cherish my mom's joy, and her laugh, and while I may cherish those things too (and oh, I do, I cherish them), what I also really, truly love about my mom is that she has fought all her life for the truth. And that, like Grace, is just beautiful.



Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Calling on Gov. Christie to do the right thing

I am writing this post from the home of my mom, Susan Perry, whose blog this is. She has asked me if I could keep it going, with a post now and then, since all of her energy is focused on being with those she loves and those who love her. Love is what is carrying us all through. 

My mom has been fighting for adoptees finally to be treated with justice and humanity for the last 13 years of her life. That fight continues. Tomorrow, the NJ Senate and Assembly vote on the Adoptees' Birthright BIll, and then it will go on to Governor Chris Christie, who vetoed it last time but now has a chance to do the right thing. Below is the letter I sent to the Philadelphia Inquirer in response to their February 23rd article on this bill. 
My mom skiing with my two girls, Grace and Genevieve, last year. 


Letter to the Editor:
I am the daughter of Susan Perry, who was profiled in Sunday’s front-page article 'Bills in Pa., N.J. would open adoption records.' I would like to make a few important clarifications. The first sentence reads, “Not knowing the identity of her real mother was always a painful, unresolved issue, but when Susan Perry was diagnosed with melanoma, finding out became a medical necessity.” I know my mom objects to the term “real mother.” Most involved in this movement use the terms "original mother" and "adoptive mother." My grandmother (my mom's adoptive mother) was very much her real mother, as the brother she grew up with is also her real brother. They are also very real to, and loved by, me. That said, the biological sisters she found this September are also real to her, and to me (and I love them too). Secondly, not knowing the identity of her original mother was not always a cause for pain. My mom is an accidental activist. It was only when she was pushed by my sister, a doctor, to search for her roots 13 years ago and then subsequently treated like a second-class-citizen (having to pay $600 to an “intermediary” just to ask if her mother would like contact and to have access to extremely limited, if not completely erroneous, medical information), that she felt this pain (and outrage). Finally, though being diagnosed with melanoma was what prompted us to search for her original family, the “medical necessity” for all adopted people is really before they are diagnosed with catastrophic diseases, so that they can take preventive measures. My mom found out from her sisters that an uncle had melanoma (this was NOT on the medical form she paid $600 for). Had her doctors had this information 16 years ago, would they have misdiagnosed the melanoma on her toe for two years, allowing it to develop into Stage 2 cancer (now Stage 4)? We’ll never know.

The bills pending in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are about rights, not reunions. My mom now has all the information she needs (no thanks to current law), but she is fighting for others, even as she fights for her own life. I am proud of her, and of all those involved in fighting for this right, just law. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Fighting the Myths that Derail Adoptee Rights

Yesterday, the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee in New Jersey in a unanimous 9-0 vote approved the adoptee birthright bill (S873) that would allow adopted people to secure their original birth certificates at the age of 18.  Original parents would be able to file documents with the state registrar indicating whether they would prefer to be contacted directly, through an intermediary, or not at all.  A similar bill passed in the state of Oregon in the year 2000.  Since then, over 10,000 adopted adults have received their birth records, and there have been fewer than five complaints.  Other states that have passed adoptee rights legislation maintain similar statistics.

If only the data, instead of the myths and the monied interests, would drive this debate to a successful conclusion!  Still opposing this legislation in New Jersey are the NJ Bar Association, the Catholic Conference of Bishops, NJ Right to Life, and unbelievably, ACLU-NJ.  Representing the ACLU, attorney Lynn Nowak maintained that a confidential intermediary system would be the correct approach.  Marie Tasy, representing NJ Right to Life, concurred, and objected to the fact that the conference preference form is non-binding.  Patrick Brannigan, representing the Catholic Conference, believes original parents should have the right to redact their names from the original birth certificate.

I'll post my rebuttals to the opposition's positions in the links following this article.  In the meantime, I was encouraged by the compelling, fact-based testimony offered by the bill's supporters, and by the fact that both Committee Chairman Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) and Senator Diane Allen (R-Burlington) vigorously questioned the opposition's stance.

Although I was unable to attend the hearing, my two sisters and husband were there to present my testimony, and Senator Allen hopes to share it with Gov. Chris Christie's office as this legislation moves forward.


