Run of a lifetime
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The hug stretched to five, maybe six seconds, but only if you measure such things with a stopwatch. This, after all, wasn't that type of hug. This one didn't stretch into seconds, minutes, hours, days or even years. This one stretched into decades -- into an entire lifetime.
That the embrace came at the finish line of the Walt Disney World Half Marathon seemed a bit odd, if not incongruous. The participants, a 60-year-old mother and a 41-year-old daughter, had seen each other face-to-face for only the first time less than 24 hours earlier.
A finish line?
No, things were just starting for Judi Mallory and Julie Heinz, mother and daughter, separated at birth.
In 1972, Judi became pregnant. Since she was only 19 at the time, representatives from her and her boyfriend's families convened to decide what to do.
"His mother and sister, my father, and the two of us had a meeting," Judi recalled. "They told me that I was going to have an abortion."
Judi had another idea, and she summed it up with one word: "No."
But even she agreed that the baby would have a better chance if he or she were born into a family better prepared to have one. Since she and her boyfriend lived in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., they sought a Miami attorney who specialized in adoptions and got the paperwork moving forward. Even months later, after Judi and her boyfriend married, adoption still seemed like the right thing to do. Besides, by then, it was too late to turn back legally binding documents.
At the time, the Vietnam War was still breathing its last gasps, and Judi and her young husband knew that he was going to be drafted, so it came as no surprise when they found themselves early in their marriage stationed at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. Neither was it a surprise when the birth pangs began on Sept. 18, 1972.
The medical staff put Judi under during her delivery. When she awoke, the first thing she did was lift the bedsheet off her and look beneath it.
"No stomach," she recalled. "That's the first thing I noticed. No stomach. My baby was gone."
A nurse came to check on her.
"What did I have?" Judi asked.
"What color was her hair?"
And that was it.
The next day, after Judi checked out of the hospital with her husband, she looked out the window of the car while at a stoplight and saw a taxi pulled up alongside them. Sitting inside was the attorney who had handled the adoption procedure.
"I knew my baby was in that car," Judi said. "When the light turned green, it went one way and we went another. I knew then that I was never going to see her, never going to touch her. I was broken."
I just never thought it would happen; that I would ever find out. I had tried, but I kept running into dead ends in my search for them. And here, with no effort from my part, it just fell in my lap. It was ... magical.Julie Heinz, on reconnecting with her birth mother
That second of heartbreak spread into minutes, into hours, days, years and decades. Judi comforted herself with the knowledge that she did the right thing. She was too young, too ill-prepared, too immature to raise a daughter. She and her husband eventually divorced, and she later remarried and had a son. She knew that her first child had a better home and a better start in life.
Or so she hoped.
Eventually the day came, 40 years later, when she had to find out.
Judi believes she heard God speaking to her. Not voices. Not anything tangible. It was just a loud thought inside her head -- indeed, in her heart -- that told her this:
Find your daughter.
She hit a couple of roadblocks, but then in January 2013, she stumbled across a group called Search Angels, whose motto is "finding family, friends and loved ones."
Going on one key bit of information, that Judi had given birth to a baby girl on Sept. 18, 1972, at Sheppard Air Force Base, a woman with Search Angels told Judi via an email that they believed her daughter was now a 40-year-old woman named Julie Heinz, living in Washington, D.C., where she worked for the U.S. Department of Education.
Even better, she emailed Judi a link to the Facebook page of Julie Heinz.
When Judi looked at Julie's photos, her first thought was:
"Oh my gosh, she looks just like me!"
Trying to keep her hands steady, she tapped out a message.
Hi Julie, My name is Judi Mallory. I have been looking for my birth child with the help of a friend. Tonight I believe I may have found her. Would you be so kind to get in contact with me? I do hope to hear from you.
When Julie saw the message, she too could barely keep her hands still. She checked the Facebook photos of Judi Mallory, and an immediate thought entered her head.
