Every year on April 6, Los Banos, Calif., couple Tina Bejarano Gardere and Eric Gardere would hide away in their bedroom. They would bring a cupcake, light a candle and sing “happy birthday” to an unnamed birthday girl.
They sang for Bejarano’s daughter, whom she gave birth to at the age of 17 in 1990.
At the time, Bejarano already had a 1-year-old daughter. Feeling pressure from her mother, young Bejarano signed adoption papers.
Bejarano, now 47, remembers writing a letter to her daughter on her hospital bed, should she one day choose to read it. In the letter, she told the baby that she loved her. She told her this was not her choice.
The next day, her mother told Bejarano that the newborn had died. For 29 years, Bejarano mourned.
The young mother went on to live a full life. She moved out of her mother’s home at 18, and the same year, she married her husband of 28 years, Eric Gardere. They had two boys, now 21 and 23. Bejarano started studying arts and photography.
But the couple’s life took a dramatic turn earlier this year, when she got an email as she sat in class: “Ancestry.com found a new match.” Bejarano had submitted her DNA to the website in 2018 to learn about her heritage, since she never knew her own father.
She didn’t know that a year later on the other side of the country, a young man named Kristin Cooke, who had been adopted, also was tracing his ancestry in the hope that he could share his heritage with his baby girl.
Soon after Bejarano received the Ancestry.com notification, Cooke sent her a message: “I think we need to talk. It says we’re related and it says you’re my mom.”
Cooke sent over a few details, like his age, birth date and the name of the hospital where he was born as well as where he was adopted.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s my baby,’” Bejarano said. ‘I thought he was dead. I never got to name him. I never got to hold him.”
There was one detail that didn’t match, though. Bejarano believed she had given birth to a girl, not a boy. As they texted back and forth, Cooke revealed that he is transgender and identifies as a man.
“I said, ‘I love you no matter what,’” Bejarano said she told Cooke. She was simply elated that her child was alive and had been well taken care of by his adoptive parents. Gardere said that he has sent daily text messages to Cooke, whom he accepts as his own son.
Cooke has been open about his identity. He runs an online blog called “The Trans Dad” about his experiences as a transgender father and has documented his transition on YouTube.
“I have received nothing but love since then,” Cooke said in a phone interview with The Times, his daughter cooing in the background.
“It was a crazy feeling,” Cooke said of learning that, unknown to him, his biological mother had celebrated his birthday every single year. “I think it’s great, because my daughter gets to have a whole other family.”
Their first conversations over text messages were like a game of 20 questions, Cooke said. He wanted to know his health history and why Bejarano had given him up. When he learned the truth, he didn’t push much. He couldn’t bear the thought of having to give up his own 7-month-old daughter, he said.
The new family began video chatting and Cooke sends photographs and videos of his daughter, Scarlet, frequently.
“She was happy to have another grand-baby,” he said.
Cooke quickly accepted Gardere as a father figure too. Having been adopted, he knew that family didn’t have to be bonded by DNA, he said.
“I’m very lucky he was adopted,” Bejarano said. “I’m so grateful they did that. They raised him. They went through his transition and everything. Now, we know him now as Kristin, our son.”
The mother will meet her biological son and his family for the first time over the Thanksgiving holiday.