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I have a sister and a brother. But I had only known my brother. For as long as I could remember I knew my older sister was out there and that my mother had been forced to give her up. At a young age I knew having a baby before you got married was bad. Punishable. A sin. And meant a life of regret. That’s how it seemed at least.
Mom would drive through the streets looking for her. Looking at the face of each young girl as they emerged from school, with their smart school blazers, long skirts and socks up to their knees. Each little girl represented hope. Hope that she would find the young girl seven years older than the youngest boy in the back seat of the tiny blue Fiat with dog hair filling the rips in the pleather seats.
She would drive in silence. Scanning the streets of each suburb. Looking. Slowing down every time she neared a girl around 12 with dark hair. I wasn’t sure what she was expecting. Or what would happen if she found her. How she would even know. I never knew because I didn’t really know why she was looking. Perhaps looking made her feel less aggrieved, less guilty for abandoning the daughter she clearly still loved and longed for. Maybe looking made her feel better, and gave her hope in a situation she had always seen as hopeless. So I never complained when my mom piled my brother Wayne and I into the Fiat to go on one of our searches.
I never really knew what drove my mom to that ultimate point. I still don’t understand what made her take her own life. Why ingesting lethal doses of sleeping tablets and tranquilisers seemed like a more viable option than living. Living to see me grow older. Why I wasn’t enough. Yet, I knew that giving up Deborah – the name given to my unknown sister at birth – was traumatic for her. It was one of the many demons that haunted my mom, forcing her to disappear.
At the age of eight, in 1981, saying goodbye to my mom at a pauper’s funeral where it was acknowledged how sad it was that her suicide meant she would never see heaven, I secretly promised her that I would find the child she so longed to meet. I would tell Deborah how loved she was. How she was longed for. How I wished she had been a part of our lives. That she wasn’t just one of my mother’s many sins.
Andrea had always known she was adopted. She can’t remember how she was told, she just always knew. “Initially I didn’t understand what it really meant, but I knew the word ‘adopted’ made me different to other children, and I didn’t like that,” she says quietly.
Andrea was adopted by a couple living in Boksburg in 1965. They adopted a sister Karen two years later. Surprisingly, the topic of adoption was a taboo subject in their home. Perhaps speaking about it would raise too many questions for the adoptive parents to answer. And perchance their children would begin a search to find the mother or father who hadn’t chosen to love their children.
While she was forced to remain silent, Andrea had a million questions about being adopted. The burning question – where did I come from? “As an adopted child I was very conscious that I didn’t look like anyone else in the family. People used to comment on it, and I used to hate it. I kept feeling that if I could go back where I really came from, I would be happy. I kept wanting to be fetched,” she says. Looking down at her hands while trying to get the words out, or right, she adds, “Although my adoptive family were the only family I had ever known, I always felt like I wasn’t really a part of it; that I was watching my life from outside of myself and that one day I would be ‘rescued’ and taken ‘home’.”
Images of orphan Annie sitting on the ledge of her window singing a prayer for her parents to fetch her may offer a romanticised version of a child longing for her birth family, Andrea’s experience of being adopted represents an internal battle of a child in turmoil. A dichotomous inferno of feeling grateful for parents who chose her to love, raging against a burning desire to know where she came from, who she looked like and the deep seated desire to understand why she was rejected. “In theory, adoption is ideal. On one hand you have a family who want a child, and on the other hand you have a child that needs a family, so logically it should be a match made in heaven. But it’s not. The reality is that you can’t transplant a baby from one mother to another and think that life goes on as normal for everyone, because it doesn’t. On some cellular level that baby knows that something is different. And every adopted child I have ever spoken to has battled with feelings of alienation, displacement, a fear of being different and issues of abandonment. I am nearly 50, and I still fight those same battles every day.”
Anys Rossouw, a Pretoria-based psychologist says in an article about adoption that the feelings of disconnectedness and abandonment are not unusual for an adopted child, “This is why so many adopted children think about finding their birth parents. And not necessarily because of a bad relationship with their adopted parents. They just want to know: where do I come from.” She also explains why adopted parents sometimes feel betrayed by hearing their child wants to know about their birth parents. “These parents have often waited a long time for a child, have been excited, prayed, planned and been through a large number of processes. For so many parents, the child is a miracle and a dream come true. When the child decides to find his or her birth parents, it’s often difficult for the adopted parents and they experience a range of emotions, insecurities and fears,” Anys adds.
