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Chosen Children: are they the lucky ones?

by Steven L. Shapiro

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Dr. Steven Shapiro is a retired college administrator, professor and corporate trainer. In retirement, the author has spent a great deal of time "giving back" to teenagers and young adults with developmental and learning disabilities seeking emotional support and/ or employment opportunities. The impact of his adoption search continues to shape the direction of his life and hopefully, the lives of others he has been lucky enough to touch along the way. If you would like to get in touch with Steve, here is his email: - steveshap7@gmail.com

I was a chosen child. I was told that by my adoptive mother as early in life as I remember. She said I was special, that she and my adoptive father had picked me out of a room full of infants because, as they walked the aisles of the nursery, I had lifted my arms and waved.

I suppose my mother's constant reinforcement of our special relationship really stuck with me because I vaguely remember her talking to me about not bragging to other children that I was special. This followed an incident with our neighbor's little girl who confronted her mother crying and asking why she had not been chosen and therefore not special.

I grew up relatively poor, in a railroad style 3-room apartment in Queens, NY, the pride and joy of a housewife and a children's shoe salesman. We had bare wood floors and little furniture and my parents often did without or waited patiently for prices to drop in order to make ends meet. I remember being the last family on our floor to get a TV but that did bring the disappointment of not going across the hall to watch the Weinstein's TV and eat some of her fresh baked cookies. I mention the Weinstein’s as I would think how in their 3-room apt, their son slept on a pullout coach in the living room while my parents had given me, their special child, our one bedroom.

We never spoke about adoption much at home and the security I felt growing up made it insignificant. I’m sure I mentioned it to friends since I was truly proud of that status but I always felt it was something my parents, had chosen to leave behind once they were sure I fully understood. Only once did I test this theory, using it as a weapon by screaming "I am not even your son" at my parents during a temper tantrum. The looksText Box:  
 on their faces and the subsequent discussion, apology and tears we all shed I still remember.

As a teenager, being adopted was certainly part of the fabric of my personal coat of arms, but this piece was certain to fade. I had been told that I was born on Staten Island to an unwed mother and a soldier but that no information beyond that was available. At times I was lonely and envied friends who had siblings but I knew my parents had tried to conceive for years and that adoption for them was a blessing. Sadly, my father developed cancer when I was 14 and until the time he died 3 years later, my mother's life was devoted to his care and to shielding me from the horror of his deterioration. When he died, I knew how lucky I was to have had the chance to say goodbye! By the time my mother and I resumed some sense of normalcy in our lives, I was in college, she was working and, of course, life would never be the same.

I became engaged shortly after finishing college in 1965 and was married two years later. I casually told my wife that I had been adopted through the Louise Wise Adoption Agency but knew little about my biological family history. For Charlene it was not an issue. Her parent’s reaction was the opposite, questioning whether I was really Jewish and requesting their family Rabbi to contact the adoption agency to confirm my status under Jewish law. He was told he could not have that information and dropped the matter, but once my mother was informed of his request, a rift developed between the families that existed for 16 years until my marriage ended. Four months later, my mother passed away.

What I learned from the incident was that information on my adoption did exist at Louise Wise, but my birth records were not available to me. I thought little about it, even as my son and daughter were born. It didn't seem to matter much since my family was healthy and I was busy teaching and going to graduate school at night. My curiosity was at an all-time low until a health issue — my son became diabetic at age eight — made me think about birth family background once again. Perhaps I didn't want to know if I had a family history of diabetes, so I didn’t act on that impulse for five more years until my mother's death.

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My life was in turmoil in 1983, separation, sole custody of 10 and 13-year old’s, working full time and my mother's hospitalization and subsequent death. Needing proof of adoption in order to probate my mother's will, I visited Louise Wise Services in Manhattan and while I was there getting the necessary document processed, I asked to speak with someone regarding obtaining additional information. Why I asked, I am still not sure — it was unplanned, it was stressful, I actually felt disloyal to the person who had unconditionally loved me and was now leaving me all of her worldly possessions. My heart was pounding as a social worker emerged from the back and sat down opposite me.  For the first time in my life, adoption had a shape to it and I was sitting perhaps within yards of all that was known of my birth and adoption.

