An imagined life
by Patti Callahan Henry
Patti Callahan Henry's new novel, And Then I Found You, centers on a reunion of a young woman with the daughter she gave up for adoption. In a behind-the-book essay, Henry explains how a real-life adoption story inspired this touching and emotional novel.
Imagination is the essential fire for a writer. Questions are the fuel. Why and how and what if and what happens next—these are the questions that occupy my working hours. My waking and sleeping hours, too.
For years I had imagined a baby growing into a toddler, a young girl facing her first day of school, her first date. This was a shared narrative in our family. Everybody wondered. We had to. We knew so little.
Here is what we knew: My sister gave birth to a baby girl on July 18, 1989. She was adopted the next day by a hand-chosen, but anonymous family. She had a shock of dark hair and a dimpled chin. Her dad was a dear college friend of mine and she was blessed with his kind, green eyes. My sister named her Janelle. I only saw a single photo of her. And yet I loved her.
This wasn’t a story in one of my books. It was real life—the ache and tug and wondering of real life. I understood that I had a niece somewhere out in the world and I sometimes imagined her life. And yet for all the what if’s and what happened, never had I visualized the parallel coincidences that marked our crooked paths. Never had I crafted the reunion.
This wasn’t a story in one of my books. It was real life—the ache and tug and wondering of real life. I understood that I had a niece somewhere out in the world and I sometimes imagined her life.
It was a Facebook friend-request that changed my family’s world completely. Her name was Catherine and she wanted to see what her birth mom looked like. Apparently we weren’t the only ones who had wondered.
After talking to her mom, my niece typed her birth mother’s name into Google. In this search for Barbara Callahan, Catherine found me—her aunt. I had dedicated one of my novels to Barbi, so Google spit out my books and my name first. But I was a mere stepping stone.
I accepted the friend request, unaware that something life-altering was under way. I was living this, not writing it, so I had no idea what was happening. Catherine then went through my friend list to find her birth mother, Barbi, and our sister, Jeannie. Slowly, incrementally, we realized who Catherine was. We wept with the singular truth that she had found us. All the unknowing ended with a single email.
My sister Barbi met Catherine first. That reunion inspired another and Catherine brought her family to Atlanta. I walked toward her, feeling as if I were meeting a character from one of my novels, or a mythical creature found in an Irish forest. Then I hugged her and there was nothing fictitious or mythical about her. I cried. She cried. I held her even as she let go of me. It was love at second sight.
In the beginning of our relationship, it was all about storytelling, all about how our lives had unfolded without each other. Catherine told us about her best friend and her boyfriend. She told us how she used to look at her eyes or the dimple in her chin or her feet and wonder, “Who gave this to me?” We all laughed about our similarities and our differences. We marveled at how our lives had run parallel without touching. Catherine, Barbi and I all grew up outside Philadelphia. Catherine’s last name is my sister’s first name: Barbi and Barbee. She looks like my daughter. She has Irish parents. Like me, she rubs her nose when she’s nervous.
It’s easier to love an image than a living, changing, person. Yet, through cookouts and nights out, through football tailgating and hanging out in the kitchen, I’ve loved Catherine more with every conversation, with every intimacy.
So with that love I wanted to write a novel that captured the emotional changes that this reunion brought to our family. I didn’t want to use the true-to-life details of my sister’s life—this story is hers to tell—so I put aside the facts to write about a young woman who’d done the best she could, and yet still found herself in a terrible situation with few options. I wrote about the life of a young woman and her adopted first-born child, both wondering what had become of one another, both wondering if they’d ever meet. I explored the extraordinary changes that a reunion can bring to a life and to a family. I wondered again, and this time I got to choose the questions and the answers.
Our lives were forever changed when my sister’s daughter found us. I needed to find a way to portray the goodness and grace that our family discovered in the chaos of this event. So I turned to story, because it’s story that has the power to bind us together in our messy lives. It’s story that brings us together in our common human journey.