Late Discovery

In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fourth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days.  Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.  

By Kevin Gladish

“How did you not know?”

I hear this question from time to time as I tell people my story of how I discovered my adoption at the age of 43. The answer is not an easy one, nor is it one I enjoy giving.  Because the truth is that, deep down, I did know. I always did.

All my life, I knew that I was different, that I didn’t belong, that I didn’t look like anyone in my immediate or extended family, that the story of my birth had gaps and details that just didn’t fit. Despite the fact that my adoption was never discussed, never spoken of in the open, I knew.

And when I asked for the truth, I got a lie.  So, yes, I knew. But I buried what I knew and pretended it wasn’t there. After all, the choice was simple... Either I was adopted and the two people who I trusted most to tell me where I came from were lying… or I was not adopted and I was crazy for believing I was.  I chose to believe the latter.

I am what is called a “late discovery adoptee.” LDA for short. I don’t know who coined the term, but that’s the name we get, we adults who discovered our adoptions late in life. I don’t like the term, but I’ve come to accept it.  It’s the truth.  And these days I prefer to deal in the truth.

My late discovery began one night this past May, about a year and half after my father died. He had kept a lot of family scrapbooks over the years, and I held onto a number of them after he passed. We had grown up with these red-bound photo books all our lives, a photographic history of our family.  My sister and I each had a full book for every year of our early childhood.

I don't know how many times I looked at these books growing up. Probably not many. They would come out every once in a while so that my dad could embarrass me when a girlfriend came over, or maybe at the occasional family gathering. But I never had much of a desire to pore over my own baby pictures. Who does?

But I was missing Dad pretty badly one night, and it comforted me to look through his books, to think about how much time and love he put into making them, how much he must have enjoyed looking back through them as I grew older.

But on this night, for some reason, I opened the cover of “Kevin: Volume One,” and for the first time in my life, I saw the oddness of the very first picture on the very first page.  There was a picture of my mother standing next to the car in our driveway holding me in her arms. The date and title beneath the picture read:

November 17, 1972.
Home

I was born on April 26, and this was the first picture taken of me.

This moment started the journey that led to where I am today.  Staring at that page, all the doubts, all the questions, all the feelings I’d had about things not being quite right had suddenly come rushing back.  Something clicked just then, and in that instant, I somehow lost the capacity to pretend anymore.

I didn't even know at that time that the Ohio law had changed, but the next day, I did a simple Google search for Ohio Adoption, and there it was: a news article informing me that the original birth certificates of all Ohio adoptees had been unsealed, after more than fifty years.

The age of adoption secrecy in Ohio, when children were not told of their origins, when they were instead given “amended” birth certificates, and when the names of their original birth mothers were sealed away from them… that time was suddenly over. Well… in Ohio anyway.

A notarized one-page form and a $20 check was all I would now need.  Two weeks later, the letter came, and I finally saw, in print, what I always knew to be true.  I was adopted.  And for the first time ever, I spoke the name of my birth mother aloud.

It was less of a late discovery really, and more of a late confirmation.   Because, as  I said, I always knew.

My first real memory of hearing the word “adopted” was around age six.  I had made a friend from down the street, and for an entire summer, we were inseparable.  One day, we were goofing around when he suddenly declared, out of the blue: “My mother told me you're adopted.” The accusation stopped me dead.

“I'm what? No I'm not!”

Was it the way he said it?  Was it the tone, or was it simply the shock of hearing something about myself that I did not understand?  It felt like something I had to deny, so I did.

“I'm not adopted!” I asserted.

“Yes you are! My mom told me.”

The next day, I asked my mother what “adopted” meant.  Her reply, I’ll never forget, was incredulous and angry: “Where did you hear that?! Who said that!?”  Though she kept questioning me, I went silent, scared that I would be punished for saying a bad word.  I certainly wasn't about to rat out my best friend, so I kept the secret of what I had heard and decided to not bring it up again.

And so I learned in this way that "adopted" was a word that I should never repeat.

It would be another thirty years before I would get the courage to repeat it. The question of my birth had been nagging at me.  My father had just gone into the hospital with more heart trouble, and I was getting questions and quizzical looks from friends about his age.  He was seventy-six, which would have put him at thirty-nine when I was born.  “Yeah,” I would say shakily as if I knew a story that was just too long to tell. “They had me pretty late.”

I was sitting in the living room with my mother one night, having come into Cleveland from Chicago to be with them.  We were having one of those talks where she was telling about her childhood and how she felt growing up. It seemed that there was an opening, so I asked.  “Mom.. . there’s something I’ve always wanted to know. Am I adopted?”

She froze.  Her face blanched in panic. She gave no flat-out denial, but no affirmation either. “Why would you ask that!?  Who told you that?”

Just as she did when I was six years old, she just kept repeating the questions.  I stammered, trying to tell her about the things I’d heard and felt over the years, but she wouldn’t answer.  She just sat there, looking wounded and scared. Finally, she told me to drop the subject and not to raise it again until my father was there.

But Dad would continue to get sick, and it was important not to upset him.  So I didn’t.  I buried what I knew and what I felt for another three years.

