I know my birth father never held me before I was given up for adoption because he didn’t come to the hospital the day I was born, but I don’t know if my birth mother ever had the opportunity. I never got to ask her because she died when I was seven years old, long before I learned her identity. I’ve consulted psychics to find out. One said yes but the other said no—she wasn’t prepared to give me up and stood staring out an old hospital room window that day. The nuns and her mother made her do it.
At one point, years ago, I even tried age regression hypnosis. In my session, the hypnotist took me back to my birth. I felt her reach for me, but the hospital staff wouldn’t let her hold me. I was consumed with the most profound grief after that experience, the depths of which I knew must be real.
All the people who could have answered my questions are gone now. I was 23 years old when I found my birth family, and I met my granny only twice. She seemed sweet, but she was also quiet and stoic, and I felt she was holding back. I was so anxious to be accepted that I was afraid to ask too many questions. I didn’t want her to think I was rude, regret my return, and not want to be my granny anymore. She told me that I had lots of dark hair when I was born. This surprised me because I was completely bald and looked like a boy when I was adopted at 3½ months old.
I wish I had asked if she was in the room when I was born or if she had seen my dark hair through the nursery glass. I also wanted to know if my mother had hidden away when she was pregnant with me. Why didn’t she keep me? Did she even want to? Did she love me? But I feared that prying would bring up old wounds; after all, my granny had lost her only daughter to a brain aneurysm when she was just 30 years old. I would have done anything to feel a sense of belonging when I met Granny, even if it meant not fulfilling my deepest wish, which was to learn about my mother. That was 38 years ago, and I still regret not having enough courage to ask more questions.
A few weeks ago, my birth father passed away. It was unexpected, and I was on a plane to Canada within 11 hours of hearing he had been taken off the ventilator. It took two days to get there with delayed flights and lost bags. I was afraid I’d miss the chance to be with him. He was supposed to pass within three hours but lived an additional three-and-a-half days after my arrival. That was just like him. He didn’t want to put anyone out, was always taking care of everyone, and didn’t want to leave his wife. Who would tie her shoes and bring her food at the Senior Center? He was a good and honest man, a father I would have loved to grow up with.
When I had asked him about my birth years earlier, he didn’t offer many details other than that he wasn’t there. I wish I had tried to have the conversation a second time. I wanted to know why he didn’t come to see me at the hospital when Granny called him. All he’d ever said was that she wanted him to pay the hospital bill but didn’t want him to have anything to do with me.
I also wonder if Granny didn’t mention that I was being given up for adoption. Maybe my birth father thought he would have a chance to meet me some other day. But that still doesn’t explain why he didn’t want to see me right away when I was born. Wasn’t he curious? Didn’t he think I was worth paying the medical bill for? Had I possessed more courage, I would have asked those questions in hope of receiving a more detailed answer.
I will never understand his actions at the time of my birth, but I do know that he acted differently later on. Because he knew how important it was to me, he went through the red tape of providing my birth mother’s death certificate and giving his permission as my father to release my previously sealed adoption records. He also obtained my original birth certificate, which contained my real name, Gloria Debra Reed, and my birth mother’s real signature, Ida Celina Reed. It was he who told me that I was conceived on Halloween.
It was in 1980 when he stepped off the plane in Sacramento to meet me for the first time. His wife and I didn’t tell him that a camera crew was waiting for him at the airport to interview us for a series on adoption. She told him the secret just as he was standing up to depart the plane. He was already nervous even before that. He wasn’t like me; he was shy, soft-spoken, and humble.
He looked like Elvis in his younger years. Women swooned when they saw him. Some asked to take his picture, which always embarrassed him. Even in his 80s, he still looked youthful and was active. He was always busy fixing things and making sure everyone was taken care of. My siblings were lucky to have him for their father.
While I was with family during my birth father’s final days, I heard many wonderful stories about him—stories about events I hadn’t experienced. Sitting at his bedside with my siblings, holding his hand, praying and crying during those days, I realized that they were crying for all the memories they had with him. I was crying for the ones I’d missed.
