We're continuing our series of Q&A's with the Callahan sisters. If you're just now jumping in, make sure to first read Barbi's story Part 1 so you can fully understand the true story that inspired her sister's novel "And Then I Found You".
Part 2: Meet Patti…
What was it like when you found out your sister was pregnant?
I was almost 25. I was a nurse. The [birth] father was one of my dearest friends so between me being a nurse and him, my sister told me first. I went with her to the doctor, and then I actually told my parents. She had me tell them. It was a long time ago, and I’ve probably emotionally blanked a lot of that out. I remember it was emotional, we were crying, and it was hard. But it didn’t seem to me the end of the world, probably did to her. I knew that these were smart, loving people who would figure out the right thing to do… It was just a difficult situation with smart, loving people. And I knew that. I knew there would be a lot prayer, a lot of talk, a lot of counsel. Everybody would figure out the right thing to do…
One word to describe that moment you found out your sister was pregnant.
Scared. I was really scared for her. I knew she was a very big planner. I knew that this was not in her plan.
How did this affect your family?
Now we were living all over the place... So it wasn’t like we were living under one roof when this was going on. It was way before cell phones, email and texting, and so all communication required a planned phone call. I haven’t really thought about this until now. It was a time when you didn't communicate the way you communicate now. I think everybody was processing their emotions separately instead of as a family unit. Barbi was trying to work things out with the birth father, trying to make decisions, seeking counsel. My parents had their thing and had a daughter at home. I was in Atlanta; we were all over the map… It was a lot of individual processing and a lot of professional counseling. But of course it brought us closer together, especially me and Barbi. We loved each other, but we weren’t that close growing up because we were very different. She was an athlete; I was kind of artsy. We were just very different – not in a bad way. But of course this brought us much closer, and obviously still does. We’re still tied together by it. We were tied together by it from the day she thought she might be pregnant til this book. Wow, I’ve never thought about that. You can’t communicate about stuff like that unless you’re communicating honestly and so from the day she thought she was pregnant, it required Barbi and I to have some very, very honest communications about what that meant. That’s probably how it affected us as a family.
Why do you think your sister chose adoption?
Wow, I get asked that a lot and I always say. What sounds cliché but isn’t - she wanted her child to have the absolute best life possible. Now, I’m crying. I don't think it had anything to do with her or what she wanted in her life. In hindsight, when I look at it I think it had everything to do with being afraid that she would not, under the circumstances, be able to give her child the absolute best life she could have and that’s what she wanted to do. It wasn’t about not wanting a child. I know that. That was never even discussed. We never talked about why we don’t want a baby. The discussion was always about what was best for the child. If I had to guess, and only she knows and probably some of it is subconscious and some of it conscious, I would say from my perspective, it was all about choosing a bright future or a better life.
How do you think our culture views adoption and birth moms?
Golly, I don’t know. I think it’s incredibly rare to find a person that adoption has not touched in one way or another… I don’t think people have been educated enough that it’s a brave choice and not a giving up choice. There’s a huge difference between “giving up” and “placing.” I make people change it in articles and press releases. I really tried to make it understood in the book that it was a difficult choice. We’re going to bring awareness to this. You, too, can make a brave choice. It’s a choice of love.
You got a friend request from your sister’s birth daughter (Catherine) three years ago. Describe that moment.
Catherine friend requested me first so that she could find Barbi. She found me first because what she did was she Google searched Barbi’s name, but nothing would come up about Barbi. But I had dedicated a book to Barbi and thanked her in a couple books. So my name and my website kept popping up for Catherine. And so she finally went to my website, and from what I understand she said to her mom "I have to be related to her, look at the resemblance"… And then she went to my Facebook, and in my friends she found Barbi.
Well, I didn’t think anything of the name at all. I just thought it was another friend request that came off my website from a reader. I got the friend request but I hadn’t done anything about yet. Then Barbi emailed me and said “Who is Catherine? “I have no idea, why?” I asked. "Because you’re our only mutual friend." I said, “I’ll look her up for you.” I looked her up, accepted her friend request, and saw that she was a cute college girl. “She’s harmless, Barbi. She’s a cute little junior at...”
Then I started scrolling through her pictures. "What’s going on here? And why did Barbi even ask me and why did this girl friend request me?" It was a very slow understanding. "Wait, oh my god. No way, wait oh my god." It was like that. It wasn’t a lightening bolt; it was more like the fog lifting. I was pretty sure [it was my sister’s birth daughter], but I wanted to be positive before I said anything to Barbi. So I called our other sister Jeannie because I knew she’d know. I’m really terrible at birthdays and anniversaries. I didn’t remember Catherine’s birthday. I remembered it was the summer, but I knew [Jeannie] would know, and she did. I hung up on Jeannie and then called Barbi.
