I have not always been Gerry Regan.
I was born Patrick O’Connor, on February 26, 1953, to a woman I finally met 44 years later. And on learning my first and last name, I was frankly surprised. The name seemed stage-Irish, recalling for me, Harrigan and Hart. For a time, I wondered if it might be bogus.
For the first 44 years of my life, I didn’t know my real name, nor the circumstances of my birth. Perhaps like Michael Hess, the son of Oscar-nominated film’s namesake Philomena Lee, I felt swallowed up in the system of closed adoptions, and thwarted in my efforts to find my first parents, to find my given names, and, for me, to feel a genuine sense of integrity about my life.
Above, left, on my Dad's lap, with my new family, New Hyde Park, N.Y., circa 1954.
The name itself was hiding in plain sight, I learned after years of searching. In fact, my niece, that is, my adoptive sister’s daughter, confirmed for me that identity, something she had known for many years. She heard it from my sister, and didn’t know the name was of interest till I finally was able to mention it. Astounding, this!
When I found my American-born mother after a three-year quest, all things finally felt clear, and full of possibility. My mother welcomed me, though, to my great dismay, a month later she slammed the door on a relationship, and then, 12 or so months beyond, embraced me again, seemingly, utterly, overcoming her fears through my gentle persistence, courage, shared love and, perhaps, curiousity.
Then came five remarkable years when my mother and I visited each other’s homes, I rediscovered my new, yet, in a real sense, old, extended family. My mother and I corresponded via scores of letters and numerous weekly phone calls. Even my adoptive family’s relationships were renewed, redrawn as a choice, as an expansion of possibilities for me rather than the reduction of closed adoption
Then my denouement: My Mom, that is, my adoptive mother, was prone to excessive drinking during my childhood, something I thought reasonable and loving to share with my first mother. I misjudged how much reality this mother could tolerate. After expressing uneasiness about that information, she closed the door on me again. And that is why I won’t reveal her identity. Despite scores of prior letters, numerous phone calls and several extended visits, and numerous efforts in the subsequent decade, I can’t get past “Hello” before I get a click.
This is the maddening, immensely sad world of closed adoption for all too many of us! And I’m actually extremely grateful, and fortunate. I now know who my mother and father are. (He was Jewish, BTW, and died in 1971.). My mother is smart, and alive and reasonably well, and still gorgeous (last time I looked), then into her eighth decade. So many are less fortunate, like my adoptive sister, who yielded to denial, then quiet despair, lacking a passport to her own honest, tortured emotions.
My archtypical Irish name offers a prophetic twist, as I had spent a year of study in Trinity College Dublin and had been enamored of Irish culture for several decades. My first mother did, in fact, as I had hoped, name me Patrick, a name she selected simply because, she later told me, she liked it.
Adrift in the mirror
This deliberate choice of name I find particularly poignant because the whole process of unwed pregnancy seemed for so many of these women about struggling to gain some control over events spinning madly beyond their reach, all toward one end -⎯ abrogating this most powerful aspect of their personal history -- in effect, uncertain motherhood! So in this sense my mother crowned me, claimed me, even, sending me forth into the world fatherless and motherless, but bearing the name she gave me, that of the great Irish ecclesiastical patriarch, despite her being an avowed ‘non-believer.’
I came to learn she became profoundly ill during the very time I began searching for her, a time when I prayed daily that I would find her alive and well and welcoming. By the time we finally connected, she had completely recovered, akin to a miracle, and I quickly came to feel that St. Patrick had brought me, and her, in a very real sense safely home.
My mother revealed her pregnancy to only her mother and one of her younger sisters. Her father, my grandfather, a nearly 50-year employee of the railroad, the son of Waterford immigrants, never knew of my existence. And to my satisfaction, I learned that in this, my first family, as my mother’s only child, I became the senior of large number of cousins.
My parents were good people. I love them deeply as I love my first mother, though perhaps in a different way. Both my parents are deceased, my Mom, in 2004, and my Dad in 2007. Yet their lives with my adoptive sister and myself were, I came to understand, driven by fear as well as by immense love. My Dad, anxious that I would come to abandon him upon finding my first mother, created a myth about my birth, that he conceived me in an affair with a woman he refused to identify, and that this woman didn’t want to raise me. Through all this, he clearly knew my name as Patrick O’Connor, but would never reveal it.
Right, Mom and Dad, Christmas, circa 1998, Garden City, N.Y.
I embraced that fairy tale from the time I was 18, when he shared this with me, until I confronted him a year or two into my search, 25 years later, armed with Catholic Home Bureau’s description of her, and challenged him to describe my mother. He failed miserably, describing her with black hair. (For me, my first mother remains a red-haired, freckle-faced beauty.) Getting past ‘the lie’ required me to grow up, to acknowledge that parents of any manufacture are flawed, that closed adoption is essentially corrupting.
