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ALTHOUGH THEY'VE been close in each other's hearts and minds for almost 15 years, this was the first Christmas that Kellie and Thayne Forbes and Shauna and Jim Bradley attended a holiday gathering together. These newfound friends share a connection as close as immediate family members, yet were unaware of each other's identity until this past April.

Kellie never imagined that a single amazing coincidence during the most devastating year of her life would heal a 14-year-old ache in her heart. The previous 16 months had been bleak and trying for 33-year-old Kellie. Her husband's grandmother died in October 1992. She wrote and delivered the eulogy for both her father's funeral the week before Christmas 1993 and for her grandmother the day after Mother's Day 1993.The Forbeses purchased a new home in June, doubling their mortgage. Just six months later, during the week of Christmas 1993, Thayne was laid off from his job as a systems analyst. Kellie struggled to feel optimistic about their future. Then three weeks later she, too, was laid off from her job as a production control planner.

With three deaths, two job terminations and a move all within 14 months, Kellie felt overwhelmed with loss. "For the first time in my life, I felt depressed. By March 1994, I decided to take advantage of the career counseling offered as part of my layoff package."

Occupational Consultants to Management, a Salt Lake out-placement firm that conducts post-layoff career counseling, referred Kellie to 42-year-old Shauna Bradley, a psychotherapist in private practice. Because of the incredible events that followed, Kellie cheerfully reminds the people at OCM that they selected Shauna and made the appointment.

During their first brief meeting, blond, blue-eyed Shauna kept looking at Kellie. She bore an amazing resemblance to Shauna's adopted son, Jake. "She looked exactly like him, with similar dimples, freckles and dark hair. She had the same eyebrow arch and exact shade of greenish-brown eyes. I kind of brushed it off, thinking the possibility of an actual connection was almost nonexistent."

During their second meeting on April 13, Shauna asked Kellie about her future plans. Kellie jokingly said, "When I grow up I want to be a country singer." In a more serious tone, she listed several other possibilities. She continued, "Whatever I do, I really want to write a book called `The Most Precious Gift' about my adoption experience."

Kellie explained that at 19, she gave up a baby boy for adoption. She described a goal of her book as helping other single young women not make the same mistake of becoming pregnant as teens. She added, "And if they do, maybe they won't have an abortion out of fear. I'm hoping I can inspire them to consider adoption as a positive option."

Kellie relayed that she feels good about adoption because she is now happily married with three beautiful children - Amanda, 12; Sara, 9; and Ben, 7. Absorbed in memories, Kellie wasn't looking directly at Shauna.

When Kellie mentioned adoption, Shauna's breathing quickened. Seeing this birth mother who looked so much like her son brought back her own memories of being thrilled to adopt tiny, dark-haired Jake 14 years before. "I was impressed with Kellie's attitude. I knew if my own son's birth mother were like her, I would be happy to meet her."

Still not focusing on Shauna, Kellie began describing the outline for her book and the loneliness she felt the day her baby was born. Shauna's voice broke as she said, "I'm sorry I'm so emotional, but this subject is really close to my heart because I've been on the receiving end of an adoption."

Kellie was heartened that Shauna understood and identified with her feelings. Tearfully, she said that one of her most painful losses was that she was never able to hold her baby. She added that he would be 14 in two months and that opportunity would never be hers. She said, "Although I've never regretted my decision, I just wanted to hold him one time to tell him I loved him and why I was giving him up." Kellie felt that even though her son was an infant, somehow he would understand.

"Why didn't you get to hold him?" Shauna asked sympathetically.

"Kanab's a small town, and that's just the way they did things down there," said Kellie, referring to the southern Utah town where she grew up and later returned to stay with her parents prior to delivering her baby.

Shauna suddenly dropped her notebook. Her son was the only baby born in Kanab on a hot summer day almost 14 years earlier. "Kanab? Did you say Kanab?"

"Yeah," Kellie said cautiously.

Shauna remembers, "I felt like I couldn't breathe - like someone had hit me in the stomach, but not a bad feeling. Then I started to hyperventilate."

Suddenly Kellie turned to focus on Shauna. The counselor was shaking, her trembling hands covering her mouth. She kept repeating, "Oh, my gosh! Oh, my gosh!" Kellie's next words seemed to emerge in slow motion. "Do you have him?"

