Finding Sarah, Finding Me
Sometimes it is only through giving up our hearts that we learn to trust the Lord. Adoption. It’s something that touches one in three people today, a word that will conjure different emotions in those people touched by it. A word that might represent the greatest hope…the greatest question…the greatest sacrifice. But most of all, it’s a word that represents God’s immense love for his people.
Join birth mother Christine Lindsay as she shares the heartaches, hopes, and epiphanies of her journey to reunion with the daughter she gave up…and to understanding her true identity in Christ along the way.
Through her story and glimpses into the lives of other families in the adoption triad, readers will see the beauty of our broken families, broken hearts, and broken dreams when we entrust them to our loving God.
Do Not Be Afraid
Christine, February 1999
Two months before the reunion
“Gwen, I think it’s about time you began to have a life,” Candice said breezily as she moved across the patio refilling the glasses of the many guests. Gwen glanced around self-consciously, then forced a laugh. It was so like Candice Mallard to launch a campaign to reinvent Gwen’s life in the company of strangers.
The clandestine nature of my trip paints a picture of me I don’t want to look at too closely. As I drive from Maple Ridge to Abbotsford twenty miles away, I wonder if I am one heartbeat away from being a stalker.
I find the high school after several wrong turns. Squelching down the fear of getting caught, I park in the school lot and drum up the nerve to walk in the front doors. I repeat under my breath, “It’s no different than walking into Lana’s high school at home in Maple Ridge. It’s no different at all.”
I’m an ordinary person just like any ordinary parent in the Fraser Valley, the Bible Belt of British Columbia. I’m a Sunday school teacher, a bonded bank teller, a woman of forty-one, hair lightened blond, dressed like any nice mom in jeans, casual shirt, running shoes, my bag slung over my shoulder. I am David’s wife, mom to seventeen-year-old Lana, fifteen-year-old Kyle, and ten-year-old Robert.
I am also the woman who wrote in her journal last night, “For twenty years I’ve comforted myself that this time would come, that my birth-daughter and I could legally be reunited. And now I am afraid of her.”
I, I, I, yes I am all of the above. I hate my self-centered focus. Am I also obsessive? And dear God—am I stalking my firstborn?
There’s still time to turn around, get back in my car, forget this whole crazy escapade. Instead, coldness grips my spine as I stride past the office, praying none of the staff will stop me and ask why I’m here, like a criminal.
I’m only coming to Sarah’s former school just this once, not driving past her house like a real stalker, although I have the address. At least I’ve held myself back from that temptation. This one look—in a public place—I’ll allow myself. But I shudder.
Who can understand my hunger to know, to see? My husband and my mother understand, but do I deserve their pity? Close friends can relate yet aren’t able to hold back their trepidation. Those in any adoption triad who search for that missing biological connection will understand. I’ve heard plenty of their wild stories at the adoption support group. Certainly the militant ones with agendas of their own, if they knew what I was up to today, would urge me to barge forward despite my qualms. The average person though? Would they understand this slipping over the edge into a gray area that frightens the daylights out of me?
But time now stops. Not far from the office I find what I’m looking for. This moment I’ve awaited for twenty years. A hectic school hall with teenagers rushing to their next class drifts away. Bell sounds recede to a muffled hush. A desperate quiet roars in my head. It’s the same in every school—a wall displays mounted photos of each graduating class. Portraits of each graduate. Being this close to something tangible emphasizes the growing fragility I’ve battled the past two years. My soul stretches paper-thin as I search the pictures. They’re easy enough to follow, in alphabetical order, and I search for students’ names starting with the letter V.
I’ve waited so long. Far longer than I ever anticipated the search to be. Disappointment after disappointment, lost letters, lost files, that awful sense of being forgotten. The past few weeks as her twentieth birthday looms, my emotional pain has built to a mushroom cloud. I hardly recognize myself anymore.
And then there it is. Sarah VandenBos. Her grad picture. Her face.
A wall of air slams into the core of my being, pushing me backward. It’s hard to catch my breath, and I freeze. After all these years of Sarah being a shadowy picture in my imagination, at last I see her features.
