Over the holidays, I was talking on the phone with my sister Jill, when a startling photo popped up on her Facebook feed. "Looks like Jack and Dan got married!" she said. "They're standing in front of the famous 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign, with Pamela Anderson and Chrissie Hynde."
"Maybe this is one of Dan's practical jokes. Google to see if Nevada passed the gay marriage law."
When Jill told me that indeed it had been passed, I asked her to check out what time they married, and my suspicions were confirmed. I'd called my son Jack right when the ceremony was being performed. That they got married so suddenly was a surprise, but that I 'somehow' had tuned in wasn't.
The first time I looked into my newborn son, Jack Ryan's eyes, I'd felt like a criminal. As I unwrapped his hospital blanket and took in the heady fragrance of an infant, I feared that the nurses or nuns would appear to accuse me of contaminating my own son. The three months I'd spent in the home for unwed mothers had left me feeling I would be the worst person for my son to know.
Yet the instant I looked into my son's eyes, I was stunned by their power. I felt I'd known his soul for eons. At the same time, all I heard was, "If you love your baby, you will give him up. It would be selfish to keep him. In no time, you will forget, and go on to have a wonderful life and have children of your own." The year was 1966.
Nineteen and a half years later, our eyes met for the second time. My son was walking down the slope of lawn in front of his parents' home. I couldn't believe the magic of that instant. As our gazes met and held I knew that our bond had endured.
Over the next days, as we got to know each other, we were astounded by the many coincidences in our lives. Jack had always lived near either his original father or me, no matter where his adoptive family moved -- North Carolina, Virginia, New York or California. As we revealed more of our stories, I was seeing that during difficult times for Jack, like when he was returned to the agency by his first adoptive mother or when his second adoptive mother lost her husband in Vietnam, I was emotionally tuned in, feeling something was horribly wrong. Much like the studies of twins separated at birth, where there are uncanny coincidences, adoption reunions reveal how connected an adopted child is with their original family. A mother can never forget her child, as they share a bond no stigma can erase.
Before they took him from me, I'd sworn to my baby boy that I would search for him when he turned eighteen. Before searching, I'd felt horribly alone with my story and the traumatic effects of being separated from him -- the inability to forget, my fear that I was unique in this and, therefore, crazy, my shame. But with my first steps at finding him, a whole new world opened up, and I learned that my story was shared by an untold number of women who were unwed mothers, too. The secrecy surrounding unwed motherhood made it impossible to know how many millions of us there were.
The search for my son was daunting. To do so was illegal. When I mailed a letter requesting my hospital records, I saw it leaving a smoky trail clear across the country, and fully expected an FBI agent would be knocking on my door at any moment. I envisioned social workers lined around the block, ready to take the two sons I raised from me for violating the law.
I was fortunate that my search took only a year, and blessed that Jack's adoptive mother was so receptive about meeting me. In those days especially, her response was rare. But she was quite confident about her relationship with Jack, and that made all the difference. I was able to be a part of his life, attend Jack's first wedding and my other two sons and I have been a part of his four children's lives. My grandchildren and now great grandchildren, to think I might never have known them.
I make it sound easy, but it wasn't for any of us. The trauma of the past had to be dealt with, though I doubt it will fully heal. The losses for everyone will always remain. What is missing is public understanding of our need to be in each other's lives. The romantic notion of taking in an "unwanted" child, the belief in the sanctity of the adoptive family leave little room for the understanding that, given compassionate support, we can only enrich each others lives.
Jack, now a production designer for film and television, "came out" six years ago, and soon after I met his partner, Dan Mathews, senior vice president for campaigns at PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) and author of Committed, a memoir. As I absorbed the news of their marriage, I was grateful their commitment to each other is increasingly seen across the country as normal. In many ways, the gays' struggle for acceptance mirrors the Adoption Reform Community's need for acknowledgment of our issues. But, where gay marriage is now legal in 36 states, only 9 states allow unrestricted access for adopted people to their original birth certificates. Thus, for the majority of adult adoptees medical history that could save their lives is denied them, as is knowledge of their ancestral heritage. None allow the original parents to search.
When being interviewed by the New York Times for their wedding announcement, Jack and Dan asked that his original father and I be listed as Jack's mother and father, too, along with his adoptive parents. Even though Dan's stepmother was mentioned, the Times explained they could only print the name of the legal parents. Though grateful for their honoring Jack and Dan's marriage, and appreciative of the long Gay Rights struggle for such recognition, the New York Time's acknowledgment of Jack having two sets of parents would have meant a great deal, too.
I so look forward to the day when the right of any individual to courageously pursue self-discovery and to love whomever they want is no longer obstructed by societal, religious or government interference.