Shauna nodded, "I think I do." The two women stood and embraced, both sobbing. Shauna said, "I thought I'd be thanking you in the next life."

Asking herself how Shauna could be so sure, Kellie put up a protective mental wall. She felt she couldn't face another disappointment during this traumatic year of her life and needed to verify what appeared to be a miraculous coincidence.

Kellie said, "So his birthday is . . . ."

"June 28, 1980," answered Shauna.

"And the attorney was . . . ."

"Mike Smith *. And wasn't your maiden name Robinson?"

Kellie nodded yes, her heart pounding as she thought, "Oh my gosh, this is really true."

Joyfully, Shauna said, "I think our professional relationship has just ended."

Kellie joked, "That's OK. I don't think I need counseling any more. Does he know he's adopted?"

Shauna replied, "He's always known, and we've always told him the reason he was given up was because his mother loved him. In fact, on every birthday, I say, `You know who's thinking about you today?' "

Dying to see what her son looked like, Kellie anxiously asked if Shauna had a photograph. When Shauna handed Kellie the small school photo of Jake, it fluttered in her hand. She held it to her breast, not wanting to give it back.

"Can I keep it?"

Shauna responded, "It's the least I can do."

An incredible peace filled Kellie's heart with the thrilling discovery that the son she'd never seen knew that she loved him. She was relieved to know he was alive, healthy and happy. Her dream of providing him with a secure home and two loving parents had definitely come true. She said, "I felt glad to be able to tell Shauna how I felt about adoption before she told me who she was."

Yet the odds that these two women would meet were remote in the extreme. The two families live nearly 75 miles apart, each more than 300 miles from Kanab. Shauna practices in Salt Lake City only one day a week and works with few layoff clients individually.

Still crying, Kellie dashed into the waiting room to get a picture of her own family to give Shauna. She caught sight of her husband's curious expression. Because their car was being repaired, they had driven to downtown Salt Lake City together that day and he was sitting in the waiting room during the appointment. Kellie could tell by his worried look that he had obviously heard the crying from within the counseling office.

Thayne learned of the adoption after he and Kellie met as co-workers at a coupon redemption company. Because they were introduced just three months following her baby's birth, she was still recovering emotionally. Thayne's understanding about her situation drew her to him as they became friends and later started dating. Now she recognized a familiar look of compassion on his face. Thayne recalls, "Somehow I knew they were talking about the adoption, but I had never heard Kellie cry that hard about it." Seeing her, he asked, "What's going on?"

With a dazed look, Kellie replied, "You'll never believe it. She has the son I gave up for adoption." She recalls, "I didn't even wait for a reaction from Thayne before I rushed back to the room to be with Shauna."

Because Kellie's appointment was the last of the day, Shauna felt free to talk long after the appointment time ended. She told Kellie that Jake is musical and plays clarinet in the school band and also is very mechanical and loves to repair and invent things. She asked Kellie if anyone in her family has similar skills.

Kellie responded that her father was an auto mechanic by trade and that she herself plays the piano and saxophone and is a frequently requested singer.

After they talked another half hour, Thayne, feeling tremendously curious and a little left out, knocked lightly on the door. By now it was 8 p.m. and Shauna needed to pick up Jake. As they were leaving, she told Kellie she would like to wait until Jake was 18 to tell him they had met.

Kellie felt no urgency to meet Jake right away. "Knowing he was in a good home with a loving family was enough." She told Shauna, "Telling him is totally up to you. Would you please just give him a hug and kiss for me when you get home tonight?"

Not feeling ready to tell her children, Kellie asked Thayne to take them out to dinner. Though emotionally drained, she phoned her mother in Kanab. Fourteen years before, when she knocked on her parents' door knowing someone had already told them she was pregnant, Kellie was afraid of the reaction she would receive. There were occasions when her father's volatile temper flared when she was a child. But her ultimate love for him was reinforced when "he opened the door and did exactly what I needed. He put his arms around me and told me he loved me and would help me through it and I would be OK." Kellie's parents indicated their support of whatever decision she would make.

Kellie feels her out-of-wedlock pregnancy related to childhood alienation she experienced at school. Ridiculed in her small-town school by other children and a teacher who seemed to participate, Kellie felt compelled to "prove to the kids that they were wrong and unjustified. I turned into the type who would only date the best-looking man to prove that I could have any boyfriend. I allowed myself to have a physical relationship because I wanted so badly to be loved and accepted."

