A Family’s Ties
*This story is dedicated to Mrs. Vera Prather. Without her loving support this story may never have been told.
My parents had a secret. And as secrets go, they shared this with no one outside of the immediate family. Not even their closest friends knew. In fact they moved from their home in Chicago, Illinois, to a small village way out of town when it was time for me to enter their lives. They had planned, and searched, and then waited for me to come along, I am their son, and I was adopted.
I have always known I was adopted. George and Pat, my adopted parents, never held that back from me. While trying to explain adoption to me, or while trying to make me feel special, or both, they told me a bedtime story regularly when I was very young. In this tale they would explain how there were some mommies who could never have babies of their own, and other mommies who had babies but could not take care of them. Adoption was this thing that helped these mommies help each other do whatever was best for the kids.
When I got old enough to actually understand all of that and exactly what all of it meant, I started wondering about the other family that I had out there someplace. Especially on my birthday I would think about my birthmother and wonder, does she ever think about me? As it turned out, she did think of me, all the time.
George and Pat and the family that adopted me provided me with everything I needed to thrive. Along with a wholesome, loving environment, my lifestyle was nothing short of privileged: big house on a farm, private schools, the works. George’s job as an analytical research scientist for the Pure Oil Company kept him busy. However, he always had time for me. We would go for long walks in the woods that surrounded our place in upstate Illinois. He’d teach me about everything we saw, the different trees, the animals, how to find food, even the bugs. He also taught me what to do if I found myself lost, how to find my way out of the woods and back home safely.
Pat had a job at a dry cleaner’s in town, but it was only part-time. So mostly she was at home with her mother, my Grandma Kitty. Before I started attending school, Grandma Kitty was in charge of keeping me busy. Between her and Pat, I learned all about keeping a garden and growing some of my favorite foods. I had my own two rows in the garden, and before I could read, I could tell you how to grow and cook what we had there, how to measure out ingredients to bake things like cookies and even cakes. I could also take care of any of the animals, the cow as well as the chickens, ducks, our one lone horse and the pigs. All this before I started the first grade.
Then one Christmas, Dad gave me a telescope, complete with star charts, opening up the nighttime skies to me. I was fascinated. That same year Dad brought home a microscope for some work he was doing. Again I was fascinated. When the nuns at school my first day of 1st grade asked me if I had any hobbies, I simply said “Science.” Is it any wonder in 1966, when I was 8 years old, how Star Trek became my first favorite TV show?
Between my folks and my grandma I was never left alone. But I always had this feeling of loneliness, or emptiness, along with a very strong desire to learn where it was that I came from.
What was my other family like? Why did they give me up? Did I have brothers, and sisters? Do they, or my real parents, look like me? Would I recognize them if I passed them on the street? These questions and more haunted my daydreams.
Union Oil built a new research center in California. In 1966 they purchased our farm in Woodstock, Illinois. Hired my dad away from Pure Oil and moved us all to Orange County, California. My dad was now to head up the Analytical Section of the brand-new research facility. My family built a new home in the foothills of Tustin, California. Ten minutes from Disneyland, and ten minutes from Newport Beach. More or less the heart of Orange County.
Watching the heavens with my telescope wasn’t as good in California as it had been from the farm in Illinois. In fact nothing about our new dream home was as nice as our farm, at least from the perspective of an 8-year old boy. No barn, no animals, no open spaces, no snow, no woods or streams. The closest thing we had to woods and streams were the orange groves and irrigation/drainage ditches around town. In fact cement and asphalt literally went on for miles in every direction. I was astounded.
Grandma Kitty was as miserable as I was. We planted a small garden, but she took to just sitting by the pool, knitting wool afghans for the snowy winters that never came. One morning she was gone. In her lap was a sketch of a blue jay bird in an old oak tree. Unmistakable in the background was the old barn on our farm back in Illinois.
Not long after that, my adopted mom, Pat, died of cancer. Dad and I were now by ourselves. He coped by throwing himself into his research work at Union Oil, or with his gardening and never-ending yard work, which he enjoyed immensely. He always had time for my questions, and no matter what he always had a smile for me, though sometimes at night I could hear him as he cried for Mom, or got sick worrying about me and my growing problems. I had taken to stealing liquor and money, and by the time I was 14 years old I had been brought home more than once by the cops. I had already dropped out of Catholic Seminary School, and now I was ditching public school. I had started experimenting with speed, pot, LSD, organic mescaline and magic mushrooms. Dad hired a Spanish lady named Rosa. She took care of the house and me ’til eventually Dad got remarried. My new step-mom was named Dorothy.
Having a new step-mom around only reminded me even more of my other mother, my real mother, out there in the world someplace. On my 15th birthday I expressed for the first time a desire to look for my birthmother. Maybe my timing was off, the mood wrong, after all it was my birthday and everyone was trying to have fun. Whatever the reason George didn’t take my desire to find my real mom very well. Whether unable or unwilling, he refused to help and called the very idea “foolish.” The rift that was forming between us that summer, as with most teenage boys and their fathers, grew. Unlike most rifts, however, it continued to grow. Even as of today, I have not seen or spoken to my adopted father in over 20 years.