What was that conversation like?
I couldn't even talk. I don’t cry very easy. It’s the family joke, even though I don’t think it’s really funny. But I couldn't even speak when I called her because I was crying so hard. I said, “It’s her. She found you. It’s her.” That’s what I kept saying. I think she hung up on me. It’s all a blur… my parents were out of the country. It was wild. Two hours later, Catherine had friend requests from all three of my kids, me, my parents, my husband. Poor thing. I think we overwhelmed her, which we tend to do to people.
Why did you write the book?
This has been more overwhelming for Barbi & Catherine than they anticipated even though they wanted to do this as much as I did. I think from the day it happened everybody from my family to Catherine to her parents, every single one of them said "You’ve got to write about this." Because that’s what I do.
Originally, I was going to tell the real story. I was going to write about it, and Barbi and I talked about her giving me access to her journals and how she felt and all that stuff. When I sat down to do it, it was terrible. It was awful. I wrote an article about this for "Writer’s Digest" about how when you’re writing a true story and you’re that close to it, you don’t want to make anybody look bad. The story is really boring. Everybody’s really good and nice and thinking noble thoughts and doing noble things. I went to Barbi and said "I can’t do this. You’re going to have to buck it up and write a memoir. This is not my story to tell. This is your story to tell. I know I’m the "writer" in the family. This is not my story to tell, and I won’t do it…" No story, I don’t care if it turns into "The DaVinci Code", is worth a personal relationship with anybody I love. And so that's how I went into it. We had a long, honest talk about it and made the decision that what would be best is take the emotional honesty of the story and completely change the facts. For good or for bad, I lost a year of work and threw it away. And then started writing about this little girl named Katie who was 13 years old and fell in love with this boy named Jack on the first day of spring, and I went from there… I started from scratch, just made up a character that’s nothing like any of us. The main character is very different from all of us. I didn’t use any facts about our life – different jobs, different marriages. I used the Facebook thing, and Barbi generously granted permission for me to use exactly what she said when she said goodbye in the birthroom. I used a couple of lines from Catherine with her permission… Because I knew so much of the emotional honesty of the story, I kept all of that -- how hard it is to make the decision, what it means to make the decision, all the wondering after the decision, some of the terrible things you do to not think about that decision, how you want your family to remember but you get pissed off when they say something. But nothing that ever really happened in our life.
What happened next because it sounds like things moved quickly?
They did move quickly and I kind of stepped out of it at that point…Barbi and Catherine continued to talk. Barbi talked a lot to Catherine’s mom. My daughter and Catherine talked a lot. I don’t think I even realized they were talking as much as they were… Barbi threw it back in Catherine’s court and said she’d love to meet her, but this is you and your mom’s decision. Shortly thereafter they invited Barbi to Philadelphia. I wanted to go but I didn’t.
Did you think Barbi & Catherine would ever find each other?
Oh, I knew they would… In this day and age, I always knew that they’d somehow reconnect. Always. I figured once she was 21, she’d ask to see the open records or do a quick search or something. It just seems natural that that would happen... I always assumed she’d come around. Life is funny that way. I never thought Oh my gosh, we’ll never know. I knew we’d know.
How has your family been affected by Barbi and Catherine’s reunion?
I think there’s been an immense sense of relief. Of course, joy and happiness and God is in control. All the good stuff. For me, there seems to be an overwhelming sense of relief that the goal, which was for her to have a good and happy life, was what was really going on. She was with a beautiful, loving family, had two brothers, beautiful parents, and was raised in a God-fearing home. All those things that I knew were important to Barbi. And all those things that Barbi wanted when she made this choice were true. To me, there was this immense relief and wonder at the synchronicities and the coincidences and all of it… I think it was fun for my kids… It’s a wild, big, crazy family. This was just more and better. It wasn’t like "Oh gosh, what do we do with her now?" It was like "Oh good! We got more people…" It was an expansion of things more than it was a decrease of anything. More of everything - more family, more fun, more stories. She came for my daughter’s graduation; she flew down and spent the weekend with us… It was just amazing. A lot of relief, a lot of wonder, and a lot of fun.
