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Adoption

Finding Christopher

It was a family reunion of sorts, but was it too late?

I spotted him first, as I sat at the red light outside the coffee shop. Advantage me: I had seen his photo on MySpace, so I knew what I was looking for. After all this time, he probably wouldn't even recognize me. I maneuvered into a parking spot and walked in on rubbery knees. This was a meeting I had only dare imagine for a very long time.

The last time I'd seen Christopher, he had just finished first grade. At 13, I'd been his big sister. Now I was, well, I didn't know who I was anymore. Was I anything other than a curious stranger? How would we even greet each other after all this time? Should I shake his hand, smile politely, and re-introduce myself? What would I say? Hi, how have you been these last 37 years?

My doubts dissolved as he spotted me and leaped to his feet. He put his arms around me and crushed me with a bear hug as I choked back the tears I'd sworn I wouldn't shed. We slid into a booth and ordered our coffees. Silence. Then, awkwardly at first, we began to talk.

Christopher had been 15 months old when he arrived in our home, an "emergency temporary" foster care placement. He was in limbo, abandoned by his birth mom but not formally relinquished for adoption, so he'd already spent more than a year in foster care. But now that first family, the only one he'd ever known, was moving and couldn't take him out of the agency's jurisdiction. The social worker asked my parents, who'd already fostered a string of newborns awaiting adoption, if they'd be willing to take him temporarily until they found a longer-term solution.

It turned out to be not so temporary. When Christopher first came to live with us, he had been inconsolable, clearly grieving his monumental loss. Since nobody wanted to traumatize him again, he stayed with us. Gradually, the tears abated and a winning smile emerged: Christopher settled in and we found our family's new rhythm. As time went by he started to feel more like one of my siblings than like one of the foster babies who kept passing through. But we all knew he wasn't, not really. There may have been five of us kids, but we all knew there were really four of us plus one.

Christopher turned two, then three, then four. He's one of the family now, my parents told the social worker; we should make it permanent and adopt him. The agency counseled patience and told them not to count on anything. Without that formal relinquishment document from his birth mother, a child had to wait five years before being considered abandoned and thus eligible for adoption. So to the extent that there was a plan, that was it -- wait for the five-year mark, then adopt him.

And so Christopher was, pretty much, my little brother. I traced the alphabet with him and taught him to spell his name and to recite our address and phone number. On Sundays the whole family piled in a way-too-small Ford Falcon and went to the zoo or visited relatives. We celebrated birthdays together, and had fun and fights like any other family. And were, pretty much, a family.

But then, just before the five-year mark, his mother called the agency and said she wanted him back.

For more than a year we worked, however skeptically, toward our supposedly common goal of reuniting a biological family. Christopher's mother came for visits to our home, to get to know her son. She brought his little sister with her at first, then a new baby brother. There was one visit in particular that scared my mother: the new baby was so thin and listless that she called the agency to sound an alarm. The baby was immediately hospitalized for severe malnutrition, but I guess one starving child doesn't make someone a bad mother, so the reunion plan remained in place.

Christopher started spending some weekends at his mother's apartment. Whenever he did, he'd come back dirty, tired, and hungry. He told us about the piles of cousins he slept with on dirty mattresses on the floor. He said there was only cold pizza for breakfast, and his mother would hit him if he didn't eat it. All of this was duly reported back to the agency, but none of it was deemed serious enough to stop the process. It was pretty obvious, even to us kids, that things did not bode well for Christopher.

And then he was gone.

We had all known what day it would be, had dreaded its coming, but we didn't discuss it and we didn't say good-bye. One night there were seven places set for dinner, and the next there were only six. Nobody mentioned it, nobody cried. We did not make any scenes in our family.

The tears came later for me, and at the oddest times. ln the Herald Square subway station one day, at least a decade after he left, as a group of Andean musicians piped "El Condor Pasa" to unheeding passengers. I suddenly found myself sobbing, remembering that little voice singing along to Simon and Garfunkel.

But mostly, life went on for the four of us; there were weddings and new babies, divorces and deaths. We rarely talked about Christopher, but he was there in our memories and in our family photo albums; an unfinished story, a plot line left hanging. I can't say I thought about him all the time, but there was a hole somewhere inside, a little piece missing from the jigsaw puzzle.

And then in 2004 my newly adopted daughter arrived from Russia; she was 15 months old. She was thin and blond, like he had been, another toddler transplanted into a new life. It had been 39 years since Christopher had arrived at that age, and my god, he was about to turn 40. I had to try to find him.

I typed his name into Google. Nothing. Superpages, nothing. Then $14.95 to an online search company: and there he was, not five miles from where I lived. It had to be him; his last name is an unusual one, and the birth date was right. I hit Print on the page with his address, and pinned the sheet to the kitchen corkboard, where I looked at it again and again, trying to imagine what I'd do with it. Ring the doorbell and say, Excuse me, but are you my long-lost brother? Sit in the car at the curb, waiting for a likely candidate to come along so I could approach him? Would I hold out baby photos and say, I think this is you? Would he be glad to see me, or angry? Had he spent his life hating us for having sent him away? He was so young when he'd left -- would he even remember us?

And who knew what I would find at the address? A Colonial with a picket fence? A townhouse, a flophouse, a group home? Was he a family man, a drug addict, a criminal, a single dad? I decided I would drive by the address first, alone, to scope it out, then decide what to do next. It was a plan.

