Nov. 6, 2013 at 9:08 PM ET
"I wonder if I look like my mother?"
I was 16 when I, almost absentmindedly, asked the question while on vacation with our family in Mexico. It was a question that had plagued me for as long as I could remember. Earlier that day, we’d been talking about traits shared between family members, and my sister and mom had to be reminded that I wasn’t genetically related to them.
Mom, walking ahead with my sister, stopped. In my memory, she looked pale, even rattled. When she regained her composure, she asked me to wait. She told me she had something to show me but we needed to be home.
So I spent the rest of that week silently panicking as situations and circumstances flashed through my head, each more dramatic and terrifying than the last. For the rest of that vacation, I was a jumble of nerves and anxiety, as I waited for whatever news Mom had.
When we made it back home, a week passed before I was presented with a letter from my birth mother. As I read it, I felt miles and years fall away as her words explained why she put me up for adoption.
Initially, the knowledge that this letter existed of course inspired several months of anger toward my adoptive mother. (I was a teen, after all!) I was convinced she had purposefully kept this information from me, and the only reason she had shown me the letter was because she couldn't hide it any more. In time I came to realize that she had not kept it from me, but kept it for me. As this wisdom seeped in, so did the realization that I wasn't ready to go on this quest just yet. That would come later.
So I continued on. I went to college, got a job, lived my life. But always in the back of my mind was that nagging, that wanting, that needing to know where I came from, who my birth mother was, and whether I had any siblings.
When my mother first gave me the letter from my birth mother, she also gave me advice. She said that I should know who I was before I went on the journey to find my other self, and the person I was before I was named Kate. My mother warned me it was a Pandora's Box. It could be fantastic, or it could be awful, and I needed to be prepared for any outcome.
And so, when I turned 25, I began my search. I finally felt secure enough in myself that I believed I could handle what might be in store. I went on ancestry websites and tried to get registries and records offices to give me something, anything to start my search. My parents had recently moved, which meant a lot of my records were lost in boxes, so I had my limited information to go on; the name my birth mother had given me (Anna Mae), her first and last name, the county in Arkansas, and the name of the hospital where I was born.
A year and a half went by with nothing but dead ends. There was plenty of frustration and anger at my lack of progress, and I began to wonder whether I would ever find my birth mother. I finally stumbled upon a website devoted to connecting adopted kids and birth parents, and put up a listing. After the predictable initial flood of dead-end responses came the drought, and I didn't get any hits for a couple months. Until one day, when I opened my inbox to a message that made my heart soar.
"I think you may be my sister..."
Her name was Cherie, and she was 23, three years younger than I. We began cautiously emailing and soon realized that there were too many similarities to simply be coincidence. She told me everything she could, and asked if she could give Cheryl, my birth mother, my email address. I said yes, and when I got the first email from her, I thought for days about how to respond. When I eventually hit “send” on my first ever email to my birth mother, I was so flustered I went out and mowed the lawn to work off the nervous energy.
And so my birth mother and I began to talk, tenuously learning about one another. One thing was certain; we both wanted to meet, though both of us wanted to make sure the other didn't feel pressured. We figured out a time and place, and counted the days to our meeting. Plans were made and tickets were bought, and on Sept. 12, my mother and I descended on Little Rock, Ark.
As I walked down to meet my birth mother for the first time, my stomach felt like a tangled mess of a knots. We both cried as we hugged, but as we started to talk, that knot eased.
For the first time in my life, in Cheryl's smiling face, I could really see where I had come from.