Oh, you adoptive parents in healthy open adoptions, you just wait. You thought birthdays and Mother’s Days were emotional. Just wait until high school graduation.
The celebration started last Sunday when the church youth group was responsible for the 11 o’clock worship service. Youth Sunday always features the graduating seniors who are asked to speak briefly about their memories, experiences, and thoughts related to their time in the church youth group. Emily was very hesitant to participate because public speaking makes her quite nervous. But I knew this group had been tremendously important to her, so I insisted she participate. Apart from school and swimming, Emily had spent most of her time involved in the activities of the youth group.
As I was sitting in church one day, a month or so before the big event, my mind wandered to the other graduating seniors. Many are very accomplished academically, artistically, musically, and so forth. What was it about Emily that made her special in the group? I knew she was integrally related to everyone and everything… And then it hit me: She showed up.
Emily and I discussed and wrote what she would say. And when it was her time to speak, she pulled it off beautifully, despite her nervousness. Here is part of what she said to the congregation:
“I did not start out as a Glenn Youth group member. When I was in 6th and 7th grade, the Falcos were members of St. Mark UMC in Midtown. We were members there from the time I was three until I was thirteen. My parents thought it was important for us to be part of a church where there were lots of non-traditional families like ours. Of course, those are my parents’ words. I was just a kid. Families were families to me. I didn’t notice that some had two mothers or two fathers or that there were lots of children who were adopted.
“We were a small youth group at St. Mark. So, we ALL participated in the mission trips to the Hinton Rural Life Center. We ALL helped with Vacation Bible School. We ALL led worship with the congregation.
“When my family transferred its membership to Glenn Memorial when I was in 8th grade, my parents said it was because we needed a bigger youth group…
“It was great to join a youth group that included other teenagers who went to my school and who lived in my neighborhood. But not everyone came every Sunday night or volunteered for the different service events. However, because of my experiences at St. Mark, I came to Glenn believing that it made a difference whether or not I showed up.
“So, I showed up for choir practices and performances… [naming the events]
“I showed up for Sunday school and worship … [naming the teachers]
“I showed up for Sunday night youth group meetings… [naming the youth ministers, counselors, and activities]… I made some of the best friends I’ve ever had playing games, eating supper, joining in serious discussions and just being together…
“I signed up for retreats…[naming retreats]
“I signed up for mission trips… [naming mission trips and projects]
“When I leave Glenn this Fall to begin college, I will take all these memories and more. But most of all, I will take the knowledge that showing up can make a difference. And wherever I go in the future, I will take the confidence given to me by my church family that I CAN make a difference by sharing my time, my gifts, and my talents.”
That afternoon, the high school graduation candidates participated in a pre-commencement service. In the evening, we gathered our family to attend the Senior Banquet – a special honoring of the seniors in the church youth group that includes a special or secret guest who has been instrumental in the youth’s development, a slideshow of the senior, and some remarks by the parents about their child.
I was very excited about the secret guest we had arranged to surprise Emily. She was a special education teacher who had worked with Emily from 3rd to 5th grade, and had given her the skills to organize and stay on top of her assignments and projects. When I found Ms. Maynard at the elementary school and asked her to play this role, she was thrilled! She was planning to retire after 40 years of teaching and said she could not think of a better way to end her teaching career.
This year, there were 10-12 seniors being honored. The slideshows (with music) and remarks were as varied and entertaining as the seniors and parents themselves. They ranged from serious advice about the future to comedy routines to tearful reminders of special memories shared.
I had prepared a lengthier-than-usual slideshow, chronicling the history of Emily – with a sprinkling of birth family pictures over the years scattered throughout – set to music as my “speech.” The slideshow began with Emily’s birthmother holding her new baby.
It ended with these pictures…
John, for his part, said this:
“I remember leaving the hospital with our beautiful Emily. We went “home” to a motel room in Columbus, Nebraska. Rebecca can attest to the fact that I didn’t sleep much that night. I woke up every 10 minutes or so to make sure she was breathing, to make sure that our precious new baby was okay. It was amazing to me each time I would wake up and find her still breathing. And for nearly 18 years, Emily has continued to amaze me. I/we have been so blessed to have the privilege of raising this wonderful gift of a human being. Those of you who know Emily well are aware that she is one of the most giving, unselfish, friendly, likeable, helpful, bright, insightful, and truly beautiful young women to be found anywhere. She is so fun and easy to be with. And I can honestly say it has been a joy to be her dad. As hard as it is going to be to say goodbye when she goes off to college this coming Fall, the thing that will make it bearable for me is this: knowing that this incredible person is going to have the opportunity to shine her light on others. You see, Emily is such a special person that it would be unfair to keep her all to ourselves. I believe Emily will do great things, so I/we really don’t have the right to deprive the world of her. We have to let her spread her wings and share her gifts. But don’t worry. I plan to always be checking (regularly, maybe not every 10 minutes) to make sure she’s okay, still breathing, and to be amazed by her.”
What a proud Daddy! But even as I reread these words and hear John’s voice in my head, I also hear the humility and gratitude written between the lines: “But for Emily’s birthmother we would not have had this privilege.”
On Wednesday, we hosted another celebration of Emily at our home. Family members and friends joined us. One of Emily’s closest friends from the church youth group came. She also left a letter for her. Emily let me read the letter because it brought tears to her eyes. I just have to share a portion of that letter with you:
“…I know that whatever you set out to do, you will be wonderful at it. Your story needs to be heard by everyone out there. It’s a story of how love joins families together and how love overcomes all differences. You’re an inspiring young lady who has such a huge heart to serve others. I am so honored to know you. Even though we won’t be together in the same place, we will be together in heart and spirit.”
(It’s an understatement to say that Emily’s friend, Kate, is a wonderful person in her own right.) Until I read this, I really did not recognize the degree to which my daughter – of her own volition and by her presence – was spreading the good news about what open adoption can be. When I am not around, when I am not in control, the message is nevertheless spread because Emily carries it with her.
Now, if all of this isn’t powerful enough, I have to tell you what happened on graduation day itself. I was running errands, including mailing a package to Emily’s birthmother – a book form of the slideshow from the Senior Banquet. I texted her that I had mailed it and she responded:
“You are such an amazing and loving person! Thank you for loving and giving our baby girl everything I could never have done. She is such an amazing young lady thanks to you and John! I will always be grateful I found you!”
That did it. I lost it. I had to pull the car over to the side of the road.
Where would I be and who would I be without open adoption? I can’t really imagine. But right now, in this moment, I wouldn’t change a thing.