Best of Fish & Bicycles: Transplanting Life

Originally Published: May 17, 2011


I read an incredibly moving New York Times story this morning that’s been haunting me, and it took me a little while to think it through and figure out why.

For those who don’t have time to read the Times article, by way of summary, in the photo above, the woman in the center and her children are placing their hands on the chest of a man whom they just met.

Why?

Because when the woman’s husband, the father of those children, died a year ago of a brain hemorrhage, his heart was transplanted into that man’s body. The man had been in a hospital suffering from severe heart failure.

Mirtala Garcia laid a hand on Sebastiao Lourenco’s chest, then pressed her ear there for a moment.

“That’s my heart,” she said. “It’s still beating for me.”

I know. Wow.

If that weren’t enough, Mr. Garcia was so young and otherwise healthy that donations from his body greatly improved and/or saved the lives of a total of eight people. Mr. Lourenco received his heart, his corneas went to one or more anonymous people, his pancreas to another anonymous person, the right lobe of his liver went to an adult woman with cancer, the left lobe to a toddler with congenital liver disease, two friends of the family received a kidney each, and one lung went to a man with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

Makes me think of the line from It’s A Wonderful Life — “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” The first sentence is right on, but in this case, Mr. Garcia actually filled an awful lot of holes after he wasn’t around anymore.

So, a touching story for sure, but why was it haunting me?

Well, after some thought, as I mentioned, I realized that it had to do with the fact that I was adopted at birth, and I recognized that there are some similarities between adoption and organ donation.

Organ Donation: Amidst death and grief, a gift is given — a new lease on life for the organ recipients.

Adoption: Amidst the social trauma and emotional pain of an unplanned pregnancy, a gift is given — a chance for a baby to have a stable home with two parents who are ready to take on the responsibility of raising a child.

So, just like Mr. Garcia’s organs, I was transplanted.

I’ve never met my birth mother. Though I’ve contemplated a search many times, I’ve always balked because of all the uncertainty that I could ever find her, much less get a chance to meet her. (UPDATED June 2012: I have met her now!)

And yet, reading about how the organ recipients had a chance to meet the wife of the donor, to posthumously thank her husband and to thank her and her children, really stirred up my desire to find my birth mom.

She gave me life, after all. The least I can do is thank her.

Reunion Revisited

So, I mentioned recently that I was just on vacation (Post 1, Post 2), but what I didn’t mention is that it was more than a vacation.

Much more.

Back in March, I wrote about how I was adopted at birth, how I didn’t know I was adopted until I was 12 years old, how, from that point forward, I knew nothing at all about my biological parents except the name (misspelled until about a year ago) of my birth mother, and how, after years of on-and-off searching, I’d finally located and had contact with her.

I didn’t post anything about the two and half hour phone call we had soon after, and nothing at all since on the subject, for two reasons: 1. Nothing against diary-like blogs, but, only with occasional exceptions, Fish & Bicycles is not intended as a personal journal about my day-to-day life; 2. The experience of reunion had been so abstract — just some emails, a voice on a telephone, and some photos on Facebook — as well as emotional, confusing, and even scary, that I haven’t felt able to write anything about it.

That’s all been changed by the trip to Arizona.

Cuz, you see, a road trip to Sedona, Flagstaff, Glen Canyon, Antelope Canyon, and Grand Canyon was only the second half of the adventure.

The first half: A 4-day visit with my birth mother and my two “new” siblings, a brother and a sister.

Prior to the trip, and for some years now, I’d done a lot of research about adoption reunions, and so I was well aware that I was VERY fortunate to have not been rejected, and, on the contrary, to have been warmly welcomed into the family.

Backtracking a little…During the phone call back in March, culled from my two, single-spaced handwritten pages of notes, the following highlights:

  • I was the result of a chance meeting, no-names-exchanged, one-night fling in the Catskills, and my birth mother never saw my birth father again. Consequently, there is no way I will ever be able to locate him, leaving half of my biological and cultural identity forever incomplete.
  • My mother’s family is of Jewish Russian and Polish heritage, making it feel more fitting that I was raised Jewish, even though I’m now more of a Buddhist than anything else.
  • My mother, upon telling her parents about the pregnancy, was told to either “get rid of it” or she’d never be allowed back in their home.
  • My brother and sister, now both in their early 40s, four and seven years younger than me respectively, were told of my existence when they were in their late teens and have since wished they could meet me. Kinda explains why they so eagerly flew out from the east coast in order to do so.

