On the morning I was supposed to meet my biological family for the first time, I went running. I ran because I've always run. Especially before major events. Not a race-worthy sprint, but the kind of run that calms nerves and would, ideally, clear the jumble of possible scenarios coursing through my brain. It was a run that would help me feel grounded.
I ran the first 3 miles of my planned 5-mile run in Brooklyn and ended in a park surrounded by other morning joggers. I was feeling strong and then unexpectedly, I threw up. In front of the ladies doing tai chi and a really muscular guy ... in front of everyone. Twice.
Despite me assuring everyone that I was fine, that I was totally prepared and OK for this moment, I realized that deep down, maybe I was not.
I've always known that I was adopted. That fact was as intrinsic to my being as was my brown hair, my penchant for peanut butter, my distaste for country music. It made me feel "special" when I was little, that I was an "outsider" when I was a teen, and then finally, that it was just part of who I was. That like the freckles on my arm or any other single facet, it neither defined me nor could I be myself without it. By the time I came to that conclusion, I was 22-years-old, ink fresh on my graduate degree and about to start a job at a major newspaper in New York City. My closed adoption was just that -- case closed. And then something remarkable happened.
I got a phone call.
"Hello Amy. This is Monda. I've got some news that I think you'd really like to know -- something you've probably been waiting a long time to hear."
Monda, as I would learn, was a private investigator based in Texas. I pictured her sitting there, in some generic cubicle, toying with a stress ball and leafing through a giant file of my most private information. She had been hired by my biological family to find me and now, she could tell me everything about them. And wasn't that wonderful? I balked. No, it was terrible. I never wanted to be found. I wouldn't like to know and, in fact, had not been waiting any period of time to hear this.
I'd grown up in a picturesque Florida beach town and while neither my childhood nor my family were perfect, they were mine. And they were all I wanted and loved. My dad, an Air Force vet, opened a photography business that my mom helps manage. They adopted me when they were both 39 and I grew up in a house thoroughly loved -- one crammed with photos, art and antiques. My adoption was never off-limits for discussion, but I never felt the need to know my exact origins. Our family was thicker than biology.
Yet, out of sheer curiosity, I listened to Monda. My biological parents, who conceived me as teenagers, had stayed together. They had married. They had two more children. A boy and a girl. I had a brother and a sister. They did not wish to replace my family. But they were hoping, that in time, perhaps we could develop a friendship.
And that silence ensued for about two years. I can't exactly pinpoint why I reached out to them. Maybe it was the recent Thanksgiving I'd spent with my family in Jersey that had me thinking about family. Maybe it was because my then-relationship had started to sour and I wanted some good. Maybe it was just a gut feeling, one that can't be explained. At any rate, I emailed my bio family on December 1, 2010. And graciously, miraculously, they still wanted to get to know me.
So we started emailing. What do you say to someone who has never known you but carried you for nine months? We began slowly and I withheld a lot about myself -- everything from the fact that I was bad at sports to the age at which I started dating. For a long time, I also withheld most of the information about my parents. I felt immediately protective of them in a way I didn't know was possible. Every part of me said to proceed with caution.
When the emails turned to phone calls and those turned to Skype, we began discussing them visiting me here in N.Y.C. My parents wanted to come as well -- not to meet my biological family, just for the moral support. It took months, but seemed like no time at all, and as if overnight, the day arrived. And there I was, standing on the side of a running path, vomiting.
Later that morning, as I paced near the vending machines, just steps from their door at a midtown Manhattan hotel, I again felt the urge to be sick. I had spent a long time picking out the lightweight black dress I wore and yet it felt oddly misshapen on my body now. I brought them all New York-centric gifts -- Betsey Johnson earrings, a Jonathan Safran Foer book, a Kate Spade photo frame -- that now suddenly seemed really lame. What would we talk about?
My biological family and I are very different, I had learned. They are evangelical Christians. I am, well, liberal. The last thing I wanted to do was begin a debate on evolution, abortion, gay marriage, economics, healthcare or any other topic where I suspect we do not share the same views.
I was nervous. I was pretty sure I'd say something insulting. I wanted them to think I was cool, not aloof; smart, in an unpretentious way. I wanted them to think I'd turned out OK. I wanted them to be proud.
And yet when the door opened and I saw my biological mother, father, brother and sister all standing there, I instantly realized they were just as nervous as me. It was quiet for what seemed like an eternity and we all just stood still and cried. Then we sat down and started talking. I gave them the gifts -- which turned out to be a great ice-breaker -- and soon it seemed like we were all talking at once. About mundane things -- their cab ride from the airport, our exact location on a subway map, what they had for dinner last night, and how similar we all looked. For the first time in my life, I saw people who looked like me. A lot like me.
Over the next several hours I started to play a nature-nurture game. I learned that my brother and I both love sour gummy candy -- is that coincidence or biological? My sister and I both talk expressively with our hands -- is that because we're related? Surely our weird toes, almond-shaped eyes and dark hair is the same, thanks to our biology -- what else? But when it was all over that evening, something else notable happened. I realized I didn't care that much. Just like it had never mattered to me that my mother's eyes were clear glass blue -- she was still my mom -- the fact that my biological mother's eyes were dark like mine was now equally inconsequential.
On the second day, as my parents sat in my tiny studio apartment along with my biological family and the room became filled with a constant din of voices and even laughter, I realized that what mattered most now was that we were all part of this surreal, rare and completely amazing experience. And, in some admittedly egocentric way, I felt oddly blessed to be the cosmic glue that tied us all together. My mom cried and thanked my biological mother for her sacrifice. My dad and biological father, who had discovered they both served in the Air Force, though a generation removed, traded war stories. And my brother pored over my bookshelves while my sister eyed my shoe collection.
I'd like to say that I had some sort of epiphany - that my life suddenly Made Sense with-a-capital-S. But that would be cliché at best. Later, in the weeks to come, I'd re-analyze and over-evaluate the time we spent together, I'd stare at photos and cautiously show them to friends, I'd let myself get bogged down with articulating the complicated mess of feelings I had. But that night, in my crammed apartment, I tried my hardest to be merely present, to listen and to hug my mom a lot.