July 15, 2013
I am sitting in the departure lounge at Vancouver International Airport. I am with my eldest daughter Rachel. We are boarding a plane for Montreal, the city of my birth, to meet my birth family for the first time in my 48 years. This journey didn’t begin today; it began to unfold a month ago.
I arrived home from work on a fateful Friday afternoon. My husband Doug was away at the lake, and the kids were just hanging out. There was a message on the answering machine that said,
“My name is Carol Barrs and I am calling from Montreal. I am looking for someone named Kathryn Giroux who I believe to be you. I work for the Ministry of Social Services and if you could please call me back …”
I suspected that the phone call had something to do with my adoption as an infant. I knew nothing of the circumstances surrounding my birth, except that I had been born in Montreal. I called my good friend and co-worker Marjie right away. She has been through a similar circumstance and I needed assurance that I wasn’t imagining this. I believe that I can safely speak for all adopted children when I say that we fantasize throughout our lives that our birth family will come find us some day. I felt very strongly, that THAT day had come for me.
Carol Barrs is a social worker. She left me her number and extension at her office, as well as her own personal phone number. I called her work number first, and was not surprised to get a recording; it would have been after 8 pm in Montreal. I called her personal number, identified who I was, and said to please call me back. I tried not to sound too anxious leaving my message.
I called my brother Michael in Toronto to ask him if he had registered me in a search for my birth family; he hadn’t. Mike was reunited with his birth mother, Jeannine, about ten years ago, and at the time he encouraged me to search for my birth mother; I declined. Jeannine died of cancer last year. His birth father is not interested in contact at all, and Mike does not have any other siblings.
I went for a run and tried to go about my normal Friday night routine. I cooked dinner for Rachel, and my two other children, Joseph, and Isabel. I had a shower, cracked a bottle of wine, and the kids and I watched a movie together. But mostly, we imagined a new family that lived in a castle. I told the kids that if that was the case, a lawyer would have called, and not a social worker 🙂
I also had the evening to think about my family and how much I love my children. Having them provided me with my own blood relatives, something I had never had before they were born. It also made me think about my late parents Norm and Doreen and how much I miss them. I thought about the childhood that I had with Mike and how our mom and dad gave us the best life possible. Mostly, they generously gave us love. Mike and I remain close, but distance and busy lives makes it a challenge.
I called Doug that night too; he told me that it was ‘going to be okay.’ By then I was convinced that my life and the lives of my family would never be the same again. When I awoke on Saturday morning I was a little fuzzyheaded from the wine. I made myself a coffee and called the number for Carol Barrs again. She did not pick up, and I didn’t leave another message. I cannot explain the feelings that I had, but confusion and panic were prevalent. At a little before 10 am the phone rang. It was Carol. She apologized for leaving a message late on a Friday and said that she was happy that I called her back, because she was very excited to talk to me.
Carol asked if I suspected the reason for her call, and did I know that I was adopted; she was relieved when I answered ‘yes’ to both questions. Carol asked if I was alone and I said no, that my son Joseph was with me. She meant, was I alone without family and I told her that I was married with three children. She then very calmly and clearly told me that my birth mother, Catherine, had been looking for me for quite some time, and that my situation was very interesting and unusual because my birth parents were still together and that I had four full siblings! She told me that I was born Anne Mary, and that my birth father’s name is Paddy and my siblings are Linda, Paddy Junior (PJ), Tim and Shannon. Catherine’s mother lives with them and her name is Mary.
I said to Carol,
“I guess I’m Irish?”
I had always wondered. She told me that my family missed me and that they were worried about me. They wanted to make sure I was okay and to hopefully welcome me into their lives.
I had tears streaming down my cheeks and Joey holding my hand. I’ll never forget the joy and pain that I felt at that very moment, and that I’m still trying to come to terms with. I told Carol to please let my birth family know immediately that I had had a good life and that I was okay. I also asked her to wish Paddy a Happy Father’s Day for me (it was the next day).
I could not be alone after that; I was falling apart. Everything in my life, and the lives of my children including my identity had changed. Joey was there for me; we sobbed in each other’s arms.
“We have a big family!”
I was supposed to attend another good friend and co-worker’s 50th birthday celebration that evening with Marjie, and briefly considered canceling. I was a mess, and couldn’t wait to talk to Isabel, Rachel and Doug. I phoned Michael again and told him my story. He said that he’d always wished that he had siblings and I told him that he’d always have me. I recalled telling Mike when he and his birth mom were reunited, that I was glad that he didn’t have any brothers or sisters because I didn’t want to share him with anyone. I realize now how selfish and insensitive my comment to Michael was.