I gave my name to the social worker along with a brief explanation of why I had asked to see her — needed form, always curious, family health questions, marriage over — and watched as a faint smile crossed her face. "I remember your file," she said. "You're the young man who was being investigated by the Rabbi who was so out of line, the one I told to never contact our Agency again!" That was me, I responded, glad she had broken the ice, even though the memory was a painful one. We talked for a while, she told me all she could give me was non-identifying information and when I brought up the possibility of looking for my birth parents now that my adoptive parents were both deceased, her response was one of great caution. "Nine out of 10 times you'll be disappointed if you are successful in your search", she said. "You've been through a lot in the past year or so, you had wonderful parents, let it go — at least for now". I appreciated her candidness, we did have a bond of sorts and I knew she was talking from her experience and from the heart. I asked for the non-identifying information, I felt I had to. She returned about 15 minutes later with a sheet torn from a yellow pad. On it was handwritten, cryptic information about my: “Bmo, Mgf, Mgm (diabetic), Msiblings and Bfa who was 19, 5'11", had green/gray eyes, brown hair, was Italian/Catholic, in the US Army and had been a good student before graduating high school.” That was all I could learn about my biological father. The information offered no real clues, nor was I sure I wanted any.

My birth mother's information however was far more detailed, containing ages of family members including her brother and two sisters, vocations, physical characteristics and ages. It was compelling as I read it over but I was mentally exhausted and strongly influenced by the social worker who had opened the door and then quickly looked to close it with me until I was truly ready to uncover this part of my past. I thought that while my instincts were correct, the timing was not. I had lost a lot in 1983- my mother, my wife and now even a maternal family that I was never to meet — so I put away the "yellow sheet" in a drawer where it was to stay for the next 12 years. A piece of furniture housed all of my parents’ papers and photos and I opened it only occasionally to sit and review their lives together and to stare at my adoption information. In that entire 12-year period, I chose to share just one thing I had learned with my children which was my (their) Italian/Catholic heritage. I did that when we were on a vacation in Italy and to me it was big family news but to them it was vaguely interesting but unimportant.

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My life was different in 1995. I had remarried 3 years earlier to a woman who was also an only child, divorced with a 7-year old son. With both of my children away at college, this was the perfect scenario for me -a wonderful wife and child moving into the home I had worked so hard to maintain. The periods when my biological children were home were not easy at first but as adjustments were made, we all looked forward to extended family life. I felt enormous satisfaction seeing that life's path had led to happier, easier times for my wife Charlene, the 3 children and for me.

Adoption was a subject my wife and I had discussed on numerous occasions. She knew my background of course and we often watched TV shows that featured reunion stories and casually discussed searching, particularly since there appeared to be so many Internet and organizational resources now available. Often the discussion would center on the possible adventure that lay before us if we chose to begin. I decided to contact Louise Wise Services once again and ask for information about adoption/reunion registries on the remote chance my birth mother was also involved in a search. I expanded my questions to inquire about local support groups and information the Agency had about my birth parents, hoping to learn more than I already knew. I asked the contact person to mail me my non-identifying information along with the registry information I had requested

When the letter arrived, Charlene and I scanned it, looking for answers to questions I had held within me for half a century. It contained some interesting newborn facts but on first read, little else that I did not already know. As it turned out, the "yellow sheet” had a piece of information that, when combined with the letter I received, gave me the direction I needed to eventually solve the puzzle.

A few months later I spent an afternoon in the Genealogical Collection of the New York City Public Library. I had my "yellow sheet", my letter and my Certification of Birth from the New York City Bureau of Records and Statistics. Although it was technically not a birth certificate, on it was my adoptive name, a Birth Record Number and the borough in which I was born. I was told by the clerk to look in the Birth Record Book for 1945, which was arranged alphabetically and contained over 1200 pages. I started with A and 3 hoursText Box:  
 later finally found it — Male, #348, Richmond (Staten Island), February 1. My eyes raced across the page — Pearlman, Robert — I had gotten to the Ps and there it was, my birth name, not “unnamed child” like some of the other entries, but Robert and a last name to trace -- of a woman who would now be about 70. I can still feel the chills that ran down my spine signaling a connection to a forbidden world.

