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

By Nicole Soojung Callahan
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Valerie Everett/flickr

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.

Once the intermediary learned my birthparents' names, she sent each of them a letter on my behalf, giving them a choice whether or not to have further contact with me. They had long since divorced and were living in different states. Despite their shock, both my birthmother and birthfather readily gave permission for their information to be released, and said they wanted to meet as soon as I felt ready. So did Cindy, who had finally learned about my adoption after my birthparents received my letter. But I felt I couldn't meet any of them until after the birth--or until I understood what had happened to our family.

My mother told me on the phone that the adoption had been my father's "fault" and wouldn't say any more about it. My father wrote that he knew I would be better off with other parents, but found the past too painful to discuss at length--I will explain it all when we meet someday, he promised. Cindy was the only person who seemed not just willing, but determined to revisit the past and understand exactly what had happened. She had been lied to, and now she wanted the truth. She pelted our father with questions about my birth and adoption--questions she had never known to ask before--and passed on his answers to me.

While some of the things I learned about my birthparents disturbed me greatly, I couldn't regret searching for them. Knowing the truth, or some version of it, still seemed far preferable to harboring so many unasked and unanswered questions. Cindy's openness, her quiet persistence to seek the truth after all these years, ensured that she was the one to whom I felt closest, the one I instinctively trusted most. She held nothing back; in return, she wanted to know everything about me. We had almost 30 years' worth of stories and confidences to cram into letters and phone calls.

As we got to know one another, forging a friendship over the weeks and months of our correspondence, one question took root in my mind, a question I thought about every time we spoke, a question I didn't know how to ask her. Not in an email, and not over the phone.

We should plan that visit, I ventured.

Yes, we should, she agreed. When can I come?

***

"This picture was taken before I came to the States," Cindy said, pointing at the photograph in my hand. I couldn't help but smile at the picture, even though looking at it made my heart ache. Pigtails, round cheeks, green sundress, legs dangling from a park bench. My sister at age three, before our mother got ahold of her.

While I had an album overflowing with pictures, Cindy had only a few. There were no pictures of her as a child with her parents. "They spent most of their time at the store," she said. "When they were home, I just tried to stay out of our mom's way."

It was still strange to hear her say our mom, a woman I was not sure I would ever want to meet. I thought about my husband's relationship with his brother and sister; how their common history had supplied them with a code, an understanding, unique to the three of them. They had grown up on the same little island. The same rituals and rules, year in and year out, shaped and bound them together.

Cindy and I would never have that. Without it, could we be real sisters? The days of our visit were winding down; I knew that I had to ask her soon.

That evening we went for a walk by ourselves. I steeled my courage, turned to her, and said, "I don't know how to be a sister--I've never been one before--but I want to try." I felt her eyes on me and stopped, struggling not to feel self-conscious. I was asking too much of a person who had only met me a few days ago. "I know it will take a while," I said quickly. "That's okay. I just want you to know--because I hope we'll always be honest with one another--that's the sort of relationship I hope we can have."

Cindy was quiet for a moment. Then she turned to me and said, "You're already there with me." And with those words, I no longer felt like an outsider, grasping for something that wasn't mine. I felt as if I had come home.

***

Like many adoptees, I have always known how to talk about adoption. I've always known how to answer curious questions from others; correct their misconceptions; explain adoption to those who found it perplexing or mysterious. But over the years, the way I talk about adoption has changed a great deal--from the pat, sound-byte answers I gave to classmates in elementary school to the longer, far more complicated explanations I subject inquirers to today.

My sister was at my side when I met our father in 2010, and she was and still is the bridge between us--the first person that made me feel I had a place, strange and ill defined though it may be, in the family. Now that I have met and talked with them, it is far more difficult to distinguish between "birth family" and "adoptive family" and "real family"--so I no longer try. Instead, when I talk and write about adoption, I always emphasize that my definition of family has expanded and evolved since my reunion, and since having children of my own.

My sister and I may have a different sort of family than that of siblings who grew up together, but we are no less a family for those decades of separation. Her story, and mine, are only two out of countless adoptee and birth family perspectives that ought to play a more prominent role in the wider discussion of adoption--its benefits, its losses, its truths, its nuances--within our culture. Whatever happens in the future, our reunion has helped both of us make more sense of the past. That is something for which I am grateful, something I cannot help but celebrate, even if a neat resolution--and a more "normal" sort of family--remains beyond my reach.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/06/i-met-my-sister-for-the-first-time-when-i-was-27/277176/