You are my older brother, the oldest of all our siblings. Officially, you’re the head of our huge, happy family—even though you’ve technically been in the family for the least amount of time. In fact, even though you’re 76, we sometimes joke that you’re the baby of the family. But if it wasn’t for you—or, more specifically, the emptiness Mom felt when she left you behind almost eight decades ago—I wonder if any of your 10 sisters or seven brothers would be here today.
Let me explain.
In 1942, our mom was forced to put you up for adoption at a convent in Hawkesbury, Ont. She didn’t want to, but it was the Second World War, and life wasn’t easy, especially for single mothers like her. She even went to the courts to try to keep you, but they sadly refused. When every last option was exhausted, she negotiated with the nuns to work for the convent so she could stay with you for the first two months of your life. Eventually, she had to go home to Embrun, Ont., leaving you behind.
At five months old, you were adopted by a couple in St. Isidore, Ont., just 40 km away from Mom. You were raised as an only child in a good home by another strong woman. But when she died in 1973, you felt it was the right time to try to find your birth mother.
It wasn’t an easy journey. But in 1998, you were finally able to get Ontario’s social services to ask Mom whether she would meet with her first-born child. Unfortunately, she said no. We would later learn that she was scared—afraid of what her loved ones would think of her if her big secret came out—and her emotions got the best of her to the point that she got sick and almost passed away that year. But it must have broken your heart all the same.
Still, you refused to give up. With the help of the skills you developed by working in social services yourself, you spent four years narrowing down and finally finding out Mom’s name, allowing you to search for her online. Then, in 2002, my cousin posted our family tree online. And so, while you were on a lunch break at work, her name popped up: Hauviette Bourbonnais Landry.
It would take another three years of patience for Mom to agree to meet you, but in early 2005, we all finally got to meet. And I do mean all: There were so many of us siblings that we had to split into three groups to more manageably meet you, your daughters Christine and Kathryn, and their families. That first meeting was surreal. You, who grew up as an only child, suddenly had 17 siblings, who had 36 children of their own between them. On a single day, you saw your family balloon. I know Mom’s heart did too.
Consider this: In the 24 years after you were born, Mom had 17 more kids. I think she kept having children to try to fill the hole in her heart from when she left you in Hawkesbury. I believe Mom tried to replace you but never could. Nothing could have—except you.
Without your incredible perseverance—overcoming obstacles and disappointments and your mother’s rejection in the decades you worked to find her—that hole would never have been filled. After all those years apart, her bond with you was as strong as ever from the moment she spoke her first words to you: “I am sorry. Can you forgive me?” Despite your arduous path back to our family, you were kind and supportive. Mom always wanted you to sit next to her at family events; we all knew she was desperately trying to make up for lost time. On your first birthday since reuniting with her, Mom cried, overcome by the fact that this was the first time she could see her baby on his birthday.
With you back in her life, Mom became more affectionate with all of us, saying “I love you” more than she ever had before. But out of the 18 of us, it was clear: You were now her favourite.
Mom passed away in 2013. But I hope you know that you allowed her to open her heart to love herself again and possibly forgive herself. You brought her peace in her last eight years.
Even now, 13 years after you returned to our lives, I can’t imagine how it must feel to find yourself amid our chaotic, loud, chatty family—we’re French Canadians, after all. That’s our normal, and you’ve done so much to make it yours, too. You’ve joined us for the big days, the small ones and all the occasions in between.
It feels like you’ve always been here. And really, because you’re one of the reasons that this family is the way it is, you always were.
Thank you for your perseverance. Thank you for coming home.
This essay is part of Maclean’s Before You Go series, which collects unique, heartfelt letters from Canadians taking the time to say “Thanks, I love you” to special people in their lives—because we shouldn’t have to wait until it’s too late to tell our loved ones how we really feel. Read more essays here. If you would like to see your own letters or reflections published, send us an email here. For more details about submitting your own, click here.
MORE ABOUT BEFORE YOU GO:
- A son’s letter to his single-parent Dad: ‘He was not going to split us up’
- A letter to a grandmother: ‘I love you the way someone loves their home country’
- A politician to Paul Dewar: ‘You know no one is strong enough to do it alone’
- A letter to a friend of 40 years: ‘I am a better person for having met you’
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