Serena told me she had a similar experience to what a lot of adoptees feel, even though she grew up with her birth mother. I’m always talking about empathizing with others, so I wanted to hear her story. Serena told me about her birth on a Native American reservation in Arizona then her mother moving away. She was adopted by her father when he married her mother, but Serena never knew her biological father. When her paternal family called to say her birth father was ill, she was too stunned to act quickly, so she only met his relatives at his chaotic funeral. Take a moment to listen to the parallels between what I’ll call Serena’s “adoption adjacent” experience and those of other adoptees.
Read Full TranscriptSerena: 00:02 I don’t think I recognized the severity of his sickness. I didn’t… At that age, you still think you’re invincible and I had never had anyone that was even close to me die. So to have, you know, these people who are part of my paternal family, but I’ve never, I’ve never known call me and sort of dropped this sort of bomb. I think I just kind of froze.
Voices: 00:35 Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I in mind?
Damon: 00:47 This is who am I really a podcast about adoptees that have located and connected with their biological family members. I’m Damon Davis, and on today’s show is Serena. She called me from Virginia shortly after I met her at the Maryland Pod-casters Association meetup. She told me she had a similar experience to what a lot of adoptees feel, even though she grew up with her birth mother. I’m always thinking about empathizing with others. So I wanted to hear her story. Serena told me about her birth on a native American reservation in Arizona. Then her mother moving away, she was adopted by her father when he married her mother, but Serena never knew her biological father. When her paternal family call to say her birth father was ill, she was too stunned to act quickly, so she only met his relatives at a chaotic funeral. Take a moment to listen to the parallels between what I’ll call Serena’s adoption adjacent experience and those of other adoptees. This is Serena’s as journey.
Damon: 01:49 Serena was born on the Navajo reservation in Fort Defiance, Arizona, but her mother was only 18 at the time living with a friend because her own mother and grandmother had moved to Colorado. Her mother wanted to stay behind to finish high school at Window Rock, another Navajo reservation. That’s when she
Serena: 02:09 met a boy, fell in love. Got Pregnant. She was… My mom is so freaking smart. She is God. She puts anything, anything at all I I’ll ever do to shame. She gave birth to me and then very shortly after flew across the country and came to the DC area and went to… And did her undergrad at Georgetown. I think something like two or three weeks after after giving birth because I was a little late. I was in the care of my grandmother for think my first two years out in Wyoming while my mom was sort of got her academic career started here and you, it’s a rough transition being from a reservation and living out west and you know, coming out here, it’s a, it’s a pretty big culture shock, you know, coming from a very small place where a lot of the people you see are, are like you or related to you or you know, you have a common culture to someplace like DC
Damon: 03:23 from other established herself in the DC area. Serena, when she was three years old, her birth father John moved to Alexandria, Virginia too and they made a go at being a young family together
Serena: 03:35 for whatever reason. That didn’t work out and eventually she met my father. so my father is The person who’s been my dad my entire life, he’s my Dad. He’s my father. I kind of use the term birth father for John Because I don’t have any anything else other than pictures and not even very many stories with him. I think, you know, this sort of thing is just for the people that lived through it. It’s so long ago that you don’t talk about it, but then at some point I kind of told my mom like, I, I’m missing a couple of gaps in my life.
Damon: 04:21 Just for the record. Is John Native American as well?
Serena: 04:24 Yes, So I am three quarters Navajo. He was full blooded and my mom is half.
New Speaker: 04:36 And may I ask, what is her other half?
Serena: 04:36 ha! Swedish.
Damon: 04:36 Serena told me that her grandmother was part of the native American boarding school system, which removed her from the reservation and sent her away to boarding school. When she finished school, the work placement program landed her a job as a secretary with NASA in southern California. That’s where she met. Serena’s maternal grandfather, a Swedish rocket scientist. I asked Serena to circle back to her early years back in Arizona with her grandmother while her own mom was in DC. She of course doesn’t have any memory of that time, but she did say
Serena: 05:08 my grandmother, and I’ve always had this intensely close bond. She helped raise me when was ittty bitty, and my mom, my grandmother, and my mom was the second oldest, so I still had three aunts and an uncle that were there when I was a baby, so I’ve just heard stories about how the girls would just take me and bathe me and dressed me up and put me in dresses and and bows and I was just like their little doll
Damon: 05:46 Serena said she used to go back and visit her aunts and uncles who weren’t too much older than herself. She went on to tell me about her dad. Steve. He and her mother were married for only a few divorcing when she was about eight years old. They had one daughter, Serena, sister Sarah.
