Sioux Falls man reunites with birth mother after 50 years
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — The phone call arrived last December during a faculty meeting at Augustana University, where Jason Harris teaches business law.
“I don’t usually leave faculty meetings,” he told the Argus Leader. “But I just sort of said, ‘I’m going to take this one.’ ”
A series of events had led the 50-year-old Harris — who was adopted as a newborn during the summer of 1968 in Sioux Falls — to begin the painstaking and emotional process of seeking out his birth mother.
Though raised as part of a loving family in Rapid City, Harris felt a void for much of his life and a desire to learn more about his identity. Where did his ancestors come from? What did his parents look like? Why did his mother give him away? Did she ever think of him?
Using genealogy services and online research, Harris found a North Carolina family that matched “non-identifying information” he received decades earlier from the adoption agency. He reached out to a first cousin with no idea what the reaction would be. Weeks went by with only sporadic messages.
The phone call that drew his attention came from a North Carolina number belonging to a woman who turned out to be his aunt. She had served as a conduit as Harris inquired as to whether a semi-retired accountant named Sandi Gunning Arrington was the person who gave birth to him a half-century earlier at Sioux Valley Hospital.
“Jason,” came the words through the phone. “You need to know that you’ve found her.”
She arrived in South Dakota under the cover of secrecy in late March of 1968. Sandi Arrington was a junior at Florida State University who was unmarried and pregnant, a potentially scandalous combination at the time.
Her parents had a friend with a sister who lived in Sioux Falls, where Lutheran Social Services could arrange an adoption. The biological father, who had dropped out of college and joined the Army, knew of the plan but was no longer part of Sandi’s life. Her two younger brothers thought she was still at school.
“It was a lonely time,” recalls Sandi, who stayed in a small basement apartment and had plenty of time to think. She sewed clothes and read books and watched baseball on TV with her hosts. As the daughter of a chemist, she had moved often with her family before attending high school in Mississippi. South Dakota represented another temporary stop on the path toward her own life.
Closed adoption, in which there is no interaction between the birth mother and prospective adoptive families, was common at the time, making the prospect of future reunions remote. The late 1960s were a particularly busy time for such adoptions, in contrast to the more open process that exists today.
The landmark Roe v. Wade court decision that legalized abortion was still five years in the future, further reducing options for unwed mothers-to-be. But Sandi would not have chosen that route.
One thing she didn’t do during her four months in Sioux Falls was second-guess her decision. Circumstances dictated that she couldn’t keep her baby, but she wanted her baby to be born.
“It was felt by the social worker,” said a report compiled by LSS adoption staff, “that in other circumstances, she would have been very excited about becoming a mother.”
Circumstances couldn’t be changed, and her mind was made up. But when it came time for the delivery and nurses whisked the newborn away without Sandi being able to hold her newborn son, the emptiness was undeniable.
“I never even saw him,” says Sandi, now 71 and living in Hendersonville, North Carolina, “I knew he was a boy and that’s it. I would have preferred to have been able to see him, just to know that he was OK and had 10 fingers and 10 toes. That’s a mom thing, I guess, regardless of whether the baby is coming home with you.”
Jason Harris had a family. He was certain of that.
He was adopted on Aug. 14, 1968 by Russell and Mary Ann Harris of Rapid City, leading to a happy childhood that included a love of baseball, long days of downhill skiing and the prideful role of alto sax player in the school band.
With two older brothers who are developmentally disabled and an older sister, Jason was the youngest child and never had any illusions about the fact that he was adopted.
“I don’t recall ever not knowing,” says Harris, an assistant professor at Augustana since 2006. “My parents were always open about it, and I always felt like I belonged as a member of the family. I had everything I needed, but the feelings were always there.”
In biology class, when the teacher discussed DNA and inheritance traits, most students talked about what color eyes their parents had and other genetic links. Harris sat silent.
“I didn’t know any of those answers,” he says. “I knew my birthday and that I was born in Sioux Falls, but there always that nagging feeling about wanting to know more.”
He had a friend in high school who was adopted and familiar with state law regarding the availability of birth records when a person turns 18.
As a freshman at Augustana in 1986, Harris reached out to LSS and received basic facts about his biological mother. She was 20 years old when she had him and came from out of state. She was 5 feet, 5 inches tall with “hazel green eyes that changed from brown to blue.” She had hay fever. Her nationality was half Scottish and the rest English and German, and she was “pleasant in appearance and manner.”
The adoption agency staff offered to do a search for the birth mother for $300, and he also could have sought a court order for certain records. But Harris balked. Whether it was the money or concerns about the feelings of his adoptive parents, he didn’t feel comfortable at 18 years old taking that next step.
