Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences.
By Mary Michael Kelley
I never had a specific moment when I was told that I was adopted. It wasn’t an earth-shattering day in my life. It wasn’t a reason for thousands of dollars in therapy. It wasn’t the cause of my existential search for who I am, who I was, or who I was meant to be. But even now, even though it wasn’t all those things, in a way, it was everything.
I was adopted when I was four weeks old. From the time my parents adopted me, my mom would rock me to sleep at night, telling me about how I was chosen, just for them, and what that meant. So, to say that I was well adjusted when it came to me coming from a different bloodline than my parents was an understatement.
At least until blood was all that mattered.
I had my first child in 2009. A beautiful red headed boy, he was the first person I knew in my life who looked JUST LIKE me. And it felt so amazing: to know that this little human that I held was literally my flesh and blood. While I knew a little information about my biological parents, I never felt the urge to dig deeper than that. I knew, based on what my mother told me so many nights as a child, that I was chosen and loved. I knew that my biological mother loved me enough to make the heartbreaking choice to give me up so that I could have a life that she couldn’t give. My parents loved me enough to CHOOSE to give themselves to me as my parents.
All of that was enough until everything changed in May of 2011.
I was pregnant with my second child. She was a girl, named Kathryn, and she was so beautiful, even on ultrasound. We learned when I was thirty weeks along that Kathryn was extremely sick with a complication called fetal hydrops. Hydrops Fetalis is perhaps one of the most dangerous complications of pregnancy. A symptom of cardiac failure of the fetus, hydrops indicates the almost certain demise of the baby caused by hundreds of different diagnoses.
The month that followed was paralyzing. Specialist after specialist; ultrasounds one after another; tears; terror; nightmares; the knowledge that I was likely carrying a dead baby was just entirely too much. But I had to hold onto hope, that Kathryn’s story would be different.
She was born on a rainy Friday the 13th in May of 2011, and she fought so hard for twelve excruciatingly long days. But in the end, she was just too sick. Kathryn died in my arms in the early hours of a Wednesday morning. Unless you’ve experienced it, there’s no way to adequately explain the feeling of walking out of a hospital without your child. It is, without a doubt, the most numbing and paralyzing feeling that a mother can ever experience.
The weeks and months that followed Kathryn’s death were just as horrifying. The only thing that kept me preoccupied from the overwhelming sadness of it all was placing my focus on autopsy results.
When we discovered Kathryn was sick, one of the main questions we got from doctors regarded family health history, of which, on my side, we had very little. “Non-identifying information” is what it’s commonly referred. My main fear after Kathryn’s death was, of course, that there was a genetic cause that I wasn’t aware of because I was adopted. At that point, I knew my biological parents weren’t married, I knew my biological mother was 22 and had brown hair and brown eyes, and I knew my biological father was twenty-six and married someone else shortly after my biological mother discovered she was pregnant. Besides that, I could have passed them ten times a day on the street and wouldn’t have realized it.
When the autopsy results came back indicating a likely structural birth defect with little chance of recurrence, the relief was palpable.
As crazy as this sounds, there was a part of me that felt responsible if my genes had somehow contributed to Kathryn’s death. I know now how unrealistic that is—I had just as much control over that than I’ve had over any other thing that’s happened in my life. I know now that life just happens.
I found out I was pregnant with my third child three days after what would have been Kathryn’s first birthday. When that pregnancy test glowed positive, I tried to allow myself to feel without fear—to enjoy what I knew would be my last pregnancy. I’ll be honest, though — that was a hard thing to do.
At my twelve-week checkup, we found out we were having a boy, and as the ultrasound looked perfect, the specialist looked in my eyes and said, “From now on, I don’t want you to worry about anything except what you’re going to name this baby.”
We chose the name Micah. It sounded strong. And like the perfect name for a child sent to redeem a family’s loss and pain. Then, at eighteen weeks pregnant, I went in for another ultrasound and heard the words I’d been dreading: “I have a couple concerns.”
The rest was a blur. Micah had hydrops fetalis just like Kathryn. The cause? Unknown, just like Kathryn. And just like Kathryn, he was perfect on paper, but a very sick little baby. From that point on, my life moved fast forward in slow motion. There were doctors’ appointments, specialist visits, decisions over hospital and NICU choice, and the common denominator among all of it was genetics.
So, at seven months pregnant with my son, I made the call to the private adoption agency through which I had been placed. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t what I heard. The odds of them finding either one of my biological parents was slim due to their common names. They gave me no help, and although I had more information then that I did even a few years before then (Alabama had opened its access to original birth certificates to adoptees by this point), it was still very much a dead end.
A month after that initial call, my water broke. Another month after that, Micah was born, at twenty-nine weeks. He was immediately placed on the vent, and the battle began.
