“‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said. ‘To talk of many things.’”
As a child, I can remember the countless hours my parents and I would watch “Alice and Wonderland” together. Growing up in the 1990s, the Disney film adaptation was a mainstay in our VHS collection. Wonderland was a place I could escape to when needed.
I’d travel down the rabbit hole with Alice and into a wildly enchanting world where nothing was as it seemed and everything was, all the same time. I’d dream of talking playing cards and befuddled caterpillars, and flowers smiling in the sunshine.
My days were spent chasing dreams and having adventures. As an only child, I sought solace in my own little world every chance I could retreat. My imagination was my best friend.
I was born at 5:56 p.m. on Nov. 30, 1986, in Shreveport, at Willis-Knighton North Medical Center on Greenwood Road. Five days later the life I began would rapidly change course as my birth mother, Patti Draper (then Wisener), would hand me over to two individuals she handpicked from hundreds.
On Dec. 5, I became their son.
My adoptive father, James Elmer Jones, was a longtime machinist for AT&T and my mother, Mary Elaine, had a variety of employment, including her favorite, working in childcare. The two will have been married for 43 years come this July, and their marriage is stronger than ever.
When I was little I always asked my parents where I came from. A normal question for toddlers and children, sometimes my dad would throw in a funny “Cabbage Patch” reference or say he found me in the vegetable garden. Other times the memory is too hazy to recall, but I know I asked.
I’m not sure my mother ever lied to me, but I know the truth was never told.
When I was 10-years-old I found out I was adopted.
It’s not really a concept most 10-year-olds understand adequately, but learning that the man and woman I believed to be my parents were in fact not my birth parents, I was devastated.
It was around Christmastime when I was delivered this information, when my father’s sister and her daughter were visiting from Kansas. We were at my grandparents’ house in Southern Hills. That’s when we used to have holiday get-togethers there, back when my grandparents were alive (Here’s to you, Doots and Mickey).
My cousin, who was just a few years younger than I, was the one who “spilled the beans.”
I never felt any sort of anger or frustration at her, only to learn that she, too, was adopted and my aunt comforted her with my story.
Sadly, my story wasn’t my cousin’s story to share, but she did.
It was one of those moments where you have a knee-jerk reaction and say “No way! You’re a liar!” I was a kid, and I was fighting with something I didn’t know existed, and while I may have “thrown to the wind” most (if not all) of the things that came out of her mouth, this one settled hard.
Imagine someone telling you that everything you knew to be true, wasn’t.
That’s what I felt, like my entire personal history had vanished.
The memories were still there, and the love my adoptive parents gave me was exponential, but for the first time in my life I felt as if I had no clue who I was.
Plus, I was 10. Plus I was starting middle school. Plus, I was going through puberty.
I approached my mother that evening when we arrived home. It wasn’t something I felt comfortable talking about, but it was so odd to hear my cousin say, “You’re adopted, too” that I had to bring it up.
“How can I be adopted?” I asked myself over and over.
I kept quiet the entire ride home, all of 10 minutes. I remember it being late and my father retiring to his room, my mother staying up to catch the late night news.
I wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to talk to her, but I got up the courage, pulled her aside and said “Mom, we need to talk about something that happened tonight.”
Before I could even get the words adoption out of my mouth my mother stopped in shock as she heard the conversation take place, one she’d so desperately wanted to have herself. I could see on her face that this hadn’t gone as planned.
“Go talk to your father.”
It wasn’t something I did often, and I can’t deny, I still don’t talk to my father as much as I should, but I’ve always gone to him with my problems. That door has always been open and still is.
I think he was stunned because his only answer was “Well, you are.”
I remember locking myself in the bathroom and crying that night, just sitting and trembling against the door. I didn’t come out for at least an hour.
My whole world had changed in a matter of moments.
My mother explained to me that she was unable to a bear a child due to an operation she had as a child. She said they worked for three years to adopt and that she waited her entire life to find me. My dad showed me letters they had written, correspondence between them and Volunteers of America to my birth mother.
