I spent the day with family today. Legally, we have no relationship. On paper, we are strangers.
I was born in 1967 and surrendered for adoption. I grew up always knowing that I was adopted. I can’t remember learning the fact. My Mom always told me that she and Dad picked me. Some days that made me feel very wanted and very special. Other days, it made me feel sad, because for my mom and dad to pick me, someone else had to leave me behind.
Like many teens and young adults, anything that made me “different” made me feel a little awkward and self-conscious. Adoption was one of those issues. I sometimes wondered what my birth family would think of me if they could see me at that time in my life. Would they be proud when I won the lead role in the musical, or when I was accepted to the university of my choice? Would they have come to the football games to watch me march with the band?
When I gave birth to my first child and felt that bond like no other, I wondered what it must have felt like to leave the hospital without me. My birth mother didn’t have a face for me then, but she was not forgotten. She was a part of me, and I was sad for her.
I didn’t know much about my birth family. My Mom always told me that the adoption caseworker had told her that my birthmother wanted me. I hoped it was true.
I found my birthmother in 1997. In-home internet access was a relatively new thing. I was bored one evening, and I put the details that I knew about my birth into a database on AOL, never thinking it would lead anywhere. After all, adoptees often searched for years and spent lots of money on investigators to try to find their birth families. I was shocked when, a few short minutes later, I received a phone call advising me that someone in the database matched me, and asking if I wanted to speak with my birthmother.
I called off work and drove 30 minutes from home the next day to meet her. I was terrified, but as I stepped through her door, the fear melted instantaneously. She and I were wearing the same earrings. She gave me a glass of water in the same drinking glasses that i had in my kitchen cupboard. We had some of the same artwork hanging in our respective homes. The meeting convinced me that nature plays a strong role in development.
As our friendship grew, we began finishing one another’s sentences. My mom would always be my mom – she, my “mum” felt more like a big sister. Like many sisters, we had a falling out one day over something silly, and we didn’t connect again for years. Neither of us was still angry, but both of us were afraid of reaching out – afraid of rejection.
We connected several more times over the years. There was no anger, no hard feelings. There was only love. Somehow, years would pass between visits. Life got in the way. It’s funny how life does that.
This week, she asked me to lunch. I was delighted to accept, and excited that my grandparents, too, would be available. we spent hours and hours today talking. We didn’t talk about adoption. We didn’t talk about what it felt like to grow up somewhere else. Instead, we talked as parents or grandparents and the younger generation would talk. We talked about pets and experiences. We talked about travel and hotels and antique stores. We talked about first jobs and cooking.
My adoptive family is my family. My birth family is my family. My husband’s family is my family. “Family” is that affinity we have for others when we are tied together by blood, shared culture, or the bonds of marriage. Family is Ohana. I like the concept of Ohana – it is much broader than a mommy, a daddy and the children who reside in the same residence. Ohana signifies the respect and cooperation that family members should have for and with one another.
Finding my birth family forced me to reconcile some feelings. I still remember looking at my “new” family’s pictures and seeing faces that really looked an awful lot like mine looking back. I remember some of my adoptive family – the only family I knew – questioning whether I would still want to be a part of that family now that I had found my “real” family.
I took the search farther a few years later and found the other side of my adoptive family living in another part of the country. We haven’t met face to face, but they are a part of my Facebook world. They, too, are Ohana.
I was adopted into a big, big family. My concept of family already included ten aunts and uncles, their spouses, and a whole slew of cousins. It wasn’t difficult to mentally expand that arrangement to include a few more. Somehow, life kept the birth family from becoming a close-knit part of my family, but we were, and remain “Ohana.”
Although we didn’t discuss my adoption or the facts and feelings surrounding it on this particular occasion, we discussed it enough in the past that I knew that I was never forgotten. Although I was elsewhere, I was safe and loved. I was never truly left behind. Likewise, the family I grew up with remains my family. I love them dearly, and although I don’t see many of them often, either, when we talk face to face, it’s like we are picking up where we left off a month or a decade ago. Ohana means nobody gets forgotten.
Yesterday was a special day for adopted persons in Ohio. For the first time, thousands of Ohioans who were adopted between 1964 and 1996 can apply to receive a copy of their original birth certificate and adoption files. For over 400,000 of us, finding lost family is a viable possibility.
More than 400 people waited outside of the Bureau of Vital Statistics yesterday to apply in person to see where they came from. My birth family and I have never petitioned the court for an order unsealing the records to confirm that we are “Ohana.” I haven’t decided whether I will apply to open that record. Having found Ohana, there is a fear that when opened, the family I lost and then found again might not be on that piece of paper. I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s possible.
As was stated in the Disney Film, “Lilo and Stitch,” “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.” In my world, it doesn’t take blood to make you family. It doesn’t take marriage. Ohana, to me, are those people who are a part of me. Ohana is stronger than friendship. Family are the people who care about you even when you mess up. They are the people who love you even when you say hurtful things or turn your back on them. We may be separated from family for a time, but they are not left behind. They are not forgotten.
As thousands of adoptees apply for their birth records, there will attempts to contact people separated for years – for decades. Some of those people will have happy reunions. Some will meet and be glad that they were able to fill in the blanks on their medical history forms. Some will have doors slammed in their faces and phone calls ended abruptly. I pray that those who don’t have a happy reunion will be able to cope with the fact that the rejection isn’t about them – it’s about facts and feelings over which they had no control.
My husband has finally figured out much of my complicated family tree. I had to draw him a picture. It’s okay. My tree branches like crazy. Some branches die off, and new ones grow. The ones that aren’t with us leave a mark. Nobody gets left behind or forgotten.