when the past pops out of nowhere: “can you help?” a search for motherlove

baby patrick screenshot

the message popped up out of nowhere late saturday afternoon. this is what it said:

Are you the individual that wrote the article in the Chicago Tribune back on March 10, 1987 – Titled, “Police Hunt Mother of Abandoned Baby”? If so, I wanted to ask you a couple questions. And by the way…, I am that baby!

my heart nearly pounded through my chest. i wracked my brain. i couldn’t for the life of me remember writing the story. how could i not remember? i typed the words into a google search, and sure enough, up popped this:

Police Hunt Mother Of Abandoned Baby
March 10, 1987|By Barbara Mahany.

that was me, all right. so i started to read:

Baby “Patrick Doe,“ oblivious to the stirrings about him, lay docile in his incubator at Central Du Page Hospital Monday, interrupting his sleep only for bottles of baby formula every four hours–or an occasional grimace for one of the many news photographers parading with cameras through the nursery.

Outside the nursery, Glen Ellyn police undertook their first-ever search for “a missing mother,“ said Lt. Dennis W. Jamieson, and the bureaucratic machinery was put in gear to assure safe-keeping for the baby should his mother not be found.

In the western suburb, a team of police investigators was dispatched to track down “a recently pregnant woman, . . . no longer pregnant and without a newborn,“ Jamieson said. Police were distributing flyers with black-and-white photographs of the baby, and a teletype bulletin to neighboring police departments had been sent over the wires.

Baby Patrick, a healthy white infant thought to be 4 or 5 days old and weighing 7 pounds, 10 ounces, was found early Saturday morning lying next to a redwood planter along the driveway of a home in an affluent Glen Ellyn neighborhood.

The baby, wrapped in two nightgowns and a plastic diaper bag, was discovered at 9:37 a.m. by George G. Dickey, of Lorraine Road, in Glen Ellyn. Dickey told police he first saw two plastic bags in his planter at about 6:30 a.m. Saturday, but thought someone had dropped garbage there.

When he went outside three hours later, he saw the baby`s head poking out from one bag. The other bag was filled with five disposable diapers and diaper pins.

Dickey rushed the baby inside, his wife changed it out of its soaked nightgowns. The couple then called the police and the infant was taken by ambulance to Central Du Page.

He was initially considered at risk because his temperature registered below normal, 96 degrees Fahrenheit, but doctors said Monday that Patrick was “in very good health“ and listed him in good condition.

Because the baby`s umbilical cord was tied with a rubber band, hospital officials and police surmise the baby was not born in a hospital, preventing them from tracking down his mother through hospital records or birth certificates.

By mid-morning Monday, calls from prospective adoptive parents were trickling into the hospital in Winfield, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and the Adoptive Infant Center of Illinois.

“As far as prospective adoptive parents are concerned, this is a dream come true,“ said DCFS spokesman David Schneidman. “But for the poor soul who decided to leave this baby for adoption, this is the biggest tragedy on earth.“

On average, DCFS gets involved in about two abandoned infant cases each month, Schneidman said. But, he added, those babies are rarely Caucasian, and “never before from an affluent suburb like Glen Ellyn.“

Officially, DCFS is now the baby`s legal guardian, Schneidman said, and if the baby`s mother is not found by the time Patrick is discharged from the hospital at the end of the week, DCFS will coordinate foster care and eventually recommend the baby`s adoptive parents. If the mother is found, DCFS will be one of the complainants in a child neglect suit, and if deemed advisable, will assist in counseling the mother.

For now, though, the curly-haired baby is content to lie sucking his baby bottles, lullabyed by a crew of doting nurses. It was one of them who thought “Patrick“ to be the perfect name for a babe born so near the feast day of the Irish patron saint.

nearly 28 years ago.

and, through mysteries and miracles of this cyber-age, the baby, now grown, now wise to the ways of the internet, had found me. he’d been banging on doors, getting no answers. he was trying to find his birth mother.

he found me.

for the next couple hours, a flurry of emails zipped back and forth. he told me what he knew. i leapt into reporter mode. and, most of all, mother mode: i too am a mother now. and i have a boy of my own, two boys, the older of whom is a mere six years younger than “baby Patrick.” i couldn’t imagine my boy trying to find his mother. i couldn’t imagine how achingly dark and lonely it felt, on the cold february night when “baby Patrick” wrote me, to be emailing strangers trying to find a shred of hope, a thread that just might lead back to his mama.

every word i typed to “baby Patrick” i tried to type as if i were a long-lost mother, searching for my long-lost boy. i tried to fill each keystroke, each space in between, with all the love a mother would ooze, if she’d been away for nearly three decades.

