Cover Story

To Finally Hear His Voice

 

A Mother's Greatest Valentine's Day Gift

 

by Laura Hickey, Associate Editor

 

Seila Spence knew.  

She knew, in her heart, that he would find her — that he would seek her out.

She had played the moment out in her mind over and over again.

Seila could only imagine what his voice would sound like, what he would look like, what words would flow from his lips, what things he would like, how she would feel, how he would react. She was anxious, curious, scared, confident — all at the same time.

And then it happened — on Valentine’s Day 1988.

The phone rang, shattering the silence in her Blackstone home that evening. Her heart skipped a beat.

She’d been advised that he might call at some point. “My old friend called and told me that the son I had given up for adoption 19 years earlier was looking for me. She wanted to know if she could give him my number to contact me,” explains Seila. “I laughed, and then I cried.”

Year after year, she had celebrated her son’s birthday — without him. “I would dream about driving by a house and seeing him out in the yard, laughing and playing,” she says.

And now she would get a chance to talk to him, to finally hear his voice.

The Phone Call

That Valentine’s Day evening, Seila answered the phone. A young man’s voice greeted, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” She immediately knew it was her son, her baby boy — though, no longer a child; he was now a young man. She’d not heard his voice before, but it came as a familiar sound to her heart, soothing her to the soul. “I was elated when I heard his voice,” Seila says, tears welling up in her eyes. “I knew he would find me,” she says.

Seila remembers parts of the conversation word for word.

“Hi, this is James,” he had said. James — what a nice name, Seila thought, then responded: “Hi, I’m Seila.” Though miles apart, she felt so close to him, as she clutched the telephone and waited to hear what he would say next. He said that she had a nice voice. “We got to talking, and the conversation went so well,” she remembers.

Then it came time to say goodbye. Before she would let him hang up, she asked, “Would you call me mom, just once?” Then, when they were finished talking, he said the words she had been longing to hear; they sent her heart fluttering for a moment. “Goodbye, Mom. I love you,” James said before he hung up.

When the phone call came, her son was 19 years old — the same age Seila had been when she gave birth to him. James Martin, a history teacher, is now 34 years old and is married with two young daughters, Kadie and Elizabeth Morgan — ages six and 10.

She had been barely an adult herself when she conceived her child, and was 1,500 miles from home. “I left North Carolina when I was 18 to go to California with another girl, but we never made it there. The car broke down in Kansas and we ran out of money, so we ended up living with my friend’s aunt and uncle,” Seila explains.

When she found out she was pregnant, Seila was scared. She knew she was not prepared to raise a child at that point in her life. “It was a difficult decision, but I had to do what was right for me at the time,” she says.

Seila, now in her fifties, was born in Spring Hope, NC, and grew up in a single-parent home with two brothers and one sister. “Because my own father was not a part of my childhood, I was well aware of what I had missed growing up. When faced with the decision of raising a child without a father or placing my baby up for adoption, I chose adoption,” she explains. “I wanted my baby to have a daddy.”

When her son finally found her, the hole in Seila’s heart was filled. “Not a day went by that I didn’t think about him,” she says. She would peer at every group of young children, searching for a face that matched her own.

It had been a closed adoption, so despite her dream to one day reunite with him, there was nothing she could do to facilitate it. “I had to sit and wait and hope and pray that he would find me — if he was even alive,” she says.

Seila always kept him in mind when she moved from place to place. “Every time I moved, the only thing I could think is, ‘Is he going to be able to find me here?’ ”

James, spurred on by his desire to trace his roots, tracked her down. He followed her trail, through contacting various relatives and friends, from Kansas to North Carolina, and finally to Southside Virginia.

She says, “My son said it didn’t matter; if he had to ride his motorbike out to Virginia, he was determined to see me. He told me that he’d gone through it in his mind; that if I’d not wanted to see him, he was going to sit across the street and wait until I came out.” Seila knew it was a miracle that he had found her, since nobody in her family knew she had once given birth to a baby boy.

 

The Reunion

A stream of tears washed the mascara from Seila’s eyes at the life-altering moment a young man stepped toward her, extending his arms. She smiled, he smiled; they embraced — a hug that could have lasted 19 years. Blonde hair, hazel eyes — he had an uncanny resemblance to his mother. There was so much she wanted to tell him.

When the moment came to meet her son, who lived in Kansas, Seila had been overwhelmed with both excitement and nervousness. “We talked for about six weeks and then we planned to meet in Kansas on the Monday after Easter 1989,” Seila says. Seeing him for the first time, a grown young man, she admits, “I felt like a shy little girl.”

The mother and son had a meal together, holding hands at the table. “I think he saw I was a little nervous because he hugged me and said, gently, ‘It’s all right. I’ve been happy. I’ve been very happy.’ ”

And that’s all Seila could have asked for. “I just wanted him to have loving parents and a good education; those are the things I wanted most for my son,” she says.

Seila felt the reunion went well; she felt comforted knowing he was at peace with what had happened, and why she had made that difficult decision 19 years ago.

“It’s all right. I’ve been happy. I’ve been very happy.” The words he’d spoken so softly, so convincingly to her — they reverberated in her head after her reluctant return to Virginia. “I was happy to hear that his adoptive parents had loved him dearly and given him all the things he so deserved,” she says.

