THE DEEP END

A few weeks before Christmas, I got a phone call from my sister Julie. I was shocked by the first words out of her mouth: ‘I think my brother just called me.’

Julie, who is three years younger than me, is adopted. This is something that she and I have always known; my parents, to their credit, weaved it into their stories about her birth that they told us from the time we were little. And if any of you were to meet my sister, it would come as no surprise that she is adopted. She is the little blue-eyed, fair-skinned blond with the ski jump nose in the middle of a dark-haired, dark-skinned, ethnic family. I always like to say, take the opposite of every one of my features, and you have my sister.

Even though Julie has always known that she was adopted, and was even teased for it when she was little (we all know how cruel kids can be, but even this stunned me when I was young), she never expressed any interest in finding out about her birth family. When a younger sister came along when she was 9, born naturally to my parents, Julie found herself sandwiched between two brunettes who were easily identifiable as siblings. Strangers would come up to the three of us and always ask the same question: ‘Where did Julie’s blond hair come from?’ We had the lie down pat, ‘Oh, our mom is blond,’ we would say about our mother’s dyed hair. I always thought that looking different would spur a yearning in Julie to find her biological parents, but even when she turned 18 — the legal age for adoptees to start researching their past — she declined. Julie said it just wasn’t important to her.

The December phone call changed all that. I think it opened up something inside her that had been closed off, the realization that she did want to know about her birth family, that she did want questions answered about who she was and where she came from.

As for myself, I was thrilled. I imagine it must be how parents feel when their daughter introduces them to her future in-laws — it’s an addition to the family, an introduction of new people who love the same person you do. My whole family was excited. My mom, youngest sister, and I were all ready on a moments notice to go with Julie to meet this brother and, eventually, her birth parents. We wanted to support her in this journey that was sure to be emotional, a journey that we all hoped would give Julie some inner peace that she didn’t even realize she was missing until now.

Will, who was two years younger than Julie, had first found her on an adoption website that she had registered on years ago (and forgotten about), and then located her on Facebook. A U.S. Marine who had been injured in Iraq and lost several friends, Will was prompted by his experience to look for the sister he never knew, whose infant hospital photo his father had kept. Julie and Will’s stories matched: His dad had told him of a baby girl born in July in 1975 at a hospital in Kansas City. Will’s parents were unwed teens. Although the adoption process had begun before the girl was born, for three days after her birth she remained in limbo while her biological grandparents fought to get custody of her.

This was the same version of events that I had heard my whole life. Julie and Will were 99 percent certain that they were siblings. They exchanged photos and email, and made tentative plans to meet each other. All that was left was to get the adoption records to be completely certain.

A few weeks later, I got another phone call. This time Julie was sobbing. Will was not her brother. The adoption records showed a different birth date than hers, and a different set of adoptive parents’ names. She was crushed. She had been so sure.

Julie’s biological family may not have found her this time, but this experience showed her that she wanted to find them — that it is, after all, important to her. After she let the dust settle a bit, she filled out the paperwork to get her own birth records. She now has her birth mother’s name.

As Julie already discovered, searching for your birth family is risky business. There is the risk of getting your hopes up only to be let down, and the risk of rejection. My friend John Crus, who lives in Tahoe City, located his birth mother eight years ago, only to learn that she didn’t want to meet him. But his story had a happy ending. He later found his birth father, whose entire family welcomed him with open arms. Today, he has an extended family, which includes a younger sister and brother who have both come to live with him for periods of time, helping out with his kids and business.

Either way that Julie’s story turns out, I think it will provide some answers. As John said about his life before finding his birth father: ‘I didn’t feel any different, my parents were my parents, but there was just always a question. I’d walk down the street, go surfing, and think, ‘Is that my father? Is that my mother?’’

Meeting his biological father, John said, ‘Was like a brick on the head — so that’s where I get it from, like my love of vanilla ice cream.’

Now it’s Julie’s turn to make that phone call.

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