I had a lot of time to reflect in that hospital room, and for the first time, I let myself indulge in “what if?” What if my father had gone to the hospital? What if his interest had made my mother want to keep me? What if she had brought me home and I had been her daughter for seven years? Would I have been a different woman, felt less insecure, made better choices? Would I have gone to live with my father after she passed away? Like my siblings, would I have gotten to experience having a dad who taught me to drive and fish? Would we have attended hockey games together and spent weekends at the cabin? Would my father have been a friend to my friends? Bought me my first home? I don’t know. I do know that I didn’t have any of that with Daddy, my adopted father.
At the funeral home, while we were making arrangements for the cremation, gathering death certificates, and collecting other documents, the director asked if my birth father had a will. He did. It had been made nine months earlier, when his dementia worsened and he needed surgery for a pacemaker. I don’t know why, but I asked to see it as it was being passed around. I didn’t expect to receive anything; it wasn’t about that. I just wanted to see his name, touch the last tangible thing belonging to my father. When I glanced at the first paragraph, it listed his name and the full names of all his children. But mine was missing. I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut and quickly handed the will back, pretending not to notice. I sat through the rest of the meeting in a daze. I wasn’t listed as his child in this final document. It crushed me.
All I have of him—besides my straight hair, thin legs, and youthful skin—are some photos, a few videos, the patient wristband he wore in his final days, and the blue file that his wife gave me the day I flew home.“Here, this is yours,” she said as she pushed it toward me. This felt so final, like I was being dismissed, handed the last of my belongings. To soften it, she said, “ I’ve been getting rid of things.” I nodded and flipped through it without seeing the contents. Trying to hide my shock, I said, “Oh, thank you.” In my hand I held the remnants of our life together. On the outside of the folder, he had written in black felt pen, “Monica’s Files.” Inside was a list of all my old addresses and phone numbers, along with my children’s names and birthdates. There were copies of the adoption papers he had obtained for me and all the letters I had sent him over the years, including one where I thanked him for the money I had used to buy a TV when I was a single mother. He even kept copies of the American funds money orders he sent for holidays and my children’s birthdays.
While spending those last days in the hospital with my birth father, I sought out the area where the old nursery wing had been. I wanted to experience the space where I had last been with my mother, hoping to feel some closeness to her. I also wanted to see what my birth father hadn’t. The old hospital had been expanded and modernized, so I didn’t know if the wing would still be there—or, if it were, whether it would be recognizable as a nursery ward. When I crossed the bridge connecting the buildings, I was surprised to find it abandoned and dim though mostly unchanged, illuminated by only a few fluorescent lights at the far end of the hall.
I was hoping to see the window my mother had looked from that day. I wondered what she saw and what she had been thinking. I also wondered if she had wanted my father to be there. I tried the doors to what had been the patient rooms, but they were locked. The nursery wing looked to have been turned into an office. The large baby-viewing window, with its 50s-style wire meshed glass, had since been frosted and was no longer see-through. A single nursery sign still hung above a door where I may have once slept: Nursery 37.
As I looked down the empty hall, I imagined the day my mother left me there, her soft footsteps on the speckled mosaic floor as she passed, blue eyes avoiding the patient rooms with their bright windows and new mothers feeding bundles of joy while the fathers sat at the bedside to admire their new families. I pictured busy nurses rushing by, ogling visitors who stood at the nursery glass, a kaleidoscope of life moving all around my mother, people unaware of her sacrifice as she made her way to the elevator and her life without me. It was both the furthest I’ve ever been from her and the closest I have ever felt to her.
My father and I came full circle at the hospital that week. Even though he wasn’t there at the beginning of my life, I was there at the end of his. It felt complete somehow. I am grateful for those sleep-deprived days because I was able to make peace with my mother, too. I learned that grief is a shapeshifter. It changes based on the circumstances, but never really goes away.