“Find­ing My Mother” One Man’s Adop­tion Jour­ney

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ITHIRTY YEARS af­ter be­ing adopted by an Aus­tralian fam­ily and raised in Mel­bourne, Joel de Carteret went back to the Philip­pines, the coun­try of his birth. He was on a seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble quest – to find his birth mother.

Although he didn’t know his mother’s name, or even re­mem­ber what she looked like, he was de­ter­mined to find her. He had spent a month in the Philip­pines tire­lessly – and un­suc­cess­fully – search­ing for clues about his mother’s iden­tity.

Friends and fam­ily in Aus­tralia had told him there was lit­tle chance of lo­cat­ing her af­ter all these years. Many, es­pe­cially his Aus­tralian adop­tive mother, Julie de Carteret, wor­ried about him, ex­plain­ing, “You’ll just get your heart bro­ken.”

How­ever, the idea of re­unit­ing with his Filipino mother had gnawed at Joel for decades. “I have to do this,” he of­ten said. “I owe it to my­self and to my bi­o­log­i­cal mother. I must have bro­ken her heart by get­ting lost.” Pri­vately, he also felt that he needed to find his birth mother to dis­cover a part of him “that had been miss­ing for all these years”. But Julie tried to dis­suade him.

While in a Syd­ney restau­rant, Joel had told her he planned to visit the Philip­pines to find his birth mother and she said: “But Joel, you don’t know your mother’s name, your birth date, or where you lived. You didn’t even know your name when you ar­rived at the or­phan­age.”

Joel un­der­stood from doc­u­ments that the or­phan­age gave him his name. Julie con­tin­ued: “You also don’t know where your mother may be. Is she alive? How will you ever find her?”

don’t be­lieve it! It can’t be! Joel de Carteret said to him­self when a mar­ket seller in Manila’s bustling Munoz Mar­ket brought him the in­cred­i­ble news. Joel felt his heart pound­ing like a drum as beads of per­spi­ra­tion ran down his fore­head. The 35 year old lis­tened to the stall­holder give him the in­for­ma­tion he had been search­ing for: “I think I know who your mother is. And where she is.” From that mo­ment on, Joel re­alised, his life would never be the same.

“BUT JOEL,YOU DON’T KNOW YOUR MOTHER’S NAME,” JULIE SAID. “YOU DON’T KNOW YOUR BIRTH DATE”

Julie blinked back a tear and felt her heart break when Joel told her, “I know, Mum. But I have to try.”

Julie per­sisted, hop­ing to save Joel from a bro­ken heart. She leaned across the ta­ble and asked, “How will you feel if you don’t find her? Will you be able to move on if you don’t find any­thing?”

Joel paused, took a bite of his salad and looked Julie in the eyes. “I know what you’re say­ing, Mum, and I un­der­stand. But I have to do this. I have to find out who I am and where I came from.”

A few weeks later Joel called Julie while he was wait­ing for his flight to Manila. “I’m off, Mum,” he said. “Wish me luck.” Julie held back her tears and said, “I love you, Joel. Good luck.” But she had lit­tle hope he would find his birth mother.

Af­ter years of won­der­ing about, and weeks of desperate search­ing for, a woman he could barely re­mem­ber, in a coun­try where he couldn’t speak the lan­guage, he was sure he had some­how found that nee­dle in the haystack. Thanks to a well-mean­ing stranger, he was about to be re­united with his long-lost birth mother.

THREE DECADES EAR­LIER, on the morn­ing of July 25, 1985, Linda Rio looked in on her five-year-old son and watched as he slept soundly in their mod­est home in Que­zon City on the out­skirts of Manila. I’ll let him sleep, she thought as she watched his tiny chest rise and fall. The sin­gle mother gath­ered her hand­bag and set out to her job as a dress­maker at a nearby cloth­ing fac­tory, leav­ing her son in the com­pany of a flat­mate.

An hour later he awoke, jumped out of bed and be­gan look­ing for ‘Ma’. He searched through the house and when he couldn’t find her, be­gan pan­ick­ing. This was un­like her; they trav­elled to­gether daily to her work­place, tak­ing the colour­ful pub­lic trans­port ve­hi­cles known as jeep­neys.

