‘I opened the envelope to find my original birth certificate. I didn’t know what to think or feel.’: Adoptee shares journey to find answers, connect with biological family

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“I was born Falisha Johnson at St. Jude’s Hospital in Montgomery, Alabama. What I have learned is that a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Calloway, were visiting the house where my birth mother lived. Mrs. Calloway, who was 46 years old and found to be barren after many miscarriages, asked my mother, ‘Who is that baby girl?’ My mother confirmed I belonged to her. Mrs. Calloway then asked, ‘Can I have her?’ My birth mother said, ‘Yes!’ I am told a few weeks later, the Calloways showed up and whisked me off to become a part of their family in Roosevelt City (now Birmingham, Alabama). I was 1 ½ years old. I lived with the Calloway’s during the approval phase of my adoption, and the adoption was finalized legally when I was 2 years old.

Young girl wearing white dress
Courtesy of Falisha Riaye

I grew up as an only child. My adopted mother had siblings, so her sisters and their children were who I came to know as aunts and cousins. I also had numerous friends who adopted me into their families.

The one thing that really sticks out for me is how I was treated differently and never understood why. A specific incident that happened still resonates with me today.

It was a summer that completely crushed my spirit. My mother’s sister had a daughter who was visiting from Germany. Her husband was in the military, and they were traveling the world. Every time they came to town, it was a big deal. Everyone treated them like royalty. And, rightfully so. They had escaped the ‘hood and made a great life for themselves through military service. My mother’s well-traveled niece, Laura (not her real name), never really cared for me—I could tell as I’ve always had a keen third eye, and I am an empath, so I felt it. I just didn’t understand why I could feel and discern energy so easily at the time. It was the way she looked at me, the comments she would make when talking to her sister or other family members about me. Those conversations were ones I was not supposed to hear.

Two little girls dressed in caps and gowns for graduation
Courtesy of Falisha Riaye

During her visit this particular summer, my adopted mother had dropped me off at Kellie Mae’s (not her real name) for the weekend. Laura was there. The two of them went shopping and left us kids at home. They returned home with lots of bags with gifts for everyone. We were outside playing and jumped up and down in anticipation, chasing them down to get our toys or whatever gift they had for us. My cousin Mal got her items, Joy received hers, Brandon got his, and Lil’ C got his.

I stood there. And, feeling as if I were nothing and did not matter, Laura said, ‘Oh, Kellie Mae, we forgot to get that gal something.’ Gal? It sounded so degrading and ugly to me in that moment. I was crushed. To make matters worse, she took a pair of panties they had purchased for my other cousin and threw them at me, ‘Oh, here you go.’ This memory is as vivid to me today as it was then. It was hurtful; I was crushed, and I knew at that moment there was something different about me. This type of scenario played out often with various sets of ‘cousins.’ I knew there was a reason behind the snide remarks, the looks they would give each other when talking about me, the dismissals. All of it now speaks volumes. I was not a part of their tribe!

‘Mother?’ I asked. ‘Was I adopted?’ There, I said it! My heart pounded as if it would beat out of my chest. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and cried, ‘Why are you asking me that? I am your mother. I had you, and you are my baby. Please don’t leave me.’ I looked at her, not knowing what to think or feel. ‘Please don’t leave you?’ I thought to myself. Are you kidding me? I dropped it after she continued her rant and cries. Unable to get any answers from my BM, my next step was to ask around, so I compiled my list of people to ask.

Adoptive mother wearing a red shirt
Courtesy of Falisha Riaye

Mrs. Jennings, my neighbor who lived across the street. She was also my kindergarten teacher, so I figured she had to have some information because she’d known me from when I was a little girl.

I asked Mrs. Jennings if she knew anything about me being adopted. She answered honestly and said,

‘…yes, I remember when Mr. and Mrs. Calloway brought you home.’ I asked her if she knew anything about my birth mother. She said, ‘I remember once your birth mother came to the Calloways’ house to try to see you. They ran her off and told her to never come back to their home again.’

Man in military uniform
Courtesy of Falisha Riaye

The next person I would pitch my queries to would be my mother’s niece, Ellen (not her real name). She was like a daughter to my mother, and through their closeness, she would be the keeper of many of Mrs. Calloway’s secrets. To this day. On one of my visits to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I decided to question Ellen about my origins and her story was: ‘I don’t know anything about you being adopted. All I know is Auntee left here with a big stomach and went to Montgomery. When she came back, she had you.’

How f—ed up of an answer was this? Lots of holes in this story, to say the least. So, basically, Mrs. Calloway left Bessemer ‘pregnant’ with me, went to Montgomery to deliver me, and turned around a week later and came back with a 1 ½-year-old child, overnight—just like that? Comical, but not funny. I questioned and questioned her relentlessly. She stuck to her story and as of this writing, that remains her story.