And it was the plan for four full years. The sheet of paper aged on the corkboard as we shepherded our daughter through preschool and gymnastics and kindergarten and Little League. We adopted another little girl; we certainly had our hands full. I didn't have many opportunities to go anywhere by myself, let alone take an afternoon to sit at a curb waiting for a mystery man to walk by. But I was also afraid, afraid of what I might learn, afraid to find out what life had held for Christopher.

My daughter turned six and started first grade; I held her hand on the way to school and remembered holding Christopher's hand on his first day. I watched her, so happy, so confident, so loved, and wondered how anyone, ever, could take a child of this age from his family. I knew how traumatized I'd been when he left, how much that loss had affected me. What had it done to him? How had the drive to reunite Christopher and his birth family turned out? I had to know the answer.

The day before Christopher's 44nd birthday I typed his name into Google again. This time the top result was a MySpace page in his name; he was still living five miles away, at the same address that was yellowing in my kitchen. His profile photo was too distant for me to see his features clearly, but his blond hair fell in long waves down his back. His bio said he was 43. I had a hunch this was the right guy. Heart pounding, I typed a message to him through MySpace.

Subject: I'm not sure if you're the Christopher I'm looking for...

... But if you are, tomorrow is your 44th birthday, and I'll be thinking about you as I do every year on your birthday, wondering what ever happened to you. So if you're the right one, if you spent the first seven years of your life with a foster family that you probably remember only distantly, please ping me back and let's talk -- you may be the little brother I lost a long time ago. Roseann

The next morning I dashed to the computer with racing heart. No answer yet, but when I went to his profile page again I immediately saw that his age had changed to 44. Today was my little brother's 44th birthday. I had found him. Would he answer?

It took another day of waiting, but then a reply:

RE: I'm not sure if you're the Christopher I'm looking for...

Hi, I believe I am the Chris you are looking for. I was with a foster family, I believe that the last name was Henry. I will give my contact info, I would love to hear from all of you. You are the closest thing to family I have ever had.

We traded messages, and the story began to emerge.

The good news came first: He was not an addict or an ex-con, but a regular working guy. He'd never married, hadn't had children, and was generally content with his life.

Then the bad news: We'd always thought of the reunion as a single point in time -- live with us, transition home, stay there. But in fact the return to his mother had been short-lived; his childhood was a nightmarish string of foster families and group home placements alternating with ongoing attempts to get him back home to his mother. Beatings and neglect would result in removal by protective services, then foster care again, then back home to start the cycle again. He'd finally run away as a teenager, spent some time in the military, some time homeless, and finally righted himself, landed a job, and stayed there.

I mentally aged myself along his timeline as I read his messages. While I was preparing for my SATs, he was back in foster care. As I graduated high school, he was being beaten by his mother's latest boyfriend. When I was in college, he was running away from a group home rather than return to his mother again. When I moved into my first apartment, he was homeless. I had a sudden, excruciating mental picture of all the outstretched hands I'd ignored over the years, all the paltry coins I'd handed over with eyes averted.

But the worst news was yet to come: Christopher said that when he left us that last time -- that heartbreaking 1972 day that we were not allowed to mourn -- he had no idea he was leaving us for good. He'd thought he was going for his next trip to his mother's home, like the visits before, unpleasant but limited. My mother had lied to him rather than risk a scene. She'd sent him off with a cheery wave, no doubt, letting him think that this day was like the others, and he'd be back in a week or so. She had lied to him, lied to a child not yet 7 about how his life was about to change. And we other kids, by not mentioning it to him, had been unwitting accomplices to the lie.

I stared at the screen as the meaning sank in. He didn't know. I kept repeating in my head: He didn't know. He didn't know.

Understand that I talk to my daughters about what to expect at pre-school, at the doctor's, at a play date, at a party. If anything were to happen that meant moving away, starting a whole new life, it's unthinkable that I'd spring it on them without warning, without being there to help them adjust. What kind of monster had my mother been to send a child away without telling him it was the last time he'd ever see his family, even if that did mean some tears? Where was his social worker in all this? Didn't he have a case manager, a lawyer? I thought of all the hoops we'd jumped through to bring our girls home from Russia, all the planning and documentation and process. Where was the process for Christopher? Where was the transition plan? Where was any sense of kindness? Or even common sense?

I was simply speechless as I wondered how anyone could have done this to him. The "system" took him from a good home and sent him to a terrible one, based solely on biology. There had been no one in Christopher's corner, no one to speak for him, to advocate for him. Should our family have gone to battle to adopt him, fought like hell to have his mother's parental rights terminated, when it was so clear that she'd abused him? Had my parents been too easily defeated? Or had they ever really tried? Had they lied to us about their adoption hopes, as they had lied to him about his "trip"?

And now I sat opposite him again, not across a raucous family dinner table but over a coffee that got cold as we talked. After an hour we parted again, knowing this time it was not forever. "I don't know where we go from here," I told him. "But I'm awfully glad we're here."

Roseann Foley Henry is a writer, editor, and Internet consultant in New York. Her writing - on everything from adoption and gay parenting to home improvement - has appeared in publications as varied as This Old House, BobVila.com, Discover magazine, and Parent Dish.

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