The breakthrough was exciting. We already knew that one of my birth mother's siblings was a younger brother and now we attached the last name Pearlman to him, realizing he might be the easiest one to find if his sisters had married. Then we spotted something interesting, the letter said my maternal grandmother died at age 40 having had diabetes. The "yellow sheet" said she died when my mother was 14 (I was born when she was nearly 19), making the year of her death 1940. We went back to the library and found the death record of Mildred Pearlman, age 40 and sent away for her death certificate which was now public information since more than 50 years had elapsed.

My wife and I had made assumptions that all of these events had transpired in New York City and while that seemed to be accurate, we decided to visit the cemetery listed on the death certificate to see what other clues might exist there. Again, we were "lucky". Buried next to Mildred was Joseph, her husband, who had died three years after my birth and whose age on the gravestone corresponded perfectly with what was contained in the non­identifying information. Once we received a copy of his death certificate, we had an address where the family lived in 1948 and the name of the relative (Anne Pearlman, daughter) who informed the authorities of his death.

We made two visits to the Brooklyn neighborhood where they lived — one to the house and one to the local high school. I went to the house just to see it, never thinking I'd learn anything more about Anne or the other members of the family. In my self-appointed role as family historian, I took out my camera to snap a photo. Suddenly, the door of the 2-family house opened and the two sisters who lived upstairs came out to ask what I was doing. After a satisfactory explanation, they were more than willing to share what they knew about the prior owners, the Pearlman family from whom they rented and then purchased the house nearly 50 years earlier. They remembered the four children well, including Anne who married and moved to another part of Brooklyn and whose married name they recalled.

When I visited the high school, armed with names, I was able to find my mother's younger sister's photo (Jacqueline Pearlman) and other yearbook type information but no record of my mother (who had dropped out), her older sister Anne or younger brother Elliot. I brought home a copy of the photo and placed it prominently in the living room — the first blood relative I had ever "known."Text Box:  

There were about 15 listings in the Brooklyn phone book with my "Aunt’s” surname so, with my heart racing, I started at the top. Call #2 was answered by an older woman who said yes, her name was Anne and that her maiden name was Pearlman. Wow! So many years had passed, she still lived in Brooklyn and now I had the opportunity to ask her about my birth mother. I could hear she was somewhat alarmed by my initial questions so I knew I needed to speak quickly and I did.  I explained who I was, the reason for my call and offered some facts I had learned about her and her siblings. She was silent while I spoke and when I stopped, she responded by saying that none of what I had said could have possibly been true. Yes, she had had three siblings, all the correct ages although her brother Elliot had recently died. Her sister, who I claimed was my mother, could not be my mother since she certainly would have known if her sister had given birth. She told me to never call again, that I was terribly mistaken, yet she did not hang up. Rather, she stayed on the phone for 20 minutes as I worked to convince her of my legitimacy, listening to her speak with her husband who was in the background and who must have been equally shocked. Before hanging up, I told Anne I would send her my picture as well as the non-identifying information I possessed and, while she said it was a waste of my time, I knew the effect it was likely to have if she opened the envelope. It was becoming clear to me that no one in the family ever knew that I had been born!

Two weeks later, a letter arrived at my home from my half brother, also name Steven. He lived in New Jersey and wrote on behalf of his mother, now 70 years old and a widow, acknowledging that she had had a very difficult adolescence and could remember only "sketchy details" about this very painful experience that she had blocked from her memory. She had told him that at the time, everything had been handled by her father. Evidently, my grandfather had done a masterful job of avoiding embarrassment for his daughter and his entire family while assuring that I would be well cared for. Steven said, "Mom's first name is Grace" and that "a picture is worth a thousand words — you bear such a strong resemblance to me and my brother!" I also learned that he was the youngest of three children (two boys and a girl) although he offered no names or information about either his brother or sister. Did they even know that a second brother Steven existed? He closed by saying that, in time, Grace would "very much like to meet you.”

I wrote back the next day, my spirits buoyed by my "brother's" letter and wanting to let them both know just how much I appreciated their willingness to create a dialogue in preparation for a face-to-face meeting. I told him I wanted Grace to understand how fortunate I had always felt to have been placed for adoption with a family that gave me unconditional love. I also assured him that I had always felt that my birth mother would not have placed me for adoption had it not been the only choice at the time. I suggested to Steven that we could meet first and together set a timetable for a meeting with his mother. I was optimistic, amazed that things had come so far and hopeful that Steven's next letter would initiate a wonderful experience for his family and mine.