When he re­alised she was gone, he darted out into the street to find her. Dodg­ing strangers, stray dogs, jeep­neys and de­liv­ery trucks that filled the busy street, he looked ev­ery­where for her. But she was nowhere to be found. His eyes filled with tears as he wan­dered the busy back streets of Que­zon City. “Ma!” he said to him­self. “Where are you?”

Even­tual ly, he ar­rived at the sprawl ing, jam- packed Munoz Mar­ket, where he walked along aisles crowded with hun­dreds of ven­dors hawk­ing every­thing from just-slaugh­tered chick­ens to freshly caught fish, to trussed-up, squeal­ing piglets. The chaotic sights and sounds – the huge, flash­ing knives chop­ping up food and cus­tomers shout­ing out re­quests to ven­dors, as well as the pun­gent, of­ten sickly-sweet aroma of the food on sale – as­saulted his senses.

He be­gan to cry as he walked aim­lessly through the crowded aisles in his thongs, shorts and sin­glet, hop­ing to catch sight of his mother. Af­ter hours of search­ing and pen­e­trat­ing deeper and deeper into the maze­like mar­ket with no sign of Linda, the tiny, shy five year old re­alised she was gone and, fright­en­ingly, knew he was now lost as well.

A lo­cal jeep­ney driver named Jose Manselo spot­ted the boy cry­ing and curled up in a ball near the back of the cav­ernous mar­ket. He in­stantly knew some­thing was wrong, but the child was too ter­ri­fied to say more than that he was lost. Manselo took him to his home and then to the po­lice sta­tion. But the most the ter­ri­fied five year old could tell the po­lice was Ma was a dress­maker and Papa was a jeep­ney driver.

Mean­while, Linda re­turned home for lunch and was shocked to find that her son was miss­ing. She looked around the neigh­bour­hood and even rushed back to the cloth­ing fac­tory, think­ing he might have gone there to find her. But no one had seen him. She and sev­eral friends searched ev­ery­where for him and she even­tu­ally left work to look for her son full time. She even went on lo­cal ra­dio sta­tions, plead­ing with lis­ten­ers to help find him. But no one had seen the five year old.

Weeks, then months, passed with­out news. It was as if he had van­ished.

THEY ARE AS TALL AS TREES. They look like white ghosts, thought Joel, as he looked up at the tow­er­ing – and very white – fig­ures of Ge­orge and Julie de Carteret at Manila’s RSCC or­phan­age, which he had en­tered some 18 months ear­lier. And they smell funny, he thought.

The Aus­tralian cou­ple had come to the Philip­pine or­phan­age to meet Joel be­cause they were in­ter­ested in adopting. Julie had not been able to be­come preg­nant, but she and Ge­orge had been desperate to start a fam­ily.

Joel had been too young to know his mother’s name and, be­cause no one had come for­ward to claim him, had been de­clared a ‘foundling’ – an ‘un­known child’ – and was se­verely mal­nour­ished. Then, af­ter so­cial work­ers ex­hausted ev­ery method they knew to find his par­ents, he was even­tu­ally de­clared ‘aban­doned’. He was now el­i­gi­ble for adop­tion.

At first he cow­ered be­hind the or­phan­age’s so­cial worker but soon came to feel at ease with both Ge­orge and Julie. They had such kind eyes and their warm, sooth­ing voices re­laxed him. When a so­cial worker asked Joel if he wanted to go to Aus­tralia, he im­me­di­ately nod­ded his head ‘ yes’. Af­ter a year-and-a-half of lone­li­ness he once again had a home and new, lov­ing – and very tall – par­ents.

Once set­tled into his new Mel­bourne home, Joel f lour­ished. Although he couldn’t speak a word of English he be­came fast friends with the chil­dren on his street, loved play­ing cricket, and learned English by watch­ing tele­vi­sion. Of­ten Julie would mar­vel as she watched him lis­ten­ing to a pop­u­lar nightly quiz show, re­peat­ing many of the ran­dom words he heard the TV host say.