Two women sit together at table
Courtesy of Falisha Riaye

My search has continued on and off throughout the years. I have questioned Ms. Calloway’s nieces, nephews, sisters, friends, neighbors, you name it. Obviously, I haven’t gotten to the one person, on that side, who was willing to share the truth with me.

I actually had a decent childhood in spite of the struggles common for single-parent households. My adopted father died when I was four years old. My adopted mother raised me alone, and it was hard financially, at times. She was a lot older than most of my friends’ moms, and she was very, very strict. I spent most days at church. And when I say I was raised in the church…let me tell you, I was raised in the church! Needless to say, my friends had more playtime! Give me a hymn from the National Baptist Hymnal, I can probably tell you on exactly what page you will find it.

I grew up not fitting in mostly; not feeling tied to anyone. I did not look like anyone in my ‘family.’ I would sit in wonder sometimes about why I did not resemble anyone. When the family banter of who certain children looked like or took after, I would not be included. I couldn’t be. That was always challenging to deal with.

I faced the challenges or my feelings by keeping them to myself for the most part. I spent a lot of time stargazing, which I believe was my form of mindful meditation at the time. I would dream of my future. Where I wanted to go, what I wanted to become. There was no limit, so I went there in my dreams.

Young woman poses near trophy case
Courtesy of Falisha Riaye

I didn’t know anything about my birth family growing up. I accidentally found my adoption paperwork while looking for something for my adopted mom. She had been admitted to the hospital, and they needed her insurance information. I opened the envelope with ‘Insurance Paperwork’ written on it, and lo and behold! My original birth certificate with my birth mother’s name, adoption decree, and information from the attorney who finalized the adoption. I was 17 and was not expecting to find this. It was something, but it was nothing at the same time. Alabama adoption records were sealed at the time and the bit of information I had was not enough. I found I needed more definitive information about my birth mother and father.

I’ve always felt that something was missing. I felt different. Always felt the need to gain the acceptance of others. Wanted everyone to like or love me. I believe rejection from a mother is felt by a child in the womb. It is carried with the child throughout their lives. I have always been very sensitive to certain things. I don’t care to celebrate my birthday or Mother’s Day, holiday dinners with family and friends meant very little to me because I did not have my ‘own’ family to enjoy those things with. I hated the pretentiousness of it all.

Young woman holding trophy and bouquet sits on couch
Courtesy of Falisha Riaye

Until now, my experience as an adult has been one of pretending to live a happy and satisfied life publicly while suffering silently. The question that always runs through my mind is ‘why didn’t my mother want me?’ Mental health issues, health issues, feeling rejected and unwanted. Being lied to by adopted family members about how I came into their family. Anger, hurt, hatred—every emotion ran amuck inside me. Suppressing and keeping my feelings hidden away inside and going about life as though everything was normal was the worse possible thing I could do to myself and my wellbeing. I needed to cry, vent, yell, talk, be angry, be sad, rejoice, just let all my emotions release and be free. I haven’t been able to do that until recently.

Being an adoptee has affected my identity tremendously. I feel adoptees who don’t know their birth family navigate life differently. There’s a sense of ‘knowing’ something is off and you don’t belong. There’s no connection, and there are always the questions of ‘who am I?’ ‘who do I look like?’ and ‘who did I take characteristics from?’ Although children’s characters are formed and influenced, in part, by the person(s) who raise them, there are some things that fall to genetics, and you want to know who you took those traits from.

Young adoptee wearing black dress with face on it
Courtesy of Falisha Riaye

The ‘knowing’ I didn’t belong was always there. The inspiration to search was found in actually seeing my original birth certificate with my birth mother’s name on it. When I read she had four live births at the time of my birth, which was indicated on the birth certificate as well, it was a done deal. I had to search for my siblings, if not her.

I was afraid and unsure, and I didn’t really know where to start. I was afraid to ask family my adopted family members, so it took me a while—some years, to gather enough nerves to do so. Mind you, I began my search when I was 17 years old. There was no access to the internet. I had phone books, the library, and stories from those who would share them.

The reactions I received from adopted family were mostly lies. They swore my adopted mother gave birth to me. That was their story and they stuck to it. To this day! It is as if my adopted mom had sworn them to some sort of secrecy, even after her death, they would not disclose the truth. My friends did not know anything about my adoption because their parents didn’t discuss it with them. The friends I asked, when they would ask their parents, would indicate their parents had no idea.

I started by contacting the law firm that handled my adoption. At the time it was Bradley, Arant, Rose & White out of Birmingham, Alabama. I remember the first time I contacted them, the woman I spoke with told me the adoption had taken place so long ago (1966), the records were on microfiche! I laughed!

