There are rare moments in life when intense emotions, feelings and joy can overcome someone in ways like never before. One of these moments was a hot morning in July of 2017.
Joan Brosnahan sat in a small conference room, nervous and eagerly waiting. There was a knock on the door.
What happens next would forever change Joan’s life, as well as the person on the other side of the door.
That person is Joan’s brother, Skip. The two are about to meet for the first time.
It is a moment 60 years in the making.
“The Perfect Way to Grow Up”
The long journey to this moment started back in November of 1956 when Joan was born in Manchester, New Hampshire. She was adopted by Dan and Kay Brosnahan of Keene through Catholic Charities New Hampshire.
Dan was Director of Purchasing at a local manufacturer and Kay was a teacher for forty years. More importantly, they were what Joan calls the “perfect parents – generous, positive and encouraging individuals who gave Joan and her brother – also adopted – a wonderful life full of love.
As Joan says, “I could not have handpicked two people any better to be my parents.”
The Brosnahans grew up in a home near downtown Keene, in a neighborhood full of kids, with rarely a dull moment for Joan and her brother, who was also adopted. They would go to church every week. “We had everything we needed and most everything we wanted,” Joan describes. “It was the perfect way to grow up.”
Every night, since Joan was little, her parents would read a book called “The Chosen Baby” by Valentina Wasson, a children’s story about adoption. Joan didn’t truly embrace the meaning behind it until she was around 5 or 6. Although adoption was understandably a sensitive topic, it was one the Brosnahans would not shy away from. They were honest and open parents, offering on many occasions to help Joan search for her birth parents if she chose.
While some adopted children might jump at the thought, it was never the case for Joan.
She was proud to be a Brosnahan. They were her family.
“You Have a Brother”
Joan remained in Keene, graduating from Keene State College before embarking on a career in the food services and retail industries.
She had a health issue in 1991. Doctors were asking about her family medical history. At her mother’s suggestion, Joan contacted Catholic Charities search of answers, but as Joan puts it, “I only wanted medical information, nothing more.”
She connected with Elaine Langton, coordinator of Adoption & Maternity Services for Catholic Charities New Hampshire. Elaine mailed her non-identifying information – the heights, weights, occupations and nationalities of her birth parents, aunts and uncles.
But it was the writing at the bottom of the page that changed everything for Joan: “You have a biological brother, three years older than you.”
Joan’s birth mother had also placed another child for adoption.
Her mind was racing, full of curiosity. Where does this brother live? What is he like? Have we ever crossed paths?
The timing wasn’t right to pursue this open door, though. Her adoptive father, Dan, had just passed away. Joan was having medical issues and was about to get married.
Life went on for Joan. She moved to Florida to pursue her passion, teaching golf, before coming back to Keene to care for her mother, who was diagnosed with cancer. Kay, her adoptive mother, passed away a year later.
But not after she spent many precious hours with her beloved daughter, reflecting on the past and instilling many words of wisdom – another testament to the great teacher she was – for the road ahead. She shared how proud she was of Joan and brother. “You have all the tools and knowledge,” her mother shared in her final days. “You will be taken care of.”
Joan didn’t know it then, but those words would all make sense in time.
A Friend Opens the Door
Ten years passed. Joan still thought of her brother, as well as her biological mother and family she never knew. Although Dan and Kay had died, she still felt a sense of guilt standing between her and opening the doors to her curiosity.
That began to change in 2014. One of Joan’s friends uncovered her own family history on Ancestry® and encouraged Joan to do the same. It took two years of convincing before Joan gave it a try and sent in her DNA. Shortly after, she received an email with several pages full of information, including her ethnicity and regions of the world her biological family likely came from. There was also a long list of potential matches, mostly second, third and even fourth cousins. Some messaged her asking if and how they were related, but she wasn’t able to answer them because she did not know her birth name.
Although Ancestry wasn’t able to provide any concrete insight, Joan left wondering. What about my brother?
Nearly 25 years later after first connecting with her, Joan reached out to Elaine.
Elaine had Joan’s files, but by New Hampshire adoption law, couldn’t disclose her birth name or any other identifying information. However, she referred her to the Vital Records office in Concord. They could provide her birth certificate.
Within minutes of showing up and presenting her identification, a staff member handed Joan her original birth certificate, upside down. Joan paused, crying. The staff member, a bit confused, asked: “have you ever seen this before?”
“No,” Joan responded. “I’m adopted.”
The staff worker was moved, came around the window, put her hand on Joan and offered to turn over the paper together. Joan decided it was best to do it alone. A few minutes later, she flipped it over. For the first time, she saw her birth name and her mother’s name.
Joan was flooded by emotions – and knew there was no turning back now. What about my brother?
With the help of that same friend and some internet searches, Joan discovered her birth mother recently passed away. But they were able to find photos of her – the resemblance was striking!
“It was disappointing to discover my birth mother was no longer alive,” Joan recalls. “But I had newfound hope in knowing I had a brother.”