Steven's brief follow-up letter had an entirely different tone. He wrote how upsetting this was to his mother — not being able to remember very much, questions from her sister Anne, anxiety over a possible meeting. He said he needed all documentation "in search of theText Box:  
 truth," that I needed to be patient and that any relationship I might have with his mother in the future would be strictly between the two of us! I honored his requests for information and wrote back that I would respect his family's desire for privacy and would await another letter when the timing was better.

As time wore on in the next few months I knew it was unlikely I would ever hear from my half brother again. I periodically re-read his letters and the other documents and even checked the mail carefully for the next two years on my birthday, just in case there was a card. It was difficult not to persevere, knowing my brother's phone number and address as well as my Aunt's, but I was dealing with my own conflict about what rights I had vs. the Pearlman’s’ rights to privacy.

Thirty months after receiving Steven's second and final letter, July 1999, my 14-year old stepson Matt and I visited my daughter and son-in-law in Virginia. On the car trip down from New York we passed "Steven's exit" on the New Jersey Turnpike and I started thinking about my search and the ethical dilemma I faced. When I brought up the subject in Virginia, Matt and my son-in-law encouraged me to "take a next step."

On the trip back, I took the next step. I suggested we could stop at Steven's house, just to see where he lived. It was midday on a Wednesday, I was pretty sure he would not be home, and all I wanted to do was reestablish some linkage with this family. My stepson knew why we were detouring but welcomed the adventure since he had been with me in Brooklyn, at the cemetery and during my conversation with Anne.

We sat in front of Steven's house for a few minutes before I got out of the car, nervous to be there, hoping no one would see me, yet imagining that the door might open and there we'd be, face-to-face for the first time. It certainly looked like no one was home, yet I asked Matt to knock on the door before taking a deep breath and deciding to do it myself. After waiting at the door for what seemed like several minutes, I was relieved when no one answered and we headed back to the car. As we did so, a neighbor pulled in his driveway directly across the street, got out of his car and waived. I know I walked towards him in order to find out more about Steven and perhaps even his mother, but I didn't realize until I introduced myself that he thought I was my half-brother.

After explaining why I was there and learning that Steve's mother often visited but lived elsewhere, the neighbor offered to get the local Yellow Book and look up the address of Steven's small business which was located in town. It’s for this reason that I have said more than once "I found my mother in the Yellow Pages." The neighbor returned, commented that his wife had looked at me out of the window and made the same mistake he did, and then proceeded to find the ad that would lead me to my brother's business. We drove Text Box:  
to the building we were looking for. Another deep breath and we found ourselves outside a glass window that separated the office from the hallway. Inside, I saw two older women sitting at a desk, talking. My heart raced as I realized that based on the mother-son relationship that existed, Grace might work for Steven and be sitting 20 feet away from me.

We walked over to the desk. One of the woman spoke when I asked if Steven was in. She looked up at me and said, "No he isn't but you look very familiar. Are you a relative, are you a cousin?" I said “no, but are you related to him?" "YES, I’M HIS MOTHER", she replied and I nearly fell over. I then told her my name, which she recognized, and I suggested we go into Steven's private office.

The meeting was brief. We avoided touching each other as we walked through the doorway and she sat on one side of a large desk while Matt and I sat across from her. I explained I had impulsively come to meet my half brother, had no idea she would be in the office and while I did not want to disrupt anyone's life, I wanted so much to make some contact and perhaps have a relationship with her or one of her children. I had waited patiently  and could not resist the urge to try once more since I was in the area. She stared at me and when I was finished speaking she told me just how much I had embarrassed her and that any further communication must be through Steven. She then asked us to leave.

Once outside, I was shaking. It had been a dreadful meeting — my one chance to influence her feelings and I had blown it. Fortunately, my stepson broke the silence by telling me "I must have gotten my personality from my father's side." We laughed but I knew that I had most likely ended my search — I would not intrude any more than I already had. All that remained for me to do was to write a letter of apology to Steven telling him I would end my efforts to contact him or other family members. I did that, I meant it, but I did ask for a photo of him, his mother and his siblings, which at that point would have made my years of searching all worthwhile.