Her long hair falls slightly wavy in that dark blond shade, the exact color as mine at her age. Her eyes hold something of me too, the shape of her head, her neck showing above her grad gown, even something about her teeth. For a moment, my own college graduation picture superimposes itself over Sarah’s. A ghost from the past, what I looked like shortly before I became pregnant with her. Yet there’s something else in Sarah’s face, something I didn’t expect, though I should have.
Her birth father Jim surfaces through her features too. Her mouth is the same shape as his, her nose has that crazy blending of parental genes. Thank God she’s got the tip of my nose and the bridge of Jim’s and not the other way around. For the past twenty years I’ve imagined her as a younger version of me, but now seeing the real Sarah, flesh and blood and no longer a phantom of my imagination, the foundation of my life rumbles and shifts.
As I study every visible facet of her face, a few more pencil lines in the mental portrait of me are erased. She’s beautiful, just as I’ve always imagined…as beautiful as Lana. And there’s such confidence in Sarah’s smile. Sure, this is a professional grad photo and is supposed to exude that balance of poise and assurance, but even while my pride in her and thankfulness soar, I want to shrink away and hide. There’s nothing lacking in this lovely face, nothing to show there’s even an ounce of need. This is what a young woman looks like whose cup of love has been filled to the brim.
How could such a girl ever need me? Sarah isn’t the needy one. I am. I’m the one who hurts because I am not her mother.
I’ve stood staring at the grad photos long enough. No one seems to notice me, but I have no right to be here, and it’s time to go. On the drive home I grip the steering wheel. Tears slide down to soak my shirt collar. Now that I’ve seen her, my fears of meeting her escalate. She has her own life, her own family. At the same time, every atom in my body continues to shove me forward, to keep hoping for the eventual relationship with Sarah that I crave. These constant extremes of emotion drain the life out of me, and I want to just run away, disappear.
A particular psalm has given me strange comfort these past months. “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me,” resonates within me. But it’s not the poetic phrases of King David in Psalm three that bring comfort—rather, the facts surrounding the psalmist’s situation soothe like a salve on a raw wound. The psalmist wrote those words as he looked back on the time he fled from his son Absalom.
Certainly Absalom was one wicked man out to murder his father and steal the throne. Those melodramatic circumstances are vastly different from my search for my birth-daughter, a nice ordinary girl in the Fraser Valley. But sensational tabloid accounts of messy lives fill the Bible and give me this peculiar peace.
At this moment, driving home with my emotions rocking off their base, I’m consoled by King David’s stewing in a similar emotional quagmire. He too loved his child, wanted his child with all his heart, yet ran to mountain caves to cower from his own flesh and blood. I’m not proud of my feelings, but they spill out in a bitter stream from my journals each night. December 29, 1998—“I look back now, and for my sake wish I had not given Sarah up. She is my flesh and blood, yet she loves another couple as her parents. I struggle day and night about meeting her. Why do I torture myself with this compulsion to be reunited?”
Terrible words to flow from a mother’s heart. What kind of a mother am I? A mother to only three of her children, but not to her firstborn. A fractured mother. In spite of this, my husband and I are happily married, a happiness attained by hard work and moving past our failures with forgiveness. Our three kids are our unmitigated joy. Yet I hunger for Sarah, whom I search for. And fear.
It was all so different from twenty years earlier. At seven months pregnant, I’d written in my journal in 1979 my longings that the pregnancy would never end. During those last four months I’d not wanted the day to come that I’d arranged to give up my baby. Heavy with child then, I’d layered the relinquishment of my little one with as much peace and love as I layered the layette—of soft undershirts, fluffy sleepers, the little white Bible—all to be given to her adoptive parents so that they and Sarah would know how deeply I loved her, how much I wanted to see her again one day.
I had the strength to do all that back then because I was sure God had promised me a special relationship for Sarah and me when she was grown. So I’d given Sarah up in 1979, banking on that promise. God simply couldn’t let me down.
