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I heard a voice calling my name, bringing me out of a momentary fog.
“Jack, baby, are you okay?” said Sharon, watching my face closely. I swallowed and shook my head.
“I’m...um...sorry, this is so weird. I mean, I never really thought about my birth father before. And now you’re telling me he might be alive? How do I find out?”
Clyde shifted in his seat and shrugged. “I wish we knew more, but Amanda told no one about you, or any previous relationship she may have had before Phillip. She died without revealing anything about your birth father,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
I sighed, my eyes welling up. So he was essentially a dead end, like Amanda. It wasn’t fair to connect me to the two people who gave me life, only to snatch them away again. A tear fell against my cheek and I looked away, embarrassed.
“Jack...” started Clyde, but his voice cracked. I turned back to face them. Sharon watched Clyde as he struggled for control.
I felt like a selfish heel. He had lost a dear friend. His loss was at least as great as mine, if not more. Having to talk about her was stirring up pain best forgotten. But he would never forget because he knew her in ways I never would.
I remember something my grandmother once said to me when her sister passed away years ago. She told me the way we keep people alive in our hearts after they are gone is to tell their stories over and over again. I needed to know Amanda’s story, as much as Clyde could tell me, so she could live in my heart, too.
“Clyde, if it’s not too painful, would you tell me how she died?” I asked.
He glanced sideways at Sharon, uncertain. She nodded, and he swallowed hard. “Well, I suppose I need to start with Phillip. He and Amanda were deeply in love during their whole married lives together. I love my wife Shirley, don’t get me wrong, but I have never seen anything like the intensity of Amanda and Phillip’s love for each other.” Sharon nodded again, acknowledging the truth of his statement.
“Almost three years ago now, Phillip and Amanda were in Vail for a ski weekend. Amanda skied a little, sticking to the bunny hills. Phillip was always more adventurous. So one afternoon, he decided to tackle a pretty serious slope at the resort. According to the coroner’s report, a bracket on one of his skis broke and he lost control coming down a steep portion of the run. He hit a tree on the side of the trail. He died instantly from severe head trauma. His body wasn’t discovered until Amanda got concerned after he didn’t arrive at the bottom when he was expected.
“I think at first she just figured he had stopped to talk to someone on the lift or something. He was always doing that–talking to strangers. It’s like he never met a person he didn’t already know. Anyway, after about an hour of searching, the trail boss came to her and told her the horrible news. She called Shirley, Shirley called me and we got to her later in the evening. She was devastated to say the least.
“We did the best we could to help her pick up the pieces of her life. She and Phillip had retired from their work doing pharmaceutical research together when their company was sold, so she was kind of at loose ends. Thankfully, a mutual friend of ours encouraged her to help out with a charity organization helping disabled kids and she put herself totally into it. I think it saved her sanity to tell you the truth.”
Clyde had gotten up to get Sharon and himself some coffee while he talked. He now came back and sat down, looking sadly into his coffee cup. “I’ll never forget the day Amanda came here to my office to talk with me. She never came here. I had done some legal work for Phillip on occasion and I had set up their estate. Wills and trusts, that sort of thing. But Amanda had never involved herself with any of their financial or legal affairs. Anyway, she came in one afternoon unannounced and said she had some news she needed to discuss.”
Clyde paused and swallowed hard. He was struggling with this part of the story. I leaned forward on the edge of my seat. “Apparently she had discovered some lumps in her left breast which appeared to be growing rather rapidly. She quietly had them biopsied. As far as I know, she told no one in advance. The results came back positive for cancer, a particularly aggressive variety. Her prognosis was not terminal but it wasn’t good either. She told me her mother had died at the age of fifty from the same kind of cancer. Amanda had just turned fifty-two. We had celebrated her birthday with a small party at the club a few weeks before.
“She started chemotherapy right away, along with some radiation treatments. For a while, it seemed like it was working. The lumps disappeared, her strength and her hair returned. If anything, she looked more beautiful than ever.
“She pushed deeper into her charity work. I think it gave her a real sense of purpose to be helping people. She always said the reason she got into drug research was to really help people and, with the right medicines, millions of people’s lives could be bettered. I know Phillip felt the same way. It was their passion for helping people which connected them more than anything I think.”
