For 18 years, she had been kind of hoping for a message like this. After more than 20 years, she had metaphorically closed the door behind her. So after 27 years, when she read the email, the words took her breath away. She couldn’t talk; she couldn’t breathe; she didn’t know even what she felt. It said:
“Dear Cindy. I’m hoping you’re the person I’m looking for. I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on March 27, 1979, and I have reason to believe you might be my biological mother.”
Cindy Wilson was then a teacher at Orofino High School, and mercifully, this was a day without students. Stunned, she made her way to the next classroom where her colleague took one look at her and said, “Are you all right?”
“I said, ‘Just come read this.’ She read it, she looked up at me and I (answered the email’s question): ‘Yes. I am.’”
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Those 27 years ago, Cindy Wilson had given birth to a baby girl. She never held her daughter, didn’t touch her, never even saw her — and released her to be adopted.
It was the hardest thing she has ever done in her life.
• • •
Cindy grew up in the small town of Preston, Idaho, on a farm homesteaded in 1887 by her great-great-grandfather (who thought he was in Utah). She was the “good girl” of the family, immersed in school, surrounded by a wonderful community of people.
What changed her life forever was a party on the Fourth of July in Jackson between her sophomore and junior year of college. Cindy was sexually assaulted and became pregnant.
“For a long time, I couldn’t see that it was a rape. I thought it was my fault. I would say it’s pretty recently that I’ve really understood that ... no woman, whatever her environment, whatever her state of mind, asks for that to happen.”
That is now. But then, she was 19 years old — a virgin — racked by angst. Guilt that she shouldn’t have been at the party, blaming herself for the assault; more shame for being pregnant — and she couldn’t tell anyone because she would have been kicked out of college. Mostly, she was scared to death.
“I pretended (the pregnancy) wasn’t happening.”
In those years, in 1978, single, unwed girls had few choices.
“You went away and had a baby and the baby was adopted.”
She sought help from Planned Parenthood; LDS Social Services arranged for her to go to Hawaii. She lived with strangers and when she went to the hospital, she was alone. After her daughter’s birth, Cindy remembers calling her mother.
“(And) her basically saying, ‘OK, that’s over.’
“Yeah, it’s over. But it wasn’t. ...
“I left (Hawaii) a week after I had the baby. It was awful. And then came home ... like nothing had happened. ... We didn’t talk about it.”
• • •
Meanwhile, a couple from Utah had been yearning to have a family but were unable. Traveling to Samoa for two years, they inquired in Honolulu about possible adoptions. By the time their family was complete, it would include eight adopted children — the second of whom was Cindy’s daughter.
Jaclyn Stegen is, to their mutual delight, a high school teacher like Cindy. She teaches psychology in Bountiful, Utah, and is the mother of three. As a girl, Jaclyn’s life was full and rich; she never felt like anything was lacking because she was adopted.
Jaclyn: “Even growing up, (my parents) said it was a really special thing (my birth mother) did for me. So I always had gratitude for what she did. That, no, she didn’t give me up. ... She gave another mother a gift. ... ”
When, as part of a college psychology class, Jaclyn attended a birth mother’s support group, she became curious.
“Listening to the stories, seeing their faces, I think I really wanted to find (Cindy). I wanted to know her story.”
Jaclyn’s mother vaguely remembered Downey, Idaho (close to Preston), and an incorrect version of Cindy’s last name. Beyond that were dead ends. Hers was a closed adoption; Cindy’s file was lost. The family with whom Cindy stayed in Hawaii knew she had married and therefore had a different last name. Jaclyn all but gave up.
A few years later, though, Jaclyn had a random conversation with a neighbor — whose best friend lived in Downey, whose mother knew someone with a last name that was vaguely similar, who turned out to be Cindy’s mother. In just a couple of days, friends delivered Jaclyn a sheet of paper scribbled with Cindy’s name and phone number.
That wasn’t enough to convince her this was a good idea. She did more research; found a newspaper article that quoted Cindy, learned she was a teacher and read about a teaching award Cindy had received. Jaclyn really wanted a photo, but her sleuthing only netted the feeling that, yes, this was worth pursuing.
So she wrote her email.
“I wanted to write everything that I’ve wanted to ever tell her. ... That she was making a conscious choice to place her baby with a family who would raise her. And gratitude. I wanted to express that to her — that was very important. Even if she didn’t want to talk to me, I wanted to at least express that.”
• • •
Cindy and her college girlfriends — the only ones who knew about her assault and pregnancy — are still the best of friends. In the early years, on her daughter’s birthday, they would remember and ask — have you heard anything?
