Most people take for granted what it is to be someone, from somewhere. But for Cynthia Guditus, a happily married suburban mother of three, there is one perpetually nagging question: Where did I come from?
She was adopted in New York City 43 years ago and, like many other adopted Americans, Guditus had resolved never to look for her biological parents. This all changed two years ago, when Connor, her 12-year-old son, was diagnosed with cancer and she wanted to try to get some information about her genealogy for medical reasons.
Guditus' search led her to Pam Slaton, another adoptee and a well-known adoption searcher. To learn more about Slaton's work please click HERE.
"The primary motive is, I think, adoptees just wanna say, 'I'm OK, here I am,'" Slaton said. "I think first and foremost [you want] to let the birth mother know you're OK. Secondly, where did I get my eyes, where did I get my hair, my height? Who do I look like? I mean, you can't look behind you and see where anything has come from. And, of course, medical. Medical's huge."
During her 14 years in this business, Slaton has matched more than 2,500 adoptees with their birth mothers, including that of rapper DMC. That search was featured in a VH1 documentary, which resulted in a happy reunion.
"Every little reunion I do kind of puts a piece of my heart back," Slaton said. "So I get to experience the joy of a reunion through somebody else's eyes, even though it's not my own. I get to know that I helped facilitate that, so I think it's healing for me."
And each is especially important to Slaton, whose own search ended up in disaster. She says her biological mother screamed at her and threatened to kill her and her children if she pursued her again.
But Slaton says the hostility she received was still better than going through life not knowing where she came from.
"I would do it a million times over," she said. "I know what she looked like when she had me and it's my own face; it was amazing to see that."
Slaton says that while some of her searches can be difficult, and further complicated by varying state laws, others can be relatively simple.
"It really depends on the case but generally, for me, it's about a week," Slaton said. "It's not hard when you know what you're doing. It's just basically taking old records and combining them with contemporary records."
Which brings the story back to Guditus, and a single day last November that was pivotal in the search for her biological mother.
Slaton met her in New York City, where Guditus' adoption took place. She instructed Guditus on the questions to ask at her appointment at New York's Foundling, the institution that handled Guditus' adoption. There were records there that contained important clues.
"I compiled a list for you [to] go over some of the things," she told her. "Some things you may be allowed to ask, some things considered non-identifying information. … I want to know what region of the U.S. she came from."
"I am excited," Guditus said, but nervous, too.
Although the identity of Guditus' biological mother was in the file, the Foundling's director, Wendy Freund, was not permitted by law to reveal it. But she could reveal non-identifying details that will help in the search.
"Your birth mother was referred to us by Catholic Charities," Freund said. "She got pregnant on her school break. She was a school teacher."
"Wow," Guditus said.
And, then, a bit of reassuring emotional information about the mother:
"She gave signs of caring, she brought you from the hospital here, she didn't want to sign surrender until you had a permanent home. She wanted to know that you were in a good home. "
And while she may have showed signs of caring, contacting her birth mother now is a different story and raised some concerns that Freund wanted to discuss with Cynthia Guditus.
"She was private, which is one of the issues you may have to deal with, which was how private did she want to stay about this?"
Guditus said, "that's been my biggest concerns from the beginning. I don't want to intrude on her life if she is a private person, you know. I don't want to walk in 43 years later and be like, 'Hi.'"
While they do not object to her search, Guditus still wrestles with complicated emotions like the feeling of disloyalty to her beloved adoptive parents — the parents who raised her.
"That was my biggest issue, like I just didn't want to do anything that would upset my parents" she said. "I wanted to make sure that they were supportive, and they were and that was great. But I still … didn't tell my mom I was coming in today."
Guditus' concern for the feelings of her adoptive parents, who recently renewed their wedding vows after 50 years of marriage, is typical of most adoptees that choose to search. Searches usually begin with locating the birth mother first and then branching out to locate the biological father and any possible siblings.
"The birth father; we know that she met him on a school break," Freund said. "He was a swimming and diving instructor."
Uppon learning this, Guditus delighted in a common link to him, that she herself is a very strong swimmer.
Other key details emerged. She learned when her biological parents were born and that her biological mother was Catholic.