By the time I was 16 years old, I had begun my search for information about my adoption. Information that I thought someday might lead me to the identity of my biological mother; my birthmom. Starting out I didn’t even know her name. There were no books, or publications I knew of that I could find. The local library was not much help. For the moment I was on my own. My only clue was a document that took the place of my real birth certificate. My real birth certificate was sealed by the court in which the adoption took place. As was the practice in nearly 100% of the adoptions back in 1958. The court would then make a new certificate called the “corrected” certificate. Partly truth, partly fiction, this adoption birth certificate was all I had to go by.
Most of my friends that summer were hanging out at the Newport Beach, or Balboa Piers, or the boardwalk and places like The Crab Cooker. Instead of joining them, I got myself a 60-day Golden Eagle Bus Pass, on Continental Trailways and traveled back to Illinois from my home in California.
I came into this world and breathed my first breath in June of 1958, at a hospital in Elgin, Illinois. This was the only place I knew of for sure that my birthmom and I had been together, in each other’s arms, if for only just a little while. So this was as good a place as any to start my search.
In some cases it was my age, but mostly it was what I was trying to do that created problems. Looking for my mom wasn’t a bad story, but when I mentioned I was an adoptee looking for my biological mother, people turned cold, even frigid. Refusing to help, or even discuss the subject.
The year was 1974. Adoption laws, as well as most people’s attitudes towards adoption and adoptee searches, had not yet started to change. I learned quickly not to mention that I was an adoptee searching for my real mom. But the damage had been done, the word was out, and most doors were closed to me.
I took a recreational side trip to Russell Springs, Kentucky. I wanted to visit a friend and spend a little time on his family’s farm. Then a week or so later, I went to Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Here I wanted to visit a kid I went to seminary school with back in the 9th grade. After a week there I headed back to Illinois, to a little village called Fox River Grove. This is where my adopted parents lived after they were married, way back before I was born. It was also the hometown of the doctor who brought me into the world.
Dr. Joseph McKenna, whose name I got off my adoption birth certificate, was as far as I was concerned a total stranger to me. However, to my surprise, when I called him on the phone and introduced myself, without hesitation he knew exactly who I was. He sounded friendly and happy to hear from me. Expressing his sympathy at the passing of my adopted mom, he even asked if George was holding up alright. Then to my further surprise he invited me out to his house for lunch. Then I brought up my adoption. Like everyone else, he turned cold at the very mention of the subject, refusing to discuss it. So I asked him to just please forward my name and phone number to my real mom for me. After all, at some point she must have been a patient of his, or at the very least, was a patient of his on my birthday, back in the 1950’s. He wouldn’t commit to anything. Neither admitting to nor denying anything, he simply broke off the conversation. Saying only that I should wait two years ’til I turned 18, and then consult a lawyer.
I poked around for a few more days before returning to Kentucky. I wanted to do some camping, some fishing and mostly relaxing. I needed to get my thoughts together. So I had my friend show me a good spot on Cumberland Lake, not far from his family farm. Relaxing in the woods, I tried to think of what I may have missed, or forgotten to do. With no other ideas, and very disappointed, I returned to California. I had failed to find anything, not even one clue, as to who my birthmom might have been, or where she might be.
Bewildered by what I had come up against, I went on with my life. However, I always did keep the dream alive of somehow, someday, finding her. Still as always every year on my birthday, I would wonder if she were thinking about me. What I didn’t know at that time was that she in fact wondered all the time about me. She called me her “missing,” or “lost” son. Eventually she started her own search for information that might lead her to me. Like myself she had no information, not even my name, and like myself, she was having no luck finding any clue as to whom I was or where I could be.
About 12 years later, in 1986, after one failed marriage and divorce, other failed relationships, even a stint in prison, I was working at a Chevron Full-Service gas station back in Tustin, California. A place I continued to bounce back to several times over the years. My home, this time, was a 17-foot high-low camping trailer parked behind the station. One day I realized that there was nothing holding me to California. Over the years I had school, or family obligations, but now I was by myself. I started out this day getting drunk with a friend. Listening to old rock-’n’-roll songs, feeling nostalgic and looking forward to not much of anything, just another day pumping gas. Yet another day in my self-made purgatory. Then I ended this day by signing over the pink slip to my trailer, to my boss. Packing up my little car lock, stock and barrel, I headed for what was to be, at the very least, some adventure on the road. A road trip, a very welcomed diversion. Anything can happen on the open road, and probably would happen to me, but that didn’t slow me down.