As I stated earlier, I began questioning neighbors and family members. The initial search was hard because, again, there was no internet access and birth records in the state of Alabama were sealed. The court would have to be petitioned and a probate judge would have had to rule to have the record unsealed. Unless you had a deadly disease that was genetic or something, no judge was going to order the unsealing of your records. It was during this time I became an adoptee advocate. I joined the thousands of petitioners who were fighting for the unsealing of adoption records. We deserved to know that was in our files.

Fast forward to the 21st century. After years of off-and-on searching only to hit wall after wall, in February 2021, I decided to explore the world of DNA testing. I decided that for my birthday, I would order both the 23andMe and Ancestry DNA kits. The wait was excruciatingly painful. The emotions ran high and about a month later…BINGO! Sort of…

Woman seated wearing pink tank top
Courtesy of Falisha Riaye

Once I received the results of the DNA, I delved into navigating the DNA matrix. I joined several Facebook groups on the subject and shared my story. I immediately connected with Amy, who became my search angel. She was truly an angel, and she knew her stuff. After weeks and of researching my matches, building family trees, reaching out to prospective matches on social media, emails, etc., we found him! He turned out to be my nephew.

May 24, 2021, was a day that changed my life! This day began as my typical Mondays do. I rolled out of bed, dreading Monday because they are usually manic Mondays. I showered and looked at my Keurig like it held the life-giving potion I needed to fully wake up—coffee! Then I went to my office to start my day, and I received a notification from my search angel, Amy. Amy had been helping me search for my birth family. Her message said, ‘Wish I could be a fly on the wall when you make the call.’

Oh crap! I’d forgotten to message him. We had identified a very close DNA match through Ancestry DNA, and I was supposed to reach out to him this particular Monday morning. Dr. Cleve Carter, III, owner of a PT practice in Montgomery. A few weeks prior, I had reached out to Dr. Carter on Ancestry but did not receive a response. This is why Amy suggested I call or email him directly. I finally mustered up the nerve to call Cleve’s office. No one answered. I then emailed him.

Just as the last email was coming in, my phone rang. It said Cleve Carter. I stared at the phone in disbelief, not knowing whether to throw the phone across the room in excitement or answer it. I answered. ‘Hello, Falisha?’ I said, ‘Yes, this is Falisha.’ The caller said, ‘This is your big brother Cleve, but they call me Jr.’ I froze and finally was able to speak. OMG! This was a moment I had waited for damn near all my life! The conversation proceeded as if we had known each other all of our lives. After all, he did know me as an infant when our mother brought me home from the hospital. I learned a lot during this call. His son, Dr. Cleve Carter, III (aka Three), is the reason we were able to connect.

Man wearing suit and red tie
Courtesy of Falisha Riaye

There was a lot of talk about my mother, Mary Laster Johnson Ruffin, et al. All this time, I had been searching for her by the wrong name. She had married Ben Ruffin after I was born. My siblings had been searching for the incorrect name as well, they were searching for Falisha Minor.

My relationship with my siblings is evolving. We are from completely different worlds, and we are all learning each other. It hasn’t been long, so I expect we will continue to learn about each other. There are many stories, some of which my birth mother took to her grave with her. Lots of unanswered questions.

Woman sits with others at a table holding their glasses up
Courtesy of Falisha Riaye
Adoptee hugs long lost biological sibling in driveway
Courtesy of Falisha Riaye

I feel mixed emotions about my status as an adoptee, at this point. I am grateful but angry at the same time. Being a mother, I know the connectedness a mother shares with her baby, and I will never understand how my mother could give me away like I meant nothing to her at all. I will never understand how she could give birth to five other children and do the same.

I now realize there are some things I will never fully understand and have to live with. I’ve also come to the belief that some adoptees carry mental health issues throughout our lives that are directly related to the rejection we feel.

I want to be a voice for adoptees who have tried to navigate the world with a sense of normalcy when those around them don’t understand them and the mental trauma they’ve suffered.

I would like for adoptees to know their feelings and emotions are real and not to be discarded. When there is no birth connection, one must work through those feelings of not having a true familial tribe, not fitting in, and all sorts of emotional trauma directly connected to deeply rooted feelings of rejection from birth. ‘Finding yourself’ takes on an entirely different meaning for adoptees. Not only are we in search of ourselves and our destinies, we’re missing the link. Don’t be ashamed to share your story. Don’t hold your feelings inside. Find a space to talk about your experience and how you feel. Whether if it’s through therapy, groups, writing, storytelling. Whatever your outlet is, tell your story and know you matter.”

Adoptee sits with members of her biological family
Courtesy of Falisha Riaye
Adoptee sitting in front of map of the world
Courtesy of Falisha Riaye

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Falisha Riyae of Loganville, Georgia. You can follow her journey on Facebook, Instagram, and her website. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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