Mother reunites with son she held 57 years ago

Apr 1 2012 - 8:09am

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JILL TOYOSHIBA/Kansas City Star
AFter holding him for only a few seconds, Cheryl Allenbrand gave up her infant son for adoption when he was just minutes old. Here, Allenbrand (right) of Overland Park, Kan., and BOb Fowler, also of Overland Park, were reunited at Fowler's home in early March after 57 years.
JILL TOYOSHIBA/Kansas City Star
AFter holding him for only a few seconds, Cheryl Allenbrand gave up her infant son for adoption when he was just minutes old. Here, Allenbrand (right) of Overland Park, Kan., and BOb Fowler, also of Overland Park, were reunited at Fowler's home in early March after 57 years.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Bob Fowler, 57, will swear he never longed for his birth mother.

He had great adoptive parents, grew up happy, got a good education, joined the Navy and saw the world, and now lives the good life in Overland Park, Kan.

But then not long ago, his wife -- she's really smart -- told him that something seemed to be missing in him. Maybe finding that woman would give him peace.

"You might have a hole in your heart you don't even know about," Rebecca Fowler told him.

And if not for himself, do it for the mother who bore him.

When Rebecca, now director of case management and social services at Research Medical Center, was a young single mother herself, people pressured her to put her own baby up for adoption.

"If I had, I would want to know how they turned out," she told her husband.

Bob Fowler had always wondered about the girl who brought him into the world. He knew only bits of her story. She was just a kid -- 15. Probably scared, he figured. The year 1954 was not exactly an age of tolerance in Middle America.

But how would he ever find her? More than a half-century had passed. She could be on the other side of the world and all towns in between.

She could be dead.

Then he saw a newspaper article telling how adoption records had opened for adoptees to learn the health histories of birth parents. He was soon talking to an agency that puts the two sides together.

Then the phone rang in Cheryl Allenbrand's house.

"Your son is looking for you," a woman told her.

Allenbrand nearly fell over. Her husband had recently encouraged her to try to find him.

With the last of her three other children dead -- the three she had raised -- her world had turned empty. Gary Allenbrand tried to put something in it, the only thing he could think of.

"Why don't you go find your high school baby?" he told her.

She looked at him, stunned. It had been 57 years since that little guy was taken from her arms as she lay in a "home for unwed mothers." He could be anywhere, or nowhere, she thought.

She had thought of him often over the years, even imagined him in the faces of strangers. But never did she dream she could ever get him back.

Certainly not now, not at age 73.

But she wanted to try.

So these two -- together for only two minutes on a narrow hospital bed nearly six decades ago -- took off down the same path, but from opposite directions, about the same time.

Cheryl ran into a bureaucratic roadblock, but that wouldn't matter. With Bob's agency playing go-between, they soon were trading emails, with the agency redacting all references to identity and location.

Finally, they were asked: "Are you sure?"

Yes, they were. By then, both wanted nothing more. Each was prepared to drive for days or even fly over an ocean for a reunion.

Turned out they didn't even have to get on the freeway.

They were practically neighbors, just minutes apart in south Overland Park, Kan.

Over the years, events had nearly put them together. She left a job at Center High School the year before he arrived as a freshman. They worshipped at the same church at different times.

So with fate whiffing, it was up to them. A few weeks ago, Cheryl Allenbrand climbed into her car to go see the baby she was supposed to never see again.

Living with 'aunt'

Cheryl was a sophomore at Raytown High School. The boy was older -- 18.

"It's the old story of raging hormones," she remembered. "I got pregnant. Back then, that was just an awful thing to have happen. My parents were devastated."

The story around school after winter break was that, just out of the blue, Cheryl had gone to live with her aunt in California.

California was really the old Crittenton Center on Broadway in Westport. In 1954, that's where a lot of teenage girls went to live with their aunts.

Cheryl arrived in January. Scared. Big place, she knew no one. First thing they did was give her a job in the kitchen. She helped prepare meals and cleaned up afterward.

She made a few friends and life became routine. Then on June 22, 1954, she gave birth to a baby boy.

She returned to high school the next year and then went to college at Missouri Valley where she, a cheerleader, fell in love with a football player.

"We were the perfect couple," she said.

The perfect couple married, had three kids, and then divorced after six years. The children would each die tragically in their middle years.

Ron Asbury died in 2000 at age 40 from diabetes made worse by, according to his mother, his failure to take care of himself. David Asbury committed suicide in 2003, also at age 40. He had problems with a girl and killed himself with a shotgun. Tracy Asbury was bipolar and had undergone two brain surgeries. In 2006, at age 44, she died from a mixture of prescription drugs and alcohol.

Cheryl calls them her "beautiful babies."

One of the first things Bob excitedly wanted to know in an email to his birth mother was if he had siblings.

"That's a story I will have to tell you later," she answered.

'Textbook childhood'

Bob grew up in south Kansas City with wonderful parents, he told her in his first email to her.

"I had a textbook childhood, growing up in the suburbs in the Midwest. I was told I was very smart but found more fulfillment in generating mischief than I did in studies, so I was something of a borderline student.

"My folks were loving, persistent and infinitely patient and as a result I did graduate with my class in 1972."

He went to work for General Motors, but soon got laid off. That's when he and a buddy went to Las Vegas to become dealers in a casino.

How'd that work out?

"Ended up in the Navy," Bob said with a laugh. "We ran out of money and went to a recruiter on Sahara Boulevard and joined up."

He was trained in electronics and assigned to work on radar systems aboard a guided missile destroyer. He told Cheryl all the places he had visited -- Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong, Australia. After the service, he continued his electronics education and went to work in telecommunications.

He married, divorced and married again, to Rebecca in 2000.

"I think it was on the subconscious, but I could tell something was missing in Bob's life," Rebecca said. "He didn't agree or deny it. But it never was about finding something he didn't have. Bob had such a wonderful upbringing -- that wasn't what he was looking for.

"Early on, I think it would have been enough for him to let her know that he was fine."

Bob's email to Cheryl: "What I really want to let you know is that I've had a good life, and to say thank you for making what was, I'm sure, a terribly painful and difficult decision for a young girl. I implore you to never look back and wonder whether or not you did the right thing. Just trust that you did and know that I'm okay."

The reunion

Early in the afternoon of March 3, Cheryl Allenbrand pulled her white Acura into the Fowler driveway.

Bob waited to greet her, with Rebecca at the side, camera ready.

Cheryl and Bob walked to each other and stopped, studying each other's face, trying to look through the years. Then she wrapped her arms around the son she'd last held 57 years and 254 days earlier.

He was minutes old back then. Now he is 5 feet 11, a husband, father, grandfather, Navy veteran and project manager for a telecommunications company.

To hear them tell it, any apprehension went out the door when she came through it.

They've since met each other's families. Bob's adoptive father has died, but his mother supported his effort to find his birth mother.

"But she was protective of her 'mother' title," Bob said chuckling. "She told me, don't call her mom."

So he calls her Cheryl. They talk about their love for books and music. She talks to him about her three other children, and he is sad for the siblings he never knew. Maybe he could have helped them, he says.

Bob's birth father has been informed of recent events, but has chosen not to come forward, Cheryl said.

Up next is a reunion for Cheryl's graduating class at Raytown High. She's planning a speech to tell people what they probably already knew about her and the visit 58 years ago to the aunt in California.

"I'd like to be a fly on the wall for that," Bob said.

"Oh, you're going to be there and you're talking, too," she told him.

These two have a story to tell. Granted, one with a giant hole in the middle.

But now, at last, they get to tell it together.

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