Cherishing the Unexpected Gift of Family

By Amy Nilson December 15, 2013 15:30

Photo by Rich MillerThere’s a sense of satisfaction when you snap the last puzzle piece into place.

That’s what Paulina Sanfilippo feels as she looks at the spread of photos in front of her at her Sonora home – pictures of her birth mother, Dorothy Brookhauser, 88, three younger half-sisters, so many children and grandchildren, all on the East Coast, all warmly welcoming her into the fold.

The pictures show unmistakable physical similarities – four generations of the same bright eyes and warm smiles. Paulina, 67, is such a perfect fit that you would never guess they have all just met.

A single letter she sent a year ago started a cascade of discoveries and emotions for everyone in this quickly expanding family.

It was a difficult letter to write.

Paulina had known since she was a child that she and her younger brother, Cliff, were adopted. She grew up happily in San Diego with a loving family and close friends. Her adoptive parents were open with her from the first time she came home from school as a third-grader and said another child had asked why she didn’t look like her mother.

Paulina accepted the fact and didn’t talk about it much. She made a few half-hearted attempts to trace her biological family over the years, but had mixed feelings about opening a door to the unknown. She held off even after both her parents had died. As a mother of four, her life was always so busy with family, weddings, grandchildren and more.

“The timing never seemed right, and I knew my heart had to be prepared for whatever happened,” she says.

Then a little over a year ago, Kristine Childress, a dear friend and genealogist, gently offered to help.

“It took me a few months, but I finally said yes,” Paulina says. “I gave her the little bit of information I had. In about a month, she said ‘I found her,’ and gave me a name and address.”

Her birth mother was alive and well, a widow living in Pennsylvania.

“It took me a few days to figure out what I wanted to do next,” Paulina recalls. “I thought the best thing was to write a letter from my heart with no expectations.”

The letter briefly outlined her life. She had wonderful parents, was a dedicated ballet dancer for years and has always been artistic, active and interested in healthy living.

he settled in Sonora more than 35 years ago, raised a daughter and three sons, took care of her elderly parents until they died, and as her youngest son was a teenager, began working as an administrative secretary at Sonora High School. That’s where she met her husband, Frank, who was a Spanish teacher there for many years. They married nine years ago and are now both retired.

“I took some time writing the letter. I just wanted her to know I was OK, that I’ve had a happy life, I have a wonderful family and that I didn’t want anything other than to let her know things had turned out fine. All my life, I knew someone out there was wondering about me – I just wanted her to know.”

She put the letter in the mail, and let it go.    letters-helped-paulina-and-her-mom-catch-up-after-67-years-apart

“I truly felt closure,” she says. “I knew it would be OK, whatever happened next.”

What happened next was amazing – and a gift during a difficult time. Days after Paulina mailed the letter, her 44-year-old daughter, Jennifer Owen, was rushed from her home in Sonora to Stanford University Medical Center. Emergency surgery revealed she had Stage 4 colon cancer. The day Paulina and Frank learned the frightening diagnosis, they returned home from Stanford to find a plain, hand-addressed white envelope in the mailbox.

It was from Pennsylvania, and inside were two handwritten sheets of paper with a simple message: I have thought about you every day. I have prayed for you every night. I have a happy, active life and a loving family. None of them know about you. Please forgive me if I hurt you in any way …

Those first letters led to tearful phone calls, more letters, pictures and plans to meet.

For Paulina and her family, these were hopeful, uplifting exchanges in the midst of Jennifer’s difficult battle.

And for Dorothy, Paulina’s letter was a lifelong wish fulfilled.

When it arrived, “I knew instantly what it was,” she says by phone from her Pennsylvania home. “I had a sense … I just broke out crying.”

First, Dorothy had to tell her three grown daughters, explain the difficult choice she had made alone back in 1945, and hope for understanding. She chooses to keep the details of the pregnancy private, but says the birth father was never part of her life. She only wanted her baby to have a good life, and adoption arrangements were confidential.

he never got to see or hold her newborn, but she was assured by people she trusted that the adoptive parents were good people.

“I couldn’t take care of her then – that was it,” says Dorothy, who retired years ago from working in a dental office. “So it was a great relief for me to know she has had a good life … that’s all that matters.”

Paulina thinks her mother made the right decision. “She knew this would be the best life for me. It was agonizing and unselfish – I believe that with all my heart.”

Dorothy is happy to see her daughters embrace Paulina and her family and to have them get along so well.

“I really am thrilled… All my life I wanted this to happen. I knew we would meet one day.”

Dorothy’s daughters were astounded to learn of the adoption, but eager to meet their older half-sister. The oldest, Sue, was the first to make contact. She was in California on business two days later and arranged an impromptu lunch that stretched to three hours.

“It was magical,” Paulina says. “She and my daughter look so much alike. We connected instantly, and we didn’t stop talking. We didn’t want to leave each other.”

Next Paulina started getting pictures and letters in the mail, then an invitation from another half-sister, Colleen, to come out for a visit in May – and to join her in a half-marathon in Pittsburgh. They could dedicate the run to Jennifer’s fight against cancer, Colleen suggested, and Paulina started training.

Paulina and her son Daniel made the trip, a whirlwind visit that included a successful 13.1-mile run and an emotional reunion between Paulina and her mother.

“We just held each other,” Paulina says. “We sat and talked. She took me for a drive and showed me where she had lived. She wanted to know if I had questions. She wanted to tell me everything.”

As the family shared life stories, so much was revealed – so many common interests, talents and traits. The connections have been breathtaking, emotional and affirming, Paulina says. “We’re all active, positive people – we fit together.”

“From what I’ve learned, it’s rare to have it turn out as well as it has,” she adds. “They have 100 percent embraced me in love … and it makes me feel complete. Now I know my heritage, where I came from and that there are people with traits like mine.”

paulina-and-her-mom-reunitedFrank has rejoiced right along with her.

“I come from a big family, and you take it for granted when you grow up knowing your heritage,” he says.

“It’s hard to appreciate the lack of it … It’s kind of poetic, when you think of the geographic distance. There’s been someone with the same genetics on the other coast.”

Paulina says it’s been such a welcome boost of support as Jennifer has gone through cancer treatments. A few weeks ago, the family got the best news of all: No sign of her cancer remains. “The doctor said it’s just miraculous,” says Paulina.

Meanwhile, Paulina is still making discoveries and loves having other family members meet and find so much in common. Dorothy and some of her Pennsylvania grandchildren made a trip to Sonora this summer, and Jennifer and her family went back east to meet their newly discovered grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins.

Mother and daughter, meanwhile, continue to get to know each other, cherishing this chance to make new family memories.

“She’s this little bundle of beautiful energy,” Paulina says of Dorothy. “She paints, she golfs, she bowls. She’s really close to her daughters and grandchildren. She takes good care of herself. When I told her I was so glad she does, she said, ‘I had to – I was waiting for you.’ ”

 Copyright © 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

 

By Amy Nilson December 15, 2013 15:30
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