A month after that, I held Micah for the first time on Christmas day, and two weeks following, my Micah man was taken off the ventilator. The kid was a fighter from the get-go. He kept that fight up until he was finally discharged home from the NICU EIGHT months later.
The post-traumatic stress I had from Kathryn’s death was so immense, in fact, that I didn’t even spend a single night with him in the hospital until the night before he was discharged. I just couldn’t begin to get attached to a child if I was going to lose another one.
But slowly, over time, life with Micah bloomed, and before we knew it, we were celebrating his first birthday, then his second. Over the years, life with Micah was beautiful, but stressful. He was eventually diagnosed with Still’s Disease, also known as Systemic Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis. This was not, however, the cause of his and Kathryn’s hydrops.
When Micah was about eighteen months old, we were admitted as a family into an Undiagnosed Diseases Program through the Genetics Department of the University in our hometown. Admission into this program eventually provided us with the answers we’d been searching so long for.
Both Kathryn and Micah had a recessive hereditary lymphatic dysplasia that caused their illness. The fact that Micah had survived birth and beaten his hydrops improved his odds of survival exponentially. While the information was a huge relief, it brought on something else: the knowledge that if I had information that could save another child born of biological siblings of mine, then I couldn’t in good conscious NOT try to locate them to share that. I knew if there were any other children from either side of my biological parents, they may be dealing with issues among their children, as well.
What’s the saying, though? How do you even BEGIN to search for a needle in a haystack?
Apparently, just type in some words into Google! One night in September 2015, I happened to type in the perfect combination of search words, because the first hit was a link to my biological mother’s obituary from 2008. Over the next couple of weeks, in an inexplicable twist of one serendipity after another, I managed to track down both my biological mother’s family, as well as my biological father and his family, including multiple half siblings.
What was even more amazing was how everyone was so open and kind, like the piece of the puzzle that had been missing was found, from each one of ours’ perspectives. By the end of 2015, I had met my birth mother’s family, my birth father, told my parents and siblings (who were supportive of the entire process, understanding the full circle that this was), and had met one of my half-sisters and was in regular contact with almost all the rest of them.
It was like I finally got it: where I came from; where I get my red hair; why I tend to be a bit impulsive and a lot addictive/obsessive. It ALL fit. It didn’t take away the nurture part of my upbringing. It ENRICHED IT. It provided me with grounding, and peace, and serenity, and made me so grateful for the choices that two people made back in the late seventies, number one- to procreate so irresponsibly, but number two, that my birth mother made the excruciating choice to live the rest of her life bereaved so I could live mine more fully. I’ll never be able to thank her enough for that.
And as she died in 2008, I’ll never be able to thank her in this life for it at all. We have that in common, though—we’re both bereaved moms. We may have lost our children in different ways, but it’s a commonality we’ll forever share.
But as life throws curves, the full circle to this story wasn’t quite complete. On Mother’s Day weekend of this year, Micah became extremely sick. By the time we got him to the ER in the early evening hours of Mother’s Day, his temp had reached 105.8.
By Monday morning, he was on full life support, both mechanically and medicinally.
And by Tuesday morning, he was dead.
Micah, who had an extremely suppressed immune system, caught a bacterial infection. To a “normal” child, this infection would have gotten under control by antibiotics. But for Micah, who suffered from Still’s Disease, this infection triggered an almost always fatal complication called Macrophage Activation Syndrome.
He died on May 10th, almost five years to the day that Kathryn died. I find myself six months along in the grieving process again, having lost my second child.
But this time, my circle is larger. One of my biological sisters came to Micah’s funeral. My biological mother’s sister did, too. My biological father has now met my oldest son, because he didn’t want to go one more day without meeting him. And I’ve spent a weekend away with two of my half-sisters, spending time getting to know each other, the good, the bad, and the beautiful. And of course, I forever have my FAMILY- my mom, my daddo, my sister and my brother. Those don’t change. They never will.
The great thing about this adoption thing is this—it brings us together. It doesn’t tear us apart. It BRINGS US TOGETHER. Losing my children pushed me to look for a piece of me that I may never have done otherwise. And just look at all the people it brought together. This life continues to amaze me, even on the worst days. And for that, I’m a lucky girl.
Mary Michael Kelley is the Interim Executive Director of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (www.hmbana.org), whose mission is to ensure that all babies with a medical need have access to safe, screened donor human milk through its network of nonprofit donor human milk banks. She is also the original founder of the Mothers’ Milk Bank of Alabama, an organization born out of the death of her daughter, Kathryn and her son Micah’s subsequent fight for life. She is mother to three: Thomas, 7, Kathryn (forever 12 days old), and Micah (forever three years old). Mary Michael chronicles her journey through grief on the facebook page www.facebook.com/waitingformicah
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