Melissa's Gift
by Olin Dodson
Ardenwood Books, 2012

Reviewed by Barbara Free, M.A.

     If there were a subtitle for this book, it might be “Not a Fairy Tale.” It is the heart-rending, first-person story of the author’s discovery of a daughter he did not know existed until she was almost twelve years old, and the next several years of both their lives. The author is a psychotherapist who has worked in several different areas of the counseling field, including children and addiction. The story is, however, a story of his experience, thoughts and feelings, not a story of a therapist as such.
     Dodson was working, feeling lonely and unconnected, without spouse or child, when in 1990, he was contacted by a woman who knew his daughter’s mother. They had been looking for him with great difficulty, because, although the mother, Gloria, had his name, she did not have any current address or telephone number. It was only through a series of coincidences that he was found. He was told that Gloria had a daughter by him in 1978, that she was now almost twelve, and had cystic fibrosis. They lived in Costa Rica. Dodson had met Gloria there in 1978, had a very brief acquaintance with her in San Jose, had no idea she got pregnant, and had never heard from her again, until this woman, Laura, called him. He was stunned and thrilled to learn he had a child, chagrined to learn she had a chronic illness, and immediately decided he must contact her and her mother. He began to learn all he could about cystic fibrosis, including that it was a fatal disease, and that treatment in Costa Rica was way behind what it was in the U.S., for numerous reasons. Although he was still paying off student loans from graduate school, Dodson managed to get to Costa Rica as soon as he could, right around Melissa’s birthday, taking what he could in the way of medication.
     The first day he met her, both were overjoyed, and everything seemed like a dream come true. The dream ended the next day, when she backed off, became negative, and for several years continued to appear to reject all his overtures and help. She was her mother’s child, and they had been, essentially, a couple. Dodson kept trying to win Melissa’s affection. Besides the barriers of distance and her illness, there were barriers of language, culture, and finances. Although Dodson spoke Spanish, and kept studying to get more fluent, differences in customs and ideas cannot always be translated. Dodson went to Costa Rica as often as possible, did whatever he could to help her and to help the treatment situation for all the children in Costa Rica, and helped Melissa and Gloria as much as he could financially, no matter how his help was received. He did what he could to get her to the U.S. for treatment, but her and her mother’s resistance to the trip, even when he offered to have Gloria come, as well as Melissa, plus the difficulties of obtaining passports and visas, and finally, Melissa’s deteriorating medical condition itself, prevented the trip from happening.
     During those years, from 1990 until Melissa’s death in 1997, Dodson was always filled with an overwhelming love for Melissa, and often discouraged by her continued rebuffs of his love. The last year of her life, when she was actually a young adult, that did change and they became closer. His concern for her family, for persons with cystic fibrosis, and for children living with trauma and poverty, did not end with her death.
     Although this is not an adoption story as such, it is the story of a birth father. The dynamics are very much the same, even though Melissa was not relinquished. The discovery of her existence, the lack of any societal role model for parenting a child from afar after twelve years of not knowing her, and her mother’s fear of letting anyone into her daughter’s life other than herself, are similar to birth parents in reunion with relinquished offspring, and adoptive parents’ fear of a relationship with birth parents. The language and cultural differences add another layer to the problems of establishing a healthy relationship. The author kept a detailed journal during all those years, for his own sanity as well as for having a record. This was helpful to him in writing the book. He is extremely open and honest, and shares his feelings of anguish as well as elation. During these years, he was also developing a career, sometimes changing jobs, going through other relationships, including a marriage, and as he says, “being transformed.”
     The author was a guest at the November meeting of Operation Identity, sharing his story and his book, and was well received by those in attendance. This reviewer had heard him previously, giving a forum on grief, and thought, “Well, he’s a birth father; that’s the rest of the story,” but had no time to discuss that with him, and had not read the book. When he contacted O.I., several members were interested in having him come to a meeting. This excellent book leaves the reader hoping the author has a good life, wishing the outcome for Melissa could have been different, but appreciating how short life is, and how important relationships are, even when they are not the way one wishes they were different.
     Melissa’s Gift can be obtained by contacting the author, Olin Dodson, at 2258 Calle Pulido, Santa Fe, NM 87505. Yes, he lives close by, and is available for presentations.

New and Noteworthy: In The Goodbye Baby: A Diary about Adoption (AuthorHouse, 2012), Elaine Pinkerton, a longtime resident of Santa Fe, New Mexico, reveals the “bruises of adoption” that have affected her from the age of five. Through excerpts from personal journals she kept for forty years, the reader experiences her frustrations and successes as she strives to be “good enough” for her beloved adoptive parents in all areas of her later life.

Excerpted from the January 2013 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2013 Operation Identity