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All families have secrets, some bigger than others.
My family’s secret leaked out in 1964, the year I graduated from high school. The place was Ionia, Michigan, a small town halfway between Lansing and Grand Rapids.
It was late August and a strange pain in my chest was keeping me awake at night. Since our longtime family doctor had retired, I made an appointment with Dr. Campbell, who now had my medical file.
He quickly identified my problem as acid reflux. Heartburn. Thinking stress was the cause, he began to question me about my life.
Ionia is a small town and Dr. Campbell had seen my picture in the local newspaper. Remembering that I graduated second in my class, he asked if I felt pressure to perform well in school.
“No,” I replied honestly.
He asked if I was nervous about going away to college.
Again, I said “No.” Living on campus would be a new adventure and I looked forward to it with genuine eagerness.
As Dr. Campbell thumbed through my medical file, I wondered what his next question would be. There was no way for me to guess—or to be prepared for—what he asked me next.
“How do you feel about being adopted?”
My heart skipped a beat.
“Excuse me?” I asked. I must have misheard him. Or maybe he had me confused with someone else. I’m Richard Hill, son of Harold and Thelma Hill. Surely, he must have someone else’s file in his hands.
When Dr. Campbell saw my stunned reaction, he looked mortified.
“I’m sorry. I…I just assumed you knew,” he stammered. The expression on his face suggested he was now the one feeling a jolt of stomach acid. He had inadvertently let slip what we both knew was a life-altering secret.
My mind raced.
Why hadn’t my parents told me? They loved me. Of that, I had no doubt. Yet, why did they intentionally withhold a piece of information this crucial?
We talked it over for a few minutes. Dr. Campbell tried to assure me that my parents chose to adopt me and would love me like any parents love their child. I said I understood. But I didn’t. Not really. I wondered why they had kept me in the dark about this.
Nevertheless, I was on break from my summer job at Hub Shoe Store and had to get back to work. There wasn’t time for a lengthy analysis. So he wrote a prescription to help with my heartburn. Then he made me promise to call him if my symptoms did not improve or if I just needed to talk. I knew he was worried about how I would react.
In a daze, I walked the short block back to the store. Fortunately, it was a Friday and I would be working until 9 p.m. I had a lot of time to reflect on this revelation before going home to face my parents.
As I half-heartedly waited on customers, my mind picked up pieces from the bombshell that had exploded in the doctor’s office.
My old family doctor must have been part of a conspiracy that included my parents and others. The secret only slipped out because my medical records fell into the hands of an outsider. Had my old doctor not retired when he did, I never would have discovered the truth.
In another week, this window of opportunity would have closed forever. I would have been living on campus where health center doctors could not browse my childhood medical file.
I began to search for clues I must have missed. No, I didn’t look out of place in my family. My parents and I all had dark-brown hair. In fact, my Dad and I both had hair so dark it was nearly black.
The author and his adoptive parents
In the last couple of years, I had sprouted up to six feet four inches in height. So I was much taller than my five-foot, nine-inch father and my five-foot, two-inch mother. But many of my high school friends were taller than their parents. Hadn’t I read somewhere that this was due to my generation’s better diet and health care?
One clue I might have caught, but didn’t, was the fact that my parents were a lot older than most of my friends’ parents. Dad was forty years old when I was born and Mom was thirty-four. That was odd, but apparently not strange enough to sound an alarm. I had never given it much thought. But now it seemed clear they spent a long time trying to have children before deciding to adopt.
Now that I thought about it, just being an only child was a little unusual back then. Most of my friends had at least one sibling. But like the age clue, it wasn’t exactly a neon sign.
As the store traffic slowed, I had a flashback to tenth-grade biology.
Our textbook had used eye color as an example of how parents’ DNA recombines in a child. Brown is dominant and blue is recessive. So two blued-eyed parents should only produce blue-eyed children.
Both of my parents had blue eyes. Mine are light brown. Puzzled by the apparent impossibility of my family’s eye colors, I had approached my biology teacher after class. Mrs. Stewart explained that the eye-color example was a simplification. For one thing, it ignored eye colors like green and gray.