But I have to say that I should say that with ease. I’m not the birthmother. I’m not the adoptive mother. I’m not the birth daughter. I am the aunt who gets to be fun. They are the ones going through the roller coaster of emotions with all of this. You know I go through the roller coaster of emotions too, but not to the extent that they do. I have a lot of empathy for them and I’ve shed a lot of tears. But I’m not the one who made the brave choice to place her for adoption. I’m not the one who has to figure out how to integrate this into my life. My daughter gets an extra cousin, and I get really cool niece - it’s way different than the emotional impact it has on Barbi, Catherine, and Catherine’s mom. I have a ton of empathy for them, and I try to be super sensitive, but there’s no way to completely understand what it means to relive it and talk about it even though they’ve expressed a hundred different ways that they want to talk about it and they want to stand on the platform of adoption. They want the goodness of this to come out. I’m not the one who made the decision. I don’t know if I would have brave enough to make that decision. All my observations are solely from my own perspective. To me, it’s been all joy. Whenever I’m with Catherine, it’s nothing but joy. But I’m her aunt; it’s different… This is their story. I’m on the sidelines along for the ride. I’ve been a part of it since Barbi said "I’m really scared, I think I might be pregnant." But it’s still not me. I still go home to my husband and my kids.
What did the conversation look like when you approached your sister about writing a novel about her story?
It was more that everybody approached me and said "Will you write about this?" Then Barbi and I were the ones who had to figure out whether I’d write it at all, and if I did, how. Much more of "You should do this" and me saying "I don't think I can." And then if I did, how I would. That’s kind of how it went down. It was a very circuitous journey and discussion because I’ve never done it before either. Not one of my books is based on anything real in my life.
What’s been the greatest challenge in writing this novel?
Balancing the emotional truth with the factual truth with taking my family off my shoulder. You know how they talk about the editor on your shoulder when you’re writing. For this book, I had to take my family off my shoulder. I had to take those little voices whispering in my ear. Nobody can write a good novel with people whispering in their ear, it’s a nightmare. That was my biggest challenge was I had a chorus of voices. It’s not something they’d ever actually say. It’s all in my own crazy head. I had a chorus of voices saying "don’t do this, do that, do I look bad?" Including Catherine. I was very, very concerned and sensitive about her. She didn’t ask for it, right? Although I communicated with her intimately about her feelings about it, she didn’t ask for it. Most of the story is about the birth mom. It is an emotional rollercoaster.
I wanted them to have a good platform to do exactly what we’re doing right now today. Talk to BraveLove and talk about the beautiful choice of adoption and what that can mean for people. How to do that in a beautiful way.
One of the people I interviewed extensively was an adoption expert… He said one of the issues is that adopted children want to know their story. They want to know what happened. They fight the unwanted thing. If I could get one message across, what would that look like? He said that adoption doesn't mean "I don't want you". So that’s a big theme in the book. This is not about "I’m not wanted". It’s actually the other way around. And that was a big thing for Catherine. One of the first things she said was that my “I’m not wanted button was turned off” no matter how much she was loved and how happy she was with her family. And she is. There was that unconscious thing. I think it’s important to talk about with adoption. Educate. Let kids know their story. I did my research because I wanted to make sure I was approaching it from the right angle.
What’s been the greatest reward in writing this novel?
Not sure yet. I don’t think I’m far enough removed yet. I’m about to go on a 20-city book tour. It always takes me about 6 months to step away from a book… I don't know the biggest reward yet. It’s still kind of chaotic. I hope there is a reward out of it. I hope it does way more good than harm.
What do you want our culture to know about adoption?
It’s not done with ease or disregard, it is brave. For birth daughters and birth sons, it’s important for them to learn their story, if possible, and to know it has nothing to do with I’m not wanted. I think that’s rarely the case. In fact, it’s mostly completely opposite. I am trying to show that it’s incredibly difficult no matter which way you choose… It’s all about what happens after you make this decision to adopt - what does that mean to the rest of your life. I wish there wasn’t that shame around it. I would love for a platform where birth moms share their stories and talk to each other. It’s only when talking about what we’ve been through that shame is washed away. We all know that.
From your perspective, what do you wish for birth mothers today?
I would want to remove any shame. If I could take a big eraser and take that away so that they could share their stories. It could be part of who they are. Instead of something that needs to be forgotten or denied, I’d like it to be a part of a much bigger story that doesn’t cause damage to their life. Because it was such a brave and beautiful thing to do, I wish it enriched their life and not caused shame. That’s what I wish right now.
Note: This interview was recorded by BraveLove; therefore, the words on this page were transcribed from the interviews with Patti. Words have not been altered by BraveLove.