Today is the ultimate in Confluence-of-Stories for me; Easter Sunday and April Fools Day landing on the same day.
Let me explain.
I was born on Easter morning, April 10th, 1966, in San Francisco. Two months later I would be adopted into the Senum family and given the name Reinette. Though the date of Easter changes from year to year I have always considered Easter my birthday of sorts.
From as early as I could remember I knew I was adopted, but was only ever given a little non-identifying information about my birth mother and birth father. I could not help but think of my birth mother, in particular, every day, wondering who she was and what she was doing.
Come April 10th, 1977, my birthday would land once again on Easter Sunday and I would turn 11 years old. At the same time a great aunt of my adopted family came for a visit from England bringing with her their family tree that dated back almost a thousand years.
I was simply mesmerized by this. I completely soaked it up and was delighted to see our family’s history. But that’s when it hit me like a brick; this was not my blood. This was not my family's story.
So I asked my adoptive mother when would I be able to see my family tree and my mother looked at me and quipped, “You can't know that. You can’t see your family tree. That's illegal.” Illegal?? I almost fell over. Though I was only 11 years old I was still able to immediately recognize the injustice in this. How could it be illegal for me to ever know my family story?
As fate would have it, the very next day I would come across an article in the now defunct newspaper, the Sacramento Union, showcasing adoptees in search of their birth families. I quietly took the newspaper article, wrote down the addresses of the adoption research organizations that had been listed, and I quickly and quietly sent off several letters to these organizations using my best friend Karen's home address as the return address. I didn’t dare let my adoptive mother know what I was up to because I knew she would be devastated.
I gave these organizations the little information I had of my birth mother like her age, hair/skin color, religion, and asked them if they would help me find her.
One week later I would get responses from all these different organizations and they all said the same thing; From the information you've given us you’re very young, your mother is young, and until you turn 18, legally, there is nothing we can do for you -- but don’t worry, you have plenty of time.
Well, unbeknownst to me and these adoption organizations, my birth mother was battling breast cancer and would die that year, in 1979, at the age of 35. I would not know this until nearly 20 years later.
After receiving the responses from these adoption organizations I would confess to my adoptive brother about my search and show him my handful of letters that I had received. He would immediately tattle this to our mother causing an irreparable explosion in our relationship; a chasm that we would never recover from.
My adoptive mother was hurt, rejected, and could not understand why I had done this: I had been adopted into such a good family. How could I betray them like this?
I tried to explain to my adoptive mother over and over I was not rejecting them. I simply wanted to know where I came from. I simply wanted to know my family story. I wanted to see where I was on my own family tree. She couldn’t hear this.
Unexpectedly, my adoptive mother would blurt out in a moment of rage, “Just so you know your name is Marcella Anderson!”
I reeled backwards. I had a different name? I was given an actual name at birth? It never dawned on me that my birth mother had given me a name that would ultimately be changed upon adoption. I held on to this name, Marcella Anderson, close to my chest, knowing this would be the breadcrumb I would pursue at a later date. Some day.
But even the thought of this pursuit would be interrupted in 1985 when my adopted mother, 54 years old, was diagnosed with colon cancer, stage 4.
In the blink of an eye and at the age of 18 years old I would become my adoptive mother’s sole caregiver, giving her 8 to 12 injections a day, cleaning out her colostomy bag, bandaging a foot-long incision that was split wide open with infection. I would endure my adoptive father, for the first time, beating me, throwing me down a flight of stairs, kicking me in the stomach, blaming me for my mother’s cancer, freaking out over her pending death. He couldn’t handle it, took it all out on me. It was a horrific turn of events.
In an instant my life was consumed in a nightmare. Five and a half months into this bad dream, my mother’s bowels would become blocked and she began running a fever. I called her doctor who instructed me to call an ambulance and take her to Auburn Faith Hospital for testing.
My mother was overweight and my father and I did not have the capacity to carry her down a narrow set of stairs so once the paramedics arrived they hoisted her onto a gurney and immediately laid her flat. My mother went into a state of panic; she obviously had developed a tumor somewhere in her air passage and if laid flat she could not breathe, whatsoever
I explained this to the paramedics and they immediately popped her upright and we continued our way in the ambulance to Auburn Faith Hospital. Once we arrived they immediately whisked her away from me, and my supervision, so she could undergo a sonogram in the hopes of locating the obstruction in her bowels.
