Garth Brooks might be onto something… “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.” My younger self viewed those words simply as lyrics in a tune. I certainly don’t remember feeling my prayers went unanswered as a child, for nearly everything in my life went pretty much as planned, until it didn’t… however, despite not wanting to go through many of these trials, I have come to realize that many of my unanswered prayers were also my greatest gifts.
As a senior in college, I was living my dream, finishing my undergraduate coursework while completing the first year of my master’s degree in Physical Therapy. I started having some problems with pain in my hands that winter which progressed to my knees, leaving me crumpled in a ball on the floor of my bedroom one morning. Fast forward 10 days and I had the first real test of my life as I was diagnosed with Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis at 21 years old. While I prayed for God to take away my pain, I know that I became a better physical therapist because I could truly empathize with my patients.
In June of 1999, I got married to my husband Matt. Knowing it would likely be difficult to get pregnant, we made the choice to start trying to build our family. I stopped my medication as required by my doctor and we prayed that I would soon be craving ice cream and pickles!
Fast-forward two and a half years to no baby, the first prayer we felt went unanswered in our marriage. I went to a check-up with my rheumatologist and will never forget the look in her eyes as she listened to my lungs and then watched the numbers on the pulse oximeter. I was immediately referred for a pulmonary consult and confirmed what my body had been telling me: my lungs were not healthy and I could no longer ignore this fact. We consulted every doctor I had and met with our priest to discuss the options. Through lots of tears and prayers, we decided I had to begin taking medication again or face being on a lung transplant list within six months. I can assure you at that moment we thought our dreams were falling apart! Sitting on our bed and through tears, I told Matt that if what he wanted was a biological child, we could divorce so he could remarry as it was clear my health was the reason we could not have a child. His response was, “I want to be with you more than I want a biological child.” Though this wasn’t the path we wanted, I know God not answering our prayers for parenthood likely saved my life.
I immediately started high doses of prednisone and completed egg harvesting to begin the process of surrogacy. Just a few days after my December surgery, while experiencing the unrelenting emotions caused by prednisone, my younger sister and her husband announced they were expecting. As happy as we were for them, the tears flowed more that night than ever before. I remember calling my mother-in-law and she had to tell me to stop crying as she couldn’t understand a word I was saying. I remember not feeling like I could call my mom, as I knew she was likely ecstatic and heartbroken at the same time, not wanting to put her in the position of consoling me as she celebrated becoming a grandma for the first time. This turn of events was in no way what we prayed for and felt like the end of our world!
As painful as that night was, this unanswered prayer pushed us to what we saw as our only hope to become parents: adoption. We walked into our meeting with our social worker almost blindly as we knew very few people who were adopted or adoptive parents. There was one thing we knew: we were adamant we would choose a closed adoption. If this was truly going to be our child, we did not want birth parents interfering with our family or trying to take our child away. Our social worker however, gave us a different perspective and after much prayer, we knew this was the first of many uncomfortable sacrifices we might have to make to ensure the best possible life for our child. Matt and I walked out of that meeting with a new sense of hope…and were adamant we would now only accept a match that involved open adoption!
About the same time, another young woman in the Kansas City area was experiencing hopelessness. There was a girl named Melissa who was 18 years old and was not planning on pregnancy at the time. Someone connected her with Advice and Aid Pregnancy Center at approximately 10 weeks along. Along with her crisis pregnancy counselor, she worked through the options available, ultimately deciding that the best thing for her and her unborn child was adoption.
Through a series of “God moments,” this young girl found a home and visited a lawyer in July to begin seeking an adoptive family for her child. At the same time my mom was telling everyone…and I mean EVERYONE, including a check-out lady at Target…that she “needed a baby for her daughter.” She passed out our profile and gave a copy to her student aide. Well, that student aid’s mom happened to work at the lawyer’s office where this young girl went. A few days later, our social worker called to tell us she had a possible match and…the rest is history!
After Melissa presented us with a basket of baby items and a card addressed to “mommy and daddy,” the real story began. I started attending doctor’s appointments with her and we were able to devise a way to tell our families we were “expecting,” something we had long thought would never occur. We drove to Wichita to tell Matt’s family at a birthday dinner for his dad. After we passed around a scrapbook telling them about our gift from heaven—the answer to our prayers—was arriving on October 9, I drove back to Kansas City and arrived just in time to watch my sister give birth to my nephew! Had our “pregnancy prayers” been answered sooner, my son and nephew would never have had the opportunity to grow up so close together!
Knowing our child’s birth mother would be an important part of our family’s story, we took her to Wichita one weekend to meet Matt’s family. The entire drive we discussed baby names. After discussing options, she said she wanted us to choose as we would be his parents. Seriously, the maturity of this 18-year-old girl astounded me!
The next few months involved Melissa preparing her birth plan so we would know her wishes during delivery and after. She went through many scenarios from the order in which we would hold the baby to who would feed and diaper the baby. Looking back, I knew these preparations were important to her fully accepting the choice to place her child for adoption, but I didn’t realize the important role they played in developing the relationship between two families with a common goal of choosing the best future for that sweet boy she was carrying!
