The letter my birth mother received from a court-appointed confidential intermediary on the last day of January in 2009 looked like junk mail. The return address was typed, and the label with her name and address was askew, as if slapped on by a machine. She said she nearly threw the envelope away but decided–she doesn’t know why–to open it anyway. She stood at her kitchen counter for a long time before placing the letter in her pocket. She read it four times that day. Then she went to tell her husband, my birth father, that I had found them.
A copy of my original birth certificate arrived on the last day of June, three years later. It got stuck in the mail slot in our front door, and my husband unwedged it and set it aside on our dining room table. Crumpled and damp from a middle-of-the-night thunderstorm, it looked like a throwaway, too, except that I was expecting it. The surprise was that it arrived when it did. The Division of Vital Records in Springfield, Ill., received thousands of requests for original birth certificates when a new law began allowing adoptees to request copies of their original birth certificates beginning Nov. 15, 2011. I didn’t send my request in until mid-January 2012 and had expected to wait a year, maybe two, based on assessments in various newspaper articles and adoption forums. I waited less than six months. I waited almost six months.
Earlier this spring, at the American Adoption Congress in Denver, I attended a screening of footage from filmmaker Jean Strauss‘ documentary-in-progress, Opening Day, about Illinois adoptees who applied for their original birth certificates under the new law. (Strauss’ short documentary, Vital Records, which you can view here, is about the ongoing debate over adult adoptee access to original birth certificates.) One of the adoptees featured in Opening Day throws herself a party to celebrate the receipt of her birth certificate. She opens her envelope in front of a reception hall filled with family and friends. Another person films herself opening the letter, weeping when she reads aloud her original name, and her original mother’s, for the first time.
I opened my letter after church, sitting at the dining room table, with my children buzzing around me. Three years into reunion, there were no surprises, no held breaths, not even a ceremonial moment of quiet to myself. I didn’t feel any more or less myself for holding this piece of paper in hand, but I felt enormously grateful for the tireless efforts of adoption rights advocates, people like Illinois State Representative Sara Feigenholtz, who sponsored the open records bill that finally passed in Illinois. If it weren’t for them, I would not have this beginning of who I am. Even if it doesn’t make a huge difference in my own story at this point, it makes a difference in the story of adoption. It matters.
My original birth certificate revealed what I already learned when I met my birth family a few years ago. I tried to imagine what this journey would have been like had it started here, as it has for so many other Illinois adoptees, watching their history take shape for the first time on a clean piece of white paper that still managed to smell musty. But the truth is, I can’t undo what I know. So, in the end, I get confirmation. She is our birth mother. She is from North Dakota. She gave birth to us at Illinois Masonic Medical Center. She was 23. The street address for both her current residence and her mailing address at the time of our birth is the now shuttered Florence Crittenton Anchorage on Washington Boulevard in Chicago.
Here, too, my birth father remains the shadow he was for so much of my life. The only information about him is his age–listed as 26. He was actually 27 when my sister and I were born.
It’s the signatures that give me pause, the tall, hurried scrawl of the attending doctor, the one my birth mother remembers trying to buy us for $1,500. He’s more real here in a signature than in the typed name on my amended birth certificate. And here’s my birth mother’s signature, too–the “Informant’s Signature.” Her name, in her own hand, is the first I have–is all I have–of who she was when she was still our mother. It says so on the birth certificate. Informant’s Relation to Child: Mother. Not birth mother. Not natural mother. Not first mother. Just mother.
Mother signs her name in a tidy, teacher’s script, though she was not yet a teacher. She must have written her name and gone back–or was directed?–to include her middle initial, an “L,” the same as mine. A tiny caret, a proofreader’s mark, points the reader to the first letter of her middle name.
Several weeks ago, my husband and I refinanced our home to take advantage of lower interest rates. While signing papers, I forgot to include my own middle initial on one of the documents. I drew the same caret, inserting an identical “L” in the white cloud between my first and last names.
In this signature moment of my birth, there is only this one slip, pointing to what is about to unfold. Oh, yes, everything is coming together nicely now, the t’s crossed, the i’s dotted, all there, right before it falls apart.
For nearly four decades, nobody will notice.