Not looking back I hit that road running. I drove through the night. Stopping only to finish off my stash of weed and speed. Then early on the 3rd day of my trip, my little car died and gave up its ghost. It sputtered to a stop just outside the little town of Van Horn, Texas. Quite probably the very definition of the middle of nowhere.
I walked into town, got a tow truck to go out and town in my car, and the mechanic only confirmed what I already suspected, nothing short of a new motor would get my car back on the road. I sorted through my things. Packed a duffel bag, settled up my accounts, and hit the road again. This time on foot.
I worked here and there, staying with people I met along the way. When no place was to be found I stayed in local homeless missions, or on more than one occasion I hid from the rain in storefront doorways and even hid in a farmer’s barn once. Taking my cues from the homeless and seeking out the places only they would know. I, like them, somehow managed to survive, and five months later I arrived in Woodstock, Illinois. The town of the first 8 years of my life. Here I would start my search over again.
One good thing about spending 5 months on the road, I learned a newfound respect for all the people who spend their lives it seems living under bridges and in the bushes of our cities and towns, but I also got sober. I was clean and sober for the first time in years. Oh, I looked like someone who’d been on the road, in need of a good meal, as well as a shower, but I was clear-headed, sober and in good spirits. It was now early November. I was standing in my hometown square, fifty cents in my pocket. The hint of snow in the air. I began to think that maybe this big adventure of mine wasn’t such a good idea. After all, I hadn’t been in this town since I was 8 years old. I was now nearly thirty.
The town hadn’t changed much. Things looked about the same, and everything looked to me as though I had just left yesterday. The town actually looked like time had stood still. Everything was right where I expected it to be, right where I had left it all. Though my memory of this place had grown cloudy over the years, within a few moments of being back all of what I remembered came clear. Every place I looked, I saw things I remembered but hadn’t thought about for years. Little things, like the bricks that paved the roads, or the little glass windows in the sidewalks that let light into stores’ basements, or the bandstand, and war memorial in the square and so on.
During the years in California, I always felt out of place, as though I was just visiting. Now I felt like I had come home. Even though I had spent nearly 25 years in California, and only the first 8 years of my life in this town, this place felt like an old pair of jeans, plainly just more comfortable, a better fit. Then the realization of what I had done sunk in. I had no money, no plan of action and no friends that I knew of. While wondering what to do next, the bell tower of St. Mary’s church came into view. Before I knew it I was standing inside the sanctuary. I dropped my things at the door and slowly made my way inside. There was a strange, eerie stillness about things, as though the very walls were wondering what I was doing there. The smell of candles and incense permeated the air. I could almost hear the priests and choir of nuns as they sang in Latin the prayers of my youth. I went over to the rack of candles representing prayers for the dead and lit a candle for my adopted mom, then dropping my last fifty cents in the offering box there, I was at a loss as to what to do next, no prayer came. I had given up on God when cancer took Pat away despite all my prayers for her to get well. As far as I was concerned I was alone and on my own. Or was I. So mysteriously strange as to send a chill up the spine was the feeling in this place.
I was about to go grab a newspaper I had spotted in one of the pews. Maybe there was a farm looking for help, or maybe a day-labor place was advertised, maybe someone needed a winter caretaker, or anything that might put some money in my pocket, or just a roof over my head, when a nun came up to me. “Can I help you?” she said. I’m sure I really did look lost and in need of some help, but I’m also sure she probably just wanted the hobo out of her sanctuary.
I told her from the beginning who I was and how I had come to be in her church that day. After all I had once been a member of this church and a student there back in the ’60’s. Nursery through the 2nd grade anyway. Not long but it was something.
We went to the church rectory where the nun looked my adopted family up in the church records. Sure enough there I was. “It says here your father worked for Pure Oil and your mother worked for Buckley Cleaners. Do you remember your address?” she said. Yes, in fact I did and my old phone number as well. “Guess this is you alright, but there is no mention here of an adoption. You know who might be able to help?” she said. “Mr. Buckley.”
Ed Buckley, of Buckley Cleaners, she explained, had been everything from City Councilman, to the mayor, even Chief of Police over the years of this small farming town of about 7,000 people. She suggested that I go see him. I knew exactly where to find him, and sure enough that’s where he was, behind the counter at the cleaner’s waiting on, and greeting, the customers, just like I remembered him doing so many years past. Buckley Cleaners was just two blocks away, a stone’s throw from St. Mary’s Church.
I’d been gone for over 21 years, but Mr. Buckley didn’t look that much different. A little grayer maybe, but what stood out for me was that he wasn’t as tall as I remembered. But then again I wasn’t 8 years old any longer either. I waited in line like a customer picking up, or dropping off, laundry.
When it was my turn at the counter, I simply held out my hand and introduced myself. His big smile broadened even more as he called, with a sparkle in his eye, for someone to take his place at the counter. He dragged me, duffel bag and all, to the back break area of his establishment. After offering coffee and donuts, he asked what brought me all the way back to Illinois, saying the last he had heard I was married and doing fine. How he had heard that was beyond me, I could only imagine. So without holding anything back, from drug addiction to prison, divorce and all the rest, I explained my quest to find my real mother and the family I was sure was out there someplace.