My adoptive mother felt complicit in his silence, in the face of my periodic, pained questions to him about my birth. She later revealed her greatest torment: that I would find the truth about my parentage after the death of she and Dad, and ‘would come to hate us.” My embrace of my mother then came as a great relief to her. I later asked Mom if she ever thought of my first mother, and she revealed to me in one of my most poignant moments, “Always on your birthday.” Of course. This was a date that forever links my first mother and me. My Mom, through her own loss ⎯ of the ability to conceive her own children, understood this.
‘I bind this day to me forever’ -- St. Patrick's Breastplate
When I finally found my first mother, or at least someone who seemed very likely to be her, I faced several difficult choices. The first was how to reach out. Some adoptees prefer to phone, a process that seemed particularly fraught with risk, calling a woman who could tell me, crush me, in a proverbial “New York minute,” that she was not my mother, or who couldn’t cope and would hang up, leaving me feeling orphaned and unworthy, yet again.
Being more cerebral and introverted, I felt far more comfortable writing a letter to introduce myself. Understanding that Patrick was the name on my sealed birth-certificate, I mailed my query to my putative mother on March 17, 1996. I had drafted the letter six months earlier, but wanted to create more certainty of her identity before sending it. As March 17 loomed, the date seemed a propitious choice for reaching out, one more likely to gain both God’s blessing and that of St. Patrick. And after a three-year search, with numerous dead-ends and, finally, breakthroughs, I now had reason to believe both were nudging me along.
On March 17, 1996, I penned, and mailed, the following note:
My name is Gerald Regan. I was born in Misericordia Hospital, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, on February 26, 1953. A short time later I was adopted. For the past three years I have been searching for my mother, and my search has led me to you.
I take special satisfaction in writing to you on this day because I was named Patrick at my baptism. I feel St. Patrick has blessed both my life and my search. I have wondered all my life about my mother, and felt, in not knowing you, a vital part of me was missing. I would like to know you, while also appreciating the chance to learn about my ancestry.
You won’t be able to tell from the enclosed photos that I am 6 ft., 4 in., tall. The more recent shot was taken at my parents’ house on my birthday in February of last year. I weigh about 180 pounds, and have green eyes. I am also enclosing a copy of a photo of me taken about 40 years ago, so you see how much I filled out. I must say it was a lot easier to find clothes to wear back then, when I didn’t have to worry about tall men’s sizes.
You will be happy to know that my parents are two loving people, whom I love a great deal. I grew up with an older sister, Laura, who was also adopted, in a middle class community just outside New York City on Long Island. She died six years ago. I attended Catholic grammar school and high school, wore school ties and all that jazz that we threw up in trees with glee after we graduated. Opting to finally have girls in my class, I attended Duke University, where I earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. (How are you with figures?) I am also pretty good with words. I have a master’s degree in journalism from New York University and piece together a living as a free-lance journalist and producer for Newsday newspaper on Long Island.
I live in New York City, in Astoria, Queens, where I can hear five different languages spoken just by walking down the block. I am passionate about history, especially that of America during the 1800’s. I am also keenly interested in politics, film, drama and photography. I am an activist in the National Writers Union. I am a diarist and very occasional poet, as well.
I am intrigued that you live in ------. I spent a few days there in October 1973. I was traveling alone and quickly felt overwhelmed at the city’s immensity. I moved on quickly to my destination, Dublin, where I spent the following year as a student at Trinity College. Ireland has become a second home to me. I love Ireland, and find it a place of great beauty and warmth.
----, I must relate to you one incident that occurred during my year of study there. I toured the length and breadth of the country, often by bicycle, during my vacations. One day in June, I found myself passing by Clonalis House, a country estate in County Roscommon which dubs itself the ancestral home of the O’Connor clan. I decided to pedal up the road to view it and snapped a photo of the house. Of course, I had no idea of the estate’s significance to me.
I have always wondered whom I might resemble, and would love to learn in what ways I take after you. I have a puckish sense of humor, somewhat off-beat, I’d say, and wonder if that came from you. I have a model’s long, slender legs. I don’t imagine they came from my father.
I would very much appreciate hearing from you and learning more about you. I would particularly relish receiving your picture ⎯ a current one, and perhaps one of you 40 years or so ago. ---, it is very important to me that I hear from you. You can reach me at the address and hone number below.
Looking forward to your reply, I am, fondly,
My mother’s 1,500-word, surprisingly breezy reply came 10 days later, with the salutation, Dear Gerald-Patrick and closing with Love, ---- -.
I was ecstatic, and in my heart of hearts remain so. Though she’s grown distant, much to my dismay, I find knowing her, indeed, loving her, this, the woman who gave me life, who helped define me, to be the most extraordinary adventure for myself I might ever imagine. And it’s colored my own ‘Irish story’ in ways I could never have imagined. GR
* Video: Presentation of This Story at MINY Toastmasters, May 15, 2019 (YouTube, 8:45)
* Video: 'Momma's Boy' (YouTube, 8:43)