Joan contacted Elaine a few days after receiving the birth certificate. Now was the time. She wanted to meet her brother.
It was a lot easier said than done, Elaine explained. New Hampshire law requires written consent from both siblings – and court approval – in cases like this. As Elaine shares, it is never a given it will happen.
Elaine mailed a letter to Skip requesting that he contact her. Joan, nervous, waited for word back.
A few days later, while out of town, her phone rang. It was Elaine. There was a response. Her brother, Skip, was shocked he had a sister. But he was open to meeting Joan.
“I never contemplated the possibility that I had any birth siblings,” Skip reflects. “So when I was contacted by Elaine in the summer of 2017, I was blown away in finding Joan.”
“I was happy yet scared,” Joan recalls when she found out Skip wanted to meet. “It was like 60 million things running through your mind. What does he look like? What does he sound like?”
Elaine worked to set up a time for them to meet. In the meantime, she gave Joan Skip’s phone number with a message. “He said tomorrow night is a good time to talk.”
The next night, Joan huddled in her bedroom, hands shaking as she dialed the number.
“Is this Skip? It’s your sister,” she said when met by his voice on the other end.
The two talked for over an hour. They shared how blessed they both were to have had their adoptive parents.
When they hung up, Joan felt it would be a while before they met. But the day she had always wondered about – and was finally ready for – was right around the corner.
It was July 17, 2017. Joan drove from Keene to Manchester with her husband. Skip drove from his home with his wife.
Joan arrived first, meeting with Elaine, before going into a conference room. Joan recalls staring out the window, nervous, but overcome with a peaceful sense of comfort.
Then there was the knock. Elaine opened the door, followed by as Joan describes, “a very tall, handsome gentleman who I thought looked a lot like me.”
After more than 60 years of life for both, the vast majority of which they were unaware of each other, Joan and Skip were face-to-face.
They both cried. Skip walked over to give his sister a hug that lasted a few minutes. Elaine then left the room, leaving the two siblings with much to catch up on. For the next hour and a half, they talked about life growing up, their families today, their interests and even their careers. In an ironic twist, they discovered both worked for a long time in the food services industry.
They paused the conversation a few times, each other commenting with “You look so much like me,” in awe.
“It was clear they had a quick connection,” says Elaine. “There was plenty of laughter, which is no surprise given they are both very quick-witted.”
The two continued their reunion by going out to lunch, joined by Joan’s husband and Skip’s wife. As the brother and sister walked together on the way out, the two spouses laughed, pointing out how their gait and walk were so similar.
Big Brother, Little Sister.
Despite living nearly two hours away from each other, Joan and Skip visit each other regularly. They’ve even had a reunion with cousins Joan uncovered on Ancestry. It seems that everywhere they go together, people comment on their striking resemblance. After all, they have the same eyes, same nose and same smile.
Joan considers Skip not only a brother but a best friend, someone she looks up to.
“We have cried together, laughed together, and shared many stories about what we have missed,” said Joan.
Their eyes are now on the future and making up for the lost time. They have even talked about maybe some traveling in the future.
Joan considers being united with Skip as a “whole new life at 60,” also bringing resolution to thoughts she’s carried for years.
“I have come to accept that my birth mother gave me up so I could have a better life,” she says. “And it was wonderful that she chose Catholic Charities New Hampshire, and they chose the Brosnahans.”
Skip agrees. “Getting to know Joan has been a simply wonderful experience. Everything about my life has changed for the better,” he shares. “I hit the jackpot all over again.”
Search and reunions like these are one of the many components to Catholic Charities New Hampshire’s Adoption & Maternity Services program, which also includes adoption placement services, private adoption services and home studies.
Founded in 1945 – the same year Catholic Charities New Hampshire was established – the program carries a deep history in the Granite State’s social services landscape. For the first several decades, the placement of children was the program’s primary focus. But as teenage pregnancy rates have fallen – nearly 70% between 1988 and 2011 – and the overall number of adoptions continues to decline, Elaine’s work has changed in recent years.
Much of her time is now spent on post-adoption search and reunions, helping individuals like Joan and Skip not only reunite, but also gain a sense of connection and belonging they’ve never felt before.
“Elaine is a Godsend,” Joan shares of Elaine. “She is my guardian angel. She always goes above and beyond what she does.”
A Mother’s Lesson Comes Full Circle
Remember those many lessons Kay shared with Joan before passing away? Joan’s favorite is: you can succeed with anything, as long as you can try.
And although it took time, Joan tried to find her brother. She not only succeeded, she gained a best friend – and so much to look forward to.
Joan views a brother as “Someone you grew up with, have been through everything with and would be there at a moment’s notice if they need you.”
While she and Skip didn’t grow up together or share years of experiences, the last part very much holds true.
“If I ever needed something, or someone to defend me, I have no doubt Skip would be there for me.”