Second of two parts (Read Part 1 here)
Last fall, Laurella "Brandy" Miller, a 50-year-old billing clerk in a Colorado Springs law office, came home from work to find a message from an unfamiliar voice on her phone. It was a woman with the state of Wyoming, where Brandy grew up. The call wasn't a legal matter, the woman said, nothing to worry about, but she needed Brandy to call her back. "Do you know that you are adopted?" the woman asked when Brandy reached her the next day.
"Yes," Brandy said.
The woman explained she was a state-appointed "confidential intermediary" with access to sealed adoption records. Brandy's birth mother was looking for her, she said.
Brandy dropped her phone.
"I was 50 years old. And that was something that I had gotten to the point where I just didn't think that would ever happen. I figured I would never know. I was just shocked," she said.
Brandy grew up with a brother, who was also adopted, in Casper, Wyo. Her parents were told that her birth mother was a student at one of the local universities who'd had an affair with a married professor. They said that she made up an alias at the hospital, using a name she'd seen on a grave marker at a cemetery.
Brandy's mother had passed away almost a decade before. She was in regular contact with her father, who lived in Nevada. Growing up, they always said that her biological mother gave them a gift. Brandy was happy with the family she had. She never tried to find her birth mother.
"To me it was like that would be a ghost coming out of her past," she said. "I didn't know what her circumstances were and I didn't want to go back and turn her life upside down if her family didn't know about the choice she had made."
Beneath that, she said, was fear. She had a cousin who tracked down a birth mother at 18. It had gone very wrong. What if she found her mother and her mother didn't want to have anything to do with her? It would be too painful to bear.
But now her mother was searching for her. Right away, Brandy knew she wanted to be found.
The confidential intermediary from Wyoming said that she'd provide Brandy with her birth mother's number in two weeks.
"All of the things that had been in the back of my mind came to the forefront," she said.
Would her mother look like her? Would she be tall? Would she have big ears and a wacky sense of humor? Were there siblings? Did she know where her birth father was?
More than anything, she wanted to know why. Why didn't her mother keep her? Brandy has two children. When she held them for the first time, she thought of her birth mother. What would it feel like to give a baby away? She couldn't imagine it.
Meanwhile, in Anchorage, Mary Lou Popp called her son Bill at work to tell him that the sister he'd never met wanted to be in contact.
"I just stopped in my tracks," he said. "I was just crying. It just ... it just ... I didn't expect it. I didn't expect it after 50 years."
His mind filled with questions, too. Would she like them? Would she be angry? He let himself think about all the time that passed without knowing her.
"I love my brother. I love my sister. But what would this have been? How would have the arc of my life been different?
Two weeks later, when the number arrived, Brandy made herself a glass of iced tea, sat on her couch and dialed. Thousands of miles away, in Mary Lou Popp's apartment off Fireweed Lane, the phone rang.
"Is this Mary Louise Popp?" she asked.
"Yes, honey," Mary Lou answered. "This is your birth mother."
The next question Brandy asked was why. Mary Lou told her the story. She told her that she never wanted to give her up and that she thought of her every day afterward. They talked for an hour.
Brandy told me later that she didn't feel angry about what happened all those years ago, but she felt sad for what Mary Lou went through. Brandy is grateful her life turned out the way it did, she said.
"(Mary Lou) could have gotten rid of me. She didn't have to make sure I went to anybody who cared," she said. "I had a wonderful life growing up. I give her credit for that."
Soon after they hung up, Bill and his brother Jeff and sister Kristin arrived at her apartment. They dialed Brandy again. Jeff and Kristin took turns talking to her first. Then Kristin handed Bill the phone.
"I was having a full blown panic attack. What the hell am I going to say to her? What do you say to a sister you never knew existed?"
"I finally just said, 'Hi, I'm your big brother Bill."
Pieces of each other
Less than two weeks later, in mid-October, Brandy got on a flight to Anchorage. As the plane taxied in, she felt sick with nerves. She walked down the terminal and passed though the arrival gate. She'd never met the people who rose to greet her, but their faces were familiar. (See YouTube video of the reunion.)
