Sally Batt and Debbie Doolin both have slim, 5-foot-4 frames, the same great cheekbones, and a similar curve to the nose when they smile. “We have the same teeny, tiny little hands,” Sally likes to say, “and skinny little broomstick arms.”
The two met in early 2005 after Sally, who’s now 31, began combing search forums for her birth mother, a mystery person who was just 17 the day Sally was born, and shared her love of reading, tennis, and skiing. Gladney Center for Adoption records told her that much. The rest, or most of it, was legally sealed. Less than 200 miles away in Texarkana, Debbie clung to the hope she’d find the daughter she’d placed at Gladney on March 1, 1982, Sally’s birthday.
After a close friend of Debbie’s found Sally’s information, the two sent photos, then tried a shaky, tearful phone call. Their records didn’t quite match—Debbie’s baby supposedly weighed more at birth than Sally did, for one—but they opted to meet anyway. They picked the Dallas Aquarium parking lot.
“We did the stupidest thing ever,” Sally says, laughing.
Debbie shakes her head and says, “We could’ve both been serial killers.”
But that night had the spirit of a reunion. They just knew. More visits followed, all of them bubbling over with catharsis and filling in the gaps of 25 years of lost time. Sally told Debbie about a childhood full of love and honed talents and summer camps. She’d gotten a graduate certificate, become a teacher. Her mom, Jane, had hoped she’d wait to find her birth mother until she had children of her own. Maybe then she’d grasp the sacrifice involved.
“I just wanted to say thank you,” Sally says, “that I’m not mad, and what you did for me was incredibly brave and selfless. Because of you, I have a wonderful life.”
Debbie’s own upbringing was rough, rough enough that she still has no regrets about finding a happy life for the 4-day-old child she held in her arms and loved too fiercely to bring home. Of course, March 1 meant annual heartbreak, and when her girl turned 16, Debbie left a long letter for her at Gladney. Maybe she’d come looking.
“I just wanted to see that she had everything she could’ve wanted,” she says, dabbing her eyes. “I saw that she got what most little adopted babies get, a family who wanted them so bad.”
She has never tried to mother her, Debbie adds firmly. “You don’t step on those toes.” But family is family.
“Everybody, this is my sister,” Debbie’s son, Zach, told his friends one night, throwing a burly arm around Sally’s shoulders. His grandmother, Glenda, put her portrait above the fireplace. “Because of you,” a tearful Evan Batt told Debbie, “I have my wife.”
At 40, Debbie was inspired by Sally’s education and finally went to college, then nursing school. Everything had fallen into place. Almost.
“Sally kept asking me about her dad,” Debbie recalls, looking a little sick. She says it’s a story so awful, only a blood relative should bear the burden. But no one wanted her and Sally to take a DNA test. They’d healed together for a good five years, details be damned. A couple of cheek swabs later, they were crushed to learn the truth.
Sally and Debbie aren’t related. But somehow, they’ve moved past it. “We may not be a blood match, but we’re still a match,” Sally says. “I don’t cry because I have Debbie. I have my mom, and I have Debbie.”
Sally now has a toddler, Russ, and a little girl on the way, and she has tried in vain to find Debbie’s daughter. A search volunteer sifted through county records and settled on a Tennessee woman named Meredith, who immediately blocked Debbie on Facebook. Meanwhile, a message came from Gladney: Sally’s birth mother wants no contact.
Via the agency, Sally tried to send a letter—a glittery, painstakingly selected card that took days to prepare, scrawled in pencil because she knew there’d be drafting to do. The envelope is full of photos. It has never been opened. Debbie’s file, with the letter she wrote so long ago, has also gone untouched. But March 1 isn’t so painful now. After all, it’s Sally’s birthday.
When her supposed daughter rejected her online, Debbie “wasn’t that torn up,” she says. “Sally has filled that void for me.”