On her 99th birthday, missing and loving the mom I never met

It seems all too unbelievable, but my precious birth mother Betty is 99 years old today, July 22, 2020. She’s celebrating with all the other angels, as she has been since arriving at heaven’s gates five days before Christmas 1992.

So many of my Facebook friends and family have shared in my birth family journey since the social media platform came around — what, 12 years ago? — and we cherish that you’ve so genuinely joined us in that life-changing experience.

As we wish beautiful Betty a happy 99th, I’m bringing back a FB post I wrote 5 years ago, because it embodies so many of the emotions I’ve felt and questions I’ve had since finding my three older full siblings in 2005. Crys, Robin and Terry were all very close to our mother, and the memories they’ve so generously given of her have meant more to me than anything.

Also, to celebrate Betty’s birthday, here’s one of a handful of songs we have priceless recordings of her performing in about 1951 at a March of Dimes benefit in Logan, West Virginia. She truly had an amazing gift, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Here’s to the mother my brothers and sister have always loved, and to the mother I never knew but love just the same. 

****

It’s your birthday, Betty Louise.

I – and all your surviving family and friends – celebrate you, honor you and love you. And, even though our eyes and arms never met, I miss you. You can miss and long for someone, even if you never knew her personally or ever embraced her. You love, cherish and are grateful for all the people life surrounds you with. I wouldn’t trade the family I’ve known my whole life for 10 Astros World Series titles (and those who know me well know how much that would mean to me).

But you always wonder what if. What you missed out on. I can’t help that, and I hope you and all the people whom I love and who love me can accept that. It’s not like missing the bus or missing an appointment or missing a sale you’ve been waiting for. It’s like missing the smells and comforts of your grandmother’s house, the reassuring warmth of her hugs, the escape provided by visits to her home. You wish you could go back and keep going back forever.

And so I miss you – and what we never had.

There are so many things I don’t know, and will never know in this life. If I’d searched for my birth family sooner and found you before you left almost 23 years ago, maybe you could’ve answered all of my questions – or at least some of them.

I don’t know how or when you and my birth father Bob, the father of all four of your children, met. I don’t know if he started drinking at some point after you, at age 18, married him in 1939, or he was already under the bottle’s spell before you fell in love. I don’t know how bad things truly got in your 20 years of marriage – outside of the relatively few details brother Crys has told me about from childhood flashbacks, many painful. Or how many times you thought about packing up Crys, Robin and Terry and leaving Bob, if you ever did. I don’t know if you loved him so much that you forgave – or overlooked – his weaknesses and drunken larks to keep your family together for your children. I don’t know if, after your 1959 divorce, he pleaded with you to take him back, promising to change, so you gave him the last of what must’ve been countless chances to get it right.

My birth parents, Betty and Bob Workman, at home in West Virginia with my oldest brother Crys, who was born Feb. 28, 1944. I was born 17 years later to the day.

I don’t know how you felt in 1960 when you found out that you, divorced a year earlier, were implausibly pregnant out of wedlock, knowing the father could only be your ex-husband. I don’t know how much time, as a single mother two months from turning 39, with children ages 16, 12 and 5, you spent trying to decide what to do. I don’t know if you cried or prayed “why me” to God or accepted responsibility for a moment of passion – I’m convinced that’s what it was, not the appalling alternative – and its fateful outcome.

I don’t know if you agonized through sleepless nights about whether to keep me or give me up, or decided immediately that adoption was your only option. I don’t know if your thoughts raced ahead, looking at the prospect of what life would be like with another mouth to feed, another child to rear until you were almost 60. I don’t know if you were so focused on working to put food on the table that you knew you had to block out conflicted thoughts of me during your pregnancy. I don’t know if you were so ashamed, so worried about folks finding out, that you didn’t tell a soul besides your Aunt Victoria and Uncle Walter. I don’t know how difficult it was to conceal the pregnancy, but I’m sure you wore out a girdle or three trying to.

I don’t know if, while performing with an upscale hotel bar’s dance band as I grew inside you, you sang lyrics that echoed some of the essence of your life story, and the anguish and regret you felt about your predicament. I don’t know if, while you performed gigs with a band at Dreamland a couple of years later, any of the songs you so beautifully entertained crowds with reminded you of me and brought tears to your eyes.

I don’t know what you were feeling when you arrived at Cabell Huntington Hospital in Huntington, WV on Feb. 28, 1961. I don’t know if you tormented yourself over whether you were doing the right thing. I don’t know if, after I arrived at 5:15 p.m., you saw my face. I don’t know if you held me or if the nurses asked if you’d like to – or if you asked them if you could. I don’t know if I was whisked away to avoid complications or if the nurses tended to me as you watched. I don’t know if you cried or put on a brave face that masked your sorrow. I don’t know if you really wanted to keep me but couldn’t shake the stark reality that my life would be better if you didn’t.

Betty in the mid-1950s at home in Huntington, West Virginia. That’s a photo of my big brother Crys behind her.

I don’t know if your tears dampened the form you signed March 3, 1961, making it official I’d be going home with another family. I don’t know if your days were filled with regret and pain at first, and then things became easier for you. I don’t know if you thought of me every day or only on my birthday and Christmas, the holiday when you and your grown children who lived out of state were almost never together.

I don’t know if you wished you could tell your secret to the three children you raised or how close you came to doing so. I don’t know if you ever considered trying to find me but were just too overwhelmed by it all – and felt you had to take your secret to heaven with you.

I want to know all of this, and so very much more. But for now, I can only speculate – and say I’m sorry for every misery you suffered.

****

What I do know, in my every fiber:

I know you made the heartbreaking decision you did – the one that had to be made – out of an undying love for me and a resolve to keep me safe, whatever it took. I know you did it to protect me from my father, who’d already drunkenly threatened to take your young daughter away from you. I know you took every possible precaution to ensure he never found out about me, from the jarring moment you realized you were pregnant until Bob’s unfortunate demise when he drowned in Tampa in July 1962. I know that my life – not how difficult keeping me would surely make yours – was your only concern. I know you selflessly opened your heart to send me into a new home because you knew you couldn’t raise a fourth child on love alone, no matter how abundant.

I know you formed and stored a picture of me in your mind and memory, and that image often entered your thoughts, especially when life threw so many challenges your way. I know you missed me and wondered what my life was like – it’s not possible, knowing the kind of tenderhearted woman I’ve learned you were, that you could have shut me out once I was no longer yours. I know that every Feb. 28, you found time to cry and tell me you loved me – as well as your oldest son Crys, who turned 17 the day you gave birth to me.

Betty working at Walgreens in Huntington in the late 1930s.

I know you aren’t the mother who raised me, but I am who I am – as are all four of us – in great measure because of you. I know most of me can be traced to the parents who were forever grateful for your benevolence, the act of two people receiving a newborn from a stranger about whom they knew nothing. But I have personality and emotional traits, and even mannerisms sister Terry has noticed, that only your son could have. Your sensitivities and sentimentality are instilled in me.

I know you’re overjoyed and thankful that, 10 years ago, the child you lost finally became part of your family again. I know that even though you could never bring yourself to admit to my siblings that I hadn’t really died in childbirth, it was your greatest hope that we would find each other someday.

I have much to be thankful for, many family and friends to love and cherish. You, what you did for me, and your other three children with whom I have built everlasting bonds, are among the blessings I will never stop counting.

Happy birthday from all of us, Betty.  

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