We talked for hours; Mr. Buckley was not very helpful with any information about my adoption or my birthmother. Actually I was surprised he even knew anything at all about my adoption, considering the level of secrecy my folks put on it, for whatever reason. But he did say that my birthfather was rumored to be a bit of a rogue and a scoundrel. He also thought my search foolish, but offered me a job, use of a car and invited me to stay in one of the rooms left vacant by his now-grown sons.
Working and living with Mr. Buckley gave me a chance to relax and reflect on my life’s mistakes and gave me that opportunity I needed to start my life over nearly from scratch. How many of us have ever wanted to do that?
I went and got a new copy of my adoption birth certificate. While doing so the clerk, holding an envelope of considerable size, pointed out that my file was sealed and that she could not provide a copy of my original birth certificate. Just for a moment time stood still. There it was right in front of me, within arms’ length, the very envelope containing all the information I needed, all the secrets, all the information kept hidden all these years. Should I grab it and run? Could I get a look at it before they caught up to me? Could I stall the elevator between floors and read to my heart’s contentment? Would I be able to recognize and memorize all the important information before having to surrender to security? What exactly would be the charges? Would it be worth it? All this and more sped through my mind in a flash of contemplation. Seeing maybe what I was considering, the clerk backed up a bit and put the envelope out of reach. Telling me to get a court order to see what was inside, she put the envelope away.
That same week I applied for a new Social Security Card and even got an Illinois driver’s license. Over the next few weeks I learned about driving in the snow, and I also learned more than I ever wanted to know about the dry cleaning business. I spent some time driving around, getting to know my hometown better than I ever had before. I visited my old family farm and the people now living there. I caught up on the history of all the people I remembered, at least all the ones that Mr. Buckley knew. Yes, I was home again. Christmas and New Year’s came and went.
I got a second job working at “Woodstock Residence,” a retirement and assisted living facility nearby. That is where I met, and fell in love with, an aide, a lovely girl named Dawn Lee. We moved in together and were married the following year, in the fall.
I had managed to retrace my life all the way back to the beginning, and that’s where I ran into problems. The hospital referred me to the doctor, the doctor referred me to the courts, the courts referred me to the adoption agency, then back around again. And to top it off no one along the way would even admit to being a part of the adoption in the first place. For example, I couldn’t even get the court to tell me if my adoption was done in their county or not.
Besides wanting to find my birthfamily, I had always wanted to be a dad. I did learn along the way that my adopted parents started the adoption process and the search for a baby 7 years before I was even born. With a brand-new respect for what they had gone through, I continued my search. Then one day I learned I was to be a father. That day Dawn told me I was soon to be a dad was like a dream come true. We made all the plans for the nursery, crib, changing table and all the other stuff that goes with having a new baby on the way. Then one day I came home from work, and the neighbors said Dawn had been taken to the hospital. My beautiful wife had a miscarriage.
A week or so later we moved into a studio apartment that Dawn’s parents had in their basement. This way Dawn could take care of herself, relax and not have to worry about money, bills or much of anything else. Soon things were looking up, money in the bank, bills all paid, and we even paid off all our credit cards. Dawn had her health back. I even went back to school part-time. Then again I was told I was soon to be a father. My heart soared like an eagle at the news. It was the best high in the world.
Winter came, and while leaving for work I stepped off the porch onto ice under fresh snow. My feet went out from under me and into the air. The rest of my body came down hard on the steps, my head hit the porch, blam! I was out cold. That accident that day led to me being in a wheelchair today. I started using then abusing painkillers, alcohol and other drugs. What I once did for recreation I now did to feel normal or at the very least feel pain-free. I lost my job and my self-respect. My wife had a second miscarriage. My drug abuse was now worse than ever before. All of this and more tore my little family apart.
One day while I was in Chicago spending our food money on heroin and cocaine, my wife packed up all our stuff. Leaving only my things under a tarp on my in-laws’ front lawn, she took her stuff and took off for parts unknown.
When I returned from Chicago that day, high as that proverbial kite, I was informed that Dawn was gone and not coming back, and I was no longer welcomed there. You’d think that this news would have sobered me up, but the very opposite happened. I descended even further into my own personal abyss. Packing my things into the back of my ’73 Chevy Step-Side pickup truck. I drove to, and spent the night in, a local cornfield within view of my old family farm from the 1960’s. With plenty of heroin and cocaine to keep me busy, warm and entertained. Not to mention numb, this was important, numbness; the ultimate goal. Freedom from physical, emotional and psychological pain. Temporary freedom to be certain, but freedom nonetheless. My pot connection there in town had an extra room. Not much more than a walk-in closet, but it was better than the cornfield. My friend, Calvin, offered up this space free of charge for the winter, so I took him up on it. Besides, where else would be the best place for a dope fiend to be but living at his connection’s home.
