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Published Tuesday October 13th, 2009 at 10:53am

Original Article by David Garbe

Cindy Holmes of Lake Holiday Illinois, recently made contact with the brother she didn't know she had until her dad was dying. Her brother, Craig Johnson, was adopted right after he was born. The clock behind her to the right, is one of the only items that belonged to Cindy's mom, who has since passed away.

Four years ago, Cindy Holmes was keeping vigil at the hospital where her father lay dying. Her father, Harold, had been a destructive force in her life, but she had come anyway. She would hold his hand, say goodbye, and finally put her unhappy childhood behind her.

Instead, she discovered a whole new source of heartache.

When Cindy stepped out for a moment, her father's new wife followed her and confessed a secret -- a secret Harold had forbidden her to repeat.

"She wanted me to know that I had a brother," Cindy said. "A brother I never knew."

A full-blood brother who had been adopted out to another family when Cindy was still an infant.

Harold's wife -- Cindy's second step-mother -- explained that she had seen a newspaper birth announcement for the boy in 1958, and Harold had admitted to her that the baby was indeed his son. But that's all he would say.

Cindy returned to her father to get more answers, but his voice was already gone. He died soon after.

That night, Cindy decided she was going to find her long-lost brother. No matter how long the search took, no matter what she found, she was going to know the truth.

Cindy Holmes (second from left) was recently united with her brother, Craig Johnson (second from right), along with Cindy's husband, Robert (left) and Craig's wife, Sara. They posed for a portrait in Craig's Lemoore, Calif., home when Cindy and her husband visited for the first time this summer. Craig Johnson was given up for adoption shortly after he was born. Cindy Holmes did not find out that she had a brother until she was 50 years old.

'I have a secret to tell you'

She knew from long experience with her family how difficult her search would be.

"Growing up, there were so many secrets," she said.

If every family has its taboos, its list of topics that are carefully shut out of conversation, Cindy knew hers was longer than most. Her father was married to a woman with whom he had eight children, but he also maintained a lifelong relationship with Cindy's mother, Betty, who was as devoted to him as a wife. Harold and Betty had two daughters -- or so Cindy always believed.

Cindy spent the first 12 years of her life living primarily with her step-mother, never realizing that there was anything odd about having two mothers in two different households.

She spent her teenage years living with her real mother in Aurora, along with her one full sister. She didn't see her dad much after that -- he mostly stayed with his wife and other eight children in Rockford -- but every Saturday night, he would stop by to visit his "other family."

Given how confusing her family was already, it would be easy to imagine how the birth of another child could be lost in the shuffle.

But as Cindy looked back, she realized there had been clues.

When they were teenagers, one of her half-sisters told her, "I have a secret to tell you, but I can't tell you until Dad dies," Cindy recalled.

Cindy didn't think much about it at the time -- it sounded like something you'd say just to be funny or mean.

"I was about 15," she said, "and my head was just full of confusion."

But 30 years later, after their father died and Cindy discovered the secret, none of her siblings would say anything more about the little boy who disappeared from the family just before his first birthday. The only other bit of information she managed to extract was they thought the boy had been named Norman.

"Every time I looked at someone during the wake (for Dad), I would get angry because everyone kept this secret from me," Cindy said. "All of them knew and nobody told me."

She wished she could simply ask her mother, but her mother had died in 1990. As Cindy dug through her memories, she realized her mother had mentioned the boy once.

"One night, Mom was crying," Cindy said. Just sitting at the kitchen table, crying for no apparent reason. When Cindy asked what was wrong, "She said, 'I'm crying because you have a brother you don't know.'"

But her mother never spoke of it again.

"I know it must have been in the back of her mind all those years," Cindy said. "All those years, she was sad."

'Dead end after dead end'

And so it was mostly for her mother's sake that she began digging for whatever information she could find. Since the only tip she had was that there had been a birth announcement in a newspaper, she and her husband spent many days at libraries in the Rockford area, scanning microfilm archives. They read everything they could find from 1958 and found nothing. No trace of "Norman" or any other children born to her mother, apart from Cindy herself.

They searched the Illinois adoption registry and contacted adoption agencies, but with so little information to go on, they found no leads.

"Everywhere we went, it was dead end after dead end," she said.

As she searched for more clues, she found herself running up against Illinois' strict rules about the confidentiality of adoption records. Eventually, she learned that the only way to really dig into the records would be to go to court and have a judge appoint a "confidential intermediary" or CI, a sort of private eye that specializes in connecting adopted children with their birth families.

