Dan Companion was waiting in line last month when state officials in Augusta began handing out newly unsealed birth records for people who were adopted as children decades ago.
But he had no idea how much, or how fast, the piece of paper would change his life.
Jeanne Lacourse, meanwhile, was at home in Lewiston without a clue that the baby she briefly held 40 years ago soon would walk through her front door.
“I’m just amazed,” Companion said about getting to know Lacourse, his birth mother, over the past month. “It’s so natural.”
A new Maine law opened up the birth records of adoptees beginning Jan. 2, and as a result also opened windows into the personal and family histories of as many as 24,000 adults who now live all over the country. In the first few weeks, as many 400 searches were launched, or renewed, for birth mothers who now have a name and a hometown.
The state is still getting inquiries about personal birth records from around the country, although no longer at the 70- or 80-a-day pace of last month, said Don Lemieux, director of the state Office of Data, Research and Vital Statistics.
Adoptees who have used the new information to search for birth parents have had varying success.
Some are unable to find a married name or current address for the birth mother, while others learned that the woman died years ago. And successful searches do not always lead to happy reunions.
At least a few adoptees have been rebuffed by birth mothers who are not ready for contact, and may never be.
When adoptees and advocates pushed for Maine’s new open records law, they argued simply that the state had no right to stand between adults and their own birth certificates. The records, they said, could hold the keys to information about their family and medical histories, even if they didn’t lead to emotional family reunions.
But for some, as the story of Companion and Lacourse shows, the law has resolved lifelong mysteries and reunited birth parents and children.
Birth mother had searched
Lacourse, then Jeanne Gears, gave birth to a son in her parents’ home in Portland in 1969, when she was 19. She remembers holding her baby briefly before going to the hospital.
“He had dark hair and he was long. That’s what I remembered,” she said.
Her parents arranged for her baby to be adopted.
“It was a whole different era,” she said. “It’s hard in today’s world to think [keeping the baby] wasn’t an option. In 1969, it wasn’t an option.”
Lacourse would always wonder about the child, she said. She married in 1978, and loved her husband’s four children as her own. Her new family members were the first people she told about the boy she delivered in 1969.
“I just felt that if he came back into my life, they should know,” she said.
With the encouragement of her husband, she tried to find her son in the mid-1980s. Birth parents, however, have no legal access to adoption records and little chance of finding their biological children.
“I just kept reaching dead ends,” Lacourse said.
Lacourse’s husband died a little over a year ago. But, she said, his encouragement would help her when she answered Dan Companion’s phone call in early January.
Companion was adopted by a couple who lived in Westbrook. He moved to Vermont several years later, and lived there until recently. He now lives in Tampa, Fla.
Companion, who has three children of his own, said he grew up knowing he was adopted but never felt a strong urge to search for his birth parents.
“It’s never been a secret, and it’s been talked about. The question would come up once in a while: ‘Do you want to meet your birth mother or dad?’” he said. “I had a good family. … I never did anything before this to really make a conscious effort.”
Companion heard of the efforts to open Maine’s birth records to adoptees about two years ago and lent his support. “I do believe in the fundamental right for adoptees to have their information,” he said.
He flew to Maine from his home to be in Augusta when the records were opened, still not expecting any reunions. “I did not come up there saying to myself, ‘I’m going to come up there and run around finding people.’”
On the morning he got his birth certificate, Companion told a reporter he would simply like to tell his birth mother that everything turned out all right.
Encouraged by his girlfriend, who had come with him, Companion showed his birth mother’s maiden name to a state official at the vital records office, and quickly came up with her married name. Then, using a computer, he came up with her phone number and address.
“Within 45 minutes, I had the information. It was unbelievable,” he said. “I still wasn’t sure about the idea of calling someone.”
The next morning, on the drive from Augusta down to Portland, he pulled off the highway in Lewiston and made the call.
He wasn’t worried about Lacourse hanging up on him, he said. “My real concern was that I was going to upset someone’s life.”
No regrets about the past
He was so nervous when Lacourse answered the phone, he said, “the first thing out of my mouth was, ‘Are you alone?’”
And that made Lacourse, who was in fact alone, nervous, too, she recalls. “I said, ‘Maybe.’”
After a few more questions confirmed he had the right woman, Companion said, “I’m your son.”
Instead of hanging up on him, Lacourse agreed to meet him and even invited him to her house.
Lacourse said she was surprised, scared and thrilled. “I had wondered all these years if he was OK,” she said.
As soon as she saw his familiar features and their eyes met, “there was a connection” and sense of relief, she said.
They sat and talked and posed for a photo. Dan even got to meet one of his new uncles when Lacourse’s surprised brother stopped by for a visit.
Since then, they’ve talked almost daily on the telephone. Last weekend, Lacourse flew to Florida to surprise Companion on his 40th birthday and to meet the parents who raised him.
Later this month, Lacourse plans to meet Companion’s three children during yet another reunion.
Companion said he has no plans to contact his birth father because of the disruption that could cause.
Aside from the eyes and other features, it’s clear Companion and Lacourse also share a positive view of life.
Lacourse said she has now been able to “put that piece of the past kind of in its proper place. … Life’s way too short, and you don’t get that chance to go back and do it right.”
Companion said his experience shows adoption works, and there doesn’t have to be secrecy around it.
“It’s about openness and not feeling guilty about what happened in the past. Life happens,” Companion said. “If we have the opportunity to live today, it’s going to be wonderful.”
Learning where he came from has changed his life in many subtle ways, Companion said.
“There’s just simple things in your life you’re not aware of,” he said.
He now has a family medical history, for example, which is why he had to explain when a recent dental exam triggered a spontaneous celebration.
“The hygienist asked, is there anything different with your medical situation, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can answer that question.’”