When I was in university, I read an article from Psychology Today about how memory is a construct. When you recall something, you actually remember the last time you remembered it. So, what you remember is a facsimile.
Think back to your first memory. You might think of a birthday party, playing with a pet, or a moment in time captured in a photograph. Maybe you overheard your parents telling a story to their friends.
My first memory wasn’t photographed. My mother didn’t tell me about it until I reminded her. Somehow, I’m plagued with the gift of remembering the most superficial details of my life. I remember the light brown shag rug in the living room of our first house. We had a worn, tan couch with pillows you could pull out to make a massive fort. And a chocolate-coloured coffee table I designated as my “drawing table.”
Crayola markers and paper covered the table and floor; I was in the middle of a masterpiece when my mom sat on the couch behind me to see what I was doing. I was young, roughly three or four. I loved drawing. Looking back, I drew pretty well for my age even if they were still only shapes, lines and squiggles.
I remember my mom leaning over and asking me what I was drawing. I said something like, “I’m drawing my real family.”
I bet, when my parents decided to raise me to know I was adopted, they didn’t expect me to understand what it actually meant until I was much older. I had two moms and two dads. I came from one mom, and another one raised me. The dad part wasn’t as crucial to the storyline. When you’re a toddler, you know babies come from the mom’s belly, but you only find out how the dad is involved later.
My parents also helped me to understand what adoption meant with a poem from an unknown author they found in the newspaper. It was called “Legacy of an Adopted Child.”
The poem became a safety blanket in my life. I even had the newspaper clipping taped to my headboard until I was 16. I would refer to it when I didn’t understand something. It helped me to understand being adopted wasn’t a negative thing. It only meant I was special, and I had more family out there – somewhere.
When I told my mom I was drawing my real family, I couldn’t have known my words’ impact. As I grew older, I understood this probably hurt her. She is my real family.
As a kid, I found it difficult to tell other kids about my adoption because they got confused about all the moms and dads. To simplify it for them, I always referred to my adoptive parents as being my ‘real’ family since they raised me, and my biological parents were my bio parents.
I was still considering this when I was 12, and my parents gave me my adoption paperwork for the first time. It was on my Adoption Day, February 28th, which is my family’s way of giving me two birthdays, even if they are in the same month, only 26 days apart.
Every year on my Adoption Day, we pulled out the scrapbook my mom had compiled with all the information about my adoption. It contained diary-like entries about when my mom received the phone call from the adoption agency and how she told my dad. Since I was born in Winnipeg, my mom wrote about how the car ride from Brandon to Winnipeg took far too long, in her opinion.
There are pictures of the first time they met the other children living in the foster home and me. My grandparents also snapped photos with me, both at the foster home and back in Brandon. I have every page of the book engrained in my brain.
For the first time in 12 years, the routine was different. After we finished flipping through the book, my mom pulled out the family lock box. Inside were my original adoption papers and a few photos. There was even a certificate for my favourite teddy bear. The certificate let my parents and I know that my biological grandmother was the one who bought it for me before I was adopted.
This was the first time in my life I was getting real answers about my biological family. I never wanted to ask my parents, mostly because they only knew whatever the paperwork said, but that was about it.
This box held the start of a twelve-year journey of piecing together my biological puzzle.
My mother told me if I ever wanted to talk about the papers, or look for answers, I should ask. One thing you should know about me is that I am independent, a product of being an only child. I am also extremely curious. I always want to know the answers to life’s questions, and in this case, there was nothing that would stop me from learning any secrets that bled through the ink on those pages.
I also didn’t want my curiosity to hurt my parents. So, days later, I snuck the pages out of the box, and into my room under the cover of darkness. In this case, the darkness was under my bedsheets, where I huddled with a small flashlight and the stack of papers I had secretly taken out of the box, along with the photographs that were tucked between them.
The first thing I did was scan through the pages. All the crucial information was concealed underneath a line of black Sharpie. Names, dates, places. First names were all there, but anything that could help me parse out identities and places were meant to be kept a secret.
Because of how my adoption was carried out, I wasn’t technically allowed to communicate with my biological parents until I turned 18. That didn’t stop me from trying my hardest to find answers.
The next thing I did was look over the picture of my older half-brother. It was the cutest baby photo I had ever seen. White-out covered the information written on the back of the image.