I knew we were getting close. The doctor said my mother most likely had about a week to live. I had spent the last 5 ½ months caring for this very stoic registered nurse. During this time we never spoke of her pending death. My mother pretended with me that she was not going to die. I took her cue and did the same though we both knew death was certainly on its way.
We were a family that never expressed our emotions. We rarely ever verbally expressed our love for one another, and now, so close to death, neither my mother nor I could bear a heartfelt and vulnerable conversation. So, instead, I simply practiced to myself what I was going to say to my adoptive mother when the time was “just right.” Over and over I rehearsed what I wanted to say, expressing everything that I had been bottling up inside. I was planning on closing that painful gap in our relationship caused by my search for my birth mother. I would ultimately set the record straight letting my adoptive mother know how much I loved her and that, yes, indeed, she was my “mother” and irreplaceable.
What I didn't know was that in spite of all this practice and preparation that opportunity would never come.
A moment after my mother was wheeled away from me to undergo the sonogram, the doctor would return within minutes, pale faced. He walked up to me and my father, both standing in the hallway, and announced, “I'm so sorry, she just died.”
Just like that? What do you mean? But I didn’t get a chance to tell her everything I wanted to say! I’ve been practicing. Waiting for the right moment. This can’t be….
What happened next I will never be able to shake. I went rushing into the testing room and there I could see my mother on the gurney, lifeless, and I knew why. They had laid her flat. Within a minute of leaving my care, my warning would be neglected, and my mother would be laid flat, where she would ultimately suffocate to death.
As quickly as she died so did any opportunity for me to tell her how much I loved her and everything else I had been rehearsing in preparation for that “perfect moment.” Heaving and bawling over my dead mother’s body I would look up over my head, remembering stories about how after a person dies their soul would hover over their body. I wanted her to see my face. To hear my words that I had been holding back all this time. But instead, I would gasp when I looked up, seeing the last thing my mother saw before she died; a poster plastered to the ceiling that read, “You only live one, but if you live it right, once is enough.”
What words to die to I thought and I sobbed even harder.
I would be wracked with guilt for several years and felt searching for my birth mother would be a betrayal of my love for my adoptive mother.
It took time and much convincing that this was not a betrayal until finally I would somewhat recover and, once again, pick up my search for my birth mother where I left it when I was eleven.
I would now begin looking for the Andersons.
I had no clue where they were. I was so desperate that many times, as a teenager, I would imagine that my family members were the owners of Pea Soup Andersens Restaurant and Inn. Pea Soup Andersen’s had an iconic windmill and was a traveller’s destination along Interstate 5 in central California. Our family would pass by it during family vacations and I would often imagine myself entering this restaurant, recognizing the owners’ facial features as my own, ultimately reuniting once again with my birth family, living happily every after.
My search for the Anderson’s, however, proved fruitless. I had hired researcher after researcher and none of them could find my Andersons. Not even a trace.
For another 8 years I would continue looking, turning up little clues, until I turned 30. It was with this birthday I made a promise to myself that this would be the year I would finally find my birth mother -- come hell or high water.
The one thing I had not been able to do was open up my adoption records. After enduring my adoptive mother’s reaction to my search I didn’t have it in me to ask my adoptive father to sign for the release of my adoption records. I could not do this without his signature and I could not bear the thought of causing him any grief or sense of betrayal as I had my adoptive mother. It was the opening of this file that seemed to be the one and only thing standing between me and my birth family, however.
At the time I was living in Los Angeles, studying film making, and one of my dearest friends, a notary public, had been watching me turn up nothing after nearly 20 years of searching. So committing the ultimate sin, and, yes, crime, she allowed me to sign the papers as my adoptive father, requesting the opening of my adoption file, and she notarized his forged signature.
As you could imagine, she knew this a crime, and something she would never ever do under any kind of circumstance, but she also knew my personal circumstance. She knew the serious crime she was committing and told me if this ever came back to haunt her she would deny it and say that her notary stamp had been stolen. I will always be eternally grateful to her for putting herself on the line like this. I knew it was a very big deal and know to this day if she had not done this I would still not know who the hell I am.
So, to spare my adoptive father the same suffering my adoptive mother endured, we forged his signature, sent off the notarized documents to the state and two weeks later my adoption files were opened and sent to me. This was when I discovered that my adoptive mother had put me onto a 20-year long wild goose chase.
My last name was not Anderson it was Funston.
