For years I’d wondered about her, my little sister. What was her name? What was she like? Was she happy? Did she even know she’d been given up for adoption, and did she ever wonder about us?
My older brother, Richard, and I talked about how she could be somebody we passed in the street without realizing it…or perhaps she was living with a well-to-do family thousands of miles away.
I worried—if we ever found her, would she like us? Maybe if she knew about us she would be grateful she wasn’t raised in the dysfunctional home that Richard and I grew up in.
I was 17 when Mom told me about her. Mom married when she was 15. She dropped out of high school and Dad worked in a steel mill. They got a small place in Chicago and had Richard, then me a year later.
The truth is, my parents were very young and my dad made bad decisions. One was to rob a gas station with a buddy of his. I was just a toddler when he was sentenced to a year in prison.
My mom was encouraged by her family to file for divorce even though she was still very much in love with my dad. After he was released they were divorced but would still see each other in secret to avoid disapproval from the family.
When my mom discovered she was pregnant she knew she wouldn’t be able to give the new baby a good life. She could hardly manage raising two kids as it was, and her secret relationship with my dad had come to an end. Giving the baby up was the hardest choice she’d ever made.
As soon as Mom told me about my sister, I wanted to find her. Illinois law at the time, however, made it impossible.
My brother Richard and I always shared a special bond. We were inseparable. Mom remarried when we were still young. We welcomed several half siblings, and to Mom’s credit, she did the best she could to provide us with a good home.
My senior year of high school I met Richard’s best friend, Randy. We fell in love, got married and settled in Arkansas. I worked as a mail carrier and we gave our kids the kind of stable home I’d longed for as a child.
But Richard? He struggled. In high school he clashed with our stepfather and got into drinking and drugs. He married young and had a son, but his wife left him. After that, he drifted. He ended up homeless in Florida.
I worried constantly about my big brother. He called once a month to tell me he was okay, though he wasn’t and I knew it. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore. I sent him a bus ticket and persuaded him to come to Arkansas and live with me.
I didn’t care how messed up he was. He needed help and I knew I was the only one who could give it to him.
Richard moved in and found a job as a painter. Eventually, he got a place of his own a few blocks from ours. He still had problems, but he was softhearted and so caring to those he loved the most—his family.
Our kids were crazy about him—even their friends called him Uncle Rich. Randy had been diagnosed with diabetes, and Richard would always help take care of him while I was at work.
We started talking again about finding our little sister. We needed more information from Mom. She remembered the name of the adoption agency, but they couldn’t, by law, release any details.
All the state of Illinois could do was give us forms to fill out, so if our sister contacted the department of records, she could find out her birth family’s medical history.
Before we could file those forms, Mom needed to sign them. But something always got in the way. She was in bad health, so I was planning a trip to Chicago to take care of it myself, but then Richard was diagnosed with lymphoma.
I watched my brother’s health over the next few months deteriorate quickly. I prayed for a miracle, that God would help him beat this disease. It wasn’t to be. He died four months later. The short obituary the funeral home posted online listed surviving relatives, mostly half siblings from Mom’s and Dad’s second marriages.
I’d lost the one person who understood how painful our childhood had been, the only other person who understood what finding our sister meant to me. I was devastated; I asked God, Why was he taken from us so soon?
I was still reeling from Richard’s death a month later, when I got a phone call from Mom. “Theresa, I don’t know how to tell you this. Guess who just called me? Your sister!”
I almost dropped the phone.
“Her name’s Jodi,” Mom went on in a rush. “She’s married, has kids and lives in Chicago! She wants to talk to you. Here’s her number.” With Randy at my side, I dialed the number, my fingers trembling. A warm voice answered. “This is Jodi.”
“Hello, Jodi,” I began, trying to control my emotions. “It’s…your sister. Theresa.”
“Theresa!” Suddenly we were both talking at once. Jodi had always known she was adopted, and often wondered about her birth family. As it turned out, she’d grown up in the same suburbs of south Chicago as Richard and me.
Two of her three children graduated from the same high school I had graduated from. Her husband worked at the same cement company where my stepfather had worked years earlier. Now she lived five minutes away from a cousin I visited every summer.
How many times had we just missed each other over the years? I thought, my heart breaking a little more that Richard had died too soon. He should have been part of this.
Jodi explained that the law had recently changed in Illinois and she was finally able to get a copy of her original birth certificate. Mom’s name was on it.
“I searched for her online, but because she’d remarried and has a different last name now, I couldn’t find anything. Except for one obituary for a man with the last name I’d been born with. Richard’s obituary.”
Jodi must have thought I’d hung up. I couldn’t say a word. “I wish I could have met him,” Jodi said. “What was he like?”
What was Richard like? Hurt, troubled, seeking to heal his pain—often in all the wrong ways. But he was also a devoted older brother, a caring brother-in-law, a loving uncle. Someone who’d been on a journey to healing these past several years.
A journey that didn’t end with his death. He’d brought me and our sister together, made our family whole. One last act of brotherly love.
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