The first time I Skyped my birth mother, Beth, I was over 40 and pregnant with my first child.
I could tell she was nervous. So was I. Her hair was short and wispy, lighter than mine. She wore a blouse with high-waisted jeans and white sneakers. When she spoke, her Long Island accent reminded me of back home.
“Julee,” she said, “I was only 16 when I had you.”
She and my birth father, Phil, were high-school sweethearts. She got pregnant, and her doctor arranged a private adoption by my mom and dad.
“It was puppy love,” Beth said. After high school, she and Phil married other people. When those marriages didn’t work out, they found each other again. She called him her soul mate. They married in their late twenties and had a son and daughter, 11 and 14 years younger than me.
Eventually, they told the kids: “You have a sister out there.” They tried to find me, but adoption records are sealed in New York state. All the while, I was living only a few towns away. Phil died in his late forties, and since then Beth had struggled with depression and drinking.
“I want you to know,” I said, “I have no bad feelings toward the family. I’m sure it was very hard for you. But it was a good decision—I had very loving parents.”
I’d only recently confirmed I was adopted. The mom and dad who raised me were both deceased. After six months of searching, I found a close relative through DNA testing who led me to my birth family.
By the time we said goodbye, Beth had warmed up. “You look just like me,” she said. “I see it in the eyes.”
I felt giddy, like after a first date, wondering whether to play it cool or make the next move.
Soon, a card arrived along with a gift from Beth: a pricey glider swing from my baby-shower registry. Over the next few months, we went from talking once in a while to once a week. She sent clothes and blankets for the baby, this time signed “Grandma.”
I gave birth in the summer, and she planned a visit to Falls Church. I envisioned taking pictures on our porch swing, in front of the crape myrtle. My daughter would be in the arms of her maternal grandmother—a sight I thought I’d never see.
My birthday fell just before the trip. Beth sent me a small, slender figurine of a woman in a flowing robe holding a baby to her chest. She was faceless. The card read, “I’ve loved you since I held you in my arms in the hospital.”
It reminded me of my mom, who’d wanted a child so desperately she couldn’t bear to think of me as someone else’s. And of the long, hard road it had been for me to conceive in my forties.
I called to thank Beth, and we spoke briefly. She had something on the stove and I had to feed the baby, but we’d see each other soon. Two days later, she collapsed in her bedroom, pajamas laid out on her bed. By the time they found her, it was too late.
Heartbroken, I wondered whether the anxiety of coming face to face had been too much or whether the timing was just a coincidence. She was gone, and no one could answer.
I keep the figurine in my baby girl’s nursery. Someday I’ll explain to her that it represents all the mothers who have loved her—my adoptive mom, my birth mother, and me.
This article appeared in the July 2018 issue of Washingtonian.