If you happen to know me at all, you’re already aware that I’m a planner who prefers to have a plan in place all the time. I’m generally not a fan of “play it by ear” anything. Especially not something as important and special and as once-in-a-lifetime as the much-anticipated family reunion with my biological father, his wife, my sister, and her husband in sunny, beautiful Hawaii.
But I vowed I would take this incredible opportunity day by day, hour by hour, if necessary. Enjoy every minute and try to stress about nothing. Just live in the moment and absorb it all. But my calculating brain couldn’t help but wonder, would these new relatives want to hang out with us or would “meeting us” be enough for them? Prior to arriving, I’d extended a no obligation invitation to join us in seeing the sights that, of course, weren’t new to them. If they wanted to tag along, you know, for fun, we would welcome that. Key words being “if they wanted to.”
We knew we’d have no trouble filling the days and nights with adventure—it was HAWAII after all. But the fact that a set of unusual circumstances had separated us for fifty plus years created a heightened urgency to make every second of these next ten days count.
When I began the search for my birthparents a year earlier, I had determined I’d be fine regardless of what I uncovered. I’d been blessed with great parents so I wasn’t looking to fill Mom or Dad roles in my life. I just wanted to know where and from whom I came. Throughout the search, I’d instructed myself to keep expectations to a minimum, and I’d done a fairly decent job of that. But now that we were finally here, within a few miles of each other, the desire to build lasting connections surged. I already knew I wanted to get to know each of them so much better. Who was I kidding? I knew that before I boarded the plane back in Indiana. And buoyed by the A+ experiences the previous night at the official meeting, it would be hard to reign in the expectations I’d tried so hard to keep in check.
The first morning as we enjoyed breakfast in the open-air restaurant across from our hotel, a message from my sister and her husband brought an instant smile to my face. They offered their personal tour guide services for the day. I guess last night went okay for them, too.
Sis and hubby were excellent hosts, a wealth of Hawaiian information, and so much fun to be with. Later that evening, we gathered at Family Dinner #1, arranged by bio dad, where we got preferential seating next to the ocean. Delicious food, lots of laughter, and making-up-for-lost-time conversations filled the next three hours. I listened more than I talked, soaking up every moment, drinking in every conversation, scoping out similarities between sisters, between father and daughters. When the waitress offered to bring extra plates for the two large, shared desserts stationed in the center of the table, bio dad shook his head. “We’re all family.” The evening ended with hugs all around and for me, a relieved sense that these new-to-us relatives did indeed want to spend time with us.
My bio family came with several bonuses. The sweetest ever step birthmother (or birth stepmother?) who demonstrated unconditional acceptance and an eagerness to build a relationship with me. Two younger “bonus” sisters by way of bio dad’s adopted daughters from Thailand, one of whom we also met in Hawaii. And of course, an all-around-great-guy brother-in-law. All with arms wide-open to welcome us as family.
We relaxed and settled in to days and nights of being together, delighting in the sights and adventures oh-so-different from our everyday lives back in Indiana. Remember the decades-old pictures brother Alan carried from Maine to Indiana? They accompanied us to Hawaii where they brought big smiles and stirred memories of days gone by for bio dad and my sister. Lorie pulled out several large photo albums spanning the growing-up years of my half-siblings. Again, I mentally inserted myself into the settings and time frames, comparing my life and times with theirs.
I traded my normal less-than-adventurous spirit for a braver model, surprising even myself. Parasailing? Sure, why not! I trusted that Jim and Lorie, who were willing to have a second go at this particular adventure, would not lead us astray. Our kids’ shock that their not-brave mom would embark on something this daring was justified. But the fear that I would pass up opportunities only to regret it later bolstered my courage. In fact, I vowed to experience all there was to experience when it came to either Hawaiian adventures or birth family connections. I would fully engage in each and every opportunity that came our way.
By the way, we loved parasailing. Would do it again in a heartbeat.
We took some five hundred pictures, beginning at the airport back in Indiana, afraid of not capturing every second, of missing a special moment. And lots of selfies, too. Where better to perfect the fine art of taking selfies than in Hawaii? I’d been advised months earlier that bio dad was a private, camera-shy guy. While everyone else eagerly posed for pictures, he declined, saying, “Before you leave, but not now.” Okay, I would wait.
I continually tamped down the twinge that these relaxing, carefree days of connecting with my bio family would soon end. The numbness and caution that had shrouded the beginning hours of this venture had evaporated by the end of the second full day. But by the midway point, my emotions had thawed to the point of dripping. At the thought of our time together drawing to a close or for absolutely no reason at all, a lump would swell in my throat. Regardless of the picturesque scenery, the enjoyable company, or the excitement and fun of the moment, I’d find myself blinking back tears, swallowing painfully, and striving to distract myself from the sentiment threatening to stream from my eyes. I would try to hide my swirling emotions behind a brave smile, hoping if folks noticed the tears, the smile would make it all okay.
