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 and perspectives.
By Stacy Bernal
In November of 1993, when I was a junior in high school, I found out I was pregnant. I was the drum major of the marching band and the younger sister of the valedictorian of that year’s graduating senior class. I went to a small school in the town of Goose Creek, SC.
News of my pregnancy spread faster than a forest fire. Retrospectively, I joked that everyone else knew before even I did. I think the shock value of a “Band Nerd” getting pregnant added fuel to the flames.
My boyfriend (and the birth father) was my high school sweetheart. We had started dating my freshman year when he was a senior. After he graduated, he went to college about two hours away from our hometown. Over the course of the next couple years, we were on-again-off-again—but mostly on.
When I found out I was pregnant, we decided fairly quickly that the best thing to do was to give the baby up for adoption. But first we needed to tell our parents.
I don’t really remember how his parents took it. They were going through their own stuff at the time, as we found out later when they filed for divorce. They didn’t get too involved with the messiness of my pregnancy.
I was scared to death to tell my mom. A few years prior, she and my dad had gotten divorced. She bought a mobile home for us to live in while she worked full-time and put herself through nursing school. My dad had already rocked her world with his abusive and adulterous scandals, and I hated that I now had another bomb to drop on her.
To prevent my untimely death at the hands of my mother, I decided to tell her one night while we ate fried fish and hush puppies at Captain D’s. For added protection, my friend Adam was there too. He wasn’t aware of my pregnancy announcement either, so when I finally got the nerve to blurt it out between bites of tartar-sauce-covered-halibut, his and my mom’s expressions of shock were almost comical.
“What makes you think you’re pregnant?” my mom asked in panic.
“Welllll, I took a test. And it was positive.”
I let the news sink in as I continued to shovel fried goodness into my mouth. Finally, my mom said something I never expected.
“I’ll support you, whatever you decide.”
Now it was my turn to be blindsided. Despite my current “unwed mother” state, I had grown up in a somewhat religious household, and always considered myself to be a pro-lifer. In fact, just a couple months before, for an English assignment, I had written an entire paper supporting this belief. I had even gone to a women’s clinic to gather information and they had given me a gold-plated pin of a set of two tiny feet. It represented the size of a fetus’ feet at the time most abortions occur. I proudly wore that pin all the time.
Insulted, I looked my mom right in the eye.
“I’m giving it up for adoption,” I stated firmly. “There’s nothing else I would do.”
She nodded. There was pain and sadness in her eyes, but something like pride, too. She asked me if I’d want to go through the adoption services through our church. I felt strongly against this idea since, in my mind, the church had let me down. I didn’t want to predispose my child to that.
She asked if I’d consider adopting within our family. I had an aunt who had been trying to have another child for years after she had had her son. That felt way too weird to me. When she later got sick and passed away from ALS in 2001, I felt even more grateful about my decision. I couldn’t imagine what I would have felt knowing my biological child watched a parent die.
My mom was a labor and delivery nurse at a hospital in Charleston. One night at work, she told a co-worker about my unexpected pregnancy. That co-worker mentioned a nurse who worked in post-partum who had been having infertility struggles for a while. My mom came home and asked me if my boyfriend and I would be willing to meet with them. I called him at his dorm and told him to plan on it for the following weekend.
Wouldn’t you know, that dumbass went to a party that week, got drunk, got in a fight, and got a black eye. When he came home for the weekend and I saw his face, I was mortified. What would this potential adoptive couple think of us? A trailer park trash ho and her black-eyed boyfriend. I’m sure they would think they HAD to save this baby from whatever fate it may have with us.
It was almost Christmas when we met them. We visited their home, which was perfectly decorated with a beautiful tree. He was a Navy doctor, Irish background. She was a nurse with Italian roots. Their look was similar to ours, as I am half Filipino and my boyfriend was white. I figured if nothing else, our baby would look like it “belonged” to them. They were kind and excited. As we drove away from their house, I told my boyfriend that they were meant to be the baby’s parents.
Over the course of my pregnancy, they would call me and ask what I was craving. Then they’d take me and my boyfriend out to dinner. I thought they were incredibly sophisticated. We went to Olive Garden one night and they had me try calamari. I grew to love them and was incredibly excited that they were going to be raising my child.
