The bridges we build

By Dwain Hebda

There are some things in this world Mike Kemp never had to wonder about. 

He never had to wonder if he was loved; his mother and father and later his wife and kids all saw to that. He never had to wonder about his life’s calling, as for decades he has lived on his passion and talent in photography.

And he never had to wonder where he came from, at least up to a point. Kemp was adopted; his parents never made any attempt to hide that fact from him. And perhaps because of this, being adopted never felt like that big of a deal, kind of like having a birthmark below the neckline. The people who knew him best knew about it, and the rest of the world never had a reason to ask. 

Robbie Kemp (from left), Mike Kemp and Linda Herbert, his birth mom.

“I was around five years old when they told me, which would have been about the age where I could understand what ‘adopted’ meant,” he said. “It was never a case of feeling like I was being treated any differently. They’d tried for several years to have children and just couldn’t do it, so adoption was the clearest choice for them. 

“The family dynamic never felt any different growing up. As a child you have moments where you feel maybe you were abandoned, but then as you get older you appreciate the life that your adoptive parents have given you and come to understand that life doesn’t work like you see it as a child. Circumstances are what they are.”

Whatever it was that didn’t bother him about being adopted fed a largely laissez-faire attitude about finding his birth parents. If anything, he was merely curious, although over time that curiosity grew. But it might not have ever set firm roots had his adoptive mother, Robbie Kemp, not kept bringing it up, notably after his father died in 2010 and after his sister died in 2014. 

“I’ve never really asked her why,” he said of his mother’s motivations. “I know losing a child and losing her spouse were huge blows to her. I don’t know that she was doing that as a way of pushing me away; I think quite the opposite. Maybe after those events she felt the tug from being a mother. ‘Wouldn’t you want to know where you came from?’ I think that probably played into it.”

Kemp, of Conway, finally decided to take the first tentative steps into searching for his origins after learning that Missouri law had changed, allowing adopted children to gain a copy of their birth certificate which, of course, contained the names of the parents. He sent in the requisite paperwork knowing well that surrendering parents can elect to have their name redacted. If that had been the choice of his birth parents, his quest would likely end before it ever got started. 

He settled into waiting, trying to put the matter out of his head as much as he could. “It kind of made me go into it thinking it could be good or it could be bad or you could hear nothing,” he said. “Mentally, I feel like I had prepared myself for several outcomes.”

Eventually a letter arrived. Kemp took a deep breath and opened the envelope to find the blanks all filled in, including his mother’s name, Linda Herbert. She was surprisingly easy to track down; she’d not left the area where Kemp was born, and in the age of the internet it takes an awful lot to remain anonymous. Kemp estimated it took about 20 minutes to pinpoint her whereabouts, and a few days to work up the nerve to send an introductory message via her Facebook page. That didn’t yield anything, so he sent a registered letter to help ensure his message reached her, whatever the outcome.

“It was a little bit overwhelming to meet them all, but they were so incredibly welcoming that it put me at ease very quickly,” Mike Kemp said.

“She told me afterwards that she was out and they left a slip in her mailbox saying you’ve got some registered mail. She kind of shrugged it off,” Kemp said. “When she went and picked it up, that was June 12, 2019. And it’s really funny because that’s now kind of our ‘gotcha day.’”

Being able to track the letter online, and not hearing anything back, Kemp began to climb the walls. He and his wife, Crystal, took a ride over to Petit Jean Mountain to take his mind off things and on the ride home, his phone buzzed. 

“I’m driving, so my wife picks it up and looks at it and she said, ‘It’s your mom,’” he said with a chuckle. “I think I may have said, ‘My mom doesn’t text,’ and she went, ‘No, it’s your other mom.’ She sent me this text saying, ‘Yes, it’s me. You found me.’ My wife’s reading it to me in tears. It was crazy.”

The original message shared Linda’s pain over having given him up, coupled with the joy and hope that she might now know him. She asked his forgiveness and praised his courage in seeking to find her. Arriving home, Kemp responded and the two texted the first of what would become many pieces of a relationship more than 50 years in the offing. 

“One thing that I didn’t anticipate: I started the search for myself, not thinking that it would turn into something that was also beneficial for my birth mother,” Kemp said. “She’s told me how much guilt and shame she carried all these years, thinking that I would resent her for having put me up for adoption.

“This has helped her deal with some of those issues. To be able to finally have a physical manifestation that can help you be OK with your decisions has been a big blessing for her, I believe.”

Kemp not only gained his birth mother, but also several siblings and their families, all of whom have welcomed him in a way that, if he’s honest, he might have had a hard time showing had the roles been reversed. He’s taken the time to soak up and share everything missed by circumstance. They say you cannot choose your family and that’s probably true, but in Kemp’s case, he got to discover one. 

“Over Labor Day in 2020, Mama Linda spent a night or two here,” he said. “My mom had told me, ‘I would like to meet her. I would like to be able to tell her thank you for giving me a son.’ Of course, Mama Linda was saying, ‘I would like to thank your mom for taking such good care of you.’ So they got to meet. It was touching.

“What I’m noticing now is how really natural this feels. It feels like this is how it always has been, even though it’s only been three, four years now. To be accepted that readily and that easily is surprising to me. I didn’t want to be disruptive; even through the whole process, my fear was just parachuting into their lives and disrupting things. But I’ve kind of learned to get over that now. I feel like we’re good.”

Dwain Hebda
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