KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Every year, especially on Mother’s Day and on her birthday, she wondered about her.
Kimberly Sebeck, a doula and childbirth educator whose life’s work is coaching other women into motherhood, wondered about the one who gave her up — young and unmarried, really, was all she knew.
Cheri Hahn DeSalvo wondered about the infant daughter she held in her arms for less than an hour. What was her name? Did she pass her in the aisles of the grocery story, at the local ice-cream stand? Was she happy? Did she even know she was adopted?
Through the years, both women posted on adoption boards and forums and scoured the Internet for clues, knowing virtually nothing except each heart’s longing to find the other.
A yearning heart can’t pluck another out of all the thousands in the country, like a needle in a haystack, with only the most basic of details: a scared teenager, a baby girl born on Oct. 8, 1972, in a Florida emergency room.
But DNA can.
A special gift
It was one of Sebeck’s clients who bought her the test from Ancestry.com. A history professor with a focus on genealogy, she was shocked her doula knew nothing about her past. A few days before Christmas, she presented Sebeck with a gift bag containing a plastic vial.
Sebeck, 44, filled the vial with saliva, mailed it in, and a few weeks later learned her ancestors were primarily French Mediterranean, likely from the Iberian Peninsula.
But then Ancestry.com offered another option: You can find out if your DNA is similar to anyone else’s in our files!
Sebeck hesitated, then paid for the service.
“And I had an ‘extremely close match’ — that’s what they call it,” she said, “an older man, in his 60s, in South Dakota” Ancestry.com said was “a first cousin or closer.”
Sebeck’s adoptive parents were always open about her adoption and gave her as much information as they had about her birth family. But hers was a closed adoption in the 1970s. Her parents were told only that the girl was an unmarried teen; they never even saw her. Adoption registries turned up nothing.
When Kimberly was 25, she paid a service for “non-identifying information.”
“It didn’t give me much, but it matched up with the story we had been told: teenage mom, surprise birth, she knew she was pregnant but didn’t get any prenatal care and didn’t tell anybody,” said Sebeck, whose family moved to Tennessee from Florida in 1984. “I was always of the opinion (adoption) was a magical gift. I didn’t know the circumstances surrounding it, so I obviously felt kind of bad about that, but I mostly had a positive spin on it. … (Growing up), I just made up stories she was a princess.”
She tried, on her own, to work out who the man on Ancestry.com might be.
“I saw his mother and saved her picture to my computer and said, ‘I’m related to her,’” Sebeck said. The physical resemblance was obvious.
It took her 2½ months to get up the nerve to send the man an email. It said she hoped she wasn’t intruding, listed the few details of her adoption she knew, apologized if her message was shocking or hurtful.
On Mother’s Day this year, after celebrating with daughter Andin McLaughlin, Sebeck posted a bittersweet message to her Facebook page, lamenting a sometimes-strained relationship with her adoptive mother and knowing nothing about her biological mother.
“I'm quite conflicted on Mother's Day,” she wrote. “All I can say, though, is that I see amazing mothers every day. Ones who struggle. Ones who seem to breeze by. Ones who have heartache. Ones who find the true meaning of mothering in their journey with their children ... . Which is how I feel about my own child. … I know that my child is worth more than anything. Anything. Being a mother myself ... indescribable.”
'I was swept along'
DeSalvo was 15 and pregnant in 1972, and she told only her closest friend, and then only at the end. She hid her pregnancy under then-fashionable billowy peasant shirts and hid her “head in the sand,” she said. “I sort of went into a state of denial. … Looking back now, I’m perplexed.”
DeSalvo’s parents learned she was pregnant only after she went into labor and gave birth in a hospital emergency room. She didn’t tell the birth father, her then-boyfriend and “first love,” whose family she described as very conservative.
Her parents, reeling from the shock, immediately arranged for adoption.
“I was swept along … I did not argue, as I believed it was probably for the best,” DeSalvo said. “My hope was that she’d find a mom and dad, a good, ‘normal’ family.”
For decades, she clung to scraps of memory from that day, the daughter she held only in the ambulance, riding from the small hospital where she gave birth to another with a labor-and-delivery unit.
“I remember her dark hair, lots of it,” DeSalvo said. “Had I been able to name her, she would have been Cassandra Lee or Tara Marie. I remember it was sunny out, and a beautiful Sunday morning. I remember pain, physical and emotional, confusion, and fear of my parents’ reaction. I remember being very drugged and just wanting to sleep.”
DeSalvo’s parents, now deceased, never spoke of the baby, though DeSalvo believes that had it happened in the modern time, they might have kept the girl and helped their daughter raise her.
She married young — not to her first boyfriend — and had a son two years and seven months after the baby girl’s birth, the joy of pregnancy and motherhood and her son’s milestones tempered with an underlying sense of loss.
