CEDAR CITY — When Joan Harrison was 21 years old, she gave birth to her first daughter, knowing it was likely the last time she would see her.
As an unwed woman in 1957, Joan made the decision to give her baby, Kathy, up for adoption at a Catholic hospital in Montreal.
When Kathy was born, the nurses told Joan over and over: "Don't look at your baby. You're not keeping her, so the sooner you can leave the better."
But Joan decided before she left that she would lay eyes on her daughter.
She went against the direction of the nurses, and with a stranger in her arms, Joan sang to her days-old newborn who she'd soon leave the hospital without. She told Kathy she was sorry for what she was doing, but there was a family out there waiting to give her a better life.
Kathy Kirkland would wait 60 years until she heard her mother's voice again.
Kathy has a "real" family and a "true" family.
Her true family is the one that adopted her, and she had a great life. She had brothers and sisters, grew up to become a teacher for 35 years and had three daughters of her own.
Her real family, though, was always shrouded in mystery. Kathy knew early on that she was adopted, but it wasn't until she was in her late 50s and after her adoptive mother had died that she decided it would be beneficial to learn about her biological mother, especially since her daughters were older and curious about their family's medical history.
Kathy dove into her search for mom knowing little about her.
"If I met my birth mother, that would be a plus, but if I was almost 60 years old looking for her, and she was 21 when she had me, the numbers weren't looking so positive," Kathy said.
She began by contacting the agency in Montreal where she was placed for adoption. The process is long, tedious and filled with paperwork. Kathy had to prove she had sincere interest in doing the investigation and that she was committed to getting results.
It took several months before Kathy was contacted by a woman in Quebec who took her case.
Kathy was warned of all of the potential outcomes. Her mother could be anywhere in the world. The caseworker might find her name but discover she was deceased. Maybe she wasn't medically or emotionally well enough to consent to pursue the relationship. Or maybe she was alive and well but just said "no."
"Are you sure you want to do this?" the caseworker asked Kathy numerous times.
Her answer was yes.
After months passed, Kathy finally received the call from the caseworker during which she found out her mother was alive.
"I was shocked," Kathy said. "If you think I'm shocked, what do you think an 81-year-old woman who gave up a baby almost 60 years ago is thinking? She was not expecting a call like that."
The caseworker told Kathy that her mother, Joan, was completely overwhelmed and needed to process the information.
"It was too much for her," Kathy said.
Joan kept saying "oh my, oh my word" when the case manager told her Kathy was looking for her. At this point, neither mother nor daughter knew where the other lived, and they were told to refrain from sending any kind of identifying information to the other person.
Finally, on her 60th birthday last summer, Kathy answered perhaps the most surprising phone call she'd ever received.
"You won't remember me, but I remember you because I was there on your birthday," a small, frail-sounding voice on the other end said.
For several weeks before Kathy received that life-changing phone call, she and Joan had been permitted to exchange letters and emails, introducing themselves and catching up after missing each other's entire lifetimes. Joan lived in Cedar City, a small town surrounded by mountains and national parks. Kathy always assumed her mother would still be in Canada.
Kathy had written a letter to her mom through the adoption agency almost one year prior to beginning her quest to find her, and there was one message in particular she hoped would get across.
"I was telling her I was here, and that what she wanted for me was exactly the kind of life I had," Kathy said. "I think it was probably a whole relief — the ability for her to acknowledge and embrace me without feeling the guilt, remorse or shame for all those years."
She wanted her mother to know she felt no resentment, and that nothing was to be forgiven. In their letters and emails, they shared photos and stories of their lives — evidence that Kathy lived the life her mother always wanted her to.
Kathy found out more about her biological family, that she had two half-sisters, and one of them lived about an hour and a half away from her.
Joan had Parkinson's disease, and she continually told Kathy things like, "Maybe you won't like me. I'm old, I'm sick and I'm not like I was years ago."
Kathy protested, assuring her mom she didn't care about any of that — she just sincerely wanted to meet her. She worked with her aunt and half-sister who lived close by and came up with a plan to get Joan to Canada.
After several hiccups on the way, Joan arrived in Hamilton, Ontario, on the red eye in September 2017. She was in a wheelchair, and Kathy remembers her looking very frail.
When their eyes met, Joan put her head down and cried.
Kathy said the next four days were spent in bed lounging, talking, reminiscing and laughing.
"How else do you get to know your mother than to get into your pajamas and spend hours talking together?" Kathy said. "I wanted to let the conversation go where it went."
Kathy's children visited, meeting their biological grandma for the first time in their late 20s. Kathy's husband, who was supportive of her finding her birth mom, came and went as mother and daughter reconnected.
After 10 days, Joan returned to her home in Cedar City, and the two continued talking on the phone frequently.
By December, Joan wasn't feeling well. Her health issues began getting worse, and Kathy's husband advised her that she needed to see her birth mom again.
"My husband kept saying, 'Don't wait until later,' " Kathy said. "One day I just called her and said I had a plane ticket to Las Vegas for five days from now, and I'm coming to see you."
Joan had kept Kathy's existence a secret, especially before the two reconnected. She kept a "private pain" buried deep inside her whole life, Kathy said.
But that all changed during Kathy's visit in January.
Joan lived at the Brookdale senior living center in Cedar City, and she went around to everyone introducing Kathy as her daughter.
"That was probably really huge for her," Kathy said.
They spent the majority of the trip in the mountains. Kathy made her mother a scrapbook of photos, emails they had shared, and more, and they added to it while they adventured around.
Just two months after Kathy's visit, Joan suffered a minor accident and had a difficult time recovering. Kathy flew to Cedar for the second time, only to have three last days with her birth mother. Joan passed away on March 11.
"Good morning, my name is Kathy. To most of you, I am an unfamiliar face, but I want you to know that I am proud and honored to have called Joan Harrison my mother."
Kathy stood at the pulpit on the day of her mother's funeral and spoke of how grateful she was for the last few encounters she had with her birth mother. The scrapbook she and her mother created together was on display for everyone to see.
"We identify the value of people by a lifetime, and it's usually a long period of time, but ours was very brief," Kathy said. "it was special and magical. We didn't know each other that long, but I'm happy we had the opportunity."3 comments on this story
Although Kathy felt her life was complete, she always had lingering, unanswered questions before she met Joan. She said their reunion filled a void for each of them in unique ways that could only be filled by a mother and a daughter.
"When I had my own children, I realized the whole miracle of it all, and I said I couldn't do without them for even one day," Kathy said. "I think about the ultimate sacrifice my mother made to not keep me and walk away. I have to respect someone who can do that. It took a huge toll on her."