Of course the best laid plans always seem to go awry and we ended up “punting” for many decisions as she ended up having a C-section. Finally, at 9:12pm, Jackson Patrick made his entrance! While I was beyond thrilled, NOTHING prepared me for the emotions when they placed Jackson in my arms and said, “Congratulations, mom!” When Matt laid eyes on his son shortly after, neither of us could hold back the tears of pure joy! We then had the privilege of seeing the faces of our family members as they realized the magnitude of this precious gift we had just received!
One of the most important things to Melissa was for all four of us staying in a hospital room together. Beyond the obvious benefits, I now realize it was important for her to see us interacting with and parenting Jackson. It was also one of the most humbling times of my life. In the middle of the night, I would stare in awe at this young woman who had just gone through physical misery and would certainly experience even darker emotional pain as she left the hospital without a baby in her arms. Those four days were another building block in the relationship between her and our family.
On the fourth morning, Melissa signed the paperwork to identify us as Jackson’s parents. We were allowed to take him home after court but I couldn’t imagine the pain we would cause by leaving her in that room alone, so we stayed until she was discharged allowing her one more night with him. The next morning we prepared to head home. I had imagined that scene in my head but it was exponentially more emotional as the magnitude sunk in…we were getting in one car to take our son home; she was getting in another to drive off without the child she had carried for nine months. Neither of our lives would ever be the same, but our angel, Melissa, had finally provided an answer to our prayers!
Being in an open adoption is not always easy. You see, just as Melissa was healing, we were learning to trust her and establishing boundaries. We reminded her to call herself his birth angel as the title “mom” was reserved for me. We discussed the expectations she had to see him and how we would always consider and honor them, but she couldn’t expect to call and come right over. These early trials were essential to establishing a sense of trust among all of us and she was so respectful of our family and the boundaries that had to be established.
As the months went on, we maintained this open relationship and Melissa saw him every few weeks. At the same time, she was growing closer to me as a “big sister” and to my mom (who you really can’t help but love). She remarked one time that she couldn’t have picked a better family for Jackson but she also felt blessed to be welcomed into our family. My mom sewed her a prom dress and we had her over for dinner. She attended his baptism and a special 1st birthday party for those who supported her and Jackson throughout his first year. That May, when Jackson was just 19 months old, my mom died suddenly. Melissa was heartbroken and attended all of the services we had. She wasn’t just grieving the loss of Jackson’s MiMi…she was grieving the loss of someone who had accepted her for who she was and loved her like a mom. This loss was very hard for Melissa and I think was a catalyst to her moving back to Iowa and becoming pregnant with her daughter.
When she was in Iowa, we continued to talk and share stories with her. As Jackson got older, he started to understand more about adoption. When he was in 3rd grade he asked me why his birth-mom didn’t love him enough to keep him. After explaining to him just how much she did, I asked if he wanted to ask her. When he said yes, I promised we would call her after school as I wanted to give her a heads up. After that conversation, and I’m not sure of everything that was said, he never again asked the question. I think he just needed to hear it from her and I’m so thankful our relationship allowed him to get those answers. The next year he chose adoption as his specialty project at school to learn more and share it with his classmates as he knew it was a special part of his story. On the flip side, I have called Melissa to ask questions about her medical history and she has sought my advice when her daughter needed medication.
A few years ago I learned from Melissa that she had been in contact with Jackson’s birth-father, Dan. He had only seen Jackson when he was two months old and through Facebook posts after he friended me (at the urging of Melissa and his sister). Each time Dan mentioned wanting to contact us, Melissa would try to convince him it would be good for both of them. I would ask Jackson about meeting Dan if he contacted me and Jackson always said, “No thank you.” I knew Dan was attending my college (and in the same building) but never saw him. When I would ask Melissa, she often told me she thought he was uncomfortable reaching out to us because of mistakes he had made but she would keep working on him. In May 2017, I cried as I watched Dan walk across the stage and shake hands with our President. When I told Jackson about it, I again asked if he wanted to meet Dan to which he said, “Yeah sure.” I’m not sure what changed, but Dan reached out to me around the same time and we made plans for him to attend Jackson’s baseball game. He has now been to a couple of games and spent time talking with Jackson, none of which would have been possible without Melissa’s continual coaxing and Dan’s belief in the power of forgiveness.
So here we are today. I’m confident this isn’t the end of the story as we continue to build the bond between our family and Melissa as well as facilitate Jackson’s connection to Dan. God is good and He has given me far more than just the gift of being Jackson’s mom. He connected two women who at one point felt hopeless and developed a lifelong friendship grounded in motherhood. He has created a beautiful life story for Jackson. He chose people willing to talk about open adoption, giving us the opportunity to help break the stigma that it often carries. And, most importantly, he has given me Jackson. For all my days I will thank Dan and Melissa for listening to God’s urging as I cannot imagine any other child calling me “mom.” Yes, Garth was right…”Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”