The father of Kellie's baby questioned his paternity, saying he wanted proof. At his non-acceptance of responsibility, she severed contact and hasn't spoken to him since. "We weren't really in love, and because our relationship was so weak, it became apparent that a marriage wasn't going to work," she said.

Kellie's tentative decision to give up the baby was solidified in the eighth month of her pregnancy when she spent four days with another single mom who lived at home with her parents. "I saw how hard it was to play the roles of mother, daughter, sister and girlfriend - and how hard it was on the baby."

In relinquishing her child, Kellie specified that the baby be raised in her religion by being given to an active LDS family. She also requested that her baby be their first child. "So many people knew of someone who wanted to adopt - I wanted to help someone who hadn't had a chance yet."

All she knew about her child's future parents was that the woman was blond, 28 years old, had a college degree and worked in a professional capacity and that the man was also 28 with dark hair. The thought of their future happiness carried Kellie through many hard days. Even though she didn't know the Bradleys personally, the prospect of disappointing them helped keep her from changing her mind. "Knowing how happy they would be helped me turn a tragic situation into a way of helping someone else."

Years later, it was a huge relief to tell her mother that Jake was in a wonderful home; that she couldn't have asked for a better adoptive mom. Drifting into a peaceful sleep, Kellie vowed not to step on Shauna's toes. "I decided to wait and let her call me."

While driving to get Jake, Shauna thought, "Can I hang onto this news four more years?" Four years was a time span Shauna knew well - she and Jim had been married four years when they began to consider adoption after "a lot of infertility work."

They had applied to adopt with several agencies and attorneys when Mike Smith's * office called to tell them they were selected to be parents of a baby whose mother was six months pregnant. They were told that the pregnancy was difficult and, although they didn't know each other, they anguished along with Kellie when she experienced an episode of premature labor and felt relieved to hear that it had subsided.

When Kellie again went into labor on their fifth anniversary on June 26, 1980, the Bradleys felt very anxious. "While we were celebrating our anniversary by eating out at a restaurant, it wasn't really relaxing. All we did was talk about `we're going to have a child! What if it's a boy? What if it's a girl?' "

Kellie's labor diminished and stopped that day. It began again two days later on June 28 at 2:30 a.m. She entered the hospital at 6:30, and at noon, Jake was born. Gazing at him briefly after the birth, Kellie was thrilled at her baby's beauty. She asked the nurses to bring him back after he was bathed so that she could hold him. But when her doctor made his rounds, he said, "You can't see the baby and don't ask to."

That morning, at 2 a.m., Kellie was unable to sleep. She walked down to the hospital nursery to see her baby again. "When I asked the nurses, `Is that him?' they wouldn't say yes or no. I walked away thinking, `His parents are really going to love him.' "

Shauna was gardening when the exciting phone call came. She remembers, "They said, `Get ready to have fun with your little boy.' " The day Jake arrived at their home, Shauna and Jim anxiously peered through the blinds while waiting for the attorney. When he drove up, they walked out to the car and held their new son for the first time. "We brought him in, laid him on the floor and opened the blanket, and it was like he was reborn at our house."

As Shauna drove Jake home from a Scout meeting after meeting Kellie, she wondered, "Why did God bring us together?" She recalled how Kellie had said, "You've got to help me write this book" and felt that was probably the reason.

Continuing to drive, Shauna told Jake a story Kellie had just told her - that Jake had come to the family through prayers and inspiration on the part of the attorneys. She told him how much she and his father loved him and how she felt they were meant to be together as a family. "I hoped that four years later, when we told him about Kellie, he would remember our conversation that night and think, `That was the day they met her.' "

Jim Bradley could tell that his wife was "up and excited - as if she'd had the best workday ever." Shauna waited until after Jake and his brother and sister were asleep. Jim was lying awake in bed as Shauna paced back and forth. Laughing, she said, "You won't believe what happened. I've been counseling a woman, and today I found out that she's Jake's birth mother."

"What? You're kidding," said Jim, sitting up in bed. He sat there in shock as his wife told him of her amazing day.

The next day Shauna left a message on Kellie's answering machine. "I just had to call and see if it was real or a dream."

Kellie called back, "It was real."

"I told Jim."

