Category Archives: reconciliation

Old Reunion vs. New Reunion

Circle Flags

I forget how far we’ve come sometimes. Before Cathy and I were reunited in 1989, impossible questions left me aching empty handed. Now, twenty-seven years after our reunion, our connection and the memories we’ve made together, have slowly filled the empty well in my heart.

My connection – and sometimes disconnection – with Cathy still echoes with cacophonous guilt that niggles me to reenact my relinquishment and the cost to both of us. That teenager’s decision was the hardest, one that I could never take back. Forty-five years later – twenty-seven years into our reunion – breakthrough moments in our connection have tied our deeper selves to each other. Our real selves have replaced the fantasy people we had in mind in the void before reunion. Our times together have knit new nets across deep holes of sorrow and the truth has made supple the tightrope we walk between our hearts and the days of our lives. We are still vulnerable and susceptible, but we know each other now and there is real love between us.

Today finds me filling out Medicare forms in between music work, while Cathy finishes up her double masters degree, raises two sons and works full time at the university. Her family life is full. We live two turns down the road. We are not what Cathy deems “core family” but we are part of the family nevertheless. It’s an awkward incongruity but we’ve adjusted to our roles as outsiders inside her family circle. My husband, “Uncle Grandpa Steve” has arranged and made himself available to take our youngest grandson to guitar lessons, and he gives the older grandson rides to judo in a pinch. I am Grandma Kate who bakes treats and lets them run freely on my piano, showing them a little at a time, before their fingers take off on adventures of their own. I muss their hair with affection and throw the ball around. It’s joyful to be with the grandchildren this way and it is always filled with tender care, love and fun. I’m not Nona nor Nana. They know who I am, and in their bones know that we love them as our own and they feel normal with us.

The complexities of my daughter’s busy life, the widowed mother she is now responsible for, and the demands of her family, keep her running at full speed. Cathy recently moved her adoptive mother from Florida to Portland to set her up in a comfortable apartment on an eldercare campus nearby. On the other side of the country, my mother passes her time in eldercare assisted living near Boston. My mother is six years older than Cathy’s adoptive mom, who is twenty years older than me. The age gap has put Cathy and I on common ground – as we care for, and eventually lose, our parents – and the irony has deepened our bond in unexpected ways.

After fifty years as a non-practicing catholic, I resumed going to Sunday mass at a church behind our house in Seattle a few years ago. New to town, a new job, parents in declining health, and my own mortality, made the few steps up the block to mass a moment of retreat on Sundays, to say my prayers and listen to what the big Kenyan pastor with the heart of gold had to say. It was good for me. Since our return to Portland, I’ve tried out different churches to see if there is one that feels like home. No one else I know goes to church, so I go by myself, a rogue bee looking for its hive.

A few weeks after Dotty came to Portland, I asked her if she’d like to go to mass with me. She doesn’t drive anymore or have a way to get out on her own. I told her I could just pick her up and we could go together to the church near her apartment. She didn’t want to “be a bother” but then I told her that the companionship would be nice for me, she’d be doing me a favor. In my heart I thought, she could carry on in her own tradition in this new town with someone she knows – me. Cathy liked the idea and it gave her one less thing to worry about or do on weekends packed with kid obligations.

This small chance to take Dotty to mass – that I couldn’t do with my own mother from so far away – has grown our bond as friends – and as mothers to one daughter. We sometimes go for a bite after mass and it’s fun to bring her to places in Portland that play a part in Cathy’s history here.

“This is where Cathy got her first job bussing tables after she came to Portland – and decided that she wasn’t going to work in the restaurant business!” I ribbed as we breakfasted at the Cup & Saucer on SE Hawthorne.

We laughed, and the chuckle in the air was full of all that is our daughter in that flashback to Cathy’s heroic journey to Portland (and me). Our unadulterated love for her shone brightly as we smiled over our breakfast, knowing we were sharing a very good secret.