In his first year of school he would stub­bornly stum­ble through his ‘show and tell’ talks, bravely search­ing his mem­ory for just the right word as his class­mates looked on. His teacher once told Julie, “Joel is one very, very de­ter­mined lit­tle boy!”

Julie and Ge­orge were thrilled with the way Joel adapted to his new home and the Aus­tralian way of life, which was so very dif­fer­ent from his hard-scrab­ble ex­is­tence in the Philip­pines. Nev­er­the­less, there were hints that some­thing was brew­ing be­neath his smil­ing ex­te­rior. One day, about six months af­ter com­ing to Aus­tralia, Joel asked Julie, “When am I go­ing to turn white?” She dis­cov­ered he had ex­pected his skin to ‘mag­i­cally’ turn white af­ter liv­ing in Aus­tralia awhile.

An­other time, when he was ten years old, he walked into the kitchen as Julie was cook­ing din­ner and asked, “So, when are we go­ing to find my Mum?” Julie was star­tled but sat Joel down and told him gen­tly that, as much as she wished it weren’t so, nei­ther she nor the Manila adop­tion agency knew Joel’s sur­name, his mother’s or where she lived.

“I’m sorry, love,” she told him as she held his hands in hers. “But there’s no chance we could ever find your mother. I wish we could but it’s

IN HIS FIRST YEAR OF SCHOOL, HIS TEACHER TOLD JULIE, “JOEL IS ONE VERY, VERY DE­TER­MINED LIT­TLE BOY”

just not pos­si­ble. But I can tell you this; she loved you very much.”

LINDA HAD NEVER given up look­ing for her son. How­ever, her vis­its to the barangay (lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fice), the po­lice, her an­nounce­ments on Manila ra­dio sta­tions, her con­stant search­ing, had turned up noth­ing. She even handed out fly­ers printed with Joel’s pic­ture that said, ‘Miss­ing Boy’ and in­cluded her ad­dress as well as the con­tacts for the barangay. Noth­ing.

Wher­ever she went, she scanned the faces of chil­dren, won­der­ing if one of them might be her long lost son. His birth­days were es­pe­cially hard. Each year Linda would in­vite fam­ily and friends to cel­e­brate his birth­day and pray for him while they dined on the dish he loved so much; roast pig and Chi­nese noo­dles. Ev­ery birth­day in­cluded laugh­ter and tears. “Wher­ever he is,” she told her sis­ter on one of Joel’s birth­days, “I know he is in a good place.”

She hung his pic­ture on her wardrobe door so it would be the first thing she saw ev­ery morn­ing when she awoke. Linda also kept his bi­cy­cle at the cloth­ing fac­tory and thought of him ev­ery time she saw it lean­ing against the wall. He had loved rid­ing it around while she worked, and as she once told a col­league, “I’m wait­ing for the day he comes back to ride it again.”

THROUGH­OUT HIS YEARS in Aus­tralia, Joel of­ten thought of his birth mother and won­dered what had hap­pened so many years ago. He re­mem­bered her lov­ing smile and the way she would wipe away his tears with her ever-present hand­ker­chief when he cried. Then darker thoughts would bub­ble up. He some­times won­dered if he had been aban­doned and once told a friend, “What if my mother wanted noth­ing to do with me and had left me at the or­phan­age?”

In 2000 Julie took him, then 18, and his sis­ter, Grace, born to Julie and Ge­orge af ter they adopted Joel, to the Philip­pines, where they toured the coun­try and vis­ited the

or­phan­age Joel had lived in some 16 years ear­lier.

While he was ex­cited­– and moved to tears – to re­visit his former home, he was dis­mayed to find that so­cial work­ers there knew noth­ing about his par­ents or where he may have lived. Joel wanted to re­visit the Munoz Mar­ket, where he had been found by jeep­ney driver Manselo, but Julie felt it was a high crime area and much too dan­ger­ous to visit. Joel fought back, but Julie put her foot down, telling him again, “It’s just not safe, Joel!”

