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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Great Expectations (Part 8)

Heather had a Bachelor's degree in Administration of Justice. She did want most people do with their college degree. Something else.

She became a social worker.

She started out in drug and alcohol counseling at a halfway house in Champaign-Urbana. A few years later, she would work for Catholic Social Services, the very same agency that introduced us to open adoption. While her job titles varied, she would end up working as an adoption case worker for the next twenty-some years.

She worked with the adoptive parents, helping them assemble portfolios, arranging meetings with potential birthmothers and handling the paperwork. Most importantly, she counselled them through waiting periods as well as the grieving process whenever an adoption didn't go as planned.

The past fifteen years, she worked closely with birthmothers. Her experiences varied greatly. Sometimes she spent six or eight months with the birthmother, taking them to doctor's appointments, providing them with necessities, counselling them through difficult emotions before and after delivery. Other times, she received a call from a hospital and arrived to meet the birthmother a day after delivery. Sometimes the adoption went well.

Other times, it did not.

She didn't always share her experience with those she worked with. It all depended on whether it would be helpful or not. For birthmothers, it often was. Heather had been through the crises and survived. She knew the importance of counselling and support. She also realized how lucky she was to have had both.

Many birthmothers had neither.

Some were alone. Sometimes they lacked basic necessities or emotional coping skills or had aggressive birthfathers that wanted them to keep the child or aunts or grandparents or parents that weren't about let them give away their baby. One thing she always made clear.

Adoption was loving.

It wasn't about getting rid of a problem or shucking responsibility. In fact, for us it was the opposite. We made an adoption plan because we loved Michael. He needed a family that was ready for him, parents that were loving and stable and supportive. Our intuition was right on the money. Wayne and Cathy were great parents, and Kelsie a wonderful sister.

Heather and I married two years after Michael was born. Crises will make you grow up in a hurry. Our relationship had grown stronger. However, my dark years of depression were still upon me. It would be a few more years before I found my footing through counselling and meditation. 

Ben and Maddi were born in Illinois. In 1998, four months after Maddi was born, we moved to Charleston, SC where I began teaching college. Heather stayed at home with the kids but resumed working as an adoption case worker on a part-time basis. I was born in Charleston, IL and thought it was coincidental that we would raise a family in Charleston, SC. As coincidences go, it was nothing compared to what happened in 2008.

That was when Michael came to visit.

To tell that story, I need to tell this one first. There was a news story about a family that had a secret word. I don't remember what the word was or even what it meant. We just knew we needed to have one.

So one night at dinner, we decided our secret word would be hammer. (Full disclosure: the secret isn't really hammer.) And hammer meant I love you. I don't remember if Heather was on board at first. Our kids' have my sense of humor. We were sort of goofing on the whole secret word thing. Not sort of. We were goofing on it.

But then it stuck.

We wrote little notes signed hammer, texts with hammer, waved goodbye saying hammer. It really became our weird secret word. In fact, it became a password for the longest time. Many of our accounts were assigned hammer88. The number had no significance. It was just tacked on when passwords required a letters and numbers.


In 2008, Heather received an email from Michael. He was eighteen years old. We had received annual updates from Cathy and Wayne, saw him grow up through the years. Heather would send birthday cards every year. But now he was graduating high school. 

And he wanted to visit.

Angst. Elation. Apprehension. Everything was in the room when the email arrived. He was going on a road trip with two friends. We would meet them in Charleston. Times and dates and places were arranged, but that's not the odd part of this story. Sure, eighteen years separating us is not a common event. And why tell the whole story about secret words and hammers and passwords? It was Michael's email. His username.


His username contained our secret family word. Not only that, it had the number. The number.


How is this possible? It's not. It's just not.

But there we were looking at it. It was there. It happened. You might assume I'm spinning a yarn, adding spice to story that's not really in need of it. The odds of that word and number are... they're impossible. We've shared our silly inside joke with very few people, certain not something that would go in a birthday card or texted with directions. Definitely not something for a birthday card.

Micheal didn't have an explanation. He didn't seem to really know why he used that word and number.

None of this felt real anymore. Like some sort of surreal Matrix movie moment, an impossibility that suggested this was a dream. It was all dream. Too perfect.

But we didn't wake up. We met Michael in Charleston. The reunion was stunning. Heather and Michael recognized each other from a block away. They tearfully embraced as tourists passed in horse-drawn carriages.

They had no idea she'd waited 18 years for this moment.

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