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.
Truth: Everybody Has a Story
By Rebecca Tillou
Valley Hospital, Ridgewood, New Jersey. January 12, 1980. That is when my life began. Well, I guess I should say that is when I was born. My life began at one month old, when I was adopted. My birth mom gave me life in the physical realm, but emotionally, socially, and family-wise — my forever family gets credit for those.
The Kulaks. They are my family. From Valentine’s Day in 1980 until now and forever, they are my go to. Throughout my life, they have been my structure every day as a school-aged kid, always knowing what appointment I had, what test I had coming up, or what sports practice I had on the weekdays and weekends.
They were my cheering squad for all my basketball and softball games, and in high school, yes, they stood there and watched me start a 5k, and then finish it 22 minutes later. (Boring I am sure, but it was their daughter running, and they loved it, and their daughter did as well).
My dad was the one who could replace my tears with smiles and laughs. He was the one who would come home from work, and because his baby girl loved elephants, he would tromp through the house bent over, hands hanging as a trunk, and come find me.
When I was an adult, and I got married, and started my own immediate family, my parents were there for the simple questions I had about being a wife and a mom. “Is it ok to feed the baby a bottle that has been sitting out for thirty minutes past two hours?” Or, “How do you balance wife duties and mom duties and employee duties?”
They always have advice, but over the years, they have learned to keep the advice tucked away and bring it out if I have a question, or if they look at me and see in my eyes I am worried about juggling everything. They are my parents. They can tell something is up with a once-over glance at my face, or the way I carry myself.
I grew up in Ellicott City, Maryland, where I lived in a small, symmetrical neighborhood with identical houses lining each side of the street. I had neighborhood friends, and I was enrolled in a great school district. I ended up graduating with an A average in high school and chose to spread my wings and attend college at SUNY Geneseo.
I studied Speech Pathology and got a bachelor’s degree in it. It wasn’t easy though. I was successful with rote tasks like taking paper tests that required memorization. Student teaching and report writing were my downfalls. I almost failed college because of these two hardships.
In my sophomore year in college, I started to search for my birth mom with what little I knew. I was given her first name, date of birth, and where I was adopted. Back then, the World Wide Web was minimal. I relied only on adoption databases at that time. Facebook and even Myspace had not been created yet.
I would search every now and again, and then go a couple months with no desire, probably because I wasn’t getting anywhere. I graduated SUNY Geneseo with a Bachelor’s in Speech Pathology, and chalked up my profound academic struggles throughout my four years as being due to some genetics I hadn’t a clue about.
I needed a master’s degree to be a speech pathologist. So I applied to The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY.
I never graduated. The struggles that took my confidence in undergraduate school returned full force. Only this time, I failed student teaching and report writing – twice — and therefore failed the master’s program. Genetics got blamed again, and I decided life must go on.
I married my college sweetheart, had a family, and we had our first son in 2008. My very first genetic tie. A feeling I think only those who have never met their birth family can understand. My baby came out at a whopping 9 pounds, 7 ounces, and was 22 inches long.
I am 5’3”, and my husband is 5’10”. Nobody is extremely tall in my husband’s family, and mine, well, I knew my birth mom was 5’10” and my father was supposedly 6’1”. So, I guess I had tall genes and my son took after my side? After my first child was born, I didn’t restart my search. I was overwhelmed with being a first-time mom, and I had no idea how big of a job it was going to be. Four years later, we had our youngest son. Taking care of him went more smoothly than with my first baby.
After having my second baby, the fire in my heart and soul was lit again, and I yearned to know my roots. I yearned to find my birth mom. I didn’t even think of finding my extended birth family — just my birth mom.
I fantasized about meeting her, and imagined us running to one another when I found her. Our meeting would end in an embrace, tears, and it would be the start of a wonderful friendship.
So, when my youngest was one month old, I began my search. All I had was my non-identifying information. A first name, a date of birth, and where I was born. My birth mom’s name was Joan, she was born 8/11/1940, and I was born in New Jersey.
This time around, I had websites at my fingertips. My search engulfed me. It took me away from my family of four. I was on a mission though. I searched for a year. I made assumptions about my birth mom. I assumed she never left New Jersey, and graduated from a high school in Northern New Jersey, because of where I had been born.
