I Went Looking for My Birth Parents and Discovered My Father Was Famous

After searching for her birth father, Mariah Mills was shocked to learn his famous identity — and devastated to find out he'd died.

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I've always known I was adopted. My mom and dad explained that although my birth parents really loved me, they hadn't been ready to take care of a baby. I had a happy, "normal" childhood with a loving family, but a huge question mark remained.

In Saint Paul, Minnesota, where I grew up, adoptees don't have access to their birth parents' names until they turn 19. So I spent my childhood wondering what they were like. The social services agency provided some info about them at the time of my adoption, so I knew general details, like their ages (19 and 21) and hair color (both brown). The older I got, the more anxious I was to know where my ancestors came from and where I got my looks. Because I was raised as an only child, I especially wanted to find out if I had siblings.

I thought about my birth parents most on my birthday. I'd wonder if they were thinking Hey, whatever happened to our daughter? I had a recurring fantasy that when I finally found them, they'd invite me to dinner, and lots of family members would be thrilled to meet me. It sounds silly, but that's what I wanted to happen.

Her Spooky Feeling

In 2001, during my junior year of high school, the principal announced over the loudspeaker that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. Everyone was upset, but I felt a strange, overwhelming sadness deep in my gut that I couldn't explain.

When I got home, I blurted out to my mom that I thought one of my birth parents had died. I'd never had such a strong intuition before. My mom reassured me that the odds of this being true were tiny. But that scary intuition still haunted me.

In the weeks that followed, I was too spooked by my hunch to watch any coverage of 9/11, but it was impossible to escape. Tom Burnett, one of the men who helped thwart the hijackers' plans to crash United Flight 93 into the White House or Capitol, grew up nearby, so his photo and story were everywhere. I tried to tune it all out. I just went on with my life, hanging out with friends and writing for the school newspaper.

Finding Out the Truth

When I turned 19 in January 2004, I requested a copy of my birth certificate. Six weeks later, my mom called to tell me it had arrived and confessed that she'd opened it. When I asked the names of my parents, she insisted we would discuss it when I came home that night for spring break. Her curt tone surprised me; she'd always been very supportive of my search. "Is it someone famous?" I asked.

"Kind of," she replied.

I also asked if one of my birth parents was dead, but she repeated that we would talk when I got home.

I hung up and started sobbing. I suddenly knew that my dad was the Flight 93 hero from the news. I just kept thinking That Tom guy is my father. My gut feeling on 9/11 had been right all along.

When my parents showed me my birth certificate, they were shocked that I'd already figured it out. They tried to comfort me, but I was too upset. I'd waited so long to meet my birth dad, and now it was too late.

Meeting Her Family

I drove to Tom's high school so I could see his yearbook photos. There I came across photos of my birth mother— they had gone to the same high school but only started dating after they graduated. I tried Googling her but nothing came up, so I focused all my energy on thinking about Tom.

In the weeks that followed, I fell into a major funk. I slept all day or stared at myself in the mirror, searching for any resemblance to Tom—like that our eyes and noses were similar.

My parents wanted to help me get some closure, so my mom called a local priest who, she'd read, was good friends with Tom's parents and asked if he thought they'd be receptive to meeting me. My biological grandparents called a few days later and invited me to brunch. I was so nervous and excited. I wanted everything to be perfect— just like in my dream.

In reality, it was awkward. I met my grandparents, aunts, and cousin. We looked at family photographs and chatted, but I didn't feel the warmth from my grandparents that I'd fantasized about. Tom's sisters, with whom I have become close, told me he had confided in them how much he wanted to meet me. Afterward, my grandparents ignored my calls, which hurt.

A month later, Tom's widow, Deena, e-mailed me. She told me a little about herself, Tom, and their three young daughters and that they'd settled near San Francisco. We corresponded for months, and that December, Deena asked if I'd like to meet my half-sisters when they came to town for the holidays. It was one of the happiest days of my life. My sisters ran up to me, grab- bing my hands and wanting to be close to me. Their warmth was just what I'd always hoped for.

During that visit, Deena gave me a letter Tom had written to me in 1987, when I was just two years old, after he'd parted ways with my birth mom. In it, he described how bad he felt about placing me for adoption. The letter wasn't finished, but I cherish it anyway. Everything I knew about Tom had come from someone else, but this letter was from him to me.

Closure Finally Comes

At times, I wanted to push my adoptive parents away. I was so upset about not knowing my birth father. But looking back, meeting my birth family has strengthened my bond with the parents who raised me.

I'm now 22 and glad the mystery of where I came from has been solved. I have graduated from college and am planning to go to law school. I love having Deena and my sisters in my life. I'm still coming to grips with the fact that I'll never know Tom. But because of my ongoing relationship with his widow and daughters, I do feel close to him.

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Stephanie Booth