It all just felt surreal.
It was, and still is, such a vivid part of my memory. Learning that knowledge and realizing something was missing from me as a person continuously propelled me through life, until now.
On Dec. 29, 2014, I met my birth mother.
After searching for 10 years, I have received my fair share of messages, letters and emails starting and ending the same way, “We regret to inform you. … There is no match at this time.” I have shared my story on message boards, forums, Facebook pages and various websites. I wrote about it while working for The Times and continued a column with avid readership, including video blogs. I even posted a photo of myself on social media that was shared around the world.
It was a wildcard that landed in my lap, though, just a few days before Christmas. This time it was different. I had dreamed of this day. I opened my Gmail to find a note from an unknown “Linda.” I proceeded to read the message:
I do not know if you are the right person or not but I am doing a search for someone and their birthday is in November of ’87. If I have the right person, can you get in touch and if I don’t then please disregard.
Sadly, my birthday is November of 1986. This wasn’t the first (and I imagined wouldn’t have been the last) time I received an email of this nature. I wasn’t too concerned, but I responded to this “unknown-at-the-time” Linda and told her when my birthday was. She then proceeded to ask if I was adopted, and of course, I told her yes.
Immediately she asked if I was adopted through Volunteers of America.
I am sure that you are who I am looking for. Is your adoptive father’s name James Elmer Jones?
I remember taking a big breath. It was the first time someone on the other side knew something. They knew my adoptive father’s name, the father that had given me his name — James Derick Jones. I knew something was different this time, and even though I couldn’t “hear it in her tone,” I could feel it in the air.
These emails would forever change my life.
It was Dec. 18 around 9 p.m. when Linda, who I learned gave up her son for adoption, as well (and was reunited), revealed she had indeed found my birth mother. She explained to me that someone had reached out to her earlier in the year searching for my birth mother. She did not reveal who, but told me that it was not due to any of my posts through social media or my column.
Apparently it was just our time.
She said my birth mother hadn’t contacted her back until before Thanksgiving, right before my 28th birthday.
I just talked to her. What is your phone number? Would you like to call her or would you like for her to call you?
For the first time in 28 years I was speechless about my adoption.
I was going to speak to my birth mother for the first time.
I had spent countless hours, days, weeks searching for my roots, trying to find any piece of anything that could say, “This is who I am.”
Searching for birth parents is a tiring task, especially when you have a closed adoption. Closed adoptions were very popular in the past and refer to an adoption process where there is no interaction of any kind between birth mothers and prospective adoptive families. This means there is no identifying information provided either to the birth families or adoptive families.
Up until a few months ago, I had one sheet of non-identifying information, descriptions of my birth parents and their families, sicknesses, anything that might be deemed important other than their names and locations.
That piece of information arrived on Jan. 5, 2005, from my case worker through VOA, the agency that placed me with my adoptive family.
Please find enclosed the report you requested.
I have not been able to locate your birth mother at the last address she gave to us. Hopefully she registered with the voluntary registry. …
That was the first time I had heard about the Louisiana Voluntary Adoption Registry, a passive match registry where no attempt is made by the LVAR to contact the party being sought. The only way we would find each other was if I registered and she had already registered prior.
I continued to read through the information and found a second page.
Birthmother has contacted the agency off and on through the years asking about her child’s well being. The last contact was in 1996. She reported that she was married and was happy. She told the worker that she wanted the opportunity if it ever happened to be able to tell her son why she chose adoption for him. …
Along with the non-identifying information, an informational packet on the LVAR was included.
To register for the LVAR, one must complete the proper affidavit to the extent possible and have it notarized, plus include a $25 registration fee.
If the registry has a match, the original person listed on the register will be notified to complete a mandatory counseling session provided by the State of Louisiana’s Department of Social Services.
I was on winter break from college at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches then in 2005. I remember telling my parents about it and starting the application process. I filled out as much as I could and wrote the check for the correct amount.