Besides being expert researchers, the intermediaries also provide a guarantee of privacy to both sides of the adoption divide: Once a person is found, they are given a chance to refuse contact with the "birth-relative" that started the search.

The service, funded by the state, is little-known and somewhat unusual, acknowledged Linda Fiore, the CI who was ultimately assigned to Cindy's case. It's also one of the smallest programs funded through Illinois' Department of Child and Family Services. The confidential intermediaries office handles about 200 cases a year statewide.

About 80 percent of the cases involved an adopted child searching for a birth mother, and most of the rest were the opposite -- a birth mother searching for an adopted child. Searches by other family members, such as in Cindy's case, are rare, with just a handful of similar cases listed in CI data.

In the vast majority of cases, Fiore said, her agency is able to positively identify the people they seek, although defining success after that point is difficult.

Sometimes the person sought turns out to be dead. Others refuse contact: Almost half of the birth mothers who were located last year declined to be re-united with children they had given up for adoption decades earlier. And the reunions that do occur are not always happy events.

Cindy learned all this, and she had her worries about what a search might turn up. What kind of man would her brother be? What it would feel like if he rebuffed her effort to connect?

On the positive side, the CI service reports that almost all the adopted adults they uncover are willing to contact birth families who search for them, so Cindy's odds of actually meeting her brother seemed good.

The trouble was finding him.

Cindy Holmes was greeted with a cake when she met her brother, Craig Johnson, for the first time, during a visit to California earlier this summer.

'No typical case'

After getting the court order and paying a fee of $295, Cindy had little else to do but wait. The search was now in Fiore's hands. With years of experience as a CI, Fiore could make no promises.

"There really is no typical case," she said. "I've had some searches take well over a year, and some people I've been able to locate in a week."

As the months dragged by, it became clear that Cindy's case was not going to be one of the easy ones. Family interviews and the standard database searches yielded no more to Fiore than they had to Cindy herself.

A year passed, then a second, then a third. Cindy would check in with Fiore occasionally, but there was never any news.

This summer, as Fiore's effort was nearing its fourth year, she told Cindy that, unless anything turned up soon, she'd have to end the search.

But just days later, as Cindy was resigning herself to never knowing the truth, Fiore called back. She'd found an original birth certificate that was almost certainly Cindy's brother.

From that day in June, things moved fast. Fiore wrote a letter to Cindy's brother, who was named Craig Johnson and who lived in California.

Craig had known he was adopted from an early age, although he never went looking for his birth family. Finding out that his birth family had come looking for him was a surprise, he said, and took him back to his teenage years, when the idea of another family -- perhaps a family that didn't love him -- had troubled him.

Now in his 50s, he mostly just felt curiosity. He wrote back to Fiore, agreeing to be put in contact with his birth family.

"I thought the worst thing that could happen was that we wouldn't get along," he said. On the other hand, he figured, his long-lost sister could wind up becoming a friend.

And so Cindy found herself writing an e-mail to a brother she had never met. She wasn't sure what to say, so she kept it short, mostly just asking if it would be OK to communicate by phone.

He said that would be fine. A few days later, she called him.

"When I told him who I was, he said, 'Are you ready for this?'" Cindy recalled. "I said, 'After four years, yes I am.'"

Hesitantly, and then with increasing enthusiasm, they shared life stories. She told him about growing up under their father's warped family values, he told her about his happy childhood with his adoptive parents. Both had grown into successful adults; both were happily married with children.

They laughed about how probably they might have seen each other as children in Rockford, where he was raised. They exchanged pictures, marveling at how closely he resembled their mother. There were other similarities too: Craig and Cindy's husband had both served long careers in the Navy.

They were both surprised at how quickly and easily they connected.

"It was exciting," Craig said. "I was hesitant at first, but then the ball got rolling."

They called each other every week for the rest of the summer, and then at the end of August, Cindy and her husband went to California to finally meet Craig and his family.

"It was nerve-wracking at first. I was shaking," Cindy said. "We pulled in their driveway and they were out there waiting for us, Craig and his wife and one of his daughters. And we hugged and laughed and from then on it was very comfortable."

As they had many times over the summer, Cindy's thoughts kept returning to her mother, and how hard it must have been to give up an 11-month-old son for adoption.

"All those years, she wasn't at peace," Cindy said. "I think if she could see us (together), she'd be beaming."