Andrea did try to find her birth parents in the late 1980s but the adoption files had just been opened (the Child Care Act 74 of 1983, which regulates adoptions in South Africa, made information more available for children to be reconnected with their birth parents). Andrea’s experience was a frustrating one though. “The process was so long and complicated, and the adoptions agency in Pretoria were not keen to give info to an adopted child. Initially it was to be for birth mothers only. I also knew very little. I knew the hospital I was born in and my birth date, but that was it. I was too scared to ask my adoptive mother as she saw my curiosity as a sign that she wasn’t good enough as a mother. It was very difficult. ”
“The adoptive parents are often very afraid,” explains Anys. “They are afraid of rejection and that the child will choose to bond with their biological family and not love them any more. They can also feel that the adopted child is not demonstrating loyalty or appreciating what they did for them for so many years. They are angry that they have done all the hard work raising the child and now someone else might simply step in and ‘steal’ them.”
Andrea was acutely aware of her mother’s feelings about her curiosity regarding her birth family. Her mother actively discouraged her search for her birth parents and shortly after starting the process, Andrea gave up. She never tried to look for her birth family again.
I would lie in bed and wonder what she was doing. If she looked like me. If she was even still alive. I would imagine what she’d look like. Dark brown hair like my mom’s, with blue piercing eyes? Maybe she would even have the same small beauty spot on the left side of her face that my mom had. Maybe that would help me find her. Or maybe she looked like her dad. We never knew who he was. My mom never spoke of him. To me at least. All I knew was that he hurt her, abandoned her and left her to face the wrath of a staunchly Catholic family who saw her pregnancy as an embarrassment to all.
I wished I could find Deborah. I had no idea when or where she was born. I knew it was in the mid-1960s and that was all. And I had my mom’s name. How would I even start?
A friend, the only person I knew who had been adopted, had tried to find her birth mother and discovered she had died fourteen years earlier. She was devastated. She told me she always used to think that on her birthday her birth mother had to be thinking of her. And now she knew for the last fourteen years, since 1986, she had been deluding herself. I thought of the sister I had lost and what might happen if she discovered our mom was dead. Had been for the last 19 years. I didn’t want her to think she hadn’t been thought of.
I called the Registrar of Adoptions in Pretoria and spoke to Mrs Wenstra. I explained about my sister, my mom, and how she longed to meet her. Mrs Wenstra told me that she could only give the information to a birth parent. After a while she gave in, perhaps sensing the honesty of my plea, and said I could write her a letter with the details I knew and fax them to her. She would then see if she could pull anything up in the records and would give me call. I wrote the letter, dated 12 September 2000, and faxed it to Pretoria.
The following day, I was surprised to hear Mrs Wenstra’s voice on the line when the call was put through to me. She had information, and had in fact found my sister. She allowed me to ask a few questions, but would only reveal what she could. My mind raced. After years of so many questions I suddenly had none. I asked when she was born. 14 September 1965. The next day. The same day as my brother. I would later find out that my mom would always give him a special extra gift on his birthday at 3pm. He never knew why.
I asked what her name was now.
She recalls the day she was found like it was yesterday. “I remember my mother phoning me at work the day after my birthday, telling me I needed to sit down as she had had a phone call from the Registrar of Adoptions. I had two brothers that were looking for me. She said that my birth mother was dead, but the youngest of my brothers was trying to find me,” Andrea says with a slight smile on her face.
She was surprised her adopted mother had shared the information, finding out only later how much she had grappled with whether she should or not. “She gave me the lady’s phone number and said I could contact her if I wanted to. She said it was her duty to give me the information, and it was up to me what I did about it. She said that she wasn’t comfortable with it and if I did get in touch with my brothers then she wanted no part of it.”
Trembling, Andrea headed to a coffee shop near where she worked to take in the news. Was her fairy tale of being found really coming true? After pulling herself together she called Mrs Wenstra at the Registrar. “She asked me lots of questions about my background and told me a bit about my birth family. She said she had a letter from my youngest brother and that he sounded like a really genuine young man, so she decided to take a chance on this case and put us in touch. She faxed me a copy of the letter and I remember that I read and reread it over and over and over again. It felt unreal. I was so happy that my family ‘wanted’ me.”
She responded to my letter. Photos dropped out as I unfolded the pages. Computer printouts, pixelated, but clear enough to see the immediate resemblance between her and I. And our mom. Long dark brown hair framed her round face. Her eyes were darker than I expected. But she was definitely my mother’s child. And my sister. I trembled as I held the photograph, not sure how to take in the face before me. I felt an immediate love for a stranger I knew nothing about. Blood. Mine.
Nephews. There were photos of my nephews. Two young, beautiful blonde boys, snapped while sitting in the kitchen sink, smiling mischievously. Their names and ages were written on the back: Christopher (4) and Matthew (2). Good Catholic names that would have made their grandmother proud. If only she could have met them.
The letter was dated 26 September 2000, a mere 13 days after I began the search. I held my breath as I read the first words Andrea had penned, breathing life into this person I had dreamed about finding for so long.