I was forty years old when I tried for the third and final time to get an honest answer. I was ready.  I wanted to tell my father that it didn't matter, that he would always be the one who raised me and that I would always love him.  I just wanted to know the truth, and more importantly, to hear the truth from his lips.

He was staying, at that time, in an assisted living facility and preparing to move with my mother to Atlanta to be closer to my sister and her kids.  We were having a talk, similar to the one I had with my mother, and I knew that such an opportunity might not come again.

“Dad,” I said, looking him in the eye. “Am I adopted?”

He paused, as if thinking of how to tell me. And then…

“No.” His eyes looked away. “You’re not.”

And that was that.

Dad passed away in January of 2013, so we will never have the talk that we could have had that day. I know he loved me very much and gave me so many things. But there will always be a part of my relationship with him that I will remember as false and as counterfeit as the amended birth certificate I was issued.

The lie of omission that hung over me my whole life had solidified into just a plain old lie.  Am I still angry?  Sometimes, yes.  Very. I’m working on it

My parents were thirty-seven and thirty-nine when I came into the world, an uncommon late age for two devout Catholics to have children in the early 70’s.  They had been married for fourteen years.  When I asked my father why it took so long, he said that Mom had trouble conceiving, but that they found a “Special Doctor” who was able to help.

It was the kind of thing you tell a child, but he was a good storyteller, and that’s the tale he weaved for me when I was forty:  A tale of a Special Doctor and a Magic Birth.

The fairy tale could have gone like this:

Once upon a time, there was a man and a woman who desperately wanted children but couldn’t conceive.  After fourteen years, they began to lose hope.  But then, they met a very special doctor… a magic doctor who could give them a child.   But the price was secrecy.  For if the child ever found out, the spell would be broken…

And so I would be brought into this world as a secret, my history known to others, but not to myself.  Though that secret would be something I would feel my whole life, I was never to speak of it or ask questions, for fear of breaking the spell that would break their hearts - the illusion that my adoptive parents so desperately needed to believe - that I was theirs and theirs alone.

As I grew older, I learned to live a pretend life as a pretend person, pretending to be someone I called Me.  But who was that?  When people would ask me what nationality I was, I had a canned answer ready:  “Part Slovak, part Lithuanian, and part ten other things… I’m a mutt really.”  I’d smile, not looking them in the eye, hoping that answer pleased them, and that we could change the subject.

Who I am and where I came from, pieces of one’s identity that so many others took for granted, were hidden away from me.  And the truth, I learned, was something I should be ashamed of.

All of that is changing now.

The shame and silence that surrounded the subject of my adoption was so strong that I never even spoke to my own younger sister about it until this year. If I was adopted, then clearly, so was she. Did she even know?  It saddens me now, to remember how scared I felt as I dialed the phone to tell her that I had received my original birth certificate.

What if she was devastated by the news? Could I bear the guilt of what this news would do to her?  Wouldn’t be better to just go along with the fairy tale and keep silent?    I almost faltered, but I made the call. We talked for three hours, and we have been talking ever since.  Like me, she had always known but was never given an honest answer.

What my sister and I both know now is that what we experienced was not normal or healthy.  There is a saying that goes “Your secrets keep you sick.”  And it’s true.  When something is a secret, you feel ashamed of it. And shame is passed down.

My birth mother was ashamed of having baby out of wedlock.  My father, I’m sure, was ashamed of not being able to have children.  And both of them were ashamed and afraid to tell us we that were not theirs. Now here we were, ashamed to admit it, even to ourselves.

Healing can only occur when we tell the secret, when we are open and honest about who we are.  So I’ve been talking.  I’ve been blogging.  I’ve been actively searching for my biological family. My birth mother passed away, and my birth father is still unknown. But these, at least, are facts, not fairy tales. And I am doing what I can to speak my truth, tell my story, and search for the missing pieces of myself that were kept from me.

“Late discovery adoptee” is a term that I have come to accept. It was a relief, at first, to see that the term even existed at all, because it meant that I was not alone.  It meant that others had gone through this too. Finding and connecting online with others who intuitively knew my pain began the healing.  And I have reconnected with my own sister in a way that I never could before.

So yes, the term “late discovery” was a blessing, but I still struggle with it.  As I grapple with making sense of this new identity as an adopted person, the term itself seems to sometimes laugh at me behind my back.  “Late Discovery” still feels like something I should not be proud of.  Sort of like “Last to Know” or “Not In On The Joke.”   But, like it or not, it’s who I am. And I can’t blame myself for what I was not told.

Here’s what I can do:  I can tell my story.  I can help others who are going through it too.  I can keep searching for my biological family.  I can get active politically, working to change the law in states that still seal their records. I can forgive my parents, because I know they were scared and thought they were doing what was right, even if it wasn’t. I can learn from their mistakes, and never allow a lie to come between me and the ones I love.  I can let the past go, even as I discover more it.

Finally, I can trust what I know to be true. And I can listen to my own voice telling me who I am.

These are late discoveries too. And they are still happening.

Kevin is from Cleveland, OH, and now lives in Chicago where he's an actor, writer, and storyteller. As a late discovery adoptee, he is now searching for his birth family and writing about the journey here: kevingladish.blogspot.com.

Kevin G

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