But then something happened, and I’m not sure why. I took the application and the check, placed them in an envelope, addressed it to the correct department and tucked it away.
I was afraid.
But I told everyone I sent it. I even believed I had sent it. I lied to everyone and myself for nearly five years.
Before I turned 18 I had little to no experience with adoption (other than learning about mine and my cousin’s). I knew maybe two other kids in high school that were adopted, but we never talked about it. It wasn’t something that just came up in conversation.
Right around 2001, I was fortunate to help my father in finding his siblings. He had only met his birth father once but knew he had four siblings that existed. I was able to reconnect him through a bit of online searching and in a matter of minutes found his relatives.
That was easy, and it was my first time searching for someone. I never thought to do it for myself.
From the time I found out about my adoption until 2009, I spent very little time searching for my birth parents.
I never stopped thinking about them, but I never started looking. I went to Volunteers of America to request my non-identifying information at 18 and for almost five years focused my attention on other things — college, growing up, finding a job, finding multiple jobs, and learning who I was as an adult.
From my non-identifying information I learned my birth mother was 27 at the time of my birth and my birth father, 19. She was 5’5” with an olive complexion, dark brown hair and hazel eyes. She was of German and Native-American descent. He was 5’8” with brown hair and brown eyes.
My birth mother was also a widow. Her husband had died as a result of smoke inhalation. Before his death, they had separated but taken no legal action. As a result of their marriage, two children were born.
I remember reading the page to myself and gasping. I had two siblings. My entire life spent as an only child was still true, but now I had siblings.
My oldest sister was six at the time, and my brother five. According to the informational statement, they were both reported to be in good health.
For 10 years I believed myself to be the youngest — until I was reconnected with my birth mother. I’ve since learned I have two younger siblings, as well.
I am an only child and a middle child.
I also learned about my birth mother’s family, her brother and two sisters. The statement told me about my grandparents, her father being in his 50s at the time and her mother in her 40s. I’ve now learned they are no longer alive.
This was the only information I knew of my birth mother and birth father.
I held it tight, close to my heart. I clutched that piece of information until 2009. That would be the next time I’d find out something concrete about my family.
In 2009, I decided to open my case. I was curious, and I was going through a period of time in which I could truly commit to looking for my birth parents.
In early 2009, I emailed VOA inquiring about my case. My case worker and I corresponded over a few weeks before I received a phone call while in Dallas (I was visiting the King Tutankhamen exhibit with my father and friend). We had just left the museum and were shopping in a large department store when she rang:
“I spoke to your birth mother on the phone today. …”
Up until that point I had no idea if my birth mother was even alive. I had dreamed she was, but at that time I had no clear information on her existence or her whereabouts. I remember sitting down on one of the large bedroom display beds. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was the closest thing to my own room (a place I so desperately wanted to be).
We were having a conversation that I never expected to have. I was very quiet on the other end of the receiver as my case worker retraced her steps of reaching out to my birth mother.
She said she had spoken to her and she had been remarried and indeed did have two children. While she could not give me her name, the confirmation of her existing was enough to ignite the drive.
I was then told to write a letter to my birth mother and Volunteers of America would handle the interim process. I hung up the phone, calm and collected, and burst into tears. I had written so many letters before, but this time it would be delivered. This time my birth mother would hear my side of our story.
It wasn’t easy writing the letter. In fact, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
How do you write to someone that you’ve never met or spoken to? It felt like writing to a pen pal, and I had to start the conversation from scratch.
I must have started my letter over 10 times before I settled. It had to be perfect. It had to be right.
I worked on that letter for nearly two months. Some days I’d take breaks, other days I’d try again. It never felt right, and now, six years later, the letter I wrote is almost a vague memory. I remember telling her I wasn’t upset, and I was happy about the decision she made. I wasn’t afraid or scared, and I wasn’t looking for anyone to save me. I just needed to know.
I needed to know who I was and where I came from.
I emailed the letter to my case worker and never heard back. Months turned into years and as I continuously waited, I assumed she never received it.
