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Tuesday, 18 May 2021
BRYAN URBICK was almost 60 years old when he first learned he had two half-sisters and a half-brother.
He always knew he had been adopted as a baby but didn’t know who his mother was until late 2019.
Mr Urbick, from Goring, had sought her identity through the courts 20 years ago but in the American state of Washington, where he was born, he wasn’t entitled to know her identity without her permission.
When an independent mediator approached her at the time, she said she didn’t want to dwell on the past and refused to have any further contact with her son.
However, following a recent change in the law, Mr Urbick has finally been able to trace his birth family.
He learned that his mother Delores Strohm, who was 26 when she had him, died about a decade ago but her older daughters and older son were delighted to hear from their “baby brother”.
They revealed that he was the result of an affair with an unknown man and Mrs Strohm gave him away in a bid to repair her marriage to their late father Billy Moore.
They’d always wanted to trace him but didn’t know where to begin and their mother hadn’t told them when Mr Urbick tried to get in touch.
Now the family talk by phone or over the internet every week and he would have visited America in person if it hadn’t been for the coronavirus lockdown.
Mr Urbick, who is a Goring parish councillor and lives just outside the village with his civil partner Abel Westerhof, is only now able to talk about his discovery as it has taken him time to adjust.
His new-found relatives are Beverley Langley, a mother-of-three with 10 grandchildren, and her younger sister Belinda Eastham, who has a grown-up daughter named Stephanie. Both sisters live in Georgia.
Their younger brother Billy Moore, a father of four, “struggled” in his youth and his relationship with the siblings was sometimes rocky but he is now happily settled in Montana.
The trio are supporters of former US president Donald Trump and proud gun owners, which is a long way from Mr Urbick’s liberal
However, they have discussed their differences respectfully and come to appreciate what they have in common.
Mr Urbick said: “It’s weird feeling your whole life as though you’ve been ‘thrown away’, only to find there were people out there looking for you the whole time.
“They knew about me because their father drank a lot and he told them their mother had given birth to another child on one drunken night when they were teenagers.
“Sadly, they had no right to find out more and didn’t even know where to start. It helped my feelings of being rejected and the fear that it might happen again when I learned that.”
Mr Urbick, who runs a consumer research firm with Mr Westerhof, was born in Seattle, near the north-west coast of America and its border with Canada.
He was adopted by Wallace and Carol Urbick, a devoutly Catholic and highly conservative couple who also adopted a daughter, Mari, who is three years younger.
He grew up in the suburb of Everett, where Mrs Urbick and Mari still live.
He delayed the search for his original family until Mr Urbick snr died in 1999 as he would have been “horrified” at the idea of tracing his “son’s” birth mother.
The men had a difficult relationship as Mr Urbick was “rebellious” in his youth and his adoptive father struggled to accept that he was gay when he came out in his mid-twenties. They didn’t speak for a time but were reconciled and were on good terms when he passed away.
Mr Urbick was about five when he was told he was adopted but says he had always had a “gut feeling” about it.
“It’s strange and I don’t know how to explain it, but all my life I’ve told people that my first memory is of being given away,” he said. “I know you don’t have memories from that early on, so perhaps it’s something I’ve put together from things I was told later.
“I don’t believe my adoptive father could have children, though he was too proud to admit that. He and his wife were both highly religious and felt it was their duty to start a family, especially Dad.
“It wasn’t always an easy relationship but I don’t blame them as it was a different era and they’d been married five years with no children, which would have been a huge pressure.
“The funny thing is, Mari and I looked like them so they could have said we were theirs and nobody would have suspected.
“I imagine they told us early on because the extended family knew and they wanted us to hear it from them rather than have it come as a surprise.
“They said that we were ‘very special’ and they’d paid a lot of money for us. I remember that day well but not how I felt.
“There were moments later on when Dad was disappointed with my decisions and he’d remind me that he’d paid ‘good money’ for me, which is a bittersweet memory now.”
Mr Urbick and his sister attended a small private Catholic school and he says he appreciated his father’s gift of education.
He finished at 16, two years before most students, and recalls being a “nerdy” child who found his confidence in drama lessons.
He briefly lived in Switzerland on an exchange programme and first visited England during this period, which he loved as it gave him a break from speaking German.
On returning to America, he left home and studied for a business and marketing degree while working in a bank, where he learned computer skills.
He then wanted to study drama so joined the Army, which offered university funding to young recruits in return for their service. He was stationed in Anchorage, Alaska, and oversaw the transfer of military records from paper files to a computer system while studying.
He moved to Britain in 1989 with a former partner, a French student who didn’t have permission to stay in the US, and pursued an acting career but struggled due to union restrictions on overseas candidates.
Instead he took an office job which led to a marketing role and ultimately a career in the field. His partner died in 1993.