I befriended a social worker from the agency I was adopted from, and I asked her yes and no questions about my birth mom. She had her first and last name on a piece of paper in front of her, in my adoption file. Yet, New Jersey had closed records, so she could not release my birth mom’s full name.
The one question I asked that led me to Joan was, “Can I assume she has a Polish last name, since it says on my sheet she is of Polish descent?” I received an answer of, “Yes, you can assume she has a Polish last name.” That answer cut down my search tremendously, and propelled me to start looking on Classmates.com.
In May of 2013, I was looking through Classmates.com northern New Jersey High School yearbooks. I found Joan Chanowski staring back at me in the Bogota High School Yearbook. It was my high school image staring back at me.
I assumed she graduated on time, and this assumption ended up being correct. I finally found her. In one year, I had found her. I was so excited, nervous, sad, happy, all at once. I had to take a step back, for about thirty seconds and figure out what my next step was.
I researched her address, and sent her a letter. I found a phone number for her, but every time I called, nobody answered. I had used a few search angels as I looked for Joan, and after I found her, I told them the search was over.
One of the search angels told me that she had found a website and it appeared my birth mom had died back in 1999. I had thought that may be the hard truth, and it was. Even though she was dead, I remained obsessed with finding out everything about Joanie that I could.
I had just found her, I couldn’t stop learning about her now, just because she was no longer alive! I ordered her autopsy report and her Estate File. I thought she probably died from a heart attack or maybe a car accident.
I was wrong. She had fallen down the stairs outside her apartment and broken her neck. I read the words on the report, “died of blunt force trauma, fall down stairs.” It was at this moment I let myself begin to grieve for her dying. Her autopsy report, done hours and hours after she had died, revealed she was intoxicated when she died. She still had alcohol in her bloodstream.
I stayed true to my obsessive nature of finding out who Joan was, and through finding out she had a cousin who was still alive, I discovered through him that she had been born and placed in an orphanage, while her older brother stayed with their dad and grandma. Her cousin referred to it as, “living with the Nuns.”
I discovered through researching people named Chanowski that Joan had a brother, Mark. I wrote him a letter and he called to introduce himself and his family. He was ecstatic to heave a niece.
He had not seen or heard from his sister since 1963 at their father’s funeral. I gave him the news of her passing. He seemed slightly saddened, but not what I expected. He explained to me that once Joan came along, their mom took off, and left her in a house with her brother, their father (who was rarely around), and their grandma.
He revealed to me that Joan was placed in an orphanage after she was born. He was not put into an orphanage but grew up with his dad and grandmother. He didn’t know why Joanie did not grow up with him. He told me that he remembered going to the orphanage with their dad and taking Joanie out with them camping for a weekend. Then Joanie would return to the orphanage, and he would return home with their father.
I learned from others who had been in that same orphanage years after Joanie that the orphans would get dressed in their “Sunday best” and line up in a straight line. Prospective adoptive parents would come in and pick children from the line to spend the day with, and some would end up being adopted, while others would not.
In the years since finding Joan and Uncle Mark, I have found other family members, and discovered their mom, my biological grandmother, had fallen in love with another man after conceiving Joan with Mark’s father. After Joan was born, my biological grandmother ran off with the other man, and ended up having three more children, two of whom I have met (my uncles).
I reached out to Joan’s classmates through a reunion page I found for Bogota High School class of 1958. This endeavor led to my connection with a lady who lived next door to the foster home Joan lived in her last year of high school.
She described my birth mom to me in such detail, how she had beautiful brown wavy hair, and how she was so quiet, and could be silly on rare occasions. She said at times she looked very sad, and always walked with her head down. It was when I heard this piece of information that my eyes welled up and I cried for Joanie, because I realized she had never been adopted. She had gone from the orphanage to foster homes, until she graduated high school, and then she was on her own.
I connected with a bar owner’s daughter who told me Joanie worked at the bar her parents owned, The Copper Penny. She told me she remembered the night I was born. She disclosed Joanie was never sober. She was able to do her job well as a bar tender though, and everyone enjoyed her company.
