At Allegan District Library, the day after Christmas, I saw a photo of her for the first time. It was like looking at a photo of me that I’d never seen before: the hair, the glasses, the turtleneck sweater, the necklace — all were the same styles I’d worn.
But it was the face that convinced me that I had identified the woman who’d given birth to me, then immediately gave me up for adoption. Her face was my face.
For 32 years, I’d known nothing at all about Kathy, least of all her name. Now, after less than 30 minutes at the library, I knew not just her name, but the names of her parents, her two brothers, her first husband and her two sons — my half-brothers. I knew the name of the high school she’d attended, of the street where she’d lived until graduation. I knew that her mother, my grandmother, had died of complications from lupus when she was 48; that her youngest brother was in prison.
It was a little overwhelming.
Even so, there was one thing I didn’t know, one thing I could not stop wondering: Where is she now?
I didn’t know what I would do if I knew the answer. I hadn’t decided whether I wanted to try contacting her. For the moment, I just wanted as much information as I could get. Then I could decide what to do next.
Could I have passed Kathy’s house on my way to the library? Could I have passed her in traffic right here in town? Could she be just a few blocks away?
With my luck, I expected to find out she was living in Siberia. As it turned out, she was much, much closer.
I knew her married name from her mother’s obituary, so I searched through the phone book for that surname. The few people with matching last names could not be her, because I knew from the obituary that those people were her relatives.
So there was still family in town. If nothing else, maybe they would give me some information. I didn’t know if I could summon the courage to reach out to them, though. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.
My then-husband, who had some private investigation experience, suggested that we request Kathy’s marriage license from the courthouse. It would have her address at the time she got married.
I was physically and emotionally exhausted by then, and I felt a migraine coming on. I just wanted to sit on the information I already had.
It turned out the courthouse was across the street from the library, so my husband went inside while I waited in the car with a growling stomach and chattering mind. When he returned a few minutes later, I noticed immediately that his hands were empty.
Before I could voice my disappointment, he said, “I know where Kathy works.”
I stared at him, waiting. Then he told me that, when he asked for Kathy’s marriage license, the clerk had said, “Oh, Kathy works here. She’s off today, but she’ll be here tomorrow.”
Her coworker would undoubtedly tell her that someone was looking for her. I didn’t want her constantly looking over her shoulder, or flinching every time her phone rang or her doorbell chimed. This was my burning bush. God was telling me, “Reach out to your birth mother.”
But how? I definitely couldn’t just show up at her job and say, “Hi, I’m the baby you gave up for adoption.”
A phone call didn’t seem right, either.
So I did what I do best: I wrote to her.
It was the most torturous writing experience I’ve ever had. I wrote draft after draft after draft, but nothing sounded right. I complained to a friend, who said, “You’re trying too hard. Just say what you need to say and be done with it.”
Ding, ding, ding, ding!
Those wise, wise words freed me. I wrote a few short paragraphs that included all the information I had about when and where I was born. Then I included my phone number and address (e-mail was pretty new and I didn’t have it), and told her that she could contact me how she wished, if she wished.
Two weeks later, I found a letter in my mailbox with Kathy’s return address. I held it for the longest time, turning it over and over, happy enough just to have something so personal from her as a letter.
After many long minutes, I finally ripped open the envelope, and read the glorious words, “I have always hoped you would find me someday.”
— By Kelly O'Toole, Tribune community columnist