Fifteen years. As of June 11, 2020, that’s how long it’s been since I “rejoined” the family I was separated from at birth through adoption. How long it’s been since I called a stranger in Colorado, one of two brothers and a sister, my three older siblings who grew up in Huntington, West Virginia, where I also was born.
How would he react? Would he refuse to believe me and hang up? Would he be disinterested and not want anything to do with me?
No, my brother Crys, I would sense right away, was much too sensitive and caring to brush anyone aside, much less someone calling out of nowhere with such a genuine and believable story.
Fifteen years later, one of the siblings I reunited with that day, our brother Robin, is gone, having died at age 61 in early 2009. But the gift of having three full-blooded siblings in my life is one I’ve treasured and wouldn’t trade for 15 Astros World Series championships. And if you know me very well, you realize that’s saying a lot.
Finding one’s roots — and making contact, with all the uncertainty and potential for heartache — isn’t for every adoptee. But it was for me, and now that I’ve been down this glorious road, I cringe to think what I’d have missed out on if I hadn’t taken the leap. If I hadn’t been brave enough to head down the path that led me to Crys, Terry and Robin. If I hadn’t been open to learning all the difficult life histories, along with the goodness and grace, that I now know about our parents, Betty and Bob.
And the adventure isn’t nearly over.
Five years ago, I wrote the following piece about my first contacts with my siblings in 2005. Seeing as I don’t have it in me to write a fresh one, I’m sharing it again. I hope you won’t mind.
Nervously, I tried to stick to the script I’d rehearsed both silently and aloud.
“Hello, Mr. Workman? My name is Frank Christlieb, and I live in Arlington, Texas. This is a long story, but I was born in Huntington, West Virginia in February 1961 and placed for adoption. I’ve just learned some information about my birth family, and I think we may be brothers.”
There was no moment of silence before Crystal Edward Workman responded, no disbelief in his voice. Only a sense of immediate acceptance, understanding and openness with the forgotten sibling our mother Betty had told him 44 years earlier she’d lost in childbirth.
I wish I’d been able to record that long-overdue contact June 11, 2005, between brothers, separated in age by 17 years, who never knew the other was out there somewhere. We visited for over two hours as Crys willingly, trustingly shared intimate details about our family with a stranger he already seemed certain was, indeed, his flesh.
When Betty, a divorcee of almost two years from her alcoholic husband Bob, came home from Cabell Huntington Hospital after giving birth to me Feb. 28, 1961, and signing papers for my adoption three days later, she didn’t talk about it with her other three children. The four of them had spent the first six months of her pregnancy in escape mode, across the Ohio River in Ironton, where she sang with a three-piece dance band and waited tables at an upscale hotel’s popular bar.
How she did this while carrying a child, I can’t begin to grasp. During those months living in a cramped apartment above a downtown grocery warehouse, 16-year-old Crys and our 13-year-old brother Robin could see that Betty was pregnant but knew better than to ask questions.
“She really kept it a secret from me,” Crys said of Betty’s troublesome condition, the result of a moment of rekindled passion with her ex Bob, the father of all four of us – though we didn’t know undeniably, until a DNA test weeks later, that Bob had fathered me.
Betty, Robin and our 5-year-old sister Terry moved back to Huntington in November 1960, while Crys stayed behind to attend and play basketball as a junior at Ironton High. When he rejoined the family in March, he asked Betty about the baby and was told it had been lost. Subject closed – until 10 years ago.
“It saddened me, obviously, but I left it at that,” Crys said when I spoke to him a couple of days after our initial contact. “I knew the turmoil her life was in during those days and months.”
In my heart, I know Betty never stopped thinking of and missing me, although it’s just as likely she never told a soul aside from her Aunt Victoria and Uncle Walter Rowe, with whom she and the kids stayed in Huntington the final three months of the pregnancy.
Perhaps a limited circle of other relatives knew. From Betty’s few friends and co-workers I’ve been able to find still living over the past 10 years, none knew about me. She was intensely private and couldn’t bring herself to reveal such personal, embarrassing details about an episode she knew should’ve never happened.
In that first illuminating phone call, Crys told me of Bob’s booze affair that broke up the family in a 1959 divorce, and about Bob’s drowning in Florida – a pitiful ending none of them knew the truth about until August 2005, when I dug up a police report, autopsy and Tampa Tribune accounts of a brawl between two homeless drunks along the Hillsborough River.