Oh, the Hawaiian cuisine. I could write paragraphs about the delicious food. In our getting-to-know-each-other emails, I’d divulged my fondness for desserts, chocolate in particular, a detail bio dad did not forget. We were treated to dinner at step birthmom’s favorite Thai restaurant where we very much enjoyed our first taste of Thai cuisine. At the luau, we tried EVERY dish, even poke (raw fish salad), poi (cooked, mashed stem of the vegetable root taro), and haupia (coconut milk-based dessert). When we checked out the local McDonald’s, it was a given we’d order a taro pie,made with the vegetable root referred to as “chocolate for Asian people”. If we had noticed that McDonald’s breakfast platters contained the two scoops of white rice routinely served with everything on the island, we’d have ordered that too, just because we wanted to experience everything.
As we cruised the island, I practiced my Hawaiian language skills with repeated, out loud pronunciations of every street and attraction we passed. I committed the important words to memory.
Mahalo – thank you. Ohana – family. A hui hou – until we meet again.
While we spent a day on our own touring Pearl Harbor and Honolulu, bio dad arranged a group snorkeling excursion for our second to last full day on the island. I awoke that morning free of the weight about leaving that had grown so heavy. I was ready to make the very most of our remaining time together. The four-and-a-half hour outing combined the best of Hawaii—the gorgeous coast line, deep blue waters, sunshine, and an abundance of underwater creatures including dolphins—with memory-making time spent together. My brave new persona stuttered when I struggled with the numerous steps involved in snorkeling. Cue former Navy Seal and dive instructor Jim to the rescue. He pulled me aside, gave me pointers, assured me I could do this, and then stayed with me until I felt confident enough to be on my own. It was one of the best days of the trip.
The mental countdown to departure began. But still no group photos. No pictures of bio dad and daughters.
Our last evening on the island, we all gathered at bio dad’s favorite Japanese restaurant, one they all loved. Another table had to be added to accommodate all of the favorite selections we shared in a great farewell feast. The mood was light. The laughter plentiful. The conversations memorable. When every dish was nearly scraped clean, someone asked, “So, what anniversary are you coming back for? Thirty-six?” My husband’s answer, “Thirty-five and a half,” was met with a hearty round of what I interpreted to be that-would-be-okay-with-us laughter. Swallowing around the sudden lump in my throat, my mind filled with the thought: They must like us . . . if they want us to come back next year. And then it was time to go.
We congregated one last time the next day for a poolside lunch after stowing our luggage in the car. But first bio dad presented us with an abundance of information and instruction to make our trip home as restful and relaxing as possible. Earlier he’d shared the “anti-jetlag” regimen he’d generated from years of extensive travels. Tips and suggestions that would ease us through the six hour time difference between Hawaii and Indiana. Boarding passes, check. Seat selections, check. Maps of the airport, check. Time for one last meal together.
Because I could physically feel the minutes ticking by, I began taking random pictures to no one’s objection. But the canopy that shaded us from the hot sun made for less than ideal picture-taking conditions. The conversation lagged as we waited for our food to arrive. A pensive, contemplative mood draped over us. Oh, to have a glimpse into the minds of my new family during those quiet moments. I blinked back tears, refusing to allow my own thoughts to focus on the inevitable question: when would we be together again? Or the more gripping matter of would we ever see them again.
The clock demanded we move along, and too soon we stood in the hotel parking lot, together for the last time. My sweet stepmom, knowing how much I wanted group pictures, hustled us together with no objection from bio dad. She snapped several shots, exchanging the camera once with Jim, so she could get in the picture, too.
I didn’t cry at the hellos, but I cried at the goodbyes. No surprise to me or my husband, I’m sure. Repeated hugs from sis, her husband, and stepmom, with assurances of, “It’s okay . . . we’ll see each other again.” To which I nodded and whispered, “I know.” I hoped.
Concerned with getting us to our flight on time, bio dad headed to the car. Lunch hadn’t left us with time to linger over goodbyes which was probably for the best. We followed him toward the airport where we returned our rented car. We exchanged a bit of small talk as he chauffeured us to the unloading zone. He urged us and our luggage toward baggage check where we waited behind a family with numerous children and lots of luggage. He’d left his car at the curb, unattended, so he needed to go.
I didn’t expect a mushy goodbye. Frankly, I wouldn’t have wanted that nor could I have handled it. With a big smile, he threw his arms wide for a hug. He issued a few parting tips as he edged toward the parking lot, and then dry-eyed, I approached him for one last hug before he hustled back to hopefully find his car had not been towed. It hadn’t.
Our return flights were uneventful. We pulled into the drive at home about twenty hours later. The Hawaiian reunion was over. It was back to the realities of work, responsibilities, and every-day life. A life that now included a fun, lively new branch of relatives.
If you’re just tuning into my adoption search/reunion story, catch the beginning of the story here.