Here’s Pam Smith with a moving story of family at February’s 2017 theme “Choices.”
You see, for me it all started in isolation.
We’d been married only a few months, back then in 1975. We were still figuring out all those things that newly married people, particularly those young of age, need to navigate. And what we thought was stomach flu turned into his call telling me that he was going to the hospital and would be in isolation.
I came home from the hospital that first night, and my mother-in-law, Mildred, came to our home to unburden herself. She brought gifts. Gifts contained in boxes. Gifts of information – photos and letters and words – gifts that she wanted me to have so that she would be relieved of the weight of them. I knew, of course, that Earl had been adopted by Mildred and her husband.
Yet what I was seeing were photos and letters and words of Earl’s birth mother. I was daunted, in over my head. What was I to do with this?
A few days later, Earl came home from the hospital and was healthy again; so I unburdened myself of Mildred’s gifts and offered them over to him. Photos and letters and words. He was daunted. “What am I to do with this?”
One day a few months later, when I was at work Earl came to see me. He had never done this before. And – the way he was dressed! Sports coat, tie, polished shoes. And the look in his eyes. His whole self was bubbling over. “I did it,” he said.
And he went on to explain that he had re-opened the box with the photos and letters and words, had followed the clues and made his way to a nearby town where Rosemary lived and worked. He met her for the first time and had lunch with her. He could hardly contain himself. “I have four brothers!” (Earl and I both were raised as only children.) And he went on to tell me what he had learned.
As a young woman in 1940, Rosemary was a student at a small Roman Catholic nursing school. And there was that night with that young man and a few weeks later she realized she was pregnant. The shame. Rosemary made a plan – a plan to end her life. And, so that she would leave more for her parents than grief and disgrace, she bought a life insurance policy. She went to the doctor the insurer provided – his name may well have been Marcus Welby, MD.
After the examination he said to her, “I know that you are pregnant,” and the whole story tumbled out of her lips. He dissuaded her from her plan to die and told her about a couple he knew who were hoping to adopt a baby – Mildred and James. It was an open adoption before we even coined that term.
At the end of that lunch that day, as they parted ways, Rosemary said, “there can be no more of this – my husband would not understand.” And so the door closed as quickly as it had opened.
The years passed, more than twenty-five of them. I watched Earl gnaw on this, struggle with this, wonder about this. Is she still alive? What is she like now? And what about my brothers – I so want to meet them.
Year upon year, time upon time. Earl would say, “I just want to know…” And year upon year and time upon time, I urged him to make a choice – do you want to seek this out or do you want to let it be? Either is ok. But, please my love, do not be choked by the wonderings and quandary. Make a choice.
My work took me to places distant from our home in St. Petersburg for extended times. In 2002 when I was on assignment in Chicago, my cell phone rang. Reception was horrible! And I was consulting for a mobile phone company who would NOT want me to say “can you hear me now??” All I heard was my beloved sobbing. He couldn’t speak. I couldn’t hear. My husband, beyond words. He choked, “I’ll call you back” and hung up. My heart darted to all manner of dark places as I waited in worry.
Earl called me back to tell me that he had made a choice. He explained, “I asked Ralph to help me find Rosemary.” Ralph was a friend of ours who was an attorney in the area where Rosemary had lived. Ralph found a phone number for one he thought may have been Earl’s Rosemary and called it and said, “My name is Ralph Howes. I am an attorney and my friend Earl Smith is looking for Rosemary, who may be his birth mother.” There was a very long pause.
And Rosemary said, “Tell him I am his mother and I pray for him every day.”
Moments later, Ralph called Earl and told him that Rosemary was waiting for his call – a call that, once placed, was filled with tears, tears saved up and pent up over the decades.
And from this first call came an avalanche of others within hours. The second to me and then another between Rosemary and Earl that held talk of her other sons, Earl’s brothers – those four he learned of some twenty-five years earlier. Jim and John and Mike and Dick.
Earl said, “Mom, I would really like to know my brothers.” “Oh my,” was her response. Followed by quiet. And then “I love you’s” and “Talk to you soon.”
Rosemary’s next call was to her youngest son, Dick, to tell him about this long-held life-long secret now coming to light. I can’t imagine her trembling fingers dialing the phone. Then Dick called Jim and Jim called John and John called Mike and Mike was so stunned that he took the next day off.
And on that day off, Mike called Earl and there was another conversation of tears of wonder.
Within just a few days, plans were set for all of the brothers to gather with their mother. On Friday, September 13, 2002, Earl and I drove from my small apartment in Chicago to a nearby small town to pick up Rosemary. Then we drove to John’s house in Indianapolis to meet the family. Not a reunion, exactly, instead a uniting. And not only the brothers, but of their wives, many of their children. Earl and I with two of our sons walked into the family room and saw brothers and brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law and nieces and nephews for the first time!
Over that fall of 2002, we became family, fell in love with each other, learned some of each other’s peculiarities, and began navigating this new way of being — together.
And then in February of 2003 fewer than five months after the family uniting, on one evening, the emails began flying and the phones began ringing. Rosemary had suffered a stroke and was being taken to a hospital closer to me than to any of the others.
I went. They came. Earl flew. We all gathered around Rosemary’s bedside, this love-encompassed bedside. And on February 12, 2003 Rosemary died.
Choices of distant years. Choices of more recent times.
Choices wrapped in love.