But then, King David had banked on God too, only to have his heart broken by his child.
Remembering back to June, 1978
Jim and I watched the movie The Goodbye Girl on one of our first dates. With just a hint of the drama queen that sadly still surfaces in me, I remember thinking, Yeah that’s me, the goodbye girl. I counted up my goodbyes—at five years old to my entire extended family in Ireland when we immigrated to Canada. At twelve, my goodbye to my father when my parents divorced. At nineteen, goodbye to all my old friends in Ontario when my mother, sister, and little brother and I ran away to start over again in British Columbia. And now a year later, the goodbye I’d just said to Jim a few weeks ago when he went up north to work on an oilrig. I missed him.
I thought about Jim as I sat at my desk in the little island of reception in the Woodward’s China Buying Office, my first full-time job. I wondered if we had a chance as a couple. If our going together would ever amount to marriage. Still, while the heat outside blanketed Vancouver, I worried more about what was happening inside me.
I missed my period—so what? But I knew. Miss-Regular-as-Clockwork does not miss her period.
Half the staff left the office, walking past glass cases filled with Waterford crystal and English bone china. Their laughter dwindled as they rose as a gaggle up the escalator, heading for the cafeteria. The main extension rang, and I answered.
With hardly any preamble, the clinical voice on the other end said, “Miss Lindsay, your pregnancy test has returned positive.”
My mouth went dry, and I no longer heard the clacking of calculators but of blood whooshing through my temple. Positive? Negative?
With the naiveté of a twenty-year-old, I asked, “Does this mean I’m going to have a baby?”
Deep inside me, the tinkling sound of breaking crystal. Everything receded, including the voice of the doctor’s receptionist.
I hung up the phone and swayed forward on my chair. Below me lay the beige linoleum tiles of the floor. Oh, God, let me fall through the floor. Let it swallow me up. Let me be invisible. Unmarried pregnancies didn’t happen to nice Christian girls. But then, I wasn’t a nice Christian. I was a lousy Christian.
The other office girls must have returned from their coffee break. The work day must have ended. Somehow, I boarded a bus. Blinded by tears, I sat on the aisle seat, halfway down, and stared at the dirty floor beneath my feet. I was pregnant. No husband. Jim circled in and out of my life like a revolving door. What good could Jim do anyway? Would he clean up his life, give up the drugs? Would he suddenly become a responsible adult and marry me? Take care of this…this tiny thing growing inside me?
I swallowed through a tight throat. I would not cry, at least not until I was alone. But before I went home to my empty, single apartment, I needed my mother. At the very least, there was always Mum.
I got off the bus close to her place. When she opened the door, with one glance at me her chin shifted upward. Her eyes darkened with worry. She put an arm around my shoulders and led me inside. “What’s wrong?”
The words tumbled out. “I’m pregnant.”
I wasn’t afraid to tell her, but I hated to. My world had shattered. As her eldest child, the one who had always done well at school, gone to college, she and I had planned a different life for me. A better life waited for me out there, with a satisfying career, someday a devoted husband, and a home. Not the vicious cycle of single-motherhood and poverty.
She held me.
There wasn’t much else to say. She knew about Jim, and from her own life she knew the story well. A foolish girl takes the risk of unprotected sex with a guy whose love is for something other than her. In my mother’s case, my father loved alcohol. As for me, my competition for Jim’s love was a bag of weed or a white line of cocaine.
My mother sat with me on the couch, her arms around me, and together we cried. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll get through this together.”
My mum, sister, little brother, and I had learned long ago to be a tight unit. After talking for a while, being with Mum gave me the strength to go home. A soft summer evening tried to cradle me as I walked the two miles to my own apartment. I’d taken such pride in decorating my little place, my first stride toward independence, and I’d blown it. I’d probably conceived my baby within these walls. I shut the door behind me. Dropping my purse at the open balcony window, I took in the bachelor suite. So quiet. Loneliness closed in around me, and I slumped to my knees.
