By Rene’

My first blog introduced you to the story of finding my birth family.  Now it’s time to share with you a few stories of our first face-to-face meeting. Below is a cast of characters for reference. I grew up about thirty minutes away from my birth family.

Things that make you go hmmm

For about four months, my family and I communicated via text and video chat. Our conversations focused on our life’s résumé and family stories, emphasizing the best parts of ourselves and our picture-perfect lives (kind of like Facebook).  We delighted in our commonalities and characteristics.  My aunt Sarah and I both love teaching, my sister Paula and I have the same toes and high arches in our feet.  All of us are creative in our own unique ways. For example, my Aunt Sarah and Aunt Geri are master seamstresses and make beautiful quilts, my sister Paula is an amazing photographer, my sister Glenda creates gorgeous pottery and has a tremendous eye for color, both of my sisters Glenda and Karen play the piano.  I found pieces of myself within all of their talents. All of my sisters and I have the same eyes, and I have the same smile as my mother. The latter observation is a source of great emotion for all of us.

In July, I decided to take the next big step and start meeting my family face to face. My Uncle Richard was very ill with brain and lung cancer, so I began this leg of my journey by visiting him and Aunt Geri in Washington D.C. Not only did I want to meet my uncle before he passed away, but the location was not too far from my home, so I could easily back out should the experience become too overwhelming.  This choice led to a domino effect on my new family.  Rather than wait for me to travel to North Dakota, each family member made the journey to D.C. This way, they could not only say goodbye to my uncle, but they could also say hello to me for the first time.

Coordinating the details of the trip with everyone was like herding cats, nobody could get their schedules together.   Financial burdens, time off without pay, and canceled vacations were just some of the obstacles my family fought to overcome. Times and dates changed so many times I felt dizzy.  I wanted them to like me so badly, I found myself sacrificing my own peace of mind on more than one occasion trying to make things work. After all, they were doing all of this to meet me, a total stranger. What is running through their minds? I wondered. Do they really think meeting me is worth the effort?

The perfect outfit

It took me days to decide what to pack for my trip.  Every time I inspected myself in the mirror I appeared frumpy, so I committed to the habit of wearing cute dresses for the summer to boost my confidence.  I had a few favorites, but now that I was about to meet my birth family, my wardrobe seemed incomplete.  I needed a few pieces that conveyed style while being simultaneously effortless.  I found two charming, casual summer dresses to add to my wardrobe as well as an adorable jumper that made me feel young and hip. I decided on the jumper to make my first impression. It was classy but modern.

In addition to fretting over my wardrobe, I feared the awkward silence that might occur when meeting strangers.  To remedy this, I brought all the fixings for cranberry martinis, caramel rolls (only those of us from the Midwest know how to make this just right) and multiple decks of cards.

Once I arrived in the city, I went straight to a friend’s townhouse where I would be staying. She was out of town for the time being, and had offered me the empty space as a retreat from what would become a helix of emotion. 

Aunt Geri gladly opened her home for over six weeks as each family member came to lodge with her that summer.  In addition to playing the role of hostess and entertainer, Geri also acted as a nurse, taking care of her husband who needed continual care.  She made his meals, took him to the bathroom, checked his blood pressure various times a day, and observed him continually for signs of a seizure. Thank goodness she is a registered nurse.  Watching her that month told me all I needed to know and more about the strength and character of this wonderful woman.

I’m here

It was a beautiful summer day when I showed up on Aunt Geri and Uncle Richard’s doorstep.  Their house wasn’t a mini-mansion in a ritzy neighborhood, nor was it a shack on the wrong side of town. It was an average house with average things in a pleasant suburban neighborhood. Once inside, their home gave off a warm and friendly feeling.  My emotions were running so intensely, I am not sure if the following facts are completely accurate, or just my perception, but here goes. 

I was met at the door by my Aunt Sarah.  Her eyes sparkled and she gave me an immense warm smile.  This made me feel at ease and my fear turned into excitement.   Aunt Sarah led me into the sitting room where the aunts and uncles were gathered to greet me.  As I sat on the couch for our How awesome it is to finally get to meet you talk,I noticed my shorts start to creep up. I realized they were at a length that was inappropriately too short for a 50+-year-old woman.  Panic began to rise in me like a volcano as my nerves unraveled.  What could I do?  I did what any woman my age would.  I faked confidence and pretended that this is what all the cool middle-aged ladies wear in Buffalo, New York. 

