Tina Bejarano Gardere stood with her husband at the airport, waiting for the child she had long thought was dead.
She felt a mixture of fear and excitement as she waited for a moment in her life she never imagined. Would he reject her? Would they connect?
Twenty-nine years ago, she hadn’t got to hold her baby.
Now she saw him hesitantly peeking around a corner at her.
Her son, along with his wife, walked toward her, holding their 8-month-old daughter, and she could see in his face that he was nervous too.
But as mother and son embraced for the first time in their lives, the anxiousness melted away, said Bejarano Gardere as she recalled their reunion earlier this week at San Jose International Airport. She introduced herself to her new daughter-in-law. She turned to her new granddaughter, Scarlet, and asked if she could hold her.
“I was just hugging her and kissing her and hugging him — I couldn’t stop hugging him,” Bejarano Gardere said.
The last time the mother and her son, Kristin Cooke, were together, Bejarano Gardere was 17 years old, in a hospital bed, and she had just given birth. She already had a 1-year-old daughter, and facing pressure from family, the young mother put the newborn up for adoption. Soon after she signed the papers, she was told her baby had died.
Every April 6th for nearly three decades, Bejarano Gardere celebrated the birthday of the unnamed baby she never got to hold in her arms.
The events that led to them finding each other began last year when Bejarano Gardere, now 47, submitted her DNA to Ancestry.com in the hopes of learning about her heritage. Bejarano Gardere had never met her father.
Earlier this year, Cooke submitted his DNA to the same site, wanting to share his heritage with his daughter one day.
Soon afterward, Bejarano Gardere got an alert on her phone: “Ancestry.com found a new match.”
Then, a message: “I think we need to talk,” Cooke wrote. “It says we’re related and it says you’re my mom.”
She shared the details about the discovery with her husband, Eric Gardere, whom she met not long after giving birth. Together, they asked all the questions she could think of to verify whether this was her baby. What hospital had he been born in and where, exactly? What day? The answers matched. Bejarano Gardere allowed herself to hope: Maybe her child, after all these years, was actually alive.
There was one detail that didn’t match. She had given birth to a baby girl. Bejarano Gardere and her husband approached the subject of Cooke’s gender identity cautiously, for fear of misgendering him. When Cooke confirmed he had been born female, the husband and wife were filled with joy.
“Coming out is always scary, so I was very nervous,” Cooke said this week. “It was a weight off my shoulders knowing how supportive everyone [is].”
Cooke was raised by his adoptive parents in New Jersey. Growing up, he didn’t feel a need to search for his birth mother, Cooke said. His parents were always loving and supported him when he came out as a transgender man.
He once felt a glimmer of curiosity about his biological parents and considered requesting his adoption papers. But, feeling like the process wasn’t worth the effort, he didn’t go through with it.
After finding Bejarano Gardere online and exchanging messages and photos with her, he agreed to visit his birth mother at her home in Los Banos, Calif.
On Sunday, Bejarano Gardere’s siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts and family friends gathered around tables borrowed from the family’s church to share an early Thanksgiving dinner with the traditional turkey and mashed potatoes feast.
More than two dozen family members gawked at baby Scarlet’s big blue eyes. Typically restless in the arms of strangers, Scarlet took to her new family right away.
“She knows they’re family,” Cooke said. “I honestly didn’t expect it to feel so easy.”
To the sound of music and children playing, Bejarano and Cooke settled in to learn about each other and themselves.
They dug into the details. Bejarano Gardere wanted to know about Cooke’s birth certificate. Did it have a name given by one of her own family members, or was it issued after the adoption?
Cooke wanted to know more about his family’s health history. Was there anything he should be aware of?
Then, they moved onto lighter topics.
Cooke learned that his biological siblings, like him, loved black licorice. Bejarano Gardere, who studies art and photography, learned her son was creative, incessantly starting new projects, like her. He likes to make toys for his daughter and documents his experiences as a transgender father on a blog.
After years of wondering what her child might have looked and acted like, she finally had the answers. He has her eyes, she said. And he wasn’t sporty, unlike her eldest daughter, who she always imagined Cooke might resemble.
On Tuesday, after a day of lounging at home, the family went on a short road trip to Old Town Sacramento. They ate lunch at a Mexican restaurant and walked around the Old Town shops before visiting Bejarano Gardere’s eldest daughter in Antioch, Calif. They drove back to their Los Banos home and played Monopoly late into the night, the family said.
On Wednesday, at Cooke’s suggestion, they drove to the Bay Area to tour landmarks in rainy San Francisco weather.
The two families continue to take it all in, one step at a time. To the mother’s slight disappointment, Cooke decided to stay in a motel and rent a car, rather than stay in her home. But she understands why he might want to keep some distance as they get to know each other, Bejarano Gardere said.
Cooke said the experience has been emotionally exhausting, and he felt he needed a space to decompress after a long day of new experiences.
“It’s a lot of different emotions,” he said. “They’ve known about me for almost 30 years. I on the other hand knew nothing of them.”
But Cooke said he’s excited about the prospect that Scarlet will have two families to love her — and him.
“I think it’s amazing. It’s crazy. It’s surreal,” Cooke said. “It was like being surrounded by family, all connected. I get a whole new family.”
On Thanksgiving Day, it was time to say goodbye, until next time.
“I am happy,” Bejarano Gardere said. “I can honestly say I am so happy that the weight has been lifted off.”