There’s little excitement in sitting at a computer, but on one warm weekday afternoon in June 2013 it was nail-bitingly dramatic. I was at my home office desk, out of work early from a crappy temp job, and a little scared. There she was on the screen, on Facebook—my birth mother, Diane. And there I was, staring stupidly at a blank “New Message” box trying to figure out what I wanted to say.
That wasn’t the first time I tried to contact her. It was more like the fourth. Since 2007, I’d written a letter, called her house, and even asked the case worker who had handled my adoption in 1982, to write a letter. I had hoped that communicating via a third-party might somehow do the trick.
But each time, my efforts were met with silence. In my first letter to her, I dumped out decades of emotional baggage. “Dear Diane, I think I might be your son,” I had written.
Years later, a therapist suggested, for a variety of reasons, that I be slightly more circumspect in my attempts; “hint at a family connection,” she had told me. “Be light, be casual, be vague—in case of inquisitive spouses.”
That’s what went wrong with the letter; I must have scared her off. And the phone call—had she received the message or had her husband heard it? But reaching out directly to her on Facebook? Maybe this could work.
Play it cool. That was my mantra—just say that you think you might be related and that you want to talk with her, nothing too heavy, nothing too emotional.
If you could’ve seen me that day, you’d think I had dressed for playing it cool. Khaki shorts, a white button-down shirt, sandals, and the beginning of a summer tan—I looked ready for a backyard barbecue. But trust me when I say that, in that moment, no one had ever worked harder at casually dashing off a Facebook message.
“Dear Diane, I am doing some genealogy research and I think we might have a family connection…” I listed my birth date and the name of the hospital where I was born. “I’d really love to talk. Please contact me.” I clicked “Send” before I could have second thoughts, then left to meet my girlfriend for coffee.
I’d hoped it was the last message like that I’d have to send—that this time, she’d reply, and acknowledge me in some way.
I started searching for her in 2005, the same year that Facebook opened up its network to the non-collegiate public and the same year my home state, New Hampshire, became one of the first states to reopen access to original birth certificates, which is how I learned her name.
The digital landscape of the early 2000s is almost unimaginable now. There were no smartphones and maybe only a half-dozen social networks. Our lives were still largely analog, and that’s how my search started, with snail mail and phone calls and copy machines.
Up until then, all I knew, thanks to my adoptive parents Vic and Sue, was that I had been adopted through New Hampshire Catholic Charities when I was three months old, that my birth mother had been in college somewhere in the state when I was born, and that her sister may have been allergic to bees.
I remember childhood summers, the sun bright and hot, and my mother dutifully shooing me away from any spot that might attract bees. At ice cream stands, you could hear my mother through the din of customers: “Larry, get away from that garbage can. There are bees all around it! You don’t want to get stung! What if you have an allergic reaction?!” We weren’t what you’d call a very outdoorsy family.
Her warnings worked. I avoided being stung until I was 21, when I ran afoul of a bee while repainting an old barn. As a spot on the back of my right hand swelled, I sat down and calmly waited for certain death. Nothing happened, though, and after 20 minutes, satisfied that I wasn’t going into the throes of anaphylactic shock, I cracked open a can of soda and resumed painting.
My search has been a lot like that bee sting, a string of accidental revelations. I caught a break in 2007 when I found Diane in a state university alumni directory.
On a humid Saturday morning in July of that year, I sat in the university library with Diane’s college yearbook open in front of me, looking at her picture for the first time. It was the first time I’d ever seen anyone who looked like me. Her smile tipped me off. It’s my smile, too—one that unfolds from our lips to reach a crescendo in our cheeks—a smile that lingers in the eyes.
Another lucky break and a little detective work yielded her married name and address. I learned that she still lived in New Hampshire, a two-hour drive from my home on the seacoast.
That was when I wrote my first letter. Two carefully printed and handwritten pages on a yellow legal pad, telling Diane about my life and how I would like to get to know her. She never responded.
In 2011, in a fit of daring, I called and left a message on her home phone. She never replied.
While the analog portion of my search for information proved fruitless, the digital side was greatly successful.
Thanks to the internet, I cobbled together a sketch of my birth mother’s life, and my biological family, through a series of late-night Google searches.
I learned about Diane’s three kids, her husband, and the church they attended. I read letters she had written to the local newspaper and found articles about her kids, their victories with local sports teams and spelling bee wins. An obituary for my great-grandmother yielded the names of cousins, aunts, uncles, and a legion of relatives I’d never even considered.
The clincher was a photo from Diane’s local newspaper of her and her children posing with a representative of a local charity. For their latest birthday, her twins donated their gifts to a children’s charity. Diane and the kids looked as though they’d just returned from soccer practice, or maybe from a family hike—glowing, beaming, full of life.
By the summer of 2013, I’d found my biological aunt—the one with the apocryphal bee allergy—on Facebook. And through my aunt, I had also found Diane. Her profile indicated that she’d joined a few months earlier.
Diane’s profile added more to my sketch: she had a dog and ran in 5Ks along with the rest of the family. There were no pictures of her, just her kids, my half-siblings. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be part of that family, running together with them— unconcerned of errant bees.
After sending that Facebook message to Diane, thoughts of a potential reply in my inbox consumed me during the coffee date with my girlfriend. I rushed to my computer as soon as I returned home and logged in to Facebook. My wall was empty. I scanned through my messages and saw it: Blocked. Diane had blocked me.
After eight years and many attempts to contact her, Diane had finally acknowledged me. It was that first bee sting all over again. A moment of pain, followed by nothing at all.
Today, I’ve got a folder full of digital artifacts, articles, photos, and familial facts, though I still feel little comfort.
Is it better to know something about Diane and her family—my family—than nothing at all? Is any acknowledgement, even if it’s a passive rejection over Facebook, preferable to those unanswered letters and phone calls?
It’s been a year since I sent that Facebook message. I’m still not sure which I prefer. I think, now and then, of writing another letter, of calling her one more time. I wonder if I can face a fifth or sixth rejection, and I wonder if that’s a reasonable price to pay for potentially knowing my mother.
Each time I log on to Facebook, I hope Diane will have returned my message. When I get my mail, I hope that mixed in with all the bills and catalogs, I will find a letter from her. Mostly, I hope that one day soon, she’ll make the next move.
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