Serena: 06:03 It’s so funny because I mean biology is just, it’s, it’s biology, you know? There’s no sentiment behind that.
Damon: 06:12 That’s very scientific.
Serena: 06:18 [Laughs] We’ve never, we’ve never referred to each other as this is my sister. No, she’s always just been my sister and we’ve always just been sisters and you tan skin, dark hair, dark eyes, and she’s got that very, very fair skin. Freckles, light, Brown hair can go blue eyes.
Damon: 06:42 Wow. Yeah. You guys sound like you’ve built, you look very different from one another.
Damon: 06:47 Serena said among her sisters, they may not look alike, but they share many of the same mannerisms. She lived in the DC area most of her life and with a 12 year gap between them, they had to work at a familial bond. You’re probably wondering if Serena grew up with her mother, then how is this an adoption story? Bear in mind. Adoption can take many forms. Hers was adoption by marriage. Serena talks about how she learned that Steve had adopted her as his daughter and how she felt different from her dad, like other adoptees sometimes feel with their families.
Serena: 07:21 So when Steve and and my mom got married, um, he actually adopted me. So on my birth certificate, there’s his name and I just, I have a weird memory of like being in kindergarten and like, you know, how they put the, put a little laminate thing and tape it down to your desk and that’s where you sit and that’s your name and you know, that whole jam. But I didn’t recognize my last name because I think it was still my birth father’s last name, but I just knew that wasn’t my last name.
Damon: 08:04 Oh, Interesting.
Serena: 08:06 Yeah, so I think that they. They started the adoption process probably sometime around then.
Damon: 08:14 So Serena was a kid who grew up with one last name, but suddenly in school, her name tag on her desk had a different name. Serena was about eight years old when her mother and Steve divorced. They were living in Virginia. He lived in Maryland and they would trade off visits with him. She said around 11 years old, the curiosity hit her about whom her biological father could be. So her mother tried to find her birth father, John, using an old address she had for his parents. Serena wrote him letters and he responded that he was remarried and had a son. And that was it for Serena. Her curiosity was satisfied. She established a connection and she didn’t need anything else at that moment. As a kid. What she says next is just one of the things that aligned Serina story with other adoption journeys.
Serena: 09:01 I feel like I, I definitely felt different after they got divorced and has always been my sister. My Dad has always been my dad, but they look very similar like you can see the similrity between Sarah and my dad and it was a little weird and awkward and you know, at this point like I’m about eight years old and so we’re just starting to kind of notice the differences between you and your peers and there were definitely times where I was starting to notice how I maybe looked like would like I was Sarah’s friend. Like, you wouldn’t look at us, at least way back then, I feel like way back then in the early nineties and think, Oh, that’s a dad and his two daughters.
Damon: 09:53 When Serena was about 12, her mother moved back to Arizona to pursue her law degree with a concentration in tribal law. But the mood changed the game for visiting Steve. She lived in Arizona until she was about 16 when she returned to Maryland to live with her dad. Basically as an only child for her senior year in high school. Steve had a different parenting style from Serena’s mother,
Serena: 10:17 a little bit more relaxed and kind of, you know, he gave us space and we had to learn to respect that freedom and space and when we didn’t there were consequences, which wasn’t very often, but yeah, it was just different. It was lonely being an only child because I was used to being in a house filled with other people, so it’s definitely lonely for a little while.
Damon: 10:41 Steve really encouraged Serena’s creative side taking her to craft stores and museums, but the weather in DC was too much. So she moved back to Arizona where she attended Arizona State University.