I was grateful to see Marjie that afternoon; she was staying the night, which was pre-planned, and very fortuitous considering my unexpected turn of events. Marjie was reunited with her daughter Tracy, that she had given up for adoption, so she understood much of what I was experiencing, but from a mother’s perspective. Marjie too, had gone on to marry her daughter’s birth father and have two sons, both of which are Tracy’s full siblings. Marjie talked about the amazing bond that her children, even though they hadn’t been raised together, share. This gave me hope and helped to ease the pain of separation that I felt, the pain that I had missed out on something even though I had had a wonderful life already. I was ready to share my astonishing story; it was surreal.
I am blessed to have many great friends. I called my friend Dianne that day too because we had talked about my adoption over the years, and she was always curious as to why I never felt compelled to search for my birth family. I assumed that my birth was accidental, and while I am thankful for my life, I also accepted that I didn’t know where to start looking for my family, and I was afraid of rejection if I ever did find them. I couldn’t believe that they had found me! Dianne brought me flowers of congratulations.
It was beginning to dawn on me that something truly incredible was happening.
I’m on the plane now. Rachel and I are exhausted, and not just from all the emotional excitement. It’s been a two-day journey so far; we live in the Okanagan and Vancouver is a four-hour drive. Plus, we went out last night to a show in downtown Vancouver to unwind, and had a little too much fun. So, I’m sitting here trying not to think about the fact that in a couple hours I will meet my birth family for the first time. Rachel just commented that how many people REMEMBER meeting their parents, very philosophical indeed.
These past few weeks have given me time to realize and appreciate all the amazing people in my life. The outpouring of love and support has been overwhelming from family, friends, and coworkers. I have loved sharing my story over and over even though I usually start to cry. It’s unimaginable hearing things like, “do they know how lucky they are?” Honestly, these types of comments surprise me, and there have been many. It’s strange how I’m getting more comfortable in seeing myself as others do, but mostly I feel like I’ve only got one chance to make a good first impression, so I better not screw it up.
Carol Barrs and I spoke for a long time that Saturday morning. In addition to the first names and ages of my parents and my siblings, she told me that my older sister Linda was given up for adoption as well. Also, Carol did not disclose any personal contact information. There is a protocol that her agency must follow in reuniting families. The next step in the reunion process should have been a letter, but Catherine wanted to speak to me. She insisted. A conference call was scheduled for Wednesday June 26 at 6 am. The night before the phone call was very difficult; I was extremely nervous and anxious. I took the day off work and woke everyone up early to wait for the call. I started to worry that maybe my birth family had changed their minds, and then the phone rang, Doug put it on speakerphone and at 6:08 am I heard my mother’s voice for the first time. She said,
“Is that you?”
Everyone was crying. Catherine and I spoke for a long time, maybe 45 minutes. She told me that Carol had told her that I grew up in a loving home, and that she wished my parents were still alive so she could thank them. She wanted to know how old I was when they died. She told me that she had never been able to forgive herself for leaving me behind at the hospital, but that the decision had been made and she felt that she couldn’t undo her decision at the time. I told her that it was okay and that I had had a good life. I told her that she was very brave, and that if she hadn’t given me up, my life wouldn’t be the same and I wouldn’t know Doug or have my kids. She said that she doesn’t feel brave at all, but that her daughter, my sister Shannon, had told her the same thing – that she and Paddy may not have married after I was born, and that they might not have had three more children. Catherine wanted to know what I look like which was funny because of all the things I wanted to ask her, my first question was what she looks like. When you grow up as an adoptee, you cannot see or identify anything about your physical appearance until you have children of your own. Then Paddy came on the line to say hello. He said that he had been thinking about me everyday for my whole life and that he was very happy to be speaking with me. We didn’t talk for long, but what he said meant so much. We said our goodbyes, and Carol promised to call each of us back to proceed to the next step, which is the exchange of personal contact information.
The wait was torturous and on Tuesday July 2, I received two emails via Carol Barrs. One was from my parents and the other was from my sister Shannon. My family name was Walsh. My mother called me after work that afternoon and we talked for an hour. My father said a brief hello. That night I emailed the Walsh’s pictures of my little family.