in a stroke of sheer miracle by the end of the evening, i found the detective who’d worked the case. he’s retired now, lives not far away. i promised “baby Patrick” i’d call the very next day, sunday, when it wouldn’t be so odd for the phone to ring. when i stood the best chance of squeezing in the words, “former tribune reporter,” the only words that i thought might get my foot in the door, might keep the call from clicking into the hopeless drone of the dial tone, the sound of getting nowhere.

i called, not long after church on sunday. after two or three rings, someone answered. hope rose in my chest. i heard a “hello.” i shot right in with, “Lieutenant Jamieson?” using all my reporter politeness, using all my don’t-hang-up-on-me hope. i figured the lieutenant might warm to being remembered by his rank. i was right.

he warmed, all right. and, as soon as i explained the story, how i’d gotten an email from this blessed kid, this kid searching high and low for his mama, soon as i explained how the kid was getting nowhere, couldn’t get anyone to return his calls, how we had to try to help, and i wondered if maybe he remembered if there’d ever been any leads in the case, had anyone ever gotten a whiff of the mother, the lieutenant wrenched open the file cabinet of his memory, and promptly riffled straight to the folder marked, “baby Patrick, 03/87.”

in piercing detail he told me everything he remembered. how the particular house where the baby was left was one tucked back from the road. but, he explained, there was a planter, a flower pot, he called it, down by the curb. “good place to leave something if you want it to be found,” the lieutenant offered.

but here’s the part where you might wince: the fellow living in the house could see from the window something sticking out of the pot. “he thought it was garbage,” the lieutenant recalled. the fellow walked down the drive — three hours later — saw two plastic bags, and that’s when he saw there was a baby in one. a real live squawking baby.

far as the lieutenant knew, no clues had ever turned up. he was pretty sure he would have known if they’d found the mama, or any hint of the mama. he even mentioned how, over the years, he’d driven his wife by the house, thought of “baby Patrick” every time. and since i asked, since i’d called on a quiet sunday afternoon, made him think back over the decades, he did have ideas of where “baby Patrick,” now all grown up, having been adopted and deeply loved but still in search of whoever it was who dropped him off at the flower pot, the lieutenant had ideas of where “baby Patrick” could turn. in other words, at least a trace more hope.

sure thing, i hopped off the phone and wrote “baby Patrick” as swiftly and furiously as i could get my fingers to type. i drenched each letter of every word with all the love i could muster, with mama love.

i wasn’t his mother, not remotely. heck, i’d barely remembered the story at first — a fact that rinsed me in shame. but in the hour of his darkness, in the hour of his hope beyond hope, i could imagine — piercingly — just how deeply his mama might be typing if she were on the verge of finding her boy.

so i infused every word with mama love. i prayed mightily that that love might — through some wild-eyed, otherworldly, transitive property — flow from his faraway mama’s heart to mine and to his.

we signed off, at the end of 24 hours, with what i hope was a lasting trace of something that felt a wee bit like mother-and-son connection. but, honestly, i worry it might have left him emptier than before.

it hurt to tell him that there’d never been a trace. it hurt to tell him the part about the man in the house seeing what looked like garbage bags. (i couldn’t bear to type those words, “garbage bags,” so i didn’t; i wrote, “i┬áthink of how your mama loved you enough to tuck you in what she thought was a safe place..”)

it made me think how in life we never know when we’re called on to be the instruments of love, of stitching together a shattered heart. it made me think about how, in a story i’d not even remembered writing, there was a someone who found in it the one trace of hope he so needed.

it made me think how much it all matters.

i wish like anything i could have helped him find his mama. and, short of that, i’m so deeply grateful that for one short day, and a flurry of a few dozen emails, i could imagine the love and the fear that would have riveted that mama’s heart as she left her newborn curly-haired boy on the side of the road, in a place she was sure he’d be found, with the few bits she could gather — the extra sleeper, the five disposable diapers, and, most of all, the prayer that must have slipped across her lips. and lasted forever in the deep down crannies of her heart.

and that was sunday, the very same day we found out a dear dear friend was in the ER, and would likely be going in for brain surgery. which happened wednesday, her daughter flown home from her first year of college, her highschool-aged son sitting tight, on a hospital couch, pressed against his papa’s side, all through the very long day that stretched into the night. it’s been a week in which all i could do was pray, and pray, and pray. an apt beginning to lent, the season of repentance on the road to redemption.

the reasons for prayer are many this friday morning. and the question to ponder is this: have you ever discovered that you were an unsuspecting player in one of life’s core dramas? and did that discovery make you remember, all over again, how very much it matters that, at every turn, we live a life of pure attention to all that is holy and good and filled up with love?