“I always felt so sad that I was not sharing her life and that I’d probably always wonder ‘What if?’” DeSalvo said. “When I’d see a female child approximately her age, I’d wonder if maybe it was her. I’d often wonder about things like her first tooth, her first steps, her first everything. I would sometimes imagine if she had a personality like my son’s, or if she looked like me. … Every year on her birthday, I’d wonder if she was OK. Where was she? Was she happy?”
DeSalvo had never told her son he had a sister, though she told his father and, later, her second husband. She eventually confided to both sisters that she’d given up a baby girl, but she never told her two brothers.
Then, in May, her oldest brother forwarded Sebeck’s email to all the siblings, asking if any of them knew what it was about.
“I was totally shocked,” DeSalvo said. “I had a ton of emotions run through me: surprise, elation. I never allowed myself to believe it would happen.”
Her brothers were supportive. Her son was excited, as was her stepson. Her husband was thrilled — for years, he’d tried to get DeSalvo to hire a private investigator to find her daughter, but she was worried about intruding into the life of someone who might not even know she existed. Both DeSalvo and Sebeck were painfully aware not every birth-family reunion has a fairy-tale ending.
DeSalvo sat down at the computer and looked up Sebeck.
“When I saw her (Facebook) profile picture, I knew she was my daughter — no DNA test results needed,” DeSalvo said. “I had my brother give her my Facebook page, so she could check me out. … I waited a day or two, then emailed her Mother’s Day evening.”
'It was like a warm hug'
Their first phone conversation was four hours long. In it, they learned one reason they had trouble finding each other: Sebeck’s birth certificate listed the hospital she and DeSalvo were taken to, not the hospital where DeSalvo had actually given birth.
Soon “we were talking every day that she was off work and I was off work,” Sebeck said. “And when we talked, it was never less than three hours.”
Sebeck’s husband, Derek, a social worker, commented on how alike their voices sound on the phone. They both love animals. They’re voracious readers. Their political and philosophical ideas match, and they both love and use all types of social media.
One catch: “When she said she didn’t like coffee, I said, ‘Are you SURE you’re my mom?’” Sebeck said, laughing.
“My main worry was that she’d be angry with me, or that she wouldn’t want a relationship — only medical information,” DeSalvo said. “I did worry about her personality — would she be racist or something similar? But even so, I would have welcomed contact. Happily, she’s perfect.”
In August, with Sebeck unable to leave town because she was on call for births, DeSalvo and her husband made the 13-hour drive from their South Florida home to Knoxville to meet Sebeck, her husband and Andin, 19 — DeSalvo’s first grandchild. That was love at first sight on both ends, DeSalvo and Sebeck said.
Both husbands videoed DeSalvo's and Sebeck's first reunion.
“It was like a warm hug you’ve been waiting for your whole life,” Sebeck said. “It could be weird to meet someone who is, essentially, a stranger, yet she didn’t feel like a stranger anymore. It was just amazing. It just felt normal and right.”
Both love nature, and they spent six days together walking in parks, in the mountains, downtown, eating out or just sitting at Sebeck’s house, talking. One day, Sebeck called a client, a professional photographer with whom she’d bartered a session, and asked if she could take photos of their family. Photos from that session now cover a wall in DeSalvo’s Florida home.
Sebeck said her adoptive family was surprised the reunion happened so quickly, but happy for her. DeSalvo said her extended family is excited to meet the lost daughter most of them never knew about.
By the time DeSalvo left for home, Sebeck had arranged for a February visit — far enough out to plan around babies, Sebeck said. She thought having that to look forward to would make the goodbye easier.
Then, when hugging DeSalvo, “I looked down, and I saw that she had the same pinky toes as me,” Sebeck said. “I started bawling my face off. I did NOT want her to go. … Andin’s the only person I’ve ever had that I can say I look like, up until now.”
DeSalvo had planned a surprise visit to Knoxville in October, for Sebeck’s birthday, but Hurricane Matthew closed the Fort Lauderdale airport. Instead, Sebeck got a visit from her younger brother, Danny Zona, who had to evacuate his Daytona home.
“We just had so much fun,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
DeSalvo and Sebeck will spend this Thanksgiving in different states, but they’re thankful for a lot of the same things.
For the Internet, and its ability to connect the far-flung.
For DNA testing, which has become affordable and accessible even to the general population.
For a mother’s sacrifice. For a daughter’s forgiveness. For two families’ open hearts.
And for the years still to come, no longer lost to one another.
“I have to reiterate how happy I am, and how amazed I still feel, that I’ve got my daughter in my life,” DeSalvo said, “when I never believed it could be."
Follow Kristi L. Nelson on Twitter: @KristiLNelson