Since then I’ve learned she did, and she wrote back. She responded, along with her youngest daughter, though I was never given any letters. I have contacted VOA and requested these documents, but nothing is on file.
Where did these letters go? Who has them? No one seems to have any information on where they could be.
I can only hope this hasn’t happened to others in similar situations, and it breaks my heart to know that we came so close to finding each other then.
Many times throughout my teen years and into my adult life I imagined what my birth mother was like. I’d think about how she could be anyone, and at any time we might have already crossed paths.
What if she lives in my neighborhood? What if we shop at the same grocery store? The questions were always endless “what ifs?” and I always ended up with the same lost feeling.
I never dreamed of having a “better life” with this unknown family, but I did dream of a different life with my true family.
Don’t get me wrong; I love my adoptive parents. They have been the best cornerstones in my life. I can’t imagine a better team to raise me. Their love and dedication to my success has always been unconditional. I have a great relationship with them and for that I am grateful.
Even so, I still yearned to know my roots, my background and my history. A want turned into a need, and by 2013 I knew the time was now. I was going to find my birthparents.
This would be my year.
During this time I was working for The Times. I had access to archives, photos and an entire 175 years worth of documentation of Shreveport-Bossier City. It clicked. I would use the resources around me to help aid my search.
I started that summer visiting the archives weekly. I’d put together clues from my small pieces of information, sifting through old papers, looking for fires or anything related to deaths that could be linked to my birth mother’s previous marriage. I knew her husband had died of smoke inhalation. It was just about making the facts fit.
It was wild. I even invited a friend to help with my search, and she (up until being reunited) has continued to help in my search. Thank you.
I knew if I was going to find the information I needed, it would be there within those walls.
One day while sitting at home and going through my letters and documents chronicling my adoption, I stumbled across a sealed envelope. I opened it up to find a check and an almost entirely filled out affidavit for the Louisiana Voluntary Adoption Registry.
I immediately tore it up and threw it in the trash.
My heart was racing.
I had never sent the application.
I didn’t tell anyone about that day; I just simply continued on. I needed a moment to pause and think about what just happened.
“Why were you so afraid?” I asked myself. “Why, why, why?”
For the first time in my life I actually stood in a position of power where I was in control of my fate. I had tucked away the letter last time because I was afraid. I was a child. I was scared.
This time I wasn’t afraid anymore.
The following week I decided it was time to register.
I went online, printed out the necessary document, had a co-worker notarize it and sent in my application fee.
On Sept. 4, 2013 I received a letter of acknowledgement and this:
We regret to inform you that we have no match at this time with any of your biological family. …
This was crushing.
I had waited years to send out this application. Nearly 10 years to be exact.
This was what I feared most, knowing that she wasn’t actively searching for me.
This wasn’t good enough for me. I knew I could find her, and with enough will power, I decided to take my story public.
I had recently watched a documentary on adoption and my mind began to wander.
There were many days like that, and sometimes those days would turn into weeks. I’d find myself lost and falling down another rabbit hole, this time filled with doors of illusion and empty hallways.
It was Sept. 6 when I took to Facebook.
I had written out on a simple sheet of paper “Help me find my birth mother. I was born Nov. 30, 1986 in Shreveport, La. I have two half siblings that I’ve never met.”
I posted it to my timeline and automatically began receiving “shares.”
That night before bed I started researching Facebook groups and pages and found “Help Me Find My Birth Parents,” a Facebook page dedicated to reuniting families. I shared my photo and asked for help.
It was the first time I asked anyone for help.
The next day I found my photo posted on their page, and 28 shares turned into 868 in just a matter of days. My photo received over 180 likes. It was shared in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Australia and even Europe. Almost every state in the United States had a share. I was watching my story come alive and people genuinely wanted to help.
They shared their stories, their feelings and their thoughts on adoption, mostly on theirs. Some chatted about adopting children or wanting to adopt children.