How­ever, the three of them pored over the tele­phone di­rec­tory, look­ing for any ‘Manselo’ list­ing. There was noth­ing. Af­ter they searched the di­rec­tory Julie told Joel, “I’m so sorry. I don’t know where else we could look.” She saw how dis­ap­pointed Joel was but thought to herself, maybe now he will re­alise how dif­fi­cult, how fruit­less, it would be to keep look­ing for his birth mother.

But this first-time visit to his home coun­try was also very mov­ing for Joel. Sur­rounded by peo­ple who looked like him, he told Julie dur­ing their trip, “For the first time in my life, I re­ally feel I fit in some­where. Ev­ery­one looks like me.” His eyes filled with tears and he felt a catch in his throat but con­tin­ued, “Mum, I’m not an out­sider here.”

It was a visit to a Thai­land or­phan­age in 2015 that helped con­vince Joel, by then an ac­com­plished, 34-year-old doc­u­men­tary film maker, to search for his bi­o­log­i­cal mother. While he was film­ing the or­phan­age for an Aus­tralian-based char­ity, a small boy walked up to him and grabbed his hand. He seemed to be about five or six, the same age Joel was when he en­tered the Manila or­phan­age. The Thai boy tugged at Joel’s hand and led him into the dor­mi­tory to proudly show him the bed he slept in.

As the tousled- haired or­phan showed Joel the few toys he owned, mem­o­ries came flood­ing back. I slept in a bed like this, Joel thought as he lis­tened to the boy chat­ter­ing away. We both lost our par­ents. I won­der...

On the flight back to Aus­tralia he couldn’t get the mem­ory of the lit­tle Thai or­phan out of his mind. As he would ad­mit later, “I sud­denly re­alised I needed the an­swer to so many ques­tions. Who was I? Where did I come from? Who am I? I knew what I had to do.”

ON A MILD DE­CEM­BER morn­ing in 2016, Joel vis­ited the Munoz Mar­ket, the very same mar­ket he was lost in

“FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE, I RE­ALLY FEEL I FIT IN SOME­WHERE,” JOEL TOLD JULIE. “EV­ERY­ONE LOOKS LIKE ME”

– and res­cued from – some 30 years ago. He’d re­turned to the Philip­pines with a film crew, a trans­la­tor and a dream. He’d come to find his birth mother.

As he walked through the chaotic col­lec­tion of food and mer­chan­dise ven­dors, he and his trans­la­tor showed a pic­ture of Joel as a five year old to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble, ask­ing, “Lost Boy? Do you know any­one who lost a five-year-old boy in 1985? Miss­ing boy?”

Ev­ery­one shook their heads and turned away.

Joel kept in touch with Julie, re­as­sur­ing her that Munoz Mar­ket was safe and that, just as im­por­tantly, he felt that he fit­ted in.

“I may not speak the lan­guage, Mum, but at least I look like ev­ery­one else here. And ev­ery­one is try­ing to help me. So don’t worry about me.”

Julie was re­lieved that he was safe and sound and was happy that Joel was form­ing a bond with the coun­try he was born in. “Be safe,” she said.

Joel plas­tered the f ly­ers with his pic­ture and the head­line, “Do You Know Him?” in English and Ta­ga­log and a lo­cal con­tact tele­phone num­ber, ev­ery­where. Hop­ing to en­list the aid of Manila-based ra­dio or TV sta­tions, Joel knocked on doors to tell his story but was re­buffed. “There are so many miss­ing chil­dren and so many sto­ries,” he heard time and time again from me­dia out­lets. “Sorry, but we wish you luck.”

Un­daunted, Joel and his team kept go­ing back to the mar­ket, ques­tion­ing count­less stall­hold­ers, seek­ing out any­one who may have been work­ing at Munoz Mar­ket decades ago. Af­ter days of neg­a­tive re­sponses and false leads, Joel and his team sud­denly heard about a ven­dor who had worked at the mar­ket for years. Joel called Julie: “Mum, this might be the break I’ve been hop­ing for!”