Sister Carol Dowlen, husband Ty and sister Jo Pierson fighting the good fight in Trenton

Here is a copy of the testimony my family presented on my behalf:

Thank you, Senators, for the opportunity to present this testimony in support of the Adoptee Birthright Bill.  I am an adopted adult, age 63.  I have several compelling reasons for supporting this legislation, the first being that I am currently battling stage 4 melanoma, a medical condition that I have since learned ran in my natural family.  Had I known that fact 16 years ago, when I had my first bout with the disease, I am quite sure that both my doctors and I would have been much more attentive to what appeared to be a skin tag by my large right toe.

The second reason I strongly support this law is that through a series of miraculous coincidences, I have come to know two dear sisters who are lovingly supporting me in many ways as I battle this disease.  It should not take a miracle to come to know people to whom we are related by blood!

The fundamental question is this:  Do we believe adopted adults are worthy of respect?  Do we respect them enough to treat them equally by law -- that is to grant them the same access to their original birth certificates that every other full-grown citizen enjoys?  And do we respect them enough to trust them to handle their own personal affairs competently?

Surely, it is unjust to treat an entire group of people differently by law than we treat everyone else.  Consider, for a moment, how Martin Luther King Jr. defined an “unjust” law.  It is one that a majority inflicts upon a minority, said King, and one with which the majority is not expected to comply.  The law is especially onerous, said King, when the minority that is affected has had no say in designing or enacting the law.  Obviously, we adopted people had no say in crafting a law that would forever bar us from knowing our own ancestry and genetic history.

While equal access to our original birth certificates is a classic issue of civil rights, there is an element of respect that must be addressed here as well.  There seems to be a fear among opponents of this legislation that the adopted person is intent upon inflicting some kind of harm upon the original family.  This kind of thinking is neither fair nor valid.

First, there is a difference between equal access and reunion.  Some adoptees search, some do not, but every adopted person should be treated equally by the law.  Equal rights are equal rights.  Reunion is a personal choice, one to be made by the full-grown adults most intimately affected and no one else.

I hired a private investigator and sought out my first mother over ten years ago because I felt strongly that I had a moral right to do so.  I am not going to jeopardize my own physical and emotional health, and that of my children and grandchildren, because of an outdated law that makes no sense, factually or morally.

The investigator found my original mother quickly, as my parents and I had always had my birth name.  My daughter, a doctor, prepared a user-friendly medical questionnaire, and I sent it along with a letter by certified mail.  My original mother was one of the few who was not open to continuing contact.  She is now deceased, but in fact she was that woman who opponents to this bill say they are most concerned about.

No harm came to her because of the contact I made, a scenario that is supported by the data from every state that has enacted adoptee rights legislation.  In Oregon, where adopted adults have had access to their original birth certificates since the year 2000, over 10,000 adopted people have secured their records, and there have been fewer than five complaints.  My original mother returned the medical questionnaire to me and called me that same week.  We had one helpful phone conversation, and that was the end of our contact.

Our private past -- which we co-own -- is no one’s business except for hers and mine.  We handled our past like the adults we both are.  Again, there is a difference between basic knowledge, which is a right, and relationship, which is a personal choice.

To look at adoption as a positive option, we need to make sure that the person who is supposed to be the main beneficiary, the adoptee, is treated fairly and with respect, not like a second-class citizen.  We need to make sure original mothers are treated fairly and with respect as well, and most, in fact, do want to know how their children have fared in life.

We should not be crafting policy to serve the preferences of a very few, and trampling all over the rights of the vast majority.  Instead of saying, “A woman should be allowed to remain a lifetime secret to her own child,” we should be saying, “Every adopted child is worthy of respect and as an adult, should certainly be entitled to equal treatment under the law.”

Instead of saying, “Adoption must be predicated on secrecy and denial,” we should be saying, “The truth, however challenging it may be, may well allow all parties a sense of peace and closure.”

In closing, I’ll say, “As an adopted adult, I respect myself.”  But any law that assigns me to a separate category or burdens me with special provisions does not respect me as an autonomous, capable person.

