I Met My Sister for the First Time When I Was 27

The story of an adopted daughter's reunion with her birth family
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Confined to our sheltered porch by a steady spring drizzle, I gazed out from under the eaves and watched a car go by--yet another car that wasn't theirs. Just go wait inside, I told myself. My feet refused to carry me there. Allowing them to arrive unseen, walk up to the door, and ring the bell like strangers would have suggested a level of calm unthinkable on this day.

When their rental car turned into the driveway, I bounded off the porch and ran to meet them. Several paces away I caught my first glimpse of her through the window, her features still blurry through the rain-streaked glass, and I could almost imagine that I was looking at my own reflection in a strange, enchanted mirror. Then her door swung open and we were saying all the things people say the first time they meet, and all I could think was that I was just weeks away from turning 28, and this was the first time I had ever hugged my sister.

We went inside. We introduced our husbands. The baby, usually so skittish with strangers, took to her aunt immediately. As I watched Cindy read a book to her, I thought: My sister has freckles.

The differences between us didn't end there. Cindy was quiet, kind, unassuming. She didn't seem to have any of my bad habits; at least, I didn't notice her fidgeting, eating too quickly, walking into doors, or blurting out the first sarcastic thing that popped into her head. I had only two inches on her and we wore the same dress size, yet her graceful, deliberate movements made me feel large and a bit clumsy next to her. Her natural reserve made it difficult for me to tell, at this first meeting, how she was feeling.

Our husbands kept staring at us, ready to remark upon any common trait, no matter how insignificant. Cindy and I laughed in mutual recognition of the awkwardness, the pressure to search for similarities, and I realized, Our voices don't sound alike, but our laughter does.

***

When Cindy was very young, her parents and half-sister moved to Seattle, where her father, an essayist and erstwhile scholar, worked 14-hour days at the small grocery store he had bought. Cindy stayed behind with her grandmother in Seoul, only rejoining her parents at the age of four or five. Barely out of toddlerhood, uncertain of her place in the family she had not lived with for years, Cindy made an easy target for our mother's rage. Our father either wasn't aware of how bad the abuse was, working at the store seven days a week and tutoring late into the evenings, or didn't know how to stop it.

I was born in May 1981, ten weeks early and two pounds even. By then our father suspected that my mother's abuse of Cindy had worsened, and feared a premature baby might not survive in her care. When he spoke with her about adoption, he kept his arguments to practical concerns: their poor finances; their lack of health insurance; the high cost of the ongoing medical care the doctors predicted I would need. When she agreed to the adoption, they told my sisters that I had been too small to survive.

Cindy was six years old and had long understood that it was useless to question her parents. They had come home from the hospital without her little sister, hadn't they? So the baby must have died. That must be the truth. She wouldn't learn otherwise for almost 27 years.

***

When I was in first grade, my birthparents asked the attorney who had facilitated my adoption to forward a letter to my adoptive family. I was in high school when my mother told me about it. "They wanted an update and some pictures," she explained. "We told them that you were fine and doing well in school, but we weren't comfortable sending photos. You were our daughter. We didn't want them thinking they could contact you whenever they wanted."

I felt angry, stunned, but nothing could compete with the wave of hope that swept through me. My birthparents wrote to me. Maybe they signed their names. Maybe the lawyer could help me find them... "Can I see the letter?" I asked eagerly.

"I have no idea where it is," my mother said. "We must have misplaced it."

I could only stare at her in disbelief, thinking I must have misheard. I remembered being in first grade, asking my mother and father why I had been given up. I thought my birthparents hadn't wanted me. Even if we had never met or spoken, what would it have meant to me to read their words? What could it mean now?

I always understood that my parents didn't know how to talk about my birth family. I always knew they didn't particularly want me to search for them. But I never imagined that they would deliberately keep information like this from me.

As upset as I was, I knew that I wasn't about to stop speaking to them, or allow a serious rift to form. They loved me, and I was their daughter: to whom else could I possibly belong? Yet I also realized that, as adopters and adoptee, my parents and I approached my adoption very differently. All the things I longed to know about my birth family, the questions I scribbled in my diary, the mysteries I pondered when I couldn't sleep--those things mattered far more to me than they ever could to them.

"Do you remember what their letter said?" I asked.

"Honey, I don't know. It was a long time ago." My mother was clearly surprised. Flustered. She hadn't expected me to press for details. "I remember they mentioned they were still in Seattle. They said that they had other children. Other daughters." With effort, she pulled her gaze up to level with mine. "You have sisters."

***

I believe I would have searched for them eventually, no matter what. But it never seemed urgent--it never seemed like the right time--until I became pregnant at the age of 26. Suddenly I knew I couldn't wait any longer. I didn't want my daughter to inherit a half-empty family tree. I wanted her to understand where she came from. Who she came from. So I took $500 my husband and I could have spent on baby clothes and hired a confidential intermediary in Seattle to petition the court for my adoption file. By the time she received it, I was due to deliver my daughter any day.

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Nicole Soojung Callahan is a writer based outside Washington, D.C. Her articles and essays have appeared in Slate, Bitch, and the anthology Somebody's Child: Stories About Adoption.

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