Serena: 10:53 Right around the time, I think it was 18 or 19 at most. My birth father’s family got in contact with me and said that John, my birth father was in the hospital and he was asking for me and that he was. He was really sick.
Damon: 11:11 What did you feel when you heard that?
Serena: 11:14 Just like blew my mind! I could tell they they felt much closer to me than I did to them. You know, because when you’re, as young as I was one to three years old, I don’t remember these people, they, I can’t put faces to names and no one likes to relive their breakup, so it’s never really been something that like I pushed with my mom to get information about, but I mean she wouldn’t. When I told her I wanted to have a conversation about it, she, she had no problem with it and is willing to let me know whatever I want to know, but just, you know, at those ages of being a kid, being a teenager, being a young adult, like it just seems like a really awkward conversation. That 17.
Damon: 12:09 Yeah. Right. Your paternal family has reached out to you and said, you know, your biological father’s in the hospital and he’s asking for you. I assume you told your mom and like, just tell me what happened. Yeah. What happened next? Then
Serena: 12:25 I sat on it. I don’t think I recognize the severity of his sickness. I didn’t, you, you still think you’re invincible. And I had never had anyone that was even close to me die. So to have, you know, these people who are part of my fraternal, you know, family, but I’ve never, I’ve never known call me and sort of dropped this bomb. I think I just kind of froze and was like, whoa. Like this is a lot. Um, I don’t know this person. I share blood, done DNA with this person, but I don’t know this person. And I also, I have a dad. I don’t, I don’t know what I have to offer in this scenario. You know, I think probably I just, I didn’t want to, didn’t want to deal with it, didn’t want to, didn’t want to think about it, didn’t, didn’t think it could be as severe as it was.
Damon: 13:31 Serena said it wasn’t long before John passed away from cirrhosis of the liver in his late thirties. His paternal family called to share the tragic news.
Serena: 13:40 It definitely hit me. It had a bigger impact then
Damon: 13:44 Serena was in college broke and unable to travel to the funeral. So she talked to Steve who gave her some money to make the trip, but she said the decision to go through with the trip was a tough one to make.
Serena: 13:56 It took me a while to kind of wrestle with do I go, do I not go? And ultimately, yeah, it came down to talking to my dad about it because I mean he’s,(sighs)… I didn’t, I didn’t want him to feel bad if I went. I didn’t know how he would feel, but I didn’t want him to feel like it was in any way lessening my love and feelings for him by going and kind of like wrapping this up. And he’s a smart, caring guys. So I think he got that and was you know, willing to help support me in going up there and sort of getting this closure that I needed. I was born on the reservation but I’ve never, I’ve never grown up on a reservation. I’ve never been fully exposed to a lot of, you know, what, what goes on there at that point.
Serena: 14:59 And we went to the funeral and the funeral (sighs) was a mess. You are not going to believe this. So it was a, I guess what’s considered to be a traditional burial. Nothing too fancy. Like, you know, it’s a desert up there. I just remember it being, you know, dirt ground and everyone’s like standing there and I’m, I’m kind of in the front and there’s, you know, the pilot dirt and you see the pallbearers coming and it occurred to me is like how, how are they going to walk around this dirt? How, how are they going to lower this in, into the, into the hole in the ground. And it all happened really quickly and all of a sudden someone slipped or something happened and the casket goes headfirst into the ground and just flips over there is a horrible like, cracking sound and that all the women just scream and then everyone starts to scramble and at that point it’s like, it’s the caskets in the ground but it’s, you know, just went in head first and flipped over.
Serena: 16:27 So essentially I think the body, if you laying on like face down. That’s one of the things I’ll never forget. After they sorted that all out, I don’t even remember what they did. I just remember just like the, the shock and horror of it hall, the I guess like funeral reception, just so many people that, that were coming up to me and hugging me and, and introducing themselves to me and you know, all people that, you know, it was a real honor to feel so much, so much love from people that were to me, strangers, but to them, you know, it, it really felt like I was like I was family.
Damon: 17:15 Serena said it was hard to reconcile her feelings as a stranger with their open welcome s John’s daughter. During the eulogy, someone commented that John had moved to Virginia to be with his daughter Serena, but she couldn’t remember ever living with the man. She was only three. One really poignant moment did happen in the midst of all the awkwardness.