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To read my daughter’s counterblog, please visit ReunionEyes.
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The Guitar Lesson

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Before Cathy left on a vacation to the UK with her adoptive mother, she came over for an evening to write with me, and for a guitar lesson with my husband, Steve. She started to hedge about the music lesson “until I return from vacation” but Steve, in his irrepressible manner, threw the little parlor guitar into her hands and said, “Here, just do what I show you.”

It was like she had just saddled up her horse, climbed on and rode. They started singing “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and he’d stop every now and then to show her a trick with the strum, and then a little picking. He loves to teach and nothing delights him more than a willing student. And Cathy was much more than that to him. She wasn’t given any time to wrangle out of the idea and once the guitar was settled on her lap, she played and sang along without missing a beat. Her voice was pretty and had good pitch, and her rhythm was natural, spot on – she kept pace like a pro.

It thrilled me to watch and listen to her, and I threw out words of encouragement between bars of the song. “That sounds good!” “You’ve got it!” and I began to harmonize to them while I finished putting away the dinner dishes.

I had always wanted to find a way to share the music with Cathy but had been afraid of intimidating her, or frustrating her by not teaching her what she wanted to know and creating more distance between us. Steve didn’t carry any of the baggage I had, and in his free-spirited manner made their lesson a sweet part of the evening before we sat down to write without any fuss or second-guessing.

That little guitar lesson taught me something, too.

He just took her by the hand and walked her through it in the most natural way. She trusted him – they have shared a loving, mostly uncomplicated relationship over the years. Steve simply took the lead and she followed. He looked at me and smiled, “She’s really got it!” Her voice was beautiful.

The next day she marveled at how much the lesson thrilled her. I happily envied their exchange and how excited she was for the next time. I saw more clearly  now that rather than being afraid of teaching Cathy to play, I could simply follow Steve’s example, throw the guitar in her hands and say, “Here, just do what I show you.”

I want to harmonize with my daughter the way Mother Nature intended it. There’s really nothing for me to be afraid of except getting closer, chord by chord.

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To read my daughter’s counterblog, please visit ReunionEyes.
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Who is the Mother?

CathyKate_7-4-89The word “birthmother” triggers shame, sadness, regret and loss in me. It is not a moniker I like. It is the word in our vernacular for mothers who have lost their children to adoption. I have surrendered to its use but experience its usage as a painful burr that continues to rub my wound. It’s implication is demeaning and implies a breeding animal, not a mother. Still, it’s the word people seem to understand without further explanation, so I use it.

In our last post, the words in my title, “A Birthmother’s Perspective,” provoked a response from social researcher, Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh, whose research, education and inquiry into the period of American history known as the “Baby Scoop Era” (1945-1972) is extensive. My daughter, Cathy, was born in 1971.

Ms. Wilson-Buterbaugh wrote a paper that helps us understand the etymology of adoption language called “Whitewashing Adoption: A Critique of “Respectful Adoption Language.”

I answered Karen’s response to my use of “birthmother” to ask what term she would use. This (in part) was her reply…

“Adoption literature always referred to mothers as natural mothers. Of course back then we were also “unwed” mothers so they still tried to oppress us most mostly in public writings. In academic publications they used “natural” because that is who and what we are. We are mothers by Nature.

Then Pearl S. Buck coined the term “birth” for mothers. I found this reference by her in a magazine in 1955 and then she used it again in 1956. She adopted. She and Marietta Spencer, a well known adoption worker were friends so it is assumed that Spencer took that term and ran with it. Now the Indu$try uses it to further oppress and marginalize mothers who create life but who aren’t given their civil and natural rights to keep and raise their own children but who instead are coerced into surrendering them.

The birth prefix is offensive and demeaning. It is labeling. It is used to keep vulnerable mothers “in their place” by those with more money and power.

We, who were robbed of keeping our babies, are now reclaiming our MOTHERhood. We are MOTHERS. Those who should have a prefix are stepmothers, Godmothers and adoptive ones.

www.babyscoopera.com

What’s in a word? Everything.

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To read my daughter’s counterblog, please visit ReunionEyes.
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A Birthmother’s Perspective on Rosie O’Donnell and Chelsea

2015-09-02 09.44.46Cathy and I wrote letters for fours years after we met in 1989, while she was in college. One of her first written requests was for permission to ask me anything, and that I answer her with honesty and not hold back. She really wanted to know what I could tell her and the circumstances that would fill in the blanks in her past to form the true story of her family of origin.

Highlights in our correspondence became the “Letters” chapter in our memoir, Kathleen~Cathleen, and documented our mutual exploration during those first few years in reunion. We savored the letters that arrived in each other’s hand and took our time to soak in every word, and then respond.

In closed adoptions like ours, relinquishment forbids first mothers from contact with their child or their family. Although this rule of detachment is seen as self-imposed, trespass into the adoptive family and one’s child is forbidden and illegal.

This is a hard place for both mother and child to be in.

One of the last letters Cathy wrote when she graduated from college expressed her insecurity about what she should do next. My response was to invite her to come to Portland, Oregon that summer “to rub elbows with her genes” for a few weeks to take advantage of the freedom she now had to decide for herself.

My next letter back from Cathy had a big “YES!” handwritten on it. She began to make her plans to visit.

She never went back.

So when Chelsea, Rosie O’Donnell’s adopted daughter, turned eighteen and opted to live with her birthmother, it struck me as natural. I don’t watch television or know anything about them, really, but at eighteen her decision to live with her birthmother and “rub elbows with her genes” was normal and predictable.

The only reason Chelsea’s story was portrayed as news is because her adoptive mother is a highly visible celebrity and ready fodder for footage in the public eye. The news boasted Rosie’s anger with captions of cutting Chelsea’s financial support off in dramatic “all or nothing” style. True or not, it was a media spin clammering over an adoptee who had come of age and simply wanted to experience her roots.

There were no television cameras when Cathy left New Jersey at twenty-two on the Green Tortoise bus for Portland after college. Her adoptive parents understood that their daughter needed something more than they could provide her with – she needed to know and understand more about her lineage, heritage and family of origin. They got it, and responded lovingly. Although I’m certain they worried, they supported her decision with confidence and didn’t interfere with her pilgrimage.

My job was to fill in the blanks.

In his Book of Forgiving, written with his daughter Rev. Mpho Tutu on transformative healing, Desmond Tutu described the long-term effects of trauma from a study that followed war-affected children to measure their stability and mental health following the genocidal events in their homes and villages in South Africa.

They found that the group of children who had heard the true stories from their relatives about what had happened to their kin – in every grisly detail – proved to be well adjusted and exhibited stable emotional health, and were found able to handle conflict, decisions and crisis to a far better degree than the children from the same circumstances who had been protected from the truth of what had happened to their family.

Tutu says, “We are all in a relationship with one another, and when that relationship breaks, we all have the responsibility to roll up our sleeves and get to the hard work of repair” and summons us to “listen to what the heart hears.”

“We cannot begin again
We cannot make a new start as though the past has not passed
But we can plant something new
In the burnt ground
In time we will harvest a new story of who we are
We will
Build a relationship that is tempered by the fire of our history
I am a person who could hurt you
And knowing those truths we choose to make something new
Forgiveness is my back bent to clear away the dead tangle of hurt and recrimination
And make a space, a field fit for planting
When I stand to survey this place I can choose to invite
you in to sow seeds for a different harvest
Or I can choose to let you go
And let the field lie fallow.”

To withhold the truth – or a mother and child from each other – is a deliberate decision, not an act of love. For better or worse, it’s an act of power. Once the child grows into adulthood, the journey becomes theirs alone to explore. Loving parents, adoptive and biological, who find ways to “listen to what the heart hears,” will aim to support the health of their child by helping them to explore from the heart to determine what is true and meaningful for them, and leave the façades behind. Love nourished multiplies.

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To read my daughter’s counterblog, please visit ReunionEyes.
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Integration: Excerpt from Kathleen~Cathleen, Part 6

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Below is Part 6, the final installment in this series of our blog – a series to share excerpts from our memoir, Kathleen~Cathleen as read for the American Adoption Congress Conference in San Francisco in 2014.