Mr Urbick met Mr Westerhof through a mutual friend, initially as a business partner before they became close personally.
He said: “My father always had trouble with the whole gay ‘thing’. I told him I didn’t think I wanted marriage or children and was probably gay and the response was that I should leave and never come back.
“It was awkward but from that point I realised I shouldn’t just do things my parents wanted and joined the Army.
“Ironically, their stance on gay servicemen at the time was ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ rather than acceptance and sure enough, they never asked and I never told.
“Dad and I reconciled in later life, although my parents would stay in a hotel whenever they visited us.
“It was never fully accepted but our understanding was that we’d only talk about the things we felt comfortable talking about.
“I always thought he wasn’t proud of me or what I’d accomplished but when he died I found out he bragged about it.
“He wasn’t hateful but he was deeply afraid, which is what homophobia stems from. His own father was a horrible man and there had been a terrible tragedy in his family, so that very conservative form of religion was his comfort.”
Mr Urbick began to search for his family through a group which was campaigning to open up Washington’s adoption records and had helped Mari trace her birth mother, with whom she remains in touch.
But a year after he applied, the official response gave no information about Mrs Strohm apart from a brief physical description and confirmation that she had no heritable illnesses.
“My mother didn’t want to know and wanted to let bygones be bygones,” he said. “It felt like rejection all over again but I do understand — she had her own life and three children before me.
“I’d wanted to make that effort because it’s always on your mind. You wonder how life with your birth family might have been and whether you’d have been any happier.
“It pops up to remind you in lots of ways, like when you’re asked to give a family medical history and have to explain why you can’t. You’ve got no link with your genetic heritage.
“I must have cried for a week when I got the reply. It was so hard and I questioned why I’d bothered doing it in the first place.”
He then forgot about it but every few years would check to see if the laws had changed.
Then in November 2019 he discovered they had so he ordered a copy of his birth certificate and pieced the family history together through online searches.
Mr Urbick then found Mrs Langley on Facebook and was thrilled when she responded to his initial message. He said: “I played it casual because I was terrified to say, ‘I think you’re my sister’ so I just said we ‘might be related’. A few days later she replied, ‘Are you my baby brother?’
“We chatted on Facebook in late January and then spoke by telephone. It has been a year since then but I haven’t really talked about it because it has taken so long to get used to the idea.
“It’s weird thinking you don’t have many relatives and then suddenly all these people are saying you’re family. I’m trying to remember all these names of people I haven’t met yet. They’re not socially conservative or homophobic but they do like Trump, which is hard for me because I don’t like him at all and wouldn’t usually socialise with his supporters.
“However, it’s been good for me to listen and appreciate where they’re coming from and we understand each other a lot better.
“I said early on that there was something they should know and they said, ‘We know you’re gay and that’s fine’, so I replied, ‘It’s not that –— I'm a Democrat’. They just burst out laughing.
“We accept that we won’t see eye-to-eye on everything but we’re living in a time of great division and can all agree that now is the time to focus on what matters. You’re never going to make sweeping changes to the world but you can make a small difference by talking and listening to the people in your life.
“Belinda is a lot more like me as she’s a little introverted and likes animals whereas Beverley is more extroverted and very much the life of the party.
“She loves her role as the eldest and arranging the contact between us. She has a good heart and loves baseball and her family, neither of which I know much about though I’m learning. They’re sad that I never got to meet our mother and were surprised that I’d tried as they had no idea.”
Mrs Langley told Mr Urbick that his mother was dead during their first conversation.
He said: “I felt nothing at first but then they sent a whole bunch of photos and I began to feel regret that we never had a chance to speak.
“It’s very sad, though I’m aware that others have experienced far worse in life. It’s a strange position that not many people can relate to, just as I can’t imagine what it’s like having a lifelong relationship with a birth family. It’s unusual having to finally learn how that feels at my age but it’s rewarding. The typical American thing is to say ‘I love you’, which is very sweet, but I find myself wondering how much you can truly love someone you’ve never met.
“However, I do feel close and want to learn more about them and after a year, it feels a bit more normal to think of them as family.”
Mr Urbick still hasn’t identified his birth father because Mrs Strohm’s husband is named on his birth certificate.
His half-siblings believe it was a married man whom their mother enjoyed skating with in her spare time but don’t recall his name as they were small children at the time. They have encouraged him to get a genetic test which would compare his DNA with a national database and might trace living relatives who know more.
But Mr Urbick said: “I don’t know whether I’m ready to go through all that again as it has taken a long time to absorb what’s already happened.
“I hope people reading my story will realise that we all have unusual events in our lives that aren’t our fault. I spent my whole life feeling a bit ashamed of my past but now I realise there’s no need.”
12 April 2021
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