Rae, my 23-year-old daughter, is adopted from Korea. Sometimes I look at her and feel for the woman who gave her up, who never got the joy of knowing her, raising her, watching her.
The 49ers' 25-year-old starting quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, is adopted, too. I wonder if he sometimes feels for the woman who gave him up, who didn't get the joy of knowing him and raising him.
That woman does get to watch him, though.
She'll watch him again this Sunday, as he plays in the Super Bowl against the Baltimore Ravens. Her name is Heidi Russo, a 44-year-old nurse from Thornton, Colo. He's declined her requests to visit or talk. She accepts it, but she aches for more.
Wouldn't you? She was 19, unmarried and nearly broke when she gave him up. She cared for him for five weeks while she looked for an adopting couple who were (A) set for money, (B) had other kids and (C) loved sports. Heidi stands 6-foot-2, and the birth father, now absent, was also 6-2.
She picked another nurse, Teresa Kaepernick, and her husband, Rick. They had one request: they wanted a boy. They had two kids already -- son Kyle and daughter Devon. But they'd lost two sons to heart defects, Lance and Kent, who would be 34 and 32 now.
"I think about them every day," Teresa says. "What we went through. What they went through. They played a role in all of this."
And so on that early December day in 1987, in a Wisconsin attorney's office, four lives took wildly new turns.
"I'll never forget that day," says Teresa. "They brought him in an infant carrier and set him down. The birth mother [Russo] was there. I looked at her and she nodded and I just picked him up out of the carrier. The minute I picked him up, I just cried. We gave her a big hug. And she needed a couple more minutes. And then we left."
Colin Kaepernick turned out to be an iron-willed, headstrong athletic tornado. He was so good at every sport that his family called him "Bo," after Bo Jackson. Still do. As he grew, the new mother would send the old one letters and pictures, until Russo finally asked her to stop. They were too painful.
"I couldn't move forward with my life," she recently told Denver TV station KDVR. (Russo did not return my phone calls.)
Russo sent Colin one last letter, for him to open at 18. Even after reading it, he had no interest in contact with her. A lot of adopted kids think if they so much as talk to their birth parents, it's a slap in the face to their adopted ones. They refuse out of a vague notion of respect.
"Is that how you feel?" I asked Kaepernick on Tuesday at Super Bowl media day. "That it would be disrespectful to meet with your birth mother?"
"No," Kaepernick said. "It's not really a respect thing. It's just -- that's my family. That's it."
"But aren't you curious?"
That's odd, since many adopted kids are crazy curious about their birth parents, and their adopted ones.
"Why don't I look like you?" Rae would ask me. Finally, when she was 11, we flew to Korea and met the birth mom in what turned out to be a cloak-and-dagger adventure that I wrote about for Time magazine. Turned out the birth mother was a terrified 18-year-old girl when she gave Rae up. She didn't even tell her parents, just ran away to the city for three months.
But Colin Kaepernick never asked those questions. Not even when he was playing in a video arcade as a little boy, with his mother standing nearby, and a woman sneered, "People shouldn't just leave their kids in here all alone." Not even when he'd be standing next to his parents as they all checked into a hotel, only to have the clerk look at him and say, "And how can I help you, young man?"
Otherwise, "it all went really smooth," says Rick Kaepernick, vice president of operations for the Hilmar Cheese Company in Hilmar, Calif. "I know it's not usually that smooth with adoptions, but it was. Colin never had any adoption issues at all. The only difference is his skin is a little bit browner than ours."
The Kaepernicks have told Colin they'd have no problem with him speaking to Russo. They even met with her recently without Colin. But Colin hasn't budged on the issue. One of his friends told Yahoo! Sports that Colin would think it's "treasonous" to meet with Russo.
But it's not. It's healthy. It's healing. It's natural.
More than that, it's important. When that 11-year-old version of Rae finally got to meet her birth mother, even though it was only for 20 minutes, she glowed. Her roots were no longer a mystery. She finally knew where she came from.
Your parents are your parents forever. Nothing can ever change that.
But you can't imagine what it would mean, how deeply it would be felt, for a woman with regrets and doubts to once again hold her child, even for five seconds. A meeting like that could fill two hearts.
Last year, Rae went back to Seoul to see her birth mother again, for a month. She found out she had three half-siblings, too. One half-sister just made the Korean Junior Olympic gymnastics team. They all Facebook, email and text.
I know my daughter is living a wonderful life in America, one that an18-year-old Korean mother could never have given a secret daughter. So I'm happy Rae has let her into that life. In fact, I'm delighted.
What better way to pay her back?