Excerpted here is the first chapter of "Off Balance," by Dominique Moceanu
When you have traveled the world, won Olympic gold, and gone through a very public court battle against your parents all by the age of seventeen, surprises don't come easy. Discovering my sister Jennifer, though—that was a surprise.
On December 10, 2007, I found out that I had a second sister. I was nine months pregnant and about to take my college semester finals. With swollen feet and body parts bigger than I had ever imagined possible, I couldn't even squeeze into a school desk anymore. But earning a college degree was a promise I had made to myself—and third trimester or not, I was going to get those finals done.
Cleveland was cold, rainy, and gray in a bona fide Ohio winter way. All I wanted to do was finish my exams, cuddle up under a blanket with some hot chocolate, and wait for the imminent arrival of my firstborn. But alas, that was not yet in the cards. I was headed for a study session right after a quick stop at the post office.
Earlier in the week, I'd missed the delivery of a piece of certified mail, and the notice had been sitting on my desk for several days. Lugging my backpack full of business textbooks to my car, I felt baby give me a stern kick. I almost lost the certified letter notice in a cold gust of wind and rain. Little did I know, this tiny three-by-five-inch piece of paper would turn my life—past, present, and future—upside down.
As a competitive gymnast, my life has always been filled with challenges that would ultimately define my future. From day one, I was taught to be prepared at all costs. And yet, pulling into the post office parking lot that day, I couldn't have been more unarmed, unguarded.
After finding my place in line, I did finally wonder who might have sent me a registered letter. Only my family and personal friends used my home address. Looking out a nearby window, I saw that the rain was getting heavier. I needed to get home. I couldn't afford to dawdle at the post office. The holiday season lines were longer and slower than usual, and I was getting antsy just standing there when I had so much to do. It seemed that everyone but me was sending packages or cards to relatives across the globe.
I finally got to the front of the line, received my package, and walked out into the rain.
As I awkwardly tried to dodge puddles, I stole a peek at the label on the envelope. The bubbly cursive letters seemed so personal, but the name on the return address was completely unfamiliar to me. Back in my car I tore open the package and pulled out a cluster of items: a typed letter, a bundle of photos, and some court documents. Please tell me I am not being sued! Then I caught a glimpse of something familiar on one of the documents—my mother's and father's handwriting.
The cover letter was a page and a half of cleanly typed words, unequivocal in meaning, straightforward in sentiment. But my head began to spin as I struggled to make sense of even the simplest words.
I've known my whole life that I was adopted…and that my biological last name was Moceanu.
I read the letter slowly—again and again. Breathless and stunned, I sat behind the wheel, staring out the window at the cars driving in and out of the parking lot—a stream of mothers, grandmothers, uncles hurrying in the rain with their holiday packages.
Her name was Jennifer and apparently she was my long-lost sister given up for adoption by my parents in 1987. The letter explained that Jennifer had always known that she was of Romanian heritage, but that it wasn't until she was turning sixteen that her adoptive parents decided to share the details of her birth. They revealed to her the names of her biological parents, and me, her biological sister. She wrote that she had been waiting four years to contact me directly.
I feel that I have one chance to show you and prove to you that I'm not some crazy person…I'm sure after seeing all of the papers, you'll see that I'm serious.
Is this possible? I thought. I tried to think back to 1987. I would've been six years old when Jennifer was born. Was my mother even pregnant? Why couldn't I remember? My life has been one bizarre adventure, filled with highs and lows, one headline after another…but a secret sibling? I sat in my car for what seemed like hours, repeatedly examining the contents of the package. The information was presented meticulously, like a jigsaw puzzle, each piece carefully and intentionally placed next to the other. The evidence was overwhelming.
The photographs hit me the hardest. The girl in the images looked exactly like my younger sister, Christina, born in 1989 when I was almost eight years old. Eventually I could see that while it was definitely not Christina, there was no doubt that she was a sister nonetheless—my sister. The resemblance was uncanny.
I have another sister!
How could something like this be kept a secret?
I was an only child for the first eight years of my life. My parents, Romanian immigrants, struggled to provide me a better life than the ones they had left in their homeland. They worked hard to give me every opportunity in life, and once I showed natural talent as a young gymnast, they spent every last penny on my training. My father ("Tata") often worked several jobs just to meet the financial burden of my escalating coaching and gym costs. My parents even relocated our family from city to city and state to state whenever necessary to meet my evolving gymnastic needs. According to Tata, I was destined for greatness, so I did my best not to disappoint my parents. By the age of seven I was a serious, committed gymnast, and by the age of nine I was receiving national attention and regarded as one of America's hopefuls. Standing on the podium at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and receiving a gold medal was the crowning jewel in a successful gymnastics career and, most certainly, the confirmation that my parents' sacrifices were not in vain. I took another look at the photos, took a deep breath, and called my parents in Houston.
"Hello?" Mama answered groggily.
"Did you give up a baby for adoption in 1987?" I blurted out. I knew I caught her by complete surprise and gave her a morning wake-up call she'd never forget, but sitting in my car, in the rain outside the post office, I needed answers.
I felt a strange combination of emotions whirling out of control. I looked at my belly, my unborn baby, while images of my own childhood raced through my head. My parents were devoted to me and worked tirelessly to provide me with everything they possibly could. They wanted me to have every opportunity in life. But what I longed for most in my early childhood was a bigger family—brothers and sisters. The birth of my sister Christina in 1989 was one of the happiest days of my life. I remember Mama bringing her home from the hospital and how everything instantly seemed sweeter. A baby sister—she was everything to me. We did everything together and today remain the closest of friends. How could it be that Mama had another baby before Christina? Another sister? This didn't make any sense.
"Mama, you have to tell me—is it true?" I pleaded.