"Oh my gosh, she looks just like me!"
Still, she had to process the information. She'd had a wonderful upbringing with her adoptive parents, Carol and Robert Heinz, who immediately expressed their support that their daughter connect with her birth mother.
Julie's adoptive father played defensive tackle in the NFL -- from 1969 to 1977 with the Miami Dolphins, and in 1978 with the Washington Redskins. Bob Heinz played on the '72 Dolphins team that went undefeated. Seventy-two, of course, was also the year Julie was born. It is also the number Heinz wore as a player. But it gets even eerier. Judi Mallory remembers the exact date last year when she felt a distinct voice telling her to find her daughter: Jan. 23, which is the birthday of Julie's biological grandfather.
"When I got that Facebook message, I was totally shocked," said Julie, who had always known she was adopted. "It's something I always wanted for so many reasons. Where do I get my eyes? Where do I get my love of music, my adventurous spirit, my athletic ability? I wondered if my hobbies and interests were the same as my biological parents'. And, of course, there are the health reasons that go with knowing your biological background.
"I just never thought it would happen, that I would ever find out. I had tried, but I kept running into dead ends in my search for them. And here, with no effort from my part, it just fell in my lap. It was ... magical. Still, when I got that Facebook message, I sat on it for a week. I had to digest it."
During that week, Judi checked her Facebook page the first thing every night when she came home from work. But day after day, nothing.
"Finally, I thought, 'This is crazy. I'm obsessing over this. I need to get my life back.' So on the seventh day, I didn't check it as soon as I got home from work. Then, later that night, I did."
This is what she saw:
I am so glad you have found me. I believe you have found your daughter, too.
On Super Bowl Sunday a year ago, they talked. And talked and talked and talked. Seventy minutes after that hello, they said goodbye, for just that day. Over the year since then, they've called frequently, emailed, texted, Facebooked; getting to know each other.
They found that the similarities went beyond just their physical resemblance, and at some point they knew they were going to meet.
Julie is a runner and a triathlete, so Judi devised the idea of running together at one of the races at Disney World, the place where "dreams come true."
"The most I'd ever run before is a 5K," Judi said. "But I couldn't have Julie come all the way to Orlando just to run a 5K, so we decided on a half marathon."
And thus a meeting was arranged. Their first.
The day before the race, Julie flew into Orlando, where Judi was waiting to pick her up.
Julie found her biological mother waiting for her in the airport reception area, waving both her arms exuberantly, "with just this big smile on her face. It was pretty cool."
They went to a nearby restaurant, Bahama Breeze, where they found themselves ordering the same item off the menu.
"We both ordered a mahi mahi sandwich with asparagus," Judi said. "We were like, 'You like asparagus, too?'"
The waiter asked if they were sisters.
"We sound the same, have the same laugh and we have very similar personalities," Julie said. "It's sort of comforting. I'm very close to my adopted parents. But now I feel this blood connection."
Julie likes music, and Judi likes to sing.
Judi is big into softball, and Julie played softball.
"There have been times in just these few hours where we've been together," Julie said, "when we both look at each other and laugh because we know we're both thinking the same thing."
And then there are similarities that are simply unexplainable. There's the obvious similarity in their first names, Judi and Julie. Also, Judi's middle name is Carol, the first name of Julie's adoptive mother.
When they arrived to run a half marathon together, Julie had on her pink running shoes with black and gray trim, and Judi had on her black and gray running shoes with pink trim. Julie also wore pink socks with gray trim, and Judi wore gray socks with pink trim.
Now they've run a half marathon together. Well, not exactly together. Because of the difference in their running levels, Julie started in a group well ahead of Judi, and then waited almost two hours for her birth mother to cross the finish line.
When Judi Mallory did cross, Julie Heinz gave her that big hug -- a hug that the daughter actually waited more than two hours to give her birth mother.
She waited a lifetime.