Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Seperated At Birth: Adopted Twins Reunited

I found this story on the front page of the Daily Herald this morning. It's amazing!

Read the story at

This story beats love at first sight. Two people longed for each other, though they may have never met. They felt connected though they may never have touched. They'd even been given the same first names, though their families were strangers. By the time Meredith Grace Rittenhouse and Meredith Ellen Harrington were finally introduced, love was almost beside the point. Their bond was more mysterious, more fundamental. The Merediths are Chinese fraternal twins who were adopted by two different American families, one from Lisle. The girls found each other almost six years ago, when they were 4, and haven't let go since.

Jiangmen, China, is a subtropical city, but during the winter it can cool off quite a bit. It was on an early December day that Meredith Grace's birth mother left the newborn outside and said goodbye. In China, children who are abandoned by their parents are often left in public places where they are found quickly. Meredith Grace's mother chose a busy part of town, the entrance to Holiday Park, across the street from an orphanage.

Meredith Grace was taken in by the Jiangmen City Social Welfare Institute on Dec. 8, 1998. Two weeks later, another baby girl, also found nearby, arrived.

During the nine months the two girls lived at the orphanage, they likely did not have much contact. As far as their American adoptive families know, there was no reason for the institute to suspect that the girls were twins. They lacked a strong physical resemblance then. Their adoptive parents believe, however, that the girls were cared for by the same two nannies, which would suggest that their cribs were in the same room. When they were 4 years old, both girls were able to remember who was the "nice" nanny and who was the "mean one" when they looked at a picture of the women (even though the "mean one" was smiling). Such is the detective work of families hoping to find clues that their daughters knew each other from the beginning.

When she was 10 months old, Meredith Grace moved into her new home in Lisle with Jim and Susan Rittenhouse, one a science-fiction buff and the other a dog lover, and now, together, parents. Meredith Grace was an early talker, and like her father, an enthusiastic one. Bubbly and smart, she developed a passion for geography and soon was drawing maps of the continents and begging for a globe. She adjusted to her American life well, but she was obsessed with the idea of sisters. She used to tell her preschool teacher about the one she had in China; her parents took this to mean that she wanted one. Asked to complete the sentence, "When I grow up I want to be a -," a 3-year-old Meredith's answer was "sister."

One month before the Rittenhouses adopted Meredith Grace, Leigh Anne and Mike Harrington had named their little girl Meredith Ellen and taken her home to Birmingham, Ala. Soon after, Meredith Ellen spoke her first words. When she was 2, she asked for a globe and started studying the continents. Meredith Ellen was quieter than the sister she didn't yet know about in Lisle, and she went through periods of melancholy. When she was 2 she told her parents, "I'm so lonely. I wish I had a sister."

Leigh Anne and Mike decided to give her one - they adopted Ally when Meredith was 21/2, but the gloom didn't fade.

In Lisle, the Rittenhouses were getting ready to adopt a sister for their Meredith. Jim was skimming over a listserv connecting parents who'd adopted kids from the Jiangmen Social Welfare Institute at the same time. One posting was from a family he'd once exchanged a few friendly messages with during the lead-up to their adoptions. Now the other family was posting a recent photograph. Jim moved his mouse and clicked. That little click turned out to be a ka-boom. There on his screen was what looked like his own daughter's face. His wife was in the next room. "Honey?" he said.

Soon the families were swapping photos and stories. One picture of Meredith Grace in front of the dollhouse she'd gotten for Christmas that year, her head slightly cocked, was the clincher. Leigh Anne thought the girls looked exactly alike and asked Meredith Ellen, who tended to tilt her head in a similar way, what she thought of the picture. "That's me, but I don't have that dollhouse or the dress," the 4-year-old said. Meanwhile, in Lisle, Susan Rittenhouse's casual observation "Wow, they could be sisters" had acquired new punctuation: "Wow, they could be sisters!" A DNA test eventually told them what they already knew.

Meredith Grace was introduced to her sister in the parking lot of a Birmingham hotel. Both girls had been told only that they were from the same orphanage. Days before, the 4-year-olds had spoken on the phone. Before hanging up, Meredith Grace whispered "love you" to the sister she'd never met. And now here she was. The girls circled each other for just a moment. When they finally released each other from that first hug, they took each other's hand. Meredith Ellen told Meredith Grace, "I think we were born together."

The corollary to the Merediths' elation at finding each other is the devastation at having to separate again after visits. Grief unspools into tantrums. "Worse than I've ever seen before in her whole life," Jim Rittenhouse wrote in his online journal after the girls' first reunion. Since that first meeting almost six years ago - the girls are now 10 - they've seen each other about a dozen times.

In between visits, they don't speak on the phone because it makes them too sad. But Meredith Grace has told her parents that she thinks about Sissy, as they call each other, 10 times a day. Visits are arranged when the yearning becomes too much. Meredith Grace's attitude flares. Meredith Ellen will cry at night, saying, "I miss Sissy." So the word goes out.

"Mer is missing Sissy a lot right now. She has even thought tonight that she wishes they could both be back in China together," went one e-mail from Leigh Anne to her counterpart in Lisle. Travel Web sites are checked for sales. Dates are put on the calendar. And the emotion immediately rights itself.

And so it goes for the "twin-laws" - the families' term for one another - who find themselves in an arranged marriage with an entire group of strangers.

But for both the Rittenhouses and the Harringtons, the joy at seeing the girls together outweighs the challenges of reuniting them. They've developed a warm, respectful relationship.

Both Merediths say they feel complete now that they've found each other. Meredith Grace became more confident, her mother, Susan, says. She faced her fear of dogs because her twin had five of them and got over her aversion to putting her face in water because her twin could.

Meredith Ellen's blues disappeared. "I feel close to Sissy because she has been with me since the beginning and when we were put in orphanages I knew that it was sort of hard but I knew that I would find the missing piece in my heart. I found the missing piece," she wrote in her diary.

The parents found themselves reoriented, too. "We have always felt that family bonds are not dependent upon genetic connection," Leigh Anne, a family therapist specializing in international adoption issues, wrote in an e-mail to a friend right after the Merediths met. "However, there is no denying that these girls share something beyond. It is amazing."

Their reunions at the airport have become a ritual. On a warm morning this past June, Meredith Grace was too nervous to eat. On her way to Chicago's Midway Airport, she was wearing a navy T-shirt and cargo pants, the same thing her sister would have on; outfits are coordinated weeks in advance. When Meredith Grace spotted her sister coming through security, she dashed into her arms. Then they pulled back and gazed into each other's eyes, heads tilted, just like in the picture that brought them together. Then they were two little girls again, jumping up and down and screaming "Yay! Sissy!" in unison.

Their visits are cram sessions: jumping on a beanbag, karaoke, tickling, Uno, poking, sharing earbuds, playing teacher, posing for pictures, hide-and-seek, pillow fighting, swinging, giggling, swimming, digging a hole in the sandbox. This was just one afternoon during their most recent Chicago visit. Like all sisters, they can get on each other's nerves - "Would you literally stop that?" and the sibling classic "Get your butt off me!" Always, they are in physical contact, as if to reassure each other that they're still there.

"Absolute radiant joy," is how Jim describes seeing the girls together. What does being together feel like for the girls? "A present," says Meredith Grace.