Pamela Foley was 17 and pregnant in 1982 when her parents said she wasn't welcome in their house, and wasn't keeping her baby.
She searched and wondered for decades what happened to the child she gave up for adoption before the two reconnected in January 2019. They met again for the first time in 36 years at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
Foley, an Air Force veteran, who uses a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis, pushed up from her chair July 9, 2019, as the two embraced and held each other tight.
"Let me look at your face!" Foley sobbed as she held her daughter's face in her hands. "My baby!"
The two have since been inseparable at 2019's Games, with her daughter, Carrie Knutsen, cheering on her birth mom, laughing and finishing each other's sentences. While the two have filled each other in on the last 36 years, they cemented the reunion with matching tattoos of two hearts and a double helix DNA that Carrie designed.
Pamela Foley competed in bowling, 9-ball and slalom at this year's Wheelchair Games, but will most remember her reunion with the daughter she was forced to give up for adoption 36 years ago.
Foley never stopped hoping this day would come, always marking Carrie's birthday on her calendar. Carrie, based on what little information she had, would sometimes see a face in the crowd and wonder if they were related.
When Pamela told her parents she was pregnant 36 years ago, she wasn't surprised at their reaction.
"They said, 'You're going to live with your sister in Virginia.' They're the type they always have to impress people, and if anybody had found out their daughter was pregnant, they couldn't have that."
Pamela got to spend time with her baby after giving birth April 29, 1983, in Roanoke, which made it even harder.
"That was the emotional pain," she said. "They let me have her while I was there, feeding and clothing her. I saw and held her and was a blithering idiot. I had 30 days after signing the paperwork to change my mind. So I called my mom, crying in the hospital."
"What would happen if I kept her?" Pamela asked.
"Oh, don't come home," her mom replied.
"And I'm crying more as I'm thinking of changing my mind. Then I thought about it. I was 17. I didn't have a job, I had no resources. I didn't know anything. I didn't have any skills."
Carrie interjects with a laugh: "I mean, you gave birth, that's a pretty good skill. Just saying."
"It just happens," Pamela deadpans. "You just do it. It was going to happen regardless."
Catholic Charities told Pamela the adoption records would be sealed for 18 years, then she could find information about her baby.
Although she was named Lisa Marie on the birth certificate, her adoptive parents — Casey and Marie — took parts of their name and changed her name to Carrie.
"It was a huge blessing for them, and they are amazing people," Carrie said. "They changed my name because they wanted to give me a piece of them. I never wanted for anything. I went to college, I finished grad school. I don't have any memory of not knowing I was adopted. They told me when I was young.
Mom and daughter got matching tattoos of two hearts and double helix DNA to commemorate the reunion. Carrie, who is a graphic artist, designed the artwork.
"I always wondered if she was a movie star and occasionally wondered why they gave me away. I knew I was born in Roanoke, so anytime we were there, I'd look at faces in the crowd and wondered if they resembled me or were family."
Pamela moved back home after giving birth and graduated from high school. She joined the Air Force in 1985, married and had another daughter, Samantha, in 1986. She was diagnosed a year later with multiple sclerosis and separated from the military. She divorced her first husband, remarried and had a son, Sean, in 1991. Tragedy struck in 1993 when Samantha died after she fell through a glass table while playing.
"It was the worst thing in the world," Pamela said. "It was worse than giving my baby away."
Pamela and her husband, Michael, had another daughter, Megan, in 1994.
And in 2001 — 18 years after giving birth to Carrie — Pamela asked to see the adoption records.
"They were so rude. 'Nooooo, these are sealed records. You have to get a lawyer and petition the court.'
"I let it drop," she said. "We didn't have that kind of money, and at that time, there was no internet like there is today. I did find an adoption registry and filled out all the information, what I knew. I never heard anything."
Carrie filled out a similar registry around the same time.
"I thought, 'What the hell? Maybe?' I never heard and forgot all about it."
She married in 2011, and tried to find more about her family's health history, but hit the same road block with sealed records.
Another 17 years passed while Pamela watched a show about reuniting lost family members. There was a phone number for a private investigation company at the end of the program, and she gave them a call. For $1,000, she was told, they could probably find her daughter. Pamela reached out to the birth father and they split the cost.
In December 2018, the investigation firm sent Carrie a letter she almost didn't open.
"I just stuck it in my purse, and when I opened it later, they said they had a client who was looking for me," she said. "I thought it was probably my mother, but it might be a scam. I got in touch with them, and on January 2 told them they could use my e-mail. I'm sitting at work and 10 minutes later, I get an e-mail from Pam."
Pam wrote: "Hi my name is Pamela Foley … You might be the child I gave up 35 years ago. I would like get to know and possibly meet you sometime in the future … I know this a lot to take in, but I'm hopeful we can stay in contact."
Carrie wrote back: "Hi, Pam! What a way to start a new year! You're right, it is a lot to take in — but in an exciting way! For 30 years, since I first found out I was adopted at the ripe old age of 5, I have wondered everything about my birth family. I am thankful for my parents who have given me everything — the best life I could have ever imagined. But I've always had those thoughts in the back of my mind — who are they, where are they, what do they like, what do they look like, and so on. This is a fascinating new journey!"
The two e-mailed back and forth all day.
Does the rest of your family "know about me? If so, when did you tell them?" Carrie asked.
"Everybody in my life knows about you and has for many years," Pam replied. "I don't hide my past from my children, so they know about you and that we are in contact. They are also very excited!
Carrie said that made the difference in their new relationship.
"The biggest part for me was finding out I was nobody's secret," she said. "I was wanted."
They are making plans to visit one another after the Games, and Carrie hopes to get to the 2020 event in Portland. She has since been in touch with her birth father and is finding other family members, too.
"We use social media a lot, and I'm getting all these friend requests from cousins, aunts, a grandma on my birth father's side … my grandparents died in 2014 and now I get another grandma," Carrie said as she dabbed a tear from her eye. "I'm finding out that I've had, like, 30,000 family members I never knew I had who had been praying for me my whole life. It's wonderful."
This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.