Lost and found

Published 6:15 pm Monday, January 18, 2010

Etched permanently in ink on Bryan Rainsong Gandy’s right arm is his father’s family clan badge and the Latin phrase “Cursum-Perficio,” or “I shall finish the task.”

Bryan’s journey has already proved long.

The history buff traced his father’s family history back to the 1700s. However, he’s never met his biological father, nor does he know the name of at least one of his siblings.

“I’ve searched and searched, I’ve searched for years,” Bryan said.

Bryan, who currently lives in Montevallo, was adopted in 1979 at the age of 4. He was just old enough to know he was being taken away from his parents, but not quite old enough to comprehend why. He and his brother Charles ended up being adopted into the same loving home and later were reunited with their younger brother Dennis, who was taken from their biological parents at just 6 months.

When Bryan’s own son Elijah was 5, Bryan felt compelled to know more about his biological family.

“I certainly feel, for my children’s sake, that our medical history we have a right to know,” he said. “I think that’s something people that grew up in their biological families take for granted. So, that was the motivation.”

Bryan wanted to know if he had any blood relatives still living. He wanted to know if he had a family medical history that could include issues such as diabetes, heart failure or cancer.

The answers to those questions forever altered Bryan’s life.

Staggering revelation

Bryan Gandy, 34, who always grew up as a big brother, is really a little brother and a middle brother in a family of 13 living, full-blooded siblings.

The discovery came when the state of Alabama passed a bill granting adoptees access to non-identifying information in their records. When Bryan searched his records he found sketchy-at-best details about the other 12 children born to Jim Hunter and Vicki Sumners. The details were so inadequate they only included the years the children were born. They didn’t list their names or the first names of his parents.

From there, Bryan utilized clues from the records to locate his siblings. He diligently sifted through adoption registries, social networking sites and state records.

He deduced ages and birthplaces to slowly seek them out.

His living siblings include Phyllis, 39; Michael, 38; Charles, 33; Dennis, 31; Jennifer, 29; Scott, 28; Christy, 25; Travis, 24 and Sarah, 22.

Bryan also hopes the group includes three living siblings he still searches for daily.

Robert Kevin would be about 37 and Steven Kessler (last names unknown) would be about 36. The third child was born in 1983, but Bryan has no name for that child.

Two more full siblings died, one in 1974 and another in 1982.

They also have four half siblings by Hunter’s previous marriage. Bryan also believes Hunter fathered children with both of Sumners’ caretakers, and one other child when he was stationed in Holland during WWII. At 17, Sumners herself had another daughter, Michelle, who died at birth.

One at a time

To arrange for Bryan and Charles to meet their oldest sister, Phyllis, the state sent a letter to Betty Blake, Phyllis’ adopted mother. Bryan, Charles and Phyllis met just weeks later in Montgomery, and that spawned the greatest project of Bryan’s life. He’s slowly connected with sibling after sibling, one at a time, over the past decade.

Another letter connected them with their sister Jennifer in 2001.

They had to wait until 2002 to meet Scott. He had turned 21, and within 24 hours of Bryan contacting him, he was in Bryan’s home.

The trail fell cold for five years after finding Scott. Bryan spent hours pouring through phone books. His wife Jennie placed a post on an adoption registry in 2006.

That post spawned a late-night call from Christy Beckett. The 24-year-old from Huntingdon, W.Va., had been searching too, for about eight years. She found out she was adopted at 15, but found out she had multiple siblings at 16.

“When I was told, it kind of ripped a little bit of identity away from me,” Christy said. “I just have a deep need to know where I came from.”

Christy had been adopted into the Hunter family, and she was the only child who ever met Jim Hunter. Hunter died in Kentucky in 2006. He was 83.

Because Christy remained in Hunter’s family, she too knew there were other siblings out there. Their youngest sister, Sarah, however, is the one who found both Christy and Travis.

Christy found Bryan through an adoption registry post Bryan’s wife Jennie had made and immediately called the Gandy’s home.

“Christy left a message on our phone saying, ‘I think Bryan is my brother,’” Jennie said. “That night we got so many answers to questions we had.”

Sarah, Christy and Bryan searched diligently to find the latest sibling, Michael, in Cedarton, Ga., in Oct. 9, 2009.

Five days later, many of the children met up in Florence for a reunion. Bryan said it was amazing to bring so many of them together, but almost overwhelming.

“Imagine, you are trying to fit 24-30 years of your life into meeting a sibling you never knew you had for the first time,” he said.

The meeting

Connecting with their biological mother, Vicki Sumners, 63, proved to be an increasingly difficult leg of the quest — until just three days before Thanksgiving.

Sarah pushed Bryan to seek their mother out.

By calling the department of human resources, they discovered Sumners living in Wayne County, W.Va. She has lived there off and on for 25 years.

Extended family continuously warned Bryan about trying to seek her out. They said it wasn’t worth the effort.

Bryan said if it hadn’t been for his sister imploring him, he might have not searched as hard.

“I’ll be honest; I did not want to meet her. But they asked me to go,” Bryan said.

When he met Sumners his opinion changed.

“I went for years hating her because I was ignorant of all the other details,” Bryan said. “She cried 95 percent of the time we were there. And I knew she understood in her heart who I was.”

Beckett too found strength in meeting their mother.

“I think meeting Vicki was the culmination of it all for me,” Beckett said. “Seeing Vicki, I can’t even tell you what it was like. She was just so sweet. She had my hands, my nose. It was an amazing feeling.”

Sumners suffers from a severe mental illness, yet according to Bryan she had memories of each of her “babies.”

She even brought Bryan, Christy and Sarah each small stuffed bunny rabbits.

“It was extremely emotional,” Bryan said. “She remembered each and every one of her babies. Don’t think she expected adults to come through the door, though. She thought we would still be babies.”

His mother remembered scattered moments from her short time with her kids. She recalled thinking Dennis and Jennifer were two of the prettiest babies, Bryan said, and that Bryan was born at home.

Not all of the children feel the urge to meet their mother. Many of them feel it would betray their adopted parents, while others feel it would just be too emotional.

All of their lives have been irrevocably changed.

“We are all a gift to each other,” Bryan said. “We are all a great gift.”

Finishing the task

Beckett said she and her siblings are just stubborn enough to make this happen. But she said it takes finding small clue by small clue.

“It’s like a puzzle,” she said. “Sometimes you can’t sleep at night until you find those last three pieces.”

Beckett and Bryan both said meeting their mother only further fueled their desire to find Kevin, Kessler and the other unknown child. This might truly be the most difficult portion of his task.

The state of Illinois, where Kevin and Kessler were born, still seals adoption records. Bryan said there is a way to access that information, but it means every “i” has to be dotted and every “t” crossed.

Bryan is however adamant he will fulfill his task.

“I believe it — God will connect us,” he said. “I was meant to find them. I just feel like as hard as we have worked, it won’t stop here.”