In the spring, when the snow melted I sold my truck and got divorced. For the second time in my life, I returned to California. At least there the SSI benefits are better.
Very strung out, and looking for some kicks, I followed my heroin connection to a house not far from that old gas station where I used to live and work. In this house I came face to face with a woman I had spent some time with back in the 1980’s. She was part American Indian, part Hmong and ancestry that gave her a very exotic look, which was very hard to miss. I recognized her immediately. Her name was Lanore. Despite the walker she recognized me as well, in an instant. Leaving everyone else behind, she grabbed me by my arm and walker and dragged me into the other room. Saying something along the way how she had searched for me for some six and a half years before giving up, and something about having some kind of a surprise for me. Into the back of her house she led me, my head swam, my vision blurred, I lost all sense of balance as she introduced me to my twins for the first time. In this moment my heart nearly stopped as she said, “These are the twins, Siccily and Anthony.” Then in my ear she whispered, “They’re yours, you’re a daddy.”
As soon as I laid eyes on them, despite the Asian/Indian influence, I knew she spoke the truth. I couldn’t so much as see it in their features, as I could feel it in my soul. I was a father—WOW! My knees went weak.
In 1981, while each of us was married to other people, this woman and I had an affair. We were brought together over a spoon of methamphetamine and several hours of passion. While her husband, an over-the-road salesman, was at work.
A few years later he died in an accident, leaving her alone with the twins who were then 5 ½ years old. I had left for Illinois, so she was unable to find me. He died never knowing the twins were not his, and I left never knowing they were even alive.
The twins, thinking their father died, were in for a real surprise someday, but not that day. Did I get sober? No, but I sure did go out and celebrate fatherhood. Over the next few months I spent a lot of time with Lanore, even moved in with her for a while. But things didn’t work out. Maybe it was that each of us was too used to being on our own and in charge, who knows, it could have been any one of a dozen things. We were really good with each other in the bedroom or while we were getting high, but all the rest of the time we were like poison for each other. Then one day Anthony came from left field and asked, “Mike, are you my dad?” I was behind the wheel of my car at the time and had to pull over. “What made you ask that?” I said. “Just a feeling I have,” he said. Without admitting to anything I told him I’d be very proud to be his dad. Then said if he wanted me to be his dad, then I would be, but we’d have to talk to his mom first. That night we had a little meeting over a large pizza. My kids grew up a little that night, as they learned a little bit about the most complicated world of adults. In the end they had a new dad, who was their real dad, and I had two really cool kids to call my own. I was a father.
By the time the twins turned ten years old, Lanore and I were no longer living together. My daughter continued to live with her mom, but my son had come to live with me. Lanore and I decided that we were better off apart, however we also decided to break up the twins, at their request and according to their wishes. With the landlord’s help I was able to take over a property not far from her, so the kids could be together or with either one of us as they might choose. It was a much better arrangement. With the arguing all but gone we became much closer because of it.
A retired schoolteacher named Vera had also come to live with me. She helped me with taking care of my son and paying the bills and housework and all the rest. Her social security, along with my disability payments, put the roof over our heads and food on the table, but I was still strung out. Every day I hid in the shadows of my house, the corner of the bathroom, out in the garage and poked holes in my hands and arms.
In order to pay for my addictions, I did every sad, sick, terrible and stupid thing to raise money. Then I pumped every last red cent into my veins. The duality of my life was remarkable. Looking on from the outside, anyone who bothered to look would see a mobility-impaired man who had a live-in housekeeper, both taking care of and supporting his son, obviously doing the best they could. The bills were paid, the kid had clean clothes and no one went hungry. But there was another side to it all, a dark side. This dark side was filled with everything you could imagine that went with the drug sub-culture in America and then some.
A year or two went by when I then discovered the Internet and the world of the personal computer. I continued the search for my biological roots using the ’net. I searched and searched, but even with all the good information out there, I still could not find anything about my adoption. It was as though it never happened. I really had a problem finding anything useful. I started to think it was just as well. What if I did find my birthmother, what would she think of me? “My son the junkie.” “My son the dope dealer.” “My son the Internet pornographer.”
Then one day the very worst thing happened . . . I became responsible for the death of another human being.
There it was the bottom. I spun out of control and hit it hard. My life as I had come to know it was over. I always wanted two things out of life. I wanted to be a dad, and I wanted to find my roots. Those were my dreams. Well I had destroyed my life, but not my dreams. Finding my birthmother was still very much on my mind. If for no other reason, to share with her my children. However if I could not find her in over 20 years of searching from the street, how was I to find her now on my way to prison?
It would take a miracle!