In the meantime, I was trying to keep my ever-growing belly unnoticed at school. In January, our marching band took its yearly trip to Disney World to march in a parade and frolic carefree in the park. As my friends excitedly headed to Space Mountain, I looked at the precautions on the sign at the entrance to the line. It read:
“WARNING! For safety, you should be in good health and free from high blood pressure, heart, back or neck problems, motion sickness, or other conditions that could be aggravated by this adventure. Expectant mothers should not ride.”
I backed away, mumbling some excuse for not wanting to ride. I did that the entire trip.
Things continued to get worse. No matter how hard I tried, the baby was growing and I was a-showing. First, I used safety pins on my pants. Then I discovered I could loop a rubber band through and that would add a good three inches of stretch. Then I invested in a LOT of elastic waist shorts. Eventually my protrusion could no longer be denied. People knew I was pregnant.
One day in May, I ducked in to a bathroom stall for one of my many potty breaks. It wasn’t even one of the bathrooms I typically frequented, but for some reason on that day I ended up in that stall that had the following words scribbled in thick, black Sharpie:
“Stacey Ribino in an knocked up hoe.”
My jaw dropped. Tears stung my eyes. I felt like I had been punched in the gut. How insulting! They didn’t even spell my name right, or compose a grammatically correct sentence, yet I sat there stunned. This is what people thought of me? This is what people were saying? I angrily left the bathroom and made my way to the guidance counselor’s office.
“How many credits do I need to graduate?” I demanded, my chest heaving.
She thumbed through papers and found whatever she needed. I doubt she knew much about me, but I knew she knew my older sister, the Super Star Valedictorian.
“It looks like you need two credits. An English and a History.”
“Then I need information to register for summer school,” I told her.
“Now are you sure you want to do that?” she drawled. “Senior year is the time for you to apply to colleges and for financial aid. Your senior year is supposed to be fun. I mean, just look at everything your sister’s done. Do you really want to miss out on that?”
“I want to do whatever it takes to get the hell out of this place.”
A couple weeks later, I attended my end-of-the-year band banquet. As a junior, I would have automatically been the drum major again during my senior year. Instead, I “crowned” one of my good friends as the one who would be replacing me. I stood at the mic and announced to my fellow band nerds that I was sorry for letting them all down, that I was giving my baby up for adoption, and I would be graduating later in the summer and would not be back for senior year.
I looked around the room and saw tears. My band director gave me a huge hug and told me she was proud of me. A couple days later I even got a letter from another teacher, one I had never had, who told me her son was adopted and she was so grateful for people like me. I felt a little less ashamed.
And then, my boyfriend, up to his usual shenanigans, gave me a huge hickey the day before the prom. Yes, at eight months pregnant I still went to my prom. I really didn’t want to but my mom talked me into it, persuading me that I needed to do it since I would never have another one. I had had a dress made specially for the occasion (by the same woman who made my band uniform, as fate would have it). A maternity prom dress and a huge hickey. Now that’s classy.
And then it was the end of the year; the worst, most hellish high school year ever. At graduation I listened to my sister’s Valedictorian speech and wondered: how did things end up going so sideways for me? She was so full of hope and positivity; she had a full paid scholarship to college. And I had no clue what was in store for me. All I knew was I had to get this baby out and to its parents.
I started summer school classes right after graduation. The attendance policy was very strict: no more than two absences, period. No exceptions. I knew this was going to be a challenge for me, what with having a baby and all. My due date was the beginning of July so I crossed my fingers the baby would come around the 4th and the holiday would give me some extra time.
No such luck. On the night of June 22nd, I started having what I thought was a horrible stomach ache. It kept me up most of the night, and on the toilet a lot. When it finally dawned on me that I might be in labor, I called my mom who was finishing up her swing shift. She had me time the pain which was about every 10 minutes. She hurried home and we headed to the hospital.
The adoptive couple was there before we even got there. She fed me ice chips, rubbed my back, and put cool towels on my forehead. I was too far along for an epidural but I was given something else for the pain. A few more hours of contractions and then I was wheeled into the delivery room. I pushed for what felt like an eternity. And it must have been a long time because when my baby boy finally came, he had the funniest cone-shaped head. I had successfully, safely brought him into this world on June 23rd, 1994.
