Mike Pate dashed off the Facebook message figuring he'd get a polite but puzzled response, if he got one at all.
It had been more than two decades since his mom and older sister sat him down on a tree-shaded bench in their yard in St. Petersburg and told him he had been adopted as an infant. Now, in January 2011, the 37-year-old father of three was sending a message to a stranger in Illinois with a maiden name similar to the one he had for his birth mother.
"This might be a crazy question …," Pate typed.
The reply came within hours, short and without pleasantries: "Where are you now?"
The brevity of the message struck Pate, a graphic artist for the St. Petersburg Times.
"Right there, I knew," Pate recalled last week. "It had to be her."
As the baby of five siblings by nearly 12 years, Michael Wesley Pate grew up with no shortage of love from adoptive parents Edward and Marian Pate and his older brothers and sisters, who happily helped to raise him.
"It was like God sent him to us," sister Debbie Peters said.
His father was quiet and hardworking, putting in more than 30 years with the Schaff Piano Supply Co.
"He was a good dad, and he was responsible, and I got that from him," Pate said.
The family moved from Chicago to St. Petersburg when Mike was 10. He rebelled as a teenager, coming home late or some nights not at all. His family suspected that he had found out from a loose-lipped relative that he was adopted and that he was acting out as a result, so his mother and Debbie took him out to that bench to confirm what they thought he already knew.
He was adopted at the age of 3 months, they said. They told him his birth mother's name: Laura Jean, with a last name he would for years think was spelled H-E-I-N-Z-M-A-N. She was young, unprepared for motherhood, and made a difficult decision, they said.
He reacted in a way that adoptive parents can only hope for.
"I was kind of like, wow, that's cool," he said. "It didn't bother me because I was loved, and I didn't feel like just because I was adopted that I wasn't part of the family."
Edward Pate died suddenly of complications from a brain tumor at the age of 60. Mike was 18. He graduated from Gibbs High School, married his high school sweetheart, Teresa, and moved to Beverly Hills in Citrus County after landing a job in the Times' Citrus bureau. He now works in the company's Hernando County office.
Over the years, Pate took to the Internet, trying to find clues about his birth mother. He knew his own birth date. But without being sure of her last name, he had little hope as he scanned online phone directories.
Pate joined Facebook in 2007 as part of the social network site's first exponential wave. That year, the site had 50 million active users, up from 12 million in 2006. It's now beyond half a billion.
Pate's page, like millions of others, is a tribute to his family, a stockpile of photos chronicling trips, milestones and candid moments: Son Wesley, 16, holding up his National Honor Society certificate; son Tyler, 15, smiling from behind shoulder-length blond locks during a family dinner; 5-year-old daughter Mikayla cuddling with a friend's cat.
Pate is the cool dad, a slightly built, soft-spoken, hard rock-loving skateboarder who served as a Cub Scout den leader.
In January, Pate caught a CNBC documentary called The Facebook Obsession. The opening segment chronicled a woman who found her birth mother by creating a page on the site and asking her online friends for help.
Pate decided to do the same, posting what little information he had. Many of his roughly 350 Facebook friends offered search tips and wished him luck.
About a week later, a friend sent him a link to a Web page that referenced women named Hinzman and their married names. One was named Laura Ishaya. The friend also found the woman's Facebook page, complete with a photo.
She looks a little like you, the friend told Pate.
Feeling a little silly, he sent the woman a message.
Essentially, it said: This is my birth date, and this is how I think my birth mother spelled her maiden name. Could you be her?
• • •
If there is such an emotion as panic-stricken joy, Laura Ishaya felt it when she read his message.
"All my life, I knew it was going to happen," said Ishaya, 53. "I didn't think it was going to happen so soon. It was a good feeling, but it was a nervous feeling."
Ishaya was born in Cleveland and grew up in Chicago, the middle of three sisters. Her father, Leland, was a security guard; her mother, Laura, a clerk typist. The family barely scraped by.
Like her son, Ishaya rebelled as a teenager. At 16, she got pregnant and dropped out of school. Pate's father, a man in his early 20s nicknamed Junior, wanted to get married. She said no, and hasn't seen him since the day Mike was born.
"It wasn't the right thing," she said.
She named him Charles Paul Hinzman and started to collect welfare. After three months of the baby's colicky screaming, her father told her if she was going to keep the child, she had to live somewhere else.
She felt like she had no other choice.
I have to let someone else take care of him so they can give him what he needs.
A caseworker told Ishaya she had a good family in mind. Ishaya met them, and about seven months after the adoption got to visit again. Then the family moved without leaving a forwarding address.
It was probably best that way, Ishaya said, "because if I kept on, I probably would have wanted him back."
She got her high school equivalency diploma at age 21. That same year, a man saw her at a bus stop and asked if she needed a ride. She said no, but Sargon Ishaya, a Syrian from Iraq, kept coming back, and she relented. They married in 1999 and now live in Gilberts, Ill., northwest of Chicago. Ishaya got her degree in accounting and works as a credit manager for an electronics supply company.
The couple tried unsuccessfully to have children. Ishaya never told her husband about her previous baby. Now that Pate's message had arrived, she had to.
Pate's profile picture, which appears with every message exchanged between Facebook users, was a yearbook photo taken when he was 17. She gazed into the blue-green eyes and saw her own.
She added Pate as a Facebook friend. They exchanged another message or two and then, a couple of days later, Pate logged on and found her profile had vanished.
He was devastated, assuming she wanted to have nothing to do with him.
Then she contacted him through a new Facebook account, explaining that she needed time to tell her husband, who comes from a conservative family. Some of those family members are on Facebook, and she didn't want them to find out that way.
Ishaya and Pate spoke on the phone for the first time that night. She talked about the guilt she had felt all these years. She told him she tried to look for him, but didn't know his last name.
"How could I be angry at a little girl who just had to make a hard decision?" he told her. "It all turned out okay anyway, so don't worry about it. Everything was good in my life."
"It was just unbelievable the way he was thinking," Ishaya said. "He is just a kind-hearted soul."
That dissolved any tension, and they clicked right away.
Sargon Ishaya took the news pretty well. Pate's adoptive mother and siblings were upset at first.
"We were scared he might just walk away," said Marian Pate, who now lives in Waynesboro, Tenn.
Mike tried to put them at ease. You're my family, he told them. Another loved one in my life won't change that.
Now the Pates are ready to welcome Ishaya.
"We're all going to get together," Marian Pate said. "She's going to be a part of our family."
• • •
They reunited on Good Friday.
Ishaya and her husband flew to Tampa and made the drive north to Beverly Hills. She walked into Pate's '70s-era Florida ranch home and into his arms.
"It seemed like we just didn't want to let each other go," she said.
They enjoyed a Citrus County weekend, taking in a sunset at Fort Island Trail Park in Crystal River, marveling at manatees at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, dashing through a downpour at Rainbow Springs State Park.
Teresa Pate and the kids welcomed Ishaya as family. Mikayla insisted on sitting next to her. At one point, Pate and Ishaya hugged, and the boys wrapped their arms around them.
Ishaya cried when Pate gave her a necklace, a silver heart pendant with a cutout in the shape of a mother holding a baby.
"We were both so happy, knowing we had more to look forward to," Pate said. "I'm just so lucky it turned out that way."
Mother's Day for Ishaya always brought sadness as she thought about the baby she left behind. That sadness grew last year on the first Mother's Day since her own mother's death. Today, she will chat with Mike on the phone and bring a photo of him to her mother's grave.
"The way this happened," she said, "it's just a miracle."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]