Clyde paused with a deep sigh, steeling himself for what I knew was coming. “But then came the day when a follow up exam showed the worst. The cancer was back–and it was everywhere. At the time, she had no symptoms but within weeks her strength started to fail. She was given three to six months to live. Though she worked with her charities as much as possible, soon she couldn’t leave the house anymore. Shirley and I would go out there and visit at least once a week. Maggie and Charles, the couple who lived in the house as caretakers, took good care of her that whole time.”
Clyde sat up straighter. He cleared his throat and continued. “As I said before, about four months before she died, she asked me to come to the house one afternoon and to come alone. Apparently she had sent Maggie and Charles on some errands so they wouldn’t be around to hear what she wanted to tell me. It was on that day she revealed that she had a secret–a child she had given up for adoption during her first marriage.
“I was shocked. About the baby, but also about the previous marriage. I don’t think even Phillip knew she had been married before him. But I recovered quickly as she told me what she wanted to do.”
He looked directly at me. “You have to understand, up to this point, Phillip and Amanda’s estate was earmarked to go to various charities upon the death of the final survivor. Neither one of them had any living relatives. With Phillip already gone, Amanda’s passing would mark the end of their estate. As the executor, it fell to me to see to it all assets were taken care of as planned. Nothing had been changed for years really, since they sold the company two years before Phillip died. That’s when we set up the family trust.
“Amanda told me she had been doing a lot of thinking–about her life and her legacy. She asked me to change some of the benefits to a few specific charities. Two in particular she had spent her last years helping were to receive significant increases.
“She then turned to the subject of her baby. She didn’t know much–she had chosen to remain anonymous in the process, having no interest in an open adoption. She had been living near Los Angeles at the time and the adoption was handled by the local social services agency for the county. She remembered she had given birth on May 18th and she was allowed to hold her baby boy for a couple of hours, then surrendered him to the agency. She had been assured there was already a good local family planning to adopt him.
“Less than a year later, Amanda decided to move to the Denver area, though she never said why. I had always assumed she lived here her entire life. She never spoke of anywhere else. She got a job in the research lab at Franklin Pharmaceuticals where she met Phillip, the founder’s son, at a company mixer. They were married eight months later.”
Clyde looked exhausted. I didn’t really know what to say at this point. It was all so surreal. This Amanda person had gone from being just a name dropped by a stranger on the phone to becoming my birth mother. I assumed it was all true. I couldn’t imagine now that Clyde or Sharon would involve me like this if they didn’t believe it themselves.
Sharon interjected, “Jack, would you like to take a break? I’m sure you still have a million questions but we would understand if you wanted some time to process.”
“Thank you,” I whispered, my voice a little shaky. “But...um...I do have a couple more questions, if I could?”
Clyde replied, “Of course, Jack. Whatever you need.”
“Well, I understand she told you about the baby, but how did you find me? Are you really sure I’m her son? I don’t mean to doubt you but it seems like a pretty important fact to get right, you know?”
Clyde smiled. “How about I let Sharon tell you that part, since she did most of the work?”
I turned to Sharon and she settled into her chair to tell me her part of the story.
“It was almost four months after Amanda had dropped her bombshell on Clyde here. She called and asked me to come out to the house. She wanted to talk. Now I do things like that from time to time for Clyde’s clients, especially the shut-ins. It goes with the job so I didn’t think anything of it. A couple of days later, I headed out to the house and, again, no Maggie or Charles, which was unusual because one or the other was always there by this time, keeping an eye of her. It was my understanding she was in the end stages of her disease.
“I found Amanda sitting in her favorite chair by the big picture window in her bedroom. She had a blanket across her lap, and a stack of stationery and a pen sitting on the small table beside her. She looked very frail, but she was smiling, eager to see me. After some initial small talk, she asked me to have seat and if I would be willing to listen to a story. When I said yes, she told me she had decided to trust me with her secrets.
“Her request seemed a little odd but I wasn’t going to say no to the lady. I set myself up in the chair next to her and got ready to listen. For the next four hours or so, she told me the story–the story of you. She then asked me what I thought about it all and we discussed it a bit.”
Sharon paused and looked at me with moist eyes. “I think she was wanting a mother’s perspective on it to tell you the truth.” I nodded and she continued. “She asked if I thought it was appropriate for her to write you a letter telling you about herself and why she made the decisions she did. I thought about it for a few minutes and then told her I thought it was the right thing to do. I asked her if she needed any help because by this time, she was very tired and having trouble concentrating. She said no, she wanted to sleep on it one more night and write the letter tomorrow. Maggie had come back from whatever errands Amanda had sent her on, and together we got her back into bed.
