Happy 100th birthday, Betty. I hope you and all of your angel friends — of which I’m sure you have too many to count — are having a grand celebration.
It seems unthinkable that the woman who gave birth to me was really born a century ago.
But, I do need to come to grips with the reality that I reached 60 years of life earlier this year. And after all, you were only five months from hitting 40 when you followed through on what I know had to be one of your most agonizing decisions of a tough life — but one through which you persevered and always kept smiling and lavishing kindness on others.
From the shreds of information I’ve gathered since finding your three oldest children 16 years ago, I know you took concealing steps in the hospital to protect me from the possibility that your alcoholic ex-husband, my father, might find out about me. Hospital records show you gave your name as Betty Rowe (your mother’s maiden name) instead of your own maiden name (Campbell) or married name (Workman).
An earlier correspondence with your attorney shows you listed as Mrs. Richard Williams, and a difficult-to-read partial photocopy of my original birth certificate also shows the name of that man — who simply didn’t exist. He was really Robert Workman — cleverly, the same initials — and he was your ex and the father of all four of us. All of your children.
It’s certainly possible that because of the stigma of out-of-wedlock pregnancies at the time, all the steps you and your attorney, Mr. Marcum, and the doctor who delivered me and helped arrange my adoption, Gilbert A. Ratcliff Sr., took were standard procedure. But yours was not even close to a textbook case of a young woman getting pregnant, being sent to a home for unwed mothers and being forced to give up her child because it was for the best, she was always told, her feelings be damned.
How common could it have been in those days for a woman about to turn 39 — who had been granted her divorce from a man she’d been married to for 20 years, trying her best to raise three children while he spent so much time raising a bottle, can or glass — to then get pregnant by that man? The divorce decree was plain in stating that my biological father was to stay away from his family. But from what my oldest brother Crys has told me, and even my sister Terry, just a little girl then, Bob didn’t stay gone long.
Dear God, what happened? Dear Betty, why aren’t you here to tell me? If I had started searching for you sooner than in my mid-40s, I might have been able to get some answers from you. Instead, when I found Crys, Terry and our brother Robin in 2005, I learned you had died of lung cancer 13 years earlier at 71. The ravages of smoking had taken you, even though you’d quit several years earlier.
I probably shouldn’t, but I long to know the circumstances of my conception. I can’t imagine you had really forgiven Bob, yet again, not only for his drinking but for the other things he did to your family. I hope upon all hope that it was a moment of consensual passion, whether or not alcohol was involved. Soon after I found your three oldest, a friend brought up the distressing, horrifying other scenario that I hadn’t even considered yet.
But I really don’t think that happened, because I know he was still around after that — at least on the occasion not long after when, in an ugly confrontation, he was arrested and you and the kids never heard from him again. At least *they* didn’t — until learning from you that he had drowned in Tampa a couple of years later, which I would learn from a police report and newspaper clippings I dug up was the result of a fight with a man who, like him, was drunk and homeless.
When you learned you were pregnant, Mother, I cannot imagine how you felt. You had worked so hard to take care of and protect your two older sons and young daughter, a single mother working in a department store and later as a drugstore clerk for decades.
Perhaps these are questions that shouldn’t be asked, but as a man who grew up with an abusive, alcoholic adoptive mother, I wish I knew the answers. Did you ever consider keeping me? Was the main reason you placed me with another family your desperate circumstances, knowing you couldn’t bring a fourth child into your family and provide a good home for him? Or was it your fear of what Bob might do if he found out about me — that he might try to take me away from you, the same way he did in a drunken stupor the night he tried to take Terry before he was arrested?
Or was it a combination of both, plus the shame of trying to explain to everyone you came in contact with how a single mother of your age suddenly had a baby? The odds were stacked so high against you, and you knew it.
Most of all, though, I know you wanted to make sure I was given to a good home with two loving parents. And I believe that Dr. Ratcliff, who was my adoptive mother Olga’s doctor as well, believed in his heart that I was going to the best possible family. I’ve seen a letter from my dad Clark to Dr. Ratcliff, written about a year after we moved from Huntington, West Virginia to Houston (so when I was about 2). In it, Dad expressed his and Olga’s deep gratitude for making it possible for them to adopt me — their second adoption of a baby boy.
If only things had gone the way you had hoped, dear Betty. It’s not your fault. I know you loved me throughout your pregnancy, when you gave birth to me, when you signed the papers and for the final 31 years of your life. You couldn’t know how things would turn out. And what matters is that I ended up just fine.
My fervent wish is that I had searched for you sometime during those latter years, when I was a young journalist putting off what I knew I would do … someday. When I did finally begin searching, after Olga died, you were the driving reason, because of the sadness of my childhood. And although I didn’t find you, I did find three amazing people and their wonderful families, and I’ll forever be thankful for that life-changing discovery.
For the past 16 years, Betty, I have learned so much about you from the remarkable children you raised. And I keep learning, keep asking questions, although I know they’re relieved that the flood of queries has slowed to a trickle. (Just wait, though — it may pick up again.)
Mother, since June 10, 2005 — the day I learned your name, dates of birth and death, the names of your children and so much more — I’ve loved you and felt a deep connection to you. That has only continued to grow.
On this, your 100th, Betty Louise, your four children — including Robin, who’s in heaven with you — give you our love and fondest, most sincere birthday wishes.