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

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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.

Tony; his biological mother, Dorothy
Tony and his biological mother, Dorothy.

Photos courtesy of the author

The story of Philomena Lee and her son, told in the new movie starring Judi Dench, scorches me. Like her son, I was adopted. Like and unlike the story of Philomena and Michael (born Anthony), the story of my birth mother, Dorothy, and me, Anthony (born David), is filled with sorrow, mistakes, suffering—and profound, shocking joy.

I was born in Cincinnati in 1956, adopted as an infant, named Anthony for my adoptive father, and raised in a loving home. Parents who adopted then were counseled—correctly—to tell their children as early as possible that they were adopted. My parents told me in a proud fashion that they had “chosen” me (false), that I was the same ethnicity (false), and that because they chose me I was more special to them. Our closest friends included two people whom I grew up calling “Uncle” Jim and “Aunt” Mildred (names changed). No relation, but my parents felt particularly close to them since Mildred had shepherded my adoption through the Catholic adoption agency.

I accepted the doctrine of the era: I was adopted, I had only one family—my adopted family—and had no need to know anything more about anything, or anyone, else. My birth mother was an unmarried teenager from the Cincinnati area who “got in trouble” and gave me up for adoption. I never thought about the man. But then at 13, I started to wonder. An unknown man and woman had had sexual intercourse. I was the result. Who were they? What was their story? I felt I couldn’t ask my father, so, timidly, one afternoon, I approached my mother in the kitchen. Her startled, anguished look told me I had veered into a completely forbidden area. I slunk away, feeling that I had done something very wrong. I never asked her about it again.

Years passed. I left home, went to college, joined the Peace Corps, got married—but never wavered in my acceptance of my parents’ credo that they were all the family I ever needed. I would volunteer readily and rapidly to anyone that I was adopted. Occasionally, someone would ask if I was interested in knowing anything about my birth parents. I would answer that my adoptive family was my real and only family. End of discussion.

Early in our marriage, though, my wife gently asked me to consider searching to learn more about my roots. If we had children, shouldn’t we know at least about my genetic heritage, she would say. Each time, I lashed out furiously at her. How dare she bring up this forbidden topic? I guess I had been so seared by my earlier conversation with my mother that I adopted her view as an absolute: that it was unacceptable, insulting, and inappropriate for anyone to probe this area and if someone didn’t accept my short explanation, they were attacking me—and my adoptive family. But, after I’d repressed the thought for 20 years, my wife had started me thinking again. I quietly squirreled away a Washington Post article in 1993 on tools for searching for birth parents. In early 1994, I followed the article’s advice.

Following the required procedure, I wrote to Ohio state officials. Rapidly, they mailed me a copy of my “original” birth certificate. My name on it was David Simpson. My birth mother was Dorothy L. Simpson. Then, I learned that I could contact the Catholic adoption agency in Cincinnati to request additional information from its file on my adoption. One day in the spring of 1994, I received a call from someone at the agency who had gone through my record.

She told me the highlights: My mother wasn’t a teenager. She was almost 26 when she had me. She wasn’t from Cincinnati, not from Ohio at all. She was from a place called Pampa, Texas. Where was that?? (The Texas Panhandle, it turns out.) My father was Jewish, she had told adoption officials at the time. I had no idea of his name.

The record included lots of information from 1956. But it also contained something else: a letter from her to the agency in the late 1980s and the agency’s response. Both were read to me. Dorothy wrote that she had just been diagnosed with brain cancer, and she was looking to find out something about the son she had given up for adoption. Could they tell her anything? The response came from “Aunt” Mildred. No, they couldn’t, she had written to Dorothy. My memory of the short letter is that Mildred employed cold, stiff bureaucratic language.

Now the stories I’d told myself about my life were no longer true. Because I thought she’d been a teenager, I had long had a secret fantasy that I might look for her later in life, after my parents’ death. I never considered that she might be dead. And my father. If he was Jewish, I certainly wasn’t from the same ethnic background as my German mother and Sicilian father. And what about Mildred? I always had liked her and her gentle husband, Jim. But her letter was not just cold, it was cold-hearted.

As I did more research, I learned that, although Mildred had given the “correct” bureaucratic response, many more empathetic people had bent the rules and provided birth mothers with a little bit of information. Mildred could at least have written Dorothy to tell her that she knew that I was healthy and happy, living in a good family. I never felt the same toward Mildred again.

I also realized that my adoptive parents had followed a “script” provided to many parents like them in the 1950s. They were advised to tell me from the beginning that I was adopted, quickly adding that that meant that I was particularly wanted. If they added false details giving the impression that they walked through an orphanage “choosing” me, that was OK, too. In my case, though, I ultimately discovered that the reality turned out to be that they had requested a newborn child ethnically similar to them. I was what the agency came up with. That’s a form of “choosing” but not the vision I’d carried in my head.

I rapidly shifted from a strict believer in adoption orthodoxy and secrecy to someone who wanted to know everything about his background. More than that, someone who believed it was my right—and every other adoptee’s right—to know. Who were the state, the adoption agency, my adoptive parents, anybody, to tell me that I couldn’t know about something as basic as the identity of the man and woman who came together to create me?

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.

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.