“I’m not ready,” he told himself. He didn’t know if he would ever be.
How do you miss someone you know nothing about, with no face or name to hang onto? Sandi couldn’t describe the feelings exactly, but she also couldn’t shake them.
They hit hardest on Christmas and Mother’s Day and June 15, the birthdate he celebrated somewhere with someone. They stirred occasionally when she watched her other children play soccer or frolic in the yard, making her wonder if he enjoyed the same things.
She had met a fellow student named Phil Arrington before coming to Sioux Falls in 1968 and married him the next year. Both had fulfilling careers, with Sandi working for a time as a revenue agent for the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, D.C. Phil was an artist and writer who took a job as creative services director at WCCO-TV in the Twin Cities, where Sandi worked for the Veteran’s Administration while raising a son, Bram, and daughter, Carrie.
Sandi even traveled to Sioux Falls for an event at the VA Medical Center in 2009, but it was a quick business trip with little time to dwell on the past.
She had no idea that the boy she gave birth to in 1968 was living in the city at the time — and they had much in common. Outside of a physical resemblance, both majored in government in college with a history minor. They rooted for the Minnesota Twins and enjoyed many of the same Twin Cities restaurants. Both had a dry sense of humor and loved to travel.
But by the time Sandi and Phil settled in Hendersonville, where she still prepares taxes and relishes time with her extended family, she had largely resigned herself to the fact that she would never know the son that she gave away. Most of her family, including her children, had no idea that part of her life even existed.
Her secret seemed secure. It had lasted 50 years.
The very idea of writing a letter to the mother he’d never met was agonizing for Jason. Where we would even come up with the words?
For one thing, he had a fulfilling life. He was blessed in many ways. His law degree from the University of South Dakota spawned a career that included private practice and public service, leading to a faculty position at his alma mater.
He married his wife, Wanda, at Chapel of the Hills in Rapid City and has a family that includes two sons, one from her previous marriage and one who is a sophomore at Washington High School.
It should have been enough. But a lack of healthy identity development, an unfortunate byproduct of closed adoption, has been shown to stall feelings of contentment well into adult life.
The void demanded attention. He decided it was time to listen.
“The pang really started occurring was when I turned 50 last June and my wife kept asking me what I wanted for my 50th birthday,” says Jason. “I started thinking about what it means to be 50, and it was sort of a reaffirmation that family is important and that’s what I wanted for my birthday. But that included renewing the search for my birth mother, because she was 20 when she had me and I was turning 50 — so I knew my window could be closing.”
He talked to his wife, who was surprised to hear that thoughts of his past were so persistent.
“She didn’t know that I had this void,” says Jason. “She didn’t know that I had this pain. I mean, I had a good life with an amazing wife and wonderful children and great parents growing up. I just didn’t know how to talk to her about it. But once that conversation started, I made the decision that I was going to start putting pieces of the puzzle together.”
The emergence of genetic testing sites such as 23andMe and Ancestry have made searching for biological parents and adoptees more accessible, with the caveat that not everyone wants to be found.
“Sometimes the other party is caught off guard when they get a phone call out of the blue,” says Ryan Hanlon, vice president of the National Council for Adoption. “It’s important to give them time and space to process the information.”
After Harris learned of his first cousin last summer and sent her a message, leading to conversations with his aunt, the process moved slowly. Neither of them knew that an adoption had taken place.
More research led to North Carolina and the existence of Sandi, whose age matched the information Harris received as a college student. When he pinpointed a likely address last September, it was time to start writing a letter that would take him nearly two weeks to compose.
He assured her that he was loved by his adoptive family and he appreciated her “courageous decision” to give him life. He had questions about health-related issues and inquired about family medical history. And, most consequently, he expressed a desire for reunification so he could meet her and other members of his birth family.
“I made sure I gave her an out, because you don’t know what’s happening on the other side,” he says. “I had a friend who was adopted and reached out to the birth mother and was told, ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with you.’ So I took my time and was careful in my wording, because it was unlike any letter that I would ever write in my life.”
Sandi Arrington walked down to her mailbox last October and started sifting through assorted bills. Then she spotted an envelope that changed everything in an instant.
“I saw the return address and knew exactly what it was,” says Sandi, who also received a photo of her son. “My first reaction was joy in knowing he was OK, because I had no idea. I had wondered for many years. That was very reassuring.”
There were other emotions as well, most of them complicated. Sandi had forged an entire existence after returning from Sioux Falls more than 50 years earlier, with a family and career and moments that comprised the story of her life. Only her husband knew that the story had a missing chapter.