They tracked down the man, Badan Pis­ngot, who con­firmed that he had sold household wares at his mod­est stall at the mar­ket since the 1980s. Joel handed him the flyer he had shown to so many other peo­ple and his trans­la­tor asked if he knew any­thing about the boy in the pic­ture. “No,” he replied as he shook his head. “I don’t recog­nise the boy.” But Joel urged his trans­la­tor to keep ques­tion­ing the man.

Even­tu­ally, af­ter some more skil­ful prod­ding, Pis­ngot re­mem­bered, “But ... there was a woman who lived around here and lost her son in the 1980s. He was about five or six, I think.” Joel be­gan shak­ing as

“THERE WAS A WOMAN WHO LIVED HERE AND LOST HER SON IN THE ’80s,” SAID THE VEN­DOR. “HE WAS ABOUT FIVE OR SIX”

he heard the news. But the grey-haired Pis­ngot seemed re­luc­tant to re­veal any more and re­turned to re­ar­rang­ing his stall’s pots and pans and plas­tic buck­ets. His trans­la­tor ad­vised Joel to back off, afraid of alien­at­ing Pis­ngot.

Af­ter a num­ber of vis­its from Joel over the next two weeks, Pis­ngot dropped the bomb­shell: “I think I know who your mother is ... Her name is Vicky.” That evening, Joel called Julie in Mel­bourne, “This could be it. I think I’ve found her!”

When Joel met Vicky the next day, she was wary un­til Joel showed her a pic­ture of him and 12 other lit­tle boys taken at the or­phan­age in 1985. Vicky in­stan­ta­neously pointed to Joel in the pic­ture and broke down, sob­bing and cry­ing. “That’s Dante! That’s my Dante!” she wailed. Joel wrapped his arms around her, and mother and son held each other tightly as their tears flowed. “Dante,” she mur­mured through her tears, “My Dante.”

She was con­vinced that Joel was her miss­ing son, Dante, whom she lost near the Munoz Mar­ket so long ago. She wiped her tears away and, point­ing to her nose, then to Joel’s, laughed and said, “Same. Same!”

JOEL WAS ON an emo­tional roller coaster. Against all odds he had lo­cated his bi­o­log­i­cal mother and for the first time in his life he was on the road to an­swer­ing the ques­tion that had nagged him for so long: “Where did I come from?”

He called Julie and told her the good news: “I think I’ve found her!” Ini­tially speech­less, Julie laughed and said, “If I had known it was go­ing to be this easy, I would have gone back with you years ago!”

“Mum, I needed to do this my­self,” he said.

Re­mem­ber­ing how de­ter­mined Joel had al­ways been, Julie an­swered, “I know, Joel. I am so proud of you.”

Then, a ques­tion arose. Dur­ing their first meet­ing, Vicky men­tioned that Dante was born in 1983 and dis­ap­peared some six years later. Joel

was stumped. He was born in 1980 and, ac­cord­ing to the or­phan­age’s records, went miss­ing in 1985. Could Vicky have her dates wrong? He told him­self that nail­ing down dates in the Philip­pines could be tricky, and she could eas­ily be mis­taken. Be­sides, Vicky looked so much like him. How­ever, even though Joel had be­come so con­fi­dent that he had fi­nally lo­cated his birth mother, he needed to be 100 per cent cer­tain. He asked her to take a DNA test.

WEEKS LATER the DNA re­sults from a lab­o­ra­tory in Ja­pan ar­rived. Joel ner­vously opened the re­port and quickly scanned to the bot­tom of the first page. It read: “Prob­a­bil­ity of re­la­tion­ship, zero per cent.” Vicky was not Joel’s bi­o­log­i­cal mother. The harsh re­al­ity hit Joel and Vicky hard. As he would later ex­plain, “I wanted so much to be­lieve. I was crushed.”

So was Vicky. She col­lapsed into his arms when she heard the re­sults. He lov­ingly stroked her hair and de­cided on the spot to con­tinue his search. In­deed, hav­ing come so close, he was more de­ter­mined than ever to keep search­ing for his mother. “I need to keep go­ing.”