Last week’s excerpt from the  “Therapy” chapter of Kathleen~Cathleen, we shared discoveries that shed light and gave us a new perspective on the core of our reunion experience. It also validated our experience which made us stronger, and fueled our desire to continue.

Below is my excerpt from the Integration chapter of the memoir (then read Cathy’s Integration excerpt at ReunionEyes).
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Kate’s Reading…

Cathy established herself in Portland and created a life of her own that also allowed us to remain connected. I had fallen in love with the owner of a little musical instrument shop, Artichoke Music, and my youngest daughter and I moved into a shared household with he and his two sons.

In what would become our blended family, Cathy was treated as an emancipated eldest sibling and she was considered a member of the family from the beginning.

At this point in time, Cathy helped me part-time in my office at the music store. We had become more comfortable with each other and I relished her participation in our life in Portland.

In 1995, Cathy joined an adoptee-in-reunion group that was facilitated by a therapist who was also a birthmother, with her reunited relinquished daughter.

At Cathy’s suggestion, I decided to go to the counter-group for birthparents led by the same therapist. She introduced herself as Sharon, and led me into the room where the group meets.

People were seated in all but one of the circle of chairs, and I took it.  Sharon sat in her tall, rolling, tweed office chair next to her small desk . She ( and ) began by asking us to introduce ourselves by our first names and to briefly share our reunion status with our birth child.

I was suddenly aware that I had never knowingly been in a room with another birthmother, much less a roomful of them.  As stigmatic birthmothers, we were there to talk about the very thing that made us the invisible character in the triad.  None of us had ever talked about ourselves in this role within a peer group. Birthmothers were invisible. Talking about it was a rare confidence with a friend or family member but never like this, in an open room filled with others who had  come here to talk about reunion and reconciliation with the children.

Each woman had her story.  Some were local Portlanders whose history remained within the proximity of the region.  Others, like me, were from other places and now living in Oregon.  Each person was in a different phase of reunion.  The emotional makeup of each story revealed common threads between us.

Characteristics in common included independent, middle-aged women with a matter-of-fact and serious tone about the past as the stories unfolded one by one around the room.  Strong women, accomplished women. Knowing that the our group leader and facilitator, Sharon, was a birthmother in reunion with her own daughter helped me feel safe.

As the women shared their experiences, I related to their feelings based on my own times and reflections with Cathy.  The highs and lows that I had felt as a birthmother, before and in reunion, existed in each woman’s tale. As we focused on each story, and both the dilemmas and connections arising from our reunions, our stories pointed to the place we shared outside of the social norms .

These were places where we had been quiet and invisible until now. I moved this following bit to Therapy chapter with Deborah…20140621kp To tell my story was an act of making my secret known.  To say it outloud made the act of relinquishment, and all that followed, real. Once said, it existed outside of that protected place inside of me where it had been lived so quietly for so long.

Being the carrier of this long secret inside my identity, I was fascinated to hear people’s stories.  They were so honest.  No matter how the story went, the taboo behind our roles as birthparents bonded us. We were saboteurs subverting the dominant paradigm by sharing the truth about our lives since we had let go of our children.

Words for what we described weren’t built into the idioms of our social vocabulary, nor did they exist in the dictionary.  New words like “birthmother”, “relinquishment”, “in reunion”, “triad” were added to the few phrases we had.  The phrase “Giving up the baby” was loaded with shame as a conviction of abandonment for the birthmother who had let go of her child.  As taboo as murder, it was an unspoken act.

As difficult as the topic was, the end of each weekly group left me with a significant feeling of relief.  Just knowing there were other women out there facing a similar set of feelings was comforting.  The feelings remained but I was able to recognize them.  I was part of a collective of birthmothers and no longer strived for answers in isolation, completely alone.