The next morning at work I received pictures from Shannon. I saw my parents, grandmother and siblings for the first time; it felt unbelievable and comforting. They were becoming more real; my heart was making room for them all and it was powerful.
It was also on that same day that my beloved co-workers threw me a surprise St. Paddy’s party, my first ever, to celebrate my newfound heritage.
July 19, 2013
I’m on a train with Rachel speeding toward Toronto, the city where I grew up, and the city where Mike lives. I haven’t seen him in four years. I need to reconnect with him, to let him know that he is my first brother, to let him know that the Walsh’s want to welcome him as their third son. We will spend the weekend at his cottage in Burk’s Falls.
Rachel and I are having a conversation about the nature vs. nurture scientific argument, and we’re excited to have witnessed and experienced its theories first hand. There were a lot of similarities in personality traits and an entrenched intuitive connection that was undeniable during our four day Walsh immersion. They simply did not feel like strangers.
My sister Shannon’s husband, Petey, picked Rachel and I up at Montreal Airport on July 15, precisely one month after the first momentous phone call. We texted a picture of ourselves sitting on the plane to Shannon, and Shannon forwarded me Petey’s cell number and picture so that we could identify each other. Shannon texted back that Petey would have recognized me no matter what, because I have so much ‘Walsh’ in me. Her comment was a relief; I was still a tiny bit worried that maybe the social workers had made a mistake.
While we were waiting to pick up our bags, Rachel was texting her friend Sam back home:
“I wonder if [Petey] will be holding a ‘Rachel and Kitty’ sign? Tell your mom I say hi.”
”Hi Sam. I’m so f’n nervous Sam.”
I was vibrating.
I was relieved when Catherine texted earlier that day to tell me that Petey would be picking us up.
Had the Walsh’s been at the airport, the drama that would have unfolded at arrivals would have been hard to restrain, and difficult for any bystanders to comprehend.
How many people can say that they have witnessed a family reunion of our multitude?
Petey was there. I could see him from a distance. He was talking to an airport employee. As Rachel and I approached we smiled, then embraced. He introduced us to his cousin Ricky who works at the airport.
“This isn’t weird.”
The intended irony of Ricky’s statement is epic because it really wasn’t weird at all. And that is what is the most amazing part of this story.
The natural attraction and bond with the Walsh family was tangible. By this point in my journey, I didn’t need to see that they were real to know that Catherine, Paddy, Linda, PJ, Tim, Shannon, and Granny Mary existed. I could feel them.
Petey, Rachel and I made small talk on our way to the car. Did we like hockey? Petey mentioned something about the Kelowna Rockets. Then he lost his parking ticket, so we had to stop at an administration office to get that sorted out. He offered us gum. Rachel and I were too shy to accept the gum. It all seemed very comical, until Petey pulled the car into the driveway.
I could see them in the window as Petey parked the car. Paddy was the first person out the door. He opened his arms and hugged me.
“You look just like my sister, I’ve missed you. I’m so glad you’re here.” Then I embraced my younger sister Shannon. She had her two little daughters Maya and Marisol attached to her hip and leg. My brother Tim apologized for his appearance because he had just got off work; I gave him a big hug. Then it was Granny Mary’s turn, and the last person in line out on the front walkway that leads into the modest home was Catherine. I couldn’t contain my tears and laughter. It felt so good to see and hear and hug her.
August 6, 2013
It’s been a little over seven weeks since the revelation. I’m finally on summer vacation. I’ve had a few days to really process the upheaval in my identity, but I’m still feeling quite shocky. I only cried twice yesterday and so far, today, I’m doing okay. I talked to Catherine this morning; I love that I can do that. Paddy has metastatic colon cancer – I’ve known this all along. Carol Barrs told me during our very first conversation. In fact, it’s the reason why the Walsh’s were able to find me in June. When they registered themselves in a search to find their daughters two years ago, they found Linda right away. She had registered herself because her parents had told her which district of Montreal held her adoption records. Before Linda’s mother died, she told Linda to find her birth mom. So, it’s been a couple years since she was reunited with the Walsh’s. Because of Quebec’s former closed adoption policy, there are thousands of families on waiting lists for government-sanctioned searches. When Paddy was diagnosed with cancer in March, the Walsh’s request to find me was placed at the top of the list – bittersweet indeed. Paddy is in the midst of chemotherapy. We are hopeful.
