My first series: My first meeting with mom

The Star's Rick Westhead writes about meeting his birth mother for the first time.




Thu., Dec. 30, 2010

Like most of the scrapbooks parents keep for their children, the one from my childhood contains a curly lock of hair from my first cut, a hospital bracelet and notes on milestones such as my first steps.

There is also a cartoon that shows a grinning couple with their new adopted baby. Its syrupy caption suggests adopted kids are born in their mother's hearts, not lower down in their anatomy.

Certainly, there was no sense when I was growing up in the suburbs of Toronto that there was any difference between the two adopted children in our family, including me, and the two biological offspring — and not just because Mom and Dad stressed that the only distinction between the two sets of kids was the method of delivery.

In a portrait taken at a photo studio, my three younger siblings and I even look like we were related.

Even so, I decided to start a search for my birth mother around the time I turned 21.

It wasn't a sense of emptiness that led me to fill out the necessary forms with the Children's Aid Society. My decision was borne of curiosity, practicality and a desire to say thanks.

My adopted sister, by contrast, has no interest in finding her own birth mother. “She didn't want me then, I don't want her now,” seems to be her philosophy.

It couldn't have been easy to be a pregnant teen in the early 1970s, and I thought my biological mother would appreciate knowing I wound up with a good family, and had a stay-at-home mom who was always willing to shuttle forgotten lunches or gym clothes to school.

I was assured that the search would take years and that even if I was able to track down my birth mother, and perhaps father, there was no guarantee they'd be interested in hearing from me. All I knew about my birth mother was that she was 15 when I was born and had an Anglo-Saxon background.

“You need to accept the possibility she won't want to see you or hear from you,” the Children's Aid counsellor said.

But I was preparing to move to New Brunswick for my first job in journalism, and I figured there was no harm in beginning the process. I could always change my mind later.

Eight years later, not long after taking a job with a media company based in New Jersey, I heard back.

It turned out my birth mother had been found in Ontario and was interested in talking to me. We started out with a few letters to each other. Then phone calls.

I don't remember much about those first few conversations, but one detail that jumped out was the fact my birth mother had left her hometown to open a shop on the main thoroughfare in Tillsonburg, the small southern Ontario town where, it so happened, I had spent many summers visiting my grandparents' dairy farm. No doubt I had driven by her store many times.

Finally, on Super Bowl Sunday in 1997, we met for the first time.

“What does she look like?” I asked my wife as she watched my birth mother and her three other children approach our house in Toronto.

I had a home-court advantage, and after my wife smiled and said my birth mother looked just like me, I moved to the second-floor window, taking the opportunity to study them all before they made it to the door.

I wasn't the only one who was anxious.

My birth mother, who said she had always wondered about where I was and what I was doing, had taken her other three children to The Keg to break the news that they had an older half-brother. “I need to move to the smoking section,” one of her kids said after a moment of stunned silence.

What was planned as a meeting over Sunday lunch turned into a seven-hour marathon of storytelling over many games of euchre.

As someone with a knack for finding the most expensive item of clothing on a store rack, I had an “aha” moment learning that my birth mother was a clotheshorse who pined for the finest Parisian designers.

And as a writer, I found it eerie to learn that my birth mother's family traced their lineage to Charles Dickens. I still haven't found out whether I might be in line for royalties.

There was never a celebratory meeting with my birth father, a high school teacher who had preyed on and impregnated one of his students.

The reunion between an adopted child and birth parent obviously stirs up a flurry of emotions. You're excited at a new family connection. During our first meetings, I remember studying my younger half-brother, who I think has the same eyes and mouth as I do.

But it hasn't always been a storybook reunification. The first time I travelled to visit my birth mother's family, my birth grandmother seemed to eye me suspiciously. The unspoken question: “Why is he here? What is he after?”

I understand that.

A decade after meeting my birth mother and siblings, our relationship reminds me of the kind I have with old high school friends who drift in and out of my life — we call or email from time to time.

I've come to an understanding that for me, it's not realistic to consider someone family if they haven't been there during times of sickness and struggles, or witnessed my small victories and more meaningful triumphs through the years.

I'm still not sure where I hope my relationship with my birth mother will go after I return to Canada from my Star posting in South Asia. I know that sounds odd, considering I have known who she is for more than a decade, but I am still cautious. Yet I worry, too, that she might find me too nonchalant.

She's my mother and yet she isn't my mother.

All I know for certain is that I no longer face the nagging question that many adopted children still grapple with. For that I am thankful.