Everything else after that was kind of a blur. I was exhausted. The adoptive couple asked if there was anything I wanted to eat. ANYTHING, they said. Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie was the first thing that popped into my head. They ran out and bought it, I inhaled it, and then I threw it all back up, all over myself in my hospital bed. It was not my finest moment.
I was in and out of sleep the rest of the day. A couple people came to visit, some sent flowers, but mostly it was quiet. I guess people don’t know how to celebrate adoption. The next morning the attorney came with the papers for us to sign.
I held my baby in the crook of my left arm and kissed and cried all over him as I signed away my parental rights to him with my free hand. It was the hardest day of my life. Later that day I got in the car with my mom, and waved goodbye to him as his parents held him. My heart was shattered.
I had him on a Thursday. I was back in summer school the following Monday. A couple months later, I graduated high school.
I wish I could say I went on to do really great things. I did not. Not right away. I fell many times. I always picked myself up and dusted myself off. But it took me a long time to get my life together. When I finally did, I was so excited because it was also when my son would be turning 18. I was ready for him to find me and his other siblings. I was proud of my accomplishments and wanted to show him what I had done.
But his 18th birthday came and went, and nothing. Then his 19th. Then his 20th. The phone call never came. No letter, no email, nothing. The years ticked by with silence.
My daughter found him on Facebook. He never added her, presumably because he didn’t know who she was. I found him on Instagram and started following him. He followed me back. I was thrilled! I thought he would realize who I was and want to connect. In my head, I was planning our first meeting. What I would wear, what I would say. Months went by and still… nothing.
I messaged him one day and apparently blindsided him. He told me he needed time. That was October 1, 2015. I’ve messaged him twice more since then, but he hasn’t replied.
I have three other children now. I’ve been happily married for four years, together for eight. I’ve accomplished some amazing things in the last few years, and have even more awesomeness on the horizon.
I want to share all of it with this now twenty-three-year-old man. It hurts me that he isn’t ready for that. But that is his decision, and his own story to write. I hope that soon he will want to be a part of my and my family’s life. I hope I will be able to re-write this story.
His birth father remained a big part of my life. In fact, we were even married for a brief time. Even after we divorced and moved thousands of miles away from each other, we continued to reconnect over the years. He was my first love and a true soulmate.
Last year I found out he was sick with cancer. In October, I flew from Utah to South Carolina to visit him in the hospital. He surprised me with his jokes, in his moments of clarity. But for the most part he was heavily drugged and in a lot of pain. When I left I told him I loved him. He said, “Do you think I’m dying?”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Why else would you come see unless you thought I was dying?”
No, I told him. I was just in the neighborhood so I thought I’d stop by and say hi. Don’t mind that it was during a hurricane and Charleston was being evacuated. I told him I would come back a couple days later, before I flew back home. I ended up not being able to make it due to road closures after the storm had hit.
We chatted a couple times over the next few months. We caught up on each other’s lives. He told me he was proud of me. They were good talks. I sent him a text on Thanksgiving and didn’t hear back. Then again at Christmas. When I didn’t hear from him that time. I had one of our mutual friends check on him.
He had had a stroke and couldn’t speak. He was going downhill fast. On January 7, 2017, he passed away at age 42.
His death has weighed so heavy on my heart. Time. I’m so sad he ran out of time. I’m sad for how his story ended. When our son celebrated his Golden 23rd birthday on the 23rd of June this year, I felt the sadness that I know he always shared with me on that day, no matter how far apart we were. Knowing he wasn’t somewhere out there, commemorating the day in his heart, left me feeling disconnected. Like I was holding a string that used to be taut but is now dangling, no one on the other end.
This is my adoption portrait. It is beautiful and heart-wrenching. But it is fluid—and can be rewritten. My hope is my son will find me, sooner than later. He will find a family so loving and giving. We will never replace the family he grew up with, but we will welcome him and treat him as our own. This is the story I hope he wants to be written into. This is the story I wish for him to write for himself.
Stacy Bernal is a wife, mom, seven-time marathoner, and two-time triathlete. She is the Northern Utah rep for a locally owned home warranty company. She enjoys speaking to groups about her adventures of going from a “Failure to a Finisher,” and motivating them to find their own finish lines.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter