Special Delivery: A Message Sent into the Blue Beyond

by Lisa DeNike Ercolano

Before I say anything else, I want to confess: I know that what we did is verboten by members of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

But I wasn’t thinking about starlings or dolphins: I was thinking about my darling little daughter, and what we could do to honor and acknowledge her birth parents on their/our daughter’s birthday every year.

OK, maybe I better back up and explain. My younger daughter, Juliet was a tiny six-month-old living in an orphanage in south central China when we adopted her almost 18 years ago. She came to us with one set of clothing (aqua machine-knit acrylic split-crotched pants and a pink and yellow sweater), a mohawk bristle of black hair, wary dark eyes and not a single clue attaching her to her birth parents or the life she lived (however short) in China before coming to us.

Some of the other babies and children in her orphanage had been found with small notes, obviously hastily scrawled on scraps of paper safety-pinned to a tiny tee-shirt or tucked up a little sleeve, giving the children’s dates of birth or even a short explanation about why they were being relinquished. But Juliet? Nothing – at least that we were told about.

Of course, when she was still a baby and young toddler, this lack of a biological family tree didn’t really seem bothersome: like every young child, she was just busy growing up, mastering important skills like walking and talking, and delighting in the love of her family here in the United States.

Even so, as her parents, we felt it was important to tell Juliet her story as best we could, so long before she could understand or was even interested, we would talk to her about how she had come to be part of our family.  (“Your Chinese mom and dad must have loved you a lot, because when they realized they couldn’t care for you, they made sure you went to a place where we were able to find you and bring you to this home,” and variations thereof.)

But by the time Juliet was four, that didn’t seem to be enough anymore. By then, she was asking simple questions about her birth parents, and because we had no real answers, Juliet and I would make up “what if” stories to fill the gap. “What if your birth parents were circus acrobats, and they couldn’t bring a little baby around with them on their travels all over the world, so they made sure you were adopted?” Or “What if your parents were international spies, like in ‘Spy Kids’?” That one never failed to make her grin, and she would concoct some “what if” stories of her own.

Even so, my husband and I knew it was time to do something more – perhaps something symbolic but on a child’s level of understanding – to acknowledge our daughter’s birthparents. We came up with the idea of writing a note to Juliet’s “Chinese mommy and daddy” and “sending it to China,” by way of a bright red helium balloon, on every birthday after she blew out the candles on her cake.

The notes were simple: “Dear Mom and Dad. This is Juliet. Today I am four years old. I am happy and healthy and I love to play with my sister. I hope you are well and happy, too,” or “Dear Mom and Dad. I started taking ballet and I have a teddy bear named ‘Blue Bear.’ I think about you a lot. Love, Juliet.”

When she was too small to write, she would dictate the notes, but later, she wrote them herself. At the end of every birthday party, after the presents had been opened and the candles had been blown out and the last of the icing had been licked off the forks, we would take the note, along with an envelope, into our small backyard.

There, Juliet would hold tight to the string of a scarlet balloon purchased at nearby Party City for this purpose while her dad, armed with an unwieldy early video camera (the kind you hoist on your shoulder) videotaped as she or I would read the letter aloud before tucking it into a small envelope and affixing it to the balloon’s ribbon.

Then, when she was ready, Juliet would open her fist and would watch, in silence, as the balloon floated over her head, and up higher, higher, higher – scraping the top of the big oak tree in our yard, and finally, into the blue June sky until it was out of sight.

“Bye, balloon,” she would whisper. “Hi, Mom and Dad. It’s Juliet.”


  1. What a beautiful story Lisa. I especially loved the “what if” stories. Circus acrobats!

  2. corinne trow says:

    Lisa, such a beautiful essay.

  3. Lisa Ercolano says:

    Thank you so much for reading, Holly and Corinne. Holly, yes, circus acrobats and international spies appealed to the young Juliet, because they were/are exciting. Later, she suggested that they were “world famous ballerinas” who needed to constantly travel, appearing at the best theaters all over the world, and thus couldn’t take proper care of a little baby. My aim was not so much to actually try to answer Juliet’s questions (as I could not) but more to make it clear, right from the get-go, that thinking about her birthparents and talking about them were fine and expected and normal and welcomed. My feeling has always been (and I know I have said this before) that it is completely normal and healthy for adopted children to ask these questions and that it is up to the adoptive parents to recognize this and get it into the open. Too many times I have heard adult adoptees say that they would think about their birth families a lot, but were afraid to talk about it lest they upset their adoptive parents. So I wanted to short-circuit that and let Juliet know it was all OK and we would participate in that with her. That’s what parents are for: they help their kids, right?

  4. Hi, Lisa,
    What a great idea –> making it O.K. for your daughter to talk about her birth parents. It seems only natural. And also it’s a great idea to send a message into the great blue. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Lisa- what a beautiful way to acknowledge Juliet’s birth parents. Love the “what if ” stories!

  6. Lisa DeNike Ercolano says:

    Debbi, thank you! Well, necessity is (as they say) the mother of invention, and we have very few details about Juliet’s birthparents (well, we don’t have any, to be honest!) so, when she was small, we filled in the blanks ourselves, all the while being very careful not to present those “what if” stories as fact. My aim in all of this was (as I said above) to show Juliet that thinking, wondering and talking about her birthparents was OK and expected and we would join in. I never wanted her (and still don’t want her) to ever feel she must protect us, her adoptive parents, from the feelings she has around her birthparents.

  7. This was a beautiful way of honoring you’re daughters birth parents!

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