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At 17, she gave him up and 45 years later, her son called

She wasn't expecting the call or inclined to take it.

The phone rang on a Sunday night, April 24, a few minutes after 8. Linda Palm, 63, had just stepped inside from tending plants around her Gulfport home. Her husband was taking a shower.

She stared at the phone. On voicemail, a man was talking about an important message for Linda Palm. She decided to ignore the call, but four words changed her mind.

"I need your help."

The caller introduced himself as Brent Reichert, of Tallmadge, Ohio.

"I was born on May 9, 1971, in Kettering Memorial Hospital to a woman named Linda Lee Wilson," he said.

"And I believe that's you."

• • •

Linda grew up in St. Petersburg with deep roots. Her grandfather had owned Wilson Mattress and Furniture Co., then passed the store to her father. Her mother bought hundreds of books from Wilson's Book World, then returned them with her initials on the title pages, along with her personal rating system, ranging from excellent to so-so.

The family lived in Driftwood. Linda went through public school with the same friends, several of them from families that also had been in the area for generations. Had she not gotten pregnant, she would have followed them through Lakewood High and whatever lay beyond.

But she did get pregnant, at 16, the result of a yearlong relationship with a college student that had already ended. She kept the pregnancy a secret, not wanting to disappoint her parents.

It was hard choosing a course of action. Abortion? Illegal. Keep the child? She had seen friends try. They could hold down a job, go to college or raise a child, but not all three at the same time.

"I remember being at home, and in between In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida and Karen Carpenter, wondering what I was going to do with this life growing inside of me," she said.

Linda learned about a home for unwed mothers. It was in Miami, far enough away to shield everyone from scandal. When the time was right, she would get on that bus.

Those plans never had a chance. At 6 feet tall, Linda was able to hide the pregnancy for a while, but not indefinitely. At seven months, it was her father who asked the question. How long had it been since her last period? "I said, 'A long time,' " Linda recalled. "He said, 'What do you want to do?' "

Within a day, she was on a plane to Ohio to stay with a brother. It all felt rushed. Before saying goodbye, her mother removed a platinum ring that had belonged to Linda's grandmother. Would she like to wear it? "I'm not married," Linda said.

She gave birth several weeks later at Kettering Memorial Hospital. She heard the baby cry.

It was a boy, 8 pounds, 13 ounces.

She never held her child, or even looked to see his face.

"If I saw him," she said, "I would have to keep him."

• • •

She got back in time for summer school at Lakewood High. To anyone curious about her absence, the family had a ready-made answer: Linda had gone north to see snow for the first time, then contracted mononucleosis. Repeating this lie felt like part of her atonement. It burned a hole of anger inside her, like a cigarette butt stubbed out on the skin. Only her closest friends knew the truth.

After graduating, she married George Palm, a respiratory therapist. They had a daughter, Sara. Linda started an indoor plant business. When it came to the past, she lived with a void.

She figured the boy would be tall and fair-skinned, like her. If she passed him on the sidewalk, would she know?

"I never discounted he might try to find me," Linda said.

She couldn't stop herself from scanning crowds, glancing at tall men who could be 17 years younger.

• • •

After four weeks in a Lutheran agency, "Baby Wilson" was adopted by Samuel and Gloria Reichert, an engineer and a teacher who raised him in Brunswick, Ohio. "I grew up hearing, 'Your mom loved you so much, she had to give you up,' " said Brent, 45.

He married and got a job with a company that makes industrial cranes, where he is now a regional human resources manager. He and wife Amy had two children, Samantha and Ian. He traveled frequently and had little time to dwell on the past.

But every now and then, there were little speed bumps. The first came 10 years ago, when his wife was pregnant. It was one thing to leave his family medical history form blank, as he had been doing for doctor visits all his life. Now he had fathered a child with zero knowledge of his own genetics. Would his child be born fully functional or with disabilities?

Samantha was born healthy in 2007. As soon as the cord was cut, Brent nudged the infant's tiny hand with his index finger.

Inside, he soared when she grabbed it.

"It was the first blood of my blood," he said.

The birth stirred long-simmering questions about what had become of the teenage mother who had given him up. Was giving birth to him another stumbling block in a life filled with hardship? Was she even alive?

• • •

For decades, adults who had been adopted as children and wanted to find their parents were out of luck. Most states said they had no right even to get a copy of their birth certificate. Arguments for that included protecting the privacy of birth parents, particularly mothers who had never disclosed the pregnancy to family members or had become pregnant through rape or incest.

In recent years, that has changed. Adoption advocacy groups have pressured states to relax those laws. Now about half either grant adult adoptees total access to birth records or have set up systems in which states can seek permission from birth parents to release that information. One such law, signed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, goes into effect Jan. 1, opening 170,000 birth records sealed since 1940.

The rest of the states still require a court order to unseal records. (Some of those states, including Florida, maintain passive registries in which birth parents or children may find each other only with the other party's prior written consent.)

Ohio had long been one the country's most restrictive states. But on March 20, 2015, new legislation gave Brent his first chance to obtain his birth certificate. That day, he opened a link to the state's Office of Vital Statistics and hit print. He filled out the form and slid it into his briefcase.

It stayed there for nearly a year. "It was fear of the unknown," Brent said. "I was happy with myself as it was."

The nudge to finish the application came from a close friend — an adult adoptee whom Brent had helped find his own mother. As Brent remembers it, "He said, 'It's not about you. It's time you reached out to your birth mom and let her know you're fantastic, you're awesome. Thank you for letting me be a part of this world, and release her from that wondering.' "

So he walked into a drab brick building in Columbus and got his birth certificate.