He called Julie with the news, telling her sim­ply “It’s neg­a­tive.” She was dev­as­tated for Joel. She had long feared that he was go­ing to get his heart bro­ken try­ing to find his bi­o­log­i­cal mother and wanted to urge him to come back home. But she knew bet­ter. Joel had al­ways been per­sis­tent, ever since he had been that lit­tle five-yearold boy strug­gling to learn English. She knew he would not give up his search this eas­ily.

Af­ter Joel called her – even though she knew what he would say – she asked him, “Well, what hap­pens now, Joel?”

With­out skip­ping a beat, Joel replied, “You know, I have to get out there and start look­ing all over again.”

“I knew you’d say that.”

ALTHOUGH JOEL HAD BEEN turned down many times by me­dia out­lets in the Philip­pines, once pro­duc­ers at one of the largest ra­dio and TV net­works in the na­tion, GMA Net­work, heard that he might be close to lo­cat­ing his birth mother, they be­gan to cover his story. Joel was in­vited to talk about his search on ra­dio. A film crew from ‘ Ka­puso Mo, Jessica Soho’, star­ring the Philip­pines’ equiv­a­lent of the US’s Oprah Win­frey, be­gan work­ing on a three-part TV doc­u­men­tary af­ter they learned that Joel

THE HARSH RE­AL­ITY HIT JOEL AND VICKY HARD. AS HE WOULD LATER EX­PLAIN, “I WANTED SO MUCH TO BE­LIEVE. I WAS CRUSHED”

had lo­cated Vicky. It was ti­tled ‘JoJo’s Search’, us­ing a com­mon lo­cal nick­name.

The me­dia cov­er­age had come just in time. Joel and his own team had left no stone un­turned at the Munoz Mar­ket and the sur­round­ing neigh­bour­hood, but af­ter Vicky’s DNA test had come back neg­a­tive, they were anx­ious to have a wider, na­tional plat­form to tell Joel’s story.

Joel jumped at the chance to tell his story. He co­op­er­ated with Jessica Soho’s team, of­fer­ing them some of the doc­u­men­tary footage his own film team had shot since his ar­rival in the Philip­pines. He ap­peared on a pop­u­lar drive-time ra­dio show hosted by GMA’s vice pres­i­dent Mike En­riquez and talked about his quest to find his bi­o­log­i­cal mother. Joel’s hope was that some­one lis­ten­ing to his ra­dio in­ter­views or watch­ing Soho’s multi-part TV doc­u­men­tary could help. Some­one was watch­ing. Amaz­ingly, Linda, who still cel­e­brated her son’s birth­day ev­ery year and never stopped pray­ing that he would be safe, watched the first part of the three-part doc­u­men­tary on Joel’s search as she sat in her Que­zon City home. She was in­trigued by the story of the lost boy but she also found it painful; it brought back so many mem­o­ries of her own loss.

When she saw that the young English-speak­ing man in the doc­u­men­tary, who seemed to be around the same age as her long-miss­ing son, had found his birth mother, she quickly turned off her TV. Later she would con­fess, “I was so jeal­ous and sad at the same time. I couldn’t watch any more. That mother had found her son but mine was gone.” She never learned that Vicky’s DNA test turned out to be neg­a­tive and that Joel was still look­ing for his mother.

THE GMA NET­WORK was f looded with emails af­ter the first in­stal­ment of their doc­u­men­tary about Joel aired. Most were from well-wish­ers or were re­quests for help in lo­cat­ing other long-lost chil­dren. How­ever, one email im­me­di­ately grabbed the attention of the show’s pro­duc­ers. Filipino ex­pa­tri­ate Dolly Ar­caido, who had moved to Ja­pan decades ago, had watched the first episode of the doc­u­men­tary on ca­ble TV and it had jogged her mem­ory. She ex­plained that her mother had a friend who had lived in a house in Que­zon City, not far from the Munoz Mar­ket. That woman’s five-year-old boy had dis­ap­peared around the time Joel said he did. The woman’s name, said Dolly, was Linda.

She emailed the net­work pic­tures of Linda and her son from the early 1980s and added as­ton­ish­ing de­tails. She said that Linda had been a dress­maker and that the man she was see­ing af­ter her hus­band left was a jeep­ney driver. She had no idea where Linda lived now but she also said that the lit­tle boy’s name was

Joel, which was a com­mon name in the Philip­pines.