After a couple of years in County Jail my case finally came down to the final stages of the whole affair, and the judge sentenced me to life in prison, without the possibility of parole. On that day I noticed a strange thing. On one of the documents they had for me to sign they included a list of all the names I had used over the years. Taking my lifestyle into account, I used a number of aliases over the years, and here they all were listed. Strange thing was that on this list was a name I had never used: Michael Thomas Sanders. After court I asked my lawyer about it. He looked into it for me, and found out that it came from some kind of a juvenile court document. Well that was odd. After all I had used several assumed names as an adult, but never as a kid. I was adopted right after I was born, in fact according to what I already knew I was adopted only a month after I was born, and given the name Thomas Michael Fox. That had been the only name I ever used until I started using aliases after my 21st birthday. So where could this name of Michael Thomas Sanders have come from? It was a juvenile court document. Well I had been in trouble a few times as a kid. Even being put on probation. On all those occasions however I always had used my real name as I knew it to be, the one given to me at my adoption by my adopted parents, George and Pat Fox. Then like a blast of cold air I realized something. Could this be my birthname? This very thought made my heart leap in my chest. Was this the one clue that had eluded me all my life? Were they exposing by accident one of those hidden secrets? Was this the thing I had been searching for? I contacted my lawyer. Could he please check this out for me, I asked him. He had his investigator work on it. The California courts, as well as the court in Illinois, refused to talk about it, or even consider or examine the document from where the name came. The source of the information contained in the document was never disclosed. No one would discuss it. Not even with my lawyer. With renewed vigor my desire to find information about my adoption sprung up inside me. What was all the mystery and secrecy about. Why all the cloak and dagger stuff. After all, I wasn’t trying to find out stuff about anyone else. At least not this time. This document was about me. But to no avail, information was not forthcoming. Now I had to wait a little while longer. I was done in County Jail and awaiting my transfer to State Prison.
Because of my wheelchair it took another year to process into the prison system. There are only a few prisons designed to accommodate wheelchairs, or any inmates with any one of a number of disabilities. So I had to wait in different temporary housing while the powers that be figured out where I was to spend the remainder of my life, or at least a very good portion of it. I took that time to get started formulating a plan to search using the U.S. Mail. However, it would take more than me to find my birthmother. After searching on and off since I was 16 years old (I was now in my 40s), I had learned little, nearly nothing. I figured I needed a partner. After very little consideration, I did something I hadn’t done since I was a teen in Seminary School learning to be a priest. I feel to my knees, then prostrating myself on the floor, I prayed from the very depths of my being. With a choking cry and tears falling freely, I begged God for his forgiveness. I asked him if my birthmother thought about me half as much as I thought about her, and if it was his will to please help us find each other. I apologized from the bottom of my heart for only calling on him, his son Jesus, or the saints when I needed something. Like when Pat was dying of cancer and I needed her to get well. I apologized for walking out on him, and my faith, when after all my prayers, novenas, hours of meditation, sacrifice and even fasting, she died anyway. For turning my back on all I had learned, and all I knew to be right, and for all the sad, sick, terrible, stupid, selfish and foolish things I had done since then. Things that not only cost people their lives, but destroyed families and peoples’ futures as well. Not to mention what it did to my own family and circle of friends.
By this time I had been moved to San Quentin State Prison, from Chino, and finished up in Federal Court. With those loose ends tied up it was time to get focused on the future and what was left of my life. I asked one of the Catholic nuns that came to the prison if I could see a priest for confession. Since it was my first in over 25 years, WOW, was there a lot to confess. Being sorry for, and acknowledgement of, my sins was one thing, but something else happened that day. A great weight had been lifted off of me. I felt changed somehow. I felt brand-new, and somehow I knew, with God’s help, I would find my birthmother.
Not long after that I was moved to a substance abuse treatment facility. More than one addiction played a huge role in my previous life on the streets, and they were no longer going to rule me ever again. With a lot of help I worked every day on trying to change the way I acted and thought.
Once there I implemented my plan and began my search for information which I hoped would at some point lead me to my birthmother, or at the very least shed some light on my biological past. I drew up a crude map of the state Illinois. The area of my search, initially anyway, would be the area that lay between Chicago on the east, Rockford on the west, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to the north, and Elgin, Illinois to the south. I wrote the postmasters of those towns and others spread throughout that general area. I asked the postmasters to please send me the addresses of the public libraries in their areas. I then in turn wrote the libraries. Asking them to look up the addresses of their local Chambers of Commerce, historical societies and adoption organizations. Then I asked for the addresses of certain government offices like children and family services. Next I asked for the addresses of the Catholic churches, other social service organizations like help for pregnant women places, foster care facilities, newspapers that were in business in the 1950’s and local doctors. Then I asked for the addresses of adoption lawyers and courts. Finally I asked the libraries to look up the listings for everyone with the last name of “Sanders” in their areas. That being the last name mentioned in the juvenile court document nobody would discuss. I wondered what would come of it. I decided to write to them all, and there were hundreds.