"It was like coming home," she said.
Jeff hugged her first.
"The first thing he said to me is 'Don't get snot and mascara on my coat,' " she said. They both laughed.
They went to Bill Popp's house. Being adopted, Brandy had given plenty of thought to the way nature and nurture shape a person. As she settled into the family room with her siblings, she realized that nature had far more influence than she thought.
"It's like the three of them are just little pieces of me," she said.
Bill is the stoic one. Brandy has a stoic side. Jeff has a silly sense of humor. So does Brandy. Within hours, she and Kristin were finishing each other's sentences. All their voices sounded alike.
"It was like I'd been there forever," Brandy said.
Her siblings felt the same.
"It's like finding a puzzle piece that fits that you didn't even know was missing," Jeff said.
"She fits right in the whole nut farm," he said.
And then there was Mary Lou. When Brandy looked at her, it was like looking in a mirror. They were both tall. Their faces had the same shape. There was something similar in the way they moved..
For Mary Lou, seeing her Brandy brought relief for the worry she'd carried for 50 years. She'd wanted so badly to explain.
"Oh, I love her," she said when I asked her what it felt like to meet her daughter. "I love her to death."
Closer than they knew
A few days into her visit, Bill showed Brandy an album of family photographs. One of them in particular caught her attention.
It was Bill's wedding picture from 1979. Bill and his wife, Nicole, stood on the altar at a church. Bill's grandparents, Mary Lou's mother and father, stood to their left.
The photo jogged loose a long-forgotten scene from Brandy's past. She'd met them before.
"All I could do was sit there and stare at it because I knew who they were," Brandy said.
When Brandy was in high school she spent summers with a friend on a sheep ranch. It was located in Buffalo, Wyo. That's where Mary Lou grew up. The wedding photo sparked a memory of a summer day, when Brandy was 15 or 16. Brandy attended a picnic in Buffalo. It was a 50th wedding anniversary celebration for an older ranch couple, Rhea and Dorothy Heuermann. She remembered meeting them clearly because the meeting had been so strange.
"This woman was standing there and I was introduced to her," Brandy said. "She turned white as a sheet took a couple of steps backwards."
"A man stepped up behind her and my friend Debbie introduced me to him and he did the same thing. He just got really white took a step backward and refused to shake my hand."
The couple, the guest of honor, were her grandparents. She had no way of knowing that. But, looking back, she thinks they recognized her. At that age, Brandy said, she and her mother looked nearly identical.
Shortly after, the two of them left the party. Everyone assumed they were sick.
When she told Bill that story, he went quiet. He'd been in Buffalo that summer, too. His family had come to celebrate their grandparents' anniversary. It's almost certain they crossed paths somewhere on that quaint main street with its brick storefronts. His grandparents knew his sister was there, but they never let on.
As they talked, they realized that wasn't the only time Brandy had been near her biological family. For a time, Kristin's family had been stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs. They lived maybe 10 blocks apart.
"The only thing I can figure is it just wasn't time, it must not have been the right time for us to be together," Brandy said.
Brandy asked Mary Lou what she knew about her biological father, John Lockhart. The last time Mary Lou saw John was in Gillette, Wyo., she said, shortly after Brandy was born. She was with Bill. Lockhart passed them on the street.
"John walked by, never acknowledged me, never acknowledged Bill. I thought, 'That's the way it's going to be, you just keep on walking buddy,' " she said.
Later on, Brandy typed "John Lockhart" into Google. A obituary appeared. He'd died in 2003. He'd retired from a career as a truck driver and lived in Texas, it said. At the bottom of the obituary was a list of survivors. They included one son, Patrick. Another brother. Brandy is actively searching for him.
Do you have an adoption reunion story to share? Send an email to Julia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This column is part of a collaboration with Alaska Public Radio Network. Listen for a companion radio story on KSKA 91.1 at the end of December.