What were the chances? Could Linda be Joel’s birth mother? Or would this lead, like so many oth­ers, prove to be an­other dead end?

When Joel saw the pic­tures and learnt what Dolly had said, he broke out in goose bumps. “What are the odds?” he asked his team. “She looks like me, she was a dress­maker and her son’s name was Joel!” But he soon calmed him­self down, re­mem­ber­ing how dis­ap­pointed he had been with Vicky’s failed DNA test. This time he vowed to go slower and keep his emo­tions in check. He didn’t want to get his hopes up and have them shat­tered again.

How­ever, af­ter Julie re­ceived the pic­ture of the woman hold­ing her young child, she had no doubts. She shot back an email to Joel: “That’s you, Joel! I’d recog­nise you any­where! It could not be any­one else.” The search was back on.

ARMED WITH THE three­decades-old pho­to­graph of Linda with him cra­dled in her lap, Joel re­turned to the same streets in Que­zon City he had can­vassed be­fore. “Do you know this woman?” he asked ev­ery­one he could, “Her name is Linda.”

He went back to the Munoz Mar­ket and showed the pic­tures to stall­hold­ers. No one recog­nised the pic­ture of the woman in her early 20s. Joel re­alised that so much time had passed that the chance any­one would recog­nise Linda were slim. But he kept show­ing her pic­ture.

Un­daunted, he went on ra­dio again, telling his story, ask­ing if any­one knew – or re­mem­bered – any­thing about Linda. On Mike En­riquez’s ra­dio show he spoke di­rectly to Linda: “This is Joel, your lost boy who went miss­ing in 1985. All I want to do is just to meet you and know who you are and to let you know that I ac­tu­ally turned out OK.”

He spoke mov­ingly on Jessica

Soho’s na­tional TV show, again ad­dress­ing his long-lost mother: “No mat­ter what hap­pened in the past, I hope we can put that all aside, just re­con­nect, and let you know that I have been blessed.” He blinked back a tear and added, “I can’t move on with my life with­out know­ing that you ex­ist.”

He fol­lowed up the few leads that trick­led in. One said Linda had been spot­ted liv­ing as a squat­ter in the no­to­ri­ously dan­ger­ous Manila North Ceme­tery in La Loma. Joel, his crew, and a se­cu­rity de­tail staked out the ceme­tery for days, ask­ing if any­one had seen Linda. No one had.

On one of his in­ter­views he ended his mes­sage to Linda by say­ing, “I would re­ally love to meet you and am pray­ing that you want to meet me as well.” When lead af­ter lead turned up noth­ing, doubts be­gan to creep into Joel’s mind. What if Linda aban­doned me? What if she has no in­ter­est in meet­ing me? Or is she out there some­where liv­ing rough, des­ti­tute? Is she dead? He fought against these dark thoughts, try­ing to stay pos­i­tive, hop­ing against hope that he would even­tu­ally lo­cate his mother.

WHILE DRIV­ING THROUGH the busy streets in a suburb out­side Manila, dodg­ing jeep­neys and jay­walk­ers as he drove his small de­liv­ery truck to drop off an or­der, Amado Rio was lis­ten­ing to Mike En­riquez’s morn­ing ra­dio show. As he heard Joel tell his story about his search for Linda and the dead ends and twists and turns he had en­coun­tered dur­ing his time in Manila, he sud­denly re­alised that his wife Her­minia, whom he had mar­ried nearly 25 years ago, might be the woman Joel was look­ing for. He knew she had lost a son decades ago, be­fore they met. But, he won­dered, who was ‘Linda’?

Amado was hes­i­tant to men­tion Joel’s story to his wife. He re­mem­bered how up­set she had got­ten while watch­ing the GMA doc­u­men­tary about a lost boy who even­tu­ally found his birth mother. He even re­called her turn­ing off the show be­fore it ended. Nev­er­the­less, the next morn­ing he asked her, “Were you ever called Linda?” “Yes, long ago,” she told him. Amado paused, walked over to Her­minia and held her hand. “I think your son is look­ing for you.”

