Jeff had just left the gym when he got Melanie’s call.
“Pull over," she said. “I have something to tell you.”
Jeff found Melanie intriguing, but thought this a comical way for a private investigator to open a conversation. “Do you know how hard it is to pull over in LA?” Jeff semi-joked. “I’ve got both hands on the wheel, Bluetooth in my ear, this is how I live.”
“Humor me,” Melanie said dryly.
He was in the left of four lanes, in heavy traffic, with no shoulder, and when he put on his blinker the guy next to him honked his horn.
A full three minutes later he said, “I’m all yours.”
“I just got off the phone with your mother.”
The car sat in its bubble of quiet while other vehicles drove by in the endless stream of traffic. Jeff could hear his own breathing.
“I...” he stammered. “What?”
Melanie spoke gently. “I’ve located your birth mother, Jeff. I just spoke to her on the phone.”
“You...?” Words escaped him and suddenly this six foot five-inch man was wracked with sobs as if he was a tiny child again.
Along Sunset Boulevard. At the corner of Hollywood and Vine. In the dentist’s waiting room or the crowd at a movie premiere, Jeff always scanned, watched, hoped to set eyes on his birth mother. He’d grown up on a farm, with parents who loved him beyond biology or blood. He was taller, much taller, than his adoptive parents, and his skin was darker. He had natural charisma and a huge smile, while both of his parents were reserved. They encouraged his dreams, were kind, generous, and honest about everything, including his adoption. And that—the adoption—stuck in his heart, causing pain with every move. Why did she give me up? What was wrong with me?
The pain and questions continued to persist into adulthood, no matter how many friends he made, how many successes he achieved. “This is a planet full of billions of people and I didn’t know any of my own blood. It never mattered what car I was driving or who I was surrounded by,” he said. “The emptiness was always with me.”
Researching his adoption online, he’d hit one dead end after another. There was only one tangible lead: he was born in Los Angeles. His mother might still live in the city. If he moved to Los Angeles he might, by some great chance, run into his mother, or at least see her in a crowd.
It was worth a try. But a decade passed and, while his career thrived and he met a wonderful woman, he was still no closer to finding kin.
“I’ve found a private investigator,” his girlfriend Heidi told him one day.
“What? Why?” He was shocked, even angry. Heidi left the investigator’s number on the fridge and said no more.
Melanie. Trustify. A whole company that was supposedly devoted to private investigations all across the country. A company whose website said they had reunited families before. Once he started thinking about it, he couldn’t stop. That phone number became the center of his life; he had to call.
Melanie, a bubbly, thoughtful woman, who said she specialized in locating people, told him she would start with the adoption forms and work every detail to see what she could find. Melanie didn’t let on that she closed cases which had languished for months or longer, in many cases in only weeks or days. Melanie didn’t share her own amazing story, from single mom with bills piling up to one of the most respected members of the Trustify team and a staunch supporter of what the company did. Part of it was modesty; part of it was the protective streak that didn’t want to get his hopes up.
Melanie filed paperwork with the courts to petition for ‘non-identifying’ records: documents that give some information, though not the full names, of adoptive parents. Sometimes those records are two lines long, sometimes ten pages. Jeff‘s had little information, but almost miraculously it gave his birth mother’s first name, Joann, her middle name, and her birthdate. Only one problem: Melanie couldn’t find a single woman born in the US on that day with the name given.
Trying just “Joann,” she found thousands of hits on the databases. It was a meticulous, six-month process to try to trace a whole person from two names, to narrow the list, to make calls and hone in on the most likely paths Jeff’s mother could have taken. Finally, Melanie found a Joann in California with the right middle initial.
“Hello, my name is Melanie and I’m a private investigator. I have been hired to…” She always spoke as calmly as possible when making these calls. People would assume it was a scam, or they’d be afraid she was trying to collect a bill. Often people would hang up before they even knew what she had to say. Aware she was a custodian of truths, sometimes difficult ones, Melanie took her role seriously, knowing in her gut she was dropping into people’s lives in ways that would change them forever.
“What do you mean, a private investigator?” asked the voice on the other end of the line.
“I've been looking for a woman named Joann.” When Melanie shared the middle initial she was looking for, she heard the woman's breath catch.
Melanie braced herself, almost praying. She was so close, but who knew how many Joann’s with that initial there were in the United States?“Yes, that's my middle initial,” the woman said after a long pause.
“Why are you calling, what do you care what my initials are?” The woman asked. “Is this a joke?”
“Oh no, Ma’am,” It all came out in a rush now, “I’m calling on behalf of Jeff Hill, who was adopted in Los Angeles in 1972...”
“My God,” Joann gasped and then went silent for a moment before she said, “No, I don't believe it.” Then, sharply, “Is this some kind of a scam?”
“I promise you this is real,” Melanie said. “I’m going to send all my documentation, so you can see for yourself. I’m not asking you for anything. I’m only telling you. You can call up my company right now and speak to them. You can look up the phone number online and they will verify I work with them and that this is my case.”