She was drunk when she gave birth to me. Her drink of choice was scotch over ice. From when I was a little girl and my dad would drink a scotch, to now when my husband has a scotch, I find comfort in that smell on their breath. Very strange.
After I was born, the bar owner told Joan she was in no position to raise a child, and contacted the adoption agency. I do know that Joan thought about me on my birthday. The bar owner’s daughter told me Joan would ask every year on my birthday if she had made the right choice, and if they all thought I was happy.
I also found out Joan held me after I was born. It was the one question I had ALWAYS wanted to know. I know, it may sound silly, but it means so much to me. One of my fantasies about her giving birth — well more like a nightmare — was that she wouldn’t even hold me or look at me, and just had the nurses take me away.
I find comfort in the fact our bodies connected and I felt her heartbeat after I was born, if only for a few fleeting moments. I find comfort in knowing she did have a motherly instinct, which she used to place me for adoption.
I have photos of Joan through the years, a few from a couple years after I was born, and a few about ten years before she had me. In all of the photos except one, she looks obliterated. I understand now.
She never had a place to call her home. Her brother had their biological family. She had multiple foster families that took her in, but they were not her family. She was born alone, and died alone.
I understand why she drank so much. The pain she must have felt on the surface and deep down, from being alone, and having no place to call home. She did have a really nice family that she worked for at another bar ten years before the one where she got pregnant with me. She used to hang out with that family often, and she became like a big sister to the two little girls who lived there. She got pregnant with my half-brother during that time. She stayed with them through her pregnancy, had my brother, placed him for adoption, and moved on a few years later, never to reconnect with them again.
I don’t think Joanie knew how to love. She was never loved by her mom or her dad. So, she became an alcoholic. A functioning one most of the time, but still an alcoholic. She gave birth to me after drinking heavily.
At age thirty-four, I was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). I was born healthy, but after my parents brought me home, I became a sickly child. I was sent to Johns Hopkins to have genetic tests run and a test for Cystic Fibrosis, because I was so sick.
My pediatrician told my parents I had facial features of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and I had failure to thrive, which meant I was not growing and gaining weight like I should be as an infant. That was 1980. Not much was known about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and even less was known about how to care for a child with FAS.
By the time I was eighteen months old, I had tubes put in my ears and I began to thrive. I was a successful student throughout my elementary, middle and high school, because it was mostly rote learning which consisted of memorization and copying notes that were already written down.
I was a quiet child, but I had friends, and my little quirks, such as occasionally talking to myself, never wanting to shop with my mom, not wanting to learn how to cook or put on makeup were chalked up to me being Rebecca, and “unknown genetics.”
Turns out, all those things, in addition to my struggles in college were due to my brain being damaged from alcohol in utero. I never took an interest in shopping for clothes, making a meal or learning beauty tips because there were too many steps. Too many clothes to choose from when shopping. My brain would be overwhelmed. I felt the overwhelmed feeling, and my reaction would be to get moody and cry or give my mom “lip.”
When I was first diagnosed with FAS, I was angry at Joan. So angry. Then I processed in my mind what I knew about her past. I tell everyone she had such hardships, she never learned what it was to truly love and more importantly, she never learned how to be loved.
She was bounced around from three months until eighteen years as a child. She continued to bounce as an adult from bar to bar, drinking and finding jobs as she went along. My emotions changed from anger to empathy toward Joan.
Joan made a very brave, very amazing choice though. She somehow knew that by placing me for adoption, I would have a chance at the life she had always wanted, but never had.
I had the chance at a family who loved me unconditionally, and they taught me how to do the same. They are always there to help me. In fact, when I was on a quest to understand if I had Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, it was my mom who put the pieces together from my life that pointed to this diagnosis! All from reading a pamphlet from the adoption agency where she met me thirty-four years prior! My parents are my tribe. ALWAYS.
Well, Joan, I raise a glass to you. I have had a wonderful life, because of the unselfish choice you made.
I think maybe you learned how to love after all.
Rebecca Tillou Bio: I am 39 years old. I am an adoptee from New Jersey. I have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. I found my birth family, including my birth mom, and the story that unfolded for her was not what I expected. It makes my heart sad, but fills me with understanding of how and why my life is the way it is.
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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