Crys told me how he’d graduated from high school in 1962, joined the Air Force and was stationed in Colorado, then moved back to Huntington in 1966 to attend Marshall University (majoring in English), before spending three decades as an electrician after getting married and moving back to Colorado. And he talked about Betty’s second marriage to a man 17 years her junior who, sadly, also drank himself into an early grave.
“She was always having relationships with men who were bad for her,” Crys lamented openly, as if we’d always known each other. “She was basically a very good woman, kind and giving, who always ended up with the wrong person.
“It’s a shame you couldn’t have met her, because she was such a wonderful person.”
Crys talked about our sister Terry being so like our mother – filled with warmth, compassion and a forgiving nature. He touched on Betty’s amazing vocal talents, saying that whenever he hears old standards like “It Had To Be You,” his thoughts turn to memories and visions of her. And he recalled sorrowfully Betty’s final couple of years of life, when she fought valiantly against the ravages of inoperable lung cancer.
Later that Saturday afternoon, Crys’s wife Charlene emailed several old family photos, giving me my first glimpses of Betty, Bob and my siblings when they were kids. Sitting at my desk at work, staring with co-workers gathered around at the first attachment I opened – a shot of a smiling, beautiful Betty lying on a couch at home – I knew without a doubt that she was my biological mother and that she’d finally helped bring her lost child back together with the three she raised.
Two days later on my Monday off, I jumped to answer the phone. I knew the sister I’d never had was calling, and I was even more anxious than when I contacted Crys. Terry had been on a weekend church retreat when I reached out to our brother, and she hadn’t learned until returning home to Arvada, Colorado, on Sunday evening that Crys and Charlene urgently needed to see and talk to her.
The tears – and the shock – flowed when they all got together that night and Terry learned of the baby brother she never knew about. Only 6 when I was born, she didn’t even know our mother had been pregnant.
After almost three hours of emotional, long-distance enlightenment, I knew more about my birth family than I ever dreamed of learning: Verbal snapshots of our parents and the kind of people they were – their virtues and faults. Memories of how Robin, 7 years older than Terry, played such a vital role in helping raise her after Crys joined the Air Force and Betty was working long, late hours as a drugstore clerk or taking the occasional nighttime singing gig.
The revelation that, like our mother, Terry had become pregnant out of wedlock and relinquished a baby boy for adoption – although at age 19 in 1974 rather than at 39 as Betty did in 1961 (and how Terry and Dan have been joyfully reunited since he was 18). About Crys buying Terry her first pair of bellbottoms.
And about her child’s-eye memories of the fateful day Bob was arrested in late spring 1960 after pushing Betty and drunkenly threatening to take little Terry away from her. No one in my family ever saw him again before his July 1962 death, so Betty was already in the earliest stages of pregnancy when he’d been hauled off.
Most meaningful and heart-rending, Terry shared memories of the end of our mother’s life. Terry had traveled from Colorado to Huntington to be with Betty in early December 1992 as her cancer’s progression grew swifter. Betty had sung to Terry beautifully and often during her only daughter’s youth; this time daughter sang to mother in her dying days … and prayed.
“Dear God, please take her,” Terry beseeched.
“I’d been there for a couple of weeks and Mother said to me, ‘Why don’t you go home, put up your Christmas tree and get ready for the holidays?'”
Terry did so hesitantly, and our brother Robin flew up from Florida to comfort and care for Betty. He was still with her when she died in her sleep on Dec. 20, 1992.
Beethoven, in his 9th Symphony, celebrates the brotherhood of all men under God. Now, when I hear that glorious tribute, I will remember your search for brotherhood and belonging, and how it brought so many people together. We are all basking in the glow of this newly discovered brotherhood, with the hope that, under God, we will all understand what it means to belong to one another. Thank you again for that quest, that need, that brought together a new family.
Ten days after Kay, 3-year-old Will, 10-month-old Lindsay and I returned to Arlington after driving 16 hours to Colorado to meet Crys, Terry and their families in early July 2005, I received that extraordinary email.
Not that I didn’t already know how they all felt about me, but my articulate oldest brother’s words were not only deep – they were profoundly genuine. We hadn’t all just hit it off; we’d begun forging a bond that we knew would withstand any test. It has.
And when brother Robin, on the day the DNA results confirmed our full-blooded kinship, said, “Welcome to the family, Frank,” I knew I was the luckiest of the lucky.