She went on to explain that scientists did not understand all the genes controlling our physical traits. Plus, there was always the possibility of a mutation that didn’t follow the rules.
Since I was sure of my parents back then, I concluded I was a mutant. This was actually rather cool. Having grown up with Superman, Green Lantern, and other comic book heroes, I briefly wondered how else I was different.
Biology class then moved ahead to sexual reproduction, which we teenagers found a lot more interesting than the abstractions of DNA. I forgot about the eye color discrepancy and never mentioned it to my parents.
But here I was, a couple years later, with an entirely new perspective. My parents’ blue eyes now struck me as absolute proof of my adoption.
I wondered. Had my biology teacher given me an honest answer? Or was she also part of this conspiracy to conceal the truth?
That conspiracy, I deduced, must have included my aunts and uncles and my parents’ best friends. My grandparents would have been in on it, too, but they were all gone by then.
I wondered if my cousins knew. Two of them were roughly twenty years older than I was. They must have noticed that their Aunt Thelma had never looked pregnant in the months before my birth.
The rest of my cousins, however, were either younger than I or no more than a year older. None of them had ever mentioned my adoption, so I assumed they didn’t know.
I would have years to speculate on these things. But I only
had a few hours to make one critical decision: what was I going to say to my
parents when I got home that night?
By the time we locked up the store, I knew the answer. Learning about my adoption did not make any real difference in my life. Harold and Thelma Hill were still the only parents I knew. They loved me. And I loved them.
The fact that I was an only child eliminated a potential sore spot. I could never say they played favorites and treated a biological child better than they treated me.
I was disappointed they had not told me the truth. But I assumed they had their reasons. I also knew that my leaving home for college in a few days was going to be difficult for them. So this seemed like a poor time to make an issue of my adoption.
Besides, I reasoned, they might just be waiting for the right time to tell me, perhaps when I turned twenty-one. In the meantime, if they didn’t want to talk about my adoption, I would not mention it either.
Looking back, this unexpected news arrived at the perfect time for me to accept it gracefully. So close to starting college, my focus was entirely on my future. The details of my past did not seem so important right then.
By the age of eighteen, I was also mature enough to deal with the news more logically than emotionally. Had the secret slipped out when I was younger, the shock might have damaged my self-image or my relationship with my adoptive parents.
On the other hand, not knowing earlier about my adoption had spared me from the psychological issues that plague many adoptees in childhood and adolescence. Clearly, my family and I were lucky.
When I arrived home that evening, I greeted my parents as I always did: we exchanged hellos and I inquired about their day. Since I had called the doctor’s office from the store phone, they were unaware of my appointment. I chose not to mention it and acted as though nothing had changed.
That wasn’t true, of course. In a way, everything had changed.
I had lived in Ionia most of my eighteen years and knew hundreds of people. Yet every familiar face now triggered the same unspoken questions: Did they know I was adopted? Were they part of the conspiracy to hide the truth? Or were they as ignorant as I had been?
As planned, I moved to East Lansing and began my life as a Michigan State Spartan. I loved the big, beautiful campus and the magic surrounding football games in the fall. In my junior year, I witnessed the famous 10-10 tie with Notre Dame from a seat on the forty-yard line.
In addition to dating, partying, and watching football, I somehow found time to study. My major was physics and I received my BS in June 1968.
The job market was strong that year and I received seven job offers, mostly in East Coast metropolitan areas. But I also had one from out West. And when I saw the beautiful mountains of northern New Mexico, I chose to work at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (now called the Los Alamos National Laboratory).
Another deciding factor was the escalating war in Vietnam. With my student deferment ending, working at a lab that did weapons work ensured an occupational deferment. In 1968, that benefit was more valued than health insurance and vacation time.
In the two weeks between graduation and moving out West, I squeezed in one other thing: I got married.
I had met Pat Franich two summers before at the Crystal Lake Palladium. Known for its quarter-acre dance floor, it had been a popular stop for the big bands of the 1940s. Now it was a gathering place for the under-twenty-one crowd on summer weekends. Pat was from Ithaca, an even smaller town, more than an hour’s drive from Ionia.