Fast Forward to June 16, 2012, my wife, son, and I arrive in Arizona in near-100°F heat and are welcomed by the smiling faces of my mother and her boyfriend, my brother and his girlfriend, and my sister. We spent our time together sharing our life stories, looking at photos, and going for daytime outings in various configurations.

I should say that I struggled a bit with what my expectations should or should not have been concerning what the reunion would be like. What should I feel when we meet? How will they feel when we meet? Should I cry? Should they? Should I call them “Mom”, “Bro” and “Sis”?

Trying to sort through all of that was confusing, but it in no way spoiled the experience. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting everyone.

That said, it mostly felt surreal. For instance, I really loved meeting my birth mother, and yet, when I was with her, without a lifetime of familial bonding, I was unable to see her as my mom, and I can’t quite think of her that way even now.

I’d be sad about that if it weren’t for something my genius of a son said to me when I tried to explain this to him, “It’s ok to be friends first and then family.”

Finally, after thinking about this a lot, I’ve come to feel this way about it all:

We’ve only just met, we haven’t had 47 years of knowing each other, but now that we have met, we’ve started building relationships, and that is a very, very good and wonderful thing.

Reunion


Mother, you had me, but I never had you…

–John Lennon, from “Mother”

Back in May 2011, I mentioned that I was adopted at birth.

Well, see that stork? However ridiculous a myth it may be, that babies are delivered by storks, when you are like me, an adoptee in a closed adoption, not told anything about it until 12 years of age, as was my experience, and even then provided no details whatsoever, only that I was born and then raised by the two people I’d been calling “Mom” and “Dad” my whole life, it’s not really all that different than being told that I was delivered by a stork.

Because, you see, from the age of 12 onward, I lived with a massive void in my identity. I knew the history of my adoptive parents, their Jewish, eastern European origins, but I knew absolutely nothing about my own heritage. What country or countries are my ancestors from? What religion(s) did they belong to? What did/do they look like? Do they look anything like me? Do they look at all like my son?

When my son was born, 14 years ago, one of my first thoughts was that he was the only blood relative I’d ever known.

Over the years, when I’d periodically become curious about my adoption, I’d ask my “Mom” and “Dad” and for the longest time they told me that they didn’t know much and that they disapproved of adoptees trying to contact their biological parents. They’d say something like, “You have to respect her privacy and realize that it could be very upsetting for her to hear from you.”

Fast forward to sometime in the late 1980s, when my parents finally agreed to tell me a few details. They told me my birth mother’s name and the name of the lawyer, by then deceased, who handled the adoption, and that’s it. Given that adoption records are sealed in the State of New Jersey, and that this was pre-Internet, it would have taken an enormous investment in time, energy and money to conduct a search, especially given how much time had passed, how likely it was that my birth mother might have changed her name, moved to another state, or another country, and that is if she was even still alive.

Fast forward again, to the Internet Age, when I’d try every now and then to just Google my birth mother’s name, or register at websites like the Adoption Reunion Registry, where adoptees looking for birth parents and birth parents looking for the children they’d given up for adoption can sometimes find one another. But, I’d always come up empty.

Fast forward to 2011. After I’d blogged about the story of a recipient of a heart transplant, a man who’d met the wife of the man whose heart he received, the blog post wherein I mentioned that I was adopted, I was inspired to talk to my “Dad” about it once more. (My adoptive “Mom” died 11 years ago.)

And when, for like the millionth time over many years, I spelled out my birth mother’s last name, to make sure I had it right, this exchange happened:

My “Dad”: Wait! that’s not right! That “e” before the “l” should be an “a”!

Me: WTF?!!!

All it took was entering her name in Google, spelled correctly, and the very first search result was a website for a high school reunion, and there she was, with a photo from her yearbook, and a note that she’s now married, with another last name, and the name of the town where she currently lives was there as well.