I don’t think the adoption agency ever would have expected me to be raised on shows like MacGyver. Still, here I was, under the covers around 11 p.m., using my TV knowledge to manoeuvre a makeshift scratch card. All I had to do was take a small coin from my bedside table, scratch away the white-out and – voilà – I had a name and a birthday.
Next, I took a closer look at the paperwork riddled with black lines. As an adult, I think the papers look like a sad attempt at a black-out poetry page. But back then, I had a little more imagination. As I moved the pages up and down, and flipped them back and forth, I realized that against certain lights, I could see the printer ink through the marker ink of the Sharpie. And there it was, my bio mom’s name, plain to see.
I’ll take my FBI badge, please.
But really, it was simple to find all the names, dates, and places. Who needed my parents’ help when I had it all figured out? That is, except for my father’s last name. His was a little tougher to crack because Sharpie wasn’t the only thing covering his name. Pen was scratched across the word. This made it difficult to see because pen ink shone the same way as printer ink. But two names in one night? I was pleased with myself. The rest could wait.
I didn’t do much with the information initially. I had a lot going on in middle school, and I didn’t know if I was prepared to reach out to my brother yet.
One night when I was 15, I was lying in bed, saw the poem taped to my headboard and realized I could try looking into the information I found years before.
I made a Facebook account, looking for my half-brother and biological mother. Not yet 18, I couldn’t contact my mother, but I could send a message to my half-brother.
I’ve always had issues with acting impulsively, and that’s exactly what I did. I hit the message button and sent one word: Hi.
When he answered me the next day, he was very confused about why I was messaging him. We had no mutual friends, and we didn’t live in the same province, so the message was a total surprise. I got straight to the point.
“I think I am your sister.”
I thought, “Oh no. What did I just do?” I knew from my adoption paperwork that he was adopted. It occurred to me a little too late that he may not have been raised like me. Maybe his parents never told him he was adopted. Maybe I just ruined his life. Perhaps he will never want to speak to me again because this was so overwhelming.
I overreacted. He answered with the same amount of curiosity that I had and asked who my biological mother was. After I responded, he said, “That’s so cool! I guess you are my sister!”
We talked off and on after that, but since we were two provinces apart, I never felt like we could make a real bond. That is, until I was 19 and went on a road trip with some friends. We decided to spend a couple days in Edmonton, staying at my aunt and uncle’s home not too far from West Edmonton Mall. My friends and I split off when we got to the mall, and I met up with him. We spent hours talking, walking 14 laps around the entire mall. It was incredible to me that there was a male version of myself out there.
Although we had different upbringings, we shared a love of music, travelling, and tattoos. We also talked about our adoptive parents and our biological mother. It was an instant connection. Instead of feeling a million emotions, I just felt complete. It was like when you put together a puzzle, and you get that rush of serotonin as you put down the last piece, and it fits perfectly.
After my visit, we did talk more frequently, but it was still off and on.
Until two years later when I was about to enter Counselling I, a fourth-year night course I was taking at Brandon University.
He messaged me:
The waiting was excruciating. When he finally responded, he sent me a screenshot from a girl with a message that was all too familiar. He had received his second message, one a bit lengthier than the one I sent him years ago, saying that he had a half-sister, and so did I.
If you ask me what we were learning in the counselling class that night, I couldn’t tell you. But what I did learn that night was that I had a new, younger half-sister.
Both her and my half-brother had a relationship with our biological mother, while I, the middle child, had never even received a message from her.
As if learning that I had a younger sister wasn’t overwhelming enough, two days later, I had a bomb dropped on me. I was lying on my bed, holding my phone above my face, watching the newest video from The Try Guys on YouTube, when Facebook Messenger popped up on the top of my screen. In early 2000s movie cliché fashion, I dropped my phone on my face as tears started rushing from my eyes. I don’t cry often, but I couldn’t stop myself. The name that popped up on the top of my screen was my biological mother’s. She had finally reached out for the first time in 21 years.
I knew the rules of Facebook Messenger. Once I opened the message, she would see the read receipt. Instead, I swiped my screen down and read what my phone would allow me to see without giving away that I was online.
The message was pretty short. She introduced herself and said I should feel free to ask her any questions. A million thoughts ran through my mind, and waves of information I had uncovered through the years rushed to the forefront of my thoughts.