"Yes, it's true," she said quietly in a voice I hardly recognized. I had been so close with my mother my entire life and truly thought that I knew everything about her. I suddenly felt a distance from her, and I didn't like it one bit. I couldn't understand how or why she would keep this from me and Christina. I'd expect something like this from my father, who is a born salesman and a master at gently twisting the truth when it suits his needs. He never had a real need to lie outright, since he could wrap you up in his stories in a heartbeat. What he omitted was oftentimes more telling and more important than what he actually said. But not my mother. Mama was a straight shooter, honest to the core.
Or at least, that's the Mama I knew.
"How could you have kept this from me?" I cried into the phone, both of us knowing there was no possible answer that would satisfy me. Tears flowed down my face; the floodgates had opened and I couldn't stop. I was a complete mess.
I heard my mother crying on the other end of the phone, too. Mama has always been my rock and confidante, and her pain has always been my pain. But at that moment, I felt a total disconnect, which made me feel confused, angry, and alone.
I had so many questions, so few answers. My emotions were running in every direction, moving so quickly I could barely keep up. The raindrops hit the car roof like little metal hammers.
I felt paralyzed, retracing the steps of my life. Every photo ever taken, every holiday spent, all of our childhood memories—there should've been three sisters. My life reshuffled, restructured in a matter of minutes.
Just like that, with the rip of an envelope, I had a sister and her name was Jennifer. She was born October 1, 1987, the day after my birthday. We are exactly six years and one day apart.
Jennifer would have been the middle sister. Why was she given up for adoption when Christina and I were allowed to stay?
Jennifer had provided contact information, and I was tempted to call her right away, but first I had to learn more. Anyway, I was in no mental state to talk at that point.
"I wanted to tell you, and I almost did many times. I just couldn't find the words," said Mama.
I was disappointed for so many reasons, but most of all I felt betrayed that she had kept this from me all these years. She had been the one I could trust and the one I relied on to always tell me the truth. I felt angry, sad, deceived, and vulnerable. I had always been open with Mama and confided in her things I have never shared with anyone else. And prior to receiving Jennifer's letter, I had thought she had done the same with me.
Even though my mother had kept this from me, at least I was able to communicate with her. As for my father, I couldn't bring myself to speak to him for several weeks; I knew, deep down, that he was likely responsible for how things were handled, or mishandled. After all, he had played a key role in virtually all the most painful moments in my life up to then.
My father was not a man of the modern age, and even though he loved the United States, he was very much an old-school Romanian. As a father and husband, he ruled our house with an iron fist. Decisions were made by him, obeyed by us, and explained by nobody. To question my father's reasoning as a child was invitation for punishment, and as an adult was invitation for outbursts.
Starting with my teenage years, I had clashed with my father many times but had never really been angry with my mother, not in this way. I always felt sorry for my mother; she had such a difficult marriage and wasn't treated the way I believed a wife should be treated—with love and respect.
My home life throughout my childhood was turbulent, at best. Tata's rage and temper tantrums took a toll on my family. We often found ourselves hiding in separate rooms. I can barely recall a single holiday when my father didn't make a scene or create some kind of chaos. We were always walking on eggshells. As a child, I never understood his rage, and I still struggle to understand why he did such horrible things to the family he was supposed to love.
But things had started to soften between my father and me at the time I received Jennifer's package. We still clashed on many issues, but his battle with a rare form of eye cancer had significantly shifted the dynamics of our relationship. He took a big leap when he allowed himself to get emotional and melancholy in my presence. However, all the old feelings of frustration and alienation returned when I discovered that he and my mother had kept this huge secret from me for twenty years.
Despite being physically weakened by the cancer treatment, my father's retelling of Jennifer's birth was matter-of-fact and decidedly old-school.
"You must remember, Dominique, we were very poor, struggling to survive and put food on the table. When she was born, the doctors told me that we wouldn't be able to afford her medical bills. I saw her, and she was born with no legs. We had no money and no insurance. We could barely take care of ourselves and you."
No legs?! What does that mean, no legs? I thought. My father had a knack for embellishing, so I never quite knew what to believe.
"That's what I remember."
And that was it. Nothing more. I'm sure the finer details after twenty years in the vault were a little fuzzy, but I expected more— something, anything. I needed more of the story, more pieces to a puzzle that was becoming more confusing with each new detail, but my father had said his piece and offered no more.
Once again, it was my mother who tried to help me understand.
"I was given an ultrasound," she began. "It was the only ultrasound of my entire pregnancy. We had no insurance and I had not even seen a doctor prior to delivery. I saw the way the technicians looked at the ultrasound, and I knew something was wrong, but they would not say a word, and I left the clinic with no one ever explaining what they saw. I remember feeling scared and uneasy, but tried not to worry. Months later, when I went into the hospital to deliver the baby, they took me to the operation room to perform a C-section. I was without your father, and it seemed as though they put me to sleep with anesthesia almost immediately. All I remember was waking up in a fog—and with no new baby. Your father said that our little girl was born with no legs. I never saw my baby. I never held her, never touched her, never even smelled her. I desperately wanted to, but your father told me we had to give her up and that was that. We never looked back because it was too painful. You know your father—once a decision is made, that's the end of it.
"He never asked me how I felt after all of that happened. It was such a horrible time in my life. After I came back from the hospital I cried for a very long time in the emptiness of the streets. No one even noticed my sadness."
It seems crazy and tragic that this could happen in the United States in the 1980s, but in my family's universe, it made sense. My father controlled my mother; every meaningful decision was made by him alone. She had no friends or family in this country and spoke limited English. My mother depended entirely on him, and that's how he liked it.
My mother spent twenty years hiding the pain and agony of this secret, but on December 10, 2007, it finally came out.
Tormented, betrayed, and still in shock, I knew I had to contact Jennifer.