In one of the many publications sent to me by local organizations there was a story about an award given to a local journalist named Peasley. Now here was someone who lived in the area all his life. I thought that maybe he might have some insight on how to go about my search and/or maybe have some suggestions on whom to contact in the area for information. At the very least he might be a person I could bounce ideas off of. He, as well as all the other people I wrote, was very helpful, and I learned a great deal. With everyone helping pull the pieces together I started to learn a lot about the adoption process and all the differences since the 1950’s. But for every question answered, two more needed to be asked.
It turned out that the name Michael Thomas Sanders was not my birthname after all. It was just a name given to me, maybe by a social worker, for “record-keeping” purposes. In reality it was a way used to confuse things if anyone came along later and ever tried to do what I was doing, and it worked. I had just spent a year writing over 300 letters to people with, or about, the last name of “Sanders.” Was I back to square one? No, because over the past year I had made some very important contacts. Every place I wrote I mentioned who, and what, I was. A lifer in a California prison looking for his biological roots. Every place I wrote I found people willing and able to help me. Despite my past, or my current place of residence, everyone was more than helpful. At the very least people would write back with suggestions or other addresses for me to write to. The people who responded ranged from ordinary people interested in what I was doing to people like Judges and clerks of the court. From pastors to postmasters, all sorts of good people came to help me. However, because of certain laws, one of which seals juvenile records of any type, information was hard, and sometimes impossible, to come by. I hit a brick wall. I wasn’t discouraged, however, in fact with renewed vigor I pressed on. Another birthday came and went, and on that birthday I felt closer to finding my mom than ever before.
I now knew that any official record was not forthcoming without a court order. I had to find a way to dig for records kept outside of county offices, like doctor, hospital, adoption agency records and newspaper notices.
A lady at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services sent me a biography about the doctor who brought me into the world, Dr. Joseph McKenna. I thought about contacting him again, but he had died. The bio contained his obituary, listing all of his relatives and the cities they lived in. I wrote his wife hoping maybe there may still be some records lying around I could draw some information from. But too much time had passed. Then one of the clerks of the court in the county I was concentrating my search in wrote me back and said, “By law I’m not allowed to tell you anything.” Then he went on to tell me what county I should actually be looking at. Some of the doctor’s relatives wrote back and wished me luck, but that was all.
Then after two years an organization outside the court system wrote. Their name was Catholic Charities. They had found my adopted parents in one of the old files from the 1950’s. Apparently my folks had tried to find a baby, and actually started the adoption process, 7 years before I was even born. What a long horrible ordeal that must have been, but I had known some of this for a few years now. Unfortunately the file contained little else, why? It was said that maybe someone, sometime in the past, had removed most of the information I was looking for. At least that is what they told me. Everyday now I was learning something like that, half-truths, files with stuff blacked out, dead ends all. But why? What was the big secret?
On my birthday in 1986, when I packed up my little car and headed for Illinois, one of the first places I looked for information was Sherman Memorial Hospital in Elgin, this was the hospital I was born in. Over the years I checked with them regularly. Hoping for new answers, or anything besides “We can’t help you.” Whether it was true, or they just got tired of my inquiries, they wrote and said any, and all, records from that era had been destroyed. They suggested I check out an organization called ISRR, International Soundex Reunion Registry. Somewhere along the way I had already heard about them. I had also heard about other registries, including the one set up by the State of Illinois. I had spent literally years trying to gather information about my adoption, the very same information needed by the registries to complete their forms.
What is an adoption registry? They are organizations, private and/or state run, set up to help all people connected with the adoption process. People looking to find each other, or people trying to gather important information and share it. Like medical histories for example. In my case someone from my birthmother’s family must also be looking for me and must also be registered. A match is made by information provided by them and by me. If no match is made then you may petition the court in which the adoption was done to open the record. The court then appoints a third party to investigate and become an intermediary. This intermediary uses the entire file; hidden, secret and sealed information, available only to the court, to find the people involved and find out if they want to be contacted by the person looking for them. These investigations can sometimes be as expensive as $35 an hour. In fact the whole process can be long and get expensive, document fees, registration fees, copy fees and so on. Expensive to be sure, frustrating at the very least. As with most bureaucratic processes it can also be impossible to comprehend.
However all along the way I was able to find people who were able to set aside the normal fees and help me at a reduced rate, or in most cases free of charge. Then something else happened. A County Circuit Court judge and his clerk, whom a year before said they would not help, wrote and expressed and interest in my case. However with all the sealed information at their disposal, and a court-appointed investigator hired to help, no one could find my mom.
So much time had passed, since 1958, my birthmother was married and moved on, or possibly dead. In any event no person private, or professional, court appointed or not, could find her. I really needed my miracle. So one night I just put it all in God’s hands and went to bed.