"How'd he take it?" asked Kellie, worried he'd feel threatened or upset.

Shauna replied happily, "He was real excited and wants to meet you. In fact, I told him `you couldn't ask for a better birth mother.' "

Kellie smiled and said, "Funny you should say that, that's exactly what I told my mother about you."

The two women made a lunch date for the next Tuesday, five days after their first meeting.

Thayne and Kellie called Faye Schryer, a marriage counselor they had worked with, to ask whether they should tell their children. She advised that since Thayne and the children had always known about the adoption, "the kids will grow in their understanding and excitement of both the reunion and the book if you tell them now."

Kellie gathered her children together the day before the scheduled lunch. "Remember how Mommy had a baby she gave up for adoption before she met Daddy?" At the children's nods, she told them about Shauna and Jake, adding, "He's never going to live with us and be a brother like Ben. He'll probably be more like a cousin or a really good friend."

They excitedly asked, "What does he look like? Where does he live? When do we get to meet him?" Kellie showed them the school picture Shauna had given her. She told them it would be a long time before they met, because his mother wanted to wait until he was 18.

She said, "You guys are still going to be my kids," giving them each a hug and kiss. When Kellie asked Amanda why she suddenly started crying, her daughter answered, "I was thinking just the other day that I would like my older brother to be at my wedding."

Kellie said, "He probably will be."

Discussing the possibility that Jake would find out someday, Jim and Shauna gradually shifted their perception. While they initially decided to wait, their excitement over the reunion grew as they confided in several relatives who shared their amazement. When someone asked, "Are you worried for fear she will take over your life?" they responded that they felt Kellie was a stable, caring person who would respect their personal boundaries.

As they weighed the situation, Jim, who is one of 14 children in a close-knit family, expressed that "if we waited and he found out we had already known for four years, or if someone else told him, he'd probably be mad or lose trust in us."

They reasoned that at 14, Jake was open to sharing his feelings and they could all participate in the reunion. Jim said, "Like Kellie with her kids, we decided that if we told him now, he could grow into the knowledge of who his birth mother is, and we could be part of it."

Shauna said, "I've always prided myself on being open. This is my ultimate test. Emotionally, my fear was that when he gets his driver's license, he'll drive to Kellie's house and I'll never see him again. Logically, I knew that wouldn't happen."

The two moms went to lunch. Kellie said, "We sat there and giggled and shook our heads. We kept forgetting to look at the menu. We were too busy looking at the pictures of Jake growing up Shauna had brought, and I had a bunch of pictures of my family." Shauna said, "The odds we would meet like this do not exist."

"And even if we did meet casually in another circumstance, adoption might not have been mentioned, and we would never know," added Kellie.

At the end of the lunch, Shauna told her they had reconsidered their decision to wait and planned to tell Jake soon.

"Please don't tell him because you think I want you to," Kellie urged, feeling a surge of apprehension. She thought, "What if I don't meet his expectations? What if he's angry or resents me for giving him up? What if he just doesn't like me?"

That Saturday Jake slept in. After he awoke, Shauna and Jim cuddled on either side of him as he lay in bed. Shauna said, "Jake, the weirdest thing happened the other day. I was counseling with a woman, and we figured out that she's your birth mother."

Jake's freckled face burst into a grin. His questions began immediately and were the same as those asked by Kellie's children. "What does she look like? Where does she live? When do I get to meet her?" Shauna gave him the picture of Kellie and said, "Look, she's got your smile and dimple."

Thrilled, Jake took the picture and ran off to show his grandmother and other relatives - he also told his friends and schoolteachers. "It was like a weight was lifted off from him, too," said Shauna.

Kellie's heart skipped a beat when Shauna called her to say, "We've told him. Can we meet Monday night for dinner?"

"Yes," said Kellie, tingling with excitement as she thought, "I'd stop my life for this dinner."

Kellie explained that the two moms chose to hold the reunion on "neutral territory." She said that although their meeting was very happy, the two women were still getting acquainted and probably weren't yet ready to reveal everything - such as where they each lived. Kellie arrived at the Mexican restaurant 30 minutes early. Her emotions warred between excitement and worry as she waited for the Bradleys from behind the glassed-in entryway.

As Shauna and Jake drove to the restaurant, she sensed his anxiety. "Are you OK? You know, you don't have to do this."

"No," he responded immediately. "I really want to."