“Well, if somebody had told me a month ago that I would be writing a letter to one of my brothers I never would have believed them… but here we are. I feel I have lived a lifetime in the last two weeks with emotions ranging from shock to disbelief to excitement. Somewhere in each adopted child is the wish to find or to be found and yet it so seldom happens. As far as difficult letters go, ours to each other must rate top scores.”
I cried as I read the first lines. I was experiencing the same shock, disbelief and excitement. When she wrote about my mom, our mom, I struggled to keep my emotions in check. I was overwhelmed by the thought of finding my sister. In the same breath, I was acutely feeling the loss of my mother and feeling the need to mourn all over again.
“I have wondered on and off through the years about my birth mother and whether or not I had any siblings. I would like to know as much about her as possible. I was very sad to hear she had died. There is so much I would have been able to tell her, and maybe it would have been able to put her mind at ease to some degree and let her know that I am happy, and she needn’t have worried.”
I’m not sure I had ever longed to have Mom alive so she could hear those words. They would have healed her. And perhaps made her more alive.
She mentions the first letter she received from her brother with grin on her face, “It still makes me cry when I read it, which why I don’t. The letter is locked away with other documents for safekeeping.” With her youngest brother living in Cape Town, communication first took place via email and then over the phone.
“What really comes to mind is my first conversation with my youngest brother. He emailed me pictures of Mom and I was actually able to see her for the very first time. He sat in Cape Town and I was in Jo’burg crying into the phone as I opened the pictures one by one while he spoke me through them. There is one where she looks so much like me I thought for a mad minute that it was me.”
I was desperate to meet her. Being able to chat over the phone wasn’t enough. I had a picture but still no real person to put to the soft voice and the surprisingly loud laugh that sometimes emerged. Our conversations were long. Emotional. I always fought back tears. Wanted her to know how excited I am without placing any pressure on her or assuming some kind of relationship that could be deemed inappropriate for strangers.
Living in the other side of the country was frustrating. For the first time in many years I was desperate to head home, back to Johannesburg to meet her.
Andrea and her youngest brother got to meet in the flesh three months later. They were both on holiday on the KwaZulu-Natal coast and decided to meet halfway between their holiday homes.
“We met at the Steers in Ballito, can you believe?” says Andrea. This was the only landmark they both knew. “It was so weird because we’d been talking and emailing up a storm, and suddenly it was going to be face-to-face. It never crossed my mind that we wouldn’t get on – and I was just so excited to finally meet him. I remember hearing him before I saw him – this excited scream as he came rushing through the door. And lots of hugs. It was just so amazing.”
I stood outside the entrance to the Steers for what felt like an eternity. I was so excited, but surprisingly petrified. What if she didn’t like me? What if I didn’t like her? What if she was nothing like Mom? She was already there. I could see her through the entrance. I couldn’t see her face, but I knew it was her. My sister.
I took a deep breath and ran in. I remember seeing her face for the first time and recognising that same mix of delight and fear, like a blind date no one else has really ever experienced. Where you know that you love this person, but don’t really understand why.
She stood up and threw her arms around me, and we hugged. A lot. And then we sat down, with flabbergasted customers and waitresses looking at us strangely. We sat down and for what felt like a lifetime, we just looked at each other. There was much to say, yet in that moment silence was appropriate. She was there. Years of searching, driving, praying and pondering was sitting in front of me.
“We were both trying to talk at the same time. I was vaguely aware of people just watching us, and the staff standing with their mouths hanging open. I found out so much, but not enough. I could have sat there forever and by the end of the day I felt I’d known him my entire life. It was very difficult to say goodbye,” says Andrea. “I still maintain that Mom was there and knew that her dream had come true.”
Now when we’re out together, people immediately know we’re siblings, and I can see her face light up as they place us. She’s not like Mom, or at least what I can remember. She’s loud, and funny with a sharp sense of humour. She loves to travel. And eat. And drink. She’s clearly my sister.
I wish my mom could see us together, talking about her, and laughing at the idiosyncrasies we have in common. She would have liked Andrea. I know she loved her. She gave up both of us and I suppose Andrea and I will always have that in common. Yet, we both celebrate her. And know we’re her legacy. What she left behind.
“I wish I could have met her so I could say to her ‘I KNEW you were coming’. Just like the fairy tale. I sometimes talk to her in my head and I hope she knows that I don’t blame her for anything. I understand how things were in 1965 and why she did what she did and the pressure she was under to give me up. And it’s okay. I’m okay with all of that,” says Andrea, looking likes she’s struggling to hold back tears. “The fact that while I was wanting her to find me, she was looking for me, is something I hold onto.”