I Searched for My Birth Mother and Learned: She’d Died, and She’d Been Desperately Searching for Me

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Feb. 24 2014 11:30 PM

My Philomena

I searched for my birth mother and learned two things: She’d recently died. And she’d been desperately searching for me.

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My initial focus was my birth mother. The person from the Cincinnati agency had no additional information. I began to search furiously, and, fairly quickly, I was able to trace her to a little place in East Texas called Toledo Village. On advice from my wife, who did so much to help me cope and adjust, I contacted the local post office in Texas. The woman who answered the phone told me that Dorothy had died years before. Since I had known that she had brain cancer as of 1988, I had expected something like this. Still, I was devastated. I remember night after night sobbing as I tried to imagine who this woman was, what she had gone through—thinking that she was my mother, my mother whom I had never known. This only increased my focus on learning more about who Dorothy Simpson had been.

Through various connections, I was able to speak with a neighbor who knew her. I learned from him that Dorothy had died in early 1989. But then, in an astoundingly unexpected twist, I learned that Dorothy’s mother, my birth grandmother, Norma Simpson, was alive and still living in Toledo Village. I immediately wrote Norma and then called her. Over the phone, she immediately and graciously accepted my request to come to visit her. When we first met, I saw Norma merely as my vehicle to get to know her daughter, Dorothy. I soon came to love her on her own terms. She was a magnificently tough, tender woman. And she loved me without reserve. I felt the same. We had 10 spectacular years together, and she got to know and love her two great-granddaughters. One day, we were sitting in our favorite coffee shop in Beaumont, Texas, where she was living. A complete stranger walked over to us. She said “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I just have to tell you that I can’t stop watching you because your love for one another fills this room.” When Norma died peacefully nearly a decade ago, I was at her deathbed. However, when I think of the story of her daughter—my mother—Dorothy, I feel a sadness so profound that I have come to believe that my unconscious self must work tirelessly to repress such grief.

Philomena found out too late about her son; he died before she could meet him as an adult. I searched too late for my birth mother; Dorothy died searching fruitlessly for me. All she could do when she wanted to find me was to give her name to a voluntary registry for birth parents and adoptees—until her final, desperate, unsuccessful appeal to “Aunt” Mildred. Unless I also registered, there was no way for her to find me. But I never even considered registering until too late. Yet, I know this as profoundly as I know anything: If Dorothy had been able to contact me in the late 1980s as she was dying, I, a man then in my early 30s, would have dropped everything—everything—to run and meet her. That that did not happen is the greatest loss, gap, and regret in my life. But my regret shrivels to nothing when I compare it to the unnecessary pain of Dorothy Simpson, wondering on her deathbed what had happened to the baby boy to whom she gave birth in Cincinnati.

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Here is a bit more of her story, as I learned it from my birth grandmother and other relatives. Dorothy was unmarried, living with her mother in a small house in a small town in East Texas called Orange in the mid-1950s. Since their bedrooms were close, Norma noticed in the summer of 1955 that her daughter was regularly crying at night. When Norma confronted her, Dorothy confessed her pregnancy. Norma met with the man in question, who told her his name was “Fred Koch” (pronounced “cook”; real spelling unknown. This is the only source I have regarding my birth father, whom I have never been able to locate, despite numerous attempts). He also told her that he was married and Jewish, so he couldn’t “do the right thing” and marry Dorothy. Norma curtly dismissed him. I could still feel her disdain for my birth father when she told me the story nearly 40 years later.

Then, mid-1950s Catholic orthodoxy and its complex system to “protect” girls who “got in trouble” kicked in, similar to what happened to Philomena. Norma and Dorothy consulted with the local parish priest, who advised them what Dorothy needed to do. They agonized over the decision. Norma admitted to me that it was she who pushed Dorothy to give me up for adoption. She also confessed that she knew that Dorothy continued to question whether giving me up was the right decision.

Nevertheless, Dorothy announced that she had gotten a “job” in Cincinnati, far away from her relatives in Texas and Oklahoma. She moved to Cincinnati before she started to show that she was pregnant with me. She stayed there until she gave birth. She held me for two weeks, signed away all rights to know anything further about me, got back on a plane and returned to Texas, telling people that the “job” hadn’t really worked out. Some of her relatives (all of whom I have now met) told me years later that they had suspicions about what had really happened, but the etiquette of the time was to not ask “awkward” questions.

According to Norma, Dorothy never recovered from her choice to go to Cincinnati and the pain of giving me up forever. She returned to Texas miserable, depressed, not eating, listless. She finally moved after a few years to Southern California, where she married an alcoholic man who already had children from an earlier marriage and had had a vasectomy. Dorothy ultimately found work she loved as a school librarian, surrounded by children.

When, five years after Dorothy’s death, I first met Norma, and then Dorothy’s relatives—cousins, aunts, and uncles to Dorothy—one of them told me this: “You don’t understand yet what this means to us, Tony. You look like her. You talk like her. You walk like her. It’s like she’s come back again.” Another was terser. When I walked into the room and he saw me for the first time, he looked me up and down, nodded, and said, “Yep.”

For obvious reasons I have come to strongly believe in the absolute right of adoptees to know about their birth background. I also now believe that birth parents should have the right to contact their children, once they reach the age of 18, with the children given the ability either to respond and engage or to remain anonymous. Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, and Oregon are the only states that allow an adoptee to receive copies of their original birth certificate once the adoptee turns 18. Ohio adopted a law last year that will permit all adoptees, with some conditions, to get their original birth certificates starting in March 2015. Even before the passage of this law, I fell into a category of adoptees that had access to their original birth certificates upon request.

What can a woman do today to find the son or daughter she gave up for adoption? In a few states, there are systems to facilitate reunions if both parties consent. But in most states, she would still be unable to find her child unless the adoptee joined a registry. In Ohio today, if Dorothy Simpson were still alive (Dorothy would only be 83), and I wasn’t part of a registry, she still would not be able to find me. How many Dorothys are desperately looking today for their Davids?

Oh, and Philomena, the hit movie? It is too close to my story. I can’t bear to watch it. But, like the story of Philomena and her son, Dorothy Simpson’s tragedy must be remembered. That is the task for her only child, the son she named David. I do it now to honor my mother Dorothy’s memory and in the hope that we as a society might move much more rapidly to take the easy steps to prevent such needless pain.

Tony Gambino is a consultant working on international issues. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

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