Raised on her family’s farm, Pat had gone to beauty school and began her career as a hairdresser. By the fall of 1966, she had already switched careers and was working in an office in Lansing. Fortunately for both of us, she was living in an East Lansing apartment not far from the MSU campus. We dated my last two years in college and timed our wedding for the Saturday after graduation.
I told Pat about my adoption and explained how my family still thought I was unaware of it. When she met my parents, she played dumb, too.
Naturally, I did wonder about my biological parents. Mom’s favorite movie was Gone with the Wind. I thought I could see myself in Clark Gable. For many years, I had a fantasy that I was the secret love child of Clark and some gorgeous actress.
After Sonny and Cher appeared on television, I learned that Cher and I shared the same birth date: May 20, 1946. Like her, I was slender with dark hair. So my new fantasy had me being Cher’s twin brother, somehow separated at birth.
Adoption is inherently a two-sided coin. On one side, there is gratitude that a nice family chose to raise you as their own. On the flip side, there’s a sense of loss. Your birth parents had to give you up for this to happen.
Fortunately, the emotional coin landed heads up for me. I only felt the positive side of adoption.
If I did have any unanswered questions about my identity, I was able to compartmentalize them and get on with my life. As the years slipped by, any inclination to discuss the matter with my parents evaporated.
Near the end of our five-year stay in New Mexico, Pat and I became parents. Our first child, Jennifer, was born there in March 1973. She was the first blood relative I ever saw.
When Jenny was six months old, I followed through on a career decision I had been contemplating for nearly two years. I resigned my position at the lab and went back to MSU to get a master’s degree in business.
Family considerations were partly behind the move. My dad had suffered a severe heart attack while I was still in college. Unable to pass his employer’s physical, he never returned to work. That heart condition had kept him from accompanying Mom when she came out to visit us in New Mexico. His doctor insisted that the 7,300-foot altitude of Los Alamos would be dangerous to his health.
Now that Pat and I had a child, we wanted grandparents to be part of her life. So we moved back to East Lansing for my stint in grad school. Beyond that, we hoped to remain in Michigan.
The economy was down when I received my MBA in 1975. But I was able to land a job in Grand Rapids with Lear-Siegler as director of marketing for its new Automated Systems Division. Happily, Pat and I bought our first house in the Grand Rapids suburbs, less than an hour from Ionia.
We saw my parents a lot over the next couple of years and they proved to be excellent grandparents. Jenny adored her “Nana” and “Grampy” and they adored her.
Since his heart attack, Dad had lived with the possibility of sudden death. Enjoying each day to the fullest, he was mentally prepared to die. Therefore, it was a cruel turn of events when he suffered a massive stroke in February 1977. Instead of providing the quick death he had anticipated, the stroke left one side of his body paralyzed.
Not quite seventy-one years old, Dad would spend the rest of his life bedridden. After some time in the Ionia Hospital, he transferred to Kent Community Hospital in Grand Rapids, a long-term care facility. I got in the habit of visiting him during my lunch hour several times a week. I would bring my brown bag lunch and we would talk about family, friends, weather, my work, and more.
Knowing that her husband was never coming home, Mom sold their home and moved into a senior citizen apartment in Ionia. She drove to Grand Rapids for regular visits with Dad. But she saw him at different times than I did to give Dad more visits. We almost never saw him at the same time.
Dad had been quite active in retirement. He loved to fish and would tie his own flies and mend fly rods for friends. A longtime member of the Elks Club, he enjoyed playing cards and pool with his pals. Late in life, he took up coin collecting, met often with other collectors, and traveled around the state to coin shows.
In the moment of that stroke, all of his hobbies were gone.
Dad also had been an avid reader. But the stroke damaged his vision to the point where he could not read, even with glasses. We bought him a thirteen-inch color TV that fit on his bed tray. But he still had a lot of time to just lie there and think.
In his solitary reflections, he must have agonized about the
lifelong secrecy surrounding his only child. At some point, he reached a
decision on what he had to do.