All the while I’d been with my mother, though I’d cried with her, wiped hot tears from my face, I’d been able to hold back the torrent. Now the volatile storm gathered, rising up inside me in heaps. My mouth spread wide in silent sobs, my arms clutched my stomach, and I bent over, my head swaying back and forth only inches from the carpet. This can’t be true. This can’t be true.
But it was. How could I have been such a fool? At twenty years old I should have known better. Even though I loved Jim, in my heart I referred to him as my walk-on-the-wild-side. The skim-milk love he had for me wouldn’t be enough now that I was going to have his baby.
I wrapped my arms around my middle and rocked on my knees, bawling until nothing remained. My face stung with drying salt, and my hand crept to my abdomen.
Deep inside me slept a tiny bit of flesh. At eight weeks, how big or small did this scrap of humanity measure? Did its heart beat? I’d seen pictures of fetuses in the womb, sucking their thumbs. Did mine have a face yet, a spine? If I left it alone to grow, how soon would it become a boy or a girl? But I’m so scared, dear God, I’m so scared.
Twilight snuffed out the last of the day, and I tried to remember what I knew about God. I knew his Son from Sunday school—a gentle, kind man in a white robe, his feet covered in dust, who I’d been told didn’t shoo people away when they’d blown it, especially tainted women, like I was now.
But God? The heavenly Father? What on earth did a father’s love feel like? Who needed a father anyway?
One of the clearest memories of my dad stole back into my mind, a memory I’d tried to bury over the years. But the memory kept slinking back like a mangy cat steals under the porch no matter how many times you scare it away. As a child of seven and in the hospital for pneumonia, I’d waited for my dad. It was his evening to visit, and my mother had made that possible by staying home with my sister. From my hospital bed I peered out the window to the street below, looking for his figure to walk up the pavement.
Daddy never showed up. Ten minutes after visiting hours ended, he sheepishly staggered in. A frowning nurse allowed him five minutes with me. The beer on his breath wafted over me as he leaned over to kiss my forehead. How rarely he kissed me. Nonetheless, his smelly kiss filled the cold emptiness that had bunched up in my chest as I’d waited for him. When he left me minutes later, even as a kid of seven, I knew my dad spent the time he should have been visiting me down at the pub. I also knew he was on his way back to the pub to order another beer.
The only parental love I’d known came from my mother. Now at twenty I was going to be a mother. Maybe God would be there for me as my mum had always been.
Did God’s voice echo in my own when I protectively wrapped my arms around my abdomen and said, “I love you, little one. I’ll take care of you. Don’t be afraid.”?
From Oregon, USA—The Adoption of Anna
“Trying to Imagine My Daughter’s Reunion with Her Birth Parents”
by adoptive father David Sanford
I wept hard the day my wife, Renée, and I formally asked if we could adopt our youngest daughter, Anna. We wept in response to reading a two-inch high stack of police reports, medical records, evaluations, and other official documents describing the hell Anna endured during the first three years of her life.
That spring Renée and I received the great news that we were approved to adopt Anna. When we went to her foster home, she jumped into our arms and said, “It’s my family!” A week later she moved to our home. That evening she and our youngest son, Benjamin, spontaneously started dancing to the music playing in the background. An hour later they were still dancing. Our hearts overflowed with gratitude and love.
I could write a book telling story after story about why I love, cherish, and adore Anna. Then again, as we knew would be the case, the nightmares of her past came back to haunt her and us during her early adolescence. Three stories stand out as particularly poignant and apropos.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, a few weeks before her fifteenth birthday, Anna told me she had a secret. She then proceeded to tell me about a lullaby she has sung to herself every night since we adopted her. I asked her to write down the simple lyrics, which appear below. Anna was clear: “These lyrics are how I sing it, not necessarily what my birth dad and mom sang to me.” The lyrics could echo Randy Newman’s song “Sandman’s Coming” sung by Linda Ronstadt (and others). In any case, I designed a poster for Anna with a dark blue sky, moon, and stars in the background and the lyrics of Anna’s lullaby in bold black letters.
