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Slip of the Tongue

My neighbor, lawyer, and friend, Sally, sat across the kitchen table from me. “Okay,” she said, “Let’s get going on the paperwork the agency sent me for Kelsey’s adoption.”

She started reading the document to me, and hearing “Birth Mother, Patricia Duke” jarred me. Patty Duke had been a famous child star as I was growing up. Could this be the same person? Surely not. Movie stars don’t go to obscure Christian agencies in Denver to choose an adoption plan.

Sally stopped when she saw my startled look. “You aren’t supposed to know the name, are you?” she asked, already knowing the answer. I shook my head.

“Then I’ll proceed without reading that.”

That was the only time I even had a hint of the name of the birth mother of our precious daughter. I did not mention it to anyone – not even my husband. It was something I was not supposed to know, so I acted as though I did not. In 1980, most adoptions were closed and secrecy was routine.

As Kelsey grew up and we told her the story of flying from the Cincinnati area to Denver to get her, she asked many questions about her birth mother. For most of these questions, the answers were taken from what we’d been told by the agency: “Because she loved you and couldn’t care for you herself,” or “She was a vegetarian,” or “She was very smart and a great conversationalist.”

But when the question was “What was her name?” I had to equivocate.

“Do you think they would have told us her name? That’s supposed to be a secret,” or “How would I know?”

The name never left me, for it was constantly reinforced. When I saw huge Duke Construction signs, I wondered if it were the same family. Then I’d chastise myself for thinking of it at all. And the same when I’d see an article about the actress Patty Duke, though I’d learned that she’d actually chosen a stage name so her name wasn’t even Patricia.

I felt that Sally’s slip was a burden I could handle, and it turned out to be a blessing.

Kelsey always understood that Colorado law did not allow a birth parent search until she was 21. Then, around 1996, that restriction was changed to age eighteen. Shortly before Kelsey’s eighteenth birthday, I called to get the ball rolling. I had no idea how long it would take and I wanted to shorten the wait time for satisfying her curiosity – and filling the hole in her heart.

The social worker who answered was kind and eager to help. Her first question took me by surprise.

“Do you happen to know the first name of her birth mother?”

“W-what? Why?” I stammered, my heart suddenly pounding in my ears.

“Oh, that’s how we file our records,” she said. “Maintains the birth mother’s privacy but still makes them accessible. Do you know it?”

I swallowed before I uttered the name that had never before passed my lips. “Patricia.”

“Great!” she said. “You have no idea how complicated this process is when the birth mother’s name isn’t known! Almost impossible!”

And then I realized why I’d been given this burden almost eighteen years before – so my daughter could more quickly locate and be reunited with her birth mother, Patty. And yes, she really did share a name with the famous Patty Duke! It turned out she had married but had kept her maiden name.

In less than three weeks, we received a surprising call. The social worker explained that she had called the number listed for Patricia’s parents and gotten her contact information from them without telling her why. She simply said, “I knew Patty when she was in college and I’d like to reconnect!” (People were less cautious in 1998.)

Her message, however, was both discouraging and hopeful. Patty had no interest in being in contact with Kelsey. To our surprise, she had been married to Kevin, Kelsey’s birth father, for twelve years, and he was definitely interested in knowing Kelsey.

Wow! Kelsey was stunned. As she said, “I’d never really given much thought to my birth father – just a shadowy figure who didn’t play a big role in what my birth mother had chosen.” She called him, and they eagerly talked and shared information.

We were amazed upon hearing that Patty, from Amarillo, Texas, had traveled from her university in New Mexico to Denver to give birth where no one knew her. Of course, she assumed that a couple in the Denver area adopted her daughter. At the same time, we had traveled from Kentucky to Denver to adopt our baby girl, assuming that her birth mother was from Denver. “I feel my life has been so specifically moved by God,” Kelsey often explains. “God went to quite a bit of trouble to get me to my family.”

Eventually, Patty came around after starting therapy, perhaps eighteen years late. She and Kevin flew across the country to attend Kelsey’s high school graduation and later the three of them traveled together to Ireland where Kevin’s father was born and where they’d married. The Irish connection was a bonus for Kelsey, for she had always been drawn to Celtic music and customs.

So our daughter’s life, already satisfying, was incredibly enhanced by two more people showing her love and affection. As my friend Ginny said, “You can never have too many people in your corner!” All due to what seemed to be a slip of the tongue in my cozy kitchen eighteen years before.

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