No return letter, no photo, case closed, or so I thought. My friends and family all knew my story and most agreed that actually meeting my mother was the goal and I had done that so it was OK that she did not want a relationship with me. After all, the pregnancy had been buried for 50 years before I shocked at least two generations of Mildred and Joseph Pearlman's descendents. Friends who asked if I was devastated by the meeting with my birth mother failed to understand my true motivation for searching and how fortunate I felt to have had loving adoptive parents and now, a caring and supportive family. I was not devastated; it was more accurate to say I felt disappointed and surprised. Apparently, there was no interest, or even mild curiosity, to meet this outlier who had searched so hard and had such a strong family resemblance.

During the next couple of years I thought little about my birth family. When I did, I recalled the social worker's prophetic words, “90% of the time you are disappointed; Text Box:  
don't even try to search until you are mentally prepared for disappointment.”  She was right! This could have been a devastating experience and I was lucky to have waited so many years.  The high school picture of “Aunt Jacky” sill sat in our living room. Why couldn’t she have been my mother, I thought, given the lovely things written about her in the school year book.

May 14, 2002, my stepson answers the phone. An older sounding woman asks, “Is this the home of the Steven Shapiro who was searching for his birthmother in Brooklyn?" He replies that I will not be home for a half hour. The woman says she'll call back but leaves no number. Needless-to-say, I proceeded to sit next to the phone for the next 2 hours, rushing Matt every time one of his friends called. When the call finally came, I was speaking with Aunt Jacqueline (Jacky) Pearlman, who had been calling all the Shapiros on Long Island (all she was told about me) because her niece Janice, my half-sister, wanted very much to meet me. Not only that, after much soul-searching, she too wanted to meet me and asked if it was ok if she gave Janice the phone number.

Janice called later the same evening. "Hi, Steve, this is your North Carolina sister calling. How are you?"  What a moment in my life! My sister is telling me how happy she is speaking with me and beginning a relationship. We talked for over an hour, filling each other in on our pasts and the present and talking about how wonderful it will be to actually meet. She explained to me that she had learned of my existence from Aunt Jacky on a visit to New York a year earlier but because of her husband's illness at the time, she had waited to ask Aunt Jacky to try to locate me. When I started explaining to her that I bore no animosity to our mother for her decision to give me up and that I had had wonderful adoptive parents and a good life, she stopped me and said, "You were the lucky one!" "Our family was highly dysfunctional, my father was violent, my mother was passive, the brother you don't know of yet, Alan, left home at 16 and I left as soon as I could and have rarely looked back."

What a revelation, the woman I had searched for was in denial of her husband's abusive behavior, failed to protect her children, and finally chose only one of her children to have a relationship with after her husband died. Her reaction to me was probably typical of her dealings with other members of her immediate family. I knew then that if I never met her again it would probably be fine — meeting my sister's family, my Aunt and perhaps my brother from Florida were now my priorities.

Learning that my Aunt lived in Manhattan, 30 miles from my home and that my sister's oldest daughter would be starting graduate school in New York City in three months seemed too good to be true. It Text Box:  
was decided that Janice and her three daughters would come to my home with Aunt Jacky for a visit. We agreed to exchange photos of our families and began the long wait.

When I had asked about our brother Alan, she said that he lived in Florida; they had not seen each other for many years but that he had coincidentally called her a few days earlier to wish her a happy 51st birthday. When she told him he had a half brother in New York, he said he would like to contact me as well. The day after speaking with Janice I had his e­mail, "I am your ‘other’ 1/2 brother. I just found out about you. It was quite a surprise. Please call me." For the briefest instant, I felt overloaded with family. I called Alan that evening and we had a nice chat, far shorter than my conversation with his sister but also with substance as he recalled his years growing up in an environment he could not wait to escape. "You were the lucky one - I wish I had been adopted," he said. We decided we would see each other a few months later in New Jersey since he was planning one of his infrequent trips to visit Steven.

I was the lucky one! They had both said it and I told this to Aunt Jacky when I called her to thank her again for all she had done and to invite her to lunch prior to Janice's arrival.

She said they were probably right - look at the childhood memories they have and their family relationships. I met Jacky at her apartment and recognized her immediately from her high school photo. The meeting was everything the meeting with my mother was not. She was warm, cheerful and eager to get to know me.

