This year I got follow-ups from letter writers with a wide range of problems: trying to make contact with an unwilling biological mother, trying to avoid a malicious classmate from long ago, trying to convince the in-laws you’re marrying another of their daughters, trying to get your son’s girlfriend’s breasts covered up—and more.
The letter in March from Shunned, a middle-aged adoptee who had located her biological mother and was seeking a meeting, provoked a lot of outrage in the comments. The mother had kept the existence of Shunned a total secret and refused to have anything to do with her. Shunned was now considering contacting the mother’s other children, half brothers she’d never met, to at least get family medical information. I encouraged her to let it go—I suggested the story of her conception might have been a traumatic one. I said she will probably never get the emotional satisfaction she was seeking from her birth mother, and so she should look for it in the family she had created. Readers ferociously took the letter writer to task for what they saw as harassment of an old woman. I thought the piling-on was unfair; imagine having your mother forever think your existence was a source of despair and shame.
Shunned wrote back with a nuanced story about her life and her search. She said she felt stung by the comments and wanted to explain her motivation. Her adopted mother had always been cold and distant. She wrote, “I've been emotionally rejected by two mothers and I have the therapy bills to prove it!” After her letter appeared in the column she wrote two final letters to her biological family. One to her mother saying she would never contact her again. The other to her biological uncle—her mother’s brother—explaining who she was and what she was seeking. “To my surprise, he immediately telephoned. He was cordial and straightforward,” she wrote. He himself was estranged from his sister, but he provided her information about how she had come to be, and sent her photos and a written family history. She wrote: “He replaced a lifetime of fantasy with facts—most of it unsavory and quite sad.” She also heard from him that her two half brothers were themselves estranged from their mother, and she decided not to contact them. Even though the story she got is not a happy one, she says simply knowing has brought great inner peace and a sense of calmness.
One piece of advice I wish I could do over was my original reply to Panicked Patient, who wrote in August. She’d been tormented in high school by a classmate, and no adult, including her parents, ever came to her rescue. Panicked hadn’t seen her nemesis in more than 30 years, but recently discovered the former classmate was a nurse on the floor in the hospital where she was scheduled for surgery. She said she didn’t want to make trouble for this woman—who may have long outgrown her bullying ways—but didn’t know what to do. I responded that it would be awkward to bring this situation up with the hospital, and that if she happened to get the former classmate as a nurse she should just keep the interaction professional. Yes, I’m appalled at myself all over again! Readers in droves told me how wrong I was and said Panicked should speak to the nursing supervisor or patient advocate and explain she didn’t want that particular nurse attending to her for personal reasons. I retracted my advice in print and also contacted the letter writer. She updated me a couple of times. Indeed she spoke to the both the head of nursing and the patient advocate, and said she didn’t want the nurse attending to her because of their personal history. The representatives did want to make sure the problem had nothing to do with the quality of care by the nurse in question. Panicked, who is a nice person (“I didn't have any desire to get her into trouble”), assured them it did not. Her surgery and recovery went well, and she never saw the nurse during her four-day stay. As she was being wheeled out, however, her former classmate was at the nursing station. “She pretty much ignored me, which was fine by me,” Panicked wrote.
A wrenching letter was written by Not Taboo, a man who had lost his young wife to a drunk driver. Several years after her death, her younger sister moved to his city, they started seeing each other, fell in love, and now planned to be married. His problem was that his in-laws had never liked him, and he and his fiancée had no idea how to break the news to them. In an initial follow-up to me, he explained the reasons for the in-laws’ animosity: He was a nonpracticing Jew; they were evangelical. Additionally, when his wife died, he was traveling and unreachable immediately following the accident, and her parents irrationally blamed him for “abandoning” her. He said that his fiancée was going to take my advice and speak to her parents alone, explain she hoped they could support her choice, but that she was committed to going ahead with the marriage. In a second follow-up, Not Taboo said she had done just that. The news went over poorly with her parents who said they would refuse to attend the wedding. But more happily, the rest of both her family and his are supportive of the marriage and intend to be at their small ceremony in the spring.
Another wedding-related dilemma was from a letter writer about to be married, whose father was refusing to attend if the young woman invited her former stepmother, with whom the father was in a long-running custody battle. The letter writer considered her former stepmother to be a close friend and didn’t know what to do about the father’s demand to disinvite her. I said that given his behavior no wonder his marriages cratered, and suggested she tell him the stepmother’s invitation stands and that he could come or not. She wrote back, “Thank you so much for confirming that he was the one being unreasonable, and not me. I told him exactly what I thought of his behavior, his ridiculous custody battle, his treatment of his family and how it was impacting our relationship as well as those with all his other children.” After she let him have it, he indeed showed up at the wedding. He did not bring his new wife (who I’m assuming will one day be his new ex-wife), he stayed an hour, and he didn’t socialize. However, she writes, “I want to believe that somewhere in him is the Dad I loved as a little girl, and that it was a little bit of that long-lost person that made him get over himself and show up for his daughter's big day.”