When I woke up the next morning there was one word in my head, “Soundex.” I had already been in touch with a lady at Soundex named Susan Vilardi. She and I had been trying for years to find enough information about my adoption to fill out the Soundex registration form, but like myself and the court, she couldn’t find out anything. “Fill out what you can and send it in anyway, don’t worry about all the empty spaces on the form,” my little voice said. So that is just what I did. The computer at Soundex came up with something. What they called a “possible match.” A possible match? What did they mean “possible” match?
Apparently on my 28th birthday, back in 1986, the very same day I packed up lock, stock and barrel and left California for Illinois to go look for my birthmother, a lady from Highland Park, Illinois (the same general area of my search) registered with Soundex. She was looking for her son, born on this day, in the same year, by the same doctor and in the same town. However I was listing Sherman Memorial Hospital in Elgin, and she was listing Elgin Memorial Hospital in Elgin. Everything was the same except this. Soundex needed more information. “More information!!!” I had none, but more importantly I couldn’t get any. I knew this because I had been trying for years to get the information I already sent. I was stumped. After thirty years of searching was this how it was going to end? Where was my miracle?
I asked our Catholic Chaplain, Sister Christine, if she had any thoughts, or suggestions. She said quite simply, “What about your adopted father?” Yes, what of George? He sure would have all the information I needed. If I could find him, and if he was still alive. He was remarried and moved to parts unknown some twenty years past. He moved to get away from me and my self-destructive, not to mention financially-draining, lifestyle. His trail, if there was one, was quite cold. I had no idea where to look. So I started my search where I saw him last. Tustin.
All the way back when I was 15 years old he was unable, or unwilling, to help. Now some thirty odd years later, maybe enough time had passed where he might just change his mind. In any event it was worth a shot, if I had the time, after all the man was now in his 80’s.
I wrote the Gail Borden Library in Elgin. The reference librarian there had always been very helpful. He did a little checking and said, “Unlike everyone else in your adopted family, George does not appear on the Social Security Death Index. Which means he is still alive and collecting SSI benefits some place.” A contact I made at the Social Security Administration confirmed that George was still alive. Where? He would not say. Would he forward mail to him for me? No.
I wrote the postmaster in Tustin, asked for the address of the library there. Then applying the same formula as I did while searching for my birthmother I asked for all the same addresses, with a few exceptions. You see I did know my dad’s name, even his address and phone number, although the information was twenty years old and no longer valid it was still useful. So I also asked for the addresses of the power company, tax offices, water company and the offices of Union Oil, where my dad retired from. Then I wrote them all and waited. Some three nearly four months went by. I had almost given up. So I started praying on it.
One day at mail call I received an envelope in the mail, no return address, no letter enclosed. In this envelope was all the missing paperwork, documents and other information I needed. The envelope was postmarked Medford, Oregon. I had never written anyone in Oregon. I forwarded copies of this stuff to Soundex and the court.
Just after Christmas 2002, the match was confirmed. On the registry paperwork it said that my birthmother, whose name turned out to be Marjorie, registered with them the very same day I left Tustin to go look for her. My 28th birthday June 1986. Yes, it was my birthday, and we were both thinking of each other.
Not long after registering Marjorie had a stroke, so serious she was bedridden, on the East Coast. As for me I’m on the West Coast serving a life without parole sentence in state prison. So the best reunion we could hope for was the exchange of letters and photos, along with the occasional phone call. The first time I heard from my birthmother was a card that said, “From the bottom of my heart, thank you for finding me, Mom.” That card also arrived with a picture. As I studied the face of my mother for the first time I saw my own face reflected there in hers. As I studied that face and re-read those words, all the loneliness from all those years melted away. The emptiness I felt all those years was filled with an incredible joy. I fell to the floor and with tears of happiness I thanked God for bringing us together, and for coming in and changing my life. Yes, I was changed forever. That was my miracle.
The first time I talked with my mom by phone was a surprise call I set up for Mother’s Day. When she realized who I was, the sound of her voice echoed the love that flowed through the phone that day. I have never, ever had anyone sound so happy to hear my voice.
I not only found my mom that day, but brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and all manner of family I never knew I had. Along with a stepfather who welcomed me into his family. All the while everyone knew my sordid past, none of which mattered to these people, my lost family.
Whether we were together or far apart, my mother’s love for me bound us together with something much stronger than steel. Love. A family’s ties.
Marjorie died, not long after her husband, my step-dad, Roy, just this past year. I guess they couldn’t stand to be apart after being together some 50 years. But not before she found her “missing” or “lost” son. Unknown to me until recently they had both fostered some 52 children over the years, even adopting one, trying to fill the void left by my absence.
The hurt she felt at having to give up one child in order to keep another haunted her. Not one of my birthdays went by that she didn’t wonder where I was or what I was doing. I will never forget the love I felt from her.
I’ve been blessed with getting to know my sisters, though my brothers remain unimpressed by the fact that they have an older brother in prison in California. All of my family is scattered all over the East Coast. They have sent pictures and yes, we do all look alike. I’m not alone, and I guess I never was.