During one of my lunchtime visits in January 1978, Dad suddenly brought up the subject of my adoption. He said something no one else had figured out or at least dared to say:
“By now, you must know you’re adopted.”
I was almost thirty-two years old and had not thought about my adoption for many years. So his statement caught me by surprise. I just smiled and acknowledged that I had known for a long time. He didn’t ask how I knew or when I found out. So I just listened to what he wanted to say.
I already knew I had been born at St. Lawrence Hospital in Lansing. My parents had lived in Lansing because Dad worked at the Oldsmobile Forge Plant as a tool and die maker. Mom, a licensed cosmetologist, ran a beauty shop.
Originally from Ionia, they returned to their hometown when I was still a baby. They once told me Lansing was too big a city for raising a child. So for all the years I could remember, Dad commuted seventy miles a day driving to and from the Olds plant on the west side of Lansing.
My out-of-town birth must have made it easier to pass me off as their biological child. Close friends and family would know the truth. But it would have been easy to fool casual acquaintances.
Knowing what little I did about adoption, I assumed some social agency had placed me anonymously. I never dreamed my adoptive parents would know anything about my biological mother. I could not have been more wrong.
On this day when Dad broke his silence, he shocked me first by telling me that he and Mom had met my biological mother. He described her as a “cute little Irish girl” whose name was Jackie. She was young, under twenty-one, and from the Detroit area.
Her family knew Mildred, nicknamed Mickey, and Wayne Woods, a Lansing couple who were close friends of my parents. Wayne, in fact, had worked with Dad at Oldsmobile.
Then Dad surprised me with even more details: Jackie had actually lived with him and my mother in their Lansing apartment for the final months of her pregnancy. After my birth in May 1946, my new parents brought me directly home from the hospital and Jackie returned to Detroit.
Dad made a point to mention that he paid the hospital bill for my delivery. I think he was proud of taking responsibility for me from day one.
This revelation was another shock. I had known unwed mothers from my high school who quietly left town before their pregnancies showed. But it never occurred to me that a young woman could live with the same people who were going to adopt her child. That seemed to violate the whole secrecy thing that I had assumed was always part of the adoption process.
Ironically, I thought, the openness of my pre-birth arrangements may have created the need for secrecy after my birth. Unlike most adoptive parents, mine could not claim ignorance about my birth mother. They would not want to lie to me. Yet they would not want me tracking her down, either.
They were probably right. If I had had this information earlier, I would have pressured Wayne and Mickey for answers. But by the time Dad revealed their role, those two links to my birth mother were deceased.
I asked Dad if he ever heard anything more about Jackie in the years after my birth. He then told me that she had died in a car accident not long after my birth, but he couldn’t remember exactly when or where.
Now that Dad had finally talked to me about my adoption, I could see the relief in his eyes and hear it in his voice. Carrying around that big secret for decades must have been an enormous burden.
My mother, of course, had no idea that Dad and I were having this conversation. She still believed the family secret was safe.
I guessed that Dad wanted to get the whole thing off his chest before he went to meet his maker. And I was happy for both of us. But he wasn’t done. He had one more surprise to lay on me.
Since the stroke had also affected Dad’s brain, there were days when I wasn’t the only one in his room who was “out to lunch.” But on the day of this conversation, Dad was clear and lucid as he gave me the rest of the story.
“When you were born, Jackie was divorced. She already had a son from her marriage. So you have a brother.”
I was sure the nurses outside Dad’s room must have heard the noise my jaw made as it hit the floor. I had been raised an only child and except for my whimsical fantasy about Cher, I never expected to have any siblings.
That part of the story blew away more preconceived ideas about adoption. I assumed all unwed mothers were school-age girls too young to get married. Many would marry later and have other children with their husbands. Somehow, in a way I couldn’t quite grasp, my biological mother had managed to accomplish the whole feat backwards.
Dad went on to say that I deserved to know about my brother. I agreed and thanked him for sharing that information. Yet this revelation wasn’t just about sharing. In all his lonely hours of contemplation, he had settled on a far bigger purpose than merely telling me the facts. I will never forget his next words:
“I think you should find your brother.”
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