It was on a poker hot July afternoon 27 years ago when I drove from Little Rock, Ark., three hours west to the small town of Fort Smith. Just 48 hours earlier, a 16-year-old-girl had delivered a baby and knew throughout the pregnancy that she would be giving the baby up for adoption. That drive and seeing that newborn on June 30, 1986, would turn out to change the trajectory of my life forever. It continues to do so.
I had no desire to be a mother. I had no interest in parenting. I was a young, 34-year-old cancer surgeon and my career was on fire. My introduction to motherhood wasn’t years or months of waiting. I had no maternal longings. I had other things on my mind. I was making a name for myself as a woman in the exclusive men’s club of head and neck cancer surgery. My goal was to be the first female chair of an Otolaryngology Department at a prestigious university.
But funny things happen when you envision your life as linear. Out of the clear on a Saturday night I got a call at home from a young family medicine doctor in Fort Smith who heard through his sister, a pharmacist in my hospital, that I did not have any children. He told me that he remembered me from his rotation as a medical student on my surgical service, that I was kind to him, and that I came to mind when he found himself in this particular situation.
He was the doctor taking care of this young, pregnant girl, who never missed a prenatal check-up and usually came to her appointments alone. He had arranged a private adoption with a nice couple who already had a five year old. But at the last minute the family changed its mind. They just didn’t feel like going through the diaper stage again. So, he asked me, “Would you be interested in adopting this girl’s baby?”
It was a lightning bolt, to say the least, and I asked for some time to think it through. I figured I had time—maybe two weeks?— to sort things out. But I didn’t have time. Turns out, my daughter was delivered 48 hours later and a quick call from the hospital about my decision prompted an impulsive and immediate “yes.”
When I went to the nursery, I saw Kate immediately. I just knew which baby she was and I was right. She was perfect. I must have counted her fingers and toes a thousand times. She had the darkest eyes, a shock of black hair, and all the right holes in all the right places. When I got back to my office at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, my partners had painted an extra office pink, loaded it with a crib and diapers, and my fabulous assistant, Brenda, became an overnight nanny. You couldn’t do that today.
As soon as Kate could talk (and that was early) she knew she was adopted. There were no secrets. Over the years I had two other children, Kate’s siblings, Rachel and Charlie. They too have always known that their sister is adopted. While Kate’s mother did not know my identity, I knew the name of Kate’s birth mother, Cheryl. I always told Kate that to me, Cheryl was one of the strongest and bravest women I had ever known: so selfless and smart to know that she wasn’t equipped to raise a child at the age of 16; so courageous to hold a newborn and then surrender her to a stranger for the hope of a better life.
When Kate was 16, she off-handedly said she wondered who she looked like. What she didn’t know was that I had a letter from her birth mother, Kate’s sonogram, and a faded Polaroid of Cheryl holding Kate hours after the delivery. I had been waiting for years for a sign to give Kate those papers. To this day, no one has seen them but Cheryl, Kate, and me. But now they belonged to Kate. And in that moment I knew that her quest would start.
She wanted to find her birth mother. I remember my words of caution. I told her this was her journey and that I would do nothing to block it. I knew I was her mother and I had no doubt about her love for me. But I also warned her that finding someone is like opening Pandora’s box. It could be filled with spiritual presents or demons or disappointments. And she would have no control of the outcome. My second piece of advice was to wait until she was an adult and had some sense of self. Being a teenager is tough enough. And with that I gave her my blessing.
Years passed, web sites scoured, information posted and voila….Kate found her family: Cheryl, two siblings, a niece and nephew. We wondered how to proceed, and initially, the communication was cautious. There was Facebook, then email correspondence and then one day a phone call. On Kate’s 27th birthday, I asked her if I could call Cheryl and she said yes. As Kate nervously looked on, I had a short phone call with the woman who changed my life forever. I thanked her 27 times for giving me the opportunity to raise her daughter.
When the idea of meeting came up, I stepped aside and left that to Kate and Cheryl. After all, this was Kate’s journey and I didn’t want to influence her in any way. It turned out they were all in. We decided to meet in a neutral place, so we all headed to Little Rock the weekend of September 12. I was more anxious than I expected to be.
Cheryl was waiting for Kate in a park. I watched from a distance as Kate tentatively approached this woman who gave her—and me—so much. They paused in awkward silence and then hugged and giggled. As they sat down to talk, and stare at their facial similarities, I could hear Kate say, “I want to thank you for what you did. And I want you to know I’ve had a really good life.”
And then she asked her: “Would you like to meet my mom?”