I wasn’t going to say anything further about being adopted, not beyond what I’ve said before. The wistful “melancholic nostalgia” I described about being adopted is gone. It has been replaced with . . . well, I don’t know, perhaps, a practical certainty that I’m better off. The fact of adoption weighs on some adoptees, adopted as babies with little or no access even in later life to the real story. I was one of those.
There is at the heart of things the knowledge somebody could not, or would not keep me. It puts a strain on things. It adds a tentative dimension to many relationships. I don’t like it, but there it is, hunched in a corner waiting to snag me unawares. So, no, I wasn’t going to say anything more.
Then a friend read my first piece and asked one of those “and then what happened” questions. I told him. He insisted I should finish the story.
My birth mother, Faye, died in April 1997. That was the month of my birth fifty years previous. She succumbed to cancer, never recovering from surgery. No one, except my “aunt,” her sister-in-law, visited her. She died alone, leaving no one except her son, my half-brother, eleven months older than myself.
She died at Capital Regional Hospital in Jefferson City, Missouri. I made hospital calls on parishioners among those same rooms during that same month. It was at Capital Regional that, two months later, my youngest daughter was born. From here things get even more coincidentally weird.
For some while before her death, my birth mother lived with her son in the same small Missouri community where I served as a parish pastor. We pumped our gas at the same station, walked the same grocery aisles, and used the same post office. I carry the same first name as my birth grandfather, who lived in the same Kansas town where I was raised.
I fantasized briefly—you bet I did—that she was following me, watching, hovering. No, she wasn’t; it was only coincidence.
I learned of her whereabouts shortly after writing that earlier piece. A lot of the details I still didn’t know then have since been fleshed out, thanks to my “aunt” who was married to Faye’s late brother. From my “aunt” I learned the family history as I turned pages in the photo album and saw the images of Faye, her parents, my half-brother, and others of the family.
Among the photos was one of her step-brother, Robert, who was my birth father (trust me; I got my good looks from Faye). I was shown a photograph of my half-brother from when he was three. We looked identical at that age.
My conception wasn’t anything as I imagined. My “aunt”—who did not know about me lurking in Faye’s background until my genealogically talented cousin found and contacted her—suspects they just got drunk one night and fooled around. That is my “aunt’s” best guess, knowing what she knew about them both.
When I was born, Faye had left her husband. She was a single mother with an eleven-month old son. My conception two months after his birth was an unparalleled disaster.
In much of my imagination I had pictured Faye as a tragic woman. That was always my strongest impression, a woman to whom life dealt an undeservedly bad hand. And maybe life did. Nothing described to me would suggest anything else.
Still, my “aunt” believes Faye would have said otherwise. Had she been asked, my birth mother would have described her life as good, satisfying, and fulfilled. She was ready for a party (and usually found one), looking for happy times, and always up for the next distraction. She never remarried after her divorce. Instead, she lavished herself on her son, to excess. My “aunt” did not think much of her parenting; Faye spoiled the boy. He never once visited his dying mother in the hospital.
My birth father, if alive, is nearing ninety. He lives, or lived, not far from where I live. My “aunt” has scant information on his condition and lost contact years ago after Faye’s death. He has never figured deeply in my speculations and for reasons I cannot adequately explain. Faye is the one who has always loomed largest. I considered hers the greater sacrifice and the deeper loss. But I wonder at that.
My adoption itself came through a baby broker, a Kansas City physician who was known for his connections to unwed mothers. He hawked babies to childless couples. I wonder about him, too. What if Faye, or someone like her, was pregnant in 1977, not 1947? What role would that physician who delivered me have played in 1977? There is little doubt in my mind that the circumstances of my conception would today produce a poster child for abortion. Ah, if only poor Faye had access to greater reproductive choices, do you think?
My mind pointlessly rattles inside the It’s-a-Wonderful-Life scenario. Being, of course, the object of a woman’s personal health decision, I would have nothing with which to compare a world without me, no angelic companion pointing out all the things that never happened without me. I would never know—nor would my seven children, or their children—any of the countless people whose lives have touched ours in magnificent and unmeasured ways. It would be a void, my abortion, so empty there would be no one ever to notice it.
But it is never that way, finally, even if it had been that way. God restores what he makes and nothing, I believe, is ever lost to him. When we say, “I believe in God . . . who made heaven and earth,” we mean to say that God who made both heaven and earth made you, made me. What he makes, he loves through eternity, and never is it a love misplaced.
Russell E. Saltzman is a former Lutheran pastor transitioning to the Roman Catholic Church. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at email@example.com, and his previous First Things contributions are here.