It was this that inspired me to write a column for the newspaper. I debuted my three-column series on Sept. 22. I kept it short, but always relevant to the season. I talked about Thanksgiving and the holidays. I focused on outreach, and I always left my door open for others to share their stories.
I must have read over 30 emails from strangers across the U.S. in the first few weeks. I had fans, which turned into followers. A group of people emerged that were interested in my story, a story that I struggled with for years.
In August, I had reached out to the Department of Children and Family Services for another copy of my non-identifying information. After reaching out to our local chapter of VOA, I learned that their adoption services no longer existed on site. Everything now went through another department, and I thought maybe I’d have a chance. In October, I received a letter:
Dear Mr. James Jones:
In response to your August 2013 request we are providing the attached non-identifying medical/genetic background information. This data was taken from the adoption petition files provided by Volunteers of America, Shreveport, Louisiana and the Louisiana Departments of Public Welfare, Louisiana to the Juvenile Court of Parish of Caddo, State of Louisiana. We hope this will be helpful information for you. Should any of the reports seem disturbing to you, we urge you to obtain supportive counseling from an adoption practitioner in your area.
Please be advised that we are providing information to you as allowed by Louisiana adoption laws. Release of any additional information which may be contained in your record would require your filing a motion with the court where the adoption was finalized and a subsequent issuance of a court order authorizing the release. …
For a split second I thought “Let’s do this,” but quickly retracted my desire. I was in no way able to handle any court fees, and the process seemed so bleak, why try?
I opened the two pages of information similar to the packet I received at 18, though this one was different. This had my birth time and said my birth mother was born in Texas.
This was the first new piece of information I had in years.
Little information was given on my birth father, and later (after meeting my birth mother) I learned he was not informed of her pregnancy with me.
We have talked little about my birth father, but I expect that to be a road we walk down soon.
The night I spoke to my birth mother on the phone was an exhilarating and terrifying moment. As she called me I watched the phone screen light up, flashing with her number. I answered it with a solemn “Hello,” and she introduced herself. “Hi. I’m Patti. I’m your birth mother.”
Immediately I burst into tears. I had waited almost my entire life to hear someone say that. We wept together that evening and told each other about our lives and where we were. I told her about my fiancé, Evan, and our vintage shop. I told her about working for the paper and how I graduated from college at Louisiana State University in Shreveport with a degree in journalism. She told me about her children and their children, and all the nieces and nephews that make up the Wisener family.
We didn’t talk long, but we promised to keep in touch. I knew it would only be a matter of time before we met.
Christmas was the following week, and while this may have been a Christmas miracle, it was right before New Year’s when we met.
We decided to meet halfway in Longview (Patti is from a small town outside of Tyler, Texas) on Monday, Dec. 29. Food, as anyone from the south can attest, is the best way to get to know someone. It’s comforting, and we both needed that. We agreed to meet at Papacita’s and as they sometimes say, “the rest is history.”
We have continuously kept in contact through social media, texting and phone calls. We have, to date, met each other twice and hope to do so on more of a regular basis. I have connected with each one of her children, my siblings, through Facebook (something I never dreamed of being able to do).
The photos featured of us together in this magazine are the first photos we’ve ever had together. This is the beginning of our relationship.
My story, like so many others, is filled with pain and sorrow. I’ve felt regret, shame and hatred toward myself. Currently there are over 4,000 children in foster care in Louisiana and nearly 700 of those are waiting for adoptive families (adoptuskids.org).
I believe in a woman’s right to choose the option that best works for her, and whatever decision my birth mother could have made, she chose to give me up for adoption.
In the past I have been mislead so many times throughout this journey, but now I can say I have found the road home.
I had hope, and now I feel complete.
Since reconnecting with my birth mother I have had the chance to learn about an entirely new family. She has repeatedly told me how fortunate she is for all of the love and joy her children and grandchildren bring her. She loves her family, our family, no matter what.
This journey is not over by any means, but a new chapter has begun.
I’m exploring a new part of Wonderland, and this time it’s more enchanting than ever.