Until this week, when Google told me, I didn’t know some of the famous folks who share my Feb. 28 birthday. (Aside: It’s out of control how many, and of what stripe and “talent,” classify as celebrities these days. Gamers, YouTubers, Influencers, TikTok stars. I’ll just sound old if I go down this path. Oh, wait, I guess I am. As of today, one more year till I turn 60 … sigh.)
Many of the “real” names I came across were entertainers: Gavin MacLeod, Charles Durning, Mercedes Ruehl, Bernadette Peters, Jason Aldean, Zero Mostel, Lindsay Lohan (OK, scratch that one). Then there’s mobster Bugsy Siegel, race car driver Mario Andretti, basketball coaching legend Dean Smith, and budding Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic.
But there’s another big name — big to me, anyway — who has a birthday today. I didn’t learn that he did until getting a life-changing call from a remarkable woman (who, sadly, has since passed away) in West Virginia on June 10, 2005. In fact, I didn’t even know he existed.
As I furiously scribbled a steady stream of information on a legal pad, the voice on the phone gave me his name: Crystal Edward Workman, born Feb. 28, 1944, the oldest of three children of Betty Louise Workman.
He, the voice told me with unshakable certainty, was my brother. All three were my siblings.
Within a month, after numerous hours of getting to know one another by phone and emails, a wonderful first visit in Colorado with Crys, our sister Terry and their families, and a DNA test for the three of us (in the early days of cheek swabs for that kind of detective work), we knew what we were all but certain to be true: Not only was their mother Betty mine, but their dad Bob was also my biological father, as a result of my being conceived a year after their divorce.
The story has sent me on an emotional journey for almost 15 years.
On the day I was born, Feb. 28, 1961, what was Crys doing besides turning 17?
He was going to school as a junior at Ironton High School in southern Ohio, just across the Ohio River from our birthplace of Huntington, WV. Crys, Terry, our brother Robin and Betty had lived together in a small apartment in Ironton for several months the previous year while Betty was pregnant with me.
Ironton was where Betty and the kids landed after a domestic incident with Bob caused her to flee Huntington out of fear around the time she learned of her pregnancy. They’d been divorced a little over a year and, though we’ll never know the true circumstances that seemingly brought them back together for a time, now the breakup would be permanent. Bob would drown a homeless man in Tampa in July 1962.
Crys tells me times were tough those few months in Ironton, when Betty spent part of her pregnancy working as a waitress and singing with a trio at the Sandbar in the upscale Marting Hotel. He was a basketball player and wanted to play the season with the IHS varsity, always a successful program. So when Betty and her two youngest children moved back to Huntington that fall when she was about six months along with me, Crys stayed in Ironton and lived with the family of little Ellie Lawless, one of whose brothers, Butch, was a manager for the basketball team.
After basketball season ended in March, Crys moved home, ready for track season at Huntington East High. When he got back, he asked Betty:
“What happened to the baby?”
Betty told Crys, with little explanation, that she’d lost the baby. That was the end of it. He assumed the baby had died in childbirth. The subject never came up again. He never thought about it again. But I know Betty did. Constantly.
I remember my reaction to learning I had a brother with my birthday. I was stunned. How could it be that two siblings from the same family — one torn by alcoholism, divorce, a child placed for adoption — could be born 17 years apart to the day?
I excitedly told the lady who had found all the records leading me to my natural family that Feb. 28 was also my birthday. But in that long phone call, she was just getting started unloading her months’ worth of discoveries, so understandably, her reaction wasn’t the same.
There was so much for me to process in that call. The first news I received was the saddest — finding out that meeting Betty, my driving hope in starting the search for my past, would not be possible in this life, because she had died in December 1992.
When Crys and I spoke for the first time the following day, it was a two-hour visit between brothers that felt so easy, like we’d known each other all along, thanks to his calm and kind demeanor and his willing openness. Of course, I told him we had the same birthday, and, like me, he thought it was a crazy coincidence and really cool.
But in the nearly 15 years since my siblings and I became a long-overdue-to-be-reunited family, I’ve learned that Crys and I have much more than a birthday as a bond. Although we’d never be mistaken for brothers based on looks (although we’ve both always been tall and lean), we’re much alike — more than even he may realize.
Crys is kind, compassionate, generous and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. (I’d like to think I’m all of those except for the last one.) We share interests in sports, music (including classical) and other areas. We’re both generally quiet, introverted and pretty passive, and I believe those qualities are where we’re most like each other.
I’ve always considered myself lucky to have grown up with an awesome brother like Isaac, my adoptive bro whom I dearly love. I’ve been infinitely blessed to have added more love to my life in my birth siblings, whose acceptance I felt right away when I reached out to them, a sure sign of the brand of people they are — and, I believe, who our mother Betty was, and in his own way, our father Bob was.
Happy birthday, Crys. I’m thankful and thrilled to have you as a brother, lucky to share a birthday with you, and honored that we have so much in common. Thank you for loving me, believing in me and being proud to call me your Little Brother.