It was one year ago today that I took a deep breath and hit send. “My name is Morgan Brayton and I am searching for a woman who is my sibling by birth. The person I am looking for was born in December 1965 in Victoria, BC and was adopted. My research has led me to you although I am not sure whether you are, in fact, the person I am looking for.” But I guess that’s not really where the story starts. It’s kind of like one of those movies that jumps around in time, with actors of different ages playing the lead character. So let’s start at the beginning and I hope that while you read this you will imagine me as being played by Soleil Moon Frye (child), Annette Funnicello (20s) and Jack Black (adult).
When I was a kid, I had the sense there was a big sadness in my mother that I couldn’t understand and I couldn’t take away. Oh, I tried. I mean, I didn’t get to be a comedian overnight. I spent years practicing, trying to make my mother laugh. Sometimes she’d stay in bed. Sometimes she’d cry for no reason. Sometimes, at Christmas, she’d leave. I have a memory of standing on a chair so I could see out the window to watch her drive away one year. I was wearing the red velvet Christmas dress she made me and matching red ballet slippers. She took the dog but not me. I asked my dad if she was coming back. He said he didn’t know.
When I was about 20, my parents split up. Family skeletons tumbled out of the closet, their dusty bones elbowing us all in the face. My mother was determined to get back to who she had been, who she’d lost while in an unhappy marriage for decades. Part of this reclaiming of herself was a disclosure my mother made one day when I was visiting her. By this point I had moved to Vancouver and was pursuing my acting career. I had a big decision to make around whether or not to do nudity in a film I’d been offered and I needed my mother to talk it through with. It didn’t quite work out that way as she had some needs of her own that weren’t going to be back-burnered any more. I can feel the green shag carpet of our family room on my feet when I remember her telling me, “Five years before you were born, before your father and I were married, I got pregnant. Just before Christmas in 1965, I gave birth to a baby girl who we placed for adoption. Nobody knew. Your dad and I haven’t talked about it since.”
I’d like to say I held her in my arms and comforted her, finally understanding where the sadness came from. I wish I could say I asked her what she needed and then did it, whatever it was. But I didn’t. Because I was 20 and selfish and needed my mother to be my mother, not a person with her own needs. No, instead, I made it about me. I was in shock, of course. It’s not every day that an only child who considers herself a unique and precious snowflake finds out she’s not. But I was also relieved in a way I can’t really articulate. Years of thinking that something wasn’t right, that somebody wasn’t telling me something, had made me think I was crazy. It was the only possible explanation for the lifelong feeling I’d had that the other shoe was about to drop. But in that moment, in that room with my mother, with that green carpet, I found out I wasn’t crazy and I was relieved. I remember yelling, “I knew it! I knew it!” Of course, I hadn’t known it, but somewhere inside me I’d known that there was something to know, you know? And now I finally knew. Then she said something that included the phrase “your sister” and I stopped her cold. “No, no, no,” I told her. “She’s not my sister. You guys fucked up. You guys got pregnant. You have another kid, but that doesn’t make her my sister.” I’m so ashamed when I think about those words now I can barely write them. But that’s what I said. My mother said she wanted to search for her and I said it had nothing to do with me. Because I was a selfish jerk.
Flash forward a few years. (But I’m still Annette Funnicello.) I asked my mom if she’d had any luck with her search. She claimed that I’d been so upset when she suggested searching that she’d dropped it. “No, no, no,” I said again. “You’re not blaming this on me. Let’s find her.” Because I was a bit less of a selfish jerk by then, but not much. We talked about who she might be, if she was creative, if she looked like us, what kind of job she might have. Mum worried that she might not want to meet us. She suspected that she might hate us. She pointed out that she might not even be alive anymore.
It was around this time that the adoption records in BC were opened. Prior to 1996, birth parents and adoptees couldn’t access information about each other even if they wanted to, effectively ensuring that the secrecy and silence around adoptions continued. I got the necessary forms and filled them out, my mother signed them and we sent them off. In return, we got copies of some documents in the mail. Information identifying the adoptive family was blacked out with a marker like those documents contained something that threatened national security. And there, in typewritten letters from 1965, was her name. Something about reading her name made her more real to me. She existed. I had a sister. We registered through the government with the Adoption Reunion Registry’s Passive Registry. If she was looking for us too, they would call us. They never did.
I don’t know if that scared us, making us think she might be dead. Or if it deterred us, thinking she didn’t want to be found. But for years, we did nothing. Like my parents had for years before I even knew about the existence of my sister, we did nothing. But I continued to wonder who she was and what she was like. Every time someone would mistake me for someone else or say I reminded them of someone, I would attack with a barrage of questions. “Does she really look like me? How old is she? Where does she live? Do you know if she’s adopted?” Maybe she’d been living right down the street all this time, I’d think. And then I’d do nothing.
Jump forward again (yup, we’re in the Jack Black years now), to police coming to my door to inform me of my mother’s death. That’s what happens when you are the only next of kin. Uniformed cops stand in your apartment and you wish you’d cleaned the litter box so it didn’t smell because you’re sure they are making some kind of connection between your horrible housekeeping skills and the death of your mother, like you are somehow to blame, and then you excuse yourself to go throw up because, really, what else can you do. She had died of a heart attack, an undiagnosed heart condition. Just like that, she was gone.
I think if she’d survived the heart attack, I would have looked for my sister right away. I would have wanted her to know her medical history and wanted to be sure my mother’s wish to find her first daughter was fulfilled. But that’s not what happened. And I didn’t know what to do. “Oh, so glad I found you! Your birth mother? She’s gone. Oh, yes, we knew about you, we just didn’t really look. I mean, we only had a few decades and we were super busy and stuff. You understand, right?” I didn’t want to seem like a selfish jerk.