My happiness was contagious; my children all agreed that what was transpiring now was wonderful for our family and Charlene could not wait to meet Jacky, her sister-in­law Janice and her nieces. The day we finally spent together was magical - it began with obligatory hellos and hugs, moved to lunch where everyone shared something important about his or her life and what it felt like to be sitting there, continued with a clustered walk, then time spent looking at family photos and ended after dinner with tears and hugs and feelings of intimacy that I found incredible. As Janice said in her e-mail when she arrived home, "How many times in our lives do we have a day that we keep re-living over and over again? It was one of the sweetest days of my life." I felt exactly the same way!

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Two months later I met Alan near the exit to the Jersey Turnpike that leads to his brother Steven's house. He happened to be arriving on the same day I would be returning from Philadelphia. We had had a good laugh on the phone when I started to ask how I'd recognize him but quickly realized that would not be a problem. When he pulled up next to me in the parking lot and lowered his window, the resemblance was startling.

We sat in a diner for more than 2 hours, me facing him with a mirror behind so that I could see my reflection next to him as we talked, there was no question we were brothers and we covered a range of subjects from favorite places to sports and hobbies. When it came to family, he spoke deliberately, citing instances that led to the estrangements he had with several family members including his sister and his mother. His pain was evident, I could feel it and I was so glad we were there together. How odd, I thought, that I would be telling him how delightful his sister's children were. Alan and I liked each other, we decided to meet in Manhattan for dinner a few days later, and we hugged as we parted.

Alan was eager to see Aunt Jacky (everyone's favorite Aunt) and to meet Charlene so we met in Manhattan a few days later. Dinner was quite enjoyable — family conversation, talk of seeing each other in Florida, more insights into his life and mine. It was clear to the two "observers" that Alan and I were complete opposites in many ways. But it was also evident that Alan and I had a connection that was worth building on and I believe we will see each other and learn to enjoy aspects of each other's lives. The photo we took that night is now also a part of my collection.

The night of our dinner with Alan turned out to have a sad sidebar. During dinner, Aunt Jacky excused herself to make a call to the hospital where her sister Anne had been admitted. Unfortunately, time ran out two days later when Anne passed away. I was out of town and got the news through Charlene who had heard from Alan. It made me pause, I felt a loss because I had hoped to meet Anne without whose willingness to talk and pass along my envelope, I never would have met my new family. Text Box:  

I chose to write about my background and my search for three reasons. Number one was a desire to record my feelings surrounding my 50+ years of living with the knowledge that I was adopted and share them with my wife and children as well as with others who are adoptees or have adopted. Second, I viewed it as a form of therapy, helping me to answer questions about what I have done that are still somewhat unresolved in my mind. Questions like: Is it disloyal to search while your adoptive parents are alive? How far does an adoptee have the right to go in searching for a parent? How do you honestly determine the true purpose of your search?

Finally, I wanted to share my good fortune with others who are considering looking for family and have information sitting in a drawer or running through their heads. My message here is that what you find may be disappointing in many ways — rejection, criticism, frustration — but you will never fully understand what it is you are seeking in your life or benefit from the rewarding experiences that might turn up along the way unless at some point, you begin using the resources that are available to you!

I am a lucky one! I was placed for adoption through an agency truly committed to client welfare by a caring, responsible grandfather. Even though what I found out dispelled their myth that I was in a huge nursery and waved as they passed, (I was actually first placed in a foster home), I find these minor flaws unimportant in a parent-child relationship filled with so much love and trust. I know now that the "mother" I searched for was my image of my adoptive mother and it's a good thing that I've now put that matter to rest.

I do regret never adopting a child of my own and perhaps that is part of the reason why I have developed such a close relationship with my stepson and so much enjoy being around children and young adults. Of course, I now have four nieces and a nephew to get to know and perhaps I'll even meet Steven's children one day. For now, what I find most intriguing is my evolving role as a catalyst within my biological family - someone to speak frankly with, a trusted neutral party whose only agenda is to promote harmony and encourage dialog. I welcome this responsibility that brings new purpose to my life. I have received from my birth family a wonderful gift - what I can offer back is a tribute to my wife, my children and my dearly missed parents.

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