Sleep our little baby,
Sleep our little girl,
Mommy and Daddy love you,
Sleep our little baby, sleep.
Some days later Anna was all smiles as I took her on a date to a nice restaurant. I explained to her that two of our goals that evening were to have fun and make sure we got to know our server by name and make it a fun evening for him too. Anna loved the idea, and we had a delightful time talking, teasing our server, and talking some more.
At one point Anna brought up her nightmares about her birth father. I looked down. In a low voice I wondered aloud if he was still alive. Unbeknownst to me, Anna misunderstood my demeanor and statement. The next morning when she talked it over with Renée, Anna said I wished her birth father were dead. Renée immediately corrected her, saying I would never say something like that, to Anna’s great relief.
That previous evening Anna also brought up her birth mother. I surprised her by saying that a couple of years earlier Renée had found a photo of her birth mom on Facebook. As promised, I looked through our archives and found the photo Renée had downloaded and printed. Sadly, the photo “backfired” almost immediately. Anna had already been acting out, but her behavior became much worse, including shallow but extensive cuttings up and down her wrist. As well, Anna’s nightmares about her birth father got worse.
In English class shortly after New Year’s, Anna and her classmates were asked to write a poem in class. After a few minutes Anna stopped writing and sat at her desk in a reflective mood. Her teacher walked over and asked if Anna was still trying to get an idea for her poem. Anna handed a page to her.
After reading the page, Anna’s teacher asked who wrote it.
“I did,” Anna replied.
“But it’s been only a few minutes.”
“I know. The poem came to me very quickly.”
“This sounds like an older, more experienced writer.”
Anna wasn’t sure what to say next. “Our poems aren’t due for a few days, so I may work on mine a bit more.”
That evening Anna and I read through her poem several times. An idea came to her, and she quickly typed three more lines about “my shredded paper heart.” With her permission, I’ve reprinted the finished poem below.
Who am I?
Who am I? Who are you?
Me Daughter. You Father.
Father? Yes Father.
That’s who you are.
I know you, but
you do not know me.
Sweat, blood, anger, fear,
they’re all one to me,
one person. But who?
Let me tell you…
The sweat is from nightmares that haunt me still today,
but these nightmares are memories,
memories of you Father.
Blood is what came from the gash in my head,
the one you gave me Father, remember?
Blood from the cut on my heart,
my shredded paper heart, for
I have been torn apart by your words.
Anger is the gnashing of teeth,
the hate that triples every time your hand hit my side.
Fear is still tied to my past,
the fear of not letting go.
The fear that you’re still here.
Who am I? Who are you?
I know who I am, but
I don’t know you.
~ Annalise C. Sanford
As you undoubtedly have guessed, trying to imagine Anna’s reunion with her birth father is almost impossible apart from a miracle of God.
Then again, could arrangements be made for Anna to meet her birth mom sometime in the next few years? Yes, though Renée and I know it could “backfire” and send Anna spiraling seemingly out of control for weeks, maybe months.
After all, what could that woman possibly say to Anna’s desperate questions: “How could you abandon me as a baby? How could you leave me with that man? Do you have any idea how badly I was abused emotionally, physically, and sexually the next couple of years? Why did you flee without me?”
What does the future hold for Anna? Much sorrow and much good. This evening I told Anna how I deeply wished I could erase all the horror of her first years of life. She looked at me and replied, “But Dad, if you could do that, how would I ever be able to help others?”
Who knows? God still makes trophies of grace. Anna certainly is one. We pray that God uses her to win her birth mother’s heart. We also pray for the conversion of her birth father and his reconciliation with the precious young woman that Anna is becoming.
David Sanford’s writings have been published everywhere from Focus on the Family to Forbes. His book and Bible projects have been published by Doubleday, Thomas Nelson, Tyndale, and Zondervan. His speaking engagements have ranged everywhere from The Billy Graham Center at the Cove to the University of California Berkeley. His professional biography is summarized at http://www.linkedin.com/in/drsanford. His personal biography features his wife of 34 years, Renée, their five children, and their 11 grandchildren (including one in heaven).