Cindy: “I’d say no, I don’t want her to find me; I want her to be happy with her family. ... It’s a different part of my life; she has parents now.”
Especially as she turned 18, they thought maybe her daughter would get in touch. But as the years rolled into decades, Cindy quit wondering: Done. End of story. That’s why the email — when her daughter was 27 years old — was so unexpected. And Cindy was suspicious: Why now? What does she want? Cindy couldn’t know that Jaclyn had tried for years to find her.
Cindy: “So for a couple of weeks, I had to give it some serious thought, whether I wanted to open this up. I was teaching, no one knew; it was so emotional. ... My husband, he kind of encouraged me to do it. And so I wrote back and said yes, I am that person.”
• • •
After their first emails, they corresponded, hesitantly at first, and then more fully, while they warmed up to the idea of a relationship, and then of meeting each other in person.
Cindy: “I had two sons, 9 and 10 (the third knew and was in college). ... My husband and I took them into the living room and set them down to tell them (about Jaclyn), and they go, ‘Oh, we have a sister?’ I go, well, yeah. They go, ‘Great. Can we go out and play now?’ Yeah. This thing was so big for me, but not for anyone else.”
Now living in Boise and on her way to the airport to meet her daughter for the very first time, Cindy pulled the car over and called her mother.
“We’d never talked about it. Wasn’t that so dumb? It was just a different time (back then). I said I’m going to pick her up. ... And my mother said, ‘Oh, I knew she’d find you.’ ”
Jaclyn and her husband visited for a whirlwind weekend; she and Cindy stayed up all night looking a baby pictures and catching up on their lives.
Jaclyn: “I felt an instant connection — she carried me for nine months. (I understand that after having my own kids.) ...
“We’re friends. There’s no way she could replace my mom ... my mom knows me, she raised me. ... (Cindy and I) are friends — yet a little more than that. We have a special connection, but it’s complicated to figure out how this relationship works. There’s no handbook for that.”
Jaclyn is four years older than Cindy’s eldest son; they call each other “Bio Sis” and “Bio Bro.” Each of their families, including their mothers, has welcomed the other; they share visits and vacations and love.
Cindy: “It’s just a miracle that she found me — that randomness. I believe it was meant to be — and so does she.”
Jaclyn: “This was totally meant to be. There’s no way I could have made this happen. We believe there is some reason, although we don’t know what it is. Something beyond ourselves.”
• • •
Today, Cindy teaches government at Capital High School. Every year since she and Jaclyn met in 2006, as classes begin, Cindy tells her students a little bit of her story.
“I say because of what I’ve experienced in my life, I have a lens through which I see the world. And these things that I’ve experienced are part of my lens, and I ask them to tell me about themselves, through their lens.
“You would not believe what they write. It’s unbelievable, the (stories) I get.”
It’s a way for her to connect with her students more deeply, and for them to reflect on their own lives. There are many lessons in Cindy’s story, but the one she wants them to hear most clearly is about surviving. For her, that means living beyond the hardest thing she’s ever done, working through shame and guilt, putting her life back together, letting go of secrets held for so long.
“ ... And being stronger because of it. What I want my students to get is: We all have stuff we deal with, and they have stuff they’re dealing with — and for them to know: You can move on. You can overcome having a crappy family, your dad in prison, your stepdad in prison, and this person doing this or that. ... That doesn’t define who you are.”
Each time she would face a trial — her home destroyed by a flood, her infant son nearly dying; a divorce from her first husband, being an impoverished single mother — she would remember what she had already survived.
“All those things make you stronger.”
• • •
Society has changed in the decades since Cindy’s only option felt like shame and guilt.
“(I think I’ve learned) maybe to be less judgmental of other people. It’s OK to be transparent. And it’s good to talk about things. It’s good to talk about (problems) and work through them.”
It also feels good, Cindy says, to open the door on the secrets she has kept for so long. But it is oh, so hard. And scary.
Jaclyn: “The older I get, with my kids, the more I understand how difficult that would be to go through pregnancy, give your baby to someone else and trust — am I doing the right thing? That would be so hard.”
Recently, Cindy received the Concordia Law School Leaders in Action award, along with retiring Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Jones. And she told her story. In public. To more than just the 30 students in her classroom.
Cindy: “The more I talk about it, the better it is. Talking about it the other night, in a room full of strangers like that, was really a part of the healing for me. And I debated about whether to talk about it or not. I discussed it with my husband and my son. I don’t know — is it too much? But it felt right. ...
“Maybe it can help someone else.”