My reunion with the Walsh’s was astonishing for sure, but during the four days that Rachel and I spent with them, there were some necessary, albeit painful discussions.
After our joyful reunion on the Walsh’s front steps, we went inside and were offered a drink: beer, wine or something stronger 🙂 We talked for hours about everything and nothing in particular. There were no awkward silences. My brother PJ arrived. I was mesmerized by his appearance. He looks like Joe. At supper, we sat around the table together and shared our first meal. After dinner, PJ started to cry.
He talked about the survivor’s guilt that he had; the guilt that he shared with my siblings. He held my hand and wouldn’t let go. Paddy stayed up much later than his chemo normally allows. That was the first night.
I awoke at 5 am. I was very anxious to talk to Catherine and Paddy alone and knew that they were early risers. I showed them pictures of my parents, my brother, my wedding album and pictures of their grandchildren in the quiet of a hot and humid early Montreal morning.
I was reunited with Linda that afternoon and slowly all the Walsh children arrived back at the house. We had our first family photo. It was amazing. Paddy and Catherine were so happy. That evening Paddy and Granny Mary went to bed early.
A four-hour discussion ensued. I could tell that something was bothering Tim; he had to ask Catherine the question that was on all our minds,
“I can understand it happening once mom, but twice?”
Catherine painfully told us all the circumstances surrounding our births. She talked about the climate of growing up poor and Irish (Catholic) in downtown Montreal. She wanted a better life for us.
She and Paddy married a little over a year after I was born. PJ was born twenty months after me. They raised their family in a humble part of Montreal known as Amamai.
The next morning, Paddy had a question of his own,
“Why didn’t I get to see yous or say goodbye?”
Our remaining time in Montreal was dreamlike. Every morning held a consolotory visit with my parents, and the afternoons and evenings gave Rachel and myself time to connect with siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and Granny Mary, who told us,
“I love you very much.”
I ran with PJ, lit candles for our family with Shannon at Notre Dame, loved my talks with Tim, and listened to Linda’s heartbreaking family story. She too, had grown up in a loving home, but her parents were both deceased, and she had lost the brother that she grew up with.
Carol Barrs told me during one of our early conversations that the Walsh’s were very ordinary, with all the drama and baggage that most families have. At the time, I told her,
“They sound perfect.”
I now realize that they are actually extraordinary. I learned that they have always been a very loving family despite any of the adversities that life has presented them. I began calling Catherine and Paddy ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ on our second day together; it seemed unnatural not to. I am confident that my first mom and dad would understand. I sent all the Walsh’s an email while I was waiting to board the plane home to Kelowna on the day I left Mike’s,
“Rachel and I are at Toronto airport waiting to board. We had a wonderful week, but are happy to be going home. Our reunion with you was surprisingly energizing. I should be exhausted, but I’m just so happy. All of you made Rachel and I feel so welcome and a part of the family.
We are so lucky.
Mom, I know that you worry that this will change or affect my life, but Doug, Rachel, Joseph, Isabel, and I have room in our lives for each one of you.
Thank you for finding me.”
The responses from my family reflect the beautiful texts and emails that I began receiving from them at our first contact, and that I have been receiving daily ever since.
I am so lucky.
Catherine says that our reunion is special because it is so PROFOUND. Once the secret of the two long-lost daughters was revealed to the family, a wave of events began to unravel and pick up an affecting momentum. Catherine’s confession to Shannon during a mother-daughter discussion when Shannon was a teen led to Shannon’s obsession in encouraging the search, which led to Paddy’s purging of the truth to PJ and Tim. When the family was reunited with Linda it incited their hope to find the second daughter and make the family whole. I must have sensed this somewhere deep in my sub-conscious, nothing less could have prompted my overpowering urge to drop everything and fly to Montreal, which is basically what I did. The desire to go was irresistible and the reception on the front steps of 284 Rue Jourdain on July 15 was miraculous; why did I love them so much the minute they found me?
Had I always felt their love and prayers?
I chose Rachel to accompany me in July; it would have been too overwhelming for all five of us to go. I cannot wait for the Walsh’s to meet Doug, Joseph, Isabel, and Mike someday soon. To say that they welcomed Rachel and I like long lost family seems cliché and is an understatement. I struggle considering myself worthy of that kind of deep affection and unconditional love. Am I Anne Mary Walsh or Kathryn Anne Giroux Truant? I think that I have always been both, and I am trying to find the way to BE both.