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Two women embrace a belated family bond

Tracey Conner gave up her daughter for adoption 19 years ago. Now, the young adult faces a similar fate.

December 17, 2006|John Keilman | Chicago Tribune

DOWNERS GROVE, ILL. — Tracey Conner hopped a plane from the East Coast and made it to a suburban Chicago delivery room in time to help her daughter Robyn Dunne, 19, bring a blue-eyed boy into the world.

But their joy was shaded with melancholy: Four days later, Dunne would have to make a final decision on whether to keep her child or allow another family to adopt him.

Conner had been her daughter's main counselor about the difficult choice, a role for which she was uniquely suited. In 1987, when she was an emotionally scarred 18-year-old, she had given Dunne up for adoption.

They reunited only last year, and two months later Dunne became pregnant. It was a ripple of fate that allowed Conner to see purpose in the painful experiences of her youth and to open the second act of a motherhood interrupted.

"The things I went through I thought would destroy me, but they made me stronger so I can be there for [Dunne]," she said. "She's not alone, and she knows it. I know what it's like to be her."

Conner had staggered on the edge of sanity as a teenager. The product of a fractured family, she bore the inner wounds of childhood trauma and found a salve in drinking and drugs.

She was drifting through Harper College when she learned she was pregnant. All at once, her aimless life had a focus. She turned away from her vices and dedicated herself to delivering a healthy infant.

Ultimately, though, she decided she could not keep the child. Her future was too unsettled, her bank account too empty, her unhappiness too profound.

So she chose a couple to raise her baby. They agreed to tell the child about her birth mother and to keep Conner informed about the child's life, but all correspondence would go through the adoption agency -- neither side was to know the other's last name or hometown.

On Aug. 15, 1987, Conner gave birth to a 6-pound, 12-ounce girl. Worn out by the delivery, she spent only fleeting, sporadic moments with her baby until it was time to say goodbye.

There in her hospital bed, her heart in tatters, she composed the first of a series of letters to her daughter.

"I cried over you for the three days I held you in my arms, my tears on your little forehead," she wrote, the ink blurring on the dampening paper. "But I knew that what I was doing was the best for you."

In August 2005, just before Dunne's 18th birthday, her parents gave her that letter and about 10 more.

They had always been open about the adoption as they raised Dunne, but they withheld the letters Conner sent over the years. The notes made for grim reading, and they didn't want Dunne to be burdened with despair or to think badly of her birth mother.

Dunne, though, had long felt different from her adoptive family. Her parents, who asked not to be identified, were safe and conservative. She was a rebel and a social tornado.

Conner's letters were a revelation to her daughter. They described stormy teenage years and the rough times after Dunne's birth, when Conner, lonely and depressed, had briefly considered trying to reclaim her.

At last, in her 20s, Conner emerged from the darkness. She went to Southern Illinois University, earned a degree and met Mike Conner, the man who became her husband.

They went on to have a son named Anthony, now 12, and moved from Illinois to Pennsylvania. Conner worked in computers, trained show dogs, savored the joy in her life.

Dunne devoured the stories. She set out to find her birth mother and discovered it was easy. Conner had salted her letters with clues -- the name of her college, the city close to her husband's job -- and Dunne latched onto one: Payton, Conner's Belgian sheepdog.

She ran the dog's name and breed through a search engine. Seconds later, she was looking at her birth mother's website.

"Dear Tracey," read Dunne's e-mail. "You have no idea how hard this is for me to do, but I've decided that it's about time for me to take some sort of action.... I hope you can see that I've been dying to talk to you for so many years."

For one day, Dunne waited, fretting publicly on her blog that she had scared Conner away. Then came an instant message:

"A day doesn't go by that I don't think about you, not one," Conner wrote. "And a day's not gone by that I didn't worry about you, and wonder what you're doing, and who you've grown up to be.... My question to you is ... what next?"

What came next was a flurry of electronic messages and phone calls, and a few weeks later, a personal reunion.

At a gas station in Shickshinny, Pa., Dunne leaped from her boyfriend's car and threw herself into her birth mother's arms, holding on with all her strength.

How alike they were -- their smiles, their energy, their eyes, even their hand gestures.

Conner also detected subtler, more disturbing parallels.

"I saw her going down the same path I had gone down," she said. "I didn't want to be parental with her, because ... I'm not the one who raised her.... I just wanted to be supportive and encourage her in the directions I hoped were right."

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