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Published Sunday June 14th, 2009 at 9:50am

Original Article by Michele Mandel


Adoptive mother Gen Copps sits at her seniors' home with her good friend, birth mother Susan Vertanen.

On his birthday every year, Patrick Copps' mother would ask him to say a prayer for the woman who gave him life.

"I'm positive, Pat," Gen Copps would say, "that your birth mother thinks of you, especially on your birthday. You should never forget that."

He never did. After many years of searching, with his mom's blessing, he eventually found his birth mom, Susan Virtanen, in Toronto, learned the details of his history and forged a warm relationship with her.

It is a lovely tale, but the TV producer in London, Ontario admits it is hardly unique.

"The real story here," says Copps, who turns 46 next week, "is the close bond my birth mother and mother have developed over the past 10 years."

But first, we have to start at the beginning, back to 1963, when good Irish Catholic 16-year-olds were not supposed to get pregnant. A Grade 10 student at Riverdale Collegiate, Virtanen was shipped off quietly to a home for unwed mothers, Rosalie Hall, near Scarborough General Hospital.

"They actually had a tunnel that ran from the home to the hospital so no one would see you," recalls Virtanen, now 63.

She delivered her healthy son on June 20 and named him Gregory. The social workers from the Catholic Children's Aid insisted she give him up for adoption and though it was a difficult decision that took her three long months to make, she knew in her heart they were right. She was too young, she had no husband, she had too many things she still wanted to do.

Now just 17, she wanted him to have the kind of life she couldn't provide.

"I never regretted it, I never felt I'd made a mistake," Virtanen insists. She just wanted to know he was okay.

When he was a year old, she called the CCAS to ask if he'd been adopted. They assured her that he was doing well with his new family out west. She would find out 35 years later, that he'd in fact been adopted by a family who lived at Church and Wellesley and attended the same Catholic church where she had grown up.

Years passed. "I just went on with my life," she recalls. She travelled Europe, just as she'd always wanted, had a successful 20-year career as a buyer for The Bay, married and later divorced. She never did have any more children.

Virtanen would often think about the baby she gave up, wondering if he'd found the better life she had yearned for him.

"I'd always said to myself that I'd never try and find him. I didn't want to interrupt his life. But I also made a decision that if he wanted to contact me, I'd be all right with that."

Copps, who was a reporter at the time in Brandon, Man., located Virtanen after a long search and wrote her in 1997, thanking her for wonderful parents and a happy life. Would she be willing to meet?

Of course she was. What Virtanen never expected was that she was not only welcoming a special young man into her life, but that his gracious mother would become a close, dear friend as well.

"I wanted her to know that I wasn't barging in here with 'I'm the mother' because I'm not. The mother is the one who raises you and she deserves all the credit," Virtanen says, recalling her nervousness before their first meeting.

She needn't have worried. "She just opened her arms and hugged me."

They knew many of the same people from Our Lady of Lourdes parish and both their families had roots in Mt. St. Patrick in the Ottawa Valley.

Rather than being threatened by the arrival of her son's birth mother, Gen Copps was eternally grateful to Virtanen for bringing Pat into the world.

Their shared pride and adoration for the strapping father of two was only the beginning of their unique friendship.

"I love her very much. Aside from the fact that she's my son's mother, I think I would love her anyway," Virtanen says of the widow 23 years her senior.

By this time, Virtanen was working at the Toronto Sun and would often visit her new friend at her apartment on nearby Princess St., even going over on her lunch hour to wash her hair.

"She took it upon herself to help mom with her medication, take her to doctor's appointments, but most of all spend time with her and go for walks," their son says.

"My mother once told me how much she loved Susan. Susan has told me the same thing about mom."

He says she was one of the first to realize that his mom was becoming forgetful. Almost 87, Copps' mother now suffers from dementia and lives in a seniors' home where Virtanen visits often.

Sometimes she recognizes her, more often she does not. She misses their friendship, she says. She misses their special bond.

A year before her illness was so severe that she needed long-term care, she suddenly gave Virtanen her son's wedding album.

"You should have this now," she told her. "You should keep it." It was almost a passing of the mother's baton.

"For her to give it to me is pretty special, it meant a lot," Virtanen recalls softly.

She must have known that one day she wouldn't be able to remember. And that long after she was gone, she could trust Virtanen would be there to look out for their boy.