“Sadly, I never got to talk to her again. She died in her sleep two days later. Maggie found an envelope on the nightstand by her bedside, sealed and addressed ‘To my son...’.” Sharon’s voice broke and she pulled a Kleenex from the sleeve of her blouse to blow her nose.
I sat there speechless. My mother–my birth mother–had written me a letter on her deathbed? My heart pounded in my chest as I wiped away a tear from my cheek. What did she write? I almost didn’t want to know—it would make the loss of her more painful. A loss that was rapidly becoming more and more real to me by the minute.
Clyde opened the folder which had been sitting in front of him all this time and carefully extracted an envelope. I could tell it was a lady’s stationery, the borders were covered in intricate, colorful floral patterns. He handed it to me across the table, like a priceless heirloom, and I gingerly accepted it. I looked at the thick envelope and fought back tears. It was sealed. I wasn’t ready to read it. Not yet. Not here. I wanted to be alone with it. As alone with her as she had been when she wrote it.
“If you both don’t mind, I would like to read this a little later.” My voice was shaky and both Clyde and Sharon looked at me across the table with concern.
I still wanted to know how they had determined I was her son. Setting aside the letter, I said, “I understand Amanda passed away six months ago or so. How did you find me? And what took so long?”
“Well, Jack, Amanda died without giving us a whole lot to go on,” said Sharon, sitting up straight and leaning forward. “She, of course, had no idea where you were, what had happened to you or if you were even still alive. We had a birth date, but no year, a place of birth and the name of the adoption agency. Not a lot to go on.
“After the funeral, Clyde let me know that we had a tight window within which to find you, if you indeed existed, otherwise her final wishes could not be honored. He was adamant that we try our hardest to do so. So I got busy. I first called California and got what I needed in the way of filing formal legal requests for adoption information. The adoption was closed, but as we are a law firm seeking to handle legal affairs, I can sometimes get people to tell me more than they would tell the general public.
“Three months after filing my requests, I got a packet of information in the mail that gave me a few of the missing details. Inside was a note from the court clerk for the judge who finalized the adoption. She said I was in luck, that there had been only one adoption case for a boy with a birthday of May 18th in a three year window prior to her marriage to Phillip. So that fit the timeline Amanda had given Clyde.
“The case record had your original birth certificate, as well as your adoptive one. I now had your current adoptive name so the rest was locating your current address. I figured you were over the age of twenty-one, so you probably had a credit report with the various reporting agencies. So I ran that, got the different places you had lived and was now reasonably sure I knew who you were and where you were. The only thing I didn’t have was a phone number. I called the only number we had, which was your old home phone number. I spoke to your mother but she said you didn’t live there anymore–you were now in Chicago. She refused to give your current personal number to a stranger and I didn’t blame her. I had no home phone number or cell phone in any of the reports, but I did have your employer’s name. So I looked that number up and that’s what I ultimately gave to Barry Wilson so he could reach out to you since Clyde got sick and couldn’t go to Chicago.
“Before contacting you, Clyde wanted me to be absolutely sure, so I dug backwards into your parents’ address history as well. It took awhile, but I was able to create a definitive timeline back to when they lived in the Los Angeles area at the time you were born. Apparently, they must have left California shortly after adopting you, because your brother Terry was born in Illinois.”
I had been holding my breath as she unfolded her steps of discovery and, with the knowledge that she had linked my parents all the way back to California, I knew it was all true. My parents had in fact been planning a move back to Illinois the whole time they were waiting for the adoption to be finalized. The only reason they stayed as long as they did was because they didn’t want to start over in Illinois. Within two weeks after my adoption, once the court’s required doctor’s exam was completed, they were free to take me out of the state. This part of my story I already knew.
I tried in vain to process all I had taken in. I don’t know if a person can really be in mental shock but that is exactly what I felt like at that moment. I didn’t trust my brain to connect the dots anymore so I stayed quiet.
Sharon broke the silence. “I think we all need to take a few minutes. This has been pretty intense if you ask me.” She got up and started collecting empty coffee cups. “Jack, there is a restroom right around the corner. Feel free to use that to freshen up.”
Clyde gathered his papers, looked at me with deep concern in his eyes, then turned and headed back to his office. I wasn’t sure who needed the break more, him or me. My guess was Sharon was reading him and knew when to call a halt. She had probably been watching out for him like that for years. Seemed like something she would do.