A mother's strength

Three mothers, one story.

Throughout the last quarter-century, the lives of Bernice Gillespie, Lorraine Ondrasik and Eva Ondrasik have become forever entwined - an interconnected triangle of motherly strength, courage and love.

Their story began in 1986, when then-17-year-old Bernice Clark, a 1986 graduate of Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, said goodbye to the child she had carried in her womb for nine months. The teenager wasn't ready for the responsibility of motherhood, and knew the new life she had brought into the world would stand a better chance with a loving couple yearning for a baby.

That couple was Paul and Lorraine Ondrasik, selected by Bernice because they had adopted a son a few years before and because they had a dog. The adoption, arranged through Catholic Charities, forever changed the lives of the three women.

For Bernice, it gave her the opportunity to move on with her life without the burdens connected with supporting an infant; for Lorraine, it gave her another child she, after trying seven years to have a biological one of her own, craved; and for Eva, it gave her the family she needed so that when she became a mother herself 20 years later, she was best prepared to face the storm ahead.

The gift of Eva

When Lorraine, a parishioner of St. Thomas à Becket Parish in Reston, was handed baby Eva by Father Gerry Creedon, then-director of Catholic Charities, she wasn't sure how she felt.

The nurse practitioner had tried for seven years to a child with Paul before turning to adoption. Three years after adopting their son, Joe, the couple was blessed with Eva.

Throughout the next two decades, Eva grew up as an Ondrasik. Different in personality from Lorraine, she was no less loved because she had been adopted. Unbeknownst to her, she attended the same alma mater as her birth mother and graduated from Paul VI in 2003.

With their daughter, Lorraine and Paul were clear from early on: if Eva ever wanted to take steps to find her birth mom, she was more than welcome. For that attitude, Eva is very grateful.

"My parents did it so well," Eva said. "It was always known. It was never a secret, and they really made it seem that your mom is a bright lady, a good person."

The choice for Eva to seek out her birth mother was driven by plain curiosity and a desire to thank her.

"I wasn't looking for a mom. This is my mom," Eva said, looking at Lorraine. "I was just looking for more about me, about my history and about my family. I wanted to thank her for giving me this family. I'm in this family for a reason and this is where I belong."

An unexpected reunion

After placing Eva up for adoption, Bernice never really expected to see her again. The hope always lingered, but she didn't want to set herself up for disappointment.

"I had accepted many years ago, probably when she was 5, that we wouldn't have a reunion," said Bernice, a parishioner of St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Clifton, in a recent interview. "I didn't want to have so much hope that it was going to happen because I didn't know if it was or not. In order to move on, I had to accept that the next time I would see her was in heaven."

When, four years ago, Bernice got the call from Catholic Charities saying Eva had initiated a search to find her biological mother, "it kind of stopped me in my tracks," Bernice said.

The idea of a reunion turned Bernice into a bundle of nerves. She didn't want to disappoint the daughter she hadn't seen for so many years, and was anxious to find out what Eva was looking for.

Once Catholic Charities informed Bernice that Eva was looking for her to thank her, she began to open her mind to the possibilities. The day they were to meet, Bernice requested that Eva be in the waiting room first. Bernice was afraid that she would startle Eva by immediately running to her and throwing her arms around her.

Nervous and numb, as Bernice approached the door, she remembered the way God had intervened in her life up to that point. She had a vision of her last moments in the hospital holding her baby girl.

"It was God's way of saying, 'you're ready. This was her then, now go see her now,'" Bernice said. "When the door opened, she ran to me."

The gift of Josh

When Eva turned 20, a few weeks before meeting her birth mother for the first time, she became pregnant with her now 3-year-old son, Josh. Though the pregnancy was out of wedlock and unexpected, Eva chose to keep the baby. At 20 weeks, the pregnancy was labeled high-risk; what doctors thought was a blockage in the baby's intestines turned out to be much more serious.

"We were under the impression that maybe we would spend a couple of days in the NICU after he was born," Eva said. "They let me hold him for like a minute and I literally didn't realize I wasn't going to hold him for another three weeks."

Throughout the next two and a half years, three major surgeries and numerous infections kept Josh, suffering from Short Bowel Syndrome, often at Georgetown University Hospital.

Possibly caused by a blood clot while Josh was a fetus, the illness makes him unable to absorb any food or water. He eats via a feeding tube connected to a backpack that he carries around with him. A special formula of very basic nutrients is pumped directly into his stomach.

From his first moments, Josh's biggest advocates have been his mother and adopted grandmother.

"As a young mom, especially, you're petrified of all the things you don't know," Eva said. "On top of that I literally couldn't take care of my own kid without the doctors and nurses."

With Josh's illness, Eva's reliance on Lorraine became substantial.

"She's a force," Eva said. "There's nothing she can't tackle. I don't think there's anything that scares my mom. I would see the negative of it, and she would just say, 'no you keep going.'

There's no way I could have done this without my mom."

For this reason, Eva is sure that there is a God at work in the universe. She knows He picked the perfect family for her and for her son.

"With Josh's situation, there is no better team that I could take care of (him) with," Eva said. "I'm really lucky to have been given that family of all families."

The gift of motherhood

With the strength of Lorraine and the wisdom of Bernice, Eva has been doubly blessed in advice and support in her role as a mother. Josh hasn't returned to the hospital since Sept. 24, 2009.

This Friday, Eva and Bernice, who formed a close relationship after their reunion, will speak to the freshman class at Paul VI about the power of adoption and family. Ironically, this talk was one Bernice gave on her own before she even knew the identity of Eva - much less that she was attending that very school. They've been giving the presentation in tandem for the last four years, growing more and more comfortable with each telling.

The relationship that has sprung up between birth mother and birth daughter was as unexpected as it is rewarding. They speak a couple of times each week, and Eva's birth grandmother has even taken care of Josh.

"The relationship I had never even thought of," Bernice said. "God was saying it was the right time, 'now I want you to finish the journey together.'"

Each of these women, in her own way, has made the basic, yet ultimate sacrifice of motherhood: putting their child's needs before their own.

Bernice and Eva chose to be open to life when facing unexpected pregnancies, and Lorraine welcomed Eva into her home as her own flesh and blood. With the birth of Josh, Eva and Lorraine have, without hesitation, done what was necessary to give him the best life possible.

"It's been the hardest work I've ever done, but it's been the most rewarding," Eva said.

And, just like any mother, she knows "I'll always be something huge to someone."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010