It was this information, and the fact I didn’t want to hurt either mother, that dragged me into a mental game of tug of war. I questioned if I could trust this woman. If I was mentally and emotionally prepared to bridge this 21-year relationship gap.
Over the years, I had uncovered court documents, Pinterest pages of artwork, and a video interview where she described a number of traumatic experiences. The information I found when I was 12 was harmless. It was the information I discovered from Grade 11 onwards that threw me down several spirals.
For example, the court document led me to understand that my biological mother suffers from bipolar disorder. My teen years were riddled with depression, suicidal tendencies, and other bipolar characteristics. Once I told my psychiatrist about my mother’s diagnosis, I was put on antipsychotics. The drugs turned me into a zombie for over a year, causing me to lose most of my memory from that time. The information about my mother that I thought was a blessing quickly became a curse.
Same with the video.
Imagine the first time ever seeing the face of the woman who gave birth to you. Hearing the voice that yours may turn into once you got older, talking about how hideous men really could be. My view of men, relationships, and trust was tarnished after I watched it. But it was all I had of her – so I clung to it.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched that video.
And then, there she was, two provinces over, only a few finger-taps on the phone away. I responded that night after crying to one of my roommates about the situation. It didn’t feel right to talk to my mother about how I should respond to my biological mother’s message. We shared information; for example, she talked about her family’s medical history – since I’ve had quite a few health problems in the past – and I told her about school and my artwork. It was a short and sweet conversation.
My biological mother and I continued to talk every now and then, but nothing too in-depth. That was until my adoptive mother wrote my biological grandmother during the summer of 2020. I knew she wanted to write the letter because I had some health issues, but I didn’t know she actually sent it. The letter shocked my grandmother. She was surprised to learn she had not two grandchildren from her daughter, but three. She knew about both of my half-siblings, but she’d never heard about me.
This was quite unsettling for me, because of the teddy bear certificate I was given when I was younger. The teddy bear I hugged whenever I was scared, or sad, or sick – the teddy bear I took with me when I had my first surgery – wasn’t from my biological grandmother at all. It was all a lie.
A few months later, I asked my bio mom about my bio dad – the last piece of my genealogical puzzle. Before she gave me the information I needed, she told me how hurt she was that my mother would go behind her back with the letter.
I was tossed in the middle of a cage match, and I didn’t know how to fight.
I told her that my adoptive mother was only looking out for me and my health, and it was all a big misunderstanding. This was why I was asking about my birth father. She didn’t have much to say on the matter, but she mentioned he had worked in Winnipeg radio. It was the final clue; one I didn’t have from my adoption paperwork.
The next thing I knew, I was looking through a genetic family tree generated by my 23andMe DNA test results. I got the test for Christmas in 2018 so I could have a better understanding of my genetic makeup and health background, but only now did the ancestry part of the test intrigue me.
When I first got the test, there was just a list of names of genetic relatives. But the site had a new feature: a probable family tree. The person who was listed as my ‘first cousin’ caught my attention. I’d never really paid attention to her, but she had the last name I was looking for. She was also the only genetic relative on the paternal side of my family tree. I messaged her, since by this time, I was pretty familiar with reaching out to random people and asking questions about their genetic background.
She said she didn’t know of anyone in her family by the name I gave her. I sent her the information my bio mom had given me about radio, and it clicked.
“There’s no one by that name in our family, but I am pretty sure you are looking for my uncle.”
Jackpot. The final piece of the puzzle.
She told me how I could reach him, but I was skeptical about moving forward. I always dreamed of living out a Mamma Mia! fantasy where I narrow my search to three men, invite them to my wedding on some exotic Greek island, and then figure out which one is my father by dancing and drinking the night away.
Guess I couldn’t do that anymore. You can’t step into someone’s life and just announce, “Hey. I’m your daughter,” like a character in some teen soap opera. I’m no longer a teen, and this is real life. There are consequences to announcing something life-changing, like a daughter you never knew existed.
I like to take risks. I also tend to draft virtual letters, copy and paste them into Facebook Messenger, hit send, then hit the mute button. Only to avoid looking at my phone until I can’t stand to wait any longer.
So, I drafted a letter and sent it, hoping to get a positive response.
But that’s another story.