For 20 years I had been looking for the wrong people.
My adoptive mother had to have known my last name was Funston. I was born in San Francisco where there is a Funston Avenue and a Fort Funston named after the legendary General Frederick Funston, my natural great-grandfather. My adoptive mother had lived in San Francisco for a period of her life so I find it difficult that she mixed up the name Anderson with Funston.
I have no doubt that at the time my adoptive mother told me this false name she knew it would mislead me because Funston would have been too easy to track down, particularly in San Francisco. Unfortunately, death would take my adoptive mother so quickly and unexpectedly she too would never be able to tell me what she always wanted to say: I was not an Anderson. I was a Funston.
Soon after I got my adoption files opened, I hired the most remarkable researcher, Ida Knapp. She was simply brilliant. We would ultimately have to trick “the system” into giving us the rest of the story.
Ida began searching for my birth mother whose name we found out from the opened adoption records was Jane Funston.
We searched records across the entire state of California and finally the whole nation, far and wide. From death certificates to divorce records we could not find any trace of Jane Funston. My birth mother seemed to have completely vanished from the face of the earth. It seemed fate had decide to keep me in the dark for eternity. But fate was not going to deter Ida Knapp. She told me what I needed to do next.
“Reinette, I want you to write to the San Francisco University Hospital where you were born, but I want you to write as your birth mother, Jane Funston, saying that you have a daughter who is having pregnancy complications. Request your, or Jane’s, medical records, and let’s see what we get.”
So, I did just that.
A week later I got the medical records of my birth mother Jane Funston and that’s when I found out she returned to the same hospital 4 ½ years later and gave birth to my natural half-brother, Damien McLean.
I have a half-brother of the same blood as my mother, I thought. This meant the world to me.
We were never able to track down Jane. But in a matter of a day or two we tracked down Demian through his father, Jane’s former husband, Michael McLean, living in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where Jane ultimately had died.
I got on the phone not knowing what to expect and I called Michael McLean. He answered, a low, soothing voice, and as soon as I told him I was the daughter of Jane Funston he said to me, “We have been waiting for your phone call for 30 years. “
I was flabbergasted. He continued, “We knew that if there was anybody that you would track down to get to your mother it would be us. We were the most settled and “trackable.” We also knew that if you had not been put up for adoption that once your mother had died you would've come to live with us like your brother, Demian, had. So we always though of you as the child we never had.”
I explained to Michael how this 20 year long search continuously turned up nothing and that ultimately we were only able to find Jane through Demian. Michael would explain the reason why I could not find my mother was because when she died her name was no longer Jane Funston. It was Istarra Yedlowski.
Being the good hippie that she was, she changed her first name from Jane to Istarra and then married a man with the last name Yedlowski.
Istarra Yedlowski. That would be the name she would die with. Well, no wonder I couldn’t find her.
Michael would continue, “Why don't you call Pat, my wife, she would love to hear from you.” So I did, and when she answered the phone I told her who I was she excitedly exclaimed, “The Baby! The Baby is calling! The Baby is calling!” We were both in tears.
The dust has been settling over the years and the mystery that shrouded my birth family has dissipated for the most part.
I had found my natural family and have them in my life including Jane’s friends, her paintings, even the front door to her artist study that has her hand prints on the backside, pressed in white paint. I can tell when I press my hands into the door that our hands are one and the same. My hand print fits Jane’s like a glove.
Most importantly Jane left behind a poem about “her firstborn she would never know” called The Accidental Life. I have it memorized and say it to myself every single day to this day.
But for years I was under the impression that Jane had died some time in February until just a few years ago when I was researching on the Internet and came across her death certificate.
I was told that Jane, like my great-grandfather, Gen. Frederick Funston, had a wicked sense of humor and loved to pull pranks on her friends and loved one. This seems just as true in death as it was in life because when I looked at Jane’s death certificate I discovered she did not die in February as I had thought, but April 1st, April Fools Day, of all the days. I can’t help but think that not only in life, but also in death Jane pulled a fast one on me.
Today, the day that Easter Sunday and April Fools Day land on the same day, is a day in confluence of the most remarkable stories. Stories of deep yearning, intrepid searching, and, ultimately, of much needed closure.
So it is today that I say the words I was never able to say to my two beloved mothers; I love you. I thank you both for the life you have given me. I thank you both for making me who I am today. Life is good and I look forward to when we can meet again, on the other side, so I can tell you both in person.