Essence Magazine, May 1999

The Search

I never understood my face until I met Patricia, my birth mother. As my arms, legs and hands have done, my face has carried me through the world for 24 years. I had always wondered what stories my face held. Was I born with the same eyes as my birth mother? What had she seen in her life that convinced her to give me up for adoption?

In 1994, when I was 19, I decided that I wanted some answers. So I began the search for my birth mother — the search to retrieve the meaning of my face, to discover my past.

That August I wrote the adoption agency that had handled my placement. They put my name on a national registry, a list of adoptees looking for their biological parents, and biological parents trying to find their children who had been put up for adoption. If there’s a match and both parties consent, the registry sends the information to the adoption agency, which forwards it to the separate parties.

I didn’t hear from the adoption agency until late October, making September possibly the longest month of my life. I buried myself in my studies, working my hardest to forget the fact that my past was about to collide with my present, most certainly altering the path to my future. Then one afternoon I wandered into the kitchen and saw a small gray envelope on the counter. I couldn’t believe that such a small thing could hold so much inside. Hands trembling, I finally opened it and found the name, address and phone number of my birth mother. The most eerie part of all was reading the name that had been given me at birth: Erin. It was nearly like reading the name of someone who had died. Five months after her birth — the day that Shannon was born — Erin had ceased to exist.

The week after I opened that gray envelope, I wrote 20 drafts of a letter that sounded like a greeting card. Then I called my birth mother. She answered somewhat out of breath. I paused, unsure of how to proceed. What do you say to the person who gave birth to you, whom you have never met?

“Hi, this is Shannon Gibney, your daughter.”

“I know,” she replied.

We talked for around half an hour that night, and then every week for awhile. It was an awkward relationship to initiate — Patricia was like a distant aunt. But after five years, our relationship is no longer casual; we are definitely getting to know each other.

I see so many parts of me in Patricia that sometimes it’s scary. We have the same crinkles around our eyes; we’re both stubborn. And you’d better watch out if you’re unlucky enough to get into an argument with either of us on a subject we feel passionate about.

There are so many details about me that I didn’t know — that’s scary, too. I learned that our family has a history of alcoholism. Patricia almost died of the disease, and it’s partly why she gave me up for adoption. She realized she wasn’t stable enough to raise a child. I also discovered that she was a lesbian, not at all anything I ever expected. But like the rest of the experience, for me it’s part of a new set of realities and ways of approaching the world. Besides, I get a kick out of the way people’s eyebrows twist in confusion when I talk about my birth mother and her partner (“Wait. She gave birth to you. She’s a lesbian…?). The world is a complicated place.

The most difficult stage of this journey has been dealing with my adoptive family and the pain I knew I was causing them. Afraid of losing me, my parents and two brothers didn’t support my decision to contact Patricia. Intellectually, they could understand, but emotionally they could not. For the first time cracks were developing in our family’s strong foundation. Yet after all this time and trauma, my adoptive family has begun to accept my birth mother’s role in my life. My parents met Patricia and her partner at my college graduation in May 1997. It was amazing to see how far all of us had come — my mom and Patricia commiserating in corners, trading information and stories, occasionally hugging each other.

At some point, everyone faces the question, Who am I? And we must tackle it on our own terms. I’ve been lucky to confront one aspect of this question through my journey into the past. Now when I look at my face, I see Patricia and the history she passed on to me. But of course, it was there all along.

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