I could see the decline in my Uncle Richard’s health from our first conversation in March.  He didn’t speak much but his eyes were kindhearted, and he smiled at our jokes.  He repeated several times how happy he was to meet me and how glad he was that I was there.  At one point during my stay, he said, “I wish we could have met when I was healthy.”  I cried.   Throughout my visit with him, I talked his ear off about everything and anything; mostly because I was nervous and didn’t want to experience any awkward silences. 

I spent that afternoon listening to stories about my family history.  I drank it up.  I wanted to know every detail.  The stories were colorful and interesting.  My great-great-great-grandfather, Hiram Bingham, was a famous archeologist.  He was the first American to discover Machu Picchu, and the Indiana Jones movies were inspired by him.  How cool is that!?  Now, I don’t think that he had the same rope skills as Harrison Ford, but still…

Over the next couple of days, we saw the sights of Washington D.C. and continued to get to know one another.  Although our time together was delightful, I had a myriad of feelings, both emotional and physical that consumed my body and mind.  On the outside, I tried to appear level headed, smart, fun and fashionable.  On the inside, I had a migraine headache, I was sick to my stomach, anxious and euphoric all at the same time.  Chocolate was my best friend.  I downed peanut M&M’s like they were candy.  Oh wait, they are candy!  I went through large bags of them. There were so many instances where I felt like I was living somebody else’s life.  I was watching myself and all of these events from a distance.  I was grateful to have my friend’s house as a respite from the microscope it felt like I was under.  Each evening I took time to be alone and process the day. 

Each of my sisters and their families visited in succession.  Our conversations were lovely.  I was so glad that I brought the caramel rolls, martini materials and cards.  They worked as great props to ease our awkwardness and promote conversation.  The constant in these visits, which brought me security, was my Aunt Sarah who stayed the entire six weeks to help care for my uncle and ease my apprehension over meeting each of my siblings.

The ultimate first impression

The most memorable meeting was with my youngest sister Glenda and her teenage son Carter.  I was incredibly nervous dealing with the surreal nature of my visit, and my migraine persisted with varying degrees of severity throughout my trip.  At first, our time together was normal and uneventful considering the circumstances.  Glenda, Jenna, Carter, Aunt Sarah and I decided to do some sightseeing in the city for the day.  We hopped into an Uber and away we went.  Not long into our drive, I began to feel nauseous.  Thinking it was just motion sickness, I decided to ignore it.  Then our Uber driver got lost.  Then he got lost again.  Would this ride never end!?  The nausea was increasing; dread began to loom over me like a dark cloud.  I felt light-headed and dizzy. I continued to ignore it.  I’ll be fine as soon as the car stops, I said to myself. But as soon as this thought crossed my mind, I began to throw up all over Carter.  Then I passed out. I don’t remember what happened next, but I’ve been told that those in the back moved quickly and gave Carter a plastic bag so he could help me vomit.  The next thing I remember is being carried on a stretcher into a hospital.  ER personnel began asking me questions like my name and the date.  I thought I answered them, as I could hear and understand what they were saying, but my mouth would not respond.  Then I heard a nurse say, “I think she is having a stroke.”  A feeling of terror ran through me.  This is so embarrassing, I thought, having a stroke the first time I meet my new family, what will they think of me?  My next thought was Thank you, God, for giving me this one last gift before you take me to be with you.  Then I started to worry. How is my husband going to come and get me? How is all of this going to work out?  Will I be paralyzed?  Hell no, I am not about to have a stroke, leave or worse yet, become a burden to my husband and children.  I gave it all I could to try to reach out and say my name.  It took quite a while, maybe an hour before I could stay conscious long enough to speak. I later learned that I had not suffered a stroke, but a seizure brought on by massive amounts of stress. This would be the first in what would eventually be diagnosed as a seizure disorder, but that’s a story for another day.

  All’s well that ends well! My niece and nephew continued with their site-seeing and my sister and aunt took turns holding my hand and staying by my side in the ER.  After several hours I was able to go home.  I slept the rest of the day and most of the next at my aunt’s house.  Truth be told, I wasn’t ready to face any of them in my disgrace. I was mortified by the humiliating scene I’d lived through.  I can only imagine what Carter must have been thinking as he held my head into a plastic bag in order for me not to heave my stomach contents on him or the smell that permeated the car, and the thoughts racing through the uber drivers mind, already lost and now having to find a hospital.   Of course, no one was judgmental, only concerned for my well-being.  Though Carter hasn’t mentioned the event in my presence, I don’t think he’s held it against me.  The rest of us laugh and joke about this most memorable first impression.   I am so grateful for the entire experience of meeting my family, stressful as it was, but thank God my whole extended family didn’t all show up at once!