By this time, the wife and I had begun the long process of being approved to adopt kids ourselves. One of the things this involved was an education program where we learned about the impacts of being adopted, the importance of openness in adoption, and the detrimental effects of not knowing anything about your birth family. It was an amazing but exhausting program. We’d spend all Saturday engaged in adoption learning and then go home to bed at 4 pm, emotionally slammed by the stories we were hearing. The desire to know if my sister was actually out there or not grew with every week we sat in that classroom. I would often go home and Google her name, looking for clues of who or where she might be like some kind of lesbian Jessica Fletcher (yes, crossed with Jack Black). I’d been Googling her for years now and I could tell you where pretty much every woman with her name lived in North America. I really hoped she wasn’t the one who was a missionary. I found someone who had graduated in what would have been the right year from a local high school and I signed up for an account on Classmates.com to find out more. (I know. Vaguely stalkerish.) But I didn’t learn any more. Because, while she was present, she wasn’t visible in any of the class photos I could find. In one she was fuzzy, in another she was blocked by someone’s hair. (Easy to do in the 80s.)
Then came Facebook. Before we all got concerned with privacy settings and locking our profiles down so no one could look at our drunken party photos without our permission, you could find out everything you ever wanted to know about a complete stranger through Facebook. And if you thought that stranger might be your sister, well then it was like a license to watch her every move online! And I did. There were several times when I thought about how awkward I would feel if she wasn’t my sister, but I was pretty sure it was her. I would show her photos to people and ask, “Do you think this woman looks like me?” “Maybe,” they’d say. “Why?” As soon as I told them my suspicions they’d immediately see the resemblance, insisting that she had to be my sister. Were they just seeing what they wanted to see? Was I?
One Friday I took a day off to lie in bed and watch documentaries. I didn’t make it past the first one. It was about a man who had been adopted and was searching for his birth mother. By the time he tracked her down, she had died and they never got to meet. Her friends had her dog, however, so he went to meet his “only living relative”. I lay in bed and cried most of the day until the wife came home. I told her I knew the time had come. I didn’t know why, it was just time. I spent the next day crafting a letter to my sister, giving her an out if she wanted one, making clear she was wanted if she wanted to be. I would have rewritten that letter for the next six months if the wife hadn’t stopped me, suggesting that I just send it already. (She’s much more of a doer while I prefer to make sure I’m doing things properly, sometimes at the expense of actually doing things.) At 11 pm on Saturday, February 19th 2011, I hit send.
Twenty minutes later I received a response. I don’t know what I’d expected but apparently it wasn’t an immediate and receptive response. Yet that’s what I got. “I would very much like to correspond with you as well. You will have to forgive me, I am a bit in shock.” So was I. I’d spent years preparing myself for the worst, so much so that I hadn’t prepared for the possibility of the best! But that’s what I got. My sister was kind, funny, smart, creative, talented, and just plain nice. I didn’t quite know what to do with that.
After a few days, we met in person. Growing up an only child I can’t explain the mind boggling experience of seeing my face reflected in someone else’s. It’s the jaw. It’s the mouth. It’s the horse-tail thick hair. She has our dad’s eyes. We have our mom’s shape. But I’m taller. Like, way taller. At least 1/4 of an inch taller.
As time went on, we discovered traits and tics we share that can only be explained by genetics. And I’m not just talking about our love of wine. One day we were texting and I jokingly said something about her murdering our father and burying the body (you had to be there). She replied that she could never do anything like that, that, in fact, when it rains, she picks up worms from puddles and puts them in a safe, dry spot. My heart stopped. Having been mocked my whole life for the same bleeding heart act, I couldn’t believe that the only other person I’d met who did it was my sister. I had a sister. And she was a lot like me.
I met her three beautiful daughters and loved them instantly. I can’t really explain what it felt like except that when I looked at them, I saw my mother, my father, my grandparents, myself. There was something in that familiarity that instigated an immediate feeling of connection and I wanted to protect them fiercely, violently if need be. So be warned, anyone who dares to hurt my nieces—I will battle you to the death with my bare hands and I kick like a spider monkey.
As time goes on and I get to know my sister more and more, I cannot imagine my life without her, even though she constantly makes me look bad. While I didn’t remember to call our dad until the day after his birthday, she drew him a picture, had it framed and mailed off long before the big day. For my birthday she hand sewed me a quilt. With her hands! Can you believe it? I spent my whole life without a sister and now that I have one, I’m the loser sister. Great. But, you know what? I’ll take it.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have searched for her long ago. I wish I had. I wish she and our mother had been able to spend time together. That is my biggest regret. But I’m so glad that our dad gets to have her in his life. I’m so glad that she and her girls and her man are part of our family now. I’m grateful that I have her to talk to about parenting (the woman raised six kids for crying out loud, she knows some stuff) and to share stories with and to laugh with. There is pain there too. That’s inevitable. And if one day she decides to take out all that buried pain on me, her tiny fists flying and beating me about my face, I’ll take it. And then I’ll ask her what she needs and I’ll do it, whatever it is.
I’m still a selfish jerk, but now I am proud to say I have a sister. I have the best sister. My wife has the best sister-in-law, my kids have the best auntie, and our dad has the best daughter (see above re: she makes me look bad). I can’t bring back all the years when she didn’t know how loved she was by her birth family but I promise to make sure she knows every year for the rest of our lives. Starting right now.
Happy Sisterversary, dear sister. I am honoured to call you my sister. And I hope you know that you are so loved. You always were. You always will be.