JUST AF­TER 11 AM on Fe­bru­ary 9, 2017, Her­minia Rio rode through the traf­fic-clogged streets of Que­zon City in a van sup­plied by the GMA

DOUBTS BE­GAN TO CREEP INTO JOEL’S MIND. “WHAT IF LINDA ABAN­DONED ME? WHAT IF SHE HAS NO IN­TER­EST IN MEET­ING ME?”

Net­work. She had been un­able to sleep for the past 24 hours, ever since she con­tacted the net­work and told them that she was ‘Linda’, the mys­te­ri­ous woman in the pho­to­graph.

When the TV pro­duc­ers came to her home and showed her a pic­ture of Joel at five years old, she broke down in tears. “My Joel,” was all she could man­age to say at first. Then, af­ter show­ing them other pic­tures of her and Joel from the early 1980s, she con­vinced them that she was Joel’s birth mother. Be­tween sobs she asked them, “Where is Joel? I want to hug him!”

She was taken to meet the man who she was sure was her long-lost son. As the van rounded a cor­ner where she was due to meet Joel, she broke down in tears. “Please give me a minute,” she asked one of the pro­duc­ers. “I need to stop cry­ing.”

A few min­utes later, af­ter wip­ing her eyes dry and breath­ing deeply to calm herself, she spot­ted Joel stand­ing on a street cor­ner. He was sur­rounded by a TV crew and in­ter­ested by­standers.

Even at a dis­tance she recog­nised him in­stantly. It is Jo-Jo, she said to herself. Her son, whom she had not seen in 30 years, was now stand­ing only me­tres away. She felt her heart

beat­ing faster as she walked over to him. Clutch­ing pic­tures of Joel as a five year old in her left hand, she ner­vously ap­proached him and asked, “Are you Jo-Jo?”

“I am,” he an­swered and smiled ner­vously back at her. “Are you Her­minia?”

She nod­ded. For a brief mo­ment both said noth­ing. Then Her­minia, too over­come to say any­thing else, started sob­bing and fell into Joel’s arms. Words were un­nec­es­sary as mother and son wrapped their arms tightly around one an­other and cried.

The TV cam­eras caught the warm embrace and also the mo­ment that would touch the hearts of mil­lions of view­ers. Wrapped in each other’s arms, Her­minia no­ticed Joel cry­ing and gen­tly wiped away his tears with her hand­ker­chief, just as she had done so of­ten more than 30 years ago. At long last, against all odds, her son had come back home. Ed­i­tor’s Note: A DNA test con­firmed what Her­minia and Joel al­ready knew; that she was his bi­o­log­i­cal mother. Julie needed no such con­fir­ma­tion. As soon as she saw the video of Her­minia wip­ing away Joel’s tears, she knew Joel had fi­nally found his birth mother, be­cause “only a mother would do that.”

Since be­ing re­united with Joel, Her­minia has met his adop­tive mother Julie, who has filled her in on Joel’s life in Aus­tralia, and Her­minia has vis­ited them both in his adopted home. Dur­ing his search, Joel also lo­cated his bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther, who now lives in the US.

Nei­ther Vicky’s long-lost son, Dante, or Jose Manselo, the taxi driver who res­cued Joel from the Munoz Mar­ket, have been lo­cated, but Joel has pledged to keep search­ing for them. He is work­ing on a doc­u­men­tary based on his own story that he hopes will bring aware­ness to adop­tion and help adoptees, as he says, “write the blank pages of their own nar­ra­tive.”

A photo of Joel, age five, taken on ar­rival at the or­phan­age. He was adopted 18 months later

Five-year-old Jo-Jo be­gan his fran­tic search for his mother in the busy streets out­side Munoz Mar­ket

Joel in Aus­tralia with his adop­tive mother, Julie, and sis­ter, Grace, who was born af­ter his adop­tion

Linda holds Joel, aged three, on her lap in the house where they lived, sur­rounded by friends

Joel with Julie and Her­minia. Julie filled Her­minia in on Joel’s life in Aus­tralia

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