Struggling for breath in the hospital emergency room, I worked to inhale the medicine flowing through the mask over my mouth. And as I fought, I thought again about the woman who gave me birth and then, as I saw it, abandoned me in the hospital to die.
I was born in 1946, very premature and weighing under three pounds. Placed in an incubator and given oxygen for my underdeveloped lungs, I spent three months in the hospital. The couple who wanted to adopt me was not allowed to visit, as I was not expected to live. The adoption agency feared for their emotional lives should they become attached to a baby doomed to die.
My mother traveled back to her home soon after my birth, returning only to sign the relinquishment papers when it appeared that I would survive. At that point, I was placed with my adoptive family. Until then, I had only the nurses to care for me; one of them baptized me when I was three days old.
Ups and Downs. The breathing problems I had as an infant led to frequent lung infections, and at age five, I nearly died from double viral pneumonia. Back to the hospital I went in a second fight for my life. The child in the bed next to me did not survive, but in God’s mysterious providence, I did.
My lungs had been damaged, however, and so I spent my growing-up years dealing with illness—nearly constant infections, many hospitalizations and trips to the ER, and missing out on sports and other normal childhood activities. But I learned to live with my limitations and did well in spite of them. I married and became an adoptive mother myself. Eventually, I obtained advanced degrees in special education.
I was enjoying a long and wonderful career as a high school teacher, when I discovered that I needed a lung transplant—the culmination of multiple infections that left one lung full of scar tissue. This would force me to retire much earlier than I had planned.
"She’s to Blame!" As I faced both the end of the career I loved and the looming probability of a life-altering surgery, anger at my birth mother simmered deep within my soul. "She was a nurse, for heaven’s sake," I thought, as I sucked in a breath during yet another ER visit. "But she never sought prenatal care. When she went into labor, she got on a bus and traveled to another city to avoid giving birth near her home. This is her fault!"
In preparation for the surgery, I needed to discover whether my birth parents had any medical allergies or history of lung disease. Since adoptees in my state cannot obtain their original birth certificates without permission from the birth parents, this process took months, as well as much money for the legal work.
I read and re-read the documents I finally received, and whenever I came to the words "baby stopped breathing," I felt a boiling inside me. My anger turned to rage, and I railed against my birth mother in my heart. "She was a Catholic and a nurse," I kept telling God. "It was wrong of her to hide when she knew the importance of prenatal care!"
That spring, I suffered illness after illness and missed several weeks of school in my last semester as a teacher. I blamed my birth mother for that, too. And when she refused my request to have contact with her, my rage turned to downright hatred. At my husband’s suggestion, I saw a counselor about this, but despite her efforts, I found no peace and became sicker and weaker.
I knew I was doing wrong and prayed for forgiveness. At the same time, I held on to my hatred with both hands, justifying myself to God.
Gift Most Precious. During this time, my son, then seventeen, was preparing for Confirmation. Soon came the day we were expected at church for the special "Sending Mass" before his reception of the sacrament. I was sick once again but rose and went, coughing and grumbling to myself all the way. "I don’t want to go. What good is Confirmation anyway? How is it helping me now?" By the time I entered the pew, I felt thoroughly enraged.
Then Father came out and began addressing the Confirmation class. With his first words, I felt my heart pierced.
"Young people," he said, "you are about to receive a gift so precious that it is nearly beyond words to describe." He went on to say that the Holy Spirit can heal all hurts, provide all gifts, build up all strength, guide all paths, and make all things new, no matter what the circumstances. "This Spirit is Jesus’ Spirit," he said. "It is a freely given gift that comes directly from God."
It was as if a light went on. Somehow, realizing that no one else could help me, I found myself begging God for a renewal of the Spirit.
"Lord," I prayed, "I just cannot forgive my birth mother on my own. Even though I know my rage is harming me, even though I know you forgive us and tell us to forgive others, I just can’t do it. I need you to do it in me, Lord. Please!"
And immediately, I heard these words within my heart: I know your struggles. And I know your heart. Without your illness, you would not be the person you are today. Forgive your mother, for I used your premature birth for my purposes. As the message ended, I felt something heavy lifting from both my shoulders. And then my heart was flooded with such joy that I could only weep and shake with praise and gratitude.
A Day for Birth Mothers. Much has happened since that day. I have become active in adoption-law reform in Minnesota and have met many birth mothers who have wrenching stories of giving up their babies out of desperation and shame. I am also a crisis pregnancy counselor volunteer and have seen firsthand the fear and confusion that can accompany an unplanned pregnancy.
I discovered that the church has wonderful programs for women who are suffering from the effects of abortion. But where, I wondered, is the help for the woman who has spent a life in silent sorrow over a child relinquished in adoption?
Pondering this, I began to hear God prompting me to simply telephone my archbishop and bring this need to light. At first, I told God to ask someone else. "I’m not a birth mother. I’m an adoptee and adoptive parent. This should come from one of them!" But finally I did call and communicated my feeling that the church should reach out to birth mothers as part of its pro-life ministry.
The archbishop was in full support of this idea and connected me with people who could help make something happen. As a result, the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis now hosts an annual "Day of Honor and Recognition for Birthmothers." We acknowledge the sacrifices made by women who have relinquished a child to adoption, and offer them an opportunity for healing and learning about various resources. At last year’s July event, our second, we welcomed one birth mother from Arizona and another from Colorado, as well as a number of women who were not Catholic. With God’s help, we hope to launch this event in other dioceses within our state—and perhaps even throughout the country.
Looking back on all this, I can only marvel at the Spirit’s work. He healed my anger and rage but went so much further: He is now healing generations of hurt in many other lives! My physical health has also improved. Though I chose not to have that lung transplant, I have rare occurrences of illness now and have not been in an emergency room for a year.
In more ways than one, God has given me the breath of life.
Gretchen Traylor lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.