• • •

His mother was Linda Lee Wilson, according to the birth certificate. No father was listed.

Brent sent for his adoption records, which arrived with so many redacted lines, they looked like something out of CSI. Notes described a young woman who was 6 feet tall, well dressed and composed, who swam and rode horses and played the piano. She wanted to go to college and major in merchandising.

He decided to start with what he knew: Linda Wilson from St. Petersburg, Fla.

Had she moved to Ohio? A White Pages search through the state didn't help.

So, back to St. Petersburg. He went online to classmates.com, which offers networking and high school yearbooks. A photo in the 1971 Lakewood High yearbook caught his eye. Linda Wilson, a senior, had high cheekbones and long reddish hair.

But it was her eyes that struck a nerve. They reminded him of Samantha's.

Classmates.com allows members to update their profiles. As a result, there was a second name after Wilson: Palm. A Google search brought up a 2008 Times obituary for a woman whose last name was Wilson. Among the survivors, Linda Palm.

Brent found a phone number. But he did not want to call yet. What if he was wrong? He could not drop that kind of a bombshell and be wrong.

Then, he got his sign: Linda Wilson Palm had gotten a speeding ticket. Her height? 6 feet.

• • •

On April 24, Brent sent Samantha and Ian, 7, to another room to watch a movie, and dialed the number. He could barely breathe.

Before her son said another word, Linda picked up the phone and interjected. "First, I want to say you have always been loved," she said. "I put you up for adoption because I wanted you to have parents who could give what I could not."

Brent told her he was raised by loving Midwestern parents who, after 50 years of marriage, still hold hands at the mall.

A shiver ran through Linda from head to foot, and her knees went weak — "pure joy and affirmation of my prayers to God for this baby."

They kept talking. Soon, the spouses joined in. The call lasted 3-½ hours. The next step was obvious. Brent and his family would come to Florida.

The next day, he sent roses and snapdragons. A couple of days later, he sent a head shot and the adoption records he had retrieved. Included in that package was a black and white photo someone had taken in 1971, of him at 1 month old.

Linda held the photo and cried.

• • •

Linda wanted to see her son right away. At first he agreed, then changed his mind and decided to bring his family.

That would take time, with school in session. What's more, Ian's Little League team was in the playoffs and Samantha had a dance recital. And there was work.

Linda's friends told her to be patient. "So many people said, 'Give him room, wait, don't push him.' I don't wait well."

For her son, the reunion could not have been complete any other way. "My wife and I talked about just me going down, one-on-one," Brent said. "Part of me thinks I should have done that. But if you do that, then you are not meeting all of me. Mom didn't understand that."

It would not be the only time mother and son each perceived an enormity in their reunification, yet responded to it differently.

This mother and son were, after all, picking up where they had left off, which was nowhere.

• • •

In July, a rented SUV pulled up to a rented cottage in Treasure Island. Brent got out and hugged the woman nearly as tall as he is, whose pale skin and freckles match his. They hugged for a long time. "There were no tears," Brent said. "There was just so much happiness."

They had been talking or texting almost daily for months and had just scratched the surface. There was so much information to digest, like a python swallowing a goat.

That first evening at sunset, they walked arm in arm on the beach. He gave her a sterling silver charm necklace. She opened up the little ball, and a heart popped out. Beneath the heart, a word: "Mom."

The kids bonded with George and Linda, Brent with his half-sister, Sara Higman, 37.

As Brent and Sara chatted in the cottage, Linda watched from across the room, and a realization settled in:

I have two children.

That night, she felt the weight of that period in her life, the secrecy and the guilt.

"Every demon I had inside me came out, the pain of the memories and the perpetuation of lies. I was disappointed in myself, getting lost in myself."

Brent's family did some tourist things, like going to the Clearwater Aquarium to see Winter and Hope. Emotionally, there was no checklist, no way of knowing if this is where you are supposed to be.

Mother and son took an afternoon together for errands and pizza, just the two of them. It was a baby step forward.

• • •

The story seems to affect everyone they tell, including strangers. "Goose bumps and tears," Linda said. "First goose bumps, then tears."

It has also given Linda and Brent a new window into the lives of others. At least five people have contacted Brent, including a couple of high school friends he never knew were adopted. A co-worker, inspired by the story, found and met a half-sister.

Even the florist who delivered Brent's flowers seemed choked up.

"He said, 'I never looked for my mom. I need to look,' " Linda said.

• • •

The next chapter of this story is still being sketched out. There is so much missing time.

Linda spent Thanksgiving with Sara in Snell Isle in St. Petersburg. In Ohio, Brent remembered his mother with an extra place at the table.

The ambiguity of their relationship filters into everyday decisions. Linda thought about going to Ohio after Brent's wife had hip replacement surgery. But she wondered what her role would be, whether it would be appropriate or if she would just be in the way.

As the months passed, mother and son learned they shared another habit: checking flight schedules instinctively, almost daily. But plans to get together again never quite get made.

"The clock keeps ticking," Brent said. "Life keeps getting busier and busier."

This is the way everything goes. There's a rush toward each other, then events and circumstances pull them away like an outgoing tide.

"If we both could, we would be with each other now," Linda said. "I miss him beyond explanation."

Brent summed it all up with a metaphor.

"It's like flying a kite for the first time," he said. "You want to get it going. But will there be enough wind? Will it stay aloft, or will it all crash down?"

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

At 17, she gave him up and 45 years later, her son called 12/28/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 28, 2016 9:14am]
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