I am proud of my family for taking the time to represent me in Trenton.  And I am proud of my colleagues at NJCARE for so intelligently presenting our case.  The opponents have no facts to support their position -- none.  Please read the links below, and let the Catholic Conference, NJ Right to Life, ACLU-NJ and the NJ Bar Association know how misguided their stance is.  Someday, hopefully soon, these institutional opponents will be shown to be on the wrong side of history.  Let's all work together to make that happen.

Please see:

Why I Oppose Confidential Intermediaries

Why do State Bar Associations Oppose Adoptee Rights?

ACLU-NJ Misses the Mark on Adoption

Pro-Life Ideology and Adoptee Rights

Overcoming the Myths that Thwart Adoptee Rights Bills


Here is contact information for some of our opponents:

Patrick Brannigan, Executive Director of NJ Catholic Conference, pbrannigan@njcathconf.com

New Jersey Right to Life: (732) 562-0562, feedback@njrtl.org

ACLU-NJ: Post Office Box 32159, Newark, NJ 07102, 973-642-2084










Monday, January 13, 2014

Love Will See You Through



                       Carol and her dear husband Jim, who passed away in 2012.  I
                       discovered Carol's identity through Jim's obituary, which I found
                       when I surveyed public records to see if my original mother had
                       passed away.  Life indeed works in mysterious ways.

My journey with my two sisters, discovered in September through a rather miraculous set of circumstances (you can read more about that story here), continues to amaze me.  Yesterday, my husband Ty and I visited my older sister Carol at her home in Pennsylvania.  My other sister Jo, and her husband Ray, drove two and a half hours from Red Bank, New Jersey to join us for lunch and an afternoon visit.

Carol prepared a lovely lunch -- split pea soup and homemade chicken salad, as well as an assortment of other salads and dessert.  I was so touched by all her efforts, and by the fact that Jo and her husband went so out of their way to spend time with us.  We spent the afternoon talking, sharing family stories, and playing a charade-like game called Catch a Phrase.  We have spent four whole days together now, with countless messages and e-mails flowing back and forth in between visits.  It seems that we have known each other so much longer.  Carol and Jo feel like such a part of our family now, to both me and Ty, and once again, I wonder why I am so blessed to have found these two dear souls.

As I continue to battle metastatic melanoma, I try to focus more on my blessings and my day-to-day life than my prognosis.  Meeting and getting to know Carol and Jo has certainly been a gift, one that has brought me so much love, peace and closure.  Carol unfortunately knows first hand the challenge of fighting a life-threatening disease, as she lost her dear husband Jim to brain cancer in 2012.  She has a knack for saying all the right things to me, and one comment in particular stays with me:  "Susan," she said, "Love will see you through."

She is so right!  We find out at times like this that love is all that matters, and I have been fortunate to find it in many places.  I had adoptive parents, and I have an adoptive brother, all who have loved me with all their hearts.  My husband is my best friend and the love of my life.  As soon as I became sick from my treatments, he arranged to work from home, and he is always here with and for me.


         Two of the loves of my life -- my youngest grandchild Joseph and my husband Ty

We are blessed with two daughters, their husbands who we love like sons, and six beautiful grandchildren ranging in age from three to nine.  One of my daughters is a doctor, so she is able to stay on top of my treatments and provide extra medical support.  My other daughter is a teacher at Masterman High School in Philadelphia.  One or the other always accompanies me and Ty to treatments.  Both live nearby and check in daily, with frequent visits from the grandkids, who thankfully force us to live in the moment, whether we want to or not!


                                 Joseph with his cousin Ty -- they are best buddies!


Grandchildren and cousins -- Genevieve and Eddie.  Can you tell how much they love each other?


 The older grandchildren, Emma and Grace.  How lucky are we, and how lucky are they?

I have one dear friend who gives me massages twice a week, another who comes to the house to cut my hair.  My daughter very ably administered my last hair color treatment!  Another long-time friend crafted me an exquisite quilt.  Other friends get me out to the movies, for short walks, and for discussions about books. (I love to read!)

I don't want to mislead you here.  I am not at all happy that I have stage 4 melanoma.  I would like very much to live for another 20 years, as I love my life and all the people in it.  But I also know that I have been blessed in many ways and that I am surrounded by a love that sustains me day by day.  And as Carol so wisely said, no matter what happens, that love will see me through.

"If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is thank you, that would suffice." 

 Meister Eckhart