A few more search results later and I found an email address for her, I spent a few weeks drafting what I hoped would be the perfect email, apologizing if hearing from me was upsetting, assuring her that I didn’t intend to invade her life, telling her about myself, and asking her to, at the very least, supply me with some details about my heritage, especially any hereditary medical issues that I could benefit from knowing about.

The email, when ready, was sent August 1st, 2011, it never bounced back as an email would that was sent to a deactivated email account, which seemed a good sign, but then weeks and then months passed and…nothing.

Fast forward to yesterday, and on a whim I thought I’d resend the email, and I prefaced it with a restatement of my assurances that I meant no harm, but that I was aching for some answers.

Fast forward to last night…my iPhone rings, I’m tied up and can’t answer it, but 15 minutes later I check and there’s a new voicemail waiting for me, the call originated from the very town where my birth mother lives, an obscure little hamlet that I’d never heard of prior to this search, a town from where, certainly, no one else I knew would be calling.

It.Was.Her.

I stared at the phone number and the name of the town and I was suddenly scared to listen to the message. Would it be an angry plea to leave her alone? Would it be a cold, indifferent agreement to provide me with some of information that I sought, in a detached, businesslike exchange? Would it be an angry, threatening husband demanding to know why I’m emailing his wife with some crazy story?

It was none of those things. It was, based on all the reading I’ve done about reunions, the absolute best-case scenario one could hope for.

She was sorry to have not responded to my initial email, reporting that she deleted it without reading it, spam being spam, because she didn’t recognize the sender. She said that she is certain that she’s the person I’ve been looking for. She said she hasn’t stopped thinking about me. She said she would love to talk to me and answer any questions I might have.

She was sweet, warm, noticeably tearful.

I’ve found my mother. We will talk this weekend. It feels surreal and yet hopeful. I will soon know EXACTLY who I am and where I came from.

Stork, my ass!

Transplanting Life

I read an incredibly moving New York Times story this morning that’s been haunting me, and it took me a little while to think it through and figure out why.

For those who don’t have time to read the Times article, by way of summary, in the photo above, the woman in the center and her children are placing their hands on the chest of a man whom they just met.

Why?

Because when the woman’s husband, the father of those children, died a year ago of a brain hemorrhage, his heart was transplanted into that man’s body. The man had been in a hospital suffering from severe heart failure.

Mirtala Garcia laid a hand on Sebastiao Lourenco’s chest, then pressed her ear there for a moment.

“That’s my heart,” she said. “It’s still beating for me.”

I know. Wow.

If that weren’t enough, Mr. Garcia was so young and otherwise healthy that donations from his body greatly improved and/or saved the lives of a total of eight people. Mr. Lourenco received his heart, his corneas went to one or more anonymous people, his pancreas to another anonymous person, the right lobe of his liver went to an adult woman with cancer, the left lobe to a toddler with congenital liver disease, two friends of the family received a kidney each, and one lung went to a man with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

Makes me think of the line from It’s A Wonderful Life — “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” The first sentence is right on, but in this case, Mr. Garcia actually filled an awful lot of holes after he wasn’t around anymore.

So, a touching story for sure, but why was it haunting me?

Well, after some thought, as I mentioned, I realized that it had to do with the fact that I was adopted at birth, and I recognized that there are some similarities between adoption and organ donation.

Organ Donation: Amidst death and grief, a gift is given — a new lease on life for the organ recipients.

Adoption: Amidst the social trauma and emotional pain of an unplanned pregnancy, a gift is given — a chance for a baby to have a stable home with two parents who are ready to take on the responsibility of raising a child.

So, just like Mr. Garcia’s organs, I was transplanted.

I’ve never met my birth mother. Though I’ve contemplated a search many times, I’ve always balked because of all the uncertainty that I could ever find her, much less get a chance to meet her.

And yet, reading about how the organ recipients had a chance to meet the wife of the donor, to posthumously thank her husband and to thank her and her children, really stirred up my desire to find my birth mom.

She gave me life, after all. The least I can do is thank her.