Father-and-child reunions: 3 stories, many lives
NEW YORK (AP) — Estrangement can make Father’s Day complicated for many families, but reunion can be oh so sweet. Here are three stories — and many lives — touched by fathers lost and found.
In 2008, Marni’s world turned upside down.
That’s the year she decided to contact her birthmother, who told her that contrary to her adoption file, her birthfather was very much alive.
“It was, like, what are you talking about, because in my mind he had been dead all that time,” said the 42-year-old mother of two daughters, ages 19 and 12. “I’m still trying to get it through my head that he’s alive. You’re told something your whole life and there’s a lot of rewiring that goes on with this whole experience.”
Marni grew up in suburban Minneapolis and lives in Red Wing, Minn. She was adopted at birth, the little sister of three much-older brothers born to her adoptive parents. She’d had legal access to her adoption file since turning 18, but had no interest in looking at it until after becoming a mother herself, when she felt the need to check on potential health issues for her children.
She didn’t find any health worries. Instead, she stumbled on a trail of lies. The file included a letter written by her birthmother in 1969 that said both her birthparents were medical students who’d planned to marry, but her birthfather died in a motorcycle accident, “and it was too hard for her to keep me so she put me up for adoption,” Marni said.
None of it was true, but she didn’t know that until she found her birthmother and they spoke for the first time. “She said your birthfather’s not dead. He’s a lawyer in Illinois.”
Marni said her mother wrote the letter in an era when single mothers were often pressured to give up their babies or risk ruining their lives. “It’s very much a fairytale type of letter. It’s a very comforting story of love,” she said.
Marni and her husband, James, Googled the name her birthmother had given them for her birthfather, Mark Shaw. Two people popped up, but only one was in the right age range. But they dropped the hunt when her adoptive dad got sick. He passed away in July 2009.
“He had been a rock my whole life,” she said.
Nine months later, James came across a book written by someone named Mark Shaw as he searched online for advice on how to publish a play. He clicked on the author’s website and staring back, in a photo, was a man with the same gap in his teeth as his wife.
James sent Shaw an email asking whether he had practiced law in Illinois around the time of Marni’s birth. The answer was yes. The hunch was confirmed by a paternity test, and father and child now see each other every month.
“I’ve been in a daze for the last year,” Marni said. “We recently updated our insurance policy and I can offer all my information now. I’ve never been able to do that.”
As for Mark Shaw, he said he barely knew Marni’s mother.
“This was the 1960s. I was moving around like I have my whole life so fast,” the 65-year-old author, legal analyst and seminary graduate said tearfully.
He welcomed Marni, her husband and his newfound grandchildren with open arms. He even wrote a book about his unusual path to fatherhood, “Road to a Miracle.”
“I had always dreamed of being a father but just believed it wasn’t going to happen,” said Shaw, who is married and lives in Superior, Colo. “I look at this as the gift of a lifetime.”
In the tiny western New York town of Wellsville, there wasn’t anything unusual about the visitation arrangement for 5-year-old Jennifer after her parents divorced.
She saw her dad regularly for three years, until — she was told — he cut off contact, waived his parental rights and remarried.
But he never left town, and neither did she, her brother and their mom.
“I had little to no contact with him, unless I bumped into him around town, but we never spoke. He never sent cards, gifts, no holiday visits,” said Jennifer, who’s 31 and a mom herself.
When she was 17 she decided to follow her brother’s lead and try to mend the relationship. She went to visit at their dad’s place, but she didn’t know what to do or say and the attempt at reconciliation was awkward.
Another five years passed, with Jennifer out on her own and away from home, until she tried again at age 22.
“I decided I wanted to get to know my half brother and half-sister, his children with his new wife, because they were my blood,” she said. “I had been so bitter and sad when I was growing up. I remember crying over him. I kind of needed reconciliation for myself, more than for him. I was kind of forgiving him for my benefit.”
She wrote her dad a letter, which led to a meeting and a long talk over lunch in a restaurant in their hometown.
“We talked about the past and what had happened. I wanted to know why he had abandoned us. He did apologize. He said, ‘It’s not fair for me to say I’m sorry but I do feel bad about how I acted and things played out.’ He said, ‘I know I can never make up for it and never go back, but I want to start fresh and go forward from here.’”
Her dad attended her wedding and met her two girls. Now living in Charlotte, N.C., she keeps in touch with him by phone, Facebook and mail.
For years Jennifer struggled in her relationships with men.
“Once I started dating, they were pretty shallow relationships,” she said. “I never thought I could trust them.”
While theirs is not a “normal father-daughter relationship,” she said, “it’s helped me understand some things about my childhood and given me a little bit of closure about him leaving when my brother and I were so young, and understand my issues with men and insecurities.”
Jennifer’s father, a private man, declined comment.
The 39-year-old Amy has always known she was adopted from a private orphanage in Taiwan soon after her birth in the seaside city of Hualien.
Her adoptive parents are white Americans from Mennonite backgrounds. Dad Paul Ropp, a Chinese history scholar, was living in Taiwan at the time of Amy’s adoption with his wife, Marjorie, and their two boys. With their new baby, Amy, they moved to Memphis, Tenn., then Worcester, Mass.
The Ropps had met Amy’s birthfather briefly as part of the adoption process in 1972. He was a building custodian with three older children and was devastated by the death of his wife from complications during Amy’s birth. With little money or help, he couldn’t care for his newborn.
Amy’s adoptive parents shared with her what they knew of her birth story, but none of it really mattered to her growing up. Despite her dad’s interest in her home region, culture and language, she spent the decades learning to blend rather than embrace her roots or launch a search for her birthfather.
“I grew up like a regular American kid,” she said. “I never really thought about it. I guess I didn’t think it was possible to find him. Sometimes I’d think I’d want a sister, just because I had two brothers.”
Not even a visit back to Hualien with her family in 1984, when she was in seventh grade, prompted a desire to search or a lasting interest in her birth country. It was a decade later, 1994, after she gave birth to a son, that she grew interested, but her birthfather wouldn’t be found until 2009.
All Amy and her family had to go on was an old address her birthfather had left behind when he relinquished her nearly 40 years ago. It was a house they later learned had been destroyed in a typhoon. Though living with a daughter, her birthfather continued to register his old address with authorities, knowing it was the only clue Amy would have to his whereabouts.
The Ropps enlisted the aid of friends who ran an orphanage in Taiwan about an hour’s drive from where Amy was born. The friends put a social worker on the case and asked for help from two Hualien police officers who had passed through their orphanage doors as children. The search moved quickly after that and Zhen-yi Wu — Amy’s birthfather — turned up.
Paul and Marjorie met him first, on a trip to Taiwan in June 2009 that Amy didn’t join. Around Christmas that year, the entire Ropp family accompanied Amy to meet her birth family.
“I just hugged them all,” she said. “They said, ‘We’ve been waiting for 40 years.’”
Amy’s birthfather wrote of his life and the reunion for a story on their journey published in Clark, the alumni magazine of Clark University, where Paul is now a research professor.
“I feared that she might really hate me, and I couldn’t embrace the hope that she might forgive me,” Wu wrote, his words translated for the magazine by Paul. “I only thought that if Amy could be OK, then my heart could be at ease.”