Her niece was getting married and Thanksgiving was coming fast. The thought of tossing a family bombshell into the mix, however well it would be received, made her delay her response. She needed time to figure things out.
“Trying to maintain a balance was challenging,” she says. “His letter was a gift to me, and it took me a while to process everything that was going on. I knew I was going to respond, but it took me a while to figure out exactly what I wanted to write.”
Phil was a writer by trade and helped with the family history. But Sandi knew that no one else could adequately express the feelings of a mother toward her son, even one she had never laid eyes on. By the time she found her balance and composed an email that she felt was fit to send, it was nearly Christmas.
Her son had given her a gift. It was time to return the favor.
Jason Harris was not in the holiday spirit. His family was celebrating Christmas Eve in Sioux Falls and certain essentials had been forgotten, requiring a run to the grocery store. He had drawn the assignment.
His mood was already soured by the fact that he had not heard from his birth mother despite sending that carefully crafted letter several months earlier. The phone call from his aunt in early December let him know he had the right person and address, but no more progress had been made.
“So I find myself in the Hy-Vee checkout line and I’ve got my phone out and I’m thinking I might as well check my email,” he says. “And there it was, an email from Sandi Arrington that said ‘Happy Christmas’ on the subject line, and I knew I needed to get out of there pretty quick.”
He hurried to his car for privacy before pulling up the email and letting the words unfold.
Dearest Jason, he read while fighting back tears in the parking lot. Fifty Christmases and birthdays have passed, and I’ve thought of you on every one of them. I never saw you, so to have a visual image is a gift. Such a gift.
“I sat there and read through it and read it again and cried and then realized that I needed to get home,” he says. “And I totally forgot what it was that I was mad about.”
That sparked a line of communication that started with emails, moved to Facebook messages and led to the first phone call between mother and son on Feb. 3, 2019, which was Super Bowl Sunday.
“The first few minutes were sort of awkward,” says Jason. “I mean, how do you have that conversation? And then we ended up talking for probably two hours that night and it seemed totally normal. I think 50-year-old Jason was a lot more ready for that conversation than 18-year-old Jason.”
Both were busy in their daily lives. Jason had recently returned from a trip to England with a group of Augustana students where he taught a course on Brexit, and Sandi was feeling the brunt of tax season.
But they finally broached the subject of a reunion and negotiated a date in March, during Jason’s spring break. He booked his flight to North Carolina and waited for perhaps the most meaningful moment in his life to arrive.
The flight was late, but she kept her cool. Sandi had gone 50 years without seeing her son and could wait a few hours more.
When Jason’s plane finally touched down at the Asheville airport and passengers disembarked, she saw the 5-foot-7 law professor collect himself and head her way. To anyone watching as they smiled and embraced, the physical resemblance would have made it clear that this was a mother and her son.
“To be able to hold him was incredible,” says Sandi. “It was just like holding your baby for the first time — one of the most emotional points in a parent’s life. Mine was just a little bit bigger than most.”
Jason spent five days in Hendersonville, talking baseball with his sister Carrie and viewing Phil’s artwork. He talked about his trip to England and his son’s upcoming high school tennis season. Although his brother Bram was busy chaperoning a Cub Scout camping trip, Jason met the aunt who had helped his search as well an uncle from Texas, who traveled just to meet him.
But most of the time was devoted to quiet moments with Sandi, who asked about his childhood in Rapid City and shared insights into decisions she had made. Rather than focus on the past, though, they nurtured their new relationship and appreciated the time they had left.
There’s a picture of them at a restaurant where Jason is showing her something on his phone and she rests her head on his shoulder, showing a sense of ease and comfort undeterred by time.
Fifty years after the heyday of closed adoptions, marred by secrecy and shame, most experts agree that open communication and relationships with birth parents promote health identity development.
“Back then, there was a move toward maintaining privacy for the individual that was placed for adoption, thinking it would be helpful for that person,” says Hanlon of the National Council for Adoption. “But now we see a trend toward encouraging connections with the birth family and allowing individuals to really own their story — and choose with whom they want to share it.”
For Jason and Sandi, the adventure continues. She will fly to Sioux Falls next month to meet Jason’s wife and two sons, coming full circle from her experience as a 20-year-old college student trying to safeguard her future while still giving life to another.
The notion that she would be able to go on forever without those lives converging was flawed, though it took a son’s persistence to help their story unfold.
“I had a hole in my heart, and that hole was Jason,” says Sandi. “I don’t have a hole in my heart anymore. It’s filling out, and it’s been such an incredible gift to get to know and love him and finally count all 10 of his fingers. I’ve decided I’m going to trust him on the toes.”
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com