Real Life: Sisters Reunited
“Walking down the aisle on a bright sunny morning in June 2001, clad in a gorgeous white satin bridal gown and about to marry Mark, the love of my life, I should’ve felt like the happiest girl in the world. Instead, as I passed row upon row of empty seats it took all I had not to burst into tears. Despite having my sister Desiree there as my maid of honour, noticeably absent from the ceremony were our mother and sisters Stephanie, Melissa and Sara whom we hadn’t seen since we were separated as children and adopted into different families. Still, not a day passed that I didn’t think of them. And I knew that nothing would ever stop me from finding them.
Growing up in the early 80s, life was anything but easy. Before Sara was born, Stephanie, Desiree, Melissa and I lived in a small two-bedroom apartment in La Mesa, California. We all slept in the same room with hardly any furniture and no toys. Mum had Stephanie when she was 18 and then had the rest of her four daughters each with a different father.
Separated and alone
Although we were half-sisters, we loved and looked out for each other. Mum was addicted to drugs and would often leave us alone for days while she was out getting wrecked. Being the eldest, Stephanie would take charge, changing Melissa’s nappy and tucking us into bed. When we were hungry, she’d take us to knock on a neighbour’s door and ask for food.
Twice a month we were split up and put into emergency foster care until Mum was sober enough to care for us. Then when Stephanie was six, I was four, Desiree was three, and Melissa was eight months old, a social worker came to our house and told us we were moving to a new home. I burst into tears and tried to convince the lady that my mum was going to walk through the front door any minute. But she never came home.
We were all separated immediately and I moved from one foster home to the next. By the time I was eight, I’d lived with fi ve families. I started stealing things out of bathrooms – like make-up or a hairbrush – I think it was my way of releasing the bad energy I was getting from the situation.
When Sara was born in 1986, I received a photo of her wrapped in a white blanket and that was all I knew of her. Two years later, I found out she too had been neglected by our mum and put up for adoption.
Amazingly, in 1989, Desiree and I were adopted by the same family and offered a life our mum could never have given us. We felt incredibly lucky. But despite living in the country, having horses, and attending good schools, we never stopped wondering about where our mother and sisters were. At night, I’d climb into Desiree’s bed and we’d dream about running away. The only photo we had of our mum was of her sitting in a wicker chair and I remember Desiree looking for that chair in people’s back gardens in the hopes of finding her. We’d draw pictures and write letters to her, even sending her money we’d saved from our allowance thinking it would bring her back. I thought if she knew how much we loved her, she’d change. But we never heard from her. Several times I set out to find my sisters, but was told by the adoption agency that I’d have to wait until they were 18 before I could get in touch. It was very frustrating.
Four years ago, I decided to seriously pursue my search. In a file I received from my adoption agency I discovered Mum had been living by a fake name and her real name was Jacqueline Dawn Nelson and that she was raised in Chillicothe, Ohio. There was even a letter she’d written apologising for abandoning us. It was heartbreaking to read, but it gave me hope.
The only surname I had was that of Stephanie’s dad, Dan Deardorff, so I typed his name and my mum’s hometown into an online directory and dialled one of the numbers. When a woman answered I told her I’d been adopted 20 years ago and that I was looking for my mother. She said she couldn’t help me, but before hanging up, I heard a booming voice in the background shout: ‘Who’s on the phone?’ When the man came on the line, I explained who I was and he told me Dan was his son and that his daughter, Stephanie, was looking for me. He gave me her number and it took all I had not to cry – I was so excited. I waited maybe half a second before calling her.
The first thing I said to her was ‘At last, I’ve found you!’ Initially, Stephanie was wary. She didn’t believe it was me and asked a dozen questions, like what my middle name was. But once she was certain, she burst into tears saying, ‘I can’t believe you found me’. After that we spoke for six hours, catching up on our lives, squealing with delight as we compared weird similarities. It turned out we both worked as medical assistants, we both drove a white Ford Explorer and we’d both named our daughters after each other. We couldn’t believe it.
I filled her in on Desiree and that she was in the army, I also asked about our mother. She told me she’d been in touch with her since she went to live with her dad because they were still in contact. At first, I was jealous, but then she told me that in 1991 Mum had been thrown off the back of a speeding truck by one of her partners and suffered massive brain damage. She now had the mentality of a 12 year old and could barely care for herself. Suddenly, the anger I’d felt towards her for all those years disappeared. Tears ran down my cheeks as I thought of what she’d gone through.
The next day, I received a file from the adoption agency with a list of names of foster families Melissa had stayed with. It was a total coincidence that after dialling the first number, Melissa’s adoptive dad picked up. Being less than a year old when we were separated and with no memory of me, I wasn’t sure how she’d react. But as soon as we spoke, we felt an instant connection like we’d known each other forever. We were shocked to learn that we only lived 20 minutes apart and agreed to meet up nearby. Although we were nervous, we laughed when we saw each other. We were dressed identically in jeans, a white T-shirt and flip-fl ops. We even had the same black and pink bag. For the next two hours we swapped stories – she worked as an events coordinator – and howled with laughter when we discovered we’d had the same big hair as teenagers.
The missing piece
Although I had yet to find Sara, the four of us made plans to get together for a family reunion at our mother’s home in Las Vegas. Seeing each other again was the most amazing feeling in the world, but the first time I saw Mum was hard. Instead of being the beautiful blonde I remembered, she was now overweight with long dark hair. It wasn’t until we hugged each other that I recognised her perfume and my heart melted. She kept repeating how sorry she was and that she’d never stopped loving me.
A year later I was still desperate to find Sara, so I had the idea to contact a TV programme that specialised in finding missing persons. Then, in January 2009, my sisters and I were asked to meet the TV crew at a bookshop in San Diego. As we nervously stood in front of the cameras, the programme’s host pulled out a photo of Sara as a baby, then as an adult, and asked if we knew who she was. We all screamed. Seconds later, Sara walked through the door. She was this tiny little thing and when she saw us she burst into tears. When I put my arms around her, it was one of the happiest days of my life.
Later that month, we decided to surprise Mum for her birthday. It was the first time Sara had seen her since she was a baby. Incredibly, Mum recognised her immediately and they fell into each other’s arms. Then Mum turned to us and said, “You’re all so special. Thank you so much for finding me.”
Two years on, I’ve had time to get to know my sisters and discover similarities. Stephanie, 31, is the most doting, probably because she’s the oldest, while Desiree, 28, is private and likes to keep to herself. Melissa, 26, is the most spontaneous and Sara, 24, is just blossoming into a young woman.
Despite all of us living in different parts of the country, we talk to each other constantly and try and get together every few months – like when we all travelled to Colorado to be bridesmaids at Desiree’s wedding.
Finding my sisters is the best thing that ever happened to me. Just knowing that we’ll be sharing the rest of our lives together, is so incredible. Finally, I couldn’t be happier.”