Serena: 17:39 My paternal grandfather was just overjoyed to see me, like this old skinny man. And I don’t even remember that we really talked that much because, I mean, I don’t know how old he was. My boyfriend at the time, had said, wow, like to see THAT, you know, to see how happy you’ve made this man, you know, like you, you really should try to keep in touch with this side of your family. It, it clearly left a mark on him. How, how happy it made my paternal grandfather to see me and hug me and reconnect with me in that, in that arena,
Damon: 18:32 All of this happened in the early 2000s. Serena met her paternal sibling, Mike, whom she keeps in touch with online these days. She doesn’t travel to Arizona very often, so she’s hoping to see him the next time she’s in Phoenix. Serena said after the funeral, there was no huge, crucial conversation with her mother or her adopted father. So I asked her what she thought about when she reflects on never meeting John.
Serena: 18:55 Mainly just like we were talking about before. The ways that… And the mannerisms that share that you don’t always pick up on until later. You know, what are the weird, quirky things that may have come from him. My mom is in no way artistically inclined, but from what I understand, like he was pretty good at some art things. There’s parts of you physically that, that don’t match up to sides of your family and you can see how they match up for, you know, I can see what, what physical traits Sarah got from my mom and my dad. I can see the physical traits that Kathryn and Michael got from our mom and their dad. I don’t really have any other point of comparison. The side pictures that my mom gave me from when I was a baby with the two of them or you know, I can see parts of my facial structure that’s different. That’s more similar to him, but I’ve never seen that.
Damon: 20:12 Yeah, that’s interesting. And you’re right. You don’t get the benefit of hearing similar quirks and the stories of things that you have been interested in that he’s also interested in or what have you. It’s, it’s tough when you don’t get to meet a biological parent. Fascinating. Serena, this has been really interesting. You know, everybody’s story is so different and you know, the fact that your father adopted you, divorced your mother, but you know, really did continue to be your dad. You know, not all dads do that.
Serena: 20:47 Oh yeah!… No.
Damon: 20:49 And steve sounds like a really good guy and
Serena: 20:53 He is!
Damon: 20:54 I’m. I’m sorry you didn’t get to meet John. I think that could have been really meaningful. Well thank you so much for calling. I appreciate your time today.
Serena: 21:04 Of course, it’s my pleasure. It’s nice. I like having these conversations that you know, you don’t just have.
Damon: 21:10 Yeah, right. These aren’t the kinds of things that just come up. Thank you so much, Damon. You’re welcome. All the best to you Serena. Take care. I’ll see you at the next podcast meetup.
Serena: 21:18 Okay.
Damon: 21:19 All right then. All the best. Bye. Bye.
Serena: 21:21 Bye Bye, Thanks.
New Speaker: 21:21 Hey, it’s me. What I heard in Serena’s story is a lot of the same emotional rollercoaster that for lack of a better term, traditional adoptees feel when we’re trying to figure out who we are? There was the change of identity when she was young but old enough to know that her last name was changed. There was the loyalty she felt to Steve while wondering who John was as the man who was one half of her earthly life. And Serena talked about not wanting to press her mother for details about the circumstances of her birth and her introduction to new siblings she had never met.
Damon: 22:01 I think you see now why I called her experience adoption adjacent. I’m Damon Davis and I hope you’ll find something in Serena’s journey that inspires you, validate your feelings about wanting to search for, motivates you to have the strength along your journey to learn who am I really? If you would like to share your adoption journey and your attempt to connect with your biological family, please visit who am I really podcast.com/share. You can choose to share your whole story, maintain some privacy about parts of your journey or share completely anonymously. You can find the show at facebook.com/WAIReally or follow me on twitter @WAIReally, and please, if you like the show, you can support me at Patreon.com/WAIReally you can subscribe to who am I really on apple podcasts, Google play or wherever you get your podcasts and while you’re there it would mean so much to me. If you would take a moment to share a rating or leave a comment, those ratings can help others to find the podcast too.