Adoption in a Small Town ~ The Agony of Knowing…. Part II
Apparently Sarah had been having a lot of headaches and dizzy spells. She is 19 yrs old now and had graduated high school, was attending the local college and had moved out of Karen’s home to live with her boyfriend, Justin. Sarah possessed a beautiful free spirit and Justin (who was the father of the baby she’d given up for adoption) was her true soul mate. They were still together. It was easy to see how Sarah and Justin were truly in love.
Sarah went down to a large hospital in Philadelphia and had many diagnostic tests all confirming brain cancer. Her tumor was too big for surgery right away but the doctors were optimistic that after radiation and some chemotherapy, they could do surgery and remove the tumor. So far the other systems tests looked good. Sarah was a fighter and vowed to beat this thing!
During the chemo and radiation, she lost her hair. Justin also shaved his head! This wasn’t so popular back in 84-85. She was surrounded by great support! By the end of 1985, her tumor had shrunk she was able to have the surgery. They got it all…the whole tumor….all the cancer! Sarah recovered easily, no long term effects, and went into remission! Life became normal for them again.
My interactions with Karen and Sarah at this time were not as frequent. I had made an occasional supportive call or visit, but wasn’t involved in the whole process. Karen was often in Philadelphia, sometimes for weeks at a time and I had had a baby. Neither of us were skiing very much over the past 2 years. My sister had gone to Europe on a 6 month trip with her new husband, so she had only stayed in touch with Sarah by the occasional card or call.
When I did see her or Sarah—the birth, the baby, the adoption … none of that was ever mentioned.
In the meantime, I saw Dr. E a lot at the hospital. I would ask about Joey sometimes, she occasionally had a new picture or new stories to share about his life with his parents in Atlanta . Dr. E talked about Joey with such love and pride, she had really bonded with him. She told me it was because she had to keep him with her until the adoption paperwork was finished. She thought I had a special interest because I cared for him from the beginning in the hospital and had helped her so much with infant care instructions to go home. She never knew I was friends with the birth family.
Sometime in 1986, about a year after the surgery, Sarah’s symptoms returned. The tumor was back.
Sarah grew sicker and it became apparent that this cancer might get the best of her, she might not beat it this time, might not make it. She went through more chemo, and decided against further surgery. There were more risks this time; Sarah didn’t want to take them. She wanted to go home with Justin and live as much as she could.
I had become increasingly conflicted. I thought… ‘Sarah might not live, she or Karen might want to know how well that baby boy is doing’….. ‘They may want to see a picture or see the boy before Sarah dies…..’ I was having an overwhelming desire to let this secret out.
I wanted to shout: “I KNOW WHERE THE BABY IS….. I”VE BEEN WATCHING HIM GROW UP!!!! “
I had some misconstrued idea of my role in my head..the secret I knew could impact others greatly….I should tell …..Shouldn’t I???? If it was my daughter, I think I’d want to know. I’d want to see her with her child before she died. It was very inappropriate for me to think this– but I couldn’t let go of this idea, this strange notion in my head that Karen may openly question me about it someday—that I may be a source of comfort to her. My outward behavior remained professional, but inside my mind– nestled with the secret– the thought process was spinning on pure raw emotion. Clearly–I was having a hard time being objective in my thought process.
I decided to ask my friend who had adopted 2 kids; without telling the actual story; I gave her a ‘what-if’ …. Theoretical situation. –If someone knew that one of the birth parents of your children was gravely ill with a serious disease and may die….. Would you want to know?? How would you feel??
Her response to me “I’d be scared shitless! I’d be scared the birth families would descend on my life and want visitation. I’d be afraid my children would not understand. If there was serious health information I should know, I’d want the lawyer to tell me but that’s it.”
I really needed her perspective. This was not an open adoption after all. I had NO RIGHT to say anything! It was not my place at all. I took a huge step back, soul searched and pushed back all those emotional desires to tell…
I saw Karen, Sarah and Justin with some of the rest of their family at a Ski party. Sarah was vibrant, funny, laughing and having a great time! She had on a crazy hat to hide her scanty hair and it meshed perfectly with her personality. We had a wonderful day. I felt much more peaceful about knowing.
I got word about a month later that Sarah had taken a turn for the worse, the tumor growth was aggressive and they had already arranged for a hospital bed & help at home…Sarah’s home.. with Justin at her insistence. Justin was the major caregiver.