"We might as well put on the table my big disagreement with Pam," Freund said. "We're both right and both wrong. I think the gentlest way to approach someone is write a letter … and I wouldn't even put a return address on it … just a plain envelop with a plain note, not too much, not too overwhelming. … Pam, personally, for her, she likes a phone call and my problem with a phone call is if she is not alone in the room, it's a shock."
Guditus said, "I agree and what about if the person next to her doesn't know her. Her husband doesn't know, her daughter, or her granddaughter is there, I mean, you know ?"
Later, Guditus and Slaton sat down to discuss what she has found. With the information provided by Foundling and the number on Guditus' birth certificate, Slaton got to work using specialized databases.
A short while later, she uncovered the identity of Guditus' birth mother. "I believe we are looking at the information of the biological mother," Slaton said.
After 43 years living with this mystery, Guditus was about to learn the identity of her birth mother.
"I did find her birth mother for her and she is alive, which is the great news," Slaton said.
"My heart is in my throat," Guditus said.
"Well, from what I saw she looks to be pretty stable," Slaton said. "It doesn't look as though she's moved a hundred times. … Your birth mother looks like she [has] potential siblings, which you and I never spoke about."
The information continued: siblings, a spouse of more than 30 years, an address, and a phone number.
"Wow, oh my God, I am just speechless," Guditus said. "I'm speechless.
But now what? Does Guditus write a letter, make a call or do nothing?
Deep down, Guditus said she wanted to call, but was still plagued by reservations. "I mean, what if she hasn't said anything? That's my biggest thing. What about if she got married and never mentioned it and her children are there? That's my biggest concern."
A turbulent flood of questions and what-if scenarios continued. What was the right thing to do?
And the pondering was intimate on a level that can go to the core of an adoptee's identity.
"It's kind of a strange thing," Slaton said. "I think finding your birth family is a weird way of validating your existence because you kind of feel like you weren't dropped off from the mothership, you came from somewhere. And it's like saying this is real."
But what if the door is slammed in your face?
"Well, I've had the door slammed in my face," Slaton said. "How does it feel? I guess my lesson, and what I really try to teach my clients, is be prepared for it as best as you can."
But even preparation cannot always prepare adoptees. "I don't know," Guditus said. "I really want to call her. I really do. I mean I do see both sides of it. I feel the letter is a much safer way to protect myself and to protect her also. But I feel like we've come this far."
Pam Slaton picked up the phone and dialed. After a woman answered, Slaton handed the phone to Cynthia Guditus and she began speaking the words they had planned prior to the call. The following is a synopsis of Guditus' side of the conversation.
Hi _______, my name is Cynthia Guditus. I'm doing some genealogy research on the_______ name – I was just wondering if it was a good time to talk or if I could give you my phone number if you would like to talk sometime. I was born February 1st ... I was adopted at the Foundling Home. I just wanted to ask if you could talk, I don't want to intrude on your life or anything. I could give you my phone number if you'd like to talk sometime.
...I really just wanted to call to thank you because I've had a wonderful life. I appreciate everything you have done because I have the most wonderful family. And my son was diagnosed with cancer a couple years ago and they suggested that I just try to find somebody with a biological link if he ever needed anything. ... I know this is such a shock and I didn't know how to do it, if I should write you a letter.
...I'm sorry. I would never tell anybody. I am a mother of three children, very stable person, you know. You don't have to explain it to me. I pray for you every day, I thank God for you. Because you had choices, I didn't have to be ... And you gave me life and I've had such wonderful parents.
...Do you? I pray for you, too. And it's fine, please don't feel that. I would never intrude in your life and I would never do anything like tell your kids or anything like that. I hope that you have a happy life. Thank you. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I really didn't meant to upset you.
...Can I ask you just a couple of questions? Does cancer run at all in your side of the family? Later? Okay. Alright. Well that was my big thing. Breast cancer, anything like that? No? Well that's great, that's very good to hear. ... That makes me very happy and I'm sorry. I really didn't mean to upset you.
...If I can do anything to help you, you just let me know, OK? OK. God bless you, too. Thank you. I'm very, very sorry to upset you. I'll pray for you, too. Alright, bye-bye.
In about half an hour's time, a grown woman learned her identity, and a biological mother spoke to her daughter for the first time. Guditus returned home that night feeling, as she said, just the same and a whole lot different.