A first-time meeting with my father 50 years in the making

Jan 7, 2019, 3:02 PM | Updated: 3:53 pm
Ron meets his birth father...
(Ron Upshaw, KIRO Radio)
(Ron Upshaw, KIRO Radio)

I want to tell you a true story today almost 50 years in the making. A story of love and war. A story of shame and suffering. A story of forgiveness and redemption.

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It’s the story of how I finally met my birth father a little over a week ago in Portland.

His name is Joe, and we met at Floyd’s Coffee Shop near the river for the first time. After our talk, I asked Joe if I could share our story, and he told me I could.

There are some details I want to keep private, but this meeting closed a circle in my heart that took many years. I was reunited with my birth mother in 2000. I did an interview with her and my mom a while back, that you can read all about here.

I had resigned myself to the fact that I was never going to get Joe’s side of the story, but I was wrong about that. Some efforts by his wife almost a year ago set things in motion, and I had to get to a place where I was ready to listen to his story.

It begins, as far as it concerns my adoption, with a California teenager being sent to war. Joe was a corpsman assigned to a medical ship off the coast of Vietnam before he turned 19. After a stint tending to wounded Marines, he was transferred to a ward that housed 50 Vietnamese women and children ravaged by the horrors of war. He told me how seeing what he saw and doing what he had to do in that ward crushed his mind and his soul. He just couldn’t process the pain and suffering.

In a moment of despair, he turned his back on God and turned to alcohol and drugs to numb himself. This was a little over a year or so before I would be conceived. While on a quick leave stateside, my birth mother realized she was pregnant, and it was decided that adoption was the right choice.

Joe had to return to the service, and my birth mother made her way to Mt. Vernon to deliver the baby. Joe told me about how his crippling shame and substance abuse hamstrung his life for many years after he left that medical ship.

Suffering with untreated PTSD, he worked at a hospital until he finally became sober. A 12-step program was helping with the addiction, but working through his shame and guilt took a lot of years.

I’m very grateful that we were able to connect. I’m glad I was able to tell him that given the choice to grow up in the family that I did or with a teenage mother and alcoholic father suffering PTSD, that I think they made the right decision.

As I listened and reflected on the power of shame, I told Joe in that coffee shop that the biggest shame that I see in this story is how he and tens of thousands of boys like him were destroyed in that war, then abandoned when they finally made it home.

I wrestled for a long time if I should even open this door in my life, but I’m glad that I did. I’ve discovered that compassion, love, and forgiveness are never a bad choice.

It took a lot of bravery to go to Vietnam. It took bravery to deliver a baby as a teenager and then give it away, and it took a lot of bravery to reconcile your past and choose to reconnect.

So I guess my takeaway for you is that if you find yourself separated from someone important to you, don’t lose hope. You never know how life will end up.

Ron and Don

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A first-time meeting with my father 50 years in the making