MAPLE SHADE, N.J. (AP) — Wendy Marano couldn’t answer the basic questions about her biological identity. Did breast cancer run in her family? Did she have any close family members with high cholesterol, or diabetes, or heart disease?
Though her adoptive parents shared the scant information they had about her birth, Marano didn’t have access to her original birth certificate, so she could not fill in those blanks. Thanks to a new law in her home state that opened adoptees’ birth records last year, the 52-year-old Maple Shade resident has many more answers — and a family that has suddenly grown to include a pair of siblings she never knew existed.
It’s a peek at what could happen to thousands of adoptees in January, when New Jersey opens its own birth records for the roughly 400,000 people born here and adopted between 1940 and 2015.
Through 2016, birth parents can ask the state to withhold their personal information from birth certificates released to the children they gave up for adoption. They can also register their contact preferences. The law includes a requirement for birth parents to file a detailed family history form along with their requests.
Pam Hasegawa, an adoption advocate at the N.J. Coalition for Adoption Reform & Education, told the Courier-Post of Cherry Hill (http://on.cpsj.com/23PPfjG ) that in states with similar laws, few birth mothers have opted to keep their identities a secret.
“The overwhelming majority have wanted contact either directly or through an intermediary, so the odds are in our favor,” said Hasegawa, who is herself an adoptee. Marano’s story is the kind of scenario Hasegawa can see happening more often to New Jersey’s adoptees, especially since older adoptees have likely outlived their birth parents.
“I would be so elated to know that I had a sibling,” Hasegawa said. “It would blow me away.”
Adopted when she was just three days old, Marano grew up knowing that she was adopted.
“I think because of my parents’ openness about how we came to be a family, I never had any traumas. I never felt abandoned or unloved by my birth mother and always felt she did what she thought was best, even though I didn’t know the specific circumstances of why I was placed for adoption,” Marano observed.
But in 1986, Marano learned the devastating possibilities of not knowing her genetic background. Her older adopted brother, Chris, died suddenly that year at age 24 from an undiagnosed genetic condition called Marfan syndrome.
“Had my parents known it ran in his family, he probably could have been monitored and treated and most likely had a normal lifespan,” said Marano, public relations manager for Cooper University Health Care. “That was when I became somewhat interested in my background.”
When Marano was born in 1964, Ohio had already closed its birth records for adoptees. So she watched with interest as Ohio debated and then passed legislation to release original birth certificates to children relinquished by their biological parents. By then, both of her adoptive parents were gone. After some procrastination, Marano requested her information last fall and supplied the necessary documents to prove her identity.
On Nov. 8, after coming home from her daughter’s soccer game, she found a fat envelope from Ohio in the mail.
She sat on the top of her stairs and tore it open.
Just months earlier, Beth Wachsman of Columbus, Ohio, was enjoying a visit from her out-of-state uncle, when he let a long-held family secret slip. After she questioned another relative, the truth tumbled out. More than 50 years earlier, her mother had given birth while she was a student at Ohio State University and had given an infant girl up for adoption, Wachsman learned.
“The thing to do back then was to hide out with relatives,” said Wachsman, whose mother died in 1999 at age 54. “I think she was forced into it.”
It was a stunning revelation. Wachsman, a 46-year-old attorney, soon shared the news with her older brother, Mike, over breakfast at a diner. It was a long conversation. They didn’t know if this person was alive, or if she would want to be found.
“We didn’t know if that would open up a Pandora’s box,” said Mike Wachsman, 50. “We didn’t know how it was going to turn out.”
They took a chance, and decided if their sister was looking for them, they would make themselves available to her. Beth Wachsman filled out the paperwork to have her own name and contact information added to her older sister’s adoption file. Then she waited.
When Marano opened her envelope a short time later, she found her original birth certificate with her original name, Katherine, and that of her biological mother. She was indeed 19, a teenager just as Marano had imagined. And there was another page with a sister’s name and home address. She ran outside to tell her husband.
“I have a sister and she’s looking for me!” Marano told him.
“That stunned me probably more than anything,” Marano said later. “I never let myself go there.”
She did some online research and quickly found her biological mother’s obituary. Then she wrote a three-page single-spaced letter and mailed it to the address listed on the form.
“How do you start a letter like that? Hey, I’m your sister … here I am!”
Wachsman wasn’t expecting a letter from a woman named Wendy. So when Marano’s letter arrived, she had to read the first three lines before realizing it was from the sister she never knew she had until a few months earlier. She immediately told her wife, Laura, then called her brother and their aunt who had confirmed the family secret.
“(My aunt) was stunned but she was immediately overcome with joy,” Wachsman recalled. “I could just hear it on the other end of the line, the relief in her voice of 50-some years of waiting to find out what happened to her niece.”
Since then, it’s been a whirlwind of e-mails, phone calls and catching up. The siblings and their families met for the first time a couple weeks ago in Ohio. Mike Wachsman brought along an urn with some of their mother’s ashes to scatter near a tree planted in her memory. It was also the 17th anniversary of her death.
Marano learned that her family tree stretches from Ireland and Norway, that cancer doesn’t run in her mother’s family, that smoking was likely the major contributing factor to her biological mother’s early death from heart disease, and that she and her brother shared the same love for sports and college major: journalism.
Mostly, the siblings share a sense of gratitude — for their instant bond, for Marano’s own loving, adoptive parents, and for their newly expanded family. Marano’s only regret is that she was never able to tell her birth mother that it was all OK.
“I feel incredibly blessed,” Marano shared. “It’s such a lovely gift at this point in my life to have all these wonderful family members … It felt like coming home.”
Information from: Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, N.J.), http://www.courierpostonline.com/