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Sharing a Gift That Cannot Be Repaid

"We are grandmothers, Laura!"

When I called her one evening not long ago, I roused in myself a whole bank of memories. At the other end of that long-distance call was the birth mother of our younger son.

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On an evening a quarter of a century ago, a momentous long-distance call had come for Paul and me. That same Laura had given birth to the baby we had eagerly promised to adopt.

The morning after we heard our good news, I boarded a plane to New Jersey to bring home the baby we would name Douglas. He was beautiful, and looked very much as I had imagined he would. I went to Laura's bedside, talked with her for an hour or so, and left. The next day mother and child were discharged from the hospital, and we walked out of the old building together - Laura, and me cradling three-day-old Doug.

Some days later, just before I flew back to Ohio with the baby, Laura - who in the hospital had refused to let nurses bring her baby in to her, for the sake of us all - wanted to spend an hour alone with her son. I overcame the little wave of fear that washed over me, and Laura had her wish. When the hour was up, she put her baby in my arms. Over his little gown, he now wore a soft yellow jacket, with matching cap and booties.

"I want him to take something with him. I don't want to send him away with nothing," Laura said softly.

I held that moment in my heart, along with another truth that I could reveal to Doug later, if he wanted to know: "She is very much like me." Not so much in appearance, but in our sensibility, some of our values and tastes. I thought, wistfully, that if we had met under different circumstances, we might have become friends.

During my first weeks as Doug's mother, I wished I could have offered Laura some comfort. I wanted to remember her as more than a name sealed in a file somewhere, to remember her as a person who would have to learn to live with a heart-wrenching loss, while Paul and I were learning to live with a wonderful gift. Doug quickly claimed all of our attention, most of our time, and a good share of our love. Our six-year-old son accepted his new brother enthusiastically. "Doug is the best gift you ever gave me," he proclaimed.

The autumn he turned 25, Doug and his Susan came home from a weekend at the Maryland shore. They stopped to present inscribed ceramic mugs to Paul and me. "I'm a proud Grandma," my gift read; "I'm a proud Grandpa," said Paul's mug. We decided to use the new mugs and have cider all around, to toast the baby-to-be.

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Musing aloud, Doug said, "Whether our baby is a boy or a girl, I hope it has your outgoing ways, Mom, and Dad's quick wit." I smiled, and said I thought there were some wonderful qualities the baby was more likely to inherit from its parents. As I continued sipping from my new "Grandma" mug, Susan raised the question that kept running through my mind: "What about Doug's biological parents?"

No one seemed eager to follow up on that question. I'd shared everything Laura had told me with Paul, and with Doug as he grew old enough. There probably was more to find out, I thought, but despite all my good intentions, Laura seemed unreal after 25 years had passed. We wondered aloud about her. Did she still live in the same Jersey shore town? Did she wonder about Doug?

I knew the answer to the last question. Of course, she would have thought of Doug often.

One day during that same week, while I was at work and Doug was visiting our house, Laura called, and Doug answered. She asked for me, then said "Thank you," and hung up when she learned I was not at home. Then the phone rang again. "Doug?" Laura asked. Doug's voice, she told me later, sounded exactly like the voice of the son she'd borne a little more than a year after giving birth to Doug, the voice of the son she thought she conceived to replace the child she'd given up for adoption.

'THIS is Laura, Doug. Do you know who I am?" "Of course," he answered. "You're my birth mother." Laura asked Doug about his life, was thrilled to hear about the coming baby, and told Doug that she had never really forgotten him. She told him about her daughter - his older half-sister - and about his younger half-brother, Wayne.

Later that day, Laura called me at my office and poured out stories about her life, her regrets, and her fears about her children.

Laura had traced us from Ohio to Maryland, but had delayed calling. "I tried to lose some weight first," she confided. "I didn't want Doug to see me so terribly overweight." "Doug's never had a skinny mother," I replied. We both laughed.

During Susan's pregnancy, Laura and I telephoned each other from time to time, and chatted about Susan and all our kids. Months passed, and it became clear that Doug was reluctant to meet Laura - at least right now.

When our granddaughter was born, Doug was with Susan, and Paul and I were in the waiting room. A half hour after Tabitha was born, we held her in our arms.

When we were back at home, Paul and I settled in for the evening and called relatives in Ohio, New York, and Michigan. Then our talk turned to Laura. I felt an urge to share the birth of Tabitha with the woman who years ago had shared a birth with Paul and me.

I telephoned her. "We're grandmothers, Laura! Her name is Tabitha, and she has huge brown eyes like Doug's - and like yours."

I knew that Laura would hope to know how the baby was doing so I sent her some snapshots.

Laura sent photos to me, too - of herself and Wayne, who looks a lot like Doug. Later, we received photos of her daughter's wedding, followed by snapshots of a second grandchild.

We don't keep in touch these days, perhaps because something important has come full circle. Laura seems to have found some peace in knowing where we are, and hearing the news of Doug's unfolding life.

As for me, I'll always feel connected to Laura. I'll never forget that she entrusted me with Doug.

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