His Side

His adoption was no secret; James always knew he was adopted. “My [adoptive] parents made my being adopted into a good thing. My [adoptive] mother really built the image of my birth mother up — not as someone who gave me up because she didn’t want me, but as someone who gave me up because she loved me and wanted me to have a better life than she could have given me at that time.”

After meeting his birth mother, James recognized common characteristics. “When I was a kid, I would pull the covers up over my head so just my face was exposed, and she would do the same thing. Neither one of us do well around snakes; I am terrified of them.”

Get, and Give Back

As time passed, the newfound relationship with her son slowly developed into the unbreakable bond between a birth mother and her child. “Talking to him afterwards wasn’t awkward at all, because it felt like we had so much in common,” she says.

However, her outlook on life and her priorities changed. “When something like that happens to you, you want to give something back,” she explains. “I decided that I wanted to help out those kids who never had a chance to call someone mom.”

That’s when she started up Morgan (Seila’s maiden name) Scholars, a non-profit organization that gives scholarships and computers to disadvantaged youth, with a focus on helping young adults leaving children’s homes and foster-care facilities. The program has given out five computers and four scholarships to date. The goal, says Seila, is to go nationwide to help kids across the country.

Two Lives Touched

Nottoway High School students Devina Woodley, 18, and Patricia Lee, 17, know what it feels like to be a Morgan Scholars recipient. A few months ago, both were presented with brand-new computers.

“It meant a lot to me that someone cared enough about me to give me a computer,” Woodley says shyly. “I have a sister who just had a baby and we can’t afford to buy a computer because we’re going through hard times.”

Jackie Winn, special-education teacher at Nottoway, selected and presented the two students-in-need to Seila’s organization. Winn had been Lee’s homebound teacher while the young student battled ovarian cancer. “There couldn’t have been two more-deserving girls than Patricia and Devina,” she says. “Both girls really needed computers, and they were just so thankful.”

Lee, one of seven siblings — five of them under 18 years old — says, “I want to go to Hampton University, and the new computer helped me research scholarship information so I could afford to go — and have a better future.”

Rest in Peace

 

With a huge void in her heart now filled after finding her son, Seila recognized something else that was missing — closure with her father, the man who had walked out on her family. She knew her father had recently made contact with her older brother, living in North Carolina. “I showed my brother a picture of James, my son, one day and he said to me, ‘He looks a lot like him.’ Him, of course, being our father.”

James had expressed an interest in meeting his grandfather, once he found out that her father was still alive. It was a difficult concept for Seila to grasp — that her son wanted to meet the man who had deserted her, the man she had held a grudge against for many years.

“I said to myself, ‘If my son can forgive me, then I should be able to forgive my father,’ ” she says. Seila went ahead and made arrangements to meet her father. “A family friend told him I wanted to meet him, and he said he’d wanted to meet me for years but thought I’d hated him for what he did,” says Seila.

The meeting was set for a Monday. Seila took off work, but couldn’t go through with it that particular Monday. It was just too soon. So she cancelled. “I needed one more week,” she says.

The meeting was rescheduled to the following Monday and, again, Seila took off from work — determined to go through with it this time. The week passed as her anxiety mounted. And then on Sunday evening, the day before she was to meet her father, the phone rang — though, that night, there was an ominous tone to the ring. “It was my sister-in-law who had some shocking news. She said, ‘Your father died today.’ ”

Seila pauses. “If I hadn’t put it off one week, I could have met him. I could have met my father before he died.”

From the Back

Distancing herself from her father and his family during his funeral, Seila sat in the back. “The man lying peacefully in the casket was a stranger to me,” she says. “I wanted to be there, but I didn’t want to be there.”

She listened as they talked about the man she never knew — the man biologically connected to her, and yet a complete stranger. “As I found out more about him, I saw that he was a lot like me,” she says. They both enjoyed taking pictures, liked barbecue, and loved joking around. Recognizing similarities between herself and her father, he didn’t seem as unfamiliar to her anymore.

More on Morgan Scholars

Seila works at the fitness center for the Virginia Army National Guard in Blackstone. Along with her husband, Michael, she continues to spread the word about Morgan Scholars, formed in April 2000. “My husband and I aren’t wealthy, but we do everything we can to get money together to purchase computers and scholarships for disadvantaged youth,” she says. Efforts include fundraisers, like bake sales and concerts, as well as monetary and item donations from various groups, individuals and businesses in the community.

James says of Seila’s efforts, “I’m really proud of her and what she’s trying to do. It’s always a good thing when people get involved.”

Reflections: The Rainbow After the Storm

Seila may have had a life interspersed with misfortune, but in the end she’s bolstered by the strength that comes with overcoming life’s obstacles.

“I’ve learned from my mother’s experience with her father passing away,” says James, “the life lesson of not putting off until tomorrow what you can do today. You shouldn’t let ill feelings linger, because you never know how much time you have to forgive a person.”

He pauses, “I don’t think people really think about that — how much they could lose in a blink of an eye. Time is fleeting and you have to make the best of it, whether it’s making amends with people or by helping those in need.”

For more information on Morgan Scholars, please contact Seila Morgan Spence at (434) 292-9779, write to Morgan Scholars Inc., P.O. Box 243, Blackstone, Va. 23824, e-mail: morgan23824@yahoo.com or go to www.morganscholars.org.

 

 

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