DES MOINES, Iowa (WHO) — Families are full of stories — some funny, others sad, and some never told.
“It was 1969,” Tom Taylor recalled. “I’d asked my girlfriend on New Year’s Eve if she’d marry me sometime, and in February, she calls me and says, ‘Guess what? I’m pregnant.’”
Taylor and his fiancé, Barb, told no one. A few weeks before she was due, they decided to place the baby up for adoption. “It was terrible,” Taylor said through tears. “We cried all the way there. It was really hard.”
The day their baby was born, he said, they were told she had died.
“It was terrible,” he recalled. “Not only did we have this secret that she was pregnant and had this baby, but now we’ve lost it and we couldn’t tell anybody. … It was terribly hard.”
But she hadn’t died. Around the same time, Peggy Jacobson was longing for another child after years of miscarriages.
“My husband said they called and they have a baby for us and I said, ‘What?!’” she said.
They were thrilled to get the news that there was a baby for them to adopt, and as that baby girl grew, they made sure she knew the truth about how she came to their family.
“I always knew,” said Cheryl Stillman. “There wasn’t a moment they sat me down and told me. I just always knew.”
But her birth parents kept the secret, went on with their lives and had two more children.
Stillman grew up, got married and had kids of her own. She didn’t search for her birth family until last May.
“A girlfriend of mine, who is also adopted, made a post: ‘My sister made history in Iowa today,'” she said. “It was all about this group of women who pushed for legislation for Iowa adoptees to get their original birth certificates.”
She immediately told her husband, who’s also adopted. They filled out the paperwork and waited.
“When we opened our documents and that’s when it all began,” she said about that day. “When you open that envelope and see the names, and to see two names on mine, it was very emotional. We both cried.”
Then they grabbed their cell phones and started searching.
“He found my birth mother’s obituary. I knew, the minute he turned his phone and I saw her picture. I just knew. I saw myself in her,” Stillman said. As she continued reading, she learned more. “The husband’s name was that name that was on my birth certificate. That absolutely took my breath away. They stayed together. I have a full brother and a full sister.”
In a matter of moments, Stillman was able to see photos of her biological family. Her head was spinning. Her heart was exploding. After a few days, she started reaching out to Tom Taylor, her birth father.
“I thought, ‘Who the heck is Cheryl Stillman?’” he said. “I thought someone was really messing with me because I had no knowledge of her being alive.”
Certain he was being scammed, Taylor didn’t respond to any of Stillman’s messages — or those from the search angel she had contacted.
“I consider myself a reunion doula,” said Michelle Spear. “I’m that person here to help make the reunion as easy as possible.” She helps people search and connect with their biological families.
Stillman’s biological siblings at first shared their father’s skepticism.
“Well, of course I didn’t believe it, right?” said Scott Taylor. His sister, Jennifer Freking, felt the same way after hearing they had an older biological sibling.
“It was very emotional. I didn’t believe it. I was very defensive for Dad,” Freking said.
Tom Taylor was also still getting messages from Stillman.
“I got a third message and it was her birthday – and it was a picture of [his wife’s] grave with flowers on it. And she says in the message, ‘I found mom’s grave. I’m here talking to mom and praying with her and asked God to give you a nudge to accept me.’ And that’s what did it,” he said. “I knew. That was the turning point.”
By then, Stillman’s biological siblings had seen pictures of her and the birth certificate. They knew they were looking at their older sister. They called their dad.
“I think our exact words were, ‘We know about Cheryl and we’re OK with it. How are you?’” said Scott Taylor.
“And I hung up on you!” his father said, interjecting.
After the shock wore off, the Taylors kept messaging back and forth with the search angel. Freking remembers the last exchange.
“She said, ‘She’s on pins and needles wanting to meet you guys.’ So we’re thinking maybe a week or two, and she said, ‘How about tomorrow?’”
Everyone was nervous. But that feeling evaporated the moment they connected.
“It was instant,” said Freking. “Instant. I ran down the driveway to hug her.”
Their father described it as surreal. “I cried and cried and cried,” he said. “To have that physical person in front of me was amazing. I saw my wife in her.”
Now for this family, there are no more secrets — just stories to share.
“It’s terrific,” said Jacobson. “It just adds to our family. We’re all a bigger family now because of this. A joyful family.”