Touching his arm, she said, "It's OK to be nervous. This is scary and wonderful."

Kellie had met Jim the previous Friday, so she immediately recognized him when he drove into the parking lot. As she went to greet him, he explained that he had come straight from work. Kellie was telling him how nervous she was when Shauna drove up.

Kellie remembers, "She didn't even get to park the car before Jake jumped out and handed me a beautiful Persian violet. It made me cry, because they had told me earlier about giving that same flower to the attorney's wife when Jake was delivered to them as a newborn."

Kellie's voice quavered as she said, "Come here, I've got to give you a hug - I've waited so long for this."

As they embraced for the first time, Jake's eyes filled with tears and he turned back toward his mother. From the car, Shauna comforted him, saying, "It's OK to be emotional, honey. This is a pretty big deal!"

In the restaurant, Jake talked most of the first 90 minutes, telling Kellie that he liked fishing, bike riding and horseback riding and didn't like nuts or coconuts - two dislikes they had in common.

He told her how he had rigged a string to his light switch, so he could turn it off from his bed. Later, Kellie discovered her own mother had done the same thing when she was a teenager. Jake described another invention, which included pots and pans strung as a burglar alarm. Kellie could tell he wasn't sure how to address her or his parents when he addressed his adoptive father by his first name for the first time ever. Kellie quickly said, "Oh, you mean your dad?" She said, "Then everything was OK. Now he calls me Kellie."

Both Kellie and Jake were tearful as she described the time before his birth. Sitting by him at the restaurant table, Kellie told him he was really active at night and loved to kick her under her ribs. She said, "Somehow I always knew you were a boy, and I called you Braxton the whole time I was pregnant. There were so many things I knew I couldn't do for you. I wanted you to have a home with a mom and dad, and I couldn't give you that. I never did get to hold you even though I really wanted to. And although I knew I was doing the right thing by giving you up, it was still really, really hard."

When her voice broke with those last words, Jake reached over and took Kellie's hand, squeezing it and leaving his fingers wrapped around hers. Moments later, he leaned sideways and the two shared a one-armed hug.

To lighten the mood, Kellie showed pictures of her father, who also resembles Jake. When it was time to leave, Kellie told Jake she needed one last hug. "He hugged me so hard, he almost knocked the breath out of me." Kellie whispered in his ear, "I love you." "I love you, too," responded Jake. Tearfully, Kellie said goodbye, adding, "Be good for your mom and dad." As the Bradleys' car drove away, Jake turned and waved to her.

When Jake arrived home that night, his brother, sister and cousins had made a banner that said, "Congratulations, Jake!"

Shauna and Kellie decided that their families should meet, so that Friday they got together at a recreation center. "It was a casual atmosphere, and our kids acted as if they'd known each other for a long time," said Kellie.

After they all ate ice cream, Kellie sat on a bench outside the ice cream parlor. "You know, Jake, the one thing I wanted to do when you were a baby was hold you." Kellie held out her arms, and 14-year-old Jake immediately walked over and happily sat on her lap. "It felt wonderful just to hold him that one time - it was the last thing I needed to do to feel complete."

For Jake's birthday two months later, Kellie compiled a photo album of her growing up years and her family and presented it to him at her home. That day, with her smooth, clear alto voice, Kellie sang to her guests, "From God's Arms to My Arms to Yours," a song about adoption.

Happily, the reunion with Jake was the beginning of an upswing in Kellie's life. Thayne started a new job in May, but it didn't meet the pay scale they were used to. Luckily, they had several assets they could draw from during his 41/2 months of unemployment. Just as they thought they were going to have to sell their home, Thayne was offered a new job as a systems analyst for CTG (Computer Task Group) with a significant pay increase.

Kellie has written nine chapters of her book about adoption titled "The Most Precious Gift" and is a frequently requested speaker. She said, "As beautiful as our story is, there is still a lot of pain involved. I want to help other young girls so they won't make the same mistake."

Today, Kellie and Shauna talk about every two weeks and remain amazed at the astonishing coincidence that brought them together. Shauna said, "I'm so happy for Jake - a missing piece of his life puzzle has been solved." Kellie adds, "I'm thrilled Jake has the family he does - they've far exceeded my expectations."

Both women feel their situation is ideal. They are thrilled with the new relationship their families share and plan to spend many holiday seasons together.