While this was happening, I ran into Dr.E again at work. I felt uneasy and started to struggle that same raw emotional conflict. I chatted with her casually & asked her again if she had a picture of Joey.…this time I asked if she could spare one for our bulletin board upstairs where we have pictures of a lot of our babies. She thought that was a great idea. [I know it’s wrong, but I was thinking, someday, maybe I can show Karen and say– the adoptive family sent it to us on the unit. I couldn’t let go of the idea.] Dr. E said “Sure.. great idea, I’ll get one for you!”
Sarah died peacefully in her home a few weeks later. Her family was devastated despite how “prepared” they’d been. My family was also very upset. My siblings all tried to make it home for the service. My husband, mom and sisters all went over to Karen’s house the night before the service. There were a lot of people there. Karen was pretty strong but at one point she cried “My baby is gone- she’s gone.. I’ve lost her!” I couldn’t imagine her pain, her grief. I cried with her.
It wasn’t about me—but I was suffering in a different way, struggling with what I knew…that a part of Sarah was out there… healthy and alive. I couldn’t share that with anyone. I cannot tell them. Going home in the car, I ended up alone with my mom and I had to tell her. I blurted out the whole story. I could trust her. I had to have someone help me. She reinforced what I already knew that of course I couldn’t tell. I felt better just letting it out to someone.
The funeral home was packed. We bypassed the rows of picture and long lines, gave nods to the family up front and found some seats. I sat there with my husband all teary eyed. I saw a lot of people I knew. There were also a lot of children running about. I saw what looked like a set of adorable triplets impeccably dressed in their identical brown suits. One of the triplets climbed up in the chair across from me and got snuggled in towards his mother, and then he popped right back down running after his brothers.
I slowly became more aware of this mother sitting across from me. The boy climbed back up in her lap as she looked up and met my gaze.
I could not believe what I was seeing! It was Dr. E.!
She said confused “What are you doing here?”
I said crying “Sarah was the daughter of one of my best friends– Karen…..”
She said “I didn’t know you knew her….. all this time… well–this is JOEY! Oh –that’s why you wanted a picture! Oh Sweetie.”
I fell to my knees in front of her, my hands on her lap sobbing, I could not control my emotions….
Me sobbing “I didn’t know they knew where he was..I didn’t know, I didn’t know..”
By now she was up and leading me down the hall, holding Joey’s hand…..I’m crying:”did Sarah get to see him? Did Karen? Oh –he’s just so precious….”
She realized I didn’t know about any contact at all so she quietly explained that Sarah had opened up the line of communication when she realized the treatments weren’t working and that she and Justin had wanted to see Joey– spend a little time with him. Then she said ..“Come here, I want you to see something.”
She took me into another room, filled with people I didn’t know. She announced to everyone. “This is the nurse I was telling you about who took such good care of Joey in the nursery as a baby!” I was sobbing still as she introduced me to her brother and his wife the adoptive parents, Joey, and the other 2 boys (I thought were triplets) who were brothers. I had said earlier in the story that Dr. E’s brother and wife (also both physicians) had gotten pregnant after getting Joey but I never knew they also had the good fortune of adopting another child a few months after Joey. The 3 boys were very close in age. The room was filled with Dr.E’s family who had all made the trip from Georgia! There were grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles.. all coming to pay their respects to Joey’s birth mother. What a wonderful openminded loving family! They were mostly staying in a room off to the side out of respect to Sarah’s family. What a gift… for Joey, for Karen and her family and what a gift for me.
Only a few people in Sarah’s family knew she had ever had a baby… …that was more than I thought. Those that knew only found out with-in the last few months. They were all very private about it. I found out later that Karen had still not come to terms with Sarah’s adoption choice. Karen was hoping to help her raise the baby when first finding out Sarah was pregnant. She herself hadn’t really visited with Joey It was very hard for her that Joey was even there… There were pictures on the wall of Sarah, Justin and Joey.. but I had bypassed that when we came in…and had not seen them.
Before the service started, my sisters were standing next to me on some steps, and Dr. E walked past with Joey saying he wanted to say hi to everyone again.
The sister who had been Sarah’s friend said: “Who’s that? Is that one of Sarah’s cousins?”
I hesitated not know what to say at first… and Karen’s mom looked at me–clearly understanding that I knew. She said: “It’s OK, you can tell her.” Once again, crying, I told my sister the secret I had kept all these years.
At the end of the service, people went outside to release flower petals or balloons in the wind and say a final goodbye to Sarah.
I stood next to Joey as he released a balloon. Dr E said “Would you like to say something Joey?”
Joey: “I say goodbye to my birth mother and I am happy my birth father is still alive!”