“Is he...is he okay?” Joann asked, losing the edge to her voice.
“Oh yes, ma'am. Yes, he is just fine, just fine and looking for his mom.”
Melanie remained quiet as Joann burst into tears. In nearly a whisper, she finally said, “I’ve been praying this day would come. Praying for 45 years.”
Melanie tried not to let Joanne hear that she was crying, too.
“I don’t know what to say,” Joann said, taking a deep, ragged breath.
“It's okay,” Melanie said carefully. “It's pretty big news.”
Then Joann laughed, and in that laugh Melanie felt the shift happening, as Joann took in this new reality and accepted that her son had found her.
“Of course,” Melanie said. “Tell your sister, and we will talk again tomorrow. Is tomorrow a good day for you?”
“I have to tell my sister,” Joann said.
“Yes,” Joann said, laughing again. “I'm just. . . I'm not used to this!”
“I will call you tomorrow. If you want to talk before that, call me back whenever, okay? I’m going to work with you every step of the way.”
“Oh, my God. I’m going to throw up.” said Jeff. He and his mother had been living less than thirty miles apart for thirty years, without knowing each other, each barely daring to hope the other was alive. Now, both electrified with excitement and fear, they were ready to talk on the phone. They both wanted to talk, but it had taken days to get the courage to let Melanie set up a call. Joann felt certain Jeff would be angry with her, and Jeff didn’t know what to think. He still didn’t know why she had given him up for adoption and didn’t know whether part of her was annoyed he had tracked her down. Could all these years of expectation lead to anything but disillusionment?
Jeff was sitting in his LA apartment with Heidi, shivering and sweating at once. Joann, in her neat home in Covina, pulled a shawl tight around her shoulders and snuggled into the couch, holding the one black-and-white picture she had of her baby son. The phone rang and she tried to answer but at first she couldn't make a sound.
“Joann? Or, Mom?” asked the voice on the other end.
Ten minutes of that strange joy was all they could manage, but they agreed to meet the next week at a restaurant near Joann's house.
Melanie’s phone rang: Joann was laughing and crying at once, bubbling over with joy. “It was better than I imagined!” Joann said, reliving their brief call as she confided to Melanie. Jeff called right after that, then Heidi, then Joann again. Melanie listened to the buzz of excitement as the family reconnected and Jeff started to get his answers.
Jeff’s father was of African and Latino heritage, and Joann was Caucasian—and young enough that her parents were making the decisions when she had him. Her mother and father had kept her in the house the entire nine months of her pregnancy and dictated that she give up the baby as soon as it was born. Joann’s parents had never spoken a word about the baby after his birth.
But now, “He’s so smart!” Joann said. “He seems so kind!” Joann and Melanie talked, and laughed, and cried until Melanie’s phone was out of juice.
“How do you prepare to meet your mother for the first time?” Jeff asked. He’s an actor, always well put together and conscious of the image he projects, but this, this was like getting ready for the Oscars. Would his mom see the gentleman he’d become? Would she be proud of him?
Jeff and Heidi were supposed to meet Joann at a beautiful restaurant near her home, and he needed to arrive with the most gorgeous flowers he could find, flowers that would let her know everything was fine, that he’d had a wonderful life, that he was grateful to her for giving birth to him, that although he was only just meeting her, he had loved her for years, with all his heart. Two dozen pink and white roses, full blown, perfectly wrapped. As he was about to step into the restaurant he breathed their scent in deeply and it gave him courage.
“Is my shirt tucked in?”
Heidi smiled and held him close. “This is going to be amazing,” she said. “Just breathe.”
As they stepped into the restaurant, he saw her across the room. “It was like seeing myself in the mirror,” he said. Not that she was 6 foot 5, nor sporting a buzz cut, but she had the same confident presence. Gray hair pulled back, hoop earrings, red glasses, a red blouse and the same wide smile.
“Mom,” he said. It felt utterly natural. He slid into the booth beside her.
“Of course,” she said. “Of course this is you.” She leaned forward and held his face in her hands.
“Of course,” he repeated, and they both began to cry.
“It was like looking into my own eyes,” Jeff recalled later. He felt mesmerized as he stared into her eyes and was home. He was home.
She had kept his hospital bracelet and the one picture she had. He’d brought albums from his childhood: his first tooth, first bicycle ride. His high school graduation, his first big role as an actor.
“I wondered where you were every day,” Joann told him. “I sang Happy Birthday to you on your birthday every year.”
In the months to come Joann and Jeff met many times. Jeff eventually connected with his birth father and met aunts, uncles, and cousins he’d never known he had. “It’s been nothing but beautiful. So much good stuff has happened,” he shared. “I’ve been healed on so many levels.” He and Heidi are engaged to be married now. One guest at their wedding will be Melanie, whose patience and determination closed the circle for him, bringing joy and wholeness to a family who had given each other up for lost.
Video by Stacy Blackburn