Cathy and I had started our therapeutic assignment to find a neutral place to meet once a week. Cassidy’s Restaurant became our weekly rendezvous.  It had been a favorite haunt of mine since the early 80’s. With its mahogany bar, oak floors and low lights, it’s a perfect place to talk and Cathy liked it there as much as I did.

After going to the birthmothers group, I was able to tell Cathy about the experience of that night and some of the impressions it left me with.  I loved those times together.  We confided in each other and I left feeling connected with her on a deep level. Like for Cathy, the group gave me some perspective on how far she and I had come in the life of our relationship next to the struggles in the stories the others shared in that room.

Cathy and I were new veterans on a horizon that had narrow access for exploration.  We felt like a pair of pioneers in uncharted territory.  Our exploration had been conscious and vocal since the beginning with an openness that was natural to our personalities, a trait we shared. We continued to track our feelings as we unfolded in new ways, and revealed deeper versions of ourselves with each other.

My pride in Cathy, who she was and the woman she was becoming, was strong.  I could feel maternal responses and it felt wonderful to express it.  The undercurrents in my emotions rose more quickly to the surface as my ability to claim my daughter grew more real.  She gave me permission to love her and I began to feel the maternal feelings I had for her without its guilty partner, shame.

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To read my daughter’s counterblog, please visit ReunionEyes.
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Therapy: Excerpt from Kathleen~Cathleen, Part 5

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Below is Part 5 of our blog series sharing excerpts from our memoir, Kathleen~Cathleen. Last week in “Going Dark – Dusk,” we shared an excerpt that described a dichotomy that challenged us, divided us and polarized our ability to experience peaceful union in our reunion. Below is my excerpt from the Therapy chapter of the memoir (then read Cathy’s Therapy excerpt at ReunionEyes).
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KATE Reading…

Cathy revealed something in therapy that changed everything. She told me that explanations didn’t matter. She didn’t need me to have the answers. She didn’t need me to be brave. She needed to see me feeling pain.

In order for her to believe that she meant anything beneath the surface, she needed to see my tears. She needed to see me cry. She needed to see me in a state of pain over her. For her, my tears made it real. If she was to believe that losing her was my loss, she needed to hear the pain behind the talk.

For her to have lost me at her birth had left a mysterious question mark that haunted her. She needed to feel my haunted heart, the distress of her absence in my life. Every rational reason for the decision behind our separation – my young age and lack of experience, none of it meant anything next to seeing me cry over it.

Witnessing my tears told her far more than my words. She didn’t just want to know why I felt something, she wanted to see me feel it and to know that everything that happened between us really meant something, that it – all of it – really hurt; that she has always meant something to me and that she has always been important to me… even from the beginning… and that she will always matter, no matter what.

We began to talk about ways to reclaim each other. For the first time, I was encouraged by the therapist to take Cathy as my daughter. For the first time, I’d  become aware that this was something that Cathy wanted me to do.

For the first time, I was enabled to BE her mother and she was enabled to BE my child.

We imagined how it could have been. I was allowed to feel my regret. I was allowed to remove the honorable mantle of my noble sacrifice, and to replace it with a shawl of grief for my lost baby.

One of my the assignments our therapist, Deborah, gave us encouraged me to write a new contract to replace the one I had signed in the attorney’s office. I rewrote it in reverse.

Instead of taking myself out of the picture and forfeiting my rights, I put myself into the role of possessive mother and reclaimed my child in legal language. Instead of relinquishing my rights to my child, I committed myself to taking the power of responsibility for her. I swore my loyalty, my heart, soul and body back to my daughter. I was hers to have now. I would never abandon her again. My promise was a doorway into the next leg of our relationship.

Those Tuesday hours that year with Deborah brought us through many places and I noticed new things were happening inside me. Driving home from work, or on an elevator between floors on the job, I would start to cry for no apparent reason. Pieces that had been sealed in place for so many years broke apart, and the feelings underneath them rose with the tears that fell.

I began to understand that hiding behind my strength had been an excuse for resisting the pain. This numbness began to lose its grip in my heart. My bravery had been an excuse for paralysis. I started to feel more. At first that alarmed me. Then I started to allow myself to feel even more. I began to cry, not only from buried sorrow, but also from recently found joy and gratitude. I felt myself more alive in new and unexpected ways.
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To read my daughter’s counterblog, please visit ReunionEyes.
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Going Dark – Dusk: Excerpt from Kathleen~Cathleen, Part 4

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Below is Part 4 of our blog series sharing excerpts from our memoir, Kathleen~Cathleen. Last week in “Going Dark – Deepening,” we shared an excerpt that described the challenges as we navigated our inexperienced reunited relationship and grappled with the distance that grew between us.

The alienation in our struggle comes to a peak in “Going Dark – Dusk,” and forces us to face what we fear most. Below is my excerpt from the Going Dark chapter of the memoir, titled “Dusk” (then read Cathy’s Dusk excerpt at ReunionEyes).
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KATE Reading….

The weather was fickle in more ways than one. The mood that had lightened between Cathy and me resumed its drift into dark and unknown territory. Days would go by, and then weeks without any word from her.

She had moved to the apartment upstairs, and only lived fifteen steps from me. I had imagined us borrowing sugar from each other, sharing meals, and the offering of a confidence here and there.

I had hoped for  a closeness between us – a mother and daughter kind of understanding – that would follow after the drama or tension that so often comes in the teen years of rebellion. She was older than that now, but her resistance felt similar to the antics of an emancipating teenager. I hadn’t parented a teenager before. I had just shared as much as I could of who I was and some of what I knew.

I thought my heart had already paid the cost of relinquishing my daughter with all the sadness, guilt and isolation I had lived with for the past twenty-two years.

In place of the sadness, I had hoped for a piece of common ground that Cathy and I could plant and tend together as harmony grew between us. I was a dreamer. That was not what was happening. Before long, it became clear to me that Cathy was not only ignoring me, she was avoiding me.

One night , I encountered Cathy coming into the entrance to the front foyer as I was locking up for the night. I said hello and asked how she was doing. Her tone was cold and short. I felt her intolerance as she went up the stairs and shut the door.

What had I done that had turned her so far away from me? Was it just that her focus was now on her lover , so  she didn’t need me or want me in the picture? Was it territorial? Was it me?  Had I done something particularly disappointing?

Had I failed the test of the mother she was hoping to find? Was I doomed to my fate as a mother who committed an unnatural act and had rejected her perfectly good child?  Was my child rejecting me to pay me back? Did she need to dismiss me to regain self-respect?

I told myself that it wasn’t her job to make me happy, but feelings of guilt taunted me and I wondered if she would always want to hurt me in return. I could feel the line she had drawn.

I wondered. Do I sacrifice myself again, only this time, to allow her to hurt and reject me?  What should I do?  My head hurt. My heart ached. I couldn’t breathe.

A few weeks later I asked Cathy for a ride to the nearby Clinton Street Theater to hear one of my favorite folksingers in concert. I asked Cathy if she’d like to join me. She was not at all interested in the show but she offered to give me a ride. She was quiet as she drove me there. I hesitated and then asked her out loud, “Are we okay?”

Her expression was surprised and confused. I could tell this wasn’t what she wanted to hear. She pressed her lips and leaned into the steering wheel as though doubling her concentration on the road ahead. I pointed to the theater on the left and she pulled into a parking space across the street.

I leaned over to hug her. She held herself back as hard as a mannequin in resistance. She was stone cold in a place that I was not allowed to enter. I looked at her and blinked. I knew the pain on my face was plain and uncovered. I mumbled thanks for the ride and told her I’d get a ride home.

My heart burned a hole in my chest as I left the car. There was no more doubt. She hates me. She really does. I blew it. Our relationship was derailed. Her disdain soaked the skin off my heart like acid and everything hurt. The disconnect between Cathy and me was glaring and she wasn’t pretending otherwise.

She had opted out.

If we were going to save anything between us, it was time to talk.

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To read my daughter’s counterblog, please visit ReunionEyes.
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