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January 14, 2012

Around the block from me,  in a blue post office box nestled under an old, drooping tree whose roots are now pushing up through the sidewalk, sits my letter to the Illinois Department of Public Health.  It includes a check for $15, a copy of my passport photo, and a form whose checked boxes indicate my desire to have a copy of my original birth certificate. The postal worker collects outgoing mail from this box at 11 a.m. on Saturdays.  In just a few minutes, my letter will be slung into a white plastic tub and begin its journey west.  I don’t expect to receive a reply for some time.

A new law passed last May in Illinois now allows adopted children like me–I’m in the category Adopted Person Born On or After January 1, 1946–to request original copies of their birth certificates.  In June 2008, I received an e-mail response from Representative Sara Feigenholtz, one of the sponsors of the bill, then called HB4623.  I was working on my “This I Believe” essay for NPR and wanted to find out where adoption law stood in Illinois at that time.  In my research, I came across Feigenholtz’s efforts to change the law, efforts that had been in the making, it appeared, for quite some time.  She wrote me back to tell me that the bill had been returned to “rules” when the legislature adjourned for the summer.  The bill seemed stuck, but she had a plan and sounded hopeful.  I didn’t think anymore about it. Less than a year later, I knew who my birthparents were.  Somebody else had unlocked the original certificate’s contents to follow the trail since legally I wasn’t allowed to do so.  My mind now turns safely to speculation because it can, because I am not waiting for a document to arrive in the mail that could change my life.  If I didn’t now know my birth mother, this certificate would, for the first time, reveal her name to me. Would I roll that name over my tongue, whisper it aloud, then be satisfied simply to know those consonants and vowels?  Or would her name, and the place where she was born, propel me to look for her?   Would my birthparents have heard about this law where they now live, many states away from Illinois?  Heard that birthparents are allowed, by the terms of this law, to remain anonymous, to remove themselves from the original, creating something of a ghost original, which really isn’t original at all anymore?

In early December, J., a childhood friend of mine who was also adopted, posted on Facebook that she had received her original birth certificate from the state of Illinois.  She already knew who her birthparents were, yet the birth certificate still contained surprises: the name of the hospital where she was born (different than what she had been told), the time of day that she was born.  She seemed utterly moved by this piece of paper, to which I had given so little consideration.  I shared my joy for her–because it seemed to make her so happy–and then I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  I had forgotten all about Feigenholtz’ bill and hadn’t heard about the recently passed law.  Should I get mine now, too? I wondered.

I printed out the form and it sat on my desk for nearly a month.  When I came across it again, I thought, why not?

I don’t expect any surprises.  I’m sending off for this certificate because I can, because it’s mine to have, because there’s a whole paper  journey out there that chronicles the first days, weeks, months of my life, and I’ve never been allowed to take it.  The scholar in me, who has whiled away many a day in the rare books library at Yale University and the British Library, understands the value, as well as the complexity, of original sources.  The birth certificate I have in hand right now is an original copy of the amended birth certificate that my parents received when I was a baby.  It’s tattered and worn, and as my husband likes to point out, causes no end of trouble when I need it for official purposes, not because it’s an amended original but because it looks like I’ve been carrying it around in my back pocked for the last 40 years and even sent it through the wash a couple of times.  Last night at dinner, my sister, who now lives in Chicago, offered to pick up a new copy of the “real” one for me when she returned home.  For a moment I was confused.  The one I’m sending away for, I asked?  No, she said, the real one, the one that is your life.

I’m not sure what I’ll do with the original one that is not my life that will arrive some time in the mail. My friend J. has hers on her refrigerator.  I’ll probably eventually tuck mine away in a green cardboard box in my office where I am saving everything my birthparents have ever sent me: photos, letters, cards. There, I seem to be documenting another original life, one that I didn’t live but one that still matters.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. jes97003 permalink*
    January 18, 2012 2:34 pm

    Thanks for your kind words, Sharyn! I’m still giggling over Rick’s comment that the two of you never told Callie and Chloe about their brother. Again, many thanks! Feel free to share the link to the blog if you know of anyone impacted by adoption who may wish to be a part of the conversation.

  2. Sharyn Huffman permalink
    January 18, 2012 2:14 am

    Jenny, Thank you so much for sharing your amazing, brave, and incredibly human story. Your enduring message of love and perseverance touched my soul. I believe your story will impact thousands of people who have walked in steps similar to yours and will find your insight both inspiring and healing. I look forward to following your blog and purchasing the completed book